A hospital full of ailing bodies. All of a sudden some demonstrators rush in demanding that the patients are moved out so that the incoming wounded can be treated. All is chaos.
Cut to: a much more sedate mansion where Marianne is to be married to a rich young architect. There is a delay in the ceremony as the official who is marrying them is stuck in traffic. Apparently there is rioting on the streets. Some guests arrive late, and their car is covered in green paint, which is apparently the sign of the demonstrators. For no logical reason, green water pours from the taps.
Someone else appears at the edge of the party. Rolando and his wife Elisa used to work for the family 8 years ago. Now Elisa is seriously ill and needs to be moved to a private hospital. Marianne’s mother offers some money, but nowhere near what they need. Marianne gets someone to drive her through the rioting mob to try and give Elisa some money from her credit card.
While Marianne is away, armed protestors arrive. They are much darker skinned than the very white wedding party. They also appear to have political demands. Graffiti appears attacking the rich. Meanwhile the protestors loot the mansion, aided by some of the maids who know which side they are on.
Just as we think we’re in Parasite country, New Order makes a shift that is either dishonest or naive. Suddenly the streets are controlled by soldiers, who have imposed a curfew and are arresting people, and issuing random killings and sexual violence. At first you think that the army must be somehow connected to the demonstrators, although they are much whiter, much more authoritarian.
It seems that director Michel Franco has done one of two things, and I honestly don’t know which. Either he is saying that protests against the rich inevitably become authoritarian – after all the soldiers are also attacking their rich captives – even if its just to demand ransom money for their families. Or he’s implying that there’s no point in protesting, as the reaction it will provoke from the State will just make things worse.
The thing is, we never witness the point when the balance of power shifts. As the protests against poverty and racism elide into savage military repression we see no conflict between the two forces on the street. One way or other, the one inevitably leads to the other. This is the politics of liberal nihilism which asks “will nobody think about the poor rich people caught in the middle?”
Is it possible to find a film good despite having serious misgivings about its politics? On the Waterfront would imply that it is. This is a great film which celebrates both scabbing and testifying before the McCarthy hearings. New Order is certainly not on the same level of greatness of On the Waterfront, but it does encourage the same conflicts.
Because it’s not possible to remove politics from your artistic response – particularly about a film that seems desperate to make an Important Point (even if it’s less clear what exactly this Point is). Suffering is seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the rich – there are a few poor people who are caught in the cross fire but they’re just collateral damage. It’s even strongly hinted that the reason why Elisa couldn’t get to hospital in the first place is because of thoughtless demonstrators.
And yet many scenes are terrifying. The depiction of the people taken captives with a number written on their foreheads making desperate video pleas to their relatives to pay ransom money, the off-screen shots that we hear at regular intervals, even the occasional scenes of graphic violence – all this makes us feel a deep empathy for the characters, however rich their families are.
And yet the sheer nihilism of the film blunts any message that it trying to carry. You think things are bad now? Well they can get much worse. And the lack of attempt to understand who is imposing this violence, and how they gained their power means that we might be scared but we are not any better informed. Still worth seeing, but don’t expect any answers.