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At the AFI National Film Theater

to Aug. 21

Nobody who’s anybody in a Julio Medem film is named simply Juan or Rosa. 2001’s Sex and Lucía introduced Lorenzo, Luna, and Lucía, and before that Lovers of the Arctic Circle followed palindromic sweethearts Ana and Otto. At the center of 1996’s Tierra—the third of the Basque writer-director’s five features—is a man named Angel, who may actually be an angel and is drawn to a woman named Angela, who has a daughter, also Angela. Whom the gods would bring together, they first give complementary names.

Religion doesn’t actually play a big role in Medem’s work, but the guy sure isn’t a dialectical materialist. Tierra opens cosmically, with the camera swooping through clouds and then into the red, red earth of an arid, unidentified Spanish region. Lightning hits a tree, announcing the arrival of Angel (Carmelo Gómez), a mysterious figure with an earthy mission: to fumigate vineyards against the wood lice that have given the area’s wine a loamy taste that not everyone dislikes. (Did the movie began simply as a riff on the title of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel? For Medem, no whimsy is too whimsical.) Leaving his white truck, Angel discovers four sheep that have been electrocuted by the lightning strike and then a scorched shepherd, who appears to be dead. The man stirs, says he had a vision of a woman named Mari, and dies again.

One of the abilities Medem claims for his characters is the power to resurrect, so the shepherd’s brief revival is not altogether startling. Besides, Angel seems to have a connection with the afterlife. There are two halves to his consciousness, his voice-over explains, one living and one dead, or one human and one angelic. (He, too, may have been struck by lightning and revived.) On the other hand, Angel could just be crazy. It’s eventually revealed that he spent time in an asylum, and his perception of his two sometimes-separate selves might be a hallucination. The film’s distaff duality is more standard, although without the traditional moralism: Pretty farm wife Angela (Emma Suárez) is the good girl, married to local lout Patricio (Karra Elejalde), who’s also sleeping with Mari (Silke Klein), a leather-clad, motorcycle-riding sylph Angela describes as “a kind of sex genius.” The sweetly wanton Mari is the prequel to Lucía—and the counterpart of the role Suárez played in Medem’s The Red Squirrel.

Thematically as well as commercially, Sex and Lucía was something of a breakthrough for Medem. Yet many of its motifs are also on display in Tierra, the last and best in the American Film Institute’s “Second Chances” selection of four films that never found American distributors. Characteristically, the movie’s scenario is brazenly contrived, its structure cunningly fractured, and its resolution—if it can be called that—unashamedly far-fetched. Sex and death, male and female, nature and civilization, good and evil are just some of the oppositions that sometimes split Angel’s brain in two, and the movie’s schema may have much the same effect on the unwary viewer. Don’t expect Medem to add it up, spell it out, or otherwise cater to mainstream cinematic values—except visually, that is. Even filmgoers who resist the director’s notions of exalted destinies and parallel existences may appreciate the sweeping landscapes, the sultry women, and the pre-Matrix scene in which Angel dodges some slo-mo shotgun pellets.

The latter moment is one indication that Medem does have a sense of humor. In form, Tierra isn’t one of the director’s more playful films. Accompanied by Alberto Iglesias’ old-school symphonic score, the widescreen landscapes suggest a David Lean epic (albeit with a more eccentric palette). Into this spaghetti-Western terrain, however, Medem brings not cowboys but gypsies, boar hunters, biker babes, and a band of fumigators whose protective suits make them look like astronauts. Just as it could have been inspired by the Buñuel title, so the film could have started with the irresistibly outlandish image of moonwalkers on a red planet that turns out to be rural Spain. Lust may drive Medem’s universe, but sometimes it seems as if he’s only in it for the incongruity.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” Bob Dylan sang in the mid-’60s, a period whose mood The Weather Underground establishes quickly with familiar but still raw clips of chaos and brutality in Vietnam and American inner cities. By mid-1969, a few members of Students for a Democratic Society were sure they knew the wind’s course, and they founded the Weathermen to follow it. But the direction was about to shift, leaving the group (soon renamed the Weather Underground) behind.

Like the recent Rebels With a Cause, a study of the SDS that features some of the same talking heads, Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary spends most of its time with former members of the organization it chronicles. The filmmakers did interview Todd Gitlin, the former SDS president who dismisses the breakaway group’s “kindergarten ideas” of revolution, as well as a retired FBI agent. But they didn’t need to enlist outsiders to critique the Weathermen. Almost 30 years after the group’s last actions, its former members are still debating what they did.

If they had any fear of omens, the Weathermen would have ceased to exist almost immediately. The organization’s first activity, a planned riot called Days of Rage, drew only about 150 people—not the anticipated thousands—to Chicago in October of 1969. The Black Panthers, the Weathermen’s revolutionary idols, denounced the undertaking as “child’s play.” Soon the group had gone underground, split into secret cadres to pursue a campaign of bombings that hit the U.S. Capitol, the State Department, Gulf Oil, ITT, the California Prison Bureau, and other targets. “We never did hurt anybody” with these explosions, ex-Weatherman Bill Ayers notes, and that’s technically true. But three Undergrounders died when the bomb they intended to plant at Fort Dix blew up in their Greenwich Village town house. Ironically, it was this bloody failure that caused the Weather Underground to gain “the respect” of the FBI, says a former G-man.

With Nixon’s resignation and the fall of Saigon—and the end of the draft, which the documentary doesn’t mention—the American left fragmented and “the revolution” faded. Using clips from France and Japan, Green and Siegel evoke the worldwide student unrest of the period, but these fleeting glimpses of other protesters serve the same purpose as the snippets of Jane Fonda, Ivan Boesky, and Ronald Reagan: to show that the Weather Underground was part of something larger, but not how or why.

Most of the erstwhile Weathermen resurfaced by 1980, and only a few did jail time, mostly because the FBI’s COINTELPRO program had broken so many laws in its pursuit of leftist radicals. A few of the interviewees—including one who’s still behind bars—went to prison for violent crimes committed after the Weather Underground unraveled. The ones who are free today tend to be teachers and activists with an unwavering commitments to social justice. Yet they have very different opinions of their pasts: Mark Rudd feels “shame and guilt,” and Brian Flanagan says the group was “cultish” and did “pretty horrific things.” Naomi Jaffe, however, insists, “I would do it all again,” if not exactly the same way.

Although The Weather Underground may be a little too sketchy for viewers who are unfamiliar with the period, it should prove evocative to anyone who recognizes the majority of the people and incidents that flash by. Green and Siegel tell the story mostly with archival footage and fresh interviews, but they’re not cinéma vérité fetishists; they use narrators Lili Taylor and Pamela Z to fill in some blanks. The film is also driven by some left-field rock and soul—although not “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the source of the Weathermen’s name—and a modest score by Dave Cerf and Amy Domingues (assisted by Fugazi’s Jerry Busher, Brendan Canty, and Ian MacKaye). A wider (and prohibitively expensive) sampling of period rock and soul would have been more effective, but the film capably conjures the era without resorting to “For What It’s Worth” or “What’s Going On.” CP