The Case for Global Film

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Archive for the ‘Italian cinema’ Category

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

Posted by keith1942 on 15 December 2013

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.

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The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, Italy-France 2013)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 24 September 2013

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

During the first half of this film (that I knew had been a Cannes success earlier this year) I did wonder what I was going to get out of it – apart from a terrific soundtrack, production design and camerawork. At the end I was genuinely surprised that 140 minutes had passed. As I began to read about it I realised that I had taken in much more than I had been conscious of at the time. This is certainly highly intelligent and literate cinema focusing on a world I’ve never experienced, though as I’m roughly the same age as the central character I can understand his reactions to events whether they are dramatic, mundane or surreal. I’m still not sure whether I ‘enjoyed’ the film, but I was certainly engrossed by it.

This is the fifth film written and directed by the Neapolitan Paulo Sorrentino since 2001′s One Man Up. The two most successful and best known in the UK are The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008). The central character Jep Gambardella is played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Jep is a flâneur, a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man but who is now at 65 primarily a socialite who knows all the leading figures of Rome’s high society. As many commentators have suggested, The Great Beauty appears at first glance to draw on Fellini’s La dolce vita from 1960, especially given its mixture of parties and social events attended by the glitterati and religious leaders of Rome and located in beautiful gardens, palaces etc (as well as Jep’s own apartment by the Coliseum). But in the earlier film Marcello Mastroianni is a journalist in his thirties and Rome is a rejuvenated city enjoying the economic boom in post-war Italy. By contrast, Jep is 65 and his Rome appears defeated (if still beautiful, at least in its classical buildings). The Great Beauty is a film about death and regret – but it does end on a note that is both melancholy and potentially positive.

The Great Beauty is so stylish with its impeccable CinemaScope compositions and crane shots and its almost operatic use of music and staging that its layered narrative and snappy dialogue are easily lost in an aesthetic swoon. There is a distinct sense of loss and waste – quite literally in the characters who disappear. The film is so stuffed with literary references that without a great deal of background it isn’t possible to read the narrative fully. The film begins with what I think are the opening lines of Journey to the End of Night (1932) by Céline – a novel I don’t know and had to look up. Jep constantly refers to Flaubert and the concept of nothingness. As far as I can work out this nothingness is a condition both of his own life and of Rome itself. I recommend the article by Pasquale Iannone in Sight & Sound, October 2013 as helpful in trying to make sense of the film. Like Iannone, I was struck by several scenes which seemed indebted to Buñuel. Iannone refers to the animals in surreal settings but I also thought of the haute bourgeoisie ‘trapped’ in social situations at dinner, at parties etc. In the press notes Sorrentino discusses his collaboration with screenwriter Umberto Contarello and how he views Rome still as a superior kind of tourist attraction, even though he has made it his home. This idea is enunciated in Jep’s voiceover. Rome is indeed a city ‘eternal’ in its attractions and mysteries, seductive yet ‘empty’. Sorrentino tells us that the film is in effect a paean to classical Italian cinema, its directors, stars and films. I don’t think I know that cinema well enough to comment but I did think, during the latter stages of the film, about an Italian director who was actually born in Rome (unlike Sorrentino or Fellini and Pasolini, both discussed by Sorrentino). Oddly, Roberto Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960), although a completely different kind of film, does share some ingredients including the fading aristocracy and the power plays of the church.

I can appreciate that The Great Beauty would probably repay a second or even a third viewing. It also features a soundtrack that deserves further attention. The film seems to be doing reasonable business in the UK (nearly £500,000 after ten days). Perhaps the stir at Cannes in May has helped. Given the splendour of its sound and images I suspect that the Blu-ray may do well.

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Inspector Montalbano

Posted by Roy Stafford on 23 September 2013

Luca Zingaretti is Inspector Montalbano

Luca Zingaretti is Inspector Montalbano (image from RAI)

(I wrote the first part of this post in October 2012 but didn’t publish it. Now that BBC4 are showing The Young Montalbano, it seems a good idea to post on both together.)

Inspector Montalbano is one of global television’s delights. In the UK these feature-length TV films have been dropped into the schedule for BBC4 almost as filler between the much more heavily-promoted Scandinavian crime fiction series. There is the impression that schedulers, critics and some audiences view the films as light summer relief before the return of ‘Nordic noir’ for the winter. I can understand this reaction but it shouldn’t prevent a proper appreciation of a rather different kind of crime fiction.

Inspector Salvatore Montalbano (‘Salvo’) is a creation of the Italian crime writer Andrea Camilleri and the character’s name is partly a reference to the Spanish crime writer Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, whose police investigator had a similar passion for good food. (Salvo has also been seen as partly based on Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.) The focus on gastronomy in the Italian series is part of an overall approach which includes a comedy element and a visual style that shows the Sicilian townscapes and landscapes to their best advantage.

