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In the ’60s and ’70s, Costa-Gavras surveyed the world’s hot spots, making a series of incendiary polemical thrillers, notably Z and State of Siege. The villains of these pieces were often American agents or American-backed regimes, and the director even got Hollywood to finance an electrifying exposé of a CIA-abetted outrage, the overthrow of Chilean president Salvador Allende. After Missing, however, the Greek-born Frenchman discovered both “ambiguity” and Joe Eszterhas, directing two muddled Eszterhas scripts about Nazis or neo-Nazis in the United States, Betrayed and Music Box, as well as Mad City, a sententious slap at exploitative TV news. Those attempts to inject politics into the fundamentally apolitical Hollywood mainstream flopped, and Costa-Gavras returned to Europe.

That’s where Amen. finds him, contemplating that continent’s inexhaustible infamy, the Holocaust. The dialogue, written by the director and J.C. Grumberg, is in English, yet this is no Schindler’s List. Costa-Gavras doesn’t presume to take the viewer inside the gas chambers and crematoriums, nor does he contrive happy endings for his two heroes, Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur) and Father Riccardo Fontana (Mathieu Kassovitz). Besides, the film’s principal chamber of horrors is not Auschwitz but the Vatican.

In large part, Amen. is derived from German playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 stage piece The Deputy, whose speeches drew heavily from the public record. Hochhuth’s drama, which indicted the German Catholic Church for its refusal to condemn the Holocaust, was widely protested and in some cities effectively banned. One of its sources was Gerstein, a real-life German chemist who joined the SS to investigate its activities and found them far more repugnant than he had imagined. Gerstein’s job in the film is to develop disinfectants to make water potable for troops on the Eastern front; he soon discovers that the chemicals he provides are being used to asphyxiate human beings. A faithful Protestant who has already approached religious leaders to protest Nazi gassing of the mentally retarded and clinically insane, Gerstein again turns to the church, but to no avail.

On a train returning from his first peek inside a death-camp gas chamber, the appalled Gerstein blurts his news to a Swedish diplomat. When that has no effect, he visits a German Catholic bishop, who assumes that Gerstein is a provocateur trying to entrap him. But Jesuit priest Father Riccardo (a composite character) hears Gerstein’s plea, believes it’s sincere, and takes the information to the Vatican. Rebuffed by the pope—that would be Pius XII, labeled “Hitler’s pope” by John Cornwell’s 1999 book—Father Riccardo summons Gerstein to Rome. He arrives just as the Allies begin bombing the city and the Germans start rounding up Jews (including those who have converted to Christianity). Yet the pope still won’t say or do anything.

As history, some of Amen. is hard to credit. Surely Gerstein—who did survive the war, though just barely—could not have been so outspoken or mobile. The film has him arguing against the Final Solution with a cordial but cold-blooded technocrat called simply the Doctor (Ulrich Mühe) and traveling easily between Poland, Berlin, and Rome. Also, Costa-Gavras compresses the chronology in ways that are sometimes befuddling. He opens at the League of Nations in 1936, hops to 1940, and then slaloms to Stalingrad and the Reich’s downfall. Gerstein’s three children barely seem to age, and the narrative piles events on top of each other merely for dramatic effect. (In fact, the first Allied bombing of Rome came almost two months before German troops seized control of the city.)

Perhaps Costa-Gavras didn’t fret about the details because he expected his audience to know the tale’s historical backdrop. Although the director does choreograph such familiar signifiers as empty freight trains rumbling west from Poland, he’s most interested in the clash of idealism—personified eloquently by Tukur’s Gerstein—and cynicism. The pope and his advisers, as well as such bystanders as an American emissary, have a wealth of reasons for not challenging “that horrid Hitler”: He’s battling atheistic communism, most Germans support him, and if angered he might attack the church. Anyway, a flood of Jewish refugees into the United States would undermine the Allied war effort, and civilized people such as the Germans are “incapable” of genocide.

