30th 03 - 2015 | no comment »

How Strange to Be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini (Che strano chiamarsi Federico, 2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Ettore Scola

18th Annual European Union Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It was strictly a coincidence, but a few hours before I viewed How Strange to Be Named Federico, I took a look at The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012), an experimental biography of Egypt’s biggest star told entirely through clips of her films. Bowled over again by the audacious approach Rania Stephan took to her subject, I was fully primed for this impressionistic tribute to the great Italian director by Ettore Scola, who modeled his own career to some extent on Fellini’s.


Anyone interested in learning all about Fellini’s life and career should look elsewhere. Scola privileges impressions, memories, and imagination in offering some background on the director. In particular, Scola pays tribute to the camaraderie he experienced with Fellini, particularly when they both worked for the satirical newspaper Marc’Aurelio.


Scola transitions between color and black and white cinematography, between reenactments and archival footage, and across decades to show the footprints Fellini left that Scola stepped into. We see a reenactment of a young Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) showing his sketches to a front-office editor at Marc’Aurelio, who flips through them declaring them funny or not funny and then deciding they are good enough to bring to the attention of the head editors. The bullpen sessions of the illustrators, all with their own “columns” and all vying for the coveted center spread, is a wonder of competitive spirit, friendly banter, and creative foment.


Scola first enters the picture as a nine year old (Giacomo Lazotti) reading Fellini’s cartoons to his blind grandfather. Ten years later, we will see Fellini’s introduction to the Marc’Aurelio office play out again when young Scola (Giulio Forges Davanzati) shows up, portfolio in hand, to see if he can make the grade. A rather sobering scene of some low-level functionaries of Mussolini’s fascist government coming into the editorial office and the illustrators standing at attention and giving their names and “rank,” that is, the sections they draw, created an uncomfortable reminder of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this past January.


Film director Fellini (Maurizio De Santis), an insomniac, is shown driving with Scola to view the prostitutes standing on the streets to ply their trade. They pick up one hooker (Antonella Attili) who relates that her days in the life are nearing their end; she has saved money, which she has given to her boyfriend to purchase a house for them. The seeds of The Nights of Cabiria (1957) thus are sown. There are some other interesting tidbits about Fellini’s works, including the omission of Mastroianni among the great Italian actors the director tested to appear in Casanova (1976) and the enshrinement of Stage 5 at Cinecittà Studios as Fellini’s home.


As the film moves into eras in which footage of the real Fellini and his film shoots are available, Scola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the director’s classic films. Crane shots of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni playing in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) intermingle with footage and restaged circus acts from La Strada (1954), with his Fellini stand-in watching the proceedings. Hilariously, Fellini and Scola are accosted by Mastroianni’s mother, who complains that Fellini always makes her son look handsome, whereas Scola always makes him look like a vagabond. While some of Scola’s memories may be suspect, I have no doubt this incident actually took place.


Scola distances himself from the film somewhat by having Vittorio Viviani serve as narrator, offering at least the semblance of an objective point of view from which the audience can take its cues. A familiarity with Fellini’s works makes viewing much more enjoyable and enlightening, as the movie feels a bit like a group of friends getting together to talk about a mutual acquaintance. A sampler of Fellini’s films at the end might jog a few memories, and offers, like a similar end montage of excised kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso (1988), the only truly sentimental interlude of the film. The free-wheeling and affectionate moments that went before are almost as good as having the maestro back among us.

How Strange to Be Named Federico is the closing night film. It will show Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.

24th 03 - 2015 | 2 comments »

The Dinner (I nostri ragazzi, 2014)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Ivano De Matteo

18th Annual European Union Film Festival


By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the most popular writers in Europe is Herman Koch. The sometime actor published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1985 and has produced eight novels to date. He hit big with his sixth novel, Het diner (The Dinner), a best seller that has been translated into 21 languages, spawned a 2012 film of the same name in his native country of The Netherlands, and reportedly will receive an English-language film treatment with Cate Blanchett at the helm in her directorial debut. The story, one of feuding brothers and family crime, proved irresistible to Italian director Ivano De Matteo as well. His version takes liberties with the novel that open the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.


The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cellphone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cellphone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.


The solidly middle-class Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) have one son, the sullen, acne-scarred Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), who has recently given birth to a daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.


Michele has been doing poorly in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. Clara, not wanting him to miss something he has been looking forward to, gets Paolo to relent. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny trails awkwardly after him in her high heels. The teens are uncommunicative the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, gets up shakily and walks to the kitchen, only to have her knees go out from under her, shocked to confirm her fear that the pair may be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.


The theme of The Dinner is similar to that of another EU festival film, Magical Girl (2014), that is, the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with horror at what his son and niece have done, yelling at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice, challenging his kneejerk liberal philosophy. Clara shows herself to be a hypocrite, watching her “Crimestoppers” show to see whether justice will be served, yet choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.


The film remains blessedly neutral about technology. Just when we think the film will blame Benny and Michele’s actions on their consumption of violent videos, we see that a security camera is instrumental in uncovering their crime. De Matteo rightly lays the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. Our sympathies are constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.


The naturalistic film style and the mesmerizing performances, especially by Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno, take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to some interesting places. It is, however, hard to get a toehold on the film because we are catching these characters at a stressful moment in time; without a thorough grounding in character, the film sometimes tips into melodrama. Whereas the first half of the film contains only diagetic music, the introduction of an emotional score in the second half amps the melodrama rather unnecessarily.


The tack De Matteo takes to this story recalls the amorality of privilege and the immorality of envy found in The Bling Ring (2013), suggesting that Gen X filmmakers (De Matteo is 49) are acutely aware of the worm riddling our new Gilded Age and are seeking to examine and expose it. While The Dinner perhaps needed a more full-bodied script to draw out more nuance to the situation, this film is well worth a look.

The Dinner is showing Thursday, March 26 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.

6th 09 - 2014 | 3 comments »

Laughter (1930)/Obsessione (1943)

Directors: Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast/Luchino Visconti


By Marilyn Ferdinand

It’s fascinating how a single story can be bent almost infinitely to suit the imagination and purposes of individual creatives. I recently had a chance to view two rare films that riff off the same basic plot—a grindingly poor, but attractive woman marries a wealthy older man for security and faces the dilemma of whether to leave him to be with the penniless man she loves. Both films were shot during difficult times in their respective countries: Laughter premiered just after the 1929 stock market crash that ushered in the Great Depression, and Obsessione was shown as Mussolini’s fascist government was headed toward oblivion, with a feeling of defeat and waste settling over the Italian population. Yet, one film is the prototype of the screwball comedy, and the other a noir tragedy and the second film version of James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice.


Laughter opens on a downbeat note, as Ralph la Sainte (Glenn Enders), an artist in love with our heroine, former chorus girl Peggy Gibson (Nancy Carroll), seeks her in vain at the mansion she shares with her stockbroker husband Mortimer (Frank Morgan). He leaves her a desperate note and returns to his garret on the wrong side of town, a side she called home before Mortimer plucked her out of the chorus line. Enter financially struggling composer/musician Paul Lockridge (Frederic March), fresh from Paris and looking to renew his love affair with pretty Peggy. The butler (Leonard Carey) who repeatedly asks for his card to present to Mrs. Gibson becomes the billboard on which the pair communicate, with Paul writing a message on his starched shirt front, and Peggy replying in kind that she is not at home, exclamation point! Paul brings Peggy youth, laughter, and love, whereas Mortimer can only clamp one jeweled bracelet after another around her wrist, thrilling to the ticker that tells him he has made more than $6 million that day rather than enjoying an impromptu vaudeville routine by Peggy and her friends in his drawing room. Circumstances will conspire to put Peggy in the same room with Ralph, ending in a tragedy that has Peggy reconsidering her priorities.


Obsessione begins in much more prosaic fashion, as a wheat-bearing truck stops at a roadside trattoria to gas up and dislodge Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti), a filthy, but handsome tramp who hitched a ride in the flatbed. He charms a meal out of Giovanna Bragana (Carla Calamai), the beautiful, young wife of the trattoria owner, Giuseppe Bragana (Juan de Landa), a fat, old man who treats her like a servant and possession. The attraction between Gino and Giovanna is as strong as her hatred of her husband, and she contrives to keep Gino around by having him pay for his meal with work. Giuseppe takes a liking to Gino and offers him a permanent job, but the lovers become impatient with Giuseppe constantly underfoot and start to run away together. After walking a while in high heels down a dirt road, Giovanna, tired and unhappy about her future prospects with her impoverished lover, turns back. However, their paths cross again, and fate moves them toward a murderous and tragic end.


Although Laughter and Obsessione take their shared plot in decidedly different directions, each manages to break new ground while providing commentary on the societies from which they emerged. Laughter may seem to have passed its moment in history by not depicting the ruin that befell people like Mortimer Gibson, but it foreshadows the desperation of the Depression while offering an escapist resolution to the love triangle that would become de rigueur in the 1930s. La Sainte represents the disillusionment of the age, a struggling artist whose failures in love and life lead to despair and tragedy. Although not specifically stated, it would be reasonable to assume that Peggy’s rejection of Paul and marriage to Mortimer were prompted at least in part by the decline of vaudeville and a tawdry future in burlesque and prostitution that sometimes awaited chorines like her. Obsessione makes this fate explicit in the character of Anita (Dhia Cristiani), an attractive woman who meets Gino in a park and tells him that she’s a dancer in a show—even challenges him to check her story out—but starts to remove her sweater the moment she discovers him in her one-room apartment hiding from the police.


In its own way, Obsessione offers a carefree escape for ordinary Italians through Visconti’s Neorealist approach to filming his story on the Italian streets. After Gino leaves the Braganas, he meets an itinerant carnival worker nicknamed “The Spaniard” (Elio Marcuzzo), who pays Gino’s train fare to Ancona, shares a room with him, and puts him to work advertising his street performance by wearing a sandwich board. Ancona is a lively place where people come to vacation, enjoy street fairs and carnival rides, and gather together communally to eat, drink, and participate in contests and games. Giuseppe and Giovanna run into Gino on their way to a singing contest at a large trattoria, and the jovial Giuseppe invites Gino to come. Giuseppe, justly proud of his fine singing voice, earns our sympathy with his innocent enthusiasm and friendship. The entire scene in Ancona, and later, in the Bragana trattoria, where Giovanna has increased business tremendously by introducing music and dancing to the restaurant, show the sweet life in the midst of tremendous hardship and sorrow, thus lifting the film to a more complex and affecting level.


Laughter, a product of Hollywood, can’t offer the same verisimilitude, but snappy dialogue cowritten by director d’Abbadie d’Arrast, energetic action, and some lovely comic set-pieces evoke the anything-goes attitude of the recently remembered Roaring ’20s. When Peggy meets Mortimer’s grown daughter Marjorie (Diane Ellis), their arch references to each other as “Mother” and Daughter” signal the unconventional sophistication of their social set. Further, Peggy and Paul think nothing of going off together for a drive in the country without a word to her husband. When Paul conveniently runs out of gas and they get caught in the rain, they break into a conveniently empty house and crawl inside two bearskin rugs for a bit of whimsical playacting that defines a screwball romp. When they are arrested for breaking and entering, Mortimer comes in handy to secure their release—they even rate a police escort back to New York.


In both films, the romantic pairs’ yearning for love and happiness drive the action. Peggy decides that love is more important than money after seeing someone die for love of her. When she leaves her marriage, which even Mortimer acknowledges is not based on love, the audience gets an emotionally satisfying ending, with the attractive couple laughing gaily in a Parisian sidewalk café—not the Ritz, but certainly comfortable enough. Giuseppe knows the hard facts about his marriage of convenience, too, but he reckons that Giovanna will be rewarded soon enough—he is an old man and not likely to live much longer. Again, when Giovanna and Gino are eaten with guilt and eventually punished for their crime just when they seem to be headed for true happiness, audiences receive the emotional payoff righteousness demands. Both films are cruel to their aging patriarchs who, despite their cluelessness about how to treat a wife, had their redeeming qualities.


Film critic and educator Jonathan Rosenbaum chose Laughter as part of a film course he is teaching at the School of the Art Institute, “The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S.,” and it’s easy to see how a film that treats love largely as an optional confection is a transgressive reflection of the social upheaval that occurred before and after 1930. Carroll and March are an extremely likeable and appealing couple whose antics would have been a balm to audiences while offering mild titillation that asks them to consider which is the greater sin—love without marriage or marriage without love. Carroll and March must have provided considerable inspiration to Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), which offers perhaps a naughtier view of an unmarried couple on the road despite its appearance during early enforcement of the Production Code.


Obsessione, an international example of film noir shown at Noir City Chicago this year, is less ambiguous about what love makes permissible, signaling the fate that awaits the adulterous murderers when an account of a man shot dead by a cuckolded husband reaches the patrons of the trattoria near the beginning of the film. Even Visconti’s camera blocking when the couple first meets, Gino’s body obscuring all but Giovanna’s legs, lets us know who will be erased by the end of the film. Visconti also inserts the suggestion of a gay subtext with The Spaniard, who behaves like Gino does toward Giovanna, following him back to the trattoria and getting into a fistfight with him in a subtly played jealous rage. Love is not a confection in this film, but a trap, particularly for its noir antihero, who chucked a happy life when he caught the disease; Calamai, a late replacement for a pregnant Anna Magnani, turns full femme fatale in Ancona to get what she wants. Transgressive in its own time, the film was banned after Mussolini’s son rejected it as not reflecting the reality of the Italian people, and Visconti was forced to turn over all prints and negatives for destruction. We only have this valuable document of wartime Italian filmmaking, as well as Visconti’s pungent directorial debut, because Visconti held back one negative; the film stands as a candidate ripe for restoration.

Two forms largely seen as products of 20th century American life—screwball comedy and noir—reflect the more Janus-faced aspects of common human experiences. Laughter and Obsessione offer the commonality of human emotion particularized by their respective places and moments in time.

18th 01 - 2014 | 4 comments »

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, 2013)

Director: Paolo Sorrentino


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Sometimes one just has to admit defeat. I have been struggling for a week to write a review of Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, looking for a way to open the review that will give a flavor of what I think Sorrentino is up to with this film, trying to find an artful method to link scenes that illuminate each other, grasping for an economical use of words to convey the themes and impressions Sorrentino has laid out for us. I’ve changed things up over and over, found myself writing a detailed synopsis instead of a critique, forgetting more about the film than I can countenance, and looking at other reviews for memory jogs and inspiration. Interestingly, I have found most reviews of the film to be extremely short and somewhat simplistic, seeing it mainly in terms of its resemblance to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1961) or commenting on the great party scene that comes near the beginning of the film. I think all we critics are at a loss to really come to terms with this sprawling film whose story seems fairly confined, but whose real character is epic in scope, a Lawrence of Arabia (1962) focused on the whole of Italian culture from the Roman Empire to the 1960s heydays of Italian cinema.


A character in The Great Beauty says that the only industries for which Italy is known today are food and fashion—a country of grocers and garment workers. Abhorring this loss of creative stature, Sorrentino not only has tasked himself with the usual artistic challenge of finding a way to express his times in an authentic way, but also seems determined to return Italy to a place of cultural prominence. His work is complicated by the fact that the history of Italian culture is so long and laden with genius—his efforts are bound to look derivative if he works on a grand scale, or unambitious and forgettable if he goes small and personal. That he has chosen to take on some of the giants of Italian culture—Michelangelo, Dante, and Rossellini, to name but a few—and that he has found not only specific, but also transglobal ways to comment on the human condition circa 2013 is a cause for celebration. Sorrentino may just wake the sleeping giant that is Italian cinema.

The film begins with an epigram from French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s novel Journey to the End of Night: “To travel is very useful, it makes the imagination work, the rest is just delusion and pain. Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” This quote brought to mind a film to which The Great Beauty bears some resemblance, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002). In the latter film, a 19th century French nobleman escorts an unseen person (aka, the audience) through the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg on a tour of Russian history. The journey ends with the unseen tourist moving forward, leaving his historical guide behind. This, I believe, is Sorrentino’s purpose—to survey the past, present, and future in a kaleidoscope of images and feelings.


A rather startling opening depicts a group of Japanese tourists on a guided tour of Rome stopped in front of a church located at a high point in the city. As their guide talks to them about the church, a group of nuns sing in a capella harmony near an open balcony. One of the tourists separates himself from the group and takes a few photographs of the city below. He begins to perspire and then collapses. Was it heat prostration, a heart attack, or a swoon brought on by the overwhelming beauty surrounding him? In one moment, Sorrentino has communicated his mixed emotions about the project about to unfold. He follows this up immediately with a bacchanal of the first order, letting us know that he has thrown caution to the wind and will do his best to fulfill his promise to us and himself.


The party, an extraordinary set-piece in a film filled with extraordinary set-pieces, is celebrating the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), a journalist as well known as the famous and infamous people he interviews for a magazine published by Dadina (Giovanna Vignola), a middle-aged dwarf whose small stature belies her substantial influence. In homage to Fellini, Sorrentino stocks his party with people of every shape, size, countenance, and age. They writhe to techno music, some alone in a trancelike state, others in pairs or groups, and one on display behind a window moving to an internal rhythm because, as we learn in a shot from her point of view, she cannot hear the music on the other side of her glass cage. A helicopter shot of the party shows it lighting and scoring the night sky, a dazzling, pulsating organism that remains tantalizingly out of reach.


Jep is an older version of La Dolce Vita’s Marcello imagined at the crossroads of a life lived in disillusionment, a superficial creature who produces nothing of lasting value. His moments of triumph constitute little more than being a minor mover in high society, his ambition not just to be invited to the right parties but also to have the ability to make parties fail, whatever that means. That Jep might have been more consequential becomes something of a sick joke, as person after person asks him when he is going to follow up his well-regarded first novel, “The Human Apparatus,” a piece of juvenilia about the woman he loved and lost that sated his appetite for fiction writing when he was in his 20s. At 65, he knows “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do.”


Jep seems sincere in his desire to lead an authentic life, and he becomes a mirror breaker in denouncing the vacuous and fraudulent. An unsatisfactory one-night stand with a beautiful, idle-rich woman (Isabella Ferrari) who complains about not being good in bed garners the blunt pleasantry “to be good is to risk becoming deft” and abandonment when she goes to get her laptop to show him the selfies she posts on Facebook. Jep rips apart a conceptual artist (Anita Kravos) whose act is to head-butt a wall and shout something angry. And when attacked for his superficiality by a woman (Galetea Ranzi) who claims to be a productive, principled torchbearer of socialist ideals with enough fortitude to take the truth, he pleads with her to “pass the time with us nicely,” and failing that, punctures her smug self-regard with her own hypocrisy and failure. Sorrentino, it seems, is fed up with what passes for profundity in Italy, as well as the veiled bourgeois aggression that causes blossoms of beauty to wither in despair.


In the main, however, Sorrentino finds inspiration in the beauty of the past and rather than attempting to imitate it slavishly, pays homage in ways that feel surprisingly fresh. He turns Dante’s The Divine Comedy on its head by having Jep act as the guide through rarefied Rome for Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the 42-year-old exotic dancer with whom he starts keeping company. The commodification of art and the wunderkind is critiqued, but the results extolled in a scene in which a child artist is forced to create a masterpiece for her parents’ party guests—and, after a tantrum, does.


Ingrid Bergman’s menacing encounters with statuary and the ashen outlines of the victims of Vesuvius in Roberto Rossellini’s Journey in Italy (1954) are contrasted as Jep and Ramona trek through the palaces of the ancient princesses of Rome with the keymaster (Giorgio Pasotti) who safeguards their keys. We take in the artwork that fills the otherwise useless rooms—massive sculptures mixing with paintings and objets d’art. When a stunned Ramona asks the keymaster why the princesses entrust him with their keys, he says, “Because I am trustworthy.”