There are now 22 crime novels in the series and around 26 TV films (including several ‘telescripts only’ as sources, so there should be more adaptations to come). Recently broadcast episodes in the UK are around 110 minutes in length and the series has been made in a leisurely fashion so that the Italian producers (the public service broadcaster RAI plus the Swedish PSB Sveriges Television – SVT) have made roughly two per year since 1999. Each film begins with an aerial sequence showing the Sicilian location – an attractive coastal town with a harbour. This is reminiscent of the openings of US TV series like CSI, except it’s much sunnier. The sunny aspect is contrasted to some extent with the dark, orchestral score with its Hitchcockian undertones – as well as what I take to be some elements of Arab music, since the Moorish influence on Sicily was strong. Salvo has a house virtually on the beach and he often swims in the sea or gazes from his veranda. The beach has also served as the location of various crimes – in recent episodes Salvo has found a dead horse, a corpse in the water and watched a seagull die and fall to the sand a few feet away. Salvo has a housekeeper, who cooks him delicious meals (he also has a favourite restaurant where he dines seemingly every working day). His long-term girlfriend, Livia, is based in Northern Italy and she visits him occasionally, flying in from Genoa. Salvo lives well – he’s nothing like Wallander or the harassed Danish investigators. Beautiful women crop up in most episodes. They are charmed by Salvo but they also turn the tables on him. As well as Livia he also has a locally-based female friend who appears in several episodes.

According to Wikipedia, the fictitious town of ‘Vigata’ is created from locations in the inland city of Ragusa and the coastal towns of Punta Secca and Licata. In the novels it is the author’s own town of Porto Empedocle with Agrigento acting as the district headquarters of ‘Montelusa’. The stories are set very precisely in this area of Southern Sicily and the locations are not just backgrounds but esssential for the representation of local culture – but also the kinds of criminal activity that might happen here (such as the people smuggling). The locations also act as a form of ‘eye-candy’, competing with Salvo’s food and his very beautiful female companions. One of the possible reasons why the series is dismissed is the way in which comedy works in the series. Catarella, the policeman with a form of ‘name dyslexia’, is very broad as a comic character. The writing is sympathetic towards this character and in more than one episode his ridiculous behaviour is revealed to mask a set of observational skills – and a network of personal contacts. Perhaps more significantly, Salvo is a sophisticated man who tolerates most of his colleagues and the local officials with whom he works. He only has two completely reliable colleagues. One is his ‘go to’ detective Fazio and the other is a local journalist. The others are fair game for his wit, especially the local lothario and Salvo’s second-in-command, Mimì. Salvo’s approach is a little ‘war-weary’ as he deals with his superiors located in Montelusa, the local Mafia families or the church authorities. Within Vigata itself, Salvo is clearly in charge.

The unusual mixture of elements in the series is seen most clearly in the handling of violent/complex action sequences. These seem to me to be handled in a deliberately inept and unrealistic manner, comical in their clumsiness and the way in which Salvo is put into danger. It’s almost as if the writers and directors are bored with the idea of having to show a fight and would much rather get back to the chat, the food and the beautiful women. However, at the same time the stories are serious and intelligent, especially in the characterisation of the criminals and their victims, many of whom in a small community are known to Salvo or to one of his men or to his friends and acquaintances. The themes of the stories delve into the lives of contemporary Sicilians and there is also a specific interest in stories that have a historical basis accessible via elderly characters and/or through the travels of Sicilians returning from abroad. This historical perspective is something I’ve noticed in Italian crime fiction more generally.

Michele Riondino as Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Tidona as the Fazio senior (from http://www.palomaronline.com/en/miniserietv/il-giovane-montalbano)

Michele Riondino as Salvo Montalbano and Andrea Tidona as Fazio senior (from http://www.palomaronline.com/en/miniserietv/il-giovane-montalbano)

The success of the series both in Italy and overseas has prompted a ‘prequel’ series of The Young Montalbano. This is a trait recognisable from other long-running series (as are the walking tours around ‘Montalbano’s Sicily’) with the UK’s ‘Young Morse’ series, Endeavoura good recent example. The Young Montalbano sets itself a significant problem in ‘realist’ terms because it goes back to only 1990 and presents us with a young Inspector moving to Vigata for his first job as ‘Commissario’ in complete charge of a local police station. Michele Riondino has the task of representing the character played by Luca Zingaretti as he might have been twenty years earlier – but because the original series has run for 13 years, Zingaretti’s Salvo first appeared in 1999. Perhaps wisely, the producers have gone for an actor who appears physically different, but who manages to capture the persona very well. The first three of six episodes in the first series of the prequel reveal that Salvo had known Vigata from his childhood. He is shown as very formal with his colleagues, quickly recognising Fazio senior’s qualities (his son appears in episode 2) and welcoming Catarella with all his faults. We are also introduced to Livia and witness the first meeting of Salvo and Mimi.

Sarah Felberbaum as Livia

Sarah Felberbaum as Livia

I’m looking forward to the remaining three episodes. I can’t quite put my finger on why the various elements fit together so well. It must be the case that a prequel attracts and repels viewers familiar with the original series in equal measure. The impact is greater because we think we know the characters and then either we appreciate knowing more or we object if we don’t think that the earlier incarnations are believable. Andrea Camilleri was involved in writing all six episodes and he has clearly thought about his characters. In episode 3, Salvo and Mimi both behave badly at times, as young men do and this is the focus for comedy. The humour in the series works to ‘humanise’ the characters rather than making the series lightweight. I feel that the subtle blend of comedy and drama produces intelligent entertainment. As Autumn beckons, I appreciate the chance to visit this corner of Sicily.

