As 1973 winds down, Franco is still governing Spain with an iron hand. Opposition parties are forbidden; labor movements are repressed; and Basque nationalists are mercilessly hunted down. The caudillo [dictator] is aging, though, and the continuity of the régime is in question. One man has the trust of Franco, enough authority and experience to assume the leadership, and an impeccable track record as to dealing with enemies of the State: Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. For the embattled, clandestine Basque organization ETA, Carrero Blanco must be brought down. Daring plans are made, requiring a meticulous execution…
— Eduardo Casais, IMDb
Pontecorvo’s fifth and last feature film is based on the 1974 book by Julen Agirre (pen name of Eva Forest), Operación Ogro: Cómo y por qué ejecutamos a Carrero Blanco (Operation Ogre: How and Why We Have Executed Carrero Blanco), a series of interviews with ETA members involved in the assassination. Carrero Blanco was apparently nicknamed “El Ogro” due in part to his bushy eyebrows.
Pontecorvo’s last feature, Ogro (1979), is perhaps the key film in his opus. Ogro was planned as a straight, chronological depiction of the Basque Euzkadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) terrorist assassination of Franchist minister Carrero Blanco in 1973 Spain. But Pontecorvo felt obligated to change the narrative of the film to question terrorism after the kidnapping and murder of former Italian premier Aldo Moro by Communist terrorists in 1978. Pontecorvo has admitted that Ogro was actually made with a guilty conscience due to concurrent events in Italy. He attempted to salvage the film by including characterizations that question the legitimacy of terrorism. But these additions make Ogro a film that contradicts itself. The film’s heroic depiction of a terrorist act is enveloped by flashbacks and a coda in which a Basque ETA terrorist on his hospital deathbed admits his fears about meeting his maker in light of the violent life he led. His comrades attempt to comfort him by praising his courage to act on his convictions. But in the final scenes they distance themselves from their hard-line comrade’s belief in violence as a legitimate political tool. The scene is a fitting finale for Pontecorvo’s entire opus, which runs from the enthusiasm of his appearance as a resistance fighter in Outcry, to his vivid depiction of armed struggle in The Battle of Algiers, to the fatalism of Burn!, and finally the retreat from terrorism with the guilty conscience of Ogro.
— Carlo Celli, Gillo Pontecorvo: From Resistance to Terrorism
Carrero Blanco’s Dodge Dart, after being blown five stories high and landing on a balcony on the far side of a Jesuit college
Clneaste: Did you encounter any particular problems in getting Ogro produced?
Glllo Pontecorvo: Yes. In 1976, shortly after we started working on the project, the Americans (United Artists) who were to have produced it got scared. Franco was dead, but the political regime was still half Francoist, and United Artists was afraid that the Spanish government would block the distribution of their other films in Spain. So we stopped for a year and a half. During that time there was a democratic movement in Spain, and the government changed. Since the danger of repercussions was lessened, we were able to renew the project. Following this, however, there was another interruption, apparently because the theme we had selected was too difficult and not very commercial. After four or five months of searching, we finally came up with two producers — an Italian, Franco Cristaldi (and his associate, Nicola Carraro); and a Spaniard, Jose Samano.
Clneaste: The Moro affair occurred during this period. Did it encourage you to make changes in your scenario?
Pontecorvo: Yes. It was during the kidnapping of Moro that we wrote the final version of the script, after hesitating between continuing or dropping the project altogether. The film probably shows the effects of many of these perplexities. We perhaps overstated the fundamental difference, as we see it, between armed struggle under a democratic regime and armed struggle under a dictatorial regime…
…disallowing the speaking of Basque in school is a determining element in the story. Of the four protagonists involved in the assassination, to whom I have spoken at length, two of them told me that the deepest, longest-lasting impression left upon their memories was of being punished with a ruler. One of them, in fact, spoke about it for over two hours. Consequently, this scene synthesizes the mode of fascist repression against all forms of expression of national identity.
— Interview by Corinne Luca for Cineaste
The sinkhole left by the explosion
Q- Everyone asks, why have you directed so few movies?
A- It’s true I make one film every eight or nine years. I am like an impotent man, who can make love only to a woman who is completely right for him. I can only make a movie in which I am totally in love. If you had the list of films I’ve refused – The Mission, Bethune, etc. – you’d have a telephone book.
When I do a film, they pay me very well. I live modestly, and I can live ten years in Rome on what I am paid for a film. My wife agrees to live with me modestly, but to be very free. We are very close. She teaches music aesthetics at a conservatory, and, if I ever changed professions, I’d push to be a composer. I like music more than movies.
I play piano very badly, but enough to write a score. I wrote the music for all my documentaries, and for Kapo and The Battle of Algiers. In my opinion, a film is a synthesis of form and content, but a synthesis based on a counterpoint of sound and image. It’s not always that the visual image is more important than the sound image. In writing my next film, I’ve changed four scenes because of the music.
Q- Few in America have seen your 1979 feature, Ogro, or The Tunnel.
A- It’s the contemporary story of the Basque fight for independence. I don’t consider it a good film. I was telling a story of an act of terrorism against Franco as the same time I was strongly against the 1978 terrorist death of Aldo Moro. You can feel it in the film, that I am contradictory.
Because of European stars Gian Maria Volonte and Angelina Molina, Ogro made money in Italy and I won the prize in Italy that year for Best Direction. Critics were divided. In Spain, right-wing people threw things at the screen, so they had to stop showing it.
— Interview by Gerald Peary
The lovely Ana Torrent
Pontecorvo’s Special Effects man, Emilio Ruiz del Río — a model-maker, painter, and designer — was considered the world master of glass painting and one of the great geniuses in the use of miniatures.
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