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March 23, 2011

Route Irish

Movie image
Route Irish
5 out of 5 stars

Two weeks ago I went to pre-screening of Route Irish, followed by a Question & Answer meeting with the Director, Ken Loach. Ken Loach is more popular in Italy and France than he is in the UK: apparently in Nuneaton, the town near Coventry where he comes from, they don’t even know who he is. A movie like The Navigators was a ticket box success in Italy, but wasn’t even screened in cinemas in the UK. If Ken Loach turned up at a cinema in Italy I can imagine the crowds – but at the Arts Centre the cinema wasn’t even full...

With 'Route Irish' Loach goes back to serious, heavy and very political themes, after the 'Looking for Eric' football comedy. In this case, the theme is the War in Iraq. If the sort of theme is not surprising, the genre is: this is Ken Loach’s first thriller. It may not have the best screenwriting and the most surprising plot, but it is a good effort nonetheless. It’s the story of Fergus, an Iraq veteran, himself disturbed by the experience (echoes of the Dear Hunter and even of Rambo), trying to explain and avenge (successfully) the death in Baghdad of his best friend Frankie, and come to terms with it (unsuccessfully). Loach’s style is evident in the careful neorealist directing: all actors from Liverpool, and not told about the plot in advance, so that they experience it ‘in real time’. Except some scenes filmed in Jordan (for Baghdad), the story is played in Liverpool, which is a good thing. Loach’s neorealism is perfect on the Britain he knows intimately, but is distorted by ideological idealization as soon as he chooses a foreign subject, whether Nicaragua (Carla’s Song), Spain (‘Land and Freedom’) or even Ireland (‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’); even immigrants tend to be idealised (Bread & Roses; It's A Free World). So I went to the cinema expecting an idealisation of Iraq, but fortunately there is little of it, even though the few Iraqi characters are all, predictably, ‘goodies’. The movie is indeed well researched, based on a number of interviews with Iraq veterans (interesting documentation is in included in the film’s book).

It’s the political content of Route Irish which is most important. The movie is mostly about the privatization of war, whereby corporations, and in particular private security companies, make huge profits on the bodies of the local populations and of working-class lads with no other employment opportunities. An important sub-theme is torture, dealt with in the most gripping, and technically most difficult, scene. This portrays, for the first time in a fiction movie, waterboarding – a torture used by US forces in Iraq, and still defended by Dick Cheney. Let’s just say that even if on 'Route Irish's stage waterboarding was obviously partial, very short and not coercive, the actor suffered panic attacks for weeks later. The scene is cleverly introduced into the plot, with the effect of condemning torture in an absolute way, even when it is the ‘good’ side to use it.

‘Route Irish’ ends without a ‘way out’: the system is all corrupt. In the debate after the screening, asked if he expects his movies to change people, Loach replied “oh, no way films can change people: if they did, we would have all become cow-boys.’ He was also questioned about Libya, and he expressed predictable scepticism at a possible intervention (it was before the UN Resolution), which would have been in the interest, again, of oil corporations. At this point Loach may be frankly be too simplistic.

To an Italian, and to me in particular, this movie has a strong echo. Frankie is killed, under unclear circumstances, on ‘Route Irish’, the ‘most dangerous road on earth’, leading to Baghdad Airport. Exactly on that road, on the 4th of March 2005, Nicola Calipari, Italian intelligence officer, was shot dead by American soldiers. He was heading to the airport with the journalist Giuliana Sgrena, who had been released only 20 minutes earlier after 4 weeks as hostage of Iraqi fighters. The circumstances of the killing have never been explained: under heavy pressure from the Pentagon, especially via foreign minister Fini, the Italian prosecutors had to drop the case. Giuliana worked for Il manifesto, with which I collaborated myself at the time, and the weeks of her kidnapping and then Calipari’s death were for me an unbelievable anguish. She told her story in detail in her 'Fuoco Amico' (Friendly fire) book. There is no mention of the Sgrena-Calipari case in the film’s book, but Loach knew the case of course, and given his popularity in Italy, I can’t believe the reference is accidental. Yet I did not have the time to ask about its meaning during the debate: so let’s wait until the movie reaches the Italian cinemas.

On a lighter note: Ken Loach supports the idea of his football club, Bath City, to offer 80%-discounted tickets to Polish fans. Some Bath City fans have complained against this ‘preferential treatment’ of foreigners, not understanding that introductory offers make perfect economic sense. Even if Polish football is at quite a dire level, I wonder how many Poles will really take the offer: Bath City play in something like the Sixth league, and Poles in the UK are more likely to go to see Speedway (I have seen many Poles at Coventry Bees’ matches, without the need for special offers). But if they do, Ken Loach should take the camera to the terraces and document what happens.

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