2018 saw the release of six films of the highest quality which took many of the top prizes around the world at festivals and national awards. Cold War was followed into UK distribution by Shoplifters and then Roma. Burning appeared in early 2019 and now we have Capernaum. Happy as Lazzaro appears next month. What a year 2018 was! And there are others to come which I haven’t seen yet. We might struggle to find such quality across this year’s output.
Capernaum (the title translates as ‘chaos) is one of the most controversial of the six films. While many audiences and critics have raved about the film, there are some who have accused Lebanese writer-director-actor Nadine Labaki and her musician-producer partner Khaled Mouzanar of various kinds of offences. The most widely expressed of these centres on the concept of ‘poverty porn’, something previously visited upon Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire (UK-US-India 2009). I struggle to understand exactly what ‘poverty porn’ might be but first here’s a brief outline of Capernaum and its production.
Lebanon is a country which has suffered more than most because of its own internal divisions, partly derived from its colonial past, and its proximity to the wholescale disruption of people’s lives in Palestine and Syria and the subsequent migrations of refugees to Lebanon. At the same time, Beirut has maintained its position as a major economic and cultural centre for the entire region. Nadine Labaki has attempted to bring together several social issues as the basis for her story about Zain, a 12 year-old Lebanese boy who leaves his family and for a brief period lives with a migrant worker and her infant child. The story engages with the ‘street culture’ of Beirut, the refugee camps, the difficulty of achieving resident status and the ways in which so many people can easily become ‘invisible’ because of their lack of official recognition. Thus the ‘chaos’ of life in Beirut. Labaki’s strategy is to create a narrative which at one level appears to explore this world using the techniques of neo-realism, but also with some of the more expressionist devices of contemporary cinema such as the drone shots which show the extent of of cheap housing and shacks. The narrative structure uses a series of flashbacks from a central court case in which the young boy sues his parents for bringing him into this world of chaos.
Nadine Labaki’s previous films as director are Caramel (2007) and Where Do We Go Now? (2011). The first is a form of realist melodrama centring on the lives of women from different backgrounds who meet at a local beauty shop. The second is an unusual form of musical comedy which explores questions about civil war via the idea of women in an isolated village attempting to defuse hostilities by manipulating the sexual desires of the men. Capernaum is in some way an amalgam of the styles of the first two films, bringing together a realist style with the narrative device of a courtroom in which the trial becomes an indictment of a whole structure of government policies in Beirut. This is something used in a slightly different way in a film like Bamako (Mali-France 2006). Nadine Labaki also starred in her first two films as a director (she also works as an actor in both French and Lebanese cinema) but in Capernaum she plays the role of the Zain’s counsel in court, an important, but secondary role. Although the trial seems an unlikely event, Labaki consulted retired judges to ensure that the scenes have some credibility. Many of the actors in the film are non-professionals, often with ‘real-life’ experience of the kinds of roles they play.
Only a vocal minority of commentators are against this film which scores a very high 8.4 on IMDb. But it is worth looking at the negative reviews to try to understand the issues a little more clearly. The Slumdog Millionaire comparison is interesting because some of the critics refer to Capernaum as ‘Oscar bait’ and accuse it of ‘manipulation’. (The film was distributed in the US by Sony Classics in the US, giving it a higher profile than Labaki’s earlier films.) At the same time there are charges from some critics that the film is ‘without cinematic merit’ while for others its use of hand-held camera and drone shots (and its flashback structure) are cinematic devices which ‘get in the way’ of presenting the real conditions faced by the thousands living in cheap housing or on the streets in Beirut. The charge is that Labaki is a relatively wealthy woman exploiting her non-professional actors in order to make American audiences cry – and presumably to make themselves feel better. One commentator calls Labaki a ‘Western woman’. But not everybody who is educated, talented and speaks French and/or English is ‘Western’. It seems that Nadine Labaki had to help some of her non-professional actors in ‘real life’ because of their precarious positions. ‘Zain’ is played by Zain Al Rafeea, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon and ‘Rahil’, the woman he meets and befriends is played by Yordanos Shiferaw, an Eritrean refugee in Ethiopia who became an illegal migrant worker in Lebanon. Both Zain and Yordanos were helped in different ways. The parents of the little girl who plays Rahil’s son were also arrested during the shoot and the crew had to intervene. Even so the mother and child were deported back to Kenya and the father to Nigeria. This information is taken from the film’s Press Pack.
But what about ‘poverty porn’? Describing something as ‘porn’ suggests that it is produced in order to ‘arouse’ audiences/readers, to stimulate an excessive interest in something. In the case of ‘gastro-porn’ or ‘gardening porn’ it’s used as a criticism of middle class readers who revel in the expensive beauty of these objects of consumption. But how does this work with images of poverty? Their status as pornographic images can derive only from the perceived exploitation of the actors or the behaviour of those who watch/read the imagery. However, unlike haute cuisine or beautiful gardens, images of poverty are also concerned with exposing and circulating ways of living/surviving that are often excluded from cinema screens. There is always a case for showing not excluding. The argument must be about how they are shown, but also about the need to show them in such a way to attract audiences who might not otherwise be aware of the issues.
