Reviews - Specialty Releases


Film Review: The Revolutionary

Film-length interview with Sidney Rittenberg, an American who became a high-ranking Chinese Communist, is artistically anemic but provides a thrillingly unique viewpoint on the disillusion and terror of the 20th century’s most tragic revolution.

April 11, 2013

-By Chris Barsanti


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1375448-Revolutionary_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.



The story of how a well-meaning Southern boy became hopelessly entangled in the soaring rhetoric and idealism, as well as the Medici-like intrigues and slaughters, of the Chinese Revolution makes for a thoughtful essay topic but an undercooked documentary. Sidney Rittenberg was a smart, idealistic kid from a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina, who became a labor and civil-rights activist during the 1930s. The wartime draft sent him into a Chinese-language program at Stanford, which he graduated from after peace had been declared. Rittenberg went to China anyway, first as a soldier and later an observer for a United Nations relief organization. Falling quickly under the romantic spell of the Chinese Communist party, he answered their request to be an “engineer” to “build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people.” It’s a bridge that Rittenberg, who would ultimately spend some 15 years in solitary confinement, never quite managed to build. “History rolled right over me,” he says. “I wanted to be a revolutionary.”

The Revolutionary is little more than an hour-and-a-half interview with Rittenberg, punctuated only by the occasional break for visual relief from propaganda posters and some blackouts assumedly timed for public-television broadcast. But Rittenberg, in his 90s during the making of the film, makes for a witty subject, with his reedy accent, jocular humor, and honest appraisal of his own naïve assumptions about the titanic forces that Chairman Mao—whom he memorably defines as “a great hero…and a great villain”—would unleash. He also has the advantage of having a high vantage point in the Chinese Communist Party, which he joined with no hesitation after a 45-day, 500-mile hike into the interior of China to meet Mao.

Initially, Rittenberg seems to be a man still under the spell of the party’s great experiment. He is unstintingly generous in his appraisal of the party’s revolutionary intentions early on, humanizing the leaders with memories of watching movies with them at the American mission; Laurel and Hardy were a favorite with these men, including those like Mao who would later lambast such things as counterrevolutionary trash. Like them, Rittenberg was a true believer. Even his first six years spent in prison, after Joseph Stalin fingered him in 1949 as an American spy, didn’t dim his enthusiasm for the Revolution: “I was part of a movement for human progress, I thought.”

Later on, Rittenberg is more unstinting in his critique of the brutal excesses of Mao’s different programs. He describes how in the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the early 1960s, Mao first announced a relaxing of limits on speech, only to then round up all the intellectuals who took him at his word and spoke out. It’s the Cultural Revolution that followed, though, which makes for Rittenberg’s most fascinating material. He paints a caricature of himself as a high-ranking official blessed with unimaginable luxuries like travel and hot water who can’t imagine that the fairytales of upward progress and ever-present threats from counterrevolutionaries aren’t true. His take on the Cultural Revolution being a dark mirror to the Protestant Reformation—Mao having unleashed his youthful cadres with their Little Red Books of his sayings to demolish the formal structure of the Communist Party—is a thoughtful one that tries to find a method behind the savagery of its mob violence.

By limiting itself so severely to just Rittenberg’s take on things (his second wife appears very briefly, and is only named in an offhand fashion), and crafting itself in such a cheap and infomercial-like manner, The Revolutionary makes itself a curiosity of a text for foreign-service junkies rather than a fully imagined documentary in its own right.


Film Review: The Revolutionary

Film-length interview with Sidney Rittenberg, an American who became a high-ranking Chinese Communist, is artistically anemic but provides a thrillingly unique viewpoint on the disillusion and terror of the 20th century’s most tragic revolution.

April 11, 2013

-By Chris Barsanti


filmjournal/photos/stylus/1375448-Revolutionary_Md.jpg

For movie details, please click here.



The story of how a well-meaning Southern boy became hopelessly entangled in the soaring rhetoric and idealism, as well as the Medici-like intrigues and slaughters, of the Chinese Revolution makes for a thoughtful essay topic but an undercooked documentary. Sidney Rittenberg was a smart, idealistic kid from a prominent Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina, who became a labor and civil-rights activist during the 1930s. The wartime draft sent him into a Chinese-language program at Stanford, which he graduated from after peace had been declared. Rittenberg went to China anyway, first as a soldier and later an observer for a United Nations relief organization. Falling quickly under the romantic spell of the Chinese Communist party, he answered their request to be an “engineer” to “build a bridge from the Chinese people to the American people.” It’s a bridge that Rittenberg, who would ultimately spend some 15 years in solitary confinement, never quite managed to build. “History rolled right over me,” he says. “I wanted to be a revolutionary.”

