The face of war: Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s Oh! Uomo

Village Voice, NY
Jan 31, 2005

Atrocity Exhibition
An archival assemblage of World War I horrors ponders the political
power of violent images

by J. Hoberman

The face of war: Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi’s Oh! Uomo
photo: Anthology Film Archives
Oh! Uomo
Directed by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi
February 3 through 9
Anthology Film Archives

“The appetite for pictures showing bodies in pain is as keen, almost,
as the desire for ones that show bodies naked,” Susan Sontag wrote in
Regarding the Pain of Others. The success of The Passion of the
Christ notwithstanding, that sounds a bit hyperbolic – still, if Sontag
is correct, there should be a line around the block at Anthology Film
Archives this week for Oh! Uomo (Oh! Man).
The latest archival assemblage by Milan-based filmmakers Yervant
Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Oh! Uomo is the final panel in
their World War I triptych. The previous films dealt with the
massacre of civilian populations, but Oh! Uomo is more viscerally
horrifying, focusing largely on the effects of modern warfare on the
human body. The movie’s title is taken from Leonardo da Vinci and so
is its premise, namely that images of suffering will promote empathy.
Da Vincian too is the scientific interest in human anatomy.

War has no rationale here. Oh! Uomo naturalizes carnage in its first
shot with graceful biplanes wheeling through a bird-filled sky. (Even
before World War I broke out, Italy had used this new
invention – another da Vinci idea – as the means to bomb the restive
natives of their colony Libya.) The arrival of a military band cues
music: Ghosts already, soldiers on horseback are shown riding out of
the stables toward the battlefield, while priests make an offering.
The officers, shown in negative, include Mussolini (perhaps a
flash-forward). Then shells explode and the earth is consumed in the
conflagration. So much for combat.

Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi have been making archival films for nearly
20 years – the encyclopedic actualité compilation From the Pole to the
Equator remains their most widely seen work, but their style has been
widely imitated. The couple treats each scrap of unearthed footage as
though it were a holy relic. The original film is step-printed and
slowed down to reveal fleeting expressions and gestures, as well as
to emphasize the material nature of the scratched, blotchy, fragile
celluloid stuff itself. The preciousness of the preserved footage is
underscored by color tinting. But no matter how beautiful the ruddy
gold or electric chartreuse, the effect is not exactly distancing.

“The gruesome invites us to be spectators or cowards, unable to
look,” Sontag notes in apparent self-contradiction. So it is with Oh!
Uomo, once pain arrives in the form of maimed children and starving
war orphans. Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel the need to up the
sensory ante. The choral keening that accompanies the image of one
bedridden girl escalates into a rhythmic mock wailing that grows
increasingly abusive with footage of a dead child atop a mountain of
corpses. (The filmmakers have made this mistake before – accompanying
People, Years, Life, their account of the 1915 Armenian massacres,
with a discordantly cloying requiem.) Sound is intermittent
throughout Oh! Uomo, but the movie is almost always a stronger, more
awe-inspiring experience without the presence of an editorializing
musical counter-irritant.

The underlying question, of course, is, will these sights turn people
against war? The Bush administration must think so – at least to judge
from its news management style, blocking images of American
casualties, let alone those of civilians or enemies. “The Face of
War,” the most notorious section of Ernst Friedrich’s 1924
photography collection War Against War!, documented the hideously
blasted, melted, shattered features of World War I’s wounded
survivors. (These “broken mugs,” as the French called them, also
appeared in Abel Gance’s 1938 anti-war feature J’accuse.) A similar
gallery of destroyed and reconstructed faces is at the heart of Oh!
Uomo: Eyes are surgically removed, ears repaired, jaws refastened.

The filmmakers end their terrifying exposé on a strangely positive
note with the production of heroic cyborgs. The wounded learn how to
screw on their new hands or fit into prosthetic legs. Many are
cheerful; they smile as they model their afflictions. Humanity has
successfully turned itself into an object.