Category: Italian cinema

The Dinner (I Nostri Ragazzi, Italy 2014)

The doctor (left) and the lawyer with their respective partners around the restaurant table. From left, Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his wife, Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Massimo (Alessandro Gassman),  and his second wife Sofia (Barbora Bobulova). Foto by Emanuela Scarpa.

The doctor (left) and the lawyer with their respective partners around the restaurant table. From left, Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his wife, Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), Massimo (Alessandro Gassman), and his second wife Sofia (Barbora Bobulova). Foto by Emanuela Scarpa.

bfi-london-film-festival-2014-title-block-750x680Google translates the Italian title of this film as ‘Our Boys’ – which is confusing because it appears to refer to the original novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch. For this Italian adaptation writer-director Ivano de Matteo and his co-writer Valentina Ferlan have changed aspects of the novel’s narrative including two of the central characters, making them a boy and girl rather than two boys. The various changes (there are more) are intended to make the moral question at the heart of the narrative even more compelling.

The ‘dinner’ is a regular event in which a wealthy lawyer and his second wife entertain the lawyer’s brother, a paediatrician, and his gallery ‘explainer’ wife. It is always the same expensive restaurant and the relationship between the brothers is testy at best. The doctor is critical of his brother who he thinks has too much money and has married a ‘bimbo’. This latter is rather unfair and the film is suffused with a sense of a critique about the haute bourgouisie in Rome. The central part of the narrative refers to a dangerous and reprehensible action involving the lawyer’s daughter and the doctor’s son who are on their way home from a party. I won’t spoil what they did. The fallout is that the two sets of parents have to decide what to do and in what follows most audiences are going to be surprised by the actions that the parents take – which is unexpected, not just in terms of what they do but also in terms of who does what. The denouement takes place at the next dinner when the two couples are together again. The actions they take are also compared to an incident which takes place at the start of the film. This sees a case of road rage in which an off-duty policeman pulls a gun when he is threatened with a jack and shoots the assailant dead, also wounding the man’s son. The lawyer brother then defends the policeman and the doctor looks after the injured child.

You probably get the impression that this is a contrived narrative and that is precisely right according to the director who answered questions in the Q & A alongside Jacopo Olmo Antinori, the young actor playing the lawyer’s son (who also played a disaffected teenager in Bertolucci’s Me and You which I saw at the Bradford Film Festival in 2013). One member of the audience said that he was profoundly shocked by the ending of the film. I’m not so sure. I certainly noticed the ending but I’d got a little irritable by then because the interplay between the brothers did indeed seem contrived – loaded one way so that it could be flipped. Ivano de Matteo was an engaging aggressive character in the Q & A and he is clearly a talented director. The film won the prize for ‘Best European Feature’ awarded by the Europa Cinemas Network after its Venice festival screening which means it will get support for distribution in Europe. It has also been acquired for North America. A Dutch adaptation has already been released and a Cate Blanchett adaptation is also expected.

I thought the film was well made and the performances were good. It is an interesting moral dilemma but I did feel I was being manipulated. That may not be a bad thing if my liberal views are being challenged, but I didn’t enjoy the film so much because of the approach the director takes. I’m grateful to the ‘Den of Geek’ review of the film which points out that What Richard Did and We Need to Talk About Kevin cover much of the same ground much more cogently and more effectively.

Dante (Italy/US/Canada 2014)

Beatrice (Eleonora Pizzoccheri) recruits Virgilio (Francesco Cevaro) to be Dante's guide through The Inferno

Beatrice (Eleonora Pizzoccheri) recruits Virgilio (Francesco Cevaro) to be Dante’s guide through The Inferno

The international operation of national cultural agencies such as the Goethe Institut, Cervantes Institute and Institut Français (and Alliance Française) means that in many cities films and associated cultural activities are accessible on a regular basis. But what of Italian culture? There is an equivalent agency in the form of the Dante Alighieri Society which operates worldwide. Some societies show Italian films but it may be that the profile (certainly in my part of the UK) is not as high as the other language agencies.

This new Dante film is clearly aimed at increasing that profile in North America. Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is considered to be the ‘father of Italian language’ and his famous epic poem ‘The Divine Comedy’ is seen to be the first to be written in an ‘iteration of modern Italian’. The poem has long been taught in the Italian school curriculum and is now being taught overseas, but up until now there has not been a modern feature length film adaptation of the poem. This new film adaptation of the ‘Divine Comedy’ is a co-production designed to introduce students to the poem and also to offer a new interpretation to diaspora Italian audiences and a wider audience interested in Italian culture.

