Category: Italian cinema

CIFF20 #1: Walking on Water (Italy-Germany-UAE-US 2018)

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Visionary

CIFFlogo 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.

I vitelloni (Italy 1953)

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Poetic imagery

I vitelloni doesn’t have an English language title because it’s untranslatable. Wikipedia suggests The Bullocks or The Layabouts and the subtitles on this restored version (on MUBI UK) uses ‘young bucks’, which is appropriate. Five young lads are bored in Rimini (co-writer and director Frederico Fellini’s home town) and do what young lads do (probably) everywhere: dream of a better life through self-entitlement. It is also strikingly Italian: Fausto (Franco Fabrizzi) (a ‘ladies man’ in the terminology of the ’50s) is already 30-years of age and finds himself, at the start of the film, in a ‘shotgun’ wedding’; Alberto (Alberto Sordi) readily weeps about the grief his sister gives their mother.

Only the intermittent narrator, Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), seems to have his head screwed on but even he lies to his sister (to whom Fausto is married) about his mate’s infidelities; though it’s clear the deception of his sibling is as much to protect her as his friend. Such was the sexual politics of the time.

Fellini’s start in cinema was as a scriptwriter for neo-realist classics Rome, Open City (Roma città aperta, 1945) and Paisan (Paisà, 1946). Neo-realism was over by the 1950s but the influence is still evident in this film in the ordinary settings and ordinary characters. However, Fellini’s master of camera placement, particularly in crowd scenes, scream artifice rather than the ‘slice of life’ evident in, for example, Bicycle Thieves. The ballroom scene, for example, is a consummate masterclass in shooting masses of people coherently. Weaker filmmakers would use a montage including extreme long shots of the dancing mob and medium shots of legs in movement and so on. Fellini, too, uses montage but also has the camera moving through the mass and managing to artfully frame the characters at the same time. The effect is to give energy the portrayal of the scene to show how much fun everyone is having.

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Artfully composed

To describe shots as ‘poetic’ can be obfuscating, however the scene at the beach where the protagonists stare into the distance (image at top) has a melancholy that not even the characters seem to be particularly aware of. Hence it is poetic as the image has more to offer than what at first meets the eye. Similarly, the wind swept, littered, deserted squares (something of a characteristic of Fellini’s films) give a sense of desperation that has an existential edge; this was particularly the case in La Strada (1954), one of his most famous films, when Gelsomina (Giulietta Massina) is trying to escape from her ‘husband’.

L’eclisse (Italy-France 1962)

Vittoria walks past the water tower in EUR – one of the extraordinary long shots in L’eclisse

I’ve assumed in the past that Antonioni’s films, like Bergman’s, typified the idea of a cerebral but sexy European art cinema in the 1960s. My feelings about Antonioni were much like my feelings about Bergman. I admired the performances of the actors, the mise en scène and cinematography, each of which I recognise as influenced by the directors but also by their collaborators. My problems tended to be with what they perceived as the purpose of their films. I found both directors more interesting when they steered closer to genre forms and less when they appeared enigmatic. Of course, they could be enigmatic and offer some form of social commentary or insight into human emotions and social/political discourse without focusing on genre, but I suppose I think there is some form of discipline that genre provokes. I’ve since seen Bergman’s early films and adjusted my position slightly. L’eclisse is the third film in what some critics see as a trilogy by Antonioni, following L’avventura (1960) and La notte (1961). I don’t think I’ve seen all of L’avventura and although I did see La notte  in the early 1970s, I can remember little of it apart from the casting of Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau, two of my favourite actors from the 1960s onwards. MUBI earlier offered me The Lady Without Camellias(La signora senza camelie, Italy 1953) which I wrote about at some length including an exploration of Antonioni’s early career. I rather liked that film so I decided to give L’eclisse a go. It’s on MUBI in UK for the next three weeks.