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Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, Italy-France 2011)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 11 August 2013

Bepi and Shun Li in his boat.

Bepi and Shun Li in his boat.

I suspect that for many fans of ‘World Cinema’ one of the main attractions is the opportunity to vicariously experience different landscapes and urban environments. Shun Li and the Poet represents the town of Choggia in the Veneto region of North East Italy so strikingly that audiences are likely to feel that they have actually been there. I know that I’m tempted to book a trip right now.

Writer-director Andrea Segre is primarily a documentarist and also a researcher in the ‘Sociology of Communication’. He brought all his experience into play in creating this study of the meeting of two migrants from different communities in the very specific waterside setting of the Veneto region. The Press Notes for the film are a very useful source of material detailing the background to the production which was developed via various production labs.

Shun Li is trained in bar work

Shun Li is trained in bar work

Shun Li is a Chinese migrant worker from the coastal city of Fouzhou in South East China. We see her first working in a sweatshop in Rome. She is summoned by the bosses and told that she is being sent to Choggia where she is installed as the single worker running a small café-bar (osteria) on the waterfront, mainly used by fishermen. Gradually she gets used to the regular customers, mostly older men who have retired from full-time work. They are generally welcoming, teaching her the local dialect. One of the men, Bepi, is a widower who came to the area thirty years previously from the former Yugoslavia after Tito’s death. He is known among the men as ‘the Poet’ because he can produce attractive rhyming couplets and this helps him find common ground with Shun Li who celebrates the work of the classical Chinese poet Qu Yuan. Shun Li also tells Bepi that the men of her family have been fishermen for generations. Apart from the developing relationship between the two poetry lovers, not much happens in the plot but eventually the friendship creates unease among both the local residents and the Chinese bosses who control Shun Li’s fate. There is some mystery attached to exactly how the situation is resolved – a mystery enhanced by a mise en scène dominated by the dark alleyways, mists and watery sun, the overflowing canals and the fishing huts and stationary nets in the lagoon. Anyone terrified by the Venice of Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) will be familiar with how affecting a glance under a bridge or down an alley can be in this part of the world. None of these images are created in an obviously expressionistic way but the views of the Dolomites, snow-capped mountains that seem to loom over the coastline on the other side of the lagoon, are extraordinary (they are actually over 100 kms away). The mountains are only visible at certain times (see this Flickr photo).

Bepi (

Bepi (Rade Sherbedgia) is a lonely man who prefers to stay in his flat rather than move inland to live with his son

The success of the film partly derives from the terrific performances of the leads. Zhao Tao as Shun Li brings her wonderfully still presence from the films of Jia Zhangke – films that in some ways share the sense of place, working-class cultures and social change. Rade Sherbedgia is well-cast as a Yugoslavian who has now become a valued presence in international features. The rest of the cast comprises a mixture of professionals and non-professionals from the region. Segre’s experience and research shows in the beautiful long shots and the handling of scenes on the water and in the bar. This is one of my films of the year and I was very pleased to be able to see it on the big screen of the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford. It has taken some time to reach the UK and I was only aware of the film because it had been discussed at the Chinese Film Forum in Manchester earlier this year. Curzon/Artificial Eye have the UK rights and they seem happy to play it online – I haven’t seen it getting much theatrical exposure but if you go to the Artificial Eye website you can find any play dates or how to watch it online.

Here’s the UK trailer. It’s a very good trailer and I’d be surprised if you didn’t want to see the film:

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Rossellini #5: Reading Viaggio in Italia (Italy-France 1954)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 8 July 2013

voyagetoitalyFB

This classic film by Roberto Rossellini was re-released in the UK on a new DCP in May. A more helpful English translation of the title than the usual ‘Voyage to Italy’ is ‘Travel in Italy’ or ‘Journey Through Italy’ as it covers the time spent by an English couple on a trip to the Naples region trying to come to terms with their own relationship and the impact of Italian culture. As in many of the Italian films of this period, there have been several versions of this film. In the version for the UK, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as the couple speak English. Italian characters speak Italian amongst themselves and some characters speak both languages.

One of the major issues in appraising the film in 2013 is the need to deal with its reception in the mid 1950s (it opened in Italy in 1954 and was seen in other countries over the next couple of years). In America the film flopped badly, but it is difficult to know how much this was associated with the scandal of the Bergman-Rossellini relationship, which was one of the biggest tabloid stories of its time. (Bergman and Rossellini had a child before Bergman’s divorce and her subsequent marriage to Rossellini.) The other problem in the US might have been cuts that robbed the film of some of its important scenes. By contrast, the film was highly praised by critics in France where the Cahiers du cinéma writers hailed it as the first ‘modern’ film. The enthusiasm of Godard, Truffaut et al was typically excessive and a more common reaction by popular audiences then (and to a certain extent ever since) was one of boredom because ‘nothing happens’.

