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WHERE CHILDREN ARE CONCERNED, two myths predominate on film: that of the original innocence of children, an innocence that only becomes sullied by contact with the society of grown-ups; and that of the child-as-father-to-the-man, of childhood as a prelude to the main event of adulthood. Among films of the first kind, Benoit-Levy’s La Maternelle (1932), Daquin’s Portrait of Innocence (1941), Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1951), and Grede’s Hugo and Josephine (1967) deserve special mention. Among films of the second kind, Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog (1985) and August’s Pelle the Conqueror (1988) were almost simultaneously joined by Ouedraogo’s Yaaba (1987) and Gaup’s Pathfinder (1988). For the record, before 1900 the Lumiere brothers had made the first films about children, and soon thereafter virtually every film culture grasped the new possibilities of capturing children’s cuteness and mischief and pathos.
In the vein of juvenile performance-with professional child actors as well as non-professionals or “non-actors”-no movie culture has done better than France, however. Think only, most recently, of Doillon’s Ponette (1996) and of the just released It All Starts Today, a film by the redoubtable Tavernier about preschool children living amidst Zolaesque conditions in contemporary northern France. The only possible exception to the rule of the French is Italy, which gave us Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso in 1988 and Amelio’s Stolen Children in 1992. Long before these movies, though, the Italians produced such neorealist masterpieces as Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1947) and De Sica’s Shoeshine (1946) as well as his Bicycle Thief (1948). The essential theme of the neorealist cinema was the conflict between the common person and the immense societal forces that were completely external to him, yet completely determined his existence. The most pitiful victims of such forces, because the most innocent, are naturally children, and therefore it is no accident that important neorealist films featured them.
Vittorio De Sica himself used a child protagonist for the first time, not in Shoeshine, but in his first truly serious film, The Children Are Watching Us (1943).1 Newly released on videotape, it was based on Cesare Giulio Viola’s 1928 novel, Prico, and scripted by the author, De Sica, and Cesare Zavattini, formerly a journalist and critic. Zavattini thus became an acknowledged member of the De Sica team for the first time, and he was to prove himself, as De Sica’s scenarist of choice, the most lyrical and imaginative screenwriter in the history of cinema. Zavattini’s touch is immediately apparent in the extraordinary melancholy with which the story unfolds; there is an intensity of feeling throughout the picture far beyond any of the cozy sentiments displayed in De Sica’s prior movies, either as an actor or a director. And it was this unrelieved emotion that made The Children Are Watching Us such a radical departure for a film made during the last years of the Fascist regime. Like the fatalism of Visconti’s Obsession (1942), that masterly harbinger of Italian neorealism made around the same time, the frank, undiluted bleakness of this story was nearly unprecedented on the Italian screen.
In 1942, when Obsession and The Children Are Watching Us were either being made or released, the idea of the cinema was being transformed in Italy. Influenced by French cinematic realism and prevailing Italian literary trends, Visconti shot Obsession on location in the region of Romagna; the plot and atmosphere were seamy as well as steamy, and they did not adhere to the resolved structures or polished tones of conventional Italian movies. Visconti’s film was previewed in the spring of 1943 and quickly censored, not to be appreciated until after the war. Around the same time, Gianni Franciolini’s Headlights in the Fog (1941) was portraying infidelity among truckdrivers and seamstresses, while Alessandro Blasetti’s Four Steps in the Clouds (1942)-co-scripted by Zavattini-was being praised for its return to realism in a warm-hearted story of peasant life shot in natural settings. De Sica, too, was dissatisfied with the general state of the Italian cinema, and, after the relative success of such formulaic films of his as Red Roses (1940), Maddalena, Zero for Conduct (1941), Teresa Venerdi (1941), and A Garibaldian in the Convent (1942), he felt it was time for a new challenge.
The title of his new film had already been the heading of one of Zavattini’s famous newspaper columns, and the subject matter of the story would be deemed scandalous when it reached the screen. The Children Are Watching Us examines the impact on a young boy’s life of his mother’s extramarital affair with a family friend. The five-year-old Prico becomes painfully aware of the rift in his family life, and his sense of loss is made even more acute when his father sends him away from Rome to live-first in the country with his unreceptive paternal grandmother, then at a Jesuit boarding school. His mother’s love affair leads finally to the suicide of Prico’s ego-shattered father, and, at the end of the film, when his mother (draped in mourning dress) comes to the school to reclaim her child, Prico rejects her. The last time we see him, he has turned his back on his remaining parent and is walking away by himself, a small, agonized figure dwarfed by the huge, impersonal lobby of the school. The cause of the marital rift leading to the wife’s infidelity is never revealed, the concern of De Sica and his screenwriters being purely with the effect of the rupture on the little boy. And it is this concentration on a child’s view of the world-here the world of the petit bourgeois family almost apart from the economic and political forces that combine to influence its workings (a world similarly explored, sans children, in Obsession)-that gives a basically banal, even melodramatic tale a profound aspect. Except for Rene Clement’s Forbidden Games (1952), there has never been such an implacable view of the antagonism and desolation that separate the lives of adults and children.
The Children Are Watching Us owes much to the remarkable performance of the boy, Luciano De Ambrosis, himself orphaned just before work on the picture began, and whose previous acting experience was limited to a walk-on in a Pirandello play. De Sica’s uncanny directorial rapport with his five-year-old protagonist would, of course, later prove vital in the making of Shoeshine and The Bicycle Thief, which share with The Children Are Watching Us the theme of childhood innocence in confrontation with adult realities. Arguably, De Sica would become the most eloquent director of children the screen has ever known, with the possible exception only of Francois Truffaut. And The Children Are Watching Us gave the first evidence of that extraordinary dual perspective that De Sica conveyed in his films about children. At the same time, he subtly managed both to simulate a child’s vantage point on the baffling adult sorrows that surround him and to establish an authorial detachment-expressed in the spare neutrality of his mise en scene, even the physical distance he so often maintains between the camera and his subject-a detachment that somehow makes the predicament of his characters doubly moving.
As in his subsequent neorealistic films, De Sica’s cinematographer is not called upon in The Children Are Watching Us to exhibit striking angles or exhilarating movement: the compositions rarely startle us by their ingenuity; the use of the camera is clear-eyed rather than ingenious. What De Sica focuses on at a given point is more significant than the way in which he focuses his attention. The way is never neglected, it simply is not exploited; for it is to De Sica’s purpose to move in tandem with unelliptical life as closely as he dares without vitiating motion-picture technique altogether. To subordinate the essentially cinematic as he does is itself a technique of ineffable skill; and to efface his signature as a director from the style of a film argues a modest purity of aim that is refreshing.
De Sica tried out such a detached or reserved mise en scene for the first time in The Children Are Watching Us, whose simplicity of composition and subdued editing style markedly contrast with the formulaic, studio– dictated cinematic style of his previous four films. The tone of De Sica’s fifth picture also strongly differs from that of Red Roses, Maddalena, Zero for Conduct, Teresa Venerdi, and even the otherwise dramatic period piece A Garibaldian in the Convent, for there is no comedy in The Children Are Watching Us, what relief we get from Pric6’s suffering comes only in the form of his own heightened or mature perception and sensitivity– indeed, his name is a shortened form of the Italian word for precocious. Not only is there no comedy in the movie, there is a tragic ending that signaled a change in De Sica’s artistic vision. The alienation evident at the start of The Children Are Watching Us does not disappear; on the contrary, the gap in communication between the mother and her child widens. The discordant ending of this film, moreover, in which Prico returns alone down a long corridor to his tiny dormitory room, is one of the most powerful in all of De Sica’s work-challenged only by the final scene of Shoeshine, where a boy slips to his death from a bridge in an attempt to escape attack by the best friend who has turned on him. The ending of The Children Are Watching Us thus contrasts markedly with the comic endings of this director’s first four movies, where the strife and confusion of the fictional world are replaced by happy harmony and romantic union.
The Children Are Watching Us, then, proved to be a key work, thematically as well as stylistically, in De Sica’s directing career: it cemented his collaborative artistic relationship with Cesare Zavattini, and it marked the beginning of his breakthrough as a filmmaker of more than provincial stature. In its thematic attempt to reveal the underside of Italy’s moral life, shared with Obsession, this film was indicative of a rising new vision in Italian cinema. In exhibiting semidocumentary qualities by being shot partially on location at the beaches of Alassio and by using nonprofessional actors in some roles, The Children Are Watching Us was, again along with Obsession as well as the aforementioned pictures by Blasetti and Franciolini, a precursor of the neorealism that would issue forth after the liberation of occupied Rome.