One of the deep-focus interiors with an arrangement of vertical ‘panels’ in this scene during the break-up of Vittoria and Riccardo

A fetishised shot of the slingbacks in another careful composition. Vittoria’s legs and the table and chair legs fill Riccardo’s gaze for a moment

I do find watching films on streaming difficult as I’m too easily distracted by what else is happening in our ‘locked down’ house. On this occasion, however, I found that watching the film in four parts actually paid off. There is little narrative ‘drive’ but a great deal happening with the performances, the mise en scène and the camerawork – and occasionally the music. It’s a long film (125 minutes) and watching it in roughly 30 minute bursts helped me focus. The setting is Rome, mainly two important specific Roman locations – a new housing development for the wealthy named EUR and the borsa or stock exchange. EUR has an informative page on Wikipedia which explains that it was the district to the South-West of Rome designed to be the site of Mussolini’s planned World’s Fair of 1942 that would have celebrated 20 years of Fascist culture. In the event, the area under state and local authority control was eventually completed in time for the Rome Olympics of 1960 and has subsequently become a business, sporting and government office district as well as an architectural attraction in which competing classical and modernist styles present a kind of dialogue. The central character Vittoria (Monica Vitti) is a young translator with an apartment in an EUR block and at the beginning of the narrative she is in the process of breaking up her relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) who also lives in the spacious EUR district. The break-up is a protracted scene in the early morning. Later Vittoria will visit the borsa to see her mother, an investor. Vittoria also meets Piero (Alain Delon), a young stockbroker (a ‘whizz kid’ as my friend the money dealer might describe him) who has her mother as a client. The rest of the narrative deals with the question of whether Vittoria and Piero can get together – and stay together – for any length of time.

Piero (centre) is introduced in the borsa

Vittoria with her mother (Lilla Brignone) outside the stock exchange

L’eclisse is famous as an example of the difficulty of communication in ‘modern’ bourgeois society. That’s ‘modern’ for 1961 when the film was made. I was 13 when the film was first released and at that age not really aware of what ‘modernity’ meant. But I was aware of the world and what struck me most in the opening sequence in which Vittoria and Riccardo don’t communicate about their split is something I obviously dredged from memory. I was entranced by Monica Vitti and in particular her clothes. A shift dress with a boat neckline, bare legs and open-toed slingback shoes with a low slim heel – why do I know these terms? (I’m almost oblivious to fashion now.) I must be remembering the girls I knew a few years later in 1963-4 when such styles were percolating through to the north of England. But it’s not so much the dress but the way that Ms Vitti moves within it. That was the point of the shift rather than the ‘sheath’ dress, I think. It allowed a woman to walk elegantly and fluidly with her hips swaying within the dress. I don’t find Ms Vitti ‘beautiful’ but her face is attractive and interesting and she exudes erotic power in this film even though there is little physical in her relationships except when Delon later kisses her neck. Francisco Rabal is a powerful Spanish actor cast in a role which constrains him here and the filming captures that frustration.

A moment of sexual frisson when Piero kisses Vittoria’s neck

The contrast between the open spaces of EUR and the crowded stock exchange is perfectly captured by cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo. At this time he was working for Fellini and Rosi as well as Antonioni but he died in 1966 aged only 45 when Italian cinema lost a very talented filmmaker. There are so many scenes in the film that I could happily watch again and again partly for the mise en scène and what seems to be both a commentary on what’s happening between Vittoria and Piero and a more general commentary on a moment in Italian society, partly for the fluid camerawork and partly for the performances. Just one example – when Piero’s attempt to kiss Vittoria passionately ends with her dress ripping at the shoulder (the same shoulder her mother is touching in the shot above), Vittoria heads off into the other rooms in Piero’s parents’ home. She goes into what was presumably Piero’s room as a boy and finds his novelty striptease pen. She goes into his parents’ room and opens the window to look out as two small portraits of grandparents(?) seem to watch her. She looks down to the street below and sees two nuns, tiny figures coming down the street. The camera switches to exterior shots of buildings from different angles and then a reverse long shot to capture Vittoria looking out of the window. back inside the room, Vittoria looks out and down to see two men in an outdoor restaurant, a soldier on a street corner and then varuious people coming out of a building that might be a civic building – perhaps they have been registering a birth or a marriage or a death? Vittoria is an observer of ‘ordinary life’ in Rome.