DantePosterDante, directed by Luca Lussoso and produced by Elettra Pizzi at Elektra Films will have its Canadian première (free screening) at The Columbus Centre, 901 Lawrence Avenue W, Toronto, ON M6A 1C3 on Tuesday, October 14 at 7:00 pm. Get tickets from Eventbrite.

I can’t claim any knowledge of Dante’s poem, except that I know it is an acclaimed literary work. I’ll therefore concentrate on what is presented in the new film more from an aesthetic perspective. The film is quite short for a feature – about 72 minutes – and presented in Italian with optional English subtitles. It isn’t a ‘costume picture’ that attempts to represent an authentic medieval world. Instead many of the backgrounds are presented using computer modelling, so that the film image appears more like a videogame in parts (rather than ‘realist’ CGI). Thinking about it, the prospect of exploring the underworld seems eminently suited to a certain kind of videogame experience. The aesthetic is clearly chosen to attract the target audience as this extract from the Press Notes suggests:

. . . creating a film that facilitates cultural diffusion through a universal medium can garner curiosity even in those intimidated by the epic poem. The film is meant to gain natural curiosity from those who have an interest in Italian history, literature, language studies, and in general the Italian population who learn about Dante and The Divine Comedy throughout their educational upbringing.

The official (English language version) website for ‘Dante the film’ has further details and contact details for anyone trying to organise a screening.

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Ieri, oggi, domani, Italy-France 1963)

A pregnant Adelina in 'Yesterday' (still from DVD Beaver)

A pregnant Adelina in ‘Yesterday’ (still from DVD Beaver)

There is a story behind my interest in this film. I went to see it in my local ABC cinema almost exactly 50 years ago on its initial UK release in 1964. I remember queuing up as a 15 year-old with my 13 year-old girlfriend. We just managed to get two seats on the front row of a cinema with over 1700 seats. The film had an ‘X’ Certificate (which at that time supposedly barred under 16s). It was dubbed into English, but even so, the possibility of such an enormous audience (it was probably a Saturday night) is an indication of the potential for dubbed European films in the period. (The film was distributed in the UK via Paramount.) The big attraction (certainly for me) was Sophia Loren. I probably then knew the director Vittoria De Sica as an actor in The Four Just Men TV series. I remembered two of the three episodes in this portmanteau film – but only as outline ideas and one or two images of the sublime Ms Loren.

The film’s title refers to the three stories associated with the South (Naples), the North (Milan) and the capital, Rome. Each story features La Loren with Marcello Mastroianni as different characters. In the first Loren is Adelina, a Neapolitan cigarette-seller in 1954 relying on contraband supplies and facing a prison sentence – unless she is pregnant or nursing an infant. Mastroianni is eventually exhausted by the effort to look after the children and impregnating his wife pregnant. She seems to thrive. In Milan Loren is Anna the bored wife of an industrialist who plays with Mastroianni as a trophy ‘artistic’ lover and in Rome she is Mara, a high-class call girl teasing both a weak Mastroianni and the young seminarian next door.

Anna, the unfaithful wife . . . (from dvdbeaver.com)

Anna, the unfaithful wife . . . (from dvdbeaver.com)

In truth this is a strange trio of stories. The first and the last are broad comedies in which Loren is the strong woman for whom sexual attractiveness is an asset that helps her achieve what she wants and Mastroianni is a weak man and the butt of many of the jokes. The Milan story, from a novella by the well-known Italian writer Alberto Moravia, is much more like a modernist tale with no real narrative. It is by far the shortest of the three and the least entertaining. Having said that, the image of an elegant and coiffured Sophia Loren in a Rolls-Royce, stayed with me from the first viewing. The concept of a portmanteau film in which each episode is directed by the same filmmaker is relatively unusual. Such films with a different director for perhaps four or more separate stories were quite common in this period and usually focused on a single location or theme. The only other ‘single-authored’ compendium which springs to mind is The Yellow Rolls-Royce (dir. Anthony Asquith, UK 1965) with three stories using the same vehicle at different times and with different (star) actors. So, how does De Sica’s selection come together? In some ways the three films are representative of De Sica’s career in films. He began as an actor in the popular melodramas of the 1930s, gained international recognition in the late 1940s with his neo-realist melodramas as a director and went on in the 1950s to move back towards the popular mainstream. ‘Adelina’ could certainly be a neo-realist film given it’s setting and single plot issue (based on a genuine Neapolitan regulation). Ironically, Cesare Zavattini, De Sica’s writing collaborator in the neo-realist period had a hand in the scripts for the second and third stories, but not the first.