De Sica’s fifth film was not a financial success, however, and its negative reception was in part engineered by those who saw it as an impudent criticism of Italian morality. The unfavorable reaction to The Children Are Watching Us was also influenced, of course, by the strictures of the past: during the era of Mussolini’s regime and “white telephone” movies (trivial romantic comedies set in blatantly artificial studio surroundings), an insidious censorship had made it almost impossible for artists to deal with-and for audiences to appreciate-the moral, social, and spiritual components of actual, everyday life. This is one of the senses in which neorealism’s roots were political-for the movement reacted ideologically not only to Fascist militarism, totalitarianism, and racism, but also to the control and censorship of prewar Italian cinema.
Censorship is an issue in the contemporary Iranian cinema as well, which is the reason that numerous Iranian movies made in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution feature child protagonists. By thus cloaking grown-up themes in the metaphorical raiment of children’s stories (featuring either of the twin myths about youngsters or sometimes a fusion of the two), Iranian directors hope to avoid the minefield of Islamic restrictions on the portrayal of adult male-female relationships. Even in films featuring children, however, sociopolitical criticism is a sticking point. Each film, for example, must be approved both in screenplay-form and in the final cut by the Islamic government, and casts as well as crews are vetted for political and spiritual correctness.
Still, just as Italian neorealist cinema treated pressing postwar problems such as unemployment, poverty, and social injustice by focusing on the stories of recognizable characters taken from daily life, Iranian films for their part manage to be cautiously or obliquely critical of government failures and social malaise in a nation whose ordinary people-above all its average boys and girls-have been ravaged by religious revolution, economic recession, war with Iraq, and international isolation precipitated by Iran’s hostile dealings with the United States. I’m thinking of such “children’s films” as Amir Naderi’s The Runner from 1984 (which depicts the aspirations of a boy living on an abandoned ship); Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? from 1987 (which follows a boy’s errant attempt, in a village of northern Iran, to return a notebook to a classmate); and Ebrahim Foruzesh’s The,jar from 1992 (about efforts to repair a crack in the communal water jar at an impoverished desert school).
Then there are Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998), and Majid Majidi’s The Children of Heaven (1997), all of which I’ve previously reviewed in the pages of The Hudson Review.2 The Children of Heaven was the first Iranian film ever nominated for an Academy Award; it was the now forty-year-old, former screen actor Majidi’s third film after Baduk (1992), about fatherless children sold into slavery, and The Father (1995), which centers on the troubled relationship between an adolescent boy and his stepfather. The Children of Heaven was concerned with an impoverished urban family whose young son and daughter learn the value of shoes when they lose the girl’s only pair, only to find them on the feet of a child who is worse off than they are. The father of that child is a blind peddler, and blindness, figurative as well as literal, happens to be the subject of Majidi’s fourth picture, The Color of Paradise, as this writer-director continues to explore the lives of people marginalized by a society whose uniformly strict codes of behavior are otherwise intended to ensure Islamic communion.
Blindness as a subject is hardly new to the cinema or the theater before it. This is not surprising given the visual aspect of both art forms and the consequent irony that their audiences are having an experience denied to the blind themselves. From Oedipus Rex through King Lear to Maeterlinck’s The Blind and even Leonard Gershe’s Butterflies Are Free, blindness has been more than a subject, however-it has been one of the most potent of dramatic metaphors. That metaphor has been less potent on film, which has usually been content merely to present blind characters as people of serene temperament and superior virtue. It may indeed be easier for the cinema to present blind children in this positive manner, since such a presentation corroborates the myth of children’s original innocence-innocence that is often visually underlined by comparisons with the purity of unmediated nature.
