Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 24, 2017

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis

Filed under: Argentina,Film — louisproyect @ 9:13 pm

Opening tomorrow at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and to be followed with a DVD/VOD release this November, “The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” is an Argentine film that might have easily been titled “Dark Night of the Soul”. Its eponymous main character is a middle-aged man living a life of quiet desperation. A glorified Bob Cratchit, he toils away as a bookkeeper in a small company whose hope for being promoted was dashed in the beginning of the film. Meeting with the boss, he learns that his payment for being a valued employee is a box of groceries, not the coveted promotion.

Just before returning home, he receives a phone call from a woman he hasn’t spoken to in decades. She wants to meet with him to get his authorization for a poem he wrote long ago when they were classmates in college. That is the pretext for the meeting they have in her car. She has learned from her husband, an air force officer working in counter-intelligence, that two people will be picked up that later that night to meet the fate that twenty thousand Argentinians have already met in 1977: Desaparecido.

She writes down the names and the address of the man and the woman on a piece of paper and instructs him to commit it to memory. After testing to see that he has done so, she crumbles the paper into a tiny wad and swallows it.

Finally grasping the gravity of the task put before him, Sanctis demurs. He cannot be of help. He honestly wonders why he would be asked to risk his life for two people he does not even know. The connections between the two, the woman who has summoned him out of the blue, and Sanctis are tenuous at best. Yes, he did write a poem glorifying the life of urban guerrillas but that was long ago when he was an impetuous youth. Now he is a settled and undistinguished middle-class man facing the usual challenges of any breadwinner. Why would he risk his life for two total strangers, when he no longer has the revolutionary beliefs of his college days—no matter how shallow?

These were the stakes doing politics in Argentina. Three years before the challenge faced by Francisco Sanctis over this long night, I was living in Houston and reporting for the SWP majority in a faction fight about guerrilla warfare in Argentina. The SWP supported a group led by Nahuel Moreno that had a similar orientation to our own, namely one of mass action based on student and working class youth. The other faction was led internationally by Ernest Mandel and supported a group in Argentina that was kidnapping bank executives and hijacking trucks.

Argentina, unlike the USA, had a radicalized working class that was a big threat to the country’s bourgeoisie and Washington. When a leader of the group we supported was on a speaking tour in the USA, he stayed at my apartment. Each night as we headed off for an event, we checked my car for bombs. This was in 1975.

A year later there was a coup in Argentina that smashed the guerrilla groups and drove the orthodox left underground. Henry Kissinger learned about General Videla’s seizure of power two months before it occurred. He gave the gorilla his advice: “The quicker you succeed the better … The human rights problem is a growing one … We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties. If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better. Whatever freedoms you could restore would help.”

“The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis” describes the tension that existed throughout society even when those like the film’s main character were doing their best to keep a low profile. As the film proceeds, we see him wrestling with the decision about what to do against a backdrop of darkly lit streets, neon lights and barking dogs.

Humberto Constantini

The film is based on a novel of the same title by Humberto Constantini who knew this terrain quite well. Born to Italian-Jewish parents in 1924, he joined the CP in his twenties and fought against the Alianza Libertadora Nacionalista, a violent anti-Semitic fascist group. In the sixties, he became disillusioned with Stalinism and began to gravitate toward the Cuban leadership, particularly Che Guevara, a fellow Argentinian. He was active in the revolutionary movements of the 1970s and somehow managed being “disappeared” like fellow writers Harold Conti and Roberto Santoro.

After watching the film, I was motivated to take his novel out of the Columbia library. As good as the film was, nothing can compare to this unheralded revolutionary writer:

Now, as by degrees he begins connecting with reality, he has the feeling of having been thrust into a time outside time, into an interlude of daydreams and preposterousness, with addresses learned by heart, bits of paper burned to ash, vague husbands serving in Air Force Intelligence, bureaucratically planned kidnappings for three or maybe four in the morning, and mysterious informers who practice yoga and body expression. An interlude during which not he but another Francisco Sanctis, much more adrift, naive, and susceptible to bamboozling than the present Sanctis or the one who at five that afternoon received a telephone call at Luchini & Monsreal, would have committed an endless series of blunders, acting exactly the way one acts in dreams, accepting without question and as perfectly normal the most unparalleled facts and details—a toothbrush that’s also an aunt; a fish that slips off a hook, makes its way across a room, and utters threats in the voice of Father Cioppi; a four-eyed roly-poly girl who’s also an absolutely stunning dish; an optician’s receipt that must pass through ritual fire; a pair who will be brought in by a goon squad this very night. The matter deserves at least a half-dozen deep breaths and several minutes of calm meditation.

Films can do many things but they will never achieve the power of written language.


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