Vittoria and Piero and Piero set up a meeting place on the corner of a building site

. . . and they come across various characters on the deserted streets of EUR in the heat

Will Vittoria and Piero ever consummate their affair? At one point she tells him she loves him not all or far too much. It sounds like a line from a song (and I haven’t really thought about the music in the film yet) but it might be perceptive on her part. Alain Delon is very beautiful, arguably more beautiful than Monica Vitti, but he is younger than her and in this film more adolescent. 1961-2 saw him at an early peak in his career at only 26. After his first major hit as the Tom Ripley character in René Clair’s Plein soleil (Purple Noon) in 1960 he’d worked for Visconti on Rocco and his Brothers (1961) and would do so again in 1963 as Tancredi in The Leopard. Although he had some Italian heritage and presumably spoke some Italian he seems to have been dubbed in this film (which I think was the norm for many actors in Italian cinema). Piero here seems to represent the materialistic young upper class man in Rome and in a way I think he is just a toy for Vittoria but perhaps that’s just me? There are so many aspects to this film. I haven’t even mentioned the racist woman who is a settler in Kenya and Vittoria’s use of blackface. Is she being satirical? The brief sequence featuring a plane trip to Verona seems to mark this period of Roman filmmaking, reminding me of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960). There are many commentaries on the film and it has received the full Criterion treatment including an essay by John Rosenbaum.

One of the long shots of deserted roads in the final sequence.

The film famously ends with a seven minute sequence in which Vittoria and Piero don’t feature. Baffled distributors in the US are said to have cut this sequence because they couldn’t see what it adds. It’s almost like a self-contained poetic documentary. It shows scenes of EUR and how ‘ordinary people’ interact with the environment, ending with the street lighting that illuminates the corner where Vittoria and Piero meet. Many of the shots feature characters we have seen before or objects that have featured like the nurse and her charge and the sprinkler. The ‘new’ element is a distinct sense of disturbance and foreboding (especially during this coronavirus lockdown). The disturbance is achieved partly by the camera slowly tracking, partly by the soundtrack of musical notes, chords and ‘runs’ and sound effects and partly by the reminder (via a newspaper held by a bus passenger) that this is the time of ‘The Arms Race’ and Khrushchev engaged in a ‘game’ with the Pentagon. The Cuban Missile Crisis was 6 months away when the film premièred in Milan . In addition there are still frames, large close-ups of trees, and pavements and ‘natural’ sounds (wind, water). There is a possible joke – is that Vittoria, oh, no it’s not. I find this sequence fascinating and it is almost like an avant-garde short – but meticulously shot and edited with the resources avant-garde filmmakers can only dream about. It’s a fitting end to a film I began with some trepidation but found in the end that I enjoyed it a great deal.

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di ferragosto, Italy 2008)

Gianni’s day begins at his local shop with a small glass of white wine . . .

I remembered this film, or possibly its successor The Salt of Life (2011), when I was given a DVD of it by a friend (who often finds interesting DVDs in London charity shops). This is a U Certificate film running just 75 minutes so its something anyone can watch. We sat down with it on a Saturday night when TV is virtually unwatchable (if you aren’t following the serial on BBC4). Watching it with the lockdown in Italy was an emotional experience.

. . . and he often joins his friend ‘Viking’ outside the shop

Writer–director Gianni Di Gregorio had been an actor and writer with experience in theatre and film before he made this film as his directorial début. At roughly the same time he also worked on the rather different Gomorra for director Matteo Garrone (who, in turn produced this film). Di Gregorio also plays the central character in Mid-August Lunch and the main ‘action’ is set in his own flat. Playing what seems like a barely changed version of himself, Gianni is struggling to maintain his flat which houses him and his 93 year-old mother (Valeria De Franciscis). He owes back-rent and payments for various facilities but as the ancient festival of Ferragosto approaches, his landlord’s agent offers him a deal. If he will look after the agent’s mother Marina (Marina Cacciotti) over the the two nights of the festival, the agent will waive the amenities payments and the back-rent. Gianni feels he has to agree, but when the mother arrives she brings a second ‘guest’, Maria, the agent’s aunt. And then, to cap it all, Gianni’s doctor comes up with a similar proposal, depositing his mother Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza) with strict instructions about medication and diet. Gianni finds himself catering for four elderly ladies and trying to keep them amused.

Gianni with his mother

There isn’t really any plot to speak of. The three ‘guests’ plus Gianni’s mother, are all presented as ‘ordinary people’ with the kinds of likes and dislikes we all have. They want to watch TV or they want quiet. They don’t want to abide by the ‘rules’ that Gianni has been given, especially about what they are ‘allowed’ to eat. But they are also gregarious and flirtatious. Fortunately, Gianni has two great qualities. He is able to remain calm under pressure and he appears to be both an imaginative and efficient cook. Both of these qualities are perhaps only maintained by copious imbibing of white wine. In my limited experience of Italian film, TV and literature, a small glass of white wine is an essential part of daily life, capable of keeping most horrors at bay.

