The winner of two prizes at Venice in 2020, Thou Shalt Not Hate is another film to divide audiences. It won ‘Best Italian Film’ – an outstanding achievement for the début feature film from writer-director Mauro Mancini, working with Davide Lisino. Its star Alessandro Gassmann is very well known so it was less of a surprise that he should win ‘Best Actor’. Still, despite these awards, the relatively small number of reviews I have found include several that are completely dismissive as well as others praising the film highly. I’m still thinking about the film and several aspects of the narrative still puzzle me.
The film begins and ends at the same location, a beautiful lake in what I assume is the foothills of the Dolomites in Friuli Venezia Giulia. A small boy is coerced by his father into a cruel act at the beginning of the narrative. At the end a man visits the same spot to reflect on what has happened in the last few weeks. The scenes by the lake are stunning in their visual splendour with the shots of the mountains almost hyper-real. The ‘inciting incident’, which takes place immediately after the prologue, see a middle-aged, but very fit man, kayaking along a river when he hears the sound of an impending crash on the road that runs parallel to the river. He reaches the accident and finding an injured man in the driver’s seat he phones for an ambulance and starts to fashion a tourniquet to prevent further bleeding. But in doing so he notices the injured man’s Nazi tattoos and pulls back. Clearly he feels guilty when the accident victim later dies. But what is odd is that the ‘good samaritan’ had already told the hospital that he is a doctor and has abdicated his responsibility to try to save a dying man. Would he not be questioned about this? There is instead a line of dialogue in which the doctor says he is sorry, but he “couldn’t do it”. It isn’t clear if he says this to the police at the scene or simply to himself.
The kayaking doctor is Simone, a surgeon at a local hospital in Trieste. More to the point he is a Jewish surgeon who we learn later has recently lost his father, a concentration camp survivor who was forced to work as a dentist for the Nazis. He begins to investigate the aftermath of what turns out to be a ‘hit and run’ driving accident in which the dead man was Antonio who has left three children, Marica 27, Marcello 17 and Paulo 11. Here again I wasn’t quite sure if Simone engineers the appointment of Marica (Sara Serraiocco) as his cleaner or if what follows is partly a matter of chance. Overall this is a film with relatively little dialogue, employing a strategy of ‘showing’ without explanation. Simone seems to be reasserting his Jewishness, partly because of the accident and partly because he must clear his father’s house and in doing so stir up memories. The two families, his own and Antonio’s are both missing a mother figure. The narrative overall resembles a melodrama with a carefully orchestrated musical score and some rather heavy symbolism alongside the photography. Trieste appears almost deserted in a series of long shots. The pacing is slow and Gassmann as Simone is dour and focused throughout. These latter features almost suggest an anti-melodrama. Perhaps instead this is a ‘moral tale’ about guilt and responsibility?
One of the most striking shots in the film is of a large empty synagogue that Simone enters. I did wonder if Simone’s father had been a refugee from Poland after 1945? The film is a co-production with Poland and the theme of immigration would tie in with aspects of Marica’s behaviour. She does not have the Neo-Nazi fervour of her brother Marcello (Luka Zunic) but her negative attitudes to migrants are presented in quite subtle ways. Simone too, at one point gets angry with the migrants on the street who attempt to clean car windscreens of any car that stops at traffic lights.
Overall I thought this was an impressive début feature with strong performances and some interesting images by Polish cinematographer Mike Stern Sterzynski, who like the director seemed to be making his features début. North-Eastern Italy is an interesting region that doesn’t tend to appear that often in the Italian films that make it to the UK and I was engaged with the narrative throughout. The film has just left MUBI and at the moment doesn’t seem to be available on streamers. If it does turn up I think it is worth watching for its exploration of father-son and family relationships, even if it can’t quite work through everything it sets up. The ‘Made in Italy’ season has been interesting to explore on MUBI but the short window of availability is a difficult proposition.
The Ties is another of MUBI’s ‘Made in Italy’ films. I chose this one because it stars Alba Rohrwacher who I have admired in films by her sister Alice and in other films. As the title implies this is a film about a long term relationship. The Italian title actually refers to shoelaces and a scene that presents a metaphor about the relationships between parents and children. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Domenico Starnone, whose first screenplay La scoula (1995), based on two of his novels, was filmed by Daniele Luchetti, the director of Lacci. Starnone is a well-known Neapolitan writer who has been identified as one possible source of the identity of the best-selling but pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Starnone is married to translator and journalist Anita Raja and another possibility is that ‘Ferrante’ is actually husband and wife working together.
