The different language cinemas of Spain are not necessarily known for the work of female directors and so this second film by the Catalan director Mar Coll offered a rare treat during the ¡Viva! Weekender at HOME in Manchester. The ‘her’ that everyone wants to do their best for is Geni (short for Eugenia), a 38 year-old middle-class woman in Barcelona who we first meet in her doctor’s office. She has clearly suffered both physical and mental damage as the result of a traumatic accident – though the precise nature of this is not revealed until much later in the narrative. Eventually we realise that Geni is not making the progress back to ‘normal’ bourgeois life that is expected of her. In a marvellous performance by Nora Navas, Geni is revealed as unable to be as articulate as she once was and to have become forgetful and lacking in the kind of confidence and social skills she needs to return to work as a legal executive (it isn’t clear if she is actually qualified as a lawyer).
Geni is married to Dani, an architect and she is part of an extended family with a wealthy father and grown-up siblings, though one of her sisters is also in some form of therapy. All the family attempt to ‘care’ for her but none are able to appreciate how she feels and consequently they seem to be trying to erect a cocoon for her within which she will find a way to return to normality. Her one chance of ‘breaking free’ comes when, by chance, she meets an old school friend who she hasn’t seen for twenty years. Mariana (Valeria Bertuccelli) is a ‘wild’ Argentinian who claims to have travelled the world but who is now trying to get a job that will allow her to live abroad permanently. Perhaps Geni can join her in some way? In practice this proves quite difficult. The narrative has an open ending that didn’t please a couple of people sitting behind me but seems the best outcome in the circumstances. The dissatisfied audience members thought that the film was depressing but as another of their group said, “this is reality”.
I ‘enjoyed’ the film mainly because of the central performance and I felt that I had come to understand how she felt. It occurs to me that many of us don’t face the same questions until we retire – when we don’t have the constant pressures of work (or running a home) to pre-occupy us. I’m not sure if it is better or worse to confront the pressures to conform when you are 38 than it is when you are 68. Reviews of the film refer to it as a ‘tragi-comedy’. I did think it was sometimes like the ‘comedy of embarassment’ that I personally find hard to watch. Most of the time I felt anger on behalf of Geni rather than laughter at the situation. The weakness in the film is that the other characters don’t get much opportunity to make their case, apart from Mariana. She says that Dani is a bit of a ‘dickhead’. That may be true but we can’t be sure from how we see him behave – he does try to fulfil the caring role but spurns Geni’s demands for intimacy. I don’t mind the open ending but we do need a bit more about who he is and a bit more about the rest of the family as well.
I can’t remember much distinctive about the look of the film but the soundtrack has some lively jazz, including Django Rheinhardt. I’m grateful for Rebecca Naughten’s usual perceptive review for pointing out that Mariana ‘erupts’ into the narrative in a red coat. She is also the means by which Geni watches a rather wonderful B movie which the subtitles refer to as ‘What Have We Done to Deserve This?’ – a reference perhaps to the early films of Pedro Almodóvar, suggesting that Mariana might really have been having fun (she appears in the film as a nun)?
The screening of Tots volem el millor per a ella was preceded by a 10 minute short, Somos Amigos (We Are Friends, Spain 2014). This classy widescreen effort hones in on the current period of austerity with a wry tale about ‘downsizing’ and the imperative to never mix ‘friendship and business’. The director Carlos Solano is listed in the HOME brochure as a former student of Mar Coll. I presume this was at ESCAC (Escuela Superior de Cine y Audiovisuales de Cataluña), part of the University of Barcelona.
Researching Tots volem el millor per a ella, I discovered that it had already shown in the UK at the ICA as part of the ‘Catalan avant-garde season” – though it isn’t really an avant-garde film – and in Birmingham as part of a season of Catalan, Basque and Galician films. It would be good if it got a wider UK release.
Trailer (in Catalan with Castillian subs – please correct me if I’m mistaken):
Rocco 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?
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 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.
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.
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):
Born Hans Detlef Sierck in Hamburg in 1897, Douglas Sirk was one of the many filmmakers who left Germany in the mid-1930s for political and personal safety reasons, eventually ending up in Hollywood and beginning to work on American films in the early 1940s. He died in Switzerland in 1987 nearly thirty years after his final Hollywood film Imitation of Life. In his later years, Sirk was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films, attending the Retrospective at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and receiving writers such as Jon Halliday, whose book Sirk on Sirk (Secker & Warburg) first appeared in 1971 (a revised edition was published by faber & faber in 1997).
In Germany in the 1930s, Sierck had been a highly respected theatre and film director but at first in America he struggled to find the openings that would allow him to make the Hollywood A pictures that his German success and obvious talent suggested was his proper role. After a potential deal with Warner Bros. fell through, he found himself contracted as a writer at Columbia which gave him a platform to direct a number of small independent pictures released through United Artists. After briefly returning to Germany in the late 1940s he finally got a contract with Universal in 1950. Again he was mainly employed on ‘smaller’ films at Universal (like Columbia, a mini-major without much access to A list stars). However, he was able to work with long term collaborators (such as the cinematographer Russell Metty) on a range of genre films and to develop his own star, Rock Hudson. His major successes came with a series of melodramas, mainly produced in Technicolor and forms of widescreen, for the same producer Ross Hunter. These were generally seen as ‘women’s pictures’ or ‘weepies’ and as such were critically derided. But they were commercially very successful and it is these films which would be later re-evaluated by critics and film scholars in France, UK and US. These were also films seen around the world which would serve to inspire future auteurs including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almodóvar, Aki Kaurismäki and Fatih Akin.
Sirk’s influence on younger directors is one aspect of his importance in global film. He also worked as a director in Spain, Switzerland, Holland and Ireland as well as in Germany and America. An avid reader with interests in theatre, cinema and other arts across cultures, Sirk is a major figure in film history associated primarily with the concept of melodrama, visual style and disguised social commentary. One of the most read posts on this blog is ‘What is Melodrama?’, a piece which uses Sirk’s 1954 picture All That Heaven Allows as a prime example. Many film students will know about Sirk from the revival in interest in his films in the 1970s, especially among feminist film scholars. But today it’s quite difficult to see Sirk’s films in cinemas and apart from the handful of films most often cited, the other titles don’t have much profile. To properly understand how Sirk’s later melodramas are constructed it’s important to look at the whole body of work. We’ll try therefore to discuss some of his films on the blog.