Film - Blame Fidel when parents rebel

By Brooks Robards - November 29, 2007

What's a little girl to do when her parents take up radical politics? That's the premise behind the French film comedy, "Blame It on Fidel," to be screened at the Katharine Cornell Theatre Saturday, Dec. 1, by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society.

Adapted from the Italian novel of the same name by Domitilla Calamai, "Blame It on Fidel" (2006) features two second-generation film principals. Its director Julie Gavras is the daughter of Greek-French director Costa-Gavras, well known for classic political thrillers like "Z" and "Missing." Julie Depardieu, daughter of French film star Gerard Depardieu, plays Marie de la Mesa, mother of nine-year-old Anna (Nina Kervel), who finds her life turned upside down by her parents' newly acquired activism.

Reminiscent of the 80s TV comedy "Family Ties," starring Michael J. Fox as a teenaged Republican paired with more liberal parents, "Blame It on Fidel" differs by using the perspective of a younger child whose political ideas have not yet taken shape. All Anna knows is that her comfortable, middle-class lifestyle disappears, her new ethnic nannies cook weird foods, and her parents make her stop attending the Bible study class at her Catholic school.

Blame It on Fidel
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Anna's troubles start after the de la Mesa family takes in her Spanish aunt and cousin. The movie is set in the 70s, when Franco still reigned in Spain. Anna's Spanish-born father Fernando (Stefano Accorsi) develops pangs of guilt about his lack of political commitment compared to his radical sister, whose husband has just been arrested. Fernando and Marie decide to visit Chile, and when they return, devote themselves and their resources to a group of Paris-based supporters of the Chilean socialist leader, Salvador Allende.

The family moves from a comfortable house into a cramped apartment, where activists congregate regularly for political meetings and Anna learns that Mickey Mouse is a fascist. Distressed by the family's abrupt change in circumstances, Anna steals money from her schoolmates in a misguided attempt to help pay the bills.

Anna also finds herself at loggerheads with her mother, who is busy writing an article on abortion rights for the French women's magazine, Marie-Claire. She experiments with group solidarity in the classroom and goes with her parents to a demonstration, where the camera sticks to her knee-high point of view to the ensuing violence.

It would be difficult to imagine an American film addressing political topics in as intellectually sophisticated and forthright a manner as they are in "Blame It on Fidel." Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance earlier this year, "Blame It on Fidel" adeptly follows Anna's growth from innocent child into a girl who is learning to understand the political culture to which she finds herself exposed.

Far from being a passive bystander, Anna challenges her parents, responding to her father's reassurances with a hard-edged "How can we be sure you're right?" Her original nanny, a Cuban exile, had told her that Communists are barbarians who drop nuclear bombs, and she remains convinced that the radicals visiting her apartment must behave similarly.

Nor does director Gavras shy away from presenting contradictions in the de la Mesa family's politics. After Marie pens an article about the landmark confessions by prominent French women about their abortions, Fernando is furious with his wife. Fernando and Marie's hero, Salvador Allende, becomes Chile's president, but to their dismay, he is soon toppled and murdered. In real life, change never proceeds smoothly.

Political issues have provided the basis for a number of serious American films recently, from "Rendition" and "In the Valley of Elah" to "No Country for Old Men," but Americans don't practice the kind of political dialogue that is common in European countries like France. Treatment of topics like abortion and socialism or communism is virtually taboo in poplar American film.

A teenager's unplanned pregnancy, the topic for the soon-to-be released "Juno" and for a 20-something in the recent box-office hit "Knocked Up," may prove the subject for comedy, but the pregnancy would rarely, if ever, be terminated. The closest our country comes to looking at communism comes in "Borat: Cultural Learning in America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan."

Politics aside, the marvel of "Blame It on Fidel" is the insightful way Ms. Gavras captures a nine-year-old's intellectual development and the skill with which Ms. Kervel portrays Anna.

"Blame It on Fidel," Saturday, Dec. 1, 7:30 pm. Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Doors open at 7 pm. Tickets $8 or $5 for Martha's Vineyard Film Society Members.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.