Maria helps in the kitchen, slicing the mozzarella

One of the great pleasures of this film, apart from the interactions of the characters is its presentation of Italian food culture. It appears to me that Italians generally eat very well. They take care to eat interesting things and they are prepared to pay for good quality provisions in local shops. It’s a long time since I’ve been to Italy so perhaps it is now over-run by fast food joints and German supermarkets? I hope not. During this time of coronavirus it breaks my heart to think that this eating culture has been disrupted.

LFF 2019 #3: The Valley (Italy-France 2019)

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Doing the right thing

lfflogo2019 Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro has made an affecting documentary set in the Roya and Durance Valleys on the France-Italy border. It’s primarily an observational work so we learn about the situation through characters’ interactions and occasionally their explanation of the situation to the director (but not directly the camera). For instance, one explains that the valleys, though in France, were part of Italy before World War II and the inhabitants don’t feel they belong to either country. It’s a sort of liminal space into which Eritrean refugees try to seek asylum.

Legally, of course, they should be able to do so but the authorities also perceive the area to be a liminal space otherwise why would they suspend due legal process? This is a naive question as police are often happy to contravene the law especially when told to do so. We learn most from Cedric, one of the leaders of local people who try to right the wrong done to the refugees who are often plonked back over the border into Italy without due process. Children often find, on official paperwork, that their birthdate is 1st January 2000 meaning they have suddenly become adult so can be dealt with particularly poorly. Such cynical corruption is indicative of the way those portrayed as Other are often treated.

As to the refugees themselves, there’s only one scene when we get to hear their voices directly. Even then we don’t get to know who they are, or from what they are fleeing, rather we are informed about their generalised sense of trauma. Whilst the absence of their voices is an obvious omission, it would be unfair to be too critical as Escudeiro’s purpose is clearly to tell the local heroes’ stories and he does this successfully. These people bear witness to the wrong and do what they can to set it right.

In recent news Turkey’s president Erdoğan threatened to allow 3.5 million Syrian refugees into Europe if there was any attempt to interfere with his restarted, courtesy of Trump, war on the Kurds. The morality of using people as a bargaining chip, never mind the fact they are desperate, is unspeakable. So Escudeiro’s film is important in reminding us human’s humanity to humans in a world where examples of inhumanity are too numerous to mention. Bearing witness to the terrible treatment of refugees is necessary so we don’t feel that such behaviour can be normalised.

LFF 2018 #5: Happy as Lazzaro (Lazzaro Felice, Italy-Switz-France-Germany 2018)

Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) and Tancredi (Luca Chikovani)

Happy as Lazzaro was the joint winner of the script prize at Cannes this year. It’s due to arrive in the UK in the Spring of 2019, I think. I don’t usually book to see films like this which are sure to be released widely, but this screening was in the right place at the right time and the writer-director Alice Rohrwacher was present to introduce and discuss her film. Ms Rohrwacher is as entertaining a speaker as her films are life-affirming and very wonderful. There are no spoilers below but I hope I can whet your appetite for this glorious piece of film magic.

I’ve seen and enjoyed both of the director’s first two films and she appears to be most interested in characters who are in one sense ‘marginal’ but also ‘magical’ in that they attract attention, usually in a positive sense, at least for the underprivileged. Corpo Celeste (2011) focuses on a young girl who arrives back in Southern Italy after 10 years away and confronts her church and family at the time of her first communion. The Wonders (2014) also focuses on a young girl who is the most dynamic member of a group of migrant smallholders in the countryside around Viterbo in Central Italy. Happy as Lazzaro is set in the same region.