Such simple statements that Sorrentino seems to want us to take at face value are strewn throughout the film like pure drops of wisdom in a visually intoxicating house of mirrors. Jep often stares at his oval ceiling and sees a blue, inviting ocean, painting an undulating fresco with his imagination like a latter-day Michelangelo. When Jep asks a magician who has made a giraffe disappear if he can do the same for Jep, the magician cautions him that it is merely a trick (in fact, a CGI trick of Sorrentino’s). Jep is still vulnerable to the deceptions of the glittering creatures and night life that have absorbed him for so long. Indeed, in a somewhat gratuitous tip of the hat to French cinema, Sorrentino includes a cameo of Fanny Ardant. There is something naively sweet about her appearance, however, as Jep the jetsetter seems genuinely starstruck when he encounters her. This moment adds to the winsome charm Servillo brings to the role.


Jep’s ultimate deception revives when the husband (Luciano Vigiloof) of his lost love Elisa (Annaluisa Campasa) comes to his door with the devastating news that she has died. “She always loved you,” he says to Jep. Reminded of his life before the drive to be the center of the in crowd, Jep returns in his memory to the day he was almost run down by a motor boat, the day Elisa took his virginity. She is achingly beautiful to his mind’s eye, but after 40 years, it’s likely that Jep’s memory has sanded the rough edges of his past and retouched the imperfections of his “perfect” love.


There is more than a touch of melancholy to Jep’s passage into old age, as his inscrutable grin cracks into unseemly tears at the funeral of a young suicide victim (Luca Marinelli), a breach of etiquette he has warned Ramona about. Ramona herself eventually succumbs to whatever she told Jep she was using all of her money to cure, leaving Jep without his protector. Ferilli’s incredible presence, a stranger in this strange land, made her absence from the rest of the film a real loss for me.


In the last act, a burlesque critique of the church, Jep seeks wisdom in vain from the fatuous, spiritually dead Cardinal Bellucci (Roberto Herlitzka) and witnesses a 104-year-old Mother Teresa knock-off named Sister Maria (Giusi Merli) huff and puff and blow a flock of migrating (CGI) flamingos off a terrace where they were resting and preening. The hard turn into religious ridicule threatens to undercut the overall tone of the film, but it comes so late in the film that it doesn’t inflict lasting damage.


Servillo offers us a sympathetic figure that could have turned tragic in another actor’s hands. He longs for that clean slate that Sorrentino is scraping at while maintaining the lessons that age has brought him. When his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) succumbs to nostalgia, his choice is to leave Rome, which has “disappointed” him, to return to the village he abandoned 40 years before. Not Jep. He won’t write another novel, but his hope that he might brings his rite of passage to something of a close. I look forward to seeing if Sorrentino’s next film will prove that he has shaken the dust of the ages off his camera lenses. I am rooting for him.

8th 03 - 2013 | 7 comments »

Journey in Italy (Viaggio in Italia,1954)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Roberto Rossellini


By Marilyn Ferdinand

Perhaps it is to be expected that following the great destruction of World War II, even the unflinching Neorealist Roberto Rossellini would do as many others around the world would do—retreat to private life, particularly as his private life included his wife and muse Ingrid Bergman. But, of course, private life can be a war zone as well, and Rossellini and Bergman suffered through a cold war of miscommunication during the eight years of their union. They made nine films together, with Journey in Italy coming right in the middle of their married years. The fissures were already starting to gape.


In this domestic drama, Bergman and George Sanders play Katherine and Alex Joyce, a wealthy couple who have traveled in their Rolls Royce from England to Naples to sell a villa Alex’s uncle left to him in his will. Alex hopes for a quick sale, as he does not like being away from work. He particularly doesn’t seem to like having so much unstructured time with Katherine, who is driving the car in the opening scene, a tacit signal that this togetherness was her idea. Once the couple arrives at the villa, they get a quick tour (a sunlit sitting room “was your uncle’s favorite room”) and settle into separate bedrooms per the European custom.


Both Alex and Katherine are made jealous by the apparent pleasure each takes in other people’s company. In the aristocratic circle of some of Alex’s relatives, Katherine makes a big hit, her gay abandon annoying Alex, who considers her no fun at all. Alex runs into a female friend who is in Naples with some friends, and his intimate conversation with her over a meal draws Katherine’s ire. Alex goes about his business of trying to sell the villa as Katherine heads off to the museums and the sulphur banks of Vesuvius. Eventually, Alex joins his friend and her group in Capri, as Katherine sits lonely and worried at the villa playing solitaire. With Katherine feeling like a lifeless appendage and Alex suffocated by Katherine’s duty-filled approach to life, divorce seems the only solution.


Regardless of the intimacy of the story, Rossellini’s approach to filming Journey in Italy is to play it against the vast weight of Italian history. It is uncomfortable to watch Rossellini put Bergman in precarious positions like a mere speck in time. For example, when she visits the sulphur banks, her guide shows how exposing any of the vents to heat, even that of a cigarette, will cause the entire field to fill with plumes of gas. When Katherine tries it with the guide’s cigarette, they are enveloped, as though she had been swallowed up in hell. In another scene at an art museum, Katherine is unnerved by the painted eyes of the Roman sculptures, and Rossellini deliberately frames her being menaced by one of them or overshadowed by gargantuan men of marble. Her leopard coat made her look like a predator at the start of the film, but as the events of the film gradually unnerve her, her protective clothing gets thinner and thinner. Is she becoming less guarded with Alex, or is Rossellini just defanging her?


Sanders is given much less direct focus, but his performance is interestingly vulnerable. He seems genuinely pained about his inability to reach through Katherine’s wall to her. Yet, it can’t be a coincidence that the man who didn’t like to work with actors chose one known for his oeuvre of cruel and cynical roles, especially Lord Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). I couldn’t help thinking that despite the suggestion of family wealth, Alex was a war profiteer, and the abundant images of death in the film—catacomb skulls, the leopard skin coat, the figures frozen at the moment of death at Pompeii, Vesuvius in the background of a relaxing Alex and Katherine—though signifiers of the death of a marriage, probably have more to do with the war and the Joyces’ filthy lucre. Giving the characters the surname of Joyce further alludes to death, as Katherine relates a memory of a young man pouring his love out to her in the driving rain that is more than reminiscent of Gretta Conroy’s similar memory in James Joyce’s “The Dead.”


The film feels like a very personal document for Rossellini, with Bergman and Sanders seeming to pick up threads of old arguments without provocation or context. Their bickering is intense, but you can feel each wound they inflict on each other. When we’re not entrapped in this hothouse of rancor, the filming becomes less precise. Scenes inside the Rolls appear to have been done as process shots, and scenes around Naples could be stock footage, hardly of the quality one expects from the Father of Neorealism. The film has a cheap, cobbled-together quality to it, perhaps the result of several different cuts that reportedly were made of the film.


If I could accept this film as wholly personal, I would feel less acutely its very troubling subtext—that a marriage can exist only if the wife is broken. Alex becomes attracted to Marie (Maria Mauban), a young woman hobbled by a broken ankle, during his time on Capri. He holds her arm as she moves awkwardly with the assistance of a cane, and begins to declare his feelings when she says she has reconciled with her husband, who is to join her in Italy soon. He backs off, and briefly flirts with the idea of hiring a prostitute to assuage his disappointment. Instead, he returns to Katherine with instructions that he wishes to sleep late, setting up a situation for another argument the next day, as they tour Pompeii, when he will ask her for a divorce. As they drive back from the ruin, shaken by the sight of a couple lying side by side, hollow figures of ash preserved with plaster pumped into the cavities, they get stuck in a throng of people celebrating a holy day. Katherine exits the car and is swept up by the crowd. She yells to Alex for help, and he runs to her side. She declares she doesn’t want to lose him, and he says he loves her. Shaken by the thought of divorce and frightened by being torn into a mindlessly menacing crowd, Katherine capitulates. Her call to be rescued means victory for male domination, and their embrace, to me, tastes of the ashes that entombed the couple in Pompeii.


Offering none of the usual assurances of all being right with the world now that the institution of marriage has been affirmed, indeed, revealing this illusion for what it is—a power struggle that in the 1950s meant that women had to lose—doomed this film at the box office. In 2013, the gender war has not yet ceased, but the conversation has moved forward to a higher level of awareness. From this vantage point, Rossellini and Bergman’s fearless, painfully raw collaboration looks to be the stuff of genius.

31st 10 - 2012 | 2 comments »

I Tre Volti della Paura (aka The Three Faces of Fear; Black Sabbath; 1963)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Bava

Part of the Italian Horror Blogathon at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies

By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava is a name to conjure with amongst lovers of horror cinema today, after an interregnum when his brand had waned and he was remembered only by film scholars and the directors who ripped him off. His lush, visually symphonic work in the horror field did not just bridge eras in the genre’s evolution, but actively affected it. Bava oversaw both the great revival of the Gothic horror style, thanks to his rescue job on Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), which beat both Hammer Studios and Roger Corman to the mark of sparking that style, and continued with Bava’s proper debut La Maschera del Demonio (1960). Bava however also oversaw that revival’s wane, and its displacing by a new style of horror, one which Bava essentially invented, based in more modern conventions, codes, and tropes. This would become known as the giallo movie. In the wake of Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), which gave contemporary horror an electric relevance, Bava first compiled the giallo style in 1963’s La Ragazza che Sapeva Troppo and its brilliant follow-up Sei Donne Per l’Assassino (1964). Where the Gothic genre was historical, rooted in intensely psychologised images and long-settled figurations representing threat – ghosts, vampires, werewolves – the giallo was stylised according to the shape and rhythm of a less superstitious but equally paranoid contemporary landscape, reconceiving threat as a lurking, masked, gloved killer out to attack and annihilate beauty and complacency. Gothic was rooted in Victorian literary and folk-tale traditions; giallo came from pulp literature, modern art, and urban myth. Giallo latched onto the sorts of figures beloved of trashy newspapers and which seemed to have devolved along with the modern urban world – sex killers, heavy breather phone callers, alienated misogynists, and murderous anarchists. 

I Tre Volti della Paura feels like a pivotal movie for Bava, not simply in that its English-language title, Black Sabbath, inspired the name of the prototypical heavy metal band and thus gave it a higher measure of fame than any other Bava work, but because it’s an omnibus movie that allowed Bava to offer variations on new and old horror aesthetics. This analytical presumption contrasts not simply their disparate preoccupations and lexicons, both visual and thematic, but also their shared roots and mutual, closely related power. Bava’s film tells three stories adapted from Anton Chekhov, Howard Snyder, and Alexei Tolstoy, a disparate triumvirate of names and modes of storytelling, ordered depending on which version you’re watching of the film, the Italian or the foreign release cut. The Italian cut commences with The Telephone, from a Snyder story, moves on to The Wurdalak, from Tolstoy, and concludes with Chekhov’s The Drop of Water. The first is clearly an exercise in giallo nerve-wracking, whilst the second is ripe Gothicism, and the third represents a distinct tradition but also presents a curious melding of the two, apt in adapting Chekhov, a writer with old-world class partly veiling a very modern, ironic mind. The horror genre has, over the years, seen more omnibus and portmanteau films than any other genre I can think of, from Paul Leni’s Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (1924), up to this year’s V/H/S. This seems a by-product of the type of story the genre works well with, minimal mood-pieces where sometimes complication despoils the form’s inherent qualities, and the powerful literary tradition of short eerie fiction. Bava’s work came in the wake of Corman’s Tales of Terror (1961) and anticipated Kobayashi’s Kaidan (1964), the multi-director fancies of Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allen Poe (1967), and Milton Subotsky’s series of Amicus films, but unlike most others Bava resists mixing the bag in tone or intent too much, and each episode vibrates with concerted near-perfection.

I Tre Volti della Paura often seems aware of its place as a bridging point of old and new, and certainly Bava keeps glancing over his shoulder at both his own style’s roots, and that of the genre. He signals this most clearly by taking advantage of having Boris Karloff as a star, offering him in a prologue and epilogue as a good-humoured master of ceremonies, warning the audience about vampires who might be sitting next to them – “Vampires go to the movies too!” – and imbuing the film with a self-evident link to the heyday of Hollywood horror. Karloff’s stature as a horror star had taken him through three distinct waves in the genre’s evolution, from James Whale to Val Lewton to Corman and Bava. Karloff’s jests in the bookends suggest an extension to his salutary self-mockery in Corman’s The Raven the same year, and yet his actual role in this film, in The Wurdalak, is serious in a severe and classical fashion. The Telephone, particularly in its Italian version, is remarkable for its concise summary of the underpinnings and methodology of the giallo style. The set-up is simple: a woman alone is terrorised by an unseen threat and a taunting voice on the phone. It’s one of the hoariest of modern genre variants, one that easily turns dull and repetitive in lesser hands, and yet Bava’s version is the ür-text, crisp in its execution and telling in its supple feints and clever miscues. 

The woman here is Rosy (Michele Mercier), a gorgeous young trollop who arrives home one evening, strips down, and gets ready for bed, only to start receiving phone calls. At first the caller does not answer her plaintive demands to know who they are and what they want, and then finally the raspy mystery man begins to taunt her with threats of rape and murder, before slipping a newspaper cutting under her front door. The cutting suggests the caller is a former boyfriend of hers, Frank Rainer (Milo Quesada), who has since gone to jail and now escaped. The caller seems to know everything she does, and Bava privileges the audience to a glimpse of malignant peering eyes through a window blind. Rosy, distraught and told if she calls the police then the killer will come in and finish her off, instead phones up her former lover Mary (Lydia Alfonsi) and begs her to come over. Mary arrives and after soothing her fears ends up sleeping with her, but as Bava has already revealed, Mary is in fact the source of the phone calls – a pretext in her desire to get back with Rosy. But as Mary writes a confession to leave for Rosy to read in the morning, the real Rainer enters the apartment and sneaks up on Mary, assuming she is Rosy.

The Telephone is a masterpiece of compact storytelling, unfolding with Bava’s illustrative intelligence whilst accepting distinct formal restrictions. The lesbian twist to the episode, carefully fudged in the English-language version, gives it a darker and deeper emotional punch than would otherwise offer, making Mary’s malfeasance a keener manifestation of emotional jealousy and longing worked out through a sadistic ploy, and staking the tale in a game of reversing roles. Mary pretends to be Rainer and Rainer mistakes Mary for Rosy, the man and woman swapping parts in their desire to possess/destroy Rosy’s fecund but independent sexuality, but finally only helping destroy each-other. This element plugs into the contemporary anxiety over sexuality and changing social mores overtaking traditional morality which would give the giallo genre so much of its bite, albeit often with reactionary overtones. Only a couple of years after Fellini offered arch queer caricatures in La Dolce Vita (1960), Bava treats this element with beguiling matter-of-factness, carefully depicting Mary as driven by angry desire to duplicitous means, eyeing Rosy’s fancy rooms and wondering out loud who pays for it all. The suggestion is that Rosy has often used her as her emotional comfort whilst working her way through men who could help her financially. Mary’s bitterness at being thrown over is then all too palpable, and it’s clear that Rainer, a dangerous criminal, was one of those men. Bava’s usual punitive moralism, often even stricter than his own hero Alfred Hitchcock, is apparent as all three characters pay a steep price for their transgressions, with Rosy left alive at the end as perhaps the worst punishment of all as the victims of her romantic life lie quite literally sprawled on the floor.

At the same time, Mary’s gamesmanship replicates on a narrative level the fundamental dynamic of Bava’s direction, a reduction of drama to the act of looking, watching, hypnotised by the pure spectacle as Bava stokes Rosy’s fear with pseudo-erotic sadism, the unseen watcher/caller standing in for the camera, director, audience, willing the game to go further, deeper, and climax with orgasmic act of murder. But like his successor Dario Argento in his early work, Bava enjoys disrupting the expectations about whose viewpoint the terror represents, evoking polymorphic underpinnings to a nominally simple exploitation of phobias of sex and death: it’s like Sartre’s No Exit reconfigured as chamber piece horror. The Telephone charts Bava’s precise awareness of just how long to string along the situation, offering his key revelations, like the staring eyes behind the blind and the identity of the caller, with seemingly casual yet actually precise and forceful cuts and camera moves as if following a thread to the heart of the labyrinth. He sustains dread in the meantime with the resolute build of shots around Mercier’s terrific performance, with each new call causing a distinct mounting of tension manifest in Rosy. Whilst the pace of editing builds, the telephone itself turns in an object of adversarial power – it’s coloured red and black, looking forward to the red telephone receiver that dangles as the evocation of severed lives and ruined loves at the end of Sei Donne per l’Assassino. The Telephone sees Bava at once defining the basic principles of giallo for the future – peering eyes, gloved hands, wickedly shining knives, isolation, paranoia, the fetishistic delight in the image of a terrified woman – whilst also looking back to Hitchcock’s immediate influence. He executes the story within one room, recalling Rope (1948) and Rear Window, particularly the latter with its emphasis on voyeurism; the eyes behind the blind evoke Psycho (1960), whilst Bava mimics a singular shot from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) as he performs a delicate camera move around Rosy, as she listens to an unfolding nightmare on the telephone. A climactic shot of Rainer sneaking up on Mary with an appropriated stocking clearly references Dial M For Murder (1954).

Which is not to say Bava’s filmmaking is imitative, but simply paying nods where they’re due, whilst also presenting his own stylistic brilliance, his sense of colour and composition and genius for fluidic, sensuous camera movement, and these qualities permeate the whole of I Tre Volti della Paura. The Wurdalak, the second and most elaborate episode, is a miniature epic that offsets the contemporary vision of private hells in The Telephone with a more traditional version. Bava’s penchant for the folkish eccentricities of the Slavic ghost story canon had already seen him loosely adapt Gogol’s ‘The Vij’ for La Maschera del Demonio, and The Wurdalak like that film takes place in a netherworld version of Eastern Europe, with sonorous location shots fleshing out perhaps Bava’s a beautifully crafted exercise in gothic horror. Freda, Bava, Sergio Leone and others of their breed were always expected to make their films look like the popular and commercially dominant English-language genre films in their fields, and even as they began to distort the results towards their own interests they paid lip-service to this necessity: here Bava pays clear nods to Corman by importing the stolidly handsome star of his House of Usher (1960), Mark Damon, to play a variation on his role there as an outmatched ingenue locked in a battle with his lover’s very identity. The set-up has distinct resemblances to several of Corman’s Poe-derived or inspired cycle, as Damon’s Count Vladimir d’Urfe takes on the role of archetypal Wanderer, in a vaguely identified, eerily depopulated land where peculiar social assumptions and menacing activities permeate the onerous scenery. The Count discovers a headless corpse on a riverbank with a distinctive knife in the heart. Vladimir straddles the corpse across his horse and carries it to the nearest house, where he discovers a family living in cowering anxiety and expectation, and he’s confronted by Giorgio (Glauco Onorato) who recognises his own father’s knife as the one Vladimir has removed from the body. 

When Vladimir leads Giorgio outside to inspect the body, it proves to have mysteriously vanished, only to turn up a short distance away, being stabbed through the heart with punitive relish by Giorgio’s brother Pietro (Massimo Righi). Somehow this discovery is actually more unnerving than the corpse’s reanimation would have been, the sight of the headless remnant being stabbed with a need for certainty commingling with the impossibility of ever truly killing the spectre of fear, heightening the atmosphere of hysteria that builds in the forty or so minutes of The Wurdalak’s running time. The corpse, it’s explained to Vladimir, was that of Alibeq, a Turkish bandit who had terrorised the region and who was rumoured to also be a vampire-like wurdalak. Their father Gorca (Karloff) had gone out days earlier to find and kill the enemy after he had murdered the clan’s foreman, but left behind a mysterious entreaty that they should kill him in turn, if he turned up more than five days after departing, a timespan which happens to run out at midnight, for that would mean that he would certainly be a wurdalak too by then. As the family waits fearfully for the appointed hour, Vladimir’s is drawn to Gorca’s stunningly beautiful daughter Sdenka (Susy Andersen). As midnight ticks by, Gorca appears, haggard and alternately fierce and strangely unctuous in his manner, displaying Alibeq’s head which he’s been carrying around with him, a strikingly iconic image of a man who’s given into savage nature even in attempting to annihilate it. His fearful children know they should obey his previous statement, and yet can’t bring themselves to. In the night, as Pietro is left to keep watch, Gorca begins moving about the house, claiming Ivan, the child of Giorgio and his wife Maria (Rika Dialina), and leaving Pietro for dead. 

One of Bava’s distinctive traits as a filmmaker was his ruthlessly clear understanding of the basic underpinnings of the dark fantasies he was engaged in depicting, and just as La Maschera del Demonio expanded intelligibly on the schismatic yet eternally conjoined images of Madonna and whore, and Sei Donne Per l’Assassino would contend with the urge to exterminate beauty if it could not be possessed, The Wurdalak anticipates Operazione Paura (1966) and Lisa e il Diavolo (1973) as Bava’s inwardly spiralling meditations on the encaging horror that can be family identity. Here the poisoned patriarch Gorca, who had gone out to do battle with the marauding villain, comes back as the force of evil he had sought to exterminate, and swiftly causes his clan to fall victim to it, complete with clear overtones of paedophilia and incest as he singles out young Ivan and snatches him away into the night, and the net draws tighter around Sdenka even as Vladimir begs her to escape with him. Images in Operazione Paura of evil lurking outside windows, peering in on the warm and contented with baleful intent to feed on that land of life, are prefigured here, as the household eats itself from the inside out. What’s most striking and pathologically precise about The Wurdalak is its pitilessly unsentimental view of sentiment, one which plainly prefigures the similar brute logic that George Romero would examine in his best films, a tension between emotional reflex and survivalist necessity.

This tilt on the familiar dramatic necessities of fighting evil examines the way people can behave in illogical ways when their lives are at stake and disturbing facts are plainly apparent, but their taboos and intensely entrenched prejudices and loyalties, no matter how retrograde or ignorant of other concerns, have been internalised so completely that they demand people act in contrary ways. Thus Bava shows the clan destroyed by its blindness to anything but its own hermetic nature, in a pungent metaphor for this schism: the sons cannot obey the father’s own advice and destroy him, and Giorgio’s wife murders her husband when he tries to prevent her letting in their plainly vampirized son, who seems to come wandering out of the frigid night to scratch at the door (anticipating memorable moments in Tobe Hooper’s spin on Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, 1979). Many a young lover has often felt like they’re trying to extract the one desirable member from a family of monsters, and Vladimir struggles to convince Sdenka to flee with him as she believes she must stay with her family for loyalty’s sake even as they all expire. Although Vladimir does finally convince Sdenka to leave, the delay is fatal, for the clan are able to catch up with them. In a brilliant depiction of the inescapable nature of formative roots, Sdenka is caught between her transformed family members, advancing to claim her in the midst of a ruined church, shambling corpses still obeying their inculcated ideals of clannish behaviour, and ghosts of ancient repressions still overwhelming all good sense in the present. When Vladimir awakens alone, he retraces the path to the Gorca house and finds Sdenka, waiting in all luscious readiness for him to join the family circle.

Interpretative perversities aside, The Wurdalak is visual gothic par excellence, with Bava manipulating both the studio settings and the location shooting to maximum atmospheric effect, conjuring a magnificent, appropriately fairy-tale world of menace, frames teeming with overgrown thorny bushes and misted forests, frosted windows and warm hues of longed-for shelters and sunrises. Indelible images proliferate, like Gorca stalking across the bridge on his way home, the faces of the undead glaring through frosted windows, and young Ivan clawing and weeping at the door, stoking his mother to emotions so desperate she cuts through her husband to get to her son. Bava pulls off one of his most felicitous bits of filmmaking here as he cuts from Giorgio and Maria arguing to the plaintive yet disconcerting image of what they think is their son kneeling with arms spread on the front door, and then cutting back to the sigh of a pair of scissors, daubed in Giorgio’s blood, falling to the floor, the mortally wounded man still crying out to the wife who’s killed him not to open the door for the monster. The deliriousness of Bava’s sci-fi horror riff, Terrore Nello Spazio (1965), is nascent in the saturated colours and dream-like mood. If the last chapter, The Drop of Water, seems comparatively lightweight after the The Wurdalak, it actually represents Bava’s most purely stylistic coup, in the orchestral use of colour, composition, sound, and camera work utilised in compiling a growing sense of unease. 

Operating in a similar mould of isolated anxiety, depicting a woman alone in her apartment afraid of lurking terrors, to The Telephone, The Drop of Water is the story of plebeian, sticky-fingered, hapless nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux), who is called out on a dark and stormy night from her warm abode to attend to her just deceased charge, a reputed but reclusive medium. Distracted and irritable, Helen espies and surreptitiously steals the enticing ring on the corpse’s finger. If The Telephone and The Wurdalak explore two major strands of horror, The Drop of Water exemplifies a third, the morality play where justice, which may be supernatural or might simply be overloaded mental credulity, comes surging from beyond the grave to punish transgression. For Bava, the mechanics of this kind of storytelling are comparatively simplistic, but the elements of class envy and the depiction of property as a maddening and destructive spur look forward to the insidious supernatural class struggle again in Operazione Paura, and the war over the estate that drives the bloodshed of Reazione a Catena (1971). Bava further invests The Drop of Water with overtones of black comedy, through Pierreux’s amusingly exaggerated performance as Helen, and the minute, nuisance-like, yet cumulatively maddening proliferation of difficulties in her attempts at thievery that start to resemble silent comedy. This restrained slapstick has consequences, as these events begin to recur as increasingly dreadful portents of warning after they’ve already suggested the taboo nature of stealing from the dead, building with a rapid but precise relish reminiscent of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1957), where again the temptation to profitable transgression is met by the corrosive terror of being caught. 

Whilst the episode’s tone sustains impudent humour, Bava still constructs this episode with magisterial craft, contrasting the decaying splendour of the Medium’s mansion and Helen’s flat whilst filling both with resplendent colour effects that communicate moral, corporeal, and spiritual rot, for both places are filled with hues eloquent of decay and slovenly disinterest. Bava’s camera peers into spaces where any manifestation of evil might appear and yet which don’t – until finally they do, or at least the mind, tired of waiting for them to arrive, conjures them itself. Helen’s midnight suffering as she hears dripping water and is tormented by a single, impudent fly, sees her worked up into a pitch of anxiety. Finally the ghoulish visage of her dead charge appears in the shadows, gliding with eerie weightlessly and terrible purpose, her face, distorted as on the deathbed into a gnarled and gruesome leer, is etched in sickly hues of green and red. Helen is found dead the next day, missing the ring. Perhaps the ghost came and claimed it, and yet, as Bava details the guilty face of Helen’s neighbour and zooms in for a last look at Helen’s dead face, now distorted itself into another grim leer, the neighbour has taken the ring, and the roundelay of guilt and fear invoked by this seamy fixation with possession will continue. You can’t take it with you, but you can damn well haunt whoever else thinks it’s theirs.

The title’s cleverness becomes apparent by the end, as the “three faces of fear” refer not only to the trio of spooky stories, but to the cumulative fixation each episode has with a face that encapsulates fear, whether being experienced, as found in Rosy’s or Helen’s sweat-dabbed, tremulous brows, or inspiring it, as in Gorca’s and the Medium’s funereal visages, even coalescing monstrosity and beauty in Sdenka’s enticing final clinch with Vladimir. If, as Jean Renoir once said, the face was the greatest tool at the filmmaker’s disposal, this was Bava’s response, his proof of faith in the gestural power of the human element to invoke the most extreme cinematic emotions. If Sei Donne or Operazione Paura offer complete statements that are ultimately more powerful, I Tre Volti could well be the best produced of Bava’s horror films: the production carries little of the tackiness a lot of even the best Italian genre cinema could never quite escape, and the costuming, lighting, and settings reflect craftsmanship of a rich and delightful sort. Bava’s collaboration with DP Ubaldo Terzano is superlative. This excellence is ironic, as the film finishes up making fun of its own construction, revealing in the climax the tacky charm required to conjure such visions as Karloff, in his Gorca guise, suddenly stops riding the mechanical horse he’s mounted on to jest with the audience, whilst Bava pulls back to reveal crewmen running in circles to create the effect of forest brush whipping by. This jokey epilogue is Bava laughing at his own showmanship and Karloff mocking his own legacy, but not with tiredness or self-contempt, but the knowing winks of great magicians who don’t mind giving the game away if it’s been played well enough. Or perhaps it’s Bava’s answer to his pal Fellini’s inverted study in cinematic creativity released the same year, . Anyway, when it’s all over, it’s not the humour you remember, or the storytelling: it’s that primal image of the Medium’s face, sliding forth out of the darkness, straight out of every childhood nightmare.

9th 10 - 2012 | no comment »

CIFF 2012: Shun Li and the Poet (Io Sono Li, 2011)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Andrea Segre

2012 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I have a lot of bones to pick with the translations of some of the film titles at this year’s festival, but in the case of Io Sono Li, I have to give it to the translators. I Am Li is far too prosaic and does a disservice to the touching relationship at the heart of this tone poem of a film. First-time feature director Andrea Segre certainly has a poet’s heart for having conceived and written a simple tale set in a complicated world and filming it with a discreet and tender hand.

The film opens with a title card that explains that every year, the Chinese celebrate Poet’s Day, marking the life of their greatest poet, Qu Yuan (340–278 BCE), by floating candles on waterways to help him on his journey to paradise. In the next shot, we see candles illuminated within paper lotus flowers moving gently on water; when the camera pulls back, it reveals two Chinese women leaning over a bathtub full of water, rippling the water with their hands to move the candles. A drunk Chinese man comes into the bathroom and mocks them. We see a close-up of one of the women, Shun Li (Tao Zhao), and watch her face pinch in distaste at the sound of the man urinating in the toilet.

Li is a single mother in her mid 30s who is working at a garment factory and living in a dormitory for Chinese workers in Rome. She has gone there to make a better life for herself and her 8-year-old son, who is still in China living with her father, but must work off the debt she owes to the employers who paid her way to Italy before her son will be allowed to join her. She misses him very much and writes to him and her father frequently, reassuring them and herself that one day she will get the “news” that her debt has been repaid.

Soon after, Li is told she is being transferred to Chioggia, a small fishing village on the Venetian lagoon, to work in a café. After a perfunctory greeting by her new bosses, she goes up to her room to meet her roommate Lian and settle in.

Li’s introduction from the café regulars is a mixed bag. When she tries to settle the tabs they ran up under the previous owner, they pretend they are not the people whose names she reads out. One of the regulars, Bepi (Rade Serbedziga), a Yugoslavian fisherman called The Poet because he makes up funny rhymes, has been living in Italy for more than 30 years. He comes in and orders a coffee with prune liqueur. Shun Li gives him the coffee but omits the liqueur, as her command of Italian is limited. He goes behind the bar, takes the bottle off the shelf, shows her the picture of the prune on the label, repeats the Italian for “prune,” and pours a measure of the liqueur into his coffee. Li thanks him for teaching her, and so begins what turns into a touching friendship of two lonely people.

Segre’s film taps the slower rhythms and muffling mists of a coastal village to give his characters and the audience room to breathe and enjoy getting to know this town and its inhabitants. For example, to Li’s surprise, the lagoon periodically floods the village for two or three hours. It doesn’t seem to put a dent in the village routine, as people don galoushes and float their boats down the streets to get around. Or one day, Bepi takes Li out on his fishing boat, and he watches her standing in the sun, her eyes closed, her face turned upward and looking serene and present. Watching this film feels like that—warm and restful despite the constant work Li and the fishermen must bend their backs to to get by.

When one of the fishermen, Coppe (Marco Paolini), retires after 35 years, we return to reality and understand that with age comes leisure, but also pain. Bepi’s is the loss of his wife the year before and the entreaties of his son, worried about his health, to come live with him in Mestre. His pain is compounded when the regulars start gossiping about his relationship with Li, and the reflexive xenophobia of small towns builds against both Li and even the mainly assimilated Bepi, a reminder that prejudice runs deep and can erupt at any perceived threat. Li is warned to break off contact with Bepi or start from the very beginning in paying off her debt. I felt the actors were true to their characters, and that Bepi was, in fact, falling in love with Li. And although the conflict was believable, it felt a little tacked on, indulging the Italian weakness for melodrama in a way that undercut the film’s poetry.

Nonetheless, Segre mainly maintains an enticing reticence throughout the film. For example, Lian has a very important role, but she is only shown walking somewhere every night to work—where is never revealed—and performing tai chi on the beach. Li and Coppe take a boat out to Bepi’s fishing hut near the end of the film, and Segre chooses to linger on the orange glow, reminiscent of the paper lotuses, on their faces before he pulls back to show the hut on fire. The very indirection of his focus reminds us that the commonplace and the lives of common people can be filled with poetry if we could only experience them in a different way. Shun Li and the Poet is a beautiful meditation of a movie.

Shun Li and the Poet screens Sunday, October 21, at 5:30 p.m. and Tuesday, October 23, at 6:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.

Northwestern University’s Block Cinema will also screen Shun Li and the Poet on Friday, November 16, at 7 p.m. The screening will be held at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston.

Previous coverage

The Last Sentence: A gorgeously photographed biopic of Swedish newspaper editor Torgny Segerstedt that focuses attention on his romantic intrigues as he wages a relentless campaign against Hitler and Swedish neutrality. (Sweden)

The Exam: In a taut thriller set in 1957 Hungary, a member of the secret police unknowingly undergoes a harrowing loyalty test under the watchful eye of his own mentor. (Hungary)

20th 04 - 2011 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: The Grim Reaper (La commare secca, 1961)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Screen debut of: Bernardo Bertolucci, director and screenwriter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At the unripe age of 21, Bernardo Bertolucci made his directorial debut with a film Pier Paolo Pasolini lost interest in making after he had started work on Mamma Roma (1962), only his second directorial effort. Of course, Pasolini had been writing for the cinema for some time, so his acquaintance with the mechanics of movie-making weren’t entirely casual—not like Bertolucci, who first stepped onto a movie set when Pasolini took the young man on as a production assistant when shooting Accattone (1961). Until that time, Bertolucci had been following in the footsteps of his father, the renowned poet Attilio Bertolucci. Pasolini talked to the producer of La commare secca, Antonio Cervi, and suggested that Bertolucci work with Sergio Citti, Pasolini’s frequent collaborator, to come up with a script. Cervi eventually handed Bertolucci the directing reins with the instruction to make it “Pasoliniano”—in the manner of Pasolini. Despite Bertolucci’s attempts to put his own stamp on the film, “Pasoliniano” is how the Italian press categorized it. Nonetheless, La commare secca is a formidable debut from a real film greenhorn that reveals a lush visual eye Bertolucci attributed to his poetic sensibilities.

La commare secca is a murder mystery that resembles Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), relying on the recollections of witnesses—in this case, various young men who may have been involved in the death of a prostitute—to tell the story. This style is a reversal of the usual narrative style of focusing on the detective as he or she moves around town interviewing people, looking for clues, and so forth. This strategy affords the viewer several advantages—we can tell when the actual memory does not match up with what the interviewee is telling the police and we get to see the actual murder through the mind’s eye of the killer, which a cop never can.

Bertolucci adds a poetic touch by imagining the movements of the victim as she wakes up from an afternoon nap, makes coffee, and gets dressed for her evening stroll. Even the discovery of her body at the opening of the film is treated with delicacy—the same classical guitar music that attends her movements during the film plays as the camera follows some pieces of torn newspaper off a bridge and into the open field near the Tiber River where she lies face down. A close-up reveals a pretty ring on her finger and chipped nail polish, marking her as shabby genteel. We can’t be sure that she’s a prostitute until a cop in an interrogation room says so to a cocky young man he is questioning. The young man’s recounting of his movements that day will form the first of several vignettes that offer a look at the daily goings-on in Rome’s underbelly that will form the real text of this film.

Our first suspect, Canticchia (Francesco Ruiu), is unemployed. He tells the cop that he went to meet two priests for a letter of recommendation for work; in fact, he’s a thief who met two friends with whom he roams the woods looking for lovers who aren’t watching their belongings. Bertolucci follows their restless prowling through a wooded area that has become Rome’s lovers lane, watching them take turns creeping up on the distracted couples, succeeding and failing at their thievery. Eventually, Bertolucci brings Canti to the point where all the suspects converge—a park where the prostitute was last seen alive. In what resembles a night constellation, a soldier is bent forward sleeping on a bench, three men stand conversing, and in the distance, like the North Star, the prostitute (Wanda Rocci) stands under a light, her large, patent-leather purse glimmering softly.

Bertolucci spends a good deal of time on the stories of each of these men, and of several, like Canti, who pass through the park and particularly, their relationship to women. The two teenagers, Francolicchio (Alvaro D’Ercole) and Pipito (Romano Abate), who are talking to the third man (Silvio Laurenzi)—a crucial player in the resolution of the murder—are romantic and foolish, thinking they will rob the man of his solid-gold cigarette lighter so they can raise the 2,000 lira they need to buy groceries for a meal their two girls and their friend will cook the next night. Pipito is timid, terrified by the interrogation and anxious about the fate of his friend, who jumped into the fast-moving Tiber to avoid capture.

Francolicchio and Pipito are the least loathsome of the men whose stories Bertolucci tells. Teodoro, the soldier (Allen Midgette), harasses women as they pass down a street, trying to get them to talk to him. He stops at an art gallery and caresses the center of a metal statue that looks like a woman’s spread legs. When he escapes from the sudden thunderstorm that plagues all of the characters, he hides under a bridge and is soon joined by a bevy of women trying to stay dry. His smile, more like a leer, shows his delight at this turn of events.

The longest and most annoying story is of 30ish Natalino (Renato Trioni), a two-timing leech who lives with a very unpleasant and violent madam name Esperia (Gabriella Giorgelli) and her equally unpleasant mother (Santina Lisio). He takes her money and buys himself a sportscar, cheats on her, makes the rounds with her as she collects her cut from her whores, and confiscates a puppy from one who can’t pay Esperia what she owes. Natalino is pretty much a complete waste of space, and the shouting and threats and stereotypical Italian “love” match made me wish Bertolucci had cut it from the too-long film.

Despite Bertolucci’s lengthy digressions into real life, he doesn’t forget the event that brings all these characters together. The murder is a very affecting scene, injected with a strangely hard-edged pathos as the prostitute lays down on the concrete retaining wall next to the river, turning her head to one side, looking like an unattractive side of meat not wishing to see what will happen next. Her stunned pleading at the feet of her killer quite reminded me of Nancy’s murder in Oliver Twist, and yet the entire scene is short and perfunctory, not bathetic.

There are images in this film that point to Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist: two girls dancing together, the murder, the concrete retainers on the Tiber looking as monumentally ugly as the fascist constructions of Mussolini’s Rome. Bertolucci said that he wanted a peripatetic camera to contrast with Pasolini’s static, full-frontal shots in imitation of Tuscan religious art, and indeed, the camera’s motion gives a feeling of teeming life in this crowded capital city to contrast with the bombed-out locations where a lot of the action takes place. The desperate landscape and lives attest to the continued hardships recorded in the neorealist works of Rossellini and Fellini, and Bertolucci certainly owes much to their visions in this first film. The story, however, is so “Pasoliniano,” including explicit and veiled references to homosexuality, that the director delivered what his producer wanted, in spite of his best efforts to make this story his own. Nonetheless, hybrid of styles though it is, La commare secca signals the promise of Bertolucci’s eventual mastery as a film director.


27th 10 - 2010 | 3 comments »

Spirits of the Dead (Histoires Extraordinaires de Edgar Allan Poe, 1967)

Directors: Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

As concept and finished product, Spirits of the Dead takes on the aspect of a fever dream, where the strangeness of the vision that arises before one’s eyes defies credulity. Did Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini really make an omnibus horror movie out of stories by Edgar Allan Poe? How the hell did that happen? All heroes of the iconic European cinema of the era, it’s nonetheless hard to think of three more temperamentally and stylistically disparate directors.