Nature of the unsullied kind is at work in The Color of Paradise, which mainly takes place in a rural setting-where it’s cheaper to film, to be sure, but where there is also less interference (I’m told) from Iranian censors. The picture opens in Tehran, the capital in which eight-year– old Mohammad attends a boys-only boarding school for the blind. But The Color of Paradise begins only after the words “To the Glory of God” appear on a black screen and the screen remains black for a few minutes, while we hear the voices of boys and their teacher as radio music plays in the background. Thus does Majid Majidi begin his film in a minor key, as it were, giving us the aural experience of a blind person before substituting a visual one for all those who can see. Still, the soundtrack remains important throughout this movie-as it should in this stirring example of the cinema of blindness-with its alternating chorus of woodpeckers, wind, birds, insects, rain, footfalls, and rushing streams. The Color of Paradise is also an explicit example of religious cinema, as its epigraph and title (which ws originally The Color of Heaven) more than suggest. And those who are not as religious as Majidi will find some of its moments contrived, manipulative, or lachrymose-but never sanctimonious.
When the action gets underway, the school term is ending for a threemonth summer break and, as they finish packing, the boys are being picked up by their parents. Gradually, the students all depart except for Mohammad, who remains alone sitting on a bench outside in the school garden, waiting at length for his delinquent father. Fearful that the latter does not love him because he’s blind and that his parent therefore will never appear, Mohammad movingly laments his having been born without sight, as his sympathetic teacher tries to comfort him before returning to his office. A small, infinitely sad presence, his wary yet open face expressing both his loneliness and his heightened sensitivity to sound, smell, and touch, the boy later gets distracted by the faint sound of a fledgling among some fallen leaves. So exquisitely attuned to the natural world is Mohammad that he not only locates the baby bird amid the leaves, he is also able arduously to climb a tree, find the fledgling’s vacated nest, and put the tiny creature back where it belongs. Pleased with what he has accomplished, the youngster taps the baby’s beak with his hand as its mother hovers suspiciously nearby.
Sheer sentimentality, you say? Integral metaphor, I aver. For Mohammad’s father, Hashem, who has finally arrived, has been secretly watching his son during the boy’s perilous descent from the tree instead of offering him any assistance. And soon it becomes clear why: even as Mohammad yearns to be returned to the nest of his own family, his father would like to get rid of him. Widowed for five years with two young daughters plus an elderly mother to support far away in the northern highlands of Iran, Hashem pleads hardship and begs school officials to keep his son over the summer-indeed, permanently. But they refuse and reprimand him for trying to shirk his responsibilities as a father. So he reluctantly takes Mohammad back to the family’s woodland home near the Caspian Sea, where Hashem does some farming but derives most of his (small) income from his job in a charcoal factory. Amidst a colorful, earthly paradise of fields filled with wildflowers, lush forests, and green hills, Hashem then symbolically proceeds to blacken himself as well as everyone else around him.
Mohammad does get a short reprieve, however-italicized by one or two idyllic, slow-motion shots-as he is reunited with his beloved and devout grandmother together with his two caring sisters, Hanyeh and Bahareh; as he unites with nature in his attempts to “catch the wind,” read the pebbles in a riverbed as if they were inscribed in Braille, understand the language of birds, and “see” the colors of the rainbow; and as he begins to attend the local grade school, which has not yet begun its summer recess and where he is the best reader even though he is blind. But Hashem forbids Mohammad to continue at the school, possibly hoping to keep his son’s existence a secret. We had a hint why in Tehran when the father sold two of his family’s Persian rugs in order to buy some women’s jewelry. Then we learn that Hashem wants to remarry-this time into a prominent family with an attractive daughter and a sizable dowry. And the father sees his blind son as a shameful encumbrance, whereas his daughters and their grandmother will only be of service to his new wife.
Hashem’s idea of a compromise-over his mother’s fierce objections-is to leave Mohammad in the care of a blind, avuncular carpenter, who promises to train the boy as his apprentice, and who lives far enough away to require boarding a bus to visit him. Given Mohammad’s belief that he has been abandoned even by those, like his grandmother, who love him, he takes solace in the thought that an invisible God loves the blind more than anyone else, because they sense His presence without needing or demanding to see Him. Given her belief that Mohammad (also the name of the founder of the Moslem religion) is a gift from God, Hashem’s mother is appalled by her son’s treatment of his son, fears for the father’s soul, and decides to leave his house. We are equally appalled by this man’s behavior, but let me emphasize that he is no grasping, concupiscent villain. Not unsympathetic, the hard-working Hashem is a struggling, insecure, truly desperate man who believes himself to be the victim of a cruel deity and who appears to be in a constant state of guilt, anxiety, or anguish.