The Ferrante question may be one of the reasons why Lacci was chosen to open the 2020 Venice Festival which lost its usual Hollywood headliners as a result of the pandemic. Lacci was immediately seen by English-speaking critics as a response to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (US 2019). This gave an extra frisson to an opening film but I haven’t seen the American film so no comparisons here. In any event, Lacci seems to be rooted in the experiences or observations of Starnone and Raja. The narrative begins in the 1980s and ends some time nearer the present. We first meet Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) at a celebration with their two small children, Anna and Sandro, in the early 1980s. They all dance joyfully in the opening credit sequence and make their way to their apartment nearby. Aldo seems like a loving father in a bathtime scene and in his storytelling but after the children are asleep he suddenly tells Vanda he has been unfaithful. She doesn’t know what to make of his statement and he doesn’t see very clear about why he made it. Vanda follows him to Rome where he makes regular radio appearances as a reader and later as a literary commentator. On the stairs in the RAI building Vanda meets Lidia (Linda Caridi), a striking younger woman. Nothing is said as the two stare at each other.
The irony of the situation is that Aldo, praised for the quality of his speaking voice, fails to communicate as he faces Vanda. She (a teacher, it later transpires, though we never see her in a classroom), rather than articulating her anger, makes increasingly dramatic gestures. I thought at this point I was going to witness a full-bloodied family melodrama but after the early highly-charged scenes the narrative shifts gear. Aldo decides to stay in Rome and concedes full custody of the children to Vanda. Forward a few years and Aldo seems to want to see the children again. At this point, the dance music from the opening re-appears and Luchetti engineers a transition to the near present that threw me until I went back and replayed it – what has streaming done to my viewing? A different pair of actors, Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando, play Vanda and Aldo some thirty years later and they appear to be living together and bickering as they prepare to go on holiday. Now the narrative will start to ‘loop’, much like the shoelaces of the title, returning to the early 1980s and the slightly later period to reveal something about how Aldo and Lidia were as a couple and what happened during his meetings with his children. The final section of the narrative then offers a rather different perspective on the marriage through an extended scene which again comes through the link of the dance music tune from the opening. There is a ‘reveal’ here that made me think about those films where middle-class assumptions about people’s behaviour often lead to unfortunate conclusions.
The reviews of the film are mixed. Several describe the narrative as dealing in ‘misery’. One references Philip Larkin. On the other hand, several scenes seemed quite ‘real’ to me and represented aspects of long term relationships – relationships we grow into that generate different kinds of love and affection as well as irritability and quite possibly mental cruelty. As a film narrative it certainly made me think. Someone described it as ‘handsome’ and that seems a good call for a presentation in ‘Scope in often warm colours and with rather fetching 1980s outfits. The central quartet of actors are very good. I recognised the other three alongside Alba Rorwacher and later realised that I had seen them in various earlier films. The two children are played by three different sets of actors, all well cast I thought. Having said that, in every case my initial reaction was that the characters at different ages didn’t look like they were the same person. But on reflection the casting does work, I think I was just thrown by the editing – which isn’t a criticism. Luigi Lo Cascio as the younger Aldo was one of the quartet in The Dinner (Italy 2014). I mention that film for two reasons. First, it questions the behaviour of a middle-class family and second it is a successful and award-winning Italian film which I don’t think made it into UK distribution. I fear that the same may be true for Lacci. In The Dinner, Luigi Lo Cascio’s wife is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is cast as the grown-up version of his daughter Anna in Lacci. It must be a different experience watching Lacci in Italy when the actors are so well-known.
I think Lacci is definitely a film to seek out if you can find it (there is just one day left of its brief stint on MUBI in the UK). Cineuropa carries an interview with director Luchetti in which he makes some interesting comments about earlier generations of parents and particularly fathers in Italian society.
Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.
The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.
Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.
The documentary’s directors offer this statement:
To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.
Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.
Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli
Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.
Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.
I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.
My second film from the online ArteKino Festival turned out to be a technically accomplished low budget feature made as part of La Biennale di Venezia of 2019. The film production was awarded a budget of €150,000 as part of the Biennale College Cinema project. This is the first feature of Chiara Campara. It’s a short feature, listed by the Biennale at 79 minutes but running at 82 minutes in the online festival.
