Keoma ★★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"...yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have the claim jumped by evildoers known all too well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire..."

But how did the American fate transpire in the first place? This is the central question at the heart of the western genre, whether we're talking about traditional westerns that celebrate the arrival of that blessed fate, or revisionist westerns that question the good nature of those years of promise and look instead for some merciful better destiny; whether we're talking about classical westerns where the cowboy rides off into the sunset because his violence has no place in the peaceful, idealistic, utopian civilization he helped create, or revisionist westerns that examine how the sun never truly set on the cowboy's violence, how that savagery still finds itself manifested in the supposedly peaceful civilization it helped establish.

Italian spaghetti westerns follow in the revisionist tradition of problematizing the West, of criticizing the supposed heroism and purity of the cowboy and of the civilization he helped usher onto the American frontier. Italians had good reason during the popularity of the spaghetti western in the 1960's and 70's to feel pessimistic about the inherent good nature of societal progress: they had just thrown off the yoke of fascism two decades earlier, but already they began to look back on those years of oppression with nostalgic fondness, they watched as the promise of their new republic crumbled under the weight of corruption and the violence of domestic political terrorism during the Years of Lead, as their hopes died in countless shootings and bombings.

This is why this period in Italian cinematic history is so interesting to me, why I've been so fascinated by the art Italians were producing at this time. They were going through an extremely dark period in their history, they had defeated the real-life evildoers known all too well of outright state fascism but their world hadn't improved for it, and as a result they created some of the most purely pessimistic and cynical films in cinema history. I'm so interested in this period of history and its art because right now it feels like America is going through something similar.

After the national tragedy of 9/11, Americans needed hope. They looked to the possibility of Barack Obama's presidency as a symbol of the potential for something new, for genuine historical change, but that "something new" never came, that genuine historical change never happened, Obama's presidency failed to live up to its promise of Hope. Instead we see racial tensions reaching new peaks, we find ourselves unable to fully recover from a new Great Recession, we see gun violence and domestic terrorism on the rise, we see fascism re-emerging as a mainstream ideology, we see the systemic corruption and failure of our democracy, and it's hard to not sympathize with Italy's pessimism.

Enzo G. Castellari's Keoma engages directly with this pessimism and attempts to work through it via the mythology of the western genre tradition. Where John Ford's The Searchers concludes with John Wayne departing the Jorgensen homestead silhouetted in a door frame, arguably the most iconic image in the entire western canon, here Keoma begins with Franco Nero returning to his hometown silhouetted in a door frame, an inverted cinematic echo of Ford's famous shot. If the traditional western is about the cowboy leaving civilization in peace, Keoma is about the cowboy returning to confront that civilization and finding it anything but peaceful.

Keoma's hometown has been taken over by Caldwell and his gang, ex-soldiers who invaded the town after the Civil War, coerced its residents into selling their land, and killed anyone who disobeyed. Shortly after Caldwell's takeover came the plague, attributed by the townsfolk to polluted wells, but the metaphor is clear: when Caldwell came, he poisoned the land. He claims to help the plague victims, but he "helps" them by banishing them to a concentration camp outside of town. Caldwell and his followers are the literal/biological corruption of western civilization, the evildoers known all too well who jumped the land's claim to a better destiny.

But what of this undrowned Lemuria? Is it possible for this town to rise and be redeemed? Or is the American fate doomed to be the future we must live in now forever? This question of the inevitability of our destiny is exactly the question Keoma asks himself. When he returns to town, his father asks what he's looking for. "Myself, I guess," he responds. "I don't know. I need to understand who I am, to give some meaning to what I do. There must be a reason I'm alive, but I fear that when I find out it won't be enough, so in the meantime I wander, looking for something. Even when the Earth sleeps, I keep asking myself why I'm alive."

Keoma is struggling to find his purpose, to understand his fate, to confront his destiny, a struggle made all the more difficult by the fact that his future is being held hostage by evildoers known all too well, by the fact that his fate seems to have been decided for him in advance by the people in his life and the places he lives. Keoma's destiny is overdetermined, controlled by multifarious factors from his race and his family to Caldwell and his hometown to a strange witch and her prophecies. It's hard enough to find your purpose when you're just, like, a regular, average, everyday person, let alone when you're an ostracized outsider in an evil world.

Part of what drew me to Keoma is precisely this psychological interiority. Keoma is very open about his internal struggle to find meaning in a meaningless world, and to put it very plainly, that's something I struggle with myself. I love writing extremely dry and didactic film analysis (like this!), love it more than most things in this silly life, but so often I feel that, like Keoma, my fate is overdetermined by other factors. Like, who am I kidding, anyway? I'm not good enough at this for it to be my whole life, and with the exception of my wonderful patrons this writing isn't a paying gig, and it takes up so much of my time and energy that it feels like I'm fighting a losing battle, trying to claim my better destiny only to have it jumped by evildoers known all too well and taken instead and held hostage to the future I must live in now forever.