It seems clear now that the Cahiers critics did have a point – and given the more favourable reception of similar films a few years later, Rossellini was once again ‘ahead of the curve’. The film is defiantly ‘unconventional’. José Luis Gaurner in his 1970 Studio Vista book on Rossellini puts the argument very well:

 . . . its subject [is] the breakup of a marriage, but it is not a tragedy. It is about reconciliation, but it is not a comedy. It revolves around Italy, but it is not a documentary . . . As a film about reality and time, it comes into the sphere of the essay. (Guarner 1970: 58)

This concept of an ‘essay’ refers us to the later films of Jean-Luc Godard in particular – light on narrative pleasures but rich in ideas and explorations of culture and politics. This is the form of filmic ‘modernism’ that also leads towards Antonioni and others in the late 1950s and 1960s and which is still part of contemporary cinema (a film like Nuri Bilge Cyan’s Climates (2006) perhaps, or the films of Joanna Hogg such as Unrelated (2008) or Archipelago (2010)).

Rossellini is interested in the marriage between two people who are not Italian and how their relationship is affected by their exposure to Italian culture. This in itself suggests the urge to explore ‘reality’ rather than the familiar conventions of entertainment cinema. Although many couples have wonderful holidays abroad, sharing the delights of exposure to other cultures, holidays are also potentially difficult to negotiate. How do we know how different people (ourselves and our partners) will react to new situations? The usual tensions in a relationship are exposed in new situations. A Hollywood take on an Italian holiday is likely to develop as a romance or a thriller, but Rossellini is not interested in these kinds of narratives.

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

The car as a barrier between the couple and their environment – or perhaps a cage in which they are trapped?

Casting, scripting and direction

Ingrid Bergman was by 1953 very familiar with her husband’s approach since she had already experienced two difficult and challenging roles in Stromboli and Europa ’51. On the other hand, Rossellini’s use of his wife/star had become almost obsessive (she wasn’t allowed to work for anyone else) and there had been aspects of the scripts of the earlier films which might in some ways have related to the Bergman-Rossellini marriage. As Katherine, Bergman was already under a certain pressure.

Rossellini cast George Sanders – one of several English actors working mainly on Hollywood productions – as Alex. Sanders had no idea of what to expect and he found Rossellini’s approach bewildering and frustrating. In interviews years later Rossellini claims that Sanders hated the way he was forced to work – and of course his discomfort is evident in his performance, which produces exactly what Rossellini wants.

Rossellini maintains that he had a very clear idea of the film he was going to make, but he refused to write it down as a script to give to his two stars. Instead he would supply the dialogue for the day’s shooting but would often change aspects of the shoot dependent on the ‘reality’ of the situation he found in the location. In one much discussed scene Rossellini was tipped off that a ‘discovery’ was about to be unveiled in the archaeological work in Pompeii. He re-organised that day’s shooting and Bergman and Saunders were required to respond to the events as they unfolded. How much of this was contrived (and embellished in later interviews) is open to conjecture but it is certainly true that the film includes several scenes in which Bergman and sometimes Sanders are confronted with aspects of Italian antiquity as well as the Catholic rituals of Neapolitan life, sometimes with quite disturbing results.

In one of the funniest scenes in the film, Rossellini also used the language differences between Bergman/Sanders and the local people who act as servants in the large house where the couple are staying (selling the house which is a bequest by ‘Uncle Homer’ is the ostensible purpose of the visit to Italy). Far from ‘nothing happening’, the narrative is a tightly-wound structure in which the tension comes from the couple’s relationship with each other and the unsettling effects of the environment on each of them separately and together. Rossellini and his cinematographer Enzo Serafin manage to frame the central characters such that the mise en scène is both ‘realist’ and ‘expressionist’, especially in the several scenes where Katherine visits the classical sites of the region and its museums. (See the poster at the top of this piece in which Katherine is shown to be shocked by the eroticism of some of the statuary.)

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

Alex and Katherine seem far away from each other and lost in the ruins of Pompeii.

SPOILER

Reading the closing sequence

The whole film up until the last sequence appears to be about the disintegration of a marriage. In fact some of the English titles used by distributors makes this explicit. Yet from the comments above it should be clear that the characters are actually learning something about themselves and each other because of the impact of the ‘otherness’ of Italy. The last two sequences involve the visit to Pompeii when Katherine is overwhelmed by the discovery of the figures of a man and woman miraculously ‘discovered’ in the lava and then finally the car journey which ends with the couple trapped in the crowds for a religious procession.

In Sight and Sound July 2013, Brad Stevens offers a reading of the ending of the film which places it in the small town of Maiori on the Amalfi coast some distance from Naples. Maiori has been the setting for several Rossellini sequences and holds a film festival with a Rossellini prize according to its Wikipedia entry. However, the implication is that the couple are driving through the outskirts of Naples and this is how André Bazin analyses the closing sequence. This isn’t a documentary, so Rossellini simply chooses a suitable location and what is important is that Alex and Katherine find themselves trapped in the crowds in a street where a religious procession is taking place. They are forced to stop their car and get out and in the mêlée that surrounds them as believers rush towards the effigy of a saint carried in the procession, Katherine is separated from Alex. When he realises what has happened, Alex struggles to find her and when they are re-united something miraculous does indeed happen.