Hashem’s harried state is exacerbated by his mother’s sudden departure, but he manages to drag her home in a driving rain and thus “save face.” Still, the ominous appearance during the old woman’s abbreviated trip of a little fish squirming in receding water-together with the recurrent sound, on track and in Hashem’s tortured mind, of an eerie, minatory, bestial voice-tells us that this father’s unnatural behavior toward his male offspring will have dire consequences for their family. Mohammad’s grandmother may have been returned to the literal warmth of her home, but Hashem’s lack of warmth toward his only son kills her. And nature itself seems activated by her death, as a screen-filling mist envelops Mohammad, who, miles away, has awakened at the moment of his grandmother’s passing and gone outdoors. The family of Hashem’s fiancee correctly regards that passing as a bad omen and cancels her imminent wedding, to which the distraught Hashem responds by going to retrieve what he has blindly viewed only as an obstacle to his re-marriage: his son.
Though Mohammad’s “educated hands” seemed destined to do more than build cabinets by touch, the boy had resigned himself to his workman’s fate-particularly under the tutelage of the blind carpenter, a confidant to whom he could finally bare his disconsolate soul. But, after turning back twice, Hashem finally reclaims his son and begins the long journey home. During that journey, we once again encounter an ill omen in nature: in this instance, a turtle trapped on its back beneath a big rock. Shortly thereafter, the wooden bridge across which Hashem is leading Mohammad, sitting atop a horse, collapses and the animal plunges into dangerous rapids along with the boy. Having already reached safe ground, his father hesitates for some time before attempting a rescue, more or less repeating the behavior of the two previous instances. (At the school for the blind in Tehran, as Hashem stood idly by, Mohammad could have fallen to his death from the tree housing the bird’s nest; and at the charcoal factory in Iran’s northern highlands, this father let his son wander outdoors without supervision, to the point of almost tumbling down a ravine before being rescued by two other workers.)
Hashem fails to rescue Mohammad, however, and himself nearly drowns in the treacherous current. After disappearing under water, the father finally emerges again, bruised and unconscious, on a beach. Slowly he awakens to wild geese passing overhead, only to see his son’s body lying farther down the shore. In the last of this film’s discreetly deployed high-angle or God’s-eye view shots, amidst mud and clouds and crying birds, Hashem tearfully goes to the boy and tries to revive him. Then the camera cranes down to light on one of Mohammad’s hands, which simultaneously moves as it is illuminated by what can only be called a heavenly beam. Was the boy merely unconscious, like his father, and is he now waking up? Was he dead and has he been brought back to life by a benevolent deity pleased at Hashem’s change of heart? Is Mohammad in fact dead and does the heavenly light signify that he is now in God’s hands, and his grandmother’s blissful company, in the afterlife? We cannot know, because The Color of Paradise ends on this ambiguous note of-let us call it-tragic hope.
Majidi has been accused of resorting to melodramatics reminiscent of D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East in this finale; and if the term melodramatics is thus hyphenated and taken literally, the charge is true. For Alireza Kohandairi’s music here and elsewhere in The Color of Paradise is so sappy, so overemotional, in its calculated attempt to achieve a sympathetic audience-response, that it almost reduces the film to the bathetic level of nineteenth-century theatrical melodrama. Except that there are no villains in this picture, the acting is not histrionic, and Mohammad Davoodi’s color cinematography is subdued or restrained where it could easily have made a lush spectacle of northern Iran’s natural wonders. There is sentiment, and the only question is whether that sentiment gets transmogrified into sentimentality.
Aside from the music, it doesn’t really. Even the camera’s pinpointing of such a natural omen as the squirming fish works, despite the fact that Majidi has the grandmother save the fish by moving it to deeper water. For even as she performs this benevolent act, she accidentally drops (and loses) the sacred brooch that Mohammad had given her upon his return from Tehran. Majidi is obviously a true believer, and true believers see God’s hand at work in the most mundane or incidental of human matters. As I observed earlier, whether we believe along with him is another matter. We need not do so, though, in order to appreciate this delicate, simple little film, for, unlike most religious art, The Color of Paradise doesn’t propagandize for one simplistic view of God over another. It looks up, not sideways, and nowhere is this clearer than in its ending, where we cannot know which hand of God is at work, the sinister left or the salutary right. God remains invisible and inscrutable; but to be blind to His ubiquitousness and omnipotence, as Hashem learns, is the greatest of sins.