If I think about my own reaction to the film, I don’t think I was ‘shocked’ or that I felt ‘manipulated’ by the film. Many scenes are certainly difficult to watch and I was emotionally engaged but I’ve seen similar films before. Once or twice I was struck by similarities with Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) and, more oddly, I thought about Battle of Algiers (Algeria-France 1966) – I think it was the prison scenes. I was very impressed by the performances of the non-professionals. Zain in particular is a very distinctive young boy, small for his age but seemingly fearless. The fact that he is a very attractive and appealing child has perhaps fuelled some of the negative reviews. The German-Lebanese cinematographer Christopher Aoun is still in the early stages of his career but I thought his work was very effective. The music by Khaled Mouzanar worked for me and he and Nadine Labaki have produced a film with a universal story that is stunningly presented in the context of Beirut.
I don’t know Nadine Labaki personally and I can’t judge whether she has exploited her non-professional cast. All I can do is watch the film and read what she has said about its production. Her most vocal critics might have some local knowledge about life in Beirut but from my perspective this is a powerful film that deserves its large audience. The claims that it has no ‘cinematic merit’ just seem silly. In the wider context I hope that Capernaum makes audiences more aware of the refugee crisis in Lebanon and exerts pressure for changes in international policies affecting the region. It would be good if attention switched to a little further down the coast and focused on the major causes of the refugee crises in Lebanon over the past 70 years – the forced flight of Palestinians from their homelands and the proxy war that has just been fought in Syria. I’m also looking forward to whatever Nadine Labaki produces next.
Here’s the Canadian trailer:
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.
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.
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.
What is the status of Michelangelo Antonioni today? In the 1960s he was in some ways the archetypal figure of the European art director. His three English language films, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1975) and The Passenger (1975) then transformed him into a new kind of celebrity artist. For older cinéphiles his great works might be the trilogy of ‘alienation’ films from the early 1960s, L’avventura (1960), La notta (1961) and L’éclisse (1962). But what about the 1950s? Antonioni was born in 1912, making him roughly a contemporary of Bergman (b. 1918) and Kurosawa (b. 1910), but unlike those two prolific filmmakers who were active in their film industries by the early 1940s, Antonioni’s progress is more hesitant. He co-writes A Pilot Returns with Rossellini in 1942 and directs eight documentary shorts between 1947 and 1950 before making his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (A Chronicle of Love) in 1950. Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound from 1956, made the observation that unlike the Cahiers du Cinema writers who became filmmakers in La nouvelle vague or the Free Cinema directors in the UK who formed part of the British New Wave, Antonioni had no clear beginning, no celebrated first film and no clear ‘film movement’ identity. She quotes an interview in 1959 for Positif in which Antonioni explains that in 1943 he was directing a documentary about fishermen on the Po River – the same location used by Visconti for Ossessione, often quoted as the first neo-realist film in 1942. “Today, perhaps I would be cited in a discussion about the birth of neo-realism”, Antonioni suggests. (In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol 1: Aldrich to King, Richard Roud (ed) 1980, Martin, Secker and Warburg.)
What then of La signora senza camelie?, one of three films that Antonioni directed or part-directed in 1953. Neo-realism was still a recognisable influence in Italy in the early 1950s and it certainly informs some of Enzo Serafin’s cinematography in the film. (Serafin worked continuously from 1942 and in 1954 shot Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.) The narrative is familiar. Clara (Lucia Bosè) is a shop girl from Milan, an outstanding beauty who has been snapped up by a pair of film producers. They have put her into a mundane exploitation film and when the narrative of La signora senza camelie begins she is waiting in the street outside a cinema where her debut is being previewed in a public screening. These opening shots seem to promise distinctive location shooting. What follows certainly has neo-realist moments, especially because of the cinematography, but it is primarily a melodrama and in generic terms, a film about the film ‘business’ rather than about filmmaking per se – though there are some direct comments about performance. There are ‘pre-echoes’ of certain well-known films. It’s difficult not to think of Godard’s 1963 Le mépris (1963) in which an American producer wants to put Brigitte Bardot into a ‘classical drama’. In La signora senza camelie, Clara marries one of her producers, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) who installs her in a beautifully furnished by soul-less apartment and then casts her in a version of Joan of Arc. She goes to the Venice Film Festival and is humiliated when the film fails. In the meantime she has linked up with another hopeless lover, a diplomat who is not prepared to risk being seen with her publicly. She would be better off with the experienced actor Lodi played by Frenchman Alain Cuny, who in one scene teaches her how to make love for the camera. The film’s title presumably refers to The Lady of the Camellias or simply ‘Camille‘, a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, an opera, La traviata, by Verdi and then a film made famous by Greta Garbo. Poor Clara has none of the mystique of Camille (though possibly all of the beauty).
