This Christmas, some American tots won’t get the Harry Potter Deluxe Magical Wand they dreamt about. The nine-year-old at the center of Blame It on Fidel has it much harder: Her parents are communists. Anna’s (Nina Kervel-Bey) bourgeois Parisian life is turned upside down when her aunt, a refugee of Franco-led Spain, shows up and forces a sea change in the family’s political attitude. The father (Stefano Accorsi) leaves a position at a successful law firm to become a diplomat to Chile’s new socialist president, while the mother (Julie Depardieu) ditches writing Marie Clare articles to helm a book about abortion rights. The family uproots Anna from their luxurious home to a cramped apartment. Meanwhile, her Cuban-born nanny packs her bags, though not without giving the child a piece of her mind: “It’s all Fidel’s fault.” So forms Anna’s association between 1970s radicalism and all the miseries of childhood.
Blame It on Fidel‘s most charming scene finds Anna playing “shop” with a couple of barbudos, her father’s socialist friends who drop into the apartment late at night to strategize (about what it’s never clear; the film, like Anna, is not interested in the specifics of politics). One of the men splits an orange into equal parts, imagining that it’s the world’s wealth, and gives Anna a slice. Of course, it would taste just as sweet if she had the whole thing. Anna is a loud, stubborn brat who voices her concern at the slightest change in her daily rituals, from a pre-dinner bath to the family’s Sunday breakfasts. In the film’s title, writer-director Julie Gavras recognizes the bluntness of her naïve convictions.
Gavras uses Anna’s precocious reason to tackle a generation’s idealism head-on. If Anna’s disease is affluence, then her parents are guilty of disingenuousness. The father pulls Anna from her cherished divinity classes, and the mother becomes clearly incensed when a friend won’t take her advice to get an abortion; it looks and sounds like liberalism but stinks of fascism. Anna wonders aloud about their sudden shift in ideology, seeing through to the movement’s activist charade. Blame It on Fidel evokes the gaze of a child seeing the world, for the first time, clearly. During the haunting climax, Anna stands statue-like after a street demonstration has been broken up, lost in a fog of teargas. Kervel-Bey’s face bears the chubby innocence of Shirley Temple, but there’s no underestimating her character’s resolve; her parents brought her into this mess, but she faces it on her own terms.
Is it any coincidence that Anna comes into her own just as her father’s political identity shatters? In a breathtaking silent sequence, a television newscast announces the death of Salvador Allende in a coup d’état. The idealism that once gripped the youth of the ‘60s is now over, and with the fall of one generation’s ideas comes the arrival of another’s: Anna has for the first time made her own political decision, transferring to a public school in the tradition of her parents’ egalitarianism. On her way out the door, Anna grips her father’s hand—a familiar sign of compassion, but also a passing of the baton. Gavras’s final shot is a quietly ravishing visual metaphor for Anna’s path to political consciousness: In the schoolyard’s hustle and bustle, she strikes up a friendship with a group of students playing “Ring Around the Rosie.”
“In any given festival there is usually at least one movie that chronicles a time of political trauma from the point of view of a child,” New York Times critic A.O. Scott quipped in a recent article on the Berlin Film Festival. The temptation to call Blame It on Fidel formulaic—with its restrained technique and relaxed rhythm—is easy, but the film’s uncanny observations can’t be easily dismissed. This is not a film about politics strained through a child’s eyes; this is more a film about childhood, strained through the tumult of politics. No doubt influenced by the iconoclasm of her father Costa, Gavras charts Anna’s identity crisis in the shards of a population’s unrest, when the outcry against the Vietnam War in 1968 gave way to human rights movements and the search for a new world order. When Anna makes the mistake of answering a question with the rest of her class, she learns not to be a sheep. Her parents, likewise, learn that they have to let their daughter go. In its own, slight way, Blame It on Fidel is a work of everyday realism on par with The Best of Youth. Like that film, it profoundly connects a family’s heartache to the tears in a country’s social fabric.