Omnibus horror movies are generally associated with Amicus, the British studio that tried to rival Hammer in the late ’60s with a string of such films, usually a bunch of loosely stitched episodes with a ramshackle unifying structure. Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1963), another Poe anthology film, was essayed in variations on his already formulated, hyperstylised gothic. Whilst Spirits of the Dead spurns any connective tissue, segueing from chapter to chapter by surveying a bleakly cloudy sky, and each episode is announced with its own credits, calling attention to its own multiauteur production and the resulting stylistic smorgasbord, it’s also, interestingly, bound together by a choice to film three of Poe’s more moralistic stories. In all three episodes, the protagonist is a wilfully amoral, yet doggedly human and uncertain beast struggling desperately with mortality and the certainty of judgment.

The project was actually supposed to be helmed by Fellini, Orson Welles, and Luis Buñuel, and it’s hard not to admit the producers traded down, certainly with Vadim. There’s something left of Welles’ spirit left in Malle’s episode, which resembles in production and visuals the similar, delicate work Welles did in his later adaptation of The Immortal Story (1968). As a whole, the Spirits of the Dead doesn’t entirely mesh, but it’s still an invigorating by-product of late ’60s cinema culture, and represents horror for the connoisseur. The most famous episode of the film is Fellini’s contribution, “Toby Dammit,” a version of Poe’s “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” and indeed that short work comes close to being Fellini’s best, a hallucinogenic romp through the movie business and jet-set modernity as Faustian nightmare. But the chapters that precede it are worthy of attention in their own fashions. Vadim’s “Metzengerstein” is a real oddity, a blend of Vadim’s lush kink and fantasy with a visual naturalism that Malle extends in his own entry, “William Wilson.” “Metzengerstein” is built around a weird joke: Vadim cast his then-wife Jane Fonda as the wicked Contessa Frederique de Metzengerstein, who falls in love with her distant cousin, Baron Wilhelm Berlifitzing, played by her brother Peter Fonda.

Anticipating the SoGo scenes in Barbarella (1968), Vadim uses the material as an excuse to indulge a louche libertine’s mise-en-scène in portraying the Contessa’s depraved lifestyle. She suspends a serving boy in the air and shoots arrows at him with her ladies-in-waiting, conspires with her lover to rape another of his women, fondles her best friend (Françoise Prévost) in the bath, lounges about with tiger cubs and parades around in abbreviated hoop skirts and kinky boots, as if Elizabeth Bathory had been reincarnated as Zsa Zsa Gabor. It’s a reinvention of the Middle Ages as a haute couture, sexualised wonderland, albeit one that’s insanely unfair and cruel. The Contessa is so used to being able to indulge her whims and vices that she’s completely unable to express herself when she’s stricken with ardour for her misanthropic but essentially decent cousin, after he saves her from being caught in a bear trap. The Contessa finds an outlet for her rage by burning down Wilhelm’s stables, and he dies trying to save one of his horses from the conflagration. The Contessa receives a bizarre punishment, however, for the Baron seems to return reincarnated as a black steed with which she falls in love, and finally rides to her death on him in a grassfire started by lightning in a liebestod consummation.

“Metzengerstein” would be better if Vadim hadn’t been such an unvarying tease: his provocations remain firmly on the near side of mere naughtiness, whilst never achieving sensuality. As in Barbarella, there’s something slapdash about the way he develops his ideas, unable to reconcile his lazy, playful touches with the need to create a deeply morbid atmosphere. The mix of solidly naturalistic settings, highly stylised costuming, and incipient perversity does, however, imbue his work with a deceptive cumulative impact. The location shooting, particularly in the use of the Finistèr coastline, aids in drawing out the theme of natural forces exacting merciless reminders of mortality on mere humans, whatever their social pretentions. Vadim’s real talent for highly rhythmic editing and intensely composed sequences comes out in flashes: during the apocalyptic menace of the stable burning, smoke blackening the sky and the Baron’s fleeing horses erupting out of the smoke, and in the latter stages as the Contessa’s dooming bestial passion intercut with a weaver’s efforts to repair a singed tapestry depicting just such a great black horse, as if fate itself is a patient embroiderer.

Malle’s episode is, if less showy than either Vadim’s or Fellini’s, is actually close to perfect, wielding Alain Delon’s excellent performance as the titular William Wilson, an icy egotist and sadist with a pristinely pretty face tormented by a double who heads off his own worst impulses. In confessing a murder to a priest, Wilson recounts his life story, from attending a military boarding school as a child where his overlordship of his fellow students and his vicious regime was first challenged by the arrival of another student named William Wilson who stood up to him and freed a young schoolmate the sadistic Wilson had dangling over a pit of rats. Years later, as a medical student, Wilson had become even worse, this time leading a cabal of fellow students in attempting to dissect, whilst still alive, a young woman (Katia Christin) snatched off the street: again the mysterious other Wilson intervened. When serving as a soldier and having matured into an infamously violent rake, Wilson engaged in a battle of wills with a female gambler named Giuseppina (Brigitte Bardot), whom he delighted in cheating out of a victory and then getting his kicks by flogging her. But the double again intervened to reveal how he cheated. Finally losing control, Wilson murdered his alter ego after losing a duel with him.

It is, of course, a story about the nagging presence of conscience as the only limit on the desire for gratification, as if Wilson has been split at birth into living embodiments of his ego and superego. The subject is also contiguous with Malle’s interest in the porous limits of acceptable behaviour, and the kinds of experience that make or mar people, whilst stylistically it evokes the subverted romanticism of Visconti’s Senso (1954). He essays the stages of Wilson’s life, each building to the crucial moment of interruption, with beautiful control, conveying the relish with which Wilson anticipates gratification and his agony when he’s cut off each time like a frustrated orgasm finally gained when he stabs his double to death, only to realise his self-destructive mistake. A personally nostalgic mood infuses the schoolyard images of the young lads pelting each other with snowballs, juxtaposed with the alien flavour of young Wilson’s dead-eyed junior psychopath stare as he tears up a letter from his mother and tries to strangle his double in bed. The especially frigid cruelty of the scene in which Wilson airily mocks his medical lecturer’s cant as he relentlessly circles the bound young woman, caressing her bare skin with the edge of his scalpel, builds to a wicked punchline as the woman, freed by the second Wilson, can’t tell the two apart, and moves to embrace the wrong one, receiving a hideous gash from the scalpel Wilson still holds. The assured slow burn reaches a crescendo in Delon’s lengthy encounter with Bardot’s glorious Giuseppina, full of anticipated sadomasochistic designs, with this black-haired, cigar-smoking, female equal and opposite to Wilson taunting him all the while, his inner tension is palpable all the way. She thinks she knows exactly what he’s about, and expects mere sexual gamesmanship, not the calculated viciousness she gets.

Both Vadim and Malle’s chapters, whilst interesting, do fall victim somewhat to the usual problem of omnibus horror films: the brevity of the structure limits the creation of atmosphere and density of detail. Fellini, on the other hand, works wonders with his allotted time. “Toby Dammit” is a total antithesis to Malle’s work: where Malle’s slow burn purposefully cheats fulfilment, Fellini’s episode is excess rendered all-consuming, and the desperation of the title character is his desire to escape the realisation of all his ambitions. The realism of Malle’s approach and Vadim’s, too, is swapped for a neo-expressionist orgasm of colour and artifice of filters and back-projection, with vaguely science-fiction adornments and a hint of apocalypse added to Fellin’s stygian contemporary Rome, to which Toby, a world-famous but disintegrating actor, comes to make a Marxist-Christian Western. Fellini cranks up the sweat-inducing, alcoholic miasma around Toby, stalked by reporters and star fuckers on his arrival at the Rome airport where everything is bathed in a reddish infernal hue and full of bizarre dioramas of human behaviour. He’s assailed with modish moviemaker jive by the producers and writers (“The busty girl is the illusory escape into the irrational!”), grilled by interviewers (“Is it true you’ve done unsavoury jobs?” “Yes, but I’ve never been a TV reporter.”), and dragged out to officiate at a gruesome industry awards night that plays the orgiastic self-congratulation of such events as the sheerest definition of damnation.

Toby wallows in booze, torturous self-pity, and violent displays of pique alternating with moments of rugged charm and motions that suggest the grace and inspiration he once had as a living artist. But, of course, he’s sold his soul to the devil of success and phoniness, a fact Fellini carefully reveals as Toby is secretly hounded by a vividly blonde, creepily smiling little girl carrying a ball, invisible to everyone else, who wants him as a playmate. Fellini goes to town with a gusto that’s quite amazing even for him, from the epic, bizarre drive from the airport to the TV studio, as out on the street, fashion shoots take place amidst madcap industrialism. At a ceremony, all sorts of rancid weirdoes with too much money and makeup surround Toby in a sweltering atmosphere full of smoke and clashing lights, as fashion parades, unctuous hosts, interpretive dancers, and a variety of other guests strut their stuff upon the stage. A woman sees the pain Toby is in and approaches, promising that she’ll take care of him: “I know you. I’ve always known you!”—a line of pseudo-empathic blather he’s heard dozens of times before. His final escape from the ceremony, taking off in the gift Ferrari that was the only reason he signed on to the film, sees him move with relentless speed. But he cannot find his way out of the labyrinthine streets of Rome’s outer suburbs, and when he does make it onto a freeway, he comes to a collapsed bridge, where, inspired by the little girl dancing on the far side, he decides to try to jump as his final defiance of all natural force.

“Toby Dammit” seems partly inspired by Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), from which it borrows the motif of the anguished movie star visiting Rome and trying to exorcise his demons in a terrifying exercise with a speeding car, whilst the touch of the Devil represented by the malevolent girl is clearly indebted to Fellini’s friend Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966). But it’s truly a superlative exercise by Fellini, and Stamp’s inspired performance is almost sui generis, even for that restlessly protean actor. His Toby seems to be in deep physical and spiritual pain all the time, and he races towards his end grateful for a chance to bust the dogging curse either way. It’s Fellini’s most extreme version of his semi-surreal portraits of high society from La Dolce Vita and , pushed right to the limits of coherence and grotesquery, as befits the supercharged mood of late ’60s superstardom. One of the film folk insists that the film they’ll make “reflects the death throes and decay of our capitalist system,” but Toby perceives those death throes from the inside out, in a world in which everything’s dissolving into chaos, and it’s far from rhetorical for him. He makes that final defiant jump, but Fellini follows up with a slow, menacing zoom shot that peers deeper through the darkness until the cable suspended at just the right height to sever Toby’s head can be seen swinging on the far side of the gap, smeared with blood—the little girl has a new ball to play with. l

6th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: Ten Winters (Dieci Invierni, 2009)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Valerio Mieli

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you’re a fan of the TV series Bones, Ten Winters is going to seem teasingly familiar. In Bones, a very attractive, brainy forensic anthropologist and her swoonworthy “partner” at the FBI solve murders and ignore their sizzling mutual attraction and growing love because the woman is too afraid of being hurt. It’s all very titillating, but kind of annoying for those who believe that true lovers should be together no matter what.

First-time director Valerio Mieli seems to believe that, too. He shows the instant attraction of Camilla (Isabella Ragonese) and Silvestro (Michele Riondino) and then follows them over the next 10 years to see what will happen to them. It’s an interesting journey.

It is 1999 when Camilla’s father (Roberto Nobile) sees her to the boat that will ferry her from the main island of Venice to one of the outer islands, where she is going to college to study Russian literature and theatre. He warns her not to spend all her time alone, to make friends, but to be careful about whom those friends are, thus letting us know that she is a serious student and a bit of a loner. After absorbing this slightly confused, but loving message and with backpack and floor lamp (“it gives good light”) in hand, she boards the boat. She spots through the throng of passengers a young man—Silvestro—who is entertaining a small boy with a leafless, decorated tree. She is immediately attracted to him and rather boldly makes him aware of her gaze. Eventually, the two are alone with their large, awkward cargo on the boat. He follows her off the boat and worms his way not only into her unheated rental home, but also into her bed—for warmth only, as the bedroom is the only room with a space heater. They shake hands and introduce themselves while laying side by side.

They part the next day, and Silvestro hooks up with some college students. While they are out flying a kite, Camilla appears and waves tentatively. “Do you know her?” asks Simone (Glen Backhall). “Vaguely,” answers Silvestro, who refuses to go over to her. “She can come to me,” but she doesn’t. Silvestro, besides coming on very strong, is rather a sarcastic clown, joking with her in ways that made her feel teased and belittled. He’s too young emotionally for an intimidating girl like her, though they begin to move in the same circle of friends. When Silvestro takes up with Liuba (Liuba Zaizeva) a pretty Russian girl who is studying to be an interpreter, Camilla is crushed.

As the decade passes, Camilla and Silvestro’s lives start to take shape. After basically admitting to Camilla during their first meeting that he has no idea what he plans to do with himself, Silvestro finally decides to pursue a career in theatre. Camilla moves to Moscow “to concentrate” on her studies, but develops a thriving e-mail friendship with Silvestro while quickly getting involved with a theatre company and its director, Fyodor (Sergei Zhigunov). Silvestro, misinterpreting her intimacy online, accepts her invitation to visit over Christmas, bringing a cat she says she misses from the rented house he now occupies and returning to Italy the minute he learns she is living with Fyodor. The couple will go through more relationships and more painful growing experiences before they are finally ready to open their hearts and lives to each other.

Italy is famous the world over as a country of love, with Venice hailed as its most romantic city. Yet, Mieli’s romance is more realistic, just as his Venice is shot without the dubious benefit of the usual clichés. We see it in winter, we see it in the rain, we see housing that is anything but charming. When Fyodor offers Camilla a gondola ride, she says, “Oh, please!” at the absurdity of the idea to a native Venetian like herself. The majority of the film doesn’t even take place in the Venice tourists know, but on an island away from that kind of action. These characters get to be real people instead of the Latin lovers audiences have been led to expect from works that stretch even farther back than film, for example, the operas of Puccini and Rossini or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And yet, Mieli and his cinematographer Marco Onorato film with a dreamy sort of atmosphere that fits the story well. The wet, soft winters of Venice contrast with the crisp, snowy winters of Moscow, but both have a bit of enchantment to them that develops a sense of longing.

Although Mieli’s real-life partner Isabella Aguilar cowrote the script, there is a slightly more concentrated focus on Silvestro and his pangs of frustration. Perhaps this is due to the differences in the characters, with Camilla being the first to be lovestruck and disappointed and using her overdeveloped ability to shut people out and intellectualize to remain distant from Silvestro. This imbalance of visible feelings does rather make it harder to understand Camilla and feel with her in her happiness and pain, though Ragonese’s performance has a great many shades to it that are never less than interesting. Riondino matches her in complexity and sincerity; his painful outbursts, and declaration of love in a scene I found extremely moving, showed a believable ardency and anger. They are a magnetic couple to watch, and there’s never a moment when we don’t root for them to find happiness together; in fact, we wonder what is wrong with this woman to keep running away from her destiny.

Ironically, that expectation weakened the film for me. The title cards inserted periodically to let us know that another year or two has passed amount to a countdown to the final clinch, making the romance less organic and more schematic. There were moments when it seemed very likely that this couple would be parted forever, and those moments should have created more doubt than they did. And perhaps that is not Mieli’s fault, but the fault of too many predictable love stories turning audiences into Pavlovian lapdogs of romantic expectation.

There are some wonderful set pieces that show how much Camilla and Silvestro share over the course of 10 years; thus, their love feels real and earned. For example, Silvestro follows a nervous Camilla out at the crack of dawn to half-listen to her practice her dissertation defense in an empty square and then sits through her exhausting oral examination in an act of pure friendship and devotion. Camilla, admiring snails Silvestro is raising and accepting a box of them as pets, shows an enthusiasm for something his other friends only laugh at.

The CIFF is offering some uncommonly smart love stories this year. If you tamp down your “get together already” impatience and just appreciate the beauty and rhythms of this warm and real love story, the rewards, barely hinted at in this review, are many. l

Ten Winters will screen Saturday, October 9, 1:15 p.m., Monday, October 18, 5:30 p.m., and Tuesday, October 19, 8:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

4th 10 - 2010 | 7 comments »

CIFF 2010: Certified Copy (Copie Conforme, 2010)

Director/Screenwriter: Abbas Kiarostami

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Ever pushing his own boundaries, renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, making his first film outside of his own country, has taken on what would be a controversial topic in Iran—a love story. Saddled with restrictions on the depiction of women, largely barred from shooting in homes, and forced to suggest desire through the use of classic Persian poetry, Kiarostami has approached this common Western preoccupation almost as if he were still worried about the censors. His love story is elliptical to the point of frustration for many viewers, but in my humble opinion, his strategy is much more straightforward than some people are giving it credit for. Pity the poor Western moviegoer who is so used to paint-by-numbers plotting that a little imagination in the art of seduction can throw us into a tailspin.

Let me say from the get-go that the “theoretical” set-up for the film is better dispensed with as an elaborate McGuffin Kiarostami sets in motion to have a little fun with the intellectuals in the crowd. To wit: Certified Copy, the book that brings English author James Miller (William Shimell) together with an unnamed antiquities dealer played by Juliette Binoche, posits that a copy of a work of art can be just as valuable as the original. Offering this theory to audiences amounts to giving them a security blanket of rational thought to cling to as their confusion grows in the second half of the film.

The film begins in a lecture hall in the Tuscan town of Arezzo where Miller will discuss his book. He thanks the Italians for giving his book a warm reception that he regrets it did not receive in England, and feels that if the country that gave birth to Michelangelo and Da Vinci can embrace his ideas, he must have done his job well. Coming late, the woman sits down next to her friend (Angelo Barbagallo), who translated the book into Italian, and chats with him quietly while her son Julien (Adrian Moore) stands against a wall and texts. His hunger forces them to leave almost as soon as they arrive, but before she goes, she gives her phone number to her friend to give to Miller. We watch as she and Julien walk in fits and starts down the street, she far ahead of the lumbering boy who forces her to stop periodically, look back, and then continue walking once he has caught up. The two stop for a hamburger, and Julien taunts her for buying six copies of a book she says annoyed her, accurately assessing that his mother has romance on her mind. She becomes furious with him and leaves the table when he asks her why she won’t let his surname be used; this exchange and her reaction cannot be understood by the audience and is one of several moments in the film Kiarostami leaves unexplained or out of our reach.

That Sunday, Miller arrives at the woman’s shop for their date. The shop is below street level and very dark. He hears her speaking on the phone in French in her home above the shop, calls out a weak “hello,” and waits for her to find him. Rather startlingly, she descends the stairs wearing a spaghetti-strap, silk top with her bra straps and the top of her bra visible, but Miller seems to take no notice. He suggests they abandon the dungeon-like shop to enjoy the beautiful day. The woman asks him why he doesn’t like her shop. This is the beginning of a lengthy sparring match they will have as they drive to the town of Lucignano, whose famous L’albero della vita attracts couples on their wedding day who believe it bestows blessings for a happy married life.

From the moment the woman and Miller find themselves surrounded by couples in tuxedos and wedding gowns, things start to get strange. Initially, she takes him to a museum to show him a famous painting that was thought to be an original for centuries, but was found to be a reproduction. Although now labeled as a copy, the painting is still protected by an alarm-rigged glass box of the type in which such famous works as the Mona Lisa are now encased. Miller shows no interest, having finished his book and feeling unwilling to argue his points yet again. After being dragged around Lucignano, he begs for a cup of coffee. Just as they are served, he gets a call on his cellphone, which he takes outside. The cafe owner (Gianna Giachetti) mistakes the woman and Miller for a married couple and talks to her about marriage. The woman tells her they have been married for 15 years and complains that he works all the time, but the cafe owner thinks this is good. When Miller and the woman leave the cafe, she tells him they were mistaken for a married couple, an error she did not correct. “We must make a good couple,” he replies, with intrigued bemusement in his voice. For the rest of the film, the pair will pretend to be that married couple.

