Children of the revolution

The tension between left-wing parents and their offspring is a rich seam for cinema

The conventional cinematic portrayal of unconventional parents, particularly those of a left-wing bent, is as wacky, irresponsible people who place bizarre ideals above their progeny's need for a nutritious supper and regular music practice. From Mrs Banks, the mother in Mary Poppins who would rather campaign for "Votes for Women" than stay at home and tidy the nursery, to Hideous Kinky, the tale of a hippie chick (played by Kate Winslet) who hauls her two young daughters through a series of exotic adventures in North Africa, film has captured the clash between adult self-absorption and the childish need for security and attention.

Blame It On Fidel, a low-key masterpiece out now on selected release, is the latest addition to the genre. Directed by Julie Gavras, daughter of Costa-Gavras, one of the most successful political directors of the 1960s and 1970s, and starring Julie Depardieu (daughter of the actor Gérard), it delicately explores the effect of the sudden politicisation of a lawyer and a journalist on their young daughter. The film opens in 1970 and is set in the world of haute bourgeoise France, with its stiff white tablecloths, its vast gardens and its impeccable manners. Nine-year-old Anna de la Mesa, played with astonishing range and acuity by Nina Kervel-Bey, observes as her parents plunge into radical campaigning and the family moves from its spacious house on the outskirts of Paris to a cramped flat in the city, filled with a succession of strange nannies, exotic food, hirsute revolutionaries and heated argument.

Anna fiercely and comically resists the re sultant change in her lifestyle. Repelled by easy political slogans about "group solidarity", she is forever switching off lights in an attempt to save the family finances and propel the de la Mesas back to their comfortable old life. She is allowed to stay on at her strict Catholic school, but only on condition that she be taken out of divinity classes, her favourite lessons.

As someone who lived through a radical childhood, albeit of a rather more mainstream kind, I recognised both superficial details and a deeper truth at work in this film. From the mid-1960s onwards, left-wing politics shaped the lives of both my parents, Tony and Caroline Benn. It was not uncommon to come home from school to find a roomful of bearded academics or a bevy of trade unionists insistently debating the future of socialism, or a circle of earnest teachers and parents sitting cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by leaflets, plotting the end of grammar schools. I loved the hum of all this collective activity, the coming and going, the ringing phones and doorbell, as well as the sense of being connected to outside events, however troubling or traumatic.

Like Anna and her brother, François, my siblings and I were moved in the mid-1960s from the ordered environment of private to local state schools. Such is the English obsession with class, that this change was seen in some circles as akin to child slaughter. Overnight, long-standing relationships were ruptured. We became curiosities, a living social experiment. Although we remained in the middle class, we were not quite of it - at least not in the old, unthinking ways.

Blame It On Fidel beautifully captures the emotional undertow of such situations, especially for a child. Like in The Lives of Others, this year's Oscar-winning study of East German artistic dissidents and miserable spies, the clash of values is conveyed much as it is experienced - through colours and textures. The interiors of Anna's rather brutal anti-communist maternal grandparents' house and her school appear increasingly sterile and chilly, while her chaotic parents, their political friends, and the Paris flat itself are richly lit, brimful with warm colours.

There are, without doubt, many important gains of a political upbringing. With an admirably light touch, Gavras shows us how Anna slowly opens up to the world. In one scene, she pores over a map of Chile at the local library, curious about the details of this country that so engages her parents' sympathies. On a trip back to her father's childhood home in Franco's Spain, from which her activist aunt and her cousin have fled when her uncle is killed, she begins to fathom the complex wellsprings of his powerful but tormented motivation.

Some might interpret Blame It On Fidel as a communist version of Hideous Kinky: as the story of a neglected - or even indoctrinated - child. In fact, it is far better understood as a subtle tale about a profound shift of sensibility, one human being coming to understand the true meaning of solidarity. When her father stands, dumbstruck with despair at the 1973 coup in Chile, Anna slips her hand into his, offering support. In a final, moving aerial shot, we see her standing alone among the swirling crowd in the playground of her new neighbourhood school. Slowly, a circle of girls breaks rank, and a hand stretches out to draw her in. Anna's journey from prissy convent girl to sympathetic and in tegrated human being is complete.

Melissa Benn's new novel, "One of Us", will be published next spring by Chatto & Windus

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis