Originally released in this country in a truncated English version called "Burn!" -- and with a blond-haired Marlon Brando affecting a British accent -- Italian director Gillo "The Battle of Algiers" Pontecorvo's pointed 1969 drama of the politics of war feels surprisingly timely. Set in the mid-19th century on a fictional sugar-producing island in the Caribbean overseen by Portuguese colonists, "Queimada!" features Brando as an opportunist Englishman who plays whatever side of the nation-building game suits him (i.e., whoever offers the most money). Initially seeming to work on behalf of the black islanders, fomenting an uprising against their Portuguese masters from behind the scenes like some Machiavellian Dr. Frankenstein, Brando's William Walker returns a decade later to suppress a second revolution and to hunt down the very same rebel leader (Evaristo Marquez) he created the first time.
If the rerelease of the film at this time has any resonance with what some have pointed out as our own government's expedient flip-flopping on foreign policy -- backing the Taliban against the Soviet Union at one point and then branding them public enemy No. 1 at another, to name but one recent accusation -- it's clearly meant to, just as the movie commented on the Vietnam conflict at the time of its initial release.
One quibble: Losing Brando's distinctively nasal, almost Mike Tysonish vocal mannerisms to a spaghetti-Western-caliber Italian voice may make you feel like you're missing half the actor's performance. And, in a way, you are. The lower-register Italian voice that appears to come out of his mouth never truly feels his, yet Brando's on-screen presence, as with all the actor's most interesting work, is huge.
QUEIMADA! (BURN!) (Unrated, 132 minutes) --Contains brief obscenity, killing, scenes of riots and rebellion (as well as the bloody suppression thereof), a cockfight, bare-breastedness and naked children. In Italian with English subtitles. At the AFI Silver Theatre.