Category: Italian cinema

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:

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

Margherita and Giovanni at their mother's bedside.

Margherita and Giovanni at their mother’s bedside.

Mia Madre is a rather wonderful but sometimes mysterious film about love and death, mothers, daughters and sons – and filmmaking – set in Rome. For Nanni Moretti it’s a ‘personal’ film in several senses. He lost his own mother when making We Have a Pope in 2011 and the character of the film director may well be informed by some of his own thoughts and experiences (he writes most of his own scripts). But although he appears in the film, Moretti takes one of the supporting roles rather than the lead. The central character, the film director, is Margherita played by Margherita Buy. (Moretti collaborated with three women on the script.)

Here is a woman with a sick mother (a former language teacher loved and respected by her students), a husband she is separated from, a lover she has just left and a teenage daughter who causes her the usual problems (none of which are really problems). With all of this to contend with, Margherita is also in the middle of making a film with a temperamental Hollywood actor played by John Turturro. The only stable supporter in all of this is Margherita’s brother Giovanni (Moretti) who has taken leave from work to look after his mother.

Margherita has an angry exchange with the Hollywood actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). In the background her daughter looks on.

Margherita has an angry exchange with the Hollywood actor Barry Huggins (John Turturro). In the background her daughter looks on.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from Mia Madre having only seen about half of one of Moretti’s films before. On the one hand I expected a female-centred melodrama (grandmother-mother-daughter) but on the other a commentary of some kind on filmmaking. Somehow Moretti manages to bring these two rather different kinds of narratives together. The ‘film within a film’ (the title of which I couldn’t quite distinguish on the clapperboard) is a social drama about industrial relations with Turturro as the new owner of a factory attempting to lay off a significant proportion of the workforce in the face of their determined resistance. In relation to this I was reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s films such as British Sounds (1970, a panning shot along a factory production line) and Tout Va Bien (1972, a factory sit-in by workers). I also thought about Le mépris (1963) and making an American-financed film at Cinecitta and also Vincente Minnelli’s Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) in which an American ‘runaway production’ is filmed in Rome. None of these is directly referenced but Moretti perhaps refers to his own left politics and casts a satirical glance towards the director’s sense of political worth or cynicism about her own position. A recurring motif is the idea of the actor “standing next to the character”. Margherita admits that although she instructs her actors in this manner, she doesn’t really know what it means – yet Margherita Buy as the director to some extent manages to do this. The way in which the film within a film – the mise en abîme – actually works is interesting. Some characters in ‘real life’ such as Federico, Margherita’s husband, and Vittorio, her lover seem to be doubled by characters or crew in the film she is making – i.e. they look a little like them. She herself reveals her ‘true’ personality in the way she reacts towards what happens on the shoot – and in this sense she does present us with the ‘actor’ and ‘the character’. It’s a terrific performance by Margherita Buy.

Giovanni and Margherita and the cinema queue.

Giovanni and Margherita and the cinema queue.

But the main thrust of the narrative is how Margherita’s insecurity manifests itself in a series of dreams, memories and nightmares in which she re-visits her past and possibly ‘sees’ the future. These are carefully edited into the more mundane ‘real’ episodes in her story. Music is important throughout and helps create the melodrama with pieces by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Ólafur Arnalds. For me one of the most memorable scenes is a dream sequence in which Margherita is outside a cinema with her brother. There is a never-ending queue of people waiting to get into the cinema and she walks along the queue meeting her younger self and her mother – while Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ plays on the soundtrack. I’m a sucker for Cohen on a soundtrack and there is something about his poetry and its delivery that seems to work very well.

So, how does all this fit together? As a melodrama the narrative makes Margherita suffer in an unusual way. The other characters are generally very well disposed towards her. Their actions do cause her problems indirectly but it is often because of the way that she reacts that she aggravates the situation and begins to lose control. This seems to be the way in which Moretti is able to critique himself as a director and how he dealt with his feelings around his own mother’s death. Giovanni seems to be the brother who is almost saintly in his self-sacrifice but who criticises Margherita both explicitly and implicitly – although in a gentle and civilised way. This is a very complex film narrative and it is going to require re-viewings. I realise that I have said little about John Turturro’s performance as the Hollywood actor which many reviewers found to be very funny. Certainly there were scenes in which his performance style created a sudden change in tone  and it was impressive, but much of the time I found it difficult to watch because I invested so much in Margherita and I felt her frustration.

Mia Madre goes into my small group of favourites from 2015’s releases. At some point I will watch Nanni Moretti’s earlier films. In the UK the film is in cinemas and on Curzon’s online download service.

Trailer (Jarvis Cocker on the soundtrack):

Otto e mezzo (, Italy / France 1963)

This classic film is going round on a reasonably good DCP. However, the opportunities are limited. Picturehouse at the National Media Museum and the Hyde Park Picture House both restricted their programme to one screening. This is becoming something of the norm for art and foreign language films, as it is also for classics and silent films. The last group, of course, often involve live music which explains that. But I do find single showings problematic. Presumably, like myself on occasions, there are a group of prospective viewers who cannot make that particular time or day. I can understand the policy to a degree. Both Picturehouse and the Hyde Park, (who book through Picturehouse], have a particular ‘discover’ or ‘wonder’ on Tuesdays. And they have regular Sunday slots for ‘Vintage’ films. I heard an interview on Radio 4 with the manager of the ‘Little Bit Ritzy, (a Picturehouse venue), who explained that they tried to make each film an event: modern marketing. This appears to work. At the Hyde Park recently an Italian documentary drew 120 people on a Tuesday evening.

However, this tactic also undermines word-of-mouth for individual films: important in the art and foreign language areas. And in the case of Tuesdays, one is often faced with a horrible choice, at least here in Leeds and Bradford. I went along to the Hyde Park for . There were about 90 in the audience. However I know that several friends missed this screening. And I was not able to make the screening at the National Media Museum.

Otto e mezzo is not just a film praised by critics and audiences. It is one of the seminal films in World Cinema. The publicity for the film has frequently pointed to it being among the Top Ten films chosen in the 2012 Critics Poll. More significantly, it was chosen fourth in the parallel Poll by Film Directors. The latter speaks volumes. Federico’ Fellini’s masterpiece defies simple description, as do other great movies. Stephen L. Hanson in The International Dictionary of Film writes:

. . . this study of a filmmaker’s creative and personal crises is now recognised as  masterpiece, and one of the very small number of cinematic efforts to utter a clear statement on the intricate nature of artistic inspiration

I suspect many film fans would want to see the film more than once. I certainly wished to see the film both at the National Media Museum and the Hyde Park. At least I saw the trailer four times, and that is great fun. So my felicitations to the Hebden Bridge Picture House who are showing the film twice: on the evening of Sunday June 21st and then on the evening of Tuesday June 23rd. Of course, this cinema is not accessible for all – too far for me I am afraid. However, if you can – go – and take friends. After the screening of the film at the Hyde Park there were people discussing it in the auditorium, in the foyer, and outside the cinema. That is the sign of a great movie.

NB The Showroom in Sheffield is unfortunately following the single screening practice for this film.