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

The final shot of Katherine and Alex

Throughout the closing scenes Katherine has become more emotional while Alex appears to be repressing his emotions – though he says that he has been ‘moved’ by the discovery of the figures at Pompeii. In the previous sequence when Katherine visits Naples with the wife of the agent who is looking after the house, she keeps noticing the number of pregnant women on the streets and the number of women pushing prams. It’s as if there is an explosion of fertility. Later when she and Alex discuss divorce, she wonders if it would have helped if they had children. This seems like an obvious set of narrative connections but Rossellini presents them in a convincingly seamless way – we have to work to make the connections and reflect upon them. The procession which eventually ensnares the couple is, according to Bazin in an essay entitled ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (1955), one of the annual events associated with Saint Januarius, patron saint of Naples. The local people clearly believe in the restorative powers of the saint and we see a man gesticulating as if he is pleading for/celebrating relief from poor eyesight. Bazin suggests that what we have seen throughout the film is a subjective view of the local environment by Katherine:

“It is Naples ‘filtered’ through the consciousness of the heroine. If the landscape is bare and confined, it is because the consciousness of an ordinary bourgeoisie itself suffers from great spiritual poverty. Nevertheless, the Naples of the film is not false (which it could easily be with the Naples of a documentary three hours long). It is rather a mental landscape at once as objective as a straight photograph and as subjective as pure personal consciousness. We realise now that the attitude which Rossellini takes towards his characters and their geographical and social setting is, at one remove, the attitude of his heroine towards Naples – the difference being that his awareness is that of a highly cultured artist and, in my opinion, an artist of rare spiritual vitality.” (Bazin 1971: 98-9)

In the final scene Katherine can ‘see’ another future – and Alex is finally moved to see with Katherine. Whether this will help to save the marriage is another question – which Rossellini leaves open. His panning camera eventually turns away from the couple and the film finally ends suddenly with one of the bandsmen in the background looking offscreen. It is this framing that Brad Stevens discusses in Sight & Sound. Stevens make the excellent point that this ending with its last glimpse of the bandsman, emphasises for the audience that Katherine and Alex are just another couple amidst the throng of people. Just as Katherine and Alex leave the protective shied/cage of their car, we leave the protected viewing position in which the two characters are privileged and rejoin the ‘real world’. I’ve watched the ending a few times to check these ideas and although I take Stevens’ point, two other observations interest me. One is the camera movements that are both ‘required’ in order to represent the narrative space and also ‘expressionist/symbolic’ in underlining the distance from the events felt by the audience. Rossellini has a camera placed higher up in order to see the procession in the distance. This position also allows us to look down on Katherine and Alex and to see how they are surrounded by people. This isn’t camerawork that we would associate with realist modes (since there is nobody in the scene who could have this perspective) and it would require going back over Rossellini’s earlier films to evaluate if it is a consistent aspect of his style. The second observation emphasises the understanding that Rossellini has taken his actors and crew into a ‘real’ street procession. Just behind Alex and Katherine when they get out of the car are two characters dressed in white suits/coats with white headdresses that might be turbans or something similar. The two men appear to be Indian or African and one is holding a paper cup which might contain crushed ice. I wonder if they are selling ice cream or a cold drink like sugarcane juice? Were traders like this common on the Amalfi coast in the 1950s? Any help on this is appreciated. What the presence of these two does do is to reinforce that sense of a story taking place in a ‘real’ Italy.

If you can find this in a cinema, please go and see it. If you can’t make the big screen, a DVD/Blu-ray package is available from the BFI. Here is a link to Moviemail’s offer.

References

Bazin, Andre (1971) ‘In Defence of Rossellini’ (originally published in Cinema Nouvo, August 1955) What is Cinema?, Vol II, Berkeley: University of California Press

Gaurner, José Luis (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

BFI link to Geoff Andrew on Viaggio in Italia and the Neo-realism Season in London.

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Rossellini #4: Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 21 June 2013

Another gem from Rossellini, this film (which operates under various titles) is not quite what I expected given the general critical writing on Rossellini. On the other hand, if I’d never read any Rossellini profiles I would have recognised aspects of the film from European cinema generally around 1960.

The common view is that after his break-up with Ingrid Bergman, Rossellini moved away from cinema proclaiming it was dead and turned first towards documentary and eventually towards historical narratives for television. In between he made a few films to make some money but these were of lesser value. I already knew this wasn’t true since many years ago I was lucky to see Viva L’Italia (1961) his Garibaldi film at the NFT in London. I think that was when I first read about his revolutionary new zoom lens device known as the Pancinor. This device enabled the operator to move freely with a subject, maintaining focus and obviating the need to cut – Rossellini devised the technology to allow him to extend the effectiveness of his long take style.

According to José Luis Guarnier (Roberto Rossellini, Studio Vista, 1971) Rossellini used the device for the first time on Era notte a Roma. I confess that I didn’t notice this watching the film – but I did think that the film was very well composed and shot and that is probably the best endorsement.