Play-acting is a common enough aspect of romance. If we are not actively living out the illusions that come with the first blush of love, then we may try to spice up a longer-term relationship with a bit of fantasy—a wife will dress up like a parlor maid, for example, or a couple will pretend to be strangers who meet in a public place and go home for a one-night stand. The odd aspect of the play-acting the pair in Certified Copy engages in is that their “marriage” is in crisis. The sparring that began as their real selves in the drive to Lucignano—master of the filmed car ride, a great touch Kiarostami includes is photographing them so that the reflection in the windshield of the buildings that line the narrow streets of Arezzo appear to be crashing down on them in some seismic disaster—only escalates when they get to Lucignano. For example, they sit down to a late lunch, and the woman goes to the restroom to apply a screaming-red lipstick and attach one of two pairs of large, gaudy earrings she brought with her to pretty herself up. Coming back looking like a child who has played dress-up, she finds Miller enraged by a corked bottle of wine and a waiter who is ignoring his request for a fresh bottle. She says it tastes good to her. “Of course, I forgot, the French know everything about wine!” he bellows before leaving the restaurant.

This film is troubling not merely because it goes in a direction that is played so sincerely that we become confused about whether the pair is actually married or not. The woman seems if not outright unbalanced, then certainly emotionally distressed. Miller first becomes aware of her vulnerability in the cafe when he relates a story of seeing a mother and son walking through a square in Florence that is identical to the way she and Julien walked together at the beginning of the film. A tear streams down her cheek, and she says by way of explanation that it seems very familiar. Could she and Julien have been that mother and son? Was this a time in her life when her loneliness in her marriage led to divorce? The speculation will remain just that, but the possibility of reliving a hurt to arrive at a different outcome may have occurred to them both on some level at that moment. When they end up sitting on the steps of a pensione, an invitation for a “do-over” of their wedding night is sure to follow. How far Miller is willing to go—it’s clear from the start that the seduction has been part of the woman’s plan all along—is the greatest mystery, one Kiarostami leaves hanging for us to meditate on.

It is hugely satisfying to see how Kiarostami weaves his career-long obsessions and filming techniques into an entirely new type of film for him. While he films indoors, quite effectively, he never actually shoots inside a person’s home. He is able to shoot a married couple in the privacy of their honeymoon suite, but only because they are not really married. It’s ingenious, really. And, of course, his concerns with identity, most movingly rendered in Close-up, and reality versus fantasy, seen in such films as Taste of Cherry, are at the core of this film.

By having Shimell and Binoche move into such a realistic portrayal of a married couple, Kiarostami confuses the audience about what the story “really” is, though, of course, both parts of the film are entirely fictional. He continues his habit of mixing verité location shooting with storytelling and calling attention to the artificial barrier we put up when we suspend our disbelief to enter the narrative. For example, he shoots inside the museum that houses the talismanic golden tree of life, offering a scene in which a marrying couple wishes to have their photo taken with the woman and Miller. We see in the background a bride putting eye drops in her eyes. Moments later, the woman and Miller move into the room that holds the artifact, and a weeping bride sits on the bench Miller vacated. The camera lingers on her, and we are made to wonder what her story is, but Kiarostami has already clued us that whether or not she is a real bride, her tears are fake.

I’ve heard this film described as a screwball comedy, but it could be considered as such only if you thought Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was a screwball comedy as well. The marital quarrels, much more intense than those over Miller’s theories at the beginning of the film, are painful to watch and not my idea of an aphrodisiac. Why Miller agreed to play along is still a mystery to me. Some have suggested that the game was related to his theory about copies being as valuable as originals. There is something to this thinking, since we go to the movies in part to watch stories that can tell us about our real lives, but I don’t think it holds water as a motivation for the actions of these characters. Binoche is superb in the subtlety of her seduction, playing the game expertly while giving us a window into the woman’s feelings at critical moments. Shimell plays an annoyed husband quite well, but is less able to convey Miller’s feelings; I wasn’t really sure he was attracted to the woman and therefore wondered why he wanted to play the game. This reservation aside, Certified Copy is one of the most ingenious and thought-provoking romances you’re ever likely to see.

Certified Copy screenings are completely sold out. Check the CIFF website for added screenings or inclusion of the film in the Best of the Fest showings. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

20th 09 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Le Amiche (1955)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Le Amiche (The Girlfriends) is an interesting early Antonioni that shows the master starting to refine his focus. Presaging his mature themes of ennui and the alienating effects of modernity, this tale of the Italian way of loving strikes a surprising feminist chord that shows the trap women can fall into by embracing the false notion that work and relationship must be mutually exclusive pursuits.

The opening introduces us to the main point of audience identification, Clelia (Eleanora Rossi Drago), who is running a bath in her hotel room when she is interrupted by a maid who cannot get into the adjoining room through the hall door and wishes to use the pass-through door in her room instead. Clelia obliges and starts to dress only to be called next door by the maid’s scream. Decked out in a frothy evening dress, a young woman we will learn is Rosetta Savoni (Madeleine Fischer) is laying unconscious and near death on the bed from a deliberate overdose. Clelia calls for a doctor. Soon, Rosetta’s friend Momina (Yvonne Furneaux), puzzled why Rosetta is not answering her call from the lobby, goes up, and stunned to learn her friend is on her way to the hospital, prevails upon Clelia to accompany her. Clelia, who is in Turin, her native city, to open a branch of a Rome clothing atelier, goes as far as the shop that is being refurbished for that purpose, but Momina and her group of idle rich friends will draw her into their circle, initially because she dresses more smartly than working women usually do. Clelia jumps at the chance to make friends with her future clientele, but she will soon grow disenchanted with their aimless, shallow lives and casual cruelty to each other—particularly toward the fragile Rosetta—as they begin and end flirtations, love affairs, and marriages in almost random fashion.

Antonioni was from a prosperous family whose patriarch was a self-made millionaire. The director admitted a feeling of simpatico with the working classes, especially its women, and apprenticed as a filmmaker on neorealist films. His turn to domestic dramas among the people in his social sphere—artists and the wealthy—might have been his version of “write what you know,” but his acute eye for the hollowness of upward mobility seems a kind of longing for the simple pleasures of simply doing work that has some immediate utility and living in close communality with family, friends, and neighbors.

One scene that shows what a chasm the social gap can be is when Carlo (Ettore Manni), a building foreman with whom Clelia is having a stress-reducing dalliance, takes Clelia shopping for furniture. He wants her to look at some office furniture at a dealer he likes, but she refuses to even climb the stairs of the shop, saying her tastes run to a more elegant 18th century style. “I want to create an atmosphere,” she says to the practical-minded Carlo, a place where she and her clientele can reside in luxurious nostalgia. They walk through their old neighborhood in Turin and talk about what would have happened had they met each other when they were young; Clelia thinks they might have married and stayed in the neighborhood instead of being as they are now—separated by class, though she pretends the difference is only a matter of taste.

But what awaits Clelia should her assimilation become complete? Momina lives apart from her husband—a marriage of financial convenience for her, it seems—and dallies with Cesare (Franco Fabrizi), the architect on Clelia’s project. Mariella (Anna Maria Pancani) is boy-crazy and has a make-out session with Cesare during a beach outing to spite Momina; she later decides to marry her boyfriend because she wants to buy a wedding dress shown during the opening fashion show at the atelier. Rosetta fell in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a second-rate painter, while he was composing her portrait because his close gaze during their sittings gave her some reality. Nene (Valentina Cortese), a successful ceramics artist married to the envious Lorenzo, thinks letting her husband do anything he wants and sacrificing her success are ways to show she loves him, thus abdicating her responsibility to enter into a real relationship with him.

When the inevitable happens, Clelia strikes out at Momina at the atelier for pretending to be Rosetta’s friend, declaring self-righteously that she did more for the woman by trying to get her involved in life by offering her a job—though Rosetta’s repeated failure to show up for work she doesn’t need indicates that Clelia had even less of a clue about how to help Rosetta. Sure she has lost her job, Clelia reaches out to Carlo, thinking that she can fall back on marriage. However, when her career-woman boss (Maria Gambarelli) offers to send her back to work in Rome, she books a train ticket immediately and lets Carlo down perfunctorily. Clelia hasn’t any more use for love than her clientele has; she has cashed in her feelings to “make it,” though her career is in commerce outright rather than in the social commerce of her betters.

Antonioni’s work to create his symbols and compositions are a bit obvious, showing up most glaringly in several continuity errors. For example, when Clelia accepts a ride from Momina to the shop, she is coatless; when she steps into the shop, she is wearing an enormous ocelot fur coat, as though mere exposure to the materialistic Momina were enough to transform her into a predator. In another scene, the friends go slumming, blocking a narrow street fronting a dive trattoria with their big cars. When Lorenzo leaves the trattoria after instigating a fight with Cesare, Rosetta follows him into the dark street, where the cars have vanished, the better to create the composition Antonioni wanted. The director’s use of mirrors to suggest the insubstantiality of his women is effective, but a bit overdone. In fact, this entire film is a whole lot of “too much,” particularly when compared with his mature works, and can be seen as him throwing everything he wants to say on the wall and then starting to remove the unnecessary, a film at a time.

The restored 35mm print I saw allows the viewer to really appreciate Antonioni’s brilliance with light and shadow and in capturing the human face and form. The girlfriends pose with the self-conscious awareness of their allure that the models at the atelier assume when showing a clothing line. Women as young as these are still trying on identities, and this is something that can’t be avoided by any person. We grow into ourselves, and the tragedy is that we sometimes get stuck in one of our poses like a real mannequin in a window. The final scene suggests that Clelia might be heading south in more ways than one. l


28th 07 - 2010 | 6 comments »

A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964)

Director: Sergio Leone

By Roderick Heath

In the early 1960s, the Hollywood Western genre was beginning its long decline. The genre’s most iconic stars, like John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda, aged, the directors who had fostered in its greatest years were themselves fading, the “adult” westerns of the ’50s had begun an antimythic trend that corroded the traditional mores of the horse opera, and television, with dozens of Western-themed shows on the schedule, was sapping the remnant vitality of the form. And yet, Westerns were still hugely popular worldwide, including in Europe, where, with the decline in American-produced fare, some producers wanted to get some of that sweet legal tender that oatsers could still generate. The late ’50s and early ’60s saw a smattering of attempts to make Westerns outside of the traditional American milieu, and a template was created when Hammer Studios honcho Michael Carreras had the bright idea of shooting the 1961 Anglo-Spanish coproduction Terrain Brutal (Savage Guns) in Almeria, Spain. After a couple more multinational follow-ups, the first Italian-produced Western, Duello nel Texas, debuted; the historical musclemen sagas that formed much of Italy’s genre cinema was running out of steam, and something else had to fill the void of violent trash.

This experiment in international genre resuscitation might have finished up as an ignominious pop-kitsch footnote if not for one Sergio Leone, an experienced screenwriter and assistant director who had recently graduated to official directing credits with the 1961 peplum pic The Colossus of Rhodes and wanted to tackle the genre. Leone, the son of early film director Roberto Roberti (birth name Vincenzo Leone) and actress Edvige Valcarenghi, claimed great affinity with the West as a subject of private enthusiasm, and disliked the more psychological, moralistic variety of Western that had arisen in the late ’50s, of which the likes of The Fastest Gun in the West (1956) or The Hanging Tree (1959) might serve as good examples. Leone resolved to toss out the psychological and metaphoric weight and get down and dirty. He began looking for a star, first trying Henry Fonda and then others, like Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and even Duello nel Texas’ star Richard Harrison. He finally found a taker in Clint Eastwood, the slender, stone-faced young actor known for the TV series Rawhide, and soon produced a huge hit that defined the Spaghetti Western in the short term and had no small impact on cinema in general.

Leone battered together a script with the help of Víctor Andrés Catena and Jaime Comas Gil, and had English dialogue written by Mark Lowell, but the film was structured to lessen the reliance on dialogue, with actors in smaller roles mostly dubbed. Leone’s ideal of the Western translated into an Italian visual style became the priority, offering up ebullient widescreen compositions that reproduce lighting and colour effects and arrangement of elements that call to mind the finest effects of Renaissance painting. The difficulty in taking A Fistful of Dollars seriously in and of itself is the immediately obvious fact that Leone and his collaborators egregiously ripped off Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), taking a cue from the successful Western adaptation of Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954)— The Magnificent Seven (1960). Leone later tried to defend himself by claiming he’d taken as much inspiration from the classic Italian play Servant of Two Masters, something which film writer Christopher Frayling emphasises. But this seems like blather, considering A Fistful of Dollars follows Yojimbo practically scene for scene: the same subplots, characters, narrative gimmicks, and even similar shots. Kurosawa successfully sued for a share of the profits, but it’s arguably only fair that he was hoist by his own petard, considering the debt his film owed Dashiell Hammett and the fact that it was a tribute to the Western traditions of John Ford.

In many ways, however, the closeness of the template and its unofficial, on-the-sly status, makes for a revelatory creation. The contrast of Kurosawa’s vision and Leone’s, differing takes by two cinematic titans on a simple and wittily brutal genre tale, is one of the few opportunities the cinema has ever offered for such clear comparison of disparate creative impulses. Kurosawa’s film is cool, crisply etched, his camera usually standing far back, the framing as sharp and refined as the edge of Toshiro Mifune’s katana blade; Leone’s frames jostle with detail, colossal close-ups, and multi-hued lighting that work in a symphonic fashion. Another difference is temperamental. Kurosawa doesn’t introduce the subplot of a woman who’s been forced to become a concubine by evil men, separating her from her husband and son, until halfway through Yojimbo. Leone makes one of the first images of his more operatic film that of the enslaved woman’s son trying to sneak into the house where she’s kept, from which he’s chased by sleazy thugs, who then beat up his father when he tries to protect the lad. This occurs in the casually observant eyeline of Joe (Eastwood), the wandering, poncho-clad mercenary who arrives in the tiny Mexican town of San Miguel, and right from that moment, it’s certain he knows not to give a damn about what chaos he starts.

Two clans are competing for the lucrative border-smuggling trade in weapons and liquor for which San Miguel is an ideal operating base. The Baxter cadres, led by the nominal sheriff John Baxter (Wolfgang Lukschy), face off against the three Rojos brothers—Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), Esteban (Sieghardt Rupp), and Don Miguel (Antonio Prieto)—and their hired guns. Joe is harassed by the Baxters’ heavies and advised by tavern owner Silvanito (José Calvo) to hurry away after explaining the calamity that’s engulfed the town. Joe, however, seems to see opportunity—exterminating four of the Baxters’ gunmen with his own phenomenally fast draw—and tries to sell his services, in turn, to both the Baxters and the Rojos. But neither are exactly comfortable outfits to work for: Baxter’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, Consuelo (Margarita Lozano), wants to have him killed off quickly, and the Rojos are driven along by Machiavellian bastard Ramón, who contrives a successful ambush of a federale unit to rob them of the gold they’re transporting. So Joe sets up a battle between the two sides by arranging two of the dead soldiers’ bodies in a graveyard and sells information to each band, making the Rojos think the corpses are still-living survivors of the massacre they’ll have to finish off, and then tipping the Baxters to the advantage they might have in capturing the soldiers alive.

This last flourish, the impudence toward propriety and a purely makeshift sense of existence where even the dead are props to be used in the mean business of staying alive, is pure, original Leone, one of the touches that helped define his style. Leone was making films about the Wild West, but his thinking always seemed even more ancient. At the very least, he tapped into something mostly latent in the genre that had always been tidied over by American Western filmmakers seeking a veneer of relevance to contemporary society. Leone saw that it was precisely the wildness, the often barely discernible patina of civilisation reduced and reveling in animalistic behaviours that was the greater part of the genre’s pleasure. Men are hairy, sweaty, dirty, horny, greedy, and often ruthless in his movies. Basic opposites are always functioning in Leone’s films, in spite of the refinement of the style: life, death, earth, sky, rich, poor, man, woman. Personalities are present, ethics hazily visible, certain codes certainly dominant, but defined only by direct and basic force. The reduction is signaled by the animated cut-outs that form the credit sequence, and this also introduces the new note of pop-art to the proceedings.

The simultaneously deepening tactile and moral realism in Leone’s films and the unrealism, the borderline-mythic touches and the distancing from historical context, is one of the great contradictions in cinema. Emblems are important. The Baxter house, a roughly carpentered, but still recognisable approximation of a classic Yankee manor, and the Rojos house, with its lustrous Spanish white and columns, present not merely the abodes of warring gangs, but also warring civilisations and the contrast of Old World elegance versus American solidity. Joe himself, with his regulation cowboy gear and swathing poncho, blends cultural tropes in a suggestive fashion. In between the buildings, the no-man’s-land of San Miguel’s main street, is the first of Leone’s bullrings for warrior confrontation, which Leone’s widescreen lens describes in patient intimacy, often using the terraces of the Rojo house to further force the lens of perspective. Joe finds helpmates in grouchy, but fascinated Silvanito and the local coffin maker, and his only true nemesis is soon identified in Ramón, the man who gleefully machine-gunned the federales, the only one canny and brutal enough to present a real challenge. Facades are important in Leone’s films (just look at how often the image of a man hidden behind a screen spying or aiming a gun at someone appears in his films), and so is the alternation of identities; Ramón kills the federales wearing U.S. uniforms. However, no one’s better at muddying the waters than Joe. In the absence of real things to stir up trouble about, Joe provides illusions, like those two dead Mexicans, to leaven his divide-and-exploit strategy. There’s always some bullshit, Leone constantly suggests, hiding a real motive.

This stage-managed graveyard battle gives Joe the chance to search for the stolen gold, but he ends up taking an accidental hostage, Marisol (Marianne Koch), mother of the boy, now Ramón’s squaw, whom the Baxters eagerly use as a trading piece to get back their own useless son Antonio (Bruno Carotenuto). The discovery of Marisol’s history motivates Joe to win her freedom even though he’ll endanger his own life, because he “knew someone like you once. There was no one there to help,” as he tells her and her family before driving them away. Finally, real feeling has intervened in proceedings as a true motive, but it’s almost fatal for Joe, who’s captured and relentlessly beaten by the Rojos and their thugs. He turns the tables by crushing two of his torturers by rolling a gigantic barrel of gunpowder down on them—a gleefully nasty comeuppance—and then covers his escape by setting that powder alight. He literally and figuratively kindles an eruption, because the outraged Rojos assault the Baxters’ house and massacre all the inhabitants.

Kurosawa treated the story as both amusingly and harshly Darwinian, one of a wolf contending mostly with insects that cannibalise each other in thrilling but essentially pathetic ways. Leone wrings a different, more imperative flavour out of the action, and though still humorous, his possesses a darker lustre. Consuela Baxter’s death—the black-clad matriarch shouting defiance and a primal curse at the Rojos before being shot down in a wreath of smoke bellowing from her house—is exultant in its grotesquery and melodramatic scale; indeed, the whole sequence sports a remarkably, infernal vividness. So, too, is the little opera of gestures and glances on display when Marisol is briefly reunited with her family in the street during the prisoner swap. Leone, in spite of the great ease with which people die and the contempt with which they’re often treated in his work, always makes something almost transcendent out of the moments before dying.

Joe, the first incarnation of the character dubbed “The Man with No Name” (that was essentially a United Artists marketing gimmick), is only guided by a moral compass based in personal empathy, and there’s not much of that. We don’t hold it against him he uses people he loathes to make some money: most of us do that. That he proves to be a proper good guy isn’t in question, but he is definitely one of those Leone protagonists who has “something to do with death”, who, even if they don’t realise it, in essence, bring apocalypse wherever they tread. Joe even poses as a knight-errant or a risen, vengeful angel. Still playing games of truth and illusion, letting off explosives so that he steps out of the smoke like a spook after, having survived torture and eluded the hunting Rojos, he recuperates and returns strapping wearing body armour culled from the iron of a boiler to fend off the rifle blasts he knows Ramón will loose at him. Joe finally confronts the Rojos when they turn their vicious attentions to Silvanito, and doesn’t leave the town until all his foes are decimated. The irony here is that Joe mythologises himself to scare his enemies into irrational decisions, just as Leone mythologises the proceedings with a self-conscious smoke-and-mirrors style.