But while I'm fighting alienation from my labor brought on by late-stage capitalism (and fighting low self-esteem, let's be honest), Keoma is fighting much more tangible factors. He's fighting a much more evil world, one where, from his perspective at least, killing is a necessity of life. "Aren't you tired of killing?" the witch asks him. Offended, he responds only by saying, "This world is rotten," and rides away. Of course Keoma is tired of killing; who wouldn't be? He's insulted that the witch thinks there's another way, that the solution seems so obvious to her, that she asks him her question as if he could simply stop and put down his gun and live happily ever after. This world is rotten; what else is he supposed to do with a rotten tree but cut off its poisoned limbs?

"Why did you come back?" the witch asks. "The world keeps going around and around, so you always end up in the same place," Keoma responds, giving voice to Italy's nihilism. No matter what we do, history is cyclical, we always end up in the same place, not merely in the geographical sense but in the metaphysical sense as well. The world fundamentally does not change, it is inherently repetitive, so the only difference that feels possible to Keoma is damage control. If we can't change the system we live in, we can at least cleanse some of its more unsavory elements. Maybe we can't heal the tree, but at least we can remove some of its corrupted branches. How dare the witch expect anything more of him than that?

Keoma's childhood friend George won his freedom, after all, and look what happened to him. He fought for his emancipation in the Civil War, and he won, he achieved his purpose in life, he altered his fate irrevocably, and now look around! His world (like the Italians' of the time) is still just as rotten as it always has been! "That freedom wasn't worth much." The only thing that's different now is that George returned to the bottle, he became an alcoholic, and now his banjo tunes are only happy when he's drunk. He confronted the world's immutability and couldn't figure out what he was supposed to do in the face of such an insurmountable force, so he embraced nihilism.

This recursive circularity of history permeates the film so deeply—Keoma's fate and that of this entire cinematic world is so overdetermined—that it finds itself visually reflected in moments of atemporal storytelling and editing. Keoma arrives at his father's house, the house where he grew up, and along with him comes child-Keoma and his three child-brothers, decades younger but existing together in the same film frame. Keoma watches his younger self receive a beating from his brothers' younger selves, and then he watches them all run inside for dinner.

What's happening here in the diegetic reality of the film is that Keoma is remembering being bullied by his brothers, but the way these disparate events are presented together, the visual-cinematic proximity of these two moments so distant in time but so close in space, it ties them together, it draws a line from one to the other and creates the illusion of historical certainty, it expresses the feeling that these two moments lead neatly from one to the other, that the present moment is the inevitable outcome of the past, that because of his past Keoma could only ever have ended up in exactly this place at exactly this time. These moments in the past with his family define his fate so much that they reappear in the present day, pulled through time.

In the same way that this atemporal storytelling visualizes the pessimism that Keoma feels about the impossibility of changing his destiny, likewise the visual disparity between the busy foregrounding and cinematic claustrophobia of the film's imagery in town against the open spaces and wide-angle shots of the film's imagery in the countryside and on the frontier expresses the way that Keoma's fate is overdetermined by the spaces he lives in, and in particular by the corruption of civilization. The town oppresses him not only thematically, but visually as well.

Keoma's opening shot isn't merely an echo of The Searchers, it's a guide for how to read the rest of the film. Most of the frame is pitch black negative space; Keoma is a microscopic speck faded by the blowing dust and framed by the threshold of the dilapidated door that keeps swinging shut on him. Keoma is dominated by the foreground, the broken-down town looms over him, crowding him out of his own image, almost erasing his presence entirely. He's always framed this way in town, the audience's view of him obstructed whether by buildings or wagon wheels or scrap wood or shrapnel. Keoma's fate is so overdetermined by the detritus of his hometown that his image becomes overdetermined by it as well.

But when Keoma escapes the town to the yawning expanse of the frontier, the camera pulls back and opens out and the film stock can finally breathe again. So why doesn't Keoma clean the town of its dominating debris and open it up like the countryside? Caldwell and his gang may be polluting the town, planting the corrupted seed from which grows this visual litter, but they're only human; it may take more than a broom to sweep them away, but Keoma has become accustomed to killing. "Aren't we supposed to be good samaritans?" they joke to themselves. They certainly were supposed to be.