The Revolutionary is little more than an hour-and-a-half interview with Rittenberg, punctuated only by the occasional break for visual relief from propaganda posters and some blackouts assumedly timed for public-television broadcast. But Rittenberg, in his 90s during the making of the film, makes for a witty subject, with his reedy accent, jocular humor, and honest appraisal of his own naïve assumptions about the titanic forces that Chairman Mao—whom he memorably defines as “a great hero…and a great villain”—would unleash. He also has the advantage of having a high vantage point in the Chinese Communist Party, which he joined with no hesitation after a 45-day, 500-mile hike into the interior of China to meet Mao.

Initially, Rittenberg seems to be a man still under the spell of the party’s great experiment. He is unstintingly generous in his appraisal of the party’s revolutionary intentions early on, humanizing the leaders with memories of watching movies with them at the American mission; Laurel and Hardy were a favorite with these men, including those like Mao who would later lambast such things as counterrevolutionary trash. Like them, Rittenberg was a true believer. Even his first six years spent in prison, after Joseph Stalin fingered him in 1949 as an American spy, didn’t dim his enthusiasm for the Revolution: “I was part of a movement for human progress, I thought.”

Later on, Rittenberg is more unstinting in his critique of the brutal excesses of Mao’s different programs. He describes how in the famine-inducing Great Leap Forward of the early 1960s, Mao first announced a relaxing of limits on speech, only to then round up all the intellectuals who took him at his word and spoke out. It’s the Cultural Revolution that followed, though, which makes for Rittenberg’s most fascinating material. He paints a caricature of himself as a high-ranking official blessed with unimaginable luxuries like travel and hot water who can’t imagine that the fairytales of upward progress and ever-present threats from counterrevolutionaries aren’t true. His take on the Cultural Revolution being a dark mirror to the Protestant Reformation—Mao having unleashed his youthful cadres with their Little Red Books of his sayings to demolish the formal structure of the Communist Party—is a thoughtful one that tries to find a method behind the savagery of its mob violence.

By limiting itself so severely to just Rittenberg’s take on things (his second wife appears very briefly, and is only named in an offhand fashion), and crafting itself in such a cheap and infomercial-like manner, The Revolutionary makes itself a curiosity of a text for foreign-service junkies rather than a fully imagined documentary in its own right.
Post a Comment
Asterisk (*) is a required field.
* Author: 
Rate This Article: (1=Bad, 5=Perfect)

*Comment:
 

More Specialty Releases

Calvary
Film Review: Calvary

An invidious, enervating piece of work blessedly relieved by Brendan Gleeson’s empathetic portrayal of a worldly priest confronting the sins of the world. More »

Rich Hill
Film Review: Rich Hill

This study of teens trying to make it in a very depressed and depressing heartland would have benefited from more hard info and less pictorial meandering. More »

Child of God
Film Review: Child of God

Depravity abounds in this James Franco-directed adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, which despite a committed performance by Scott Haze proves a one-note endurance test. More »

Cabin Fever: Patient Zero
Film Review: Cabin Fever: Patient Zero

A return to the stripped–down ferocity of Eli Roth's no-frills 2002 shocker, Cabin Fever: Patient Zero (which the title suggests is a prequel, though it doesn't really feel like one) lacks originality but delivers the body-horror goods far better than genre minimalist Ti West's Cabin Fever 2: Spring Break (2009), a broadly campy spin on ’70s high-school horror clichés. More »

ADVERTISEMENT



REVIEWS

Get On Up
Film Review: Get On Up

Chadwick Boseman is sensational in this multi-faceted portrait of troubled, pioneering soul-music giant James Brown. More »

Guardians of the Galaxy review
Film Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

With Marvel’s backing, cult filmmaker James Gunn blasts off for the stars and takes audiences along for a wild, funny ride. More »

Player for the Film Journal International website.


ADVERTISEMENT



INDUSTRY GUIDES

» Blue Sheets
FJI's guide to upcoming movie releases, including films in production and development. Check back weekly for the latest additions.

» Distribution Guide
» Equipment Guide
» Exhibition Guide

ORDER A PRINT SUBSCRIPTION

Film Journal International

Subscribe to the monthly print edition of Film Journal International and get the full visual impact of this valuable resource for the cinema business.

» Click Here

SPONSORSHIP OPPORTUNITIES

Learn how to promote your company at the Film Expo Group events: ShowEast, CineEurope, and CineAsia.

» Click Here