A Fistful of Dollars is usually described as a warm-up for the grander calisthenics of Leone’s career, but in viewing it after a very long interlude, and for all Leone’s debts and still-developing talents, I recognized it as great filmmaking indeed. Perhaps its very lack of pretension makes it a better, tauter film than the awkward intermediary sequel For A Few Dollars More (1966). It’s a wonder that with all the production problems of working with actors and technicians from four countries, Leone still managed to craft such a strong drama; this is the film that proved Leone was born to be directing motion pictures.

Eastwood’s properly terse performance, of course, made him the international film star he still is, and much of his appeal as presented here is as much about the quiet, sly good-humour he lets through Joe’s otherwise taciturn and unremitting exterior. He looks on the world much like a science experiment he’s running, sometimes a bit wryly disconcerted at how the experiment is proceeding, at least until it turns real, and then…you better run, boy. A Fistful of Dollars also sports the first of Leone’s immortally styled gun duels, defined by the rapid, rhythmic cutting between expectant faces, humour, and macho swagger slowly fading at the realisation that someone’s about to die, and then the concussive simplicity of the moment when the gunfire actually comes, with four or five men at a time dropping dead on the spot in a single, encompassing shot. Life is never more amazingly intense for Leone as in the few moments before it ends. l

24th 03 - 2010 | 2 comments »

La Luna (1979)

Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Roderick Heath

Bernardo Bertolucci’s career took some peculiar turns in the 1970s and 80s, after the tremendous international success of The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) made him a cinema artist of worldwide reputation. Thereafter , he courted an international audience and utilised Hollywood money and stars whilst avoiding becoming a Hollywood director, producing oddities like 1900 (1976) and La Luna, one of his least-known and -regarded films. The fact that Bertolucci came from a cross-cultural background—his father was Italian, and his mother Australian—perhaps indicates why he was increasingly eager to portray characters trapped between two worlds, feeling like strangers within their own milieu, and meeting other lost souls across great divides. Simultaneously, his recurring obsessions with sexuality and family dynamics dovetailed in La Luna, a sinuous, intriguing, but sprawling and diffuse film.

One of Bertolucci’s core gifts is his ability to take on seamy and taboo subjects whilst not making a show of his own daring; instead, he conjures an intelligent, muted beauty, as if to say, “This, too, is humanity.” He was, therefore, primed to find rich expression in the tale of a mother who, eager to save her son from drug addiction and eddying in a vague space of grief after the death of her husband and his adopted father, distracts him with incestuous grappling. The mother, Caterina Silveri (Jill Clayburgh), is an American opera star with roots in Italy, where she had an affair with a young man, Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), that produced her son Joe (Matthew Barry). At the very opening, she’s playing with her young son, but then distresses him by leaving him aside to dance to sugary pop music with Giuseppe, while Giuseppe’s mother (Alida Valli) idly bangs away on the piano in their seaside house. Later, Caterina travels the deserted road back to Rome under the moonlight with her son perched in the handlebar basket.

Some 15 years later, Caterina’s living in New York with her manager husband Douglas (Fred Gwynne). As Caterina and Douglas prepare to go to Italy for a series of engagements, Joe doesn’t want to be left alone, first pleading with his mother to come with her, and then with Douglas to stay behind. Douglas, however, dies from ambiguous causes just before departure, and both Caterina and Joe attempt to put the death behind them immediately. Joe accompanies her to Italy, where she throws herself into her singing, achieving new heights of acclaim for her performance in Il Trovatore. Joe, on the other hand, spirals downward, hanging about with a motley collection of school friends; at his birthday party, Caterina comes across him shooting up heroin with the aid of his girlfriend Arianna (Elisabetta Campeti). Joe and Caterina have an explosive argument, and he leaves to wander about Rome purposelessly, only to then collapse in sickness when he returns home. Caterina, deciding to save her son by any means necessary, tracks down Joe’s supplier, a young, disarmingly philosophical Muslim boy, named Mustafa (Stéphane Barat), to buy some heroin and tend to Joe as he recovers at home.

Caterina travels to Parma to seek the advice of her former mentor, now that Joe’s addiction has made her want to give up singing, but she finds him decrepit and senile. Joe follows her to Parma. Caterina is inspired to try to find a house where she and Douglas once lived, and also shows Giuseppe Verdi’s house to an uninterested Joe. After a spat and a busted tyre, Joe drives off with the car and leaves Caterina stranded, but she soon gets a lift from a good-natured, self-declared Communist (Renato Salvatori). She has him stop at a small inn when she spies her car parked out front, and she and her benefactor lunch and flirt as a glowering, pensive Joe looks on. But she quickly rids herself of her new friend to resume her efforts to keep Joe on a hook, renting a room where they have a brief, violent clinch before he loses his temper at her and goes to shoot up instead. Caterina eventually seems to determine that the best way to help Joe is to fill the hole left by the loss of Douglas by offering him the chance to see his true father, Giuseppe.

Bertolucci essays the incestuous encounters not so much as manifesting true sexual desire, as much as a plunge back into the infantile physical intimacy of mother and son. He depicts that kind of intimacy in the opening when Caterina playfully smears honey over baby Joe and herself (one of their later, frantic encounters sees Joe licking his mother’s face). The instinct toward such physical communion is the only tool Caterina has for helping Joe through a calamitous phase in his life: she, in essence, endeavours to raise him again by reverting their relationship back to basics, as Caterina tries to obey her best intuitions after a life of being coddled and rewarded for childish behaviour. Bertolucci had explored the same idea through different motifs in Last Tango in Paris, with the womb of the apartment, lack of names, and sexual communion a rejection of adult identity and attempt through regressive states to reconstitute the self following calamity. On the other hand, Caterina theorises that Giuseppe’s inability to support her wish for singing career and adapt to her character was due to his actually being in love with his mother.

Joe and Caterina are a peculiar and far from instantly empathetic pairing. Caterina’s a diva in the technical and familiar senses of the word, not really feeling guilty for finding fresh artistic inspiration after her husband’s death. She takes over Joe’s birthday party as a spectacle for herself, dancing energetically and offering up self-important nostalgia: “Back in the Sixties we believed in…things!” Joe, for his part, seems generally forlorn, needy, and emotionally bereft, but has moments of familiarly noxious junkie self-pity and showy self-destruction. Their battle/affair/treatment begins when she, after trying to be calm and pleasant after discovering his habit, asks him if Arianna, his “fat-assed little hippie friend,” is his supplier, and he, irritated beyond words, struts over to the TV and kicks it in with deliberate fury.

La Luna sports barely any firm narrative, as characters flounder in trying to find a way out of their no-man’s-land. In this way the film is composed like a mosaic of vignettes, some funny, some revealing: Joe catching Douglas drinking in the middle of the day; Caterina rebuking Mustafa for selling “poison” and demanding to know why he doesn’t get a real job, and then snorting in derision when he explains he doesn’t keep any alcohol because it’s against his religion; a junk-addled Joe entering a Roman bar, playing the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” on the jukebox, and commencing a disco jive, only to be grasped in an enthusiastic embrace by an apparently gay spiv (Franco Citti). The woozy rhythms of the lengthy scene between Caterina and Joe after her discovery of his habit are memorably etched, swinging from moments of nervy companionship, like when he begins to beat out a boogie on her newly delivered piano, to physical brawling.

Likewise, some of Bertolucci’s images are affecting in their almost musical flow, like the surreally beautiful glimpse of the moon through the opening skylight of a movie theatre that reminds Joe to attend his mother’s premiere, or the flotilla of dreamily gliding skateboarders he and his friends pass in their car in the streets of Rome, a moment which anticipates the richly aesthetic visions of youth culture in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a work that shares other affinities with this film. A smart framing early in the film separates Joe and Douglas by the frame of a doorway as the young man appeals for companionship, and Bertolucci conjures a weird moment in which, after Douglas’ funeral, Joe and Caterina, conversing in the back of the limousine that brought them, realise they’re being stared at by onlookers like some starfucking edition of a zombie movie.

Bertolucci often returned to the theme of the peripatetic man at the mercy of wayward sexual and emotional impulses, in desperate search for an effective paternal figure, and the script he wrote here with his brother Giuseppe Bertolucci and Clare Peploe is no exception. The final half-hour portrays Joe’s tentative approach to Giuseppe, who’s now a schoolteacher much beloved of his young pupils: Joe, dissembling, misinforms him and his mother that his son by Caterina has died of an overdose. Giuseppe demands this weird visitor leave, but he follows him to the Baths of Caracalla where Caterina is rehearsing for an outdoor performance, and family—Caterina, Giuseppe, Joe and Arianna—are reunited still sporting bruises real and emotional. Bertolucci’s amused insight into the processes of creation and the solipsism of artists, which he aimed at filmmakers in Last Tango, finds some further scope here in the glimpses of the tack-and-tinsel world of opera, noting the clever illusions used in the staging of Il Trovatore whilst the singers wield their very real talents, and such bizarre moments as when the singers rehearse at Caracalla draped in masking muslin to protect their costumes, and somehow evoking the chrysalis from which the characters must soon rip free.

If La Luna remains a minor film in Bertolucci’s career, finally, it’s because the project as essayed seems somehow misconceived. For all the fascinating elements and moments of marvellous humanity throughout, it never gains shape or compulsive force, as if Bertolucci wanted to tell two different, irreconcilable varieties of story. His expansive, experimental approach to realising this tale, which could too easily turn either sentimental or repulsive, is brave, but the concussive hysteria inherent in the central plot conceit is only occasionally realised. Bertolucci’s desire to contrast the languorous beauty of the Italian campagna and the soaring aspirations of high art against down-and-dirty truths of human existence remain opaque and lack force, in large part because the characters never entirely materialise: what each person means to themselves and to others and what others mean to them remains strangely ill-defined.

Although both Clayburgh, one of the most accomplished actresses of the time, and Barry, an ingénue who did little else, both give fine performances, I could never quite shake the feeling they were miscast in their American niceness. Clayburgh doesn’t suggest the improvisational zeal that might have turned Caterina into as vivid a female counterpart to Brando’s grieving, aging wunderkind in Last Tango, though that’s also because her character just isn’t as detailed. That said, she’s got some terrific moments, her performance full of finite shifts of mood and intent. Barry, too, is terrific in moments like the barroom scene, his shaggy, boyish enthusiasm entirely at odds with his all-too-grown-up vices and eddying pain. The ambling, yearning structure, funnelling finally towards the unification at Caracalla, explains, but doesn’t entirely excuse, the rambling nature of the film. Nonetheless, the staging of the finale is some bravura work on Bertolucci’s part, as the characters meet amidst the flurrying performers, Giuseppe, upon realising that Joe is his son, roundly delivering him a slap in the face that Joe quietly takes as a fatherly beatification, whilst Caterina finds her voice again and the cast of the opera rise in unison. Life and art unite in a moment of fitting fulfilment. l

31st 01 - 2010 | 7 comments »

The Damned (1969)

Director: Luchino Visconti


By Marilyn Ferdinand

The Damned, Luchino Visconti’s loose history of Germany’s dynastic Krupps family during the consolidation of Hitler’s power in the mid 1930s is a difficult film to pigeonhole. Not a war film, it talks about munitions manufacture and Hitler’s plans for conquest. One of the few films to earn an X rating, its subject matter is more disturbing for censors than its nudity, and it almost certainly would not receive an NC-17 rating today. Italianate in its operatic richness and byzantine melodrama, it has a distinctly German feel, reveling in the drab, amoral squalor that infests the minds and actions of most of its characters. Most certainly a family drama, it indicts the entire, rotting hulk of privilege and shows how easily swayed and dominated it could be at the hands of common (in the class sense) thugs with uncommon ambition. Were we inclined to feel pity for the passing of a more genteel era, that impulse is squashed like a cockroach by Visconti’s extended scenes of depravity and decadence that almost seem to be the raison d’être for the film.


The Damned begins, fittingly, with hellfire images of the steelworks on which the Von Essenbeck family (the Krupps steelworks were in Essen) has built its fortunes over the centuries fabricating, among other things, weapons. The family is set to celebrate patriarch Joaquin Von Essenbeck’s (Albrecht Schönhals) birthday with dinner and homemade entertainment provided Joaquin’s grandchildren: Thilde and Erika (Karin Mittendorf and Valentina Ricci), the young daughters of Joaquin’s daughter, Elisabeth Thallman (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Herbert, vice president of the steelworks; Martin Von Essenbeck (Helmut Berger), son of Joaquin’s beloved, dead son and his widow Sophie (Ingrid Thulin); and Gunther Von Essenbeck (Renaud Verley), son of Joaquin’s son Konstantin (Reinhard Kolldehoff), a brownshirt SA officer who already sports a swastika on his lapel. Speeding toward the dinner are Frederick Bruckmann (Dirk Bogarde), an executive at the steelworks, and Herr Aschenbach (Helmut Griem), a cousin to the privileged family and an officer in the SS. Bruckmann and Aschenbach discuss how Frederick, who has been carrying on an affair with Sophie, can rise to power in the new Reich by stepping over the Von Essenbecks to assume control of the steelworks.


The first shock of the evening comes when Joaquin, having enjoyed the recitations of his granddaughters and cello solo of Gunther, is confronted with Martin dressed like Sally Bowles and singing and strutting lasciviously for all he’s worth. The performance is cut short by the evening’s second shock—the announcement that the Reichstag has been set on fire. Joaquin delivers another blow, to Herbert, when he sizes up the political circumstances this attack on the Reichstag signals and announces that to curry favor with the Nazis, he is replacing Herbert as vice president with Konstantin. Herbert, a vehement anti-Nazi, storms off and prepares to leave the country, feeling his place is no longer secure. Indeed it isn’t. The SS storm the Von Essenbeck mansion that very night, and Herbert must flee for the nearby border. In the meantime, Frederick has taken Herbert’s gun and shot Joaquin, pinning the murder on Herbert.


From this point on, Elisabeth is a virtual prisoner at the Von Essenbeck estate as Sophie plots like Lady MacBeth to see Frederick best Konstantin for total control of the steelworks. Like the MacBeths, Frederick and Sophie’s hubris will be their ruin, but indeed, the Von Essenbecks are as doomed as the Third Reich they tried oafishly to play. The full dinner table at which Joaquin was toasted will eventually seat only one diner, as the rest are killed, arrested, or driven mad.

The film is constructed as a series of extended set pieces. Visconti’s most elegantly filmed sequence—the birthday performance and dinner—is a signature one for him realized most fully in the ball sequence in The Leopard. Unlike the Prince and his aristocratic family, however, the Von in Essenbeck is more window dressing than breeding; Joaquin and his forebears were industrialists who thought more about the steelworks than their honor. As such, their splendid festivities look rather shabby and bourgeois. In another contrasting sequence between the two films and families, whereas the Prince visits his mistress in town resplendently dressed and liveried, the perverted Martin, dressed like a dandy, visits a prostitute who has given him the key to her flat and finding a young Jewish girl next door, proceeds over successive days to seduce her. Watching the little girl throw her arms around his neck and plant kisses all over his face is a pretty disgusting display made worse by his ecstatic response.


In a power play that parallels Frederick’s move for the steelworks, the SS, with Hitler’s blessing, prepares to liquidate its competition—the SA. Visconti shoots a very long scene of the SA gathering in Bad Wiessee that became known as the Night of the Long Knives. As SA officers pour into the town and the town’s alcohol pours into them, the link between the beer hall and German fascism comes blazing into focus. The men get drunker and drunker, start pawing the barmaids, attempt to rape one, dress up in slips, garters, and bras, and eventually end up having sex with each other in the brothel-like upstairs of the inn. Although the sequence is carefully edited to depict the events of the day and night, their cumulative effect and a fairly stripped-down, verité look make the scene seem like one (extremely) long take, one reminiscent of Visconti’s extravagantly decadent, though much less base scene in the Venus grotto in his 1971 film Ludwig (which, incidentally, also starred Helmut Berger in another sexually decadent, though much more sympathetic role as The Swan King).


The liquidation represents the climax of the film, but Visconti lets it dribble on for about another half hour in order to ensure the complete destruction of the family. Unfortunately, the script kind of devolves as well, nearly destroying the film. Auschenbach becomes less a fanatical human and more a mustache-twisting cartoon, tempting Gunther to hate and tucking him under his black cape. Martin, having driven his mother mad by raping her, arranges a long-awaited marriage between her and Frederick. Sophie moves like a zombie into the grand ballroom where Martin first donned his drag outfit for the entertainment of Joaquin, her face ghostly white, as though she were a medieval victim of small pox covering her scars. Our last view of her is grotesque, which rather unfairly suggests that she deserves to be held up for special humiliation. None of the Von Essenbecks, including the beautifully elegant, but willfully blind Elisabeth, deserve our admiration, at least not in this film.


The actors strain valiantly to realize this high melodrama with some semblance of truth, but none escapes unscathed, not even the great Dirk Bogarde, who is called on to depict shrill egomania. Schönhals acquits himself best of the entire cast, fully embodying a pragmatic man of appetites. Berger is to Visconti what Kinski is to Herzog, so it’s hard to judge his performance apart from his persona. The print I saw projected was atrocious—scratchy and pink, with the entire SA liquidation scene in unsubtitled German. Fortunately, Warner Home Video has released a decent DVD of the film.

This film has been panned by many people, but I found something hypnotic in the languorous set pieces whose utter decadence addressed the moral rot of the elites and power brokers of 1930s Germany in a way other approaches could not. l

27th 10 - 2009 | 11 comments »

Deep Red (Profondo Rosso, 1975)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Dario Argento

Italian Horror Blog-a-Thon


By Roderick Heath

This entry is part of the Italian Horror Blog-a-Thon hosted by Kevin J. Olson of Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies.

If there’s a problem with Suspiria, often regarded as the high point of Dario Argento’s career, it’s that the bare-bones characterisations and equally minimal storyline build in off-kilter style to a bit of an anticlimax. By contrast, Deep Red offers a veritable banquet of Argento’s imagination: a Gordian knot of a narrative and an array of interesting characters whose interplay both explicates and conceals deadly clever clues and themes.

Argento had taken a brief break from horror-thrillers to make an historical drama, Le Cinque Giornato (1973), and in returning to the genre with Deep Red, offered what is in most essentials a remake of his crisp debut, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970)—a tale of a misplaced foreign artist in Rome who witnesses a murder, and, to solve the mystery of the steadily mounting carnage, must discern an unperceived clue in what he witnessed. Argento overlaid that template with everything he’d ever learnt about cinema in a scant five years. The result was a symphonic classic and one of the great films of the ’70s.


It is also a film where Argento pays several distinct compliments to filmmakers and visual artists who inspired him. The interrogation of the very act of looking, built around investigation and mystery that screws relentlessly toward a point of infantile dissolution, and having David Hemmings as the hero, inevitably evoke Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966). The staging in many sequences, with giant close-ups of eyes or the hero’s hand, poised like a gunfighter’s over his weapon, clearly reference his old collaborator Sergio Leone, whose intricate tactics of ecstatic tension/violent release Argento transposed into a different genre. In the film’s middle third, the visuals constantly evoke the crisp art-deco style of another former collaborator, Bernardo Bertolucci, essayed in his great The Conformist (1970), and like that films digs into the problems of gender and the family unit. And the spirit of Hitchcock lurks approvingly in every frame, particularly in one scene utilising birds. Argento also plays ceaselessly with the tropes of the giallo genre’s literary inspirations, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Wallace, and Frederic Brown, to the point where in classic tradition, one victim attempts to etch the name of her killer at the point of death, here on the steam-smothered walls of her bathroom; and whether it will be detected becomes a nerve-jangling question. And yet Argento’s visualisation moves far beyond the necessities of the mystery genre, his camera composing operatic fantasias of colour and motion.


