Despite this movie's bracing, polemical vigor, the film's creators, the Taviani Brothers, seemed more at home with their simpler humanist masterworks, PADRE PADRONE (1977) and NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (1982), in which political purposefulness takes a back seat to universal emotions. In
ST. MICHAEL HAD A ROOSTER, reflections on social upheaval, the evanescence of revolutionary zeal, and the changing face of antifascism are mounted on a soap box in cogent but coolly distancing fashion.
In 1875, a former member of the land-owning class, Giulio Maneri (Giulio Brogi) leads a ragtag revolutionary brigade against the governmental status quo. But his partisans are outnumbered during the disorganized takeover of a village and the revolt crumbles. When the Mayor's guards fire upon the
retreating Anarchists, Manieri retaliates by fatally shooting the Mayor.
Apprehended and condemned to death, socialist Manieri is paraded before a firing squad, only to have his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the image-conscious governor. Languishing in solitary confinement, Manieri survives by rehearsing for a glorious future in which his political stand
will be viewed as courageous. Dreaming of ultimate vindication, he holds imaginary conversations with his compatriots and dreams of the place in history that awaits him.
After a decade, Manieri is transported to another prison. Travelling downriver with a stoical new breed of political prisoners, Manieri discovers he has become an ideological artifact. The new Leftists possess less radical subversiveness compared to the old "off-with-their heads" approach. Instead
of embracing deluded Manieri as a visionary, the unimpressed but sympathetic freedom fighters profess their own pragmatic pro-worker goals. Growing more disillusioned as the boat nears his new penitentiary, Manieri rejects the notion that his tactics have retarded the growth of the Workers'
Movement. Rather than live without the lofty reputation he had envisioned for himself, Manieri quietly slips into the water and drowns himself.
Based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, ST. MICHAEL HAD A ROOSTER is intelligently scripted and imaginatively directed. Overall, however, it registers as a detached debate on the dead end of anarchy. Although it tellingly frames its political cautionary tale around the titular nursery song Manieri
sang as a child to ward off fear, the character never takes hold of the audience. Journeying from the closet he's locked in during childhood punishments to the cell in which he's incarcerated as an adult, Manieri is nothing more than a mouthpiece for the filmmakers. Part of the reason we feel no
fear or pity for Manieri is the competent but unexceptional performance of Giulio Brogi, who always seems to stand outside his character. This one-man show required magnetism on the order of Vittorio Gassman or Marcello Mastroianni.
Despite Brogi's limitations and the story line's static quality, the Tavianis approach their subject matter with cinematic daring that compels interest. As the viewer is claustrophobically trapped inside the cell within Manieri, the film relives his past with aural flashbacks; while witnessing the
grim present, we revisit Manieri's hopeful past. Even more dazzling is an intricate set-piece in which Manieri carries on a conversation with two absent comrades. We are locked inside Manieri's troubled mind as he argues philosophical points with two separate argumentative paisans from his past.
Since the only person we see onscreen is Manieri himself, the Tavianis offer key information about Manieri's flawed leadership and show the disintegration of an egoist, who can't help but regard himself as the linchpin of a cause. The cerebral ST. MICHAEL HAD A ROOSTER offers food for thought
about the changing styles in combating oppression. What it does not do is create tragic stature for its misguided patriot Manieri, whose hunger for acclaim drives him to madness. Although not emotionally overwhelmed, the viewer is, nonetheless, intrigued by this complex tale of hero-worship turned
inward. (Violence, profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1971
- Rating: NR
- Review: Despite this movie's bracing, polemical vigor, the film's creators, the Taviani Brothers, seemed more at home with their simpler humanist masterworks, PADRE PADRONE (1977) and NIGHT OF THE SHOOTING STARS (1982), in which political purposefulness takes a ba… (more)