Category: Italian cinema

Youth (Italy-France-UK-Switzerland 2015)

Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine

Harvey Keitel and Michael Caine

I’m glad I finally got to see Youth. When I came out of a virtually empty cinema, I wasn’t sure exactly what I thought of the film. Later I looked back at what I’d written about Paulo Sorrentino’s previous film The Great Beauty (2013), which won so many awards, and realised that I’d felt more or less the same about that film. Both films are very beautiful with stunning cinematography by Luca Bigazzi, carefully chosen music and strong performances. Both also seem to be referencing Fellini and other art cinema directors in some way but, as I begin to reflect, the films are also significantly different.

I’m not sure about the technical reasons for this, but shooting in Switzerland creates incredibly clean and sharp images – is it a function of the light? Much of Youth is shot in an alpine resort and in the surrounding valleys. The location and several other shared elements made me think of Clouds of Sils Maria (France-Switzerland 2014). Both films feature older performers faced with younger counterparts and both in some way counterpose American and European culture. Interestingly (in the context of Brexit), the ultimate British actor, Michael Caine, does very well in this Italian film and is quite believable as a composer/conductor who has lived in Venice. He also looks remarkably like Tony Servillo, Sorrentino’s lead from The Great Beauty with his glasses and swept back grey hair. While I’m not very keen on Caine’s politics (as he espouses them) I’ve always been impressed by his acting skills (and despaired of his penchant for accepting parts in terrible movies). Play your cards right Michael and you could have a late career like Dirk Bogarde in interesting European films.

I suppose that Youth is indeed about the concept of youth – perhaps that notion that not until you are really old do you fully understand what youth might mean and what you can do with it. I enjoyed Paul Dano’s performance as a young actor who seems to be getting somewhere near the understanding that Caine’s character finally achieves. The Harvey Keitel character, Mick Boyle has rather more problems – including the heavily disguised Jane Fonda. It took me a while to recognise Fonda. What’s also different about this film is the reference to ‘real’ characters including the pop star Paloma Faith (playing herself) and actors representing the Queen and Prince Philip (referred to bizarrely by someone from the royal household as “the Prince Philip”) and Diego Maradona. Whether the actor playing Maradona (as immensely fat) is really playing ‘keepy-uppy’ with a tennis ball or whether it is CGI, I don’t know but it is a terrifying commentary on ageing and skill/talent.

Youth will stay with me in some form. At the very least it is good to have a reminder that films don’t need strong narratives to say something or simply to entertain. It may well be that it will repay a second viewing.

Hand Gestures (Il gesto delle mani, Italy 2015)

IL-GESTO-DELLE-MANI-1

This is already a contender for ‘canine film of the year’. In fact the dog in the film is a wax model later transformed into a bronze sculpture. But the recumbent body reminded me of mine own Oscar [not the uncle], especially when at one point the wax sculpture was placed on its back, just as he reclines on our sofa. The film was screened in the Hyde Park Picture House ‘Tuesday Wonder’ slot [supported by the Henry Moore Institute], so unfortunately there was only one screening.

The film follows the process of making a bronze sculpture at the Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan. The foundry uses the age old techniques of ‘lost wax’ casting: a process little changed from the bronze age though now they use modern technology including plastic piping. The film opens with the almost complete wax model, which then has a ceramic shell constructed in a series of stages before the molten metal is poured into the cast to form the bronze copy. The final stages are a series of scaling and polishing and then – this glowing metal sculpture.

The film opens with a series of brief onscreen titles which provide basic information. The rest of the film relies on limited dialogue but no commentary. The process is filmed in a series of discrete shots, showing the craftsmen and the object as the process develops. The angles of the shots are carefully chosen to display the craft, how the workers stand, use the wax or the clays, how they move and handle the sculpture. There are constant ellipsis as the process carries on, only one of which is signalled. I think the process takes quite a number of days but the duration is not clear in the film. The film also uses footage shot at the foundry in 1967 [on 16mm] and in 1974 together with stills of the foundry and its workers from earlier periods.

After the screening a friend commented that the film was a little like “watching paint dry”. The S&S review uses the phrase  ‘slow cinema’ and also ‘fly-on-the-wall’. Neither was really my sense of the film. In some ways it parallels the earlier Italian documentary Le quattro volte (2010, also referred to in S&S). But there is a vastly different tone to this film. It is careful and loving documentation of a particular artistic process. The process is fascinating, and the stages in the development of this work of art do suggest the wonder that accompanies the process whilst displaying the work-a-day labour which achieves it. At the end the new bronze dog is placed among a litter of similar sculptures, but all with their distinctive characteristics.

The title of the film comes from a quotation by the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzoni, comparing sculptures to a series of ‘hand gestures’. The film only lasts 75 minutes. it combines colour and black and white film. It was directed by Francesco Clerici and written by Francesco Clerici with Martina De Santis

I had two reservations during the screenings, both examples of the problems with digital cinema. The earlier film footage has been reframed to fit the widescreen image: though the stills were in their correct ratio as was the film [with the only accompanying music] in the end credits. And the subtitles in English were right on the bottom line of the frame: this seems in part because the DCP is in 1.78:1, presumably for television usage. One of the staff advised me that the distributors frequently fail to provide exact detail of these aspects: which dismays me but does not surprise me.

