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The War At Home

Plus, another touching film from Eastern Europe

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In his documentary Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, filmmaker Robert Stone deliberately keeps the spotlight off his leading lady. Stone never interviewed Patty Hearst, heiress to the Hearst publishing fortune who found notoriety in 1974 after being kidnapped by a band of radicals calling themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army. In a twist stranger than fiction, Hearst transformed from victim to apparent accomplice. Calling herself Tania, she released audiotapes echoing the SLA's revolutionary rhetoric and took part in an armed bank robbery. Since Hearst has recounted her own side of the story in subsequent books and interviews, Stone chose to focus on the kidnappers instead.

Guerrilla, opening this Friday as part of the Charlotte Film Society's March schedule, powerfully puts the SLA in the context of the turbulent times and illustrates how utopian ideals of the 1960s sputtered to a bleak, violent dead end. But the film suffers from its limited perspective, making viewers feel on the outside of events looking in.

Stone's early scenes capture the Vietnam era's atmosphere of America at war with itself. Many SLA members started as bright, high-achieving college students about the same age as Hearst. Meeting at war protests and revolution-themed films like Che!, a handful of Bay Area activists named themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army (after the word "symbiosis") and grew increasingly militant under the leadership of convicted criminal Donald "Cinque" Defreeze.

Early SLA member Russell Little emerges as the film's most compelling interviewee, describing the group's excitement at challenging America's power structure. But soon Little was arrested for killing Oakland's first African-American school superintendent — the SLA's first major "political" act.

After the Hearst kidnapping, Guerrilla depicts the media attention to her father's public statements and SLA recordings, full of slogans like "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!" But Stone provides no interviews with the Hearst family or SLA members who abducted and indoctrinated Hearst (most of whom are dead), making the narrative frequently feel secondhand. Guerrilla argues that the reporters' frenzy gave birth to the modern-day media circus, but of all of the film's possible themes, that may be the most obvious.

Interviewee Michael Bortin provides an insider's viewpoint, but he joined the SLA after many of Hearst's kidnappers died in a televised shootout with the Los Angeles Police Department. Like Little, Bortin looks back at the events with a burned-out attitude of regretful nostalgia. He describes the folk-hero mystique of the SLA, then his disappointment at how "middle class" and uncharismatic Hearst and her surviving cohorts were in person.

Stone makes compelling use of the materials at hand: The famous black-and-white Hibernia bank robbery footage unfolds in intense silence. In one of the episode's most fascinating sideshows, the Hearst family bows to an early demand to use $2 million to feed California's hungry, leading to a riot at a public food giveaway.

Like other recent films such as the documentary The Weather Underground and the feature The Assassination of Richard Nixon, Guerrilla shows American leftists who succumb to the allure of violence. Stone includes clips of Robin Hood movies to illustrate — and undermine — the group's romantic self-image. Little and Bortin describe becoming demoralized by the SLA's murderous acts as if they fell prey to the same kind of fatal naiveté that made earlier generations of intellectuals give Stalin the benefit of the doubt.

Yet none of Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst's sources speak in much depth about the SLA's inner workings or addresses why the group changed so drastically. Nor do they weigh in on whether Hearst took part in the group's activities under duress or her own free will. When she lectures her father on audiotape, she sounds like any young California co-ed picking a fight with Dad over Thanksgiving vacation. So how, ultimately, did Patty Hearst become a self-described "urban guerrilla"? You'll have to look elsewhere for the answer. — Curt Holman

With the fall of Soviet-style communism, Daddy Lenin has been replaced by Daddy Warbucks.The same desperate cunning and moral ambivalence that communism created in the citizens of Russia and Eastern Europe has transformed into a dark, brutal form of capitalism informed by those same survivalist principles. Racism, crime, broken families and fear of the future thicken the air with a fresh despair. The CFS offering Up and Down, from the Czech Republic, makes you wonder if the people of this often luckless, tread-upon region will ever be happy.

There is a shared sensibility in the cinema emerging from the post-Berlin Wall world. Even the most diverse films — Since Otar Left, Lilya 4-ever, Good Bye Lenin! — suddenly feel like kissing cousins with their shared sense of loss, of people left searching and desperate in the aftermath of a reality they took for granted suddenly gone.

With that absence of structure, a kind of moral chaos prevails. At the beginning of Up and Down, two lowlifes drive their truck filled with illegal Indian immigrants across the Czech border. After dumping their human cargo in the middle of the night, they discover a baby left behind.

The baby presents more of a tactical problem than a moral one. Should they leave it in the forest, or maybe there's a buck to be made out of this irksome situation? The men return to their home base: a scurvy neighborhood pawnshop stocked with stolen electronics and frequented by junkies and petty thieves. An elderly woman sits in a back room doing crossword puzzles. She clucks and coos at the orphaned baby, and for a moment teases us with the hope that these people possess redeeming features. Then she gets on the phone and tries to find a buyer for the baby on the black market.

In director Jan Hrebejk's crisscrossing, Robert Altman-esque story, the baby ends up in the hands of a desperate childless woman, Mila (Natasa Burger), who we've seen trying to snatch a baby from a public park. Mila is married to a kindhearted but luckless ex-con, Franta (Jiri Machacek), who longs to be a cop but whose criminal record prevents it. As a consolation, he labors as a low-level security guard finding emotional solace among a rowdy gang of soccer hooligans with a white supremacist philosophy. It is a sign of Up and Down's portrayal of a fuzzy moral landscape that both Mila and Franta flirt with racism, yet embrace their new brown baby, bought on the open market, with a tragic, desperate love.

The baby's fate becomes the connective tissue that unites the various storylines that make up Hrebejk's tragicomic film. Across town, in a more prosperous section of Prague, an ailing university professor, Otto (Jan Triska), is reunited with his grown son, Martin (Petr Forman, Milos Forman's son), who emigrated to Australia years ago. The son enters an awkward family dynamic, torn between Otto's new, younger family and his own aging mother, Vera (Emilia Vasaryova), abandoned by Otto years ago and stewing in a frenzied pot of rage and comic hysteria.

By the film's bittersweet conclusion, some of the conflicts have been resolved. But many of the problems remain. That is the sad, pragmatic wisdom that gives the film its particularly Eastern European flavor.

Up and Down comes with its share of flaws, like a tendency for non-sequitur transitions between its storylines that can make the film feel like a television series with some essential episodes missing. But one of the film's lasting pleasures is its ruthless honesty. "This, my friends, is life," Hrebejk seems to shrug. Funny, unpleasant, sad. Take it as it is. — Felicia Feaster

Also Showing: Time of the Wolf — A deeply troubling commentary on the post-9/11 dystopia, this anti-thriller, one of the 10 best films of 2004, deals with a world where money and status no longer protect us. It's an apt statement about the disastrous consequences of living for our own self-preservation and ignoring our citizenship in the world. — Felicia Feaster

Schultze Gets the Blues — A lonely German laborer discovers the sound of zydeco music on the radio and heads to Louisiana to get his fill. — Unscreened

The movies in this month's Charlotte Film Society Second Week series begin this Friday at the Manor Theatre. For information on prices and times, call 704-414-2355 or go online to http://charlottefilmsociety.com.

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