But Keoma kills them and their deaths merely create a power vacuum for his awful racist brothers to take over. This is why the witch criticized him for killing. It does no good. "In this land you'll find nothing but hate." There's always someone new to pollute the wells and start a plague. Violence is written too deeply at the core of civilization. Keoma should have known. He should have seen it coming. It's fate. The inevitable cycle of history. The future we must live in now forever. His brothers have their own savage destiny, they have it branded on them like cattle, one brand for the three of them. "We are men of justice, and justice should determine his fate," and so they fire justice from the barrels of their guns.

That's justice in the wild west, the de facto enforcement of status quo social norms by deadly force. And now, like history, we've come full circle as well. This is once again the contradiction at the heart of the western, the contradiction that causes revisionist westerns to question the ideals of traditional westerns: the Great American Progress was supposed to usher in a new utopian society, but that Progress rested on a foundation of violence, and that violent foundation polluted civilization like Caldwell polluted Keoma's hometown, and now this whole world is rotten, the evildoers known all too well have jumped this land and its years of promise and held it hostage to the American (or in this case perhaps the Italian) fate.

So then what of this undrowned Lemuria? Can Keoma change his fate, the fate of his hometown, the fate of Italy? And perhaps this is why I love Keoma so much, why it jumped so instantly into the upper echelon of my favorite westerns: as much as I love to wallow in some Big Pessimism, the optimist in me also loves at least a glimmer of hope. Keoma and his father take some target practice, and at first all we see is a black screen. Then, as their guns fire, bullet holes appear in the foreground blackness, opening to reveal the two men. If the visual obstructions blocking Keoma from view are representations of destiny's overdetermination, Keoma and his father are the only ones capable of breaking through this flotsam of fate.

Keoma and his father have always been the fastest guns around, that's why they've been able to survive in this rotten world, but that doesn't mean they've always been right. History is written by the victors, by the survivors, but in his old age Keoma's father has finally realized that writing history doesn't necessarily make that history any good. This is what he hopes to pass down to Keoma in their final moments together, and this is what makes these two men different from Caldwell and his gang and from Keoma's brothers. Caldwell and the brothers are only interested in being the victors, only interested in writing history rather than righting history. Keoma, on the other hand, is not beholden to that fate.

This is why the witch chastises Keoma for killing. She freed him from his fate, she changed his destiny and gave him new purpose when she decided that he alone should survive the massacre that killed his mother. She is fate and destiny incarnate; "I saved you from myself! I walked away from you! You already forgot." She interrupts him while he's in the middle of strangling one of Caldwell's men, as if to echo her question from the beginning of the film. "Aren't you tired of killing?" But what other option is there in a world so rotten?

Liza is the other option. A pregnant woman wrongly suspected of being infected with the plague, Liza is just as much an outsider as Keoma, relegated to the concentration camp with the plague victims, ostracized and alienated from the community to which she once belonged. She and her unborn baby give this world the possibility of a better destiny; she is the blessed ship bound for an undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed—not where the American fate failed to transpire, but where it was un-transpired, where it was superseded and moved beyond.

Maybe. That's all it takes is a maybe. To not feel trapped by fate anymore, to not feel imprisoned by the things and the people and the places in your life that you can't change. Maybe their future can be different from the one that had been determined for them. The witch tells Keoma that he can't save Liza, but he tries anyway. He protects her from his brothers while she gives birth in a ghost town, the noise of the gunfight torn from the soundtrack, Liza's pain the only sound that remains as she gives birth to a new era, to a new future, to a new fate.

This is how Keoma differs from the many other westerns like it. It rejects the optimistic conclusion of the classical western that the settled domestic space of civilization can be free from the savagery that established it, and it rejects the nihilistic conclusion of the revisionist western that the world is rotten so we might as well kill each other, and it reaches instead for a better fate, for a better Maybe. The radical act of the west is no longer the cowboy hanging up his spurs and settling down in a safe domestic space, it is the violent birth of an entirely new space, the metaphorical delivery of a new way of life embodied in the literal delivery of a new biological life. The world is still rotten, but the baby is free to find a new maybe; "He is free! And the man who is free never dies!"

And maybe from here we all just start over again, maybe history is still cyclical and we reproduce the same violence we always have, maybe the cowboy's savagery is trapped forever inside the civilization he helped establish. But there's hope, for Keoma as he rides off not into the sunset but onto the open frontier, for the baby born into this new world free of Keoma's fateful overdetermination, for his town liberated from the corruption of Caldwell and his gang, for the West where perhaps the American fate might finally fail to transpire, for Italy and its fledgling republic free from the shackles of fascism, for this blessed ship bound for some better shore, and for me, maybe this time I will finally write something good, maybe this time I'll finally convince myself that this can be my purpose, maybe this time I'll finally convince myself that I'm worth something. Maybe.

1970s | Italy | Westerns

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