Era notte a Roma translates via Google as ‘It was night in Rome’ or perhaps ‘To Rome at night’ and actually that title makes sense – more sense than some of the official English titles. The setting is Italy in the latter part of 1943. The Nazis have taken control of Rome, Italians are moving over towards the partisans and the Allies have landed in Sicily. Three soldiers have escaped or been released from an Italian prisoner of war camp in the North of Italy and have made their way South. They are holed up in a village and the villagers arrange a bargain with a group of nuns who are looking for wine and food to take back to Rome. The nuns will take the POWs and in exchange will get ham and wine. But the nuns are actually black marketeers led by a beautiful young woman played by Giovanna Ralli. She wants rid of the POWs as well but she has a kind heart and one of the men, an American airman (played by Peter Baldwin), has an old wound that has re-opened. She ends up letting the men stay in the spacious attic above her apartment. The other two men are a British officer (Leo Genn) and a Russian sergeant (the great Sergei Bondarchuk, a talented actor and director).

The men end up staying for several weeks, culminating in a Christmas dinner. Nobody is fluent in more than one language so communication is difficult, but in the famous Christmas  dinner sequence the Russian makes a moving speech in which the meaning is clear from his intonation and facial expressions. Giovanna is also part of the partisan network and the men meet her boyfriend and others in the movement. Inevitably it becomes impossible to keep the men’s presence a secret and there is a great deal of tension before they are exposed to the fascists and their Nazi bosses. The final section of the film, leading up to the point when the Allied troops arrive in the capital, opens the narrative up further to include the aristocratic family who own the working-class apartment block. They too are on the side of the partisans and the landlord is a Vatican officer whose family entertains an aristocratic German officer. Just as in Roma citta aperta and Paisa there is a sequence involving local priests – with refugees hidden among the novices. This sequence and another in which Leo Genn pretends to be a butler to serve the German officer are played with wit and a gentle sense of the absurd. I was reminded of Fellini’s contributions to the scripts of the earlier wartime films.

Far from being some kind of ‘commercial filler’, I found this to be a moving film about life under occupation and an interesting exploration of the relationships between the occupied population and the escaped POWs. It’s a longish film – according to IMDb the official length was 138 mins in Italy, but only 82 mins in the US (which probably explains some of the negative comments). IMDb also suggests a DVD lasting 151 minutes. The Region 2 DVD that I watched lasted just under 129 mins – the rough equivalent of about 134 mins at film speed. I think Rossellini needed the longer running time to present the ‘reality’ of the lives of the men in the attic and the people who hid them.

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The three POWs (from left) Leo Genn, Sergei Bondarchuck and Peter Bradley

The performances are all very good and I was particularly struck by Leo Genn’s British officer. Genn was not only  a distinguished stage and screen actor but he had also been a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Royal Artillery in 1943. When he recreated his wartime persona he was 55 years old, but that doesn’t seem to matter. His calm and ability to speak the Latin of his schooldays and appear to genuinely learn Italian during the course of the narrative give the film a real grounding in the period. This was an actor and trained barrister who prosecuted war crimes at Belsen and narrated both the events at the 1953 Coronation and the opening of the UN in 1947.  The Wikipedia page on Leo Genn refers to his role in “Rossellini’s remarkable and largely forgotten film”. The film is remarkable and it shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s not as ‘dramatic’ as Roma citta aperta but it possibly teaches us more about the experience of wartime in an occupied city.

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Rossellini #3: Europa ’51 (Italy 1952)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 29 May 2013

Rossellini on set with Ingrid Bergman and an unknown cast member in 'Europa '51' from: http://reflectionandfilm.blogspot.co.uk/

Rossellini on set with Ingrid Bergman and an unknown cast member in ‘Europa ’51′ from: http://reflectionandfilm.blogspot.co.uk/

Europa ’51 is an extraordinary film. It’s quite difficult to see outside Italy – although it has appeared on TCM in the US, the only DVD available does not have English subtitles according to Amazon’s contributors. I was overjoyed to stumble across a version online with English subs. It is an important picture from the period of Roberto Rossellini’s output during his relationship with Ingrid Bergman. In some ways it offers a link between Stromboli (1950) and Viaggio in Italia (1953), in others it relates to both Francesco, giullare di Dio (1950) and to the earlier neo-realist films of both Rossellini himself and Vittorio de Sica.

It was conceived as a commercial proposition – backed by the combination of Carlo Ponti and Dino De Laurentiis (for Lux Films), already producers who would go on to be the major figures in Italian production in the 1950s and 1960s. For Rossellini it was a very ‘personal’ project. In 1950 he married Ingrid Bergman soon after their son Robertino was born. The twins Isabella and Isotta Ingrid followed in 1952. Bergman scandalised American society when she left her first husband and her young daughter to live with Rossellini. This ‘betrayal’ was compounded by the ‘secondary circulation’ of Bergman’s star image which was informed by her roles as a nun in The Bells of St Mary’s (1945) and as Joan of Arc (1948). Stromboli had been financed by RKO in 1950 and had been a commercial flop in America. Europa ’51 was given the title The Greatest Love when it was eventually released in the US in 1954. Bergman’s husband in the film is played by Alexander Knox, the Canadian actor who was blacklisted during the McCarthy period in Hollywood. As with the other Rossellini-Bergman films, there were different cuts of the film for different markets. I saw the Italian cut in which Bergman and Knox are dubbed by Italian actors. There is also a version in which they dub themselves in English (the version seen in the US, I think). Rossellini created the film’s story himself and he co-wrote the script with several collaborators, some of whom, including possibly Federico Fellini, were uncredited. The music score, for what is certainly a melodrama, is by Rossellini’s younger brother Renzo and the cinematography – a major feature of the film – is by Aldo Tonti.