LFF 2015 #8: Arianna (Italy 2015)

Arianna (Ondina Quadri) and her father (Massimo Popolizio)

Arianna (Ondina Quadri) and her father (Massimo Popolizio)

LFFThis was the film that bowled me over at LFF – and I clearly wasn’t alone, I could feel how much the audience were behind the film. It’s not surprising that we should all feel sympathetic towards the central character Arianna, a young woman of 20 who doesn’t understand why she has difficulty feeling and behaving like her female friends and acquaintances. She does tell us why she is this way in a voiceover that accompanies the credits but I conveniently forgot about what she said and handed myself over to the narrative constructed by début director Carlo Lavagna. Lavagna and his star Ondina Quadri were present for a Q&A in which we learned that Lavagna had spent a long time in the US researching the science and sociology behind Arianna’s condition and that for some time he envisaged making a documentary. Eventually he realised that his ideas would work best as a feature and he and his producer struggled for several years to raise sufficient funds, losing their original lead actor (who became too old for the part). Ondina Quadri was cast as an inexperienced and reluctant actor and it is amazing that she and her director have produced such an affecting film.

The film narrative is set mainly during the summer vacation in which Arianna and her parents return to their villa by a lake in Tuscany. She was last there in her childhood and there are local people still there who were her friends and neighbours years ago. There is a sense that her parents have kept her away from the area up till now and that they are watching her and monitoring her interaction with others. Her father is a doctor and gradually we realise that Arianna is taking some form of hormone treatment delivered through the patches she places on her stomach. There are several scenes in which she studies her own body and frets about the slow growth of her breasts and how sore they are after the hormone treatment. Her younger neighbour is a painful source of comparison – a beautiful young woman with an attractive body.

Arianna bathing in the mineral spring pools near the villa

Arianna bathing in the mineral spring pools near the villa

At first the country house setting suggests a ‘coming of age’ type story familiar from numerous European art films but gradually an element of the thriller/puzzle investigation takes over as Arianna finds clues to what might have happened to her as an infant. When her parents need to return to the city Arianna persuades them to let her stay on, ostensibly to study. Free to explore and to think, Arianna invites a fellow student to stay and also her neighbour and her boyfriend. This proves to be a key moment in Arianna’s rediscovery of her sexual identity and coupled with her visit to a local therapy group discussing sexual identity and sexual health it pushes her to find out the truth that her parents have kept from her.

This film works because of the director’s sensitivity, the brave performance by Ondina Quadri and the cinematography by Hélène Louvart who I now realise has worked on several of the films I have admired and who appears to specialise in photographing young non-professionals (see The Wonders and When I Saw You amongst others). It’s a film with a non-purient interest in the sexuality of young people which is depicted openly. Perhaps some audiences might be offended by this openness but it feels to me like a genuine attempt to explore and understand important questions about identity.

I’ve seen several excellent Italian films at festivals over the years and it’s disappointing that so many of them either don’t get a UK release or when they do appear it is so fleeting that they make little impact. In a review from the Venice Film Festival for Variety, Guy Lodge gives a cool professional appraisal of the film (which I mostly wouldn’t argue with) in which he suggests that though films about ‘alternative genre identity’ are popular at the moment, Arianna is likely to “find a particularly welcoming niche in gender-themed and LGBTQ fest programmes”. It seems a shame to relegate a film to a niche when wider audiences might well enjoy it. Its relatively short running time (83 minutes) might make it a more difficult sell for some distributors but I hope it gets a chance and if it turns up on TV it might well find those appreciative audiences.

LFF 2015 #5: Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960)

The French poster for the restored film showing Annie Girardot and Alain Delon. (The image from the film has been inverted for some reason.)

The French poster for the restored film showing Annie Girardot and Alain Delon

LFFRocco and His Brothers has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and the Film Foundation and it reappears complete with a couple of UK censor’s cuts now included. It’s quite simply magnificent, demonstrating Luchino Visconti’s great strengths of realism and melodrama as presented by a passionate opera director. It also features three central performances, each of which is worth the price of admission alone and which together keep our attention riveted to the action over nearly three hours.

