17th Century Europe, Day of the Siege, Early Modern Europe, Enrico Lo Verso, F. Murray Abraham, Islam, Ottoman Empire, Religious Issues, Renzo Martinelli
The full title of Day of the Siege: September Eleven, 1683 (aka September Eleven, 1683, 2012, dir. Renzo Martinelli) immediately makes one think of September 11th, 2001. Clearly Renzo Martinelli was trying to draw some sort of parallel between the battle of Vienna and the September 11th attacks. But what is the message?
The basis for the parallel comes from the common misconception that the battle of Vienna happened on September 11th, 1683. It didn’t. It happened on September 12th. But if you poke around the Internet, you’ll find a lot of websites dating the battle to the 11th. So was Martinelli simply misinformed, or was he willfully overlooking the issue of dating to make a point?
Within the Film
Martinelli opens the film with a quote from the esteemed French medieval historian Marc Bloch. “Misunderstanding of the present grows fatally from the ignorance of the past.” So Martinelli is quite clearly including the quote to make the audience aware that we’re supposed to learn a lesson, and that ignoring the Battle of Vienna would be a mistake. There is no connection whatsoever between Bloch’s specific subject matter (he was a social historian who focused on medieval France) and the 17th century or Islamic history. But Bloch was part of the French resistance during World War II. He was captured and executed shortly after D-Day in 1944. Is Martinelli trying to make a parallel between the Nazis who executed Bloch and the Turks? As we’ll see, I suspect the answer is yes.
Any casual viewer of the film will, I think, come to the conclusion that Marco d’Aviano (F. Murray Abraham) and Kara Mustafa (Enrico Lo Verso) are the main characters; the film spends roughly equal time on both characters, although it digs into d’Aviano somewhat more deeply. But apparently, Martinelli did not see Mustafa as one of the main characters. Immediately after the Bloch quote, Martinelli gives us a prologue text. “On September 11th, 1683, Islam was at the peak of it’s [sic] expansion in the West. Three hundred thousand Islamic troopers under the command of Kara Mustafa, were besieging the city they called “the Golden Apple”; Vienna. The aim of Kara Mustafa was to lead his army on to Rome, and transform the Basilica of Saint Peter into a Mosque. If all of this never came about, it’s due to an Italian monk, Marco Da Aviano and a Polish King, Jan Sobieski. This is their story.”
Aside from the spelling and punctuation errors, which are presumably an issue of translation from the Italian, this prologue is very odd, because it claims that the film tells Jan Sobieski’s (Jerzy Skolimowski) story, which it doesn’t Sobieski is a supporting character who appears relatively late in the film and get no character development whatsoever, apart from his struggle to get his troops up a hill, and he get much less screen time than Mustafa.
So despite Mustafa being one of the protagonists, Martinelli discourages the audience focusing on him as a main character and instead directs attention toward Sobieski. So the film is pretty much explicitly telling us to sympathize with the Western Catholic position rather than the Turkish Muslim position. Whatever Martinelli’s message is, it’s intended for the West, not Muslims.
Religion understandably plays a major role in the film. Several of the characters debate or discuss the contrast between Christianity and Islam. D’Aviano debates the issue with Abu’l, Abu’l twice makes statements to his deaf-mute wife about the issue, and d’Aviano and Mustafa debate the issue during a parley. D’Aviano asserts that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same God; that’s a controversial assertion today, but in terms of 17th century Catholic theology, it’s an accurate representation of what d’Aviano would have thought. In his debate with Mustafa, he insists that “The true god has no use for submission. He wants all men to be free, to worship him freely.” It’s nice to see a film actually define the freedom its characters are striving for (in this case the freedom to worship or not), but it’s a comparison that positions Islam as a religion of slavery. Again that might be a view that the historical d’Avaino would have agreed with, but it was Martinelli’s decision to include the line in the film.
Abu’l’s statements to his wife fit with d’Aviano’s statement. When he decides to leave Italy and his wife to support the Turkish campaign, he tells her that the difference between Christianity and Islam is that Christians put their hearts ahead of their faith, while Muslims do the opposite. Later, when he risks himself to rescue his wife from a stockade of captive women, he tells her, “At times, faith alone is not enough, even for us Muslims.” So at that point he appears to be repudiating the notion that Muslims put faith first. But then at the end of the film, for no clear reason, he disguises himself as Mustafa and charges the Hussars, who cut him down with gunfire. Since the film gives him no reason to be personally loyal to Mustafa, the viewer is left to assume that he is doing it for religious reasons. Thus, his actions deny the growth he has shown his wife and affirm that Muslims cannot change or grow on any issue involving their faith. Martinelli clearly views Islam as a sort of totalitarian religion, glossing over the way that Leopold I historically worked to suppress Protestantism in Hungary. Apparently, when Catholics are religiously intolerant, it’s not worth talking about.
The film opens with d’Aviano giving a sermon to a group of peasants about trusting God to grant them the strength to defend their homes. He also insists that he cannot work miracles, contrary to his reputation. A blind member of the audience promptly gets a miracle that cures his blindness. Later in the film, d’Aviano heals one of Leopold I’s daughters of what looks to be highly advanced breast cancer. So d’Aviano is a humble miracle-worker. In contrast, Mustafa is given a portent that the invasion will go badly, but he arrogantly misunderstands it and is rewarded with defeat and his own execution. So the film seems to be suggesting that God is on the West’s side, granting d’Aviano and those who trust him miracles. I don’t think there’s any doubt here that Martinelli is pro-Catholic.
Martinelli has offered some guidance to his intentions in various statements made to the press. (All translations made with the help of Google Translate, since I do not read either Italian or Rumanian. Thus it is possible that I may have missed some nuance to his statements.) Well before the film was made, he said, “The origin of the deep anger which the West is forced to confront today was born September 11th, 1683.”
When a Romanian journalist asked him if he expected the Vatican to support the film, he responded, “No…In recent speeches, [Pope Benedict] said to open our hearts to Islam and I’m not sure that would be the best thing we can do with these guys….Today [the Church] preaches tolerance, and my film is politically incorrect. There is a priest who says ‘there is a time for prayer and another for war.’ If you do not fight now, Europe will be lost.”
From these quotes, it seems that Martinelli believes that the Islamic world is angry at the West because of Mustafa’s failure to conquer Europe, and that this anger is the root for the September 11th attacks in 2001. He seems to feel that religious tolerance of Muslims is a bad idea, because if the West trusts Muslims, they will have an easier time launching another attack.
When d’Aviano parleys with Mustafa, Mustafa tells him that even if the Turks are defeated, such a loss would only be “trimming the Prophet’s beard,” in other words, a momentary defeat that the Turks will recover from.
So the lesson that Martinelli wants his viewers to learn is evidently that the West has forgotten what happened at Vienna in 1683. In 1683, the West stood united against Islam and stopped an unprovoked invasion. But the West forgot to remain vigilant, and the result was the catastrophe of 9-11. He is urging us to once again be on our guard, to reject religious tolerance as too dangerous, and to remember that Muslims cannot change their ways and therefore can never be trusted.
I applaud Martinelli for seeking to use a historical film to get his audience to think about issues he is concerned with. Far too often, historical conflicts are just an excuse for another over-the-top action film. But Martinelli’s Islamophobia, which comes out in some of his interviews, is appalling, and his attempts to get attention for his film by explicitly linking it to 9-11 is downright offensive. He overlooks the fact that after the end of the Great Turkish War in 1699, Western powers embarked on a 200 year long project to dismember the Ottoman Empire, slowly taking territory from it in one trumped up war after another. The break-up of the Ottoman state and the arrogance with which Western powers, especially Britain and France, redrew the map of the Middle East after World War I plays a major role in the turbulence in the region today and certainly contributes to the hostility many Muslims feel toward the West. By omitting the three centuries between 1683 and 2001, Martinelli is offering a simplistic and historically vacuous argument about what caused the 9-11 attacks.
Given that the film is wrong-headed, offensive, not particularly good, and painfully low-budget in places, the best thing to do with Day of the Siege is let it fall into the obscurity it deserves.