Outline (Some spoilers, but this isn’t a plot-driven film as such)

Irene and George Girard (Bergman and Knox) are a wealthy couple living in a spacious Roman apartment with servants and the use of luxury cars to get about the city. He is an American acting as the Rome representative of an American corporation. Irene’s family background is more complex. Her mother comes over from America, but she seems to have Italian relatives as well and she spent the war in London with her young son.

The film actually opens with an elderly couple on the Rome streets complaining about having to walk because of a transport strike. Irene then appears driving her luxury car (I wish I knew more about these models – it looks like a Bentley/Rolls/Jaguar). She is late because of the traffic problems and doesn’t have much time for her son Michele who has been home all day. There is a dinner party to be organised and Irene is busy. But during the dinner there is a dramatic incident that ends in tragedy and the boy dies after being hospitalised. Irene is distraught, blaming herself for his death and this ends the first part of the film.

Irene down by the river close to the shanty town and new-build blocks where she seeks some kind of penance.

Irene down by the river close to the shanty town and new-build blocks where she seeks some kind of penance.

Struggling to regain her confidence after days of retreating to her bed, Irene turns away from her family and goes to meet her cousin Andrea who is a campaigning journalist and a communist. He urges her to face the world and he tells her about a recent case covered by his paper of a child in a desperate condition because his family can’t afford the necessary medicine. Irene and Andrea visit the family and soon Irene is involved with a community of new migrants to the city living in the newly-built apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city in a district similar to that where De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is set. George and Irene’s other friends and family become increasingly concerned about Irene’s behaviour. This central section of the narrative reaches a climax at the end of which Irene is arrested because she has helped a young man escape from the police (though she has urged him to turn himself in). In the final third of the film, Irene’s relatives and the authorities conspire to place her ‘in care’ in a psychiatric institution.

Commentary

There are many ways in which to approach this film. In thematic/ideological terms it represents the tension between Catholicism and Marxism that seems to underpin the critical reaction to Rossellini’s work. It’s noticeable in the film how both the Marxist journalist and the Catholic priest are at a loss with how to respond to Irene’s behaviour in the latter part of the narrative. Rossellini’s aim appears to have been to explore what would happen if a figure like the 14th century San Francesco was to help the poor in contemporary Rome. Rossellini had just completed Francesco guillare di Dio (Francis, God’s jester) with a script he wrote himself with Federico Fellini. Francesco and his band of brothers represent the incarnation of love for all living things, impossible to beat down and always joyous. In what was perceived as the desperate and cynical world of post-war Italy – and indeed of Europe as a whole – the prospect of Franciscan love for community must have seemed attractive. In his commentary on the film from My Voyage to Italy, Martin Scorsese quotes Rossellini as stating in 1963 in relation to Europa ’51 that, “People can now only live in ‘society’ not in a community. The soul of society is the law, the soul of community is love”.

The Italian poster for the film emphasises the conventional melodrama device in which the woman looks into the mirror, creating two versions of herself.

The Italian poster for the film emphasises the conventional melodrama device in which the woman looks into the mirror, creating two versions of herself.

This is a powerful thematic and it is one of the foundations of the film’s greatness. Another is the luminous performance of Ingrid Bergman and the third is Rossellini’s aesthetic strategy. After the opening scenes in the opulent apartment that suggest traditional modes of melodrama, the scenes when Irene visits the shanty towns and new-build ‘worker’s flats’ move directly into neo-realist imagery. At one point, Irene spends a day working in a factory so that a woman with six children (played by Giulietta Masina) can look for a better job. This is an extraordinary expressionist sequence reminiscent of Chaplin’s Modern Times or Lang’s Metropolis. Europa ’51 is a full-blown melodrama and towards the end of the film Bergman becomes a saint in visual terms. She had already played Joan of Arc in Hollywood and she was around this time also touring with a stage presentation of Joan at the stake for Rossellini. The couple made their Joan film in 1954. Credit for the transformation must go to cinematographer Aldo Tonti as well as to Bergman herself and it doesn’t seem excessive to claim that the film’s narrative development is played out through the changing presentation of Bergman’s extraordinary face.

I haven’t been so impressed by discovery of a ‘classic’ film for a very long time. If you get the chance, do watch this film.

In researching this film I came across this excellent collection of posts on Rossellini’s films with useful screengrabs.

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Rossellini #2: Paisà (Italy 1946)

Posted by Roy Stafford on 25 May 2013

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisa.