I’m slightly non-plussed in my attempts to categorise the feature. Its central character is Yuri (Leonardo Lidi) an unmarried 30 year-old, the eldest of three siblings of a farmer in what I assume to be Northern Italy, perhaps in Trentino-South Tyrol. The district is not named but the farm practises a form of transhumance – cattle being taken up to higher ground for summer grazing but kept in pens under cover for winter. Also, Yuri has a small stone hut in a forest which he says was used in the Great War when Italy fought against Austria. Yuri has reached a ‘dangerous age’. He doesn’t know whether to stay on the farm or leave for the nearest large town. His main relaxation is to visit a night club which features pole dancers and private rooms and he has begun a relationship of sorts with one of the dancers, Agata (Alice Torriani). Yuri is clearly a marginalised young man. He’s tall but overweight, though he has an attractive face. He moves slowly and thinks deeply. He works methodically and is clearly skilled in what he does on the farm. He is serious about ‘courting’ Agata but is she too ‘worldly’ for him? Meanwhile his sister has what he considers an unsuitable boyfriend and is about to move out. His younger brother, still in his teens is also likely to leave. Yuri does have the option of moving to the large town and working for his uncle’s construction site team.
I can think of several similar films in terms of characters and settings. In the UK a few years ago we had as many as three features which all developed narratives about farms in regions with what might be seen as ‘marginal’ agricultural operations. The one that sprang to mind immediately was arguably the most successful of these, God’s Own Country (UK 2017). But that film was much more dramatic featuring a conflict between the young man and his parents and the appearance of a migrant worker who turned out to be gay. Lessons of Love is much more restrained. It has a realist style and I wasn’t surprised to read that Chiara Campara had trained as a documentarist and had previously directed a medium-length documentary feature and photographed another. There is attention to detail in all the scenes looking at agricultural practice. I’ve seen references to the film as a form of romance, but I don’t think there is enough to justify such a label and audiences may be frustrated if there was that expectation.
I assume the film is intended primarily to be a character study of Yuri and in that respect it works pretty well but I’m not sure it is sufficient in itself to support a feature. Yuri seems mild mannered but on three occasions at least he loses his temper suggesting that there is more going on beneath the surface. The director’s statement on the Biennale website suggests that it is a “delayed coming of age” narrative – one that requires Yuri to ask a lot of questions of himself and where he wants to go with his life, both in is relationships and his working and leisure life choices. That’s fair enough. I don’t necessarily want those questions to be answered and it is probably enough that they are raised, in particular the cost, expressed in several different ways associated with leaving his life of working close to nature and both his cows and wildlife compared to moving into the exciting but stressed world of urban living. But in the end I think even a short feature of 80 minutes needs a little more drama. I think I found this a film to be admired for its performances and the cinematography of Giuseppe Maio. There is also an interesting discourse about the music Yuri plays in his car. But I think the script (by the director and Lorenzo Faggi) is a weakness. I enjoyed some of the sociological detail – I wasn’t aware of a country music culture in rural Italy – but I needed to be more engaged by the narrative. However, I was impressed by the director’s skills evident in a first feature and I will be interested in what she does next.
It’s purely coincidence that over the last couple of weeks I’ve been entertained by Ava Gardner, Ingrid Bergman and now Sophia Loren. It’s also been a great pleasure. Marriage Italian Style is partly a follow-up to Vittorio De Sica’s Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Italy 1963) in that it stars Sophia Loren opposite Marcello Mastroianni. Like its predecessor it sold well overseas and received Oscar nominations. I note that though this was a Carlo Ponti production featuring his partner Sophia Loren, the Executive Producer was Joseph E. Levine, the American showman who did a great deal to introduce Italian popular cinema (and particularly Sophia Loren) to the UK and North America in the 1960s.
De Sica’s film is an adaptation of a Neapolitan play by the prolific actor/writer/director Eduardo De Filippo who made his own film adaptation in 1951 and it has also featured in other versions. The De Sica adaptation is the best known outside Italy. The plot is straightforward. During the the bombing of Naples prior to the Allied invasion of Italy in 1944, a wealthy local businessman, Domenico (Mastroianni) meets a terrified young woman Filumena (Loren). She will survive by becoming a prostitute for the next few years and Domenico will meet her again and decide to keep the contact going, eventually installing her in an apartment and finding her a job. Their secret relationship escalates further up to the point where he installs her in his own house, ostensibly as a maid/carer for his aged mother. He refuses to commit to marriage or to make the relationship public. The relationship lasts for 25 years in secret before Filumena hatches a plot to force a marriage. De Sica structures the narrative so that it starts at the point where Filumena launches her plan and then flashes back to 1944 and outlines the history. We then see what Filumena’s action provokes and this leads into the final act.