Hemmings plays Marc Daly, an English jazz musician teaching conservatory students who delivers a speech at the outset that feels like a kind of mission statement for Argento, reminding his students that jazz “began in the brothels” and can’t be too elegant or clean. The musicians are played by the members of Goblin, the conservatorium-trained prog-rock group that Argento dug up to conjure the film’s nerve-jangling score, which, like the rest of the film’s offered template, would powerfully influence John Carpenter’s Halloween, and the entire slasher genre. Yet, Deep Red is far greater than any of its Hollywood imitations. Argento mixes astoundingly beautiful cinema with volatile, hilariously appalling violence, like any good jazz man appreciating the way grit and glam must entwine. He pays constant homage to the rhythms and flow of music, particularly in one startling sequence in which Marc labours at composition whilst being stalked by the killer. He also tips his hat to artists like Edvard Munch and Edward Hopper in his set decoration and visual compositions.


Argento cuts from Marc’s rehearsal and mission statement to a theatre where an audience listens to the pronouncements on parapsychology by a team of New Age professors led by Bardi (Piero Mazzinghi). Argento’s camera enters and exits the theatre in a flourish of red curtains, immediately announcing his film as pure show business. Medium Helga Ulmann (Macha Meril) realises someone in the audience is a murderer. Soon enough, Ulmann is butchered in her apartment: it’s an amusing touch that she senses the malevolent intent of the person knocking at her door, but isn’t quick enough to escape. Out on the street, Marc and Carlo (Gabriele Lavia), an alcoholic, self-loathing pianist, are chatting when they hear Ulmann’s screams. Marc rushes to the scene, misses the killer, and later swears to the police that something was removed from the apartment’s main hallway, suspecting it might have been one of the Munch-like artworks that hang there.


Marc soon hooks up with spirited journalist Gianna Brezzi (Daria Nicolodi), who is covering the case. The two begin flirting a la His Girl Friday by way of Gloria Steinem, Marc’s drolly observed discomfort over his highly unmacho job and shakiness in the face of horror show his proclaimed dislike of women’s lib, inspiring Gianna to challenge and beat him in arm-wrestling. Marc and Gianna’s scenes are pitched as pure screwball comedy, a fascinating divergence for the normally all-business Argento that enriches the film enormously. The lightly handled tensions of sex and equality gives Marc and Gianna’s romance sauce underpin much darker preoccupations of the narrative.


In the opening credits, Argento interrupts the parade of white-on-black titles for a brief, completely bewildering scene of apparent murder—a scream and darting feet in front of a postcard Christmas scene, before blithely resuming the titles. One can only deduce that there’s a victim, a killer, and a young witness. It’s a wicked gambit by Argento, because he has both positioned the scene with intense deliberation and yet also counts on the audience to forget about it immediately. Later, his camera drifts languorously in studying the killer’s weapons, props, and totems of meaning in ultra-close-up, evoking the notion of being too close to something to see it properly. The killer taunts and plays with victims like a child, hanging plastic dolls to frighten the prey; setting a mad, mechanical doll upon one to distract him from where to expect the real attack; releasing birds from their cages; and playing a creepy tape of children singing the same tune we heard in the opening.

As coscreenwriter Bernardino Zapponi explained of his and Argento’s method, things to do with infancy are always somehow scary, and, indeed, childhood motifs—creepy dolls, eerie singalongs, perverted parent-child relationships and decaying family homes—are rife in Argento’s films, as well as in those of his precursor, Mario Bava. In several attacks, the killer pointedly bashes the victims’ teeth out, evoking Freudian theories of prepubescent sexuality. As Marc follows the relentless, inward spiral of clues, he becomes implicated as a suspect, but he continues to peel the layers off the onion, which demands peeling off the layers from how sexual and social personae are constructed, moving closer and closer to a fetid, secreted heart locked within the family home. Marc finally traces a clue to the killer’s background through a book on contemporary urban folklore, and when that book’s author, Amanda Righetti (Giuliana Calandra) is one of the victims—drowned in a bathtub full of boiling water—it confirms he’s on the right track. The book leads him to an abandoned family villa, cared for by Rodi (Furio Meniconi) and his mean little girl Olga (Nicoletta Elmi), within which he first discovers a child’s rendition of the murder from the beginning buried under plaster and, eventually, a secreted corpse.


Argento’s intricate structure keeps throwing up red herrings that subvert many clichés of the contemporary thriller almost before they were invented. When it’s revealed Carlo is gay, the possibility that his eyeliner-smeared boyfriend could be the killer is hinted, in a homophobic twist a la Silence of the Lambs. Likewise, when the disturbingly strong Gianna seems to transform in one scene into a darkly angelic femme fatale, even in the act of saving Marc’s life, the film recalls the anxiety over upended gender codes exploited by Basic Instinct. The feet of the child in the opening are sexually ambiguous—high-heeled shoes and high socks could be either boy or girl in old-fashioned dress; so, too, are the killer’s, in modern style. But Argento keeps zeroing in on the concept of familial homicide. When Marc sees the grotesque mural from the house reproduced by Olga on her bedroom wall, he presses her and learns she copied it from an old picture she’d found amongst her school’s art class archives. When Marc and Gianna head to the school to find the original, Argento reveals that the killer seems to have beaten them there through the ominous signifiers of the running taps and the scrawled message on the wall: “Kill Your Father and Mother”.

There, Gianna is near-fatally stabbed, and Marc is confronted by Carlo, who drew the picture: the police, on Marc’s tail, arrive in time to drive Carlo off, and he is killed when he is dragged behind a truck and his head crushed by a passing car. However, Marc, realising that Carlo could not have committed all the murders because he was standing next to him when Ulmann was killed, finally discerns that the memory that haunted him from Ulmann’s apartment was not a painting, but a reflection in a mirror, that of Carlo’s mother (Clara Calamai). A former movie actress, who was forced by her husband, a German writer (one doubts the suggestion of roots of psychosexual trauma in the Axis alliance is accidental), to give up her career; she had many stays in an asylum until she rebelled one Christmas day and knifed her husband in the back, and event Carlo in which was forever implicated.


If the notion of the small Calamai committing the ferocious murders throughout the film is a bit of a laugh, Argento nonetheless ties together the film’s restless ideas and acerbic perspective with radical potency. Before he got stuck playing to the more conservative, misogynistic horror audiences of the ’80s with less and less inspiration, Argento found real delight in toying with expectations over who was doing what kind of violence to whom. He never abandoned his liking for substantial female characters, and here, of course, he found Nicolodi, who became his long-time girlfriend and mother of Asia) provided the vital ideas for the “Three Mothers” trilogy. She delivers a hilariously spry and sexy performance as Gianna, particularly when she gyrates her way out of Marc’s apartment after seeing a sketch of his last girlfriend, mocking him for a previous predilection for “super sexy vamps.”

Horror cinema hardly comes better than this. l

13th 09 - 2009 | 8 comments »

8½ (1963)

Director: Federico Fellini

By Roderick Heath

Federico Fellini’s signature opus is a film that, nearly a half-century ago, was the height of demanding modernism in the cinema. shook the landscape by challenging filmmakers to match its new, innately personal cinema spun purely out of its creator’s perspective and psyche and thereby establishing a new argot for exploring creative endeavour in movies. More loudly, too, if not necessarily more artfully, than any other director of the ground-breaking generation to create and work within Italian Neorealism, Fellini abandoned mere reportage and circumstantial study, and pushed deeply into metaphor, associative epiphany, psychology, and personal mystery, rather than analysis, explication, and the traditional demarcations of the social conscience film. He did not abandon such a conscience or method, but radically altered the way that he organised his responses to it, hunting for a way to dovetail the inner crisis with a common sense of anxiety and malaise.

An irony of this was that established its own personality cult, allowing student and commercial filmmakers, and other artists, to pinch its effects, images, and methods of realising intellectual autobiography. ’s inherent individuality was alchemised into public code, its pictorial quirks converted into pop art, for Fellini had a way of generating imagery that lodged in the minds of his contemporaries, as rockers like Bob Dylan and The Doors referenced his films in their songs and record covers, and Woody Allen quoted it endlessly in films like Annie Hall (1977). It’s hard to imagine other, key works by such diverse brethren as Scorsese and Coppola, Nanni Morretti, Charlie Kaufman, Bob Fosse, or Emir Kusturica without its example. was also a dividing point in Fellini’s career, after which he took up a kind of free-form fresco filmmaking, which bugged the hell out of many.

It is curious then, considering that it was a creative fount built by one of its era’s most iconic artists, that takes as its concern the theme of creative crisis—the precise loss of clear inspiration and artistic purpose. Fellini kept a sign taped to the camera during production reminding him that the film was supposed to be a comedy, and, indeed, it is a woozily funny film. But it often is underscored with an air of frantic desperation and suffocating intensity, its fumbling search for meaning and metaphor that hasn’t already been beaten to death or prostituted out to any gimmick-merchant around. Underneath its comedic surfaces, has an often grim message to communicate about the state of modern marriage, manhood, and art.

Fellini presents his troubled alter ego Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni) as a director who’s in a state of artistic, intellectual, and moral inertia even as everyone around works themselves into a frenzy. He’s given his draft screenplay to Carini (Jean Rougeul), a pompous, relentlessly critical intellectual, precisely so he will do exactly what he does with it—tear it to pieces—despite the fact that sets are being built, cast members assembled, and diplomatic paths being smoothed for proposed sequences involving the church. Guido hasn’t shown anyone else the script; the truth is he’s abandoned the project, but can’t tell anyone.

Throughout the film, Guido dips into moments of reverie, fantasy, and memory that reflect why he’s in such a state, and creep around the edges of his root anxieties. In the immortal, surreal opening, Guido dreams of being trapped in a traffic jam, dying of asphyxiation, then suddenly rising free as a kite, only to find himself still tethered to the earth, to which he falls abruptly like a stone into the sea. Later, he has a conversation with his dead father (Annibale Ninchi) and recalls a childhood filled with moments of communal joy, as when he and other kids pressed grapes in a gigantic barrel, of erotic discovery, as when he and his pals go to watch the gyrations of Seraghina (Eddra Gale), a big old beefy tart, and of forceful punishment after being caught in this act by the guardians of church morality.

These episodes are more than navel-gazing. Guido is engaged in a kind of private, psychological mystery, trying to understand his inability to unite his loving and carnal sides. He has drifted away from his wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee), whose highbrow glasses, short hair, and air of exhausted acquiescence identify her as the frazzled exemplar of the intelligent modern woman, to have an ongoing affair with a foolish but sensual married bourgeois, Carla (Sandra Milo). Several of his male friends are cheerfully hooking up with girls far younger, like his producer with his tag-along teenaged concubine, and Mario (Mario Pisu), who’s happily romping with his daughter’s school friend, the loopy Gloria (Barbara Steele).

Around Guido swirls the madhouse that is the ordinary world. He has retreated to a health spa outside Rome to try to get his wits together, but he’s been followed by the whole apparatus of the film production, including the producer Pace (Guido Alberti), whom he greets with salaams and bows. At the spa, hordes of doughy dowagers and leathery brahmins queue to blaring classical music and display humanity at its most vain, gross, and vulnerable. Guido hangs on to the most singular vision in his proposed film, of a stunningly beautiful and innocent girl (Caterina Boratto), who he wants to be played by star Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), conjuring her in moments of oppression and sadness. Carini dismisses her as an obvious symbol, but this doesn’t dispel the yearning she embodies for Guido.

The only person who withholds herself from Guido’s gravitational force, and thus remains his equal, is his wife’s sly, critical, amused friend Rossella (Rossella Falk). Guido indulges in moments of pure fantasy, as when he imagines himself casually ordering the writer’s hanging, and when he draws all the women in his life together into a dreamland harem, exiling those who have become too old “upstairs” and putting down momentary feminist revolutions with a few good cracks of his whip. It’s a particularly crucial sequence because of its bluntly funny look at the masculine sexual psyche, as Guido accuses himself of childish egotism in his inability to commit, but also relaxes within that childishness, for the harem is in the rural villa of his childhood. He bathes in the same colossal barrel as the grapes were pressed, and the place has the same atmosphere of freedom and rampant indulgence—sexual overlordship imbued with a playtime vivacity. He imagines Rossella hanging about to enjoy the spectacle (she takes the place of a tomboy girl who was his friend in the childhood memory); Gloria shivers in masochistic ecstasy and declares at the lash of his whip, “delizioso!”; and Luisa plays the domestic drudge with cheery acceptance. But out in the real world, when Guido invites Luisa to join him at the spa, she brings Rossella and a young male friend who sparks Guido’s jealousy. And of course, the sight of Carla hanging about the town drives Luisa to a fuming fit. Despite Guido’s real delight in bringing Luisa back into his life, they soon collide in a spiteful bust-up in their hotel room, as Guido is forced to contend with Luisa’s buried anger mixed into a poisonous potion with love.

The artier European filmmakers of the era were experimenting with consciously erasing the edges of the familiar grammar of narrative cinema, and Fellini’s frames, beautifully shot by Gianni Di Venanzo, teem with inky black recesses and hazy, overbright spaces into and out of which characters leap and tumble away in reeling rows, shoving weird faces into view and whipping them away again, or becoming lost in indistinctly defined, maze-like structures and abodes, full of murk and mystery, dropping in half-heard snatches of conversations, jostling and provoking the eye and the mind. Whilst far from abstract, Fellini successfully generates a giddy world dusted with the lightest frost of surrealism. The greatness of was precisely in being conceived and executed as a comedy despite its painful dramatic concerns; it’s precisely in this way that it avoids pretentiousness and self-importance. Guido is both central to and yet also entirely unimportant to the people whirling about him, who need his inventions to justify their animation but who will become animated without justification.


Fellini’s cast is impeccable, and the whole ensemble, from the brilliant Mastroianni to the underused but ever-intoxicatingly weird Steele, rise to deliver; Aimee is particularly splendid. As the lore around the movie attests, was originally intended to be a pseudo-sequel to La Dolce Vita (1960), which Fellini had announced would concern itself with the young sprite whose call to renewal went unheeded by the last Mastroianni-embodied Fellini stand-in. And yet is still more or less that sequel, presenting variations on scenes from the predecessor, but with certain twists on their meaning. An outdoor, nighttime party scene in Vita, with its air of racy self-indulgence, is mirrored here in a goofy, try-hard replica, riddled through with tedious intellections and dopey dancing. A flight into the city night with a movie star resolves not in pagan fountain-bathing, but soulful confession. The monstrous intimation of the future that was the sea beast is here the clapboard rocket ship that is finally demolished without a second thought once the production is scrapped.

La Dolce Vita’s Dickensian wit, sourced like Dickens’ writing in a gift for a feral skit vital to the good journalist (both men were reporters in their youth; and, just as Mastroianni was followed around by “Paparazz” in Vita, Mario calls Guido “Old Snaporazz” here) described its society superlatively well but retained a slippery façade of moral and intellectual finger-wagging. La Dolce Vita strained to use elements of symbolism, expressionism, and old-fashioned bawdiness to expand the scope of the Neorealist tradition, whilst maintaining a critical stance, attempting to effectively analyse, in however fumbling a fashion, social lapses and the failing efforts of European intelligentsia to redefine the modern world, with its pagan impulses, pop culture, and apocalyptic underpinnings. is angry with the previous film’s pat caricatures and reductive pessimism, seeking instead to venture inward and celebrate the capacity of creativity, if truly let loose, to repaint the world in new colours—it is art’s riposte and response at last to the stifling dictates of politics, academia and journalism.


The film, for all its moments of illness and fractiousness, is generous, even allowing its irritating critic a lucid and sympathetic soliloquy that encapsulates the nature of an artist’s role. “I wanted to make an honest film,” Guido himself eventually defines his aim, “No lies whatsoever. I thought I had something so simple to say. Something useful to everybody. A film that could help bury forever all those dead things we carry within ourselves.” The irony is that did offer such a freedom, a spiritual gateway into counterculture.

1st 09 - 2009 | 8 comments »

Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West, 1968)

Director: Sergio Leone


By Roderick Heath

Sergio Leone’s colossal reputation amongst cineastes is, considered objectively, rather odd, considering that he was only credited with directing seven films, with three certifiable greats in that handful: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967), Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) (debate the merits of 1972’s Duck, You Sucker amongst yourselves). The ironies stack up when considering that apart from his credited debut, The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), Leone, who could barely speak English, set all of his films in the United States. Most of them were essayed in a genre, the western, that was beginning to die out, and worse yet, defined a subgenre that generally was derided and considered absurd at the time they glutted the world’s fleapit movie theatres.

To actually watch a Leone film is to erase all concerns about his reputation; love his style or loathe it, it is unmistakeable. The vastness of his widescreen compositions clashing with ultra-close-ups of leathery faces and staring eyes, the spacious narratives and eccentrically shaped scenes, the slow-burn structures and bullfight-like climaxes, the taciturn heroes, tarty heroines, and incessantly zany Ennio Morricone scores, burnt themselves very quickly into the pop-cultural imagination, even if they actually took some time to be recognised as something rare and wonderful and not mere Euro-eccentricity and cheap imitation run amok. I first encountered Once Upon a Time in the West through a send-up of it on a children’s television program in the early 1980s in which, as in the film’s immortally weird opening, a swarthy gunman is harassed by a fly. The parody gunman kept trying to shoot the damn thing when it rested on his face, only to reappear later with new plasters over the missing pieces of his steadily decreasing physiognomy.


The real opening sustains nearly 10 minutes of silence, as three gunmen (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Frank Wolff) wait for a train, contending with pesky insects, dripping water and nerve-fraying ambient sounds, before the haunting refrain of a harmonica announces the arrival of the man known only by his instrument of choice. Within a blink, the three gunmen are dead. Long waits for rapid displays of violence are the key Leone trait, but usually they had Morricone’s swirling orchestrations to fill them out. this sequence dispenses with the music and proves that it’s the pure thrill of genius film construction that is so hypnotic.


Leone’s feel for mise-en-scène, conjuring a rough-hewn western landscape possessed of a deep, tactile reality, was something remarkable. Every frame in his films drip with sensuousness—you feel the heat, taste the dust, smell the sweat. Even Once Upon a Time in the West’s interiors, shot at the Cinecitta studio, look for all the world like structures battered together by frontier carpenters. Leone made Italian baroque and American grit mesh so easily one could hardly imagine how absurd the idea is on the face of it. The phrase “cultural appropriation” gets tossed around a lot, whilst the concept of cultural affinity never gets much airtime, but Leone seemed to find real affinity with American subjects. And yet he and Sam Peckinpah radically reshaped the western, to the point where they removed the supporting props from the western mythology,by substituting for its ironclad moral laws and essential innocence an altogether darker sensibility that was both more psychologically realistic and intrinsically brutal.


But where Peckinpah was fond of exploring the ambiguities of modern morality and character in a rugged setting, Leone’s fellow ’60s Italian director Vittorio Cotofavi called spaghetti westerns “neo-mythologism”—the reshaping of the western along the lines of Roman and Greek mythology, the mainstays of an Italian cinema had produced endless Hercules and Maciste films during the ’50s and ’60s.The western had largely been, in its classical form, endless variations on St. George and the Dragon, the traditional heroes idealised as defenders of social values in rough and rude realms. Leone’s own early work was in the Italian cinema’s mythological genres with pre-modern roots, and he carried something of their less easily defined morality over to the western. What that boiled down to was that Leone’s heroes were hard to distinguish from his villains, differentiated less by attitude or ethical codes than by motives and to whom, rather than why, they dealt out brute force. Of course, Leone’s films don’t exactly lack heroes or villains, but the distance between Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name or Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, and Alan Ladd’s Shane and Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp is obvious. Leone’s are always outside of society, and bound to codes more defined by loyalty and desire for revenge.

The very title of this film shows Leone’s hand. An epic, in strict poetic definition, is defined as a tale involving the founding of a nation, a precept Once Upon a Time certainly fulfills as its plot sees the encroaching railway sweep out the last of the macho titans, but not without its own distinct level of pseudo-Marxist criticality. Nearly unique amongst Leone’s films, it had input from other major creative forces, story cowriters Bernardo Bertolucci and Dario Argento, and in particular, the former’s politics and the latter’s fondness for female central characters inflected the film. Leone never did a straight love story, and a recurring gag of Once Upon a Time is that Harmonica continually engages in sexually charged situations with heroine Jill (Claudia Cardinale) whilst never actually engaging with her; only villain Frank (Henry Fonda) actually beds her.