La signora senza camelie is very much a film about mise en scène – the apartments, the beautiful clothes – and the cinematography. I’m sure there is music too – Clara sings in her début, but I didn’t really notice the music. Cinecitta, the great studio complex in Rome plays a role in the closing stages of the narrative, as do the paparazzi of Rome, ever-present in the studio canteen. Earlier, the two producers (the other one is much more pragmatic) first find a beautiful house belonging to the aristocracy and then fail to make use of its possibilities. Overall, I found the film beautiful to watch (and that includes the luscious Lucia Bosè, who I realise was in the Spanish film The Death of a Cyclist a couple of years later – she married a Spanish bullfighter). The narrative is in one sense quite cynical and in another an exposé of the celebrity culture of Italian cinema and what eventually came to be known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Fellini’s films make much more sense when you’ve seen this film and perhaps Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) the more ‘neo-realist’ film that traces the story of a mother’s attempt to get her child into the film world. I feel I appreciate Antonioni’s skill more than I did before, but he still feels a bit like a ‘cold fish’.
Like all Italian films of the period the dialogue is dubbed. I was surprised that this is very badly done at one point.
I watched the film on MUBI. It is currently available on a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray. In the clip below (no English subs) we see Clara and Lodi playing the love scene in her second film. The director is the man in charge, though both the producers are also on set. What are those extras, seen through the window, doing outside?
Ciambra is a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy (close to Gioia Tauro) with a large extended Roma family involved in various ‘marginal’ and ‘illegal’ activities. The youngest son in the family is 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato). Not much older than his own nephews and nieces, Pio is conscious of needing to grow up quickly to be like his much older brother and to get away from the scrutiny of his mother, the matriarch of the family. This sounds like it will be a conventional coming-of-age story, but there is more to it than that. This isn’t a Mafia/Cammora/’Ndràngheta story. Ciambria is an isolated community – more like an isolated encampment than part of a city. Pio goes into the town or to other small communities but avoids mainstream criminals. The Roma boy is concerned about territories and identities. (The real Gioia Tauro is only a small town but it has been associated with ‘Ndràngheta and it has the largest container port in Italy.)
Writer-director Jonas Carpignano (born & schooled in New York, lives in Italy) made a big impression with his first feature Mediterranea (Italy 2015) about the problems of two African migrants coming to Italy. His reward was to be selected as one of the first to benefit from Martin Scorsese’s fund for younger filmmakers and a subsequent offer of support from Sundance. His starting point was to go for the ‘authenticity’ of non-professionals and the whole Roma family appear to be playing themselves if the credits are to be taken at face value. Fairly early on it becomes clear that Pio is not quite like the older members of the family – though he may be a throwback to his grandfather, the man who established the community in the area and who is still around at the start of the narrative. After the screening and after researching Mediterranea (which only got a DVD release in the UK and which I haven’t seen), I realised that Pio and his African friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) feature in both films, though whether as the same characters I’m not sure.
A Ciambra was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and was chosen as the Italian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar so it has clearly made an impact. A good starting point might be to consider the extent to which the film refers back to neorealist studies of specific communities. Carpignano himself refers in this interview to his childhood memories of De Sica and Rossellini and the kids in their films. Jonathan Romney has referred to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) because of that film’s similar focus on a tightly-knit community in Sicily. Many critics have tried to place the film in relation to that Italian tradition and more recent approaches. The Dardenne brothers post Rosetta (1999) is one touchstone but I’ve tended to see them as slightly removed from classic neorealism. Carpignano uses his non-professionals filmed on authentic locations and he inserts some traditional neorealist ‘lacks’ (problems) that need to be sorted. This mainly means finding sources of money from increasingly ambitious petty crimes to solve various problems faced by the extended family. Unfortunately, Pio’s education is in stealing credit cards and copper wire and trying to grow up to be like his brother. He has to get another young person to read the messages on his phone because he hasn’t had time to learn to read. There isn’t a great deal of plot but Pio’s ‘coming of age’ comes in a final sequence which I found very distressing. But as my viewing partner pointed out what we were offered is a reality in Italy.
Jonas Carpignano has an Italian father and an African-American mother. This may be a reason why he began his feature film career with a story about African migrants and why in his second film he shows both the mixed race children in the Roma family and the African community in another small community that Pio is drawn towards by his friend Ayiva. The Africans are mainly from Nigeria and Ghana and they speak English as a common language, that is also used by Ayiva from Burkina Faso. The reality is that in the pecking order in Calabria, the Roma come below the Italians and the Africans are below the Roma. Neorealism can be developed as melodrama and this true to a certain extent in A Ciambra which has plenty of music on the soundtrack and a range of emotional relationships. But it also has its own element of ‘magic realism’ in the hallucinations that Pio experiences concerning his grandfather. I thought at first these came from heavy dope smoking – when Pio first sees the horse I thought of a similar moment