Roberto Rossellini (standing beneath the lighting reflector) on location in the Po valley for Paisà.

This is another earlier set of notes from 2006, now slightly updated during current work on Rossellini.

The second of Rossellini’s post-war films, Paisà (‘countryman’) is often quoted as the film that comes closest to the neo-realist ideal that Rossellini himself described some years later. If neo-realism was concerned with ‘finding’ stories in the world rather than imposing a fictional narrative on a location, then surely Paisà is that film. Equally, it meets the criterion of a film that refuses to be an ‘entertainment’ and speaks directly to the memory of the recent past. As the Taviani Brothers, filmmakers themselves who were inspired by Rossellini when they saw the film in 1946 as teenagers, have commented: “It presented what we had just experienced, but now we understood that experience through the presentation on the screen”.

Paisà tells the story of the Allied (here, very much the American) advance through Italy, from the invasion of Sicily in July 1943 to the fighting in the North in the winter of 1944, and their interaction in each episode with the partisans and ordinary Italians. Different characters appear in each of six separate episodes – there is no possibility of us identifying with an individual American hero who ‘makes it through’ (or indeed with a British squad like that in The Way Ahead, UK 1944) to a triumphant conclusion with a German defeat.

The story derives, in Rossellini’s terms, from the concrete reality of the situation and the approach he takes to the production supports this aim. The six episodes are intercut with actual newsreel footage, titles and voiceover in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish ‘real’ from staged footage. The Americans in the film are professional actors (but not ‘stars’), but many of the Italians are played by local people in the ‘real’ locations which Rossellini uses whenever possible. In the final episode, the incidents are based on events recounted by the ‘real’ partisans. The bleak ending of the film would not be possible in a Hollywood film, but for Rossellini it is not the end of the ‘story’. As Bondanella (1993) points out, for Rossellini the ‘reality’ is the triumph of the human spirit over adversity as understood in Christian philosophy. When the film begins, the Americans and the Italians are clearly unknown to each other, but the experiences they have through the course of the narrative prove their humanity and the development of their understanding. Pierre Sorlin suggests that:

Paisà might be considered as a history film – but it is a history not told from without by a historian trying to clarify the issue. It is the subjective, intuitive vision of an Italian who thanks the Allies for their support and condemns them for having taken so much time and let so many Italians be killed. Open City asserts the cohesion of the Roman population, Paisà wonders what has been left of Italy after two years of war. (Sorlin 1996: 101)

Sorlin’s comments prompt some consideration of the British characters in Episodes IV and VI, who seem (at least the military, not Harriet) to be ineffectual and arrogant. This may just be Rossellini recognising that the Americans were paying for the film.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

The partisans and the Allied agents on the Po delta.

Episode IV and Episode VI feature the use of Rossellini’s ‘long shot, long take’ approach to action. The argument in favour of the long take and the long shot is clearly demonstrated in the production still above. We are presented with a series of long takes in which the action unfolds, often in relatively long shot. The scenes are carefully orchestrated to flow almost seamlessly. Although there is clearly a ‘leader’ (the American officer), we are not invited to adopt his viewpoint. When mid-shots or medium close-ups are used, they pick out particular narrative incidents rather than develop individual characters. Most of all, the camera is used to create for us the viewpoint of the partisans who live in this unique environment. As André Bazin writes:

. . . the horizon is always at the same height. Maintaining the same proportions between water and sky in every shot brings out one of the basic characteristics of this landscape. It is the exact equivalent, under conditions exposed by the screen, of the inner feeling men experience who are living between the sky and the water and whose lives are at the mercy of an infinitesimal shift of angle in relation to the horizon (Bazin 1971:37) )

Robin Wood (1980) makes some important observations which place the analysis of style and content in Paisà in context. He reminds us that what distinguishes Rossellini is his refusal to make a ‘well-made film’ and that his placing of the camera is governed by a desire to reveal the actions of characters and their consequences. Comparing the final episode of Paisà with the famous Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, he comes down on the side of Rossellini who, unlike Eisenstein is not producing a film from a position of having triumphed in the Revolution. Instead, Rossellini’s camera suggests: . . . “total instability, the sense of a world where nothing is certain except ultimate desolation, physical and emotional, a world of random and casual cruelty . . . “ (Wood 1980: 889) In other episodes, especially the one with the MP and the boy, Wood sees Rossellini as undermining our expectations of conventional stories with familiar ‘types’ and predictable outcomes, “leaving us in every case, not only without complacency, but without hope”.

Paisà was, not surprisingly, shunned by popular audiences in Italy at the time, but does it work now to bring home the horrors of war and the capacity for human suffering? We could argue that Paisà was the ultimate achievement of Rossellini’s neo-realist approach. Its episodic structure, long shot compositions and avoidance of star performances focuses absolutely on the concept of liberation won by partisans and soldiers en masse.

References

André Bazin (1971) ‘An Aesthetic of Reality’ in What is Cinema?, Vol. II (originally published in Esprit, January 1948), Berkeley, Cal: University of California Press

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: CUP

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

Roy Stafford 20/5/06

Posted in Italian cinema | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
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