The marquesa (Nicoletta Braschi) and her entourage cross the river to get to the village

Lazzaro is a young man of 19 or 20 who lives in an isolated community – a village in the hills cut off from the world when a road bridge collapses. Around fifty people live in this isolated spot, working the land and producing cash crops for the landowner, a Marquesa known as the ‘Tobacco Queen’. Tobacco leaves and the other crops are transported to market with great difficulty every few months and life in the village goes on undisturbed. Lazzaro is almost angelic in appearance with wide open eyes and a ready smile. He will do anything for anybody and is consequently exploited by all the villagers, but he doesn’t seem to mind and since there is no wealth held by the villagers, it is only his time and energy that is used. But when the Marquesa comes to the village to stay in the crumbling villa for a few days, bringing her son Tancredi, roughly the same age as Lazzaro, the two develop an odd friendship with the naïve Lazzaro agreeing to Tancredi’s suggestions. When the ‘inciting incident’ takes place it is a long way into the narrative and, in the unusual structuring of events, this incident changes the feel and tone of the film completely.

I’m not going to spoil the narrative and I hope you can manage to see the film without any knowledge of what might happen, so that you can enjoy the full experience of what is a marvellous film. All I’ll say is that there are elements of what some might call ‘magic realism’ with the intervention of a wolf. Wolves have been ‘re-wilded’ in several parts of Europe but in Italy the original wolf population survived attempts at extermination and they now number around 500 along the ‘spine’ of the Apennines. This means that the wolf that appears could be ‘real’ or metaphorical and that’s perhaps the key to the fantastical elements in this film. In the Press Notes, Alice Rohrwacher tells us:

Lazzaro Felice is the story of a lesser sanctity, with no miracles, no powers or superpowers, without special effects. It is the sanctity of living in this­ world without thinking ill of anyone and simply ­ believing­ in ­ human beings. Because another way was possible, the way of goodness, which men have­ always ignored­ but which always reappears to­ question them. Like  something that might have been but that  we’ve never­ ever­ wanted.

Lazzaro is the figure of sanctity and what he eventually does is to expose exploitation and the new inequality in Italy between the urban rich and the rural poor, between those with material wealth and those without (including the migrant communities). The film doesn’t lecture us but instead initially entrances us and then reveals a harsh reality.

Lazzaro in the city

The film depends heavily on the central performance by the remarkable Adriano Tardiolo as Lazzaro. There seems to be a slight difference between the Press Notes and what Alice Rohrwacher told us in the Q&A, but I think it’s clear that Tardiolo is a young man discovered in a college in Orvieto with no acting experience and initially no real desire to appear in a film. It might be supposed that it was relatively straightforward to ask him to smile all the time and say very little, but I think there must be much more to it than that and the performance under Rohrwacher’s direction is absolutely convincing. During the Q&A a confident questioner told the director that she was drawing on the work of three famous Italian directors (which he named) and asked her to comment on why she chose them. She replied with a smile that she had been told by many people that she had drawn on a whole long list of famous Italian directors and proceeded to name several. Happy as Lazzaro is completely an Alice Rohwacher film but several scenes do remind us of the history of Italian cinema and in particular the impact of neo-realism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The technical credits for the film also suggest a conscious attempt to remind us of an earlier period of cinema. The mostly female crew (including Hélène Louvart as cinematographer) were working with Super 16mm film. Alice Rohrwacher says this, “wasn’t made for reasons of style or nostalgia but out of enchantment with a fantastic technology­ that influences­ one’s­ method­ of­ working”. But she did decide to use a slightly cropped version of the 1.66:1 aspect ratio common as a widescreen compromise in European cinema. The film is listed as ‘1.63:1’ with the corners masked as rounded, suggesting a technique from silent cinema. The other intriguing aspect of the production is that tempesta, the main production company (of producer Carlo Cresto-Dina), used new production techniques:

. . . ‘EcoMuvi’, ­the­ protocol ­of­ environmental­ ­sustainability for­ the­ film­­ industry­ ­created­ by­ tempesta.­ EcoMuvi,­ first ­in­ Europe,­ is­ a­ real­“ ­production­ process”­ that­ can­ ­indicate­ the­ best solutions to achieve energy savings and environmental sustainability­ in­ film­ production.­ Not­ just­ compensation­ but­ an­active­ step-by-step­ procedure­ to­make­ films­ with­ lighter­ impact­ on­ our­ planet.­ Thanks­ to­ Ecomuvi­ 10­ tons­ of ­CO2 were saved in pre-production and production.

Happy as Lazzaro gave me one of the most enjoyable and encouraging afternoons in a cinema that I experienced in a very long time. The trailer is careful not to spoil the narrative surprises.