The mustachioed Hashem is played by a professional, Hossein Majub, who knows how to handle the complexities of such a man and therefore turns him into anything but a monochromatic character. Hashem’s son is seemingly effortlessly acted by the charismatic, even beatific Mohsen Ramezani, a non-professional whom Majidi found at an actual school for the blind in Tehran. Ramezani grew up in the Iranian desert, with no concept of the sea, of birds, of the forest, which helps to account for his wondrous response to the verdancy and vibrance of nature in The Color of Paradise. What also helps to account for Ramezani’s performance is the fact that he himself is from a poor family consisting of his widowed mother and four additional brothers-a family on which the blind boy believes (he has said) he is a financial burden.
Majid Majidi was sixteen when his own father died, creating a financial hardship for his surviving mother and her four other sons. As the second-oldest, Majidi and his elder brother had to work and take care of the whole family, and this writer-director’s experiences in doing so may have made him especially attuned to the plight of the disadvantaged or troubled children he depicts in his films. These children, like Pric6 of The Children Are Watching Us, are awakened, if not damaged or destroyed, by their exposure to the world of adults. In The Color of Paradise, this world, like that of De Sica’s 1943 movie, consists of a paternal grandmother, a boarding school, and a parent who would sacrifice his or her child for the sake of a romantic union. But the difference between the Italian film and the Iranian one is a matter of perspective.
To wit: it is as though De Sica’s camera, in The Children Are Watching Us as in the subsequent Shoeshine and Umberto D. (1952), were a passive or removed witness to tragedy rather than the active force in the shaping of a fictional story. Majidi’s lens, by contrast, is not afraid to move in close or to shoot from on high-that is, to be aggressive in its, and thus our, take on Mohammad’s tale. Majidi would say that he has his god, Allah, on his side or up above him-indeed, he shows as well as says this in The Color of Paradise just as he did in The Children of Heaven. De Sica, for his part, was nothing if not a critic of Catholicism in his neorealist pictures, particularly The Bicycle Thief and Miracle in Milan (1951). And, despite the fact that his secular humanism is sometimes buttressed by heart-tugging music, it ultimately leaves his characters-if not his audience-out in the cold. Sometimes in the end those characters have each other, but “another” never seems to be enough; other, worldly people, after all, are not the same as otherworldliness of the divinely transcendent kind.
1 Despite his historical as well as artistic importance, De Sica curiously was never the subject of a single critical book in English until the year 2000, when the University of Toronto Press published a collection of essays titled Vittorio De Sica: Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Howard Curle and Stephen Snyder. Coincidentally, The Children Are Watching Us is now available on videotape from Home Vision for $29.95.
2 The newly released documentary Friendly Persuasion (2000, dir. by Jamsheed Akrami) explores contemporary Iranian cinema through the eyes of twelve of its participants, including the directors Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Tahmineh Milani, and Rakhshan Bai-Etemad. Interviews with these men and women are inter-woven with clips from their films, as Friendly Persuasion presents an intellectual as well as philosophical look at the history and present-day realities (e.g., government injunction against the importation of American pictures) of moviemaking in Iran. All those interviewed agree that Iranian cinema has achieved such artistic heights over the last twenty years or so partly due, paradoxically, to the restrictions and limitations placed upon it, particularly in its depiction of sex and violence. As Mohsen Makhmalbaf succinctly put the matter, “The difference between Iranian cinema and the dominant cinema in the rest of the world is the difference between a local dish and a hamburger. The entire world is eating hamburgers nowadays.” Majidi’s latest “local dish,” The Color of Paradise, is available from Columbia TriStar Home Video at $29.95 for DVD and $98.95 for videotape.
CARDULLO will travel to Paris and Lyons this summer, with a grant from the University of Michigan, to gather additional material for Andre Bazin and Italian Neorealism (McGill-Queens University Press).
Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2001
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