Like many major films of the period this was an Italian-French co-production with two of the three leading roles taken by French actors. Alain Delon would go on to become one of the major French stars of the next twenty years and alongside Plein soleil in 1960 this was the film that established his international reputation. Annie Girardot was a major new female player in France in the 1950s, surprisingly ignored by the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers in the early 1960s but here getting the international exposure she merited. Visconti himself began his film education as an assistant to Jean Renoir in the 1930s before making Ossessione (Italy 1942), often regarded as the first neorealist film. I was reminded of Ossessione several times in watching Rocco and His Brothers, especially by scenes around Lake Como and by the bleakness of the outskirts of Milan. The story of the film is relatively straightforward. Rocco (Delon) is the third of five brothers and at the start of the film the four youngest brothers arrive with their mother in Milan to join Vicenzo the eldest, already trying to start a new life. The family comes from what is now known as Basilicata in the far South of Italy. The brothers struggle to establish themselves but eventually the second brother, Simone (Renato Salvatori), wins some fights as a professional boxer. This will eventually prove to be an unfortunate development as his success attracts the attention of a beautiful but dangerous prostitute, Nadia (Girardot). She later develops a rather different kind of relationship with Rocco and the resulting love triangle tears the family apart. Salvatori gives the third great performance. He has the look and the body of a boxer, something he trained for in preparation for the role. Several commentators have suggested that Coppola and Scorsese were both very impressed by Visconti’s film. Nino Rota wrote the score for Rocco and His Brothers and went on to work on The Godfather for Coppola. Salvatori’s performance was perhaps an inspiration for De Niro in Raging Bull?

Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon) get their first glimpse of the lights of Milan through the window of the bus that takes them from the station at the start of the film. (A screengrab from the MOC DVD on the DVD Beaver website.)

Simone (Renato Salvatori) and Rocco (Alain Delon) get their first glimpse of the lights of Milan through the window of the bus that takes them from the station at the start of the film. (A screengrab from the MOC DVD on the DVD Beaver website.)

The script is not without flaws. Visconti presents it in five chapters titled after each of the brothers in turn, but they don’t each get the same screen time and it is as if Visconti uses the other three characters to explore the sociological and cultural questions about the migration to the North while the melodrama rages around Rocco and Simone. Vicenzo marries the respectable Ginetta (an under-used Claudia Cardinale) and begins a family. Ciro, the fourth son, continues his education and becomes a ‘new worker’ – a skilled man at the Alfa-Romeo factory. The fifth brother is still a child at the beginning of the film and his main contribution (apart from running errands) seems to be to prompt Rocco into thinking of moving back down South to reclaim the family’s roots. (Rocco is named after San Rocco – the saint associated with the city of Potenza in Basilicata.)

In some ways the film’s story runs counter to the idea that the South is the source of corruption (and organised crime) and that the North is the new modern, ‘civilised’ Italy (a view partly derived from Gramsci). Geoffrey Nowell-Smith links Rocco and His Brothers to Visconti’s other ‘historical’ ventures, including his similarly long film on the tuna fishermen of Sicily, La terra trema (1948) and the rather different Senso (1954) set at the time of the Austrian loss of Northern Italy in 1866. It’s fascinating to read Nowell-Smith’s 1967/73 ‘Cinema One’ book on Visconti some forty years later. He points out that Delon is both ‘wrong’ as a peasant from the South, and as the boxer who is drawn into the fight game by his brother’s actions – but also very ‘right’ as the seemingly weak, puny character who has great strength in his convictions. Smith also recognises that Rocco is actually much more concerned about his traditional view of the family than he is about the safety of Nadia. There is great complexity in the triangular relationship of the melodrama and it requires analysis and reflection to work through the links between the two types of drama. Max Cartier as Ciro doesn’t have Delon’s star power. In a different film his performance would have worked well. Here he comes across as a vehicle for statements of aspiration and his action in exposing his brother’s crime seems like a betrayal of family. In a different way the high melodrama performance of the Greek actress Katina Paxinou (an acclaimed international theatre star) as the mother of the family works in terms of the central melodrama but perhaps not in a neo-realist narrative.

I’ve noted that positions on Rocco and His Brothers have tended to change over time. Nowell-Smith in his entry on Visconti in Richard Roud’s Cinema, A Critical Dictionary in 1980 seems to have moved towards a more damning criticism of the melodrama narrative. He seems to feel that the problem with Rocco is that Visconti does not have a literary source which might ‘reign in’ his melodrama and opera tendencies. Other critics have in fact tried to find literary sources that might have influenced Visconti, including Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. Part of the problem for critics has been that the films of Fellini and Antonioni from the same rich period of Italian cinema have to some extent pushed Visconti into the background. My own preference would always be for Visconti and I think it’s time his work was re-evaluated. Many of Visconti’s films are not ‘in print’ as either cinema prints or DVDs in the UK and this makes it difficult. However, Rocco is part of the Masters of Cinema DVD offer (2008) which also had Bellissima from 1952 but that now seems to be no longer available.

I haven’t mentioned Giuseppe Rotunno’s excellent cinematography on Rocco (and many of Visconti’s films) and he is listed as ‘supervising’ the visual qualities of the digital restoration at the age of 90. The other feature of the film which probably now gets more attention is the narrative importance of a homoerotic attraction that underpins Simone’s boxing career when he is taken on by a promoter who will eventually be drawn into the struggle between Simone and Rocco. That struggle in turn seems to involve more than just brotherly rivalry in its brutality and sexual humiliation. I’m going to have to watch the film again.

The original Italian trailer refers to the controversies in 1960s about the frankness of some scenes: