In a South American country, a US official, Michael Santore, is kidnapped by left-wing guerrillas. His captors accuse him of being a CIA agent, responsible for training the local police in techniques of torture and anti-sedition. As the guerrillas attempt to extract a confession from Santore, the authorities, headed by an extreme right-wing government, are closing in on them…
In a similar vein to Costa-Gavras’ earlier films, Z and L’Aveu, État de siège is a stylishly filmed political thriller making a bold statement about abuse of power by governments in a politically repressed country. Although it is not named as such in the film, Costa-Gavras’ target here is Uruguay (although the film was shot in Chile), and the story is based on the real-life case of a US official, Daniel Mitrione. Not surprisingly, the film won the director few friends in the United States, where the film was viciously condemned for its anti-Americanism and its apparent glorification of assassination.
The main reason for the American backlash against the film was probably its (at the time) daring statement about alleged United States intervention in South American politics. Then, it was widely suspected, but not conclusively proven, that the CIA were actively engaged in supporting right-wing dictatorships in South America, to safeguard US interests. Whilst many of the allegations made in Costa-Gavras’ films (this one and his subsequent 1982 film Missing) have been subsequently borne out, US public opinion was not ready to accept the kind of messages coming out of these kinds of films, hence the high-handed and entirely predictable response from American officials.
Regarding its overall impact and artistic impression, État de siège is a noteworthy film, which drives home its point rather well. Costa-Gavras makes it disturbingly easy for the audience to side with the left-wing guerrillas, who at least apply some of the principles of democracy, whilst their opponents, the representatives of authority (including self-interested American sponsors), are portrayed as dangerous fascists.
This is, however, not a particularly accessible film and many viewers may be put off by its unfocussed, often haphazard narrative (which, typically for Costa-Gavras, relies heavily on flashbacks). As in L’Aveu, Costa-Gavras appears to be far more preoccupied with making his political statement than with taking his audience along with him. Fortunately, his lead actor is (yet again) Yves Montand, whose cool portrayal of the American hostage provides the film with a crucial central point about which the other strands of the film revolve nicely.
Subtitles:English, Spanish & Romanian (idx/sub)