Friday, October 02, 2009

"We the Living" -- a new DVD

Ayn Rand's first novel, "We the Living," is perhaps her best-written novel (except for the ending) because it is more viscerally real and the dialog is seldom didactic. It is intensely personal, and the characters ring true -- something that often doesn't occur in her other three novels.

As many of you know, the Italians made an illicit and unauthorized movie version of "We the Living" in the 1940s (actually two separate movies). When Ayn Rand eventually saw the films, she loved them -- even more than the version of The Fountainhead. And for good reason. The Italian movies were excellent -- even after Italian censors injected propaganda messages into them.

Now the Ayn Rand Institute's bookstore is selling a DVD version of the two restored films: "Noi Vivi" and "Addio Kira." Ayn Rand herself did almost all the aesthetic and philosophical editing of the two films. I purchased the DVD recently and saw the final product. Please read no further if don't wish to know plot-spoilers in areas that I find intriguing.

I'll start from the end of the DVD because it caught me quite off-guard. As many of you know, Ayn ended her novel with Kira dying after being shot in the back by a Soviet border guard on Kira's hopeful journey out of Soviet Russia. And, as many of you know, Ayn defended this anti-romantic ending as necessary to show what happens to brave souls in totalitarian states. The realistic ending has also been defended by almost every Objectivist I've ever met for largely the same reason. I have argued for 20 years that it is an immoral end because it is not romantic -- i.e. it doesn't show how a brave soul SHOULD live and should be happy. It is not romantic art, and Ayn should've eventually chastised herself for this early mistake in her artistic life.

So, the DVD's ending? It ends on a romantic note, not showing or even suggesting that Kira will die. It simply shows her as she begins her perilous journey to safety and freedom. Then the credits role. It is an exhilarating finale -- as much as one can be after sitting through 2.5 hours of unrelenting squalor, dour miens and duplicitous characters. I find it interesting that nowhere could I learn from ARI who made this final decision on a romantic ending: Ayn or someone else.

The only bright spot in the movie is Kira, played by the magnificent and effervescent Alida Valli. Her lines are sometimes tersely Rand-esque, but her delivery is always perfect, and her lovely open face is the personification of self-esteem, liberty, individualism, determination and empathy. She IS the movie.

As with the book (and, I think, with Ayn's life), the strong female character (Kira) is drawn not to principles primarily but to "the face" in her romantic partners. (Rand said once that "We the Living" was as close to an autobiography that she would ever produce, and I think it includes the depiction of a strong woman's pursuit of "the look" in a man.) But the man behind the face in "We the Living," Leo, is a bit of an empty vessel and a cad, and you cannot help but wonder more than half the time what Kira is doing with such a self-indulgent, narcissistic man. Kira is portrayed as resolutely knowing what she wants and who she is, so the relationship makes no sense.

However, the communist Andre is, ironically, much more palatable to the reader, and Kira is drawn to him, too. This is the most intriguing aspect of both the book and the DVD. Andre seems to have a good soul and have sold it to live -- as a communist, nevertheless.

The best part of the "We the Living" DVD package is the separate DVD titled "We the Living - A Lost Treasure Discovered." It is a fascinating tale of how this movie (2 movies) even got made in Mussolini's fascist Italy and how it then almost never made it out after Mussolini's minions ordered all copies of the film burned immediately. A great detective story. It also has the original ending from the Italian movies.

I have only read "We the Living" once and I will see this movie just once. It is too depressing. If I wish to see Alida Valli again, I will watch "The Third Man" or one of the hundred other movies she made during her brilliant career.

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