Marcello Mastroianni as Mara's hapless 'customer' (from dvdbeaver.com)

Marcello Mastroianni as Mara’s hapless ‘customer’ (from dvdbeaver.com)

There seems to be a problem with the title and the ordering of the three stories. ‘Adelina’ in Naples represents the past. So much is clear. But ‘Anna’ in Milan is surely the future or at least the ‘modern’? Mara in Rome seems very stuck in traditional Roman society. Whereas the first two stories also have some kind of social satire/commentary (on birth control and contemporary marriage and morality) the third story seems very light. Perhaps, after all, the film was just intended to serve the twin purposes of producer Carlo Ponti – to offer a high profile role to his partner Ms Loren (there were problems with the legality of their marriage) and to create an international hit. Loren had already starred in the Two Women (1961) and the ‘epic’ El Cid (1962) and when her three performances in Ieri, oggi, domani helped the film to (rather surprisingly) win the Best Foreign Language film Oscar, Ponti’s plans seemed to have come to fruition. The following year of course saw the Italian release of A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) and the beginning of a new form of Italian film export. Carlo Ponti would, however, continue to find success with major productions.

The Eureka R2 DVD that I watched does not offer the dubbed version (which I would like to have watched for comparison). It offers a perfectly good Italian print with English subtitles. I read one American review which suggested that the sex appeal of Sophia Loren is used as a ‘tease’ (literally a striptease in the third story) and that the film resembles the Doris Day comedies popular in the US at the time. I can see that’s an interesting comment but I’m not sure I agree. It would take some time to watch a couple of examples and work through a comparison. I like Doris Day as a performer but not necessarily in those comedies. Sophia Loren is really in a category of her own.

Cinema Paradiso (Nuovo Cinema Paradiso, Italy / France 1989).

cinema-paradiso-poster-636-220-slice

This popular classic film has been released in a digital format. Presumably this is partly to take advantage of the Xmas season. On its initial release in the UK in 1990 the film was voted the favourite in a poll of The Guardian readers. I have looked at several reviews but not one of them mentioned that there is actually a Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (Cinema Paradiso: The Special Edition) which was released in the UK in 1994. Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian commented on the re-release that he was “the reviewer who confessed to finding Cinema Paradiso a bit sugary and the kid [Salvatore as a child – Salvatore Cascio] a bit annoying.” Mr Bradshaw has not, apparently, seen the Special Edition.

This version extends the film from 123 minutes to 175 minutes. It also transforms the film from a somewhat sentimental drama to a complex, if more downbeat, exploration of Italian culture and cinema. Famously the film presents numerous extracts from Italian, European and Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s screened at the Paradiso. These remain in the longer version but the addition of nearly an hour presents a major ellipsis, almost all from the third segment of the film.

Essentially the opening introduces us to the adult Salvatore (Jacques Perrin). The largest segment of the film is an extended flashback to when he was at first a viewer then a projectionist at the cinema. In the final epilogue he returns to his home island of Sicily to attend the funeral of his mentor Alfredo (Phillippe Noiret).

The film is a romance, first of cinema, but also of Salvatore’s passion for a young woman Elena (Agnese Nano). The full-length epilogue brings unexpected information and resonance to the romance. A keen-eyed friend of mine had spotted the clue that remains in the earlier truncated version; a brief glimpse of Brigitte Fossey in the montage of brief scenes that accompanies the end credits. The addition of her character to the story brings a whole biter-sweet amplification to the tale. It also becomes clear that the long version is the full version of the story as originally conceived by the writer and director Giuseppe Tornatore.

The filling out of the story also adds complexity to many aspects of the film: notably the use of film extracts, especially clips from well-known Neo-realist and post-Neo-realist art films made in Italy. The motifs are both visual and aural: a student once offered me a very fine essay that traced the sound and musical motifs across the film.

The other famous aspect of this well-loved film is a final montage of film extracts compiled by Alfredo before his death. These too take on added resonance in the longer version. The originally released shorter version is a fine and moving film. The longer version seems to me one of the masterworks of Italian cinema, which takes on greater complexity with every viewing. A couple of years ago the same friend checked and their was a single 35mm copy of the The Special Edition available in the UK. If this is still on offer perhaps some imaginative exhibitor could screen the film in its original release format. I am sure Peter Bradshaw, and many other film lovers, would find the three hours immensely rewarding.