All these rationalizations sound hollow in retrospect, of course. As Costa-Gavras’ cogent broadside demonstrates, however, the ruthless always have their reasons—a moral that’s utterly up-to-date. Because it focuses on two men who tried selflessly to rescue Hitler’s victims, for a time Amen. resembles one of Spielberg’s uplift machines. Yet rather than culminating in redemption, the film ends by opening a new chapter in geopolitical power-brokering—one that leads through the Vatican indirectly to Z. Suffice it to say the final scene features neither Gerstein nor Father Riccardo but the Doctor.

Damian Pettigrew’s Fellini: I’m a Born Liar takes its subtitle from a remark made in an interview the flamboyant director granted in 1993, the year he died. If the self-description sounds familiar, it may be because Marcello Mastroianni says much the same thing in Fellini’s 8 1/2, a semiautobiographical fantasia in which the actor played a stymied director. Pettigrew knows the Mastroianni line, and he eventually inserts the pertinent 8 1/2 clip. Indeed, to judge by this film, it might seem that Pettigrew knows just about everything about Federico Fellini—which is probably why the documentarian has made a movie that’s more suitable for Fellini adepts than novices.

Pettigrew, for example, doesn’t identify the film’s talking heads as they appear. One is Fellini, of course, and most viewers will recognize the three actors who reminiscence about working with the filmmaker: Donald Sutherland, Terence Stamp, and Roberto Benigni. (An interview with Mastroianni, who often served as the director’s alter ego, is a crucial omission; also lacking is a substantive exchange with Giulietta Masina, Fellini’s wife and the star of some of his best films.) Only hardcore Fellini buffs will recognize screenwriter Tullio Pinelli or cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno, who are identified solely in the end credits, which also reveal that author Italo Calvino is in there somewhere.

Unsurprisingly, Fellini has the most to say, and his comments are illustrated with clips from such autobiographical films as I Vitelloni and La Dolce Vita as well as 8 1/2. He admits to being perversely willful, arguing that growing up under the strictures of both fascism and Roman Catholicism primed him to rebel. An artist, he says, “needs to offend; the greatest danger for an artist is total freedom.” Yet the director himself ultimately became an authority figure, and by most accounts not a benign one. Working on Fellini’s last film, 1990’s The Voice of the Moon, Benigni considered the director to be “like the pope during the Renaissance.” Fifteen years earlier, playing the title role in Casanova, Sutherland found Fellini “a dictator, a demon.”

Yet Sutherland also confesses a taste for Fellini’s theatricality. “I love plastic oceans,” he says. “I hate locations.” Although Fellini shot his early films on location—including his beachfront hometown, Rimini, which Pettigrew also visits for some evocative tracking shots—he was one of the first postwar Italian directors to abandon neorealism. He mutated from memoirist to fabulist, drawing on theater, the circus, and puppetry. The footage of Fellini at work shows him choreographing every gesture, sometimes even physically turning an actor’s head. (The director’s claim that “a mysterious stranger” directs his films is just his portentous attempt at modesty.) At one point, Sutherland says “Fellini” when he means Casanova, the character he was playing, and the slip is understandable: Every player in every one of the director’s films was indeed Fellini.

Is this a reflection of an omnipotent personality or something simpler? Pettigrew doesn’t include any disinterested observers, so his film is short on common-sense commentary. Observation of the director at work, however, suggests that Fellini’s approach was dependent on—and probably even prompted by—Italian cinema’s traditional resistance to live sound. Had he recorded dialogue and images simultaneously, Fellini wouldn’t have been able to chatter, cajole, and bully his way through every take. He would have been forced to let the actors act, and in the process he might have glimpsed something other than his own reflection. That Fellini’s character was so compelling that it shaped everything around him is a thesis that suits Pettigrew’s overawed, underanalytic portrait. But to admirers of I Vitelloni and La Strada who believe the director went disastrously wrong in his later work, I’m a Born Liar offers practical clues as well as grand pronouncements. CP