Despite the often raw encounters between men and women that punctuate many of Peckinpah’s and Leone’s films, they were both perfervidly romantic directors, always inflecting their machismo with an ironically intense feel for the complexities and fleeting pleasures of femininity. Unlike Peckinpah, who was exploring his cynicism over the state of modern male-female relations, Leone presents overt, extraordinarily romantic qualities with Morricone’s soaring choruses, the charged close-ups and longing eyes of Cardinale here or the gauzy flashbacks that riddle For a Few Dollars More (1966) and Duck, You Sucker evoking lost loves and sorry betrayal, conceive romance as something lovely and utterly impossible, leading finally to the rudest of romantic shocks in Once Upon a Time in America. By all accounts Leone was initially reluctant to do a film with a female central character here, but you’d never know it, in light of the film’s rich conceptualisation of Jill, a plaything of the supermen about her, and yet utterly self-contained and dedicated to self-preservation through wiles and guile. Her transition from whore to empress, predicted by Jason Robard’s scruffily noble brigand Cheyenne when he suggests she reminds him of his mother (“the biggest whore and the finest lady”), entwined with the transformation from wilderness to civilisation, is the theme that ties the tale together. The men in the film either die or ride away to nothingness.


Famously, Leone cast Fonda as Frank, inverting the actor’s image as the pillar of decency, but the role recalls how well he played charged aggression in The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and destructive remoteness in Fort Apache (1948). Introduced committing mass murder, shooting a child in the face for the sake of saving the railway company of Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti) a few thousand dollars, Frank threatens to unite the evils of modern capitalism and the classical strong man. He is kept in check finally by the vengeful progress of Harmonica, but also by his own weird ethics that remained tied to the ideals of the “ancient race,” as Harmonica calls their breed of super-warrior, explicating the mythological concept. Fonda’s restraint was always his hallmark, and though he clearly relishes the villainous role, tackling it with a virility he rarely got to display, he resists any temptation to go broad.


Like that opening sequence, other scenes in the film are like perfect units, virtual short films in themselves, especially the final confrontation of Harmonica and Frank, which is so precise in its staging, dialogue, and use of a flashback that it could stand entirely alone as a summary of the genre—the greatest gunfight of them all. Harmonica’s recollections of a younger Frank walking out of a desert haze recur throughout the film, until the final revelation of the cruelty that has set Harmonica in his relentless quest is revealed, in a crane shot that’s damn near miraculous in its composition and conception. Harmonica, tucking his instrument, the totem of his history and vengeance, between the dying Frank’s teeth, delivers the most pitiless and deserved of comeuppances. The whole film is littered with such brilliant little flourishes, from, say, the sound of waves that accompanies Morton’s fantasias of manifest destiny in studying a painting of the sea, and then his ignominious fate, expiring by a muddy pool, to Cheyenne trying to stay alive long enough to fight off Frank if Harmonica can’t defeat him, all while only seeming to shave and drink Jill’s coffee. And that, really, is why Leone is such a remarkable figure—he represents the filmmaker as virtual god in full command, playing out sequences entirely according to his own feel for cinematic cause and effect.


Which is not to ignore the dramatic qualities of the film. The sparse dialogue by Mickey Knox is often funny and memorable, and the acting from the key leads impeccable. The always wonderful Cardinale is as luscious as ever, and Bronson, who could be a good actor on the few occasions it was required of him, plays Harmonica with concise authority, his stout, stony physique and petrified glare suggesting some living piece of the landscape having torn itself free to mete out hard justice. But for me, Robards steals the film with his droll, droning performance as a warrior passing his prime: his final demand that Harmonica leave him because he doesn’t want Harmonica to see him die is Leone’s most affecting scene. Once Upon a Time in the West is still one of the highpoints of cinema. l

22nd 02 - 2009 | 7 comments »

The Organizer (I Compagni, 1963)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Mario Monicelli


By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the Oscar-nominated films this year, The Reader, shows the horrible consequences illiteracy can have on the lives of those who cannot read, causing its female protagonist to make a morally repugnant choice to keep her shameful deficit a secret. The Organizer is another film in which illiteracy plays a very large role, but shame isn’t something its victims feel; rather, the shame is largely on a society that exploits them by keeping them so exhausted that they haven’t got the energy to learn and so poor that they can’t wait to leave school and start earning some money.

The film, which takes place in the late 1890s, deals with the struggle of textile workers in Turin to improve their working conditions and wages. Under the opening credits, workers are heard singing a rousing labor song, “Marcia della cinghia” (“March of the strap”). Among them is Omero (Franco Ciolli), a young man of about 18, who has had to chop through ice to get water to pour from a pitcher into a scrub basin; after testing the water with his finger, he decides to skip washing before he sets off for a 14-hour shift at the factory.

Close-up, repetitive images of the shivering looms interspersed with workers tending to the turning gears, pushing gigantic metal spindles along the shop floor, and pushing fabric through sewing machines are scored by the screeching and drumming of the machines in action. Workers are given a mere half hour for lunch (in Italy!) and then answer the whistle to return to work. Nearing 8 p.m. and the end of their work day, workers nod at their posts. A sudden howl of pain has workers rush to one machine where Pietrino (Antonio di Silvio) works to free his ensnared hand. At the hospital, several of his coworkers take up a collection to help while he is recuperating from amputation. A Sicilian worker merely makes a “phsst” sound through his teeth when asked to contribute. The workers complain about all of the industrial accidents caused by the long hours, then hurry home, complaining about the sleep they’ve lost that night attending to their friend.

A group of workers meet the next day and decide to protest by blowing the whistle one hour early. The men and women, most notably the powerfully built Pautasso (Folco Lulli) and the equally powerfully built Adele (Gabriella Giorgelli), write their names on a piece of paper. The name drawn will be the one who sneaks up to blow the whistle. When the name is drawn, it is merely an “X.” “Who signed with an X?” Four men raise their hands. Pautasso shrugs and says, “I’ll do it.” Unfortunately, at 7:30 pm, the foreman comes to the boiler room, causing the workers who agreed to shut down the machines to keep them running when Pautasso blows the whistle. With the machines moving, the rest of the workers stay where they are. Pautasso is caught and suspended for two weeks.


After work, as Pautasso storms out of the manager’s office with his daughter Maria (Edda Ferronao) in tow, stopping only to throw rocks at his “comrades,” a train pulls up. A bearded, ragged man evades a railroad conductor, and drops from the car in which he has stolen a ride. He goes to see his colleague Maestro di Meo (François Périer), a grade-school teacher in town who tries to teach the illiterate adults in Turin to read and write in the evening. Di Meo puts up Professor Sinigaglia (Marcello Mastrioanni) in a backroom. The next day, the still-disgruntled workers meet to form a committee to deal with the factory managers. Instead of leaving work early, they decide to go in one hour later. Sinigaglia joins the group when young Raoul (Renato Salvatori) proclaims skepticism at their chances of success against the bosses. Sinigaglia agrees with Raoul that they should not risk failure for so little, and agitates them to go on strike. So begins a month-long action that will see two of the workers die—one in an attempt to keep poor, unemployed men from another town from scabbing their jobs, the other in a march on the factory to demand their rights—and more collections taken on their behalf, racist-laced anger at the Sicilian who asks to go back to work melt when they see how incredibly poor he and his family are, and a new union organizer made.


Monicelli, best known worldwide for his comic caper Big Deal on Madonna Street, has a deft hand for both the fine details and broad strokes of comedy and uses them to flesh out a story that in other hands has been told with tragic seriousness. Mastrioanni’s character is chronically hungry. Right after his first appearance, he is seen spotting and grabbing hold of a sandwich one of the workers has left on a table. The worker comes back to retrieve the sandwich—when he sees it in the professor’s hands, his friendliness melts away and, glaring, he confiscates it from the sheepish organizer and stares back suspiciously at him as he climbs the stairs to the street. In another scene, a streetwalker named Niobe (Annie Girardot) takes pity on the professor, who has had to flee from his billet in Raoul’s apartment to avoid arrest, and tells him he can stay at her place. We watch the professor eye her as she removes her clothes behind a curtain and washes. When she settles into her big brass bed and eyes him in his long johns on a hard window seat, she hardly has the words out to invite him into her bed before he dashes to her side.

The factory owner is another piece of work. Obviously inspired by Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life, he revels in his own nastiness, hitting his blindfolded, piñata-seeking granddaughter with his cane as he whizzes past her in his wheelchair to whine to his managers about the money he is losing to the strike. He invites them to join the birthday party, then reconsiders when he sees they’re not dressed properly. As he slams out of the room, the nonplussed managers merely look down at their suits.

Organizer%205.jpgThe community of workers is large, and Monicelli finds room to tell more than a few stories. While he highlights some families, the sense of shared fates is strong, particularly in the seemingly endless collections they take. When the striking textile workers steal coal from an idle coal car, the professor tries to persuade the railroad workers to strike in solidarity. His request is refused with the remark, “I’m letting them steal coal, aren’t I?” Nobody can really afford to be without work, yet as we learn early, “hands don’t grow back.” Mastrioanni’s character represents idealism, but based on a very real need that simply could not go unanswered. Education, as well, is given a lot of attention in the film, with Omero beating up his underperforming younger brother for wanting to quit school and join him in the factory. “I’d rather kill you than see you do what I do,” he says, a desperate statement that shows how deadly serious this often light film really is.

In fact, The Organizer reveals many familiar patterns of labor films, and in that vein, distances the audience from deep pain by creating slightly shallow characterizations. The idea, I think, behind this common genre strategy is to allow viewers to project themselves into the masses of workers, deliberately emphasizing in Brechtian style a movement over individuality. It is the problem of a few individuals who want to keep the good life for themselves that creates the misery of the many, and labor films seek to put these facts in high relief. It may be a bit detrimental to the cause, however, to allow audiences to skim the depth of despair and avoid truly mourning the loss of good men and women to poor working conditions and craven capitalists who value their property over human life.

In addition to the many wonderful comic/tragic performances of which Mastrioanni’s is only one, composer Carlo Rustichelli lends his considerable gifts to this film, punctuating the score with the types of comic moments for which he is known, particularly in his work with Pietro Germi. His tempos and Monicelli’s lively mise-en-scène keep this somewhat complex film humming with energy. His “Marcia della cinghia” is superb—I’d be surprised if it weren’t sung at labor rallies now as a legitimate populist march of solidarity.

Mario Monicelli has made buckets of movies, his most recent in 2006. Eric Rohmer announced his retirement this year, and he’s five years younger than Monicelli. Here’s hoping Monicelli will buck the “trend” and give us more films like The Organizer.

5th 09 - 2008 | 3 comments »

Famous Firsts: La Maschera del Demonio (Black Sunday, 1960)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Mario Bava, director


By Roderick Heath

Mario Bava, ace cinematographer, had filled in as director on his mentor Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1956), the film many horror genre scholars see as the first of a nascent explosion in the genre’s popularity that barely receded until the mid 1980s. Bava was the son of a sculptor and film effects pioneer Eugenio Bava, and had wanted to be a painter himself. But he, too, moved into movies and became a respected director of photography, working for the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. He had also made some short documentaries in the ’40s. The low budgets and strict shooting schedules of Italian genre film often overwhelmed directors and crews, and Bava had proven himself able at picking up the pieces. He had done so on I Vampiri, when Freda, frustrated, had walked off the set, forcing Bava to finish the film in two days. Bava had also contributed to several films as second-unit or fill-in director. In 1960, he finally made his first lone, credited foray into directing at the age of 46, La Maschera del Demonio.


Some horror critics feel La Maschera del Demonio is Bava’s best film. It certainly exemplified a richness of style nigh untouched at the time by other genre filmmakers, pulsing with inventive cinema and making an immediate impact. In what was becoming common practice, foreign actors were imported to sell Italian genre films overseas. For horror films whose makers were attempting to pass them off as Hammer product, British actors, rather than Americans like Steve Reeves, were hired. For his debut, Bava picked up John Richardson, whose greatest claim to fame would be to act alongside Raquel Welch in One Million B.C. (1967), and a young actress whose appearances thus far had been restricted to four rather small roles in her native land—Barbara Steele.


The story is loosely based on a Nokolai Gogol short story, “The Vij,” and Gogol’s work itself was adapted distantly from folk tales collected by early Christian scholar Saint John Cassian. The startling opening is worth noting for confronting violence. Around this time, horror films were becoming vehicles for a fresh, increasingly manifest social and historical cynicism, and were exploiting looser censorship with newly charged depictions of gore that anticipated the interests of the 1960s, when more revolutionary fantasies were taking grip. There is quite a gulf between the relatively distant fantasies of German Expressionism and Universal horror and that more direct impulses toward attacking social order in horror at the time. Terence Fisher had begun actively eviscerating historical iniquity in his Hammer films, Alfred Hitchcock tried to capture the shocking texture of sudden violence and incipient madness in Psycho, Michael Powell had meditated on the relationship between voyeurism and brutality with Peeping Tom (1960), and Georges Franju had made his explicitly antipatriarchal parable Eyes Without a Face (1959). To this Bava now added a direct approach to historical misogyny and warped religious concepts of femininity and virtue, subjects rarely tackled before except by Carl Dreyer, one of intelligent horror’s strongest influences, in films like The Passion of Joan of Arc (1927) and Day of Wrath (1943).


Bava begins at his most provocative, with a spectacle of Inquisition in old Moldavia. An accused witch, Princess Asa Vajda (Steele), and her brother (a detail obscured in the English-dubbed version), lover, and consort in evil, Javutich (Arturo Dominici), having been captured and condemned by soldiers and priests, are subjected to gruesome punishment. Javutich is already dead. Their other brother, Gryabi, acts as Grand Inquisitor, bringing this relentless annihilation upon them. Asa begs for Satan’s aid to return from the grave and punish her tormenters, which include her own father. She is, in short order, branded, and has a “devil’s mask”—a grotesquely spiked object designed to eternally identify her as a Satanic being— pounded onto her face with a sledgehammer. The sickening force of the blow and the blood that flows from her face is gross enough, but Bava makes sure we hear her moans that tell us she survives this torture. Following this, she is to burn at the stake, but a furious wind and rainstorm prevent it. Instead, she is interred in her family crypt under a repressing cross, and Javutich is buried.


Two centuries later, figures of modern, masculine rationality, embodied by Doctor Choma Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) and his young assistant, Andrei Gorobek (Richardson), travel the region. Their carriage throws a wheel, and whilst their jittery driver fixes it, they venture into a nearby ruin of a church. Vaguely aware of Asa’s legend, they discover her sarcophagus and can’t resist opening it, tugging off the devil’s mask to reveal her face, riddled with holes and with the eyes rotten away but still surprisingly intact. Kruvajan cuts himself, of course, and blood spills on Asa’s corpse. As they leave the church, they are startled to happen upon a young woman with a mastiff blocking their exit, the very image of the witch. But this is her descendent Katia Vaida (Steele again), who makes eye contact with the handsome and young Richardson, and bids them go in peace. But peace is short-lived—Asa has been revived by the blood. She summons Javutich from his grave, which he digs his way out of, and he sets about aiding Asa’s vengeance on her family, including Katia; her father, Prince Vajda (Ivo Garrani); and her brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri).

La Maschera was a prestige effort for Galatea Studios, which gave Bava an uncommonly long six weeks to make the film. Bava used the time well, setting up some impressively complex and innovative camerawork. Despite this, it has a number of the regulation cheesy moments of horror films of the time, notably a bat the size of Rodan that attacks Kruvajin. AIP bought the film and hacked it about considerably, dubbing a lousy Les Baxter score over it and changing the title to Black Sunday. Nonetheless, they were paid off with a big hit. The film became an immediate template to steal from, so that works like Freda’s L’Orribile Segreto del Dr. Hichcock, Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum, John Moxey’s City of the Dead, and others filched its plot and imagery to the point where it looks clichéd now.


The shoot was beset with script difficulties that Bava doesn’t entirely paper over. But like Hitchcock, Buñuel, and Lang before him, and Argento and De Palma after him, Bava was the kind of cinematic shaman whose belief in the power of images subverted dramatic standards. Scenes in La Maschera dazzle the eye and imagination; Katia, framed by the shattered doorway of the church, holding two dogs on leashes; Javutich slowly breaking his way out of his tomb and lumbering out into the night; the nocturnal progress of the Vajdas’ coach, appropriated by Javutich, making its ghostly passage through the night fog; the gently gliding camera that observes the Vajda family in their castle, a Byzantine environment of great carvings and paintings; Asa, partly revived, calling for Kruvajin to become her lover and the middle-aged intellectual instantly enslaved; Prince Vajda discovered gnarled and masticated; Asa sucking out Katia’s lifeforce to rejuvenate herself.


It’s wonderful to watch Bava save the genre from the mercenary insipidness that had, apart from rare exceptions, afflicted the style of horror films for two decades after the dizzying stylistic heights of films like Nosferatu, Bride of Frankenstein, and Vampyr. Bava enters the gothic realm wholeheartedly, employing some newer, sophisticated camera techniques, like slow motion, which had barely, if ever, been used before by genre directors. He also employs some devilishly clever, exceedingly simple special effects, like the slowing regrowing eyes that fill Asa’s sockets, and the infrared make-up effect used when Asa leeches off Katia. Maschera also leapt wholeheartedly into another, perhaps ultimately less salutary, trend, towards strong violence and raw corporeal effect. Asa’s branding and masking, Vajda’s masticated corpse, and Kruvajin’s scorched face all represent the new frontier for gore in the genre. Much of this had to be edited out of the AIP cut, and the film was refused a certificate altogether in Britain, where it was not released uncut until 1992.


With his tales of rampant killers driven beyond all reason to wipe out everyone who taunts their illusory desires, like Sei Donne per l’Assassino (1964) and Ecologia del Delitto (1973), Bava probably did more than any other horror director other than Hitchcock to invent a modern genre; La Maschera, with its Gothic style and themes, might seem backwards-looking by comparison to some of his later work. Bava also had gifts that invited a larger stage than he ever achieved. But Bava was born to make horror films, not merely because of his talent at creating pitch-perfect mise en scène, but because of his insistent interest in the notion of repressed feelings, passions, and ideas rudely returning to enfold and ensnare the present. Such a notion is, indeed, fundamental to the genre. But perhaps no other filmmaker maintained such a relentless interest in expressing the idea, especially through incestuous families, fuelling the narratives of this film, Operazione Paura (1966), Lisa i en Diavoli (1972), and Shock! (1977). Sexual passion, particularly, keeps resurging in warped ways; condemned in an act of patriarchal repression; Asa is a raw, seething body of sexuality that refuses to die, determined to ensnare all who approach her, and to steal the flesh of the virginal Katia. The image of Asa, lying on her bier, face pocked with unholy holes, writhing like a lustful leech, her fingers clawing and flexing with rapacious need, seducing Kruvajin, isn’t quickly forgotten.


Steele is an incalculable asset. Her perverse beauty, with her ability to project gradations in intensely weird emotions, from virginal insensibility to insatiable cruelty to rampant madness, instantly became emblematic of the genre—and made her verboten for mainstream cinema. Even Fellini could only manage to cast her as a kooky beatnik in (1963). Steele was a cunning actress and a hipster with a feminist bent. As such she was entirely hip to Bava’s approach, and would later express cutting opinions on the degeneration of the genre into misogynistic slasher films. She expertly presents distinct characterizations of innocent, doe-like Katia and the powerfully perverse Asa. She is the centre of the film, far more than the heroes Andrei and Constantine, who, as is often the case in Bava, are present as a requirement, but are so wooden and conventional they practically disappear. If there’s a disappointment to La Maschera, it’s that it ends too conventionally. Asa, unlike a lot of subsequent movie monsters, is cool and interesting enough to win.



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