In one sense this is a similar narrative to the Naples episode (‘Yesterday’) from the previous film from De Sica with Loren and Mastroianni, but it is much more challenging for the pair since they must age over 25 years. Loren was around 30 when she made the film and Mastroianni was 10 years older. Loren’s are the more obvious changes. At first, although I enjoyed the performances I wasn’t particularly entertained by the story and I struggled with the sexism – Domenico’s shocking treatment of his lover and the misogyny expressed towards Filumena. This is an integral part of of the narrative even though it is apparent to everyone that she is strong and capable and he is a weak but devious man. But as the narrative developed, I did warm to the characters including the housekeeper Rosalia (Tecla Scarano) and the chauffeur Alfredo (Aldo Puglisi) who become Filumena’s principal supporters. There are also certain scenes where De Sica seems to draw on his neorealist experiences in his presentation of Neapolitan street scenes and the changing landscapes of the city. I was particularly taken by a later scene in which Filumena has moved to a new block of flats built on a hill. When Domenico sees her from the road as she begins to descend a path, he rushes, panting, up the path to meet her. I suddenly felt that De Sica was saying something optimistic about their relationship and expressing it through his use of location. I was strangely reminded of some of Antonioni’s films and his use of cityscapes.
The two leads were at their peak around this time. Marcello Mastrioanni looks perpetually worried or helpless when he is not attempting to look decisive. Sophia Loren is simply magnificent. The film is currently part of MUBI UK’s ‘Library’ offer. I think the print is sourced from Cult Films and a notice before the film start discusses dubbing, However the MUBI presentation is a film in Italian with English subtitles.
Observational documentaries, where the the camera appears to observe what’s going on without intervention, can tell us much about the events recorded. However, they need to overcome the disadvantage of not being able to ‘tell’ us information; there’s no voiceover, for instance, to anchor the images. Andrey Paounov’s documentary starts and ends with intertitles, there’s also one use in the body of the text, otherwise the film just shows Cristo’s installation at Lake Iseo, Italy, being planned, constructed and displayed.
Cristo’s installations are relatively well-known; for example he and his then collaborator Jeanne-Claude (his late wife) wrapped the Reichstag in 1995. It wasn’t so long ago that contemporary art was ridiculed (at least in the UK) by mainstream media; now it is often a tourist attraction (such as London’s Tate Modern). Cristo’s floating pier was certainly popular and it would have been very interesting to learn of its genesis and production however all we get of this are scraps of uncontextualised conversation. I can’t summarise it better than Glenn Kenny:
‘Unfortunately, [Paounov] does not seem to aspire to the Maysles’ level of engagement. In 2006’s “The Gates,” [also by Cristo] for instance… the filmmakers found enormous drama in the negotiations/battles between artists and New York City’s bureaucrats, concerning miles of fabric gates snaked through Central Park…’
Maysles was an observational documentarist too so formal constraints don’t explain the limitations of Walking On Water. Occasionally it’s clear Paounov is making a point: in one scene Cristo is shaking hands at a garden party with (presumably) the ‘great and good’ which is suffixed with a large joint of meat on display. Such satire is welcome but questions about why the Italian administrators allowed too many tourists into the town (it’s suggested the major gets his money from the bus company) are not elaborated upon. I’d like to know why virtually no women are involved and what happened to the material used afterwards (Wikipedia tells me it was recycled). Cristo tells an audience that he paid for the anchors (at $5000 a pop) himself but was that true of the whole construct? A scene were we learn his artwork based on the project are selling for millions shows his business acumen: the installation as a ‘loss leader’?
On the plus side some of the cinematography is startlingly beautiful; 10 camera operators are credited. The pier itself is fabulous and, if it hadn’t been so crowded, would have been great to walk along. This yellow ‘brick’ road is ripe for a semiotic analysis but unfortunately this is not that sort of film though I do think it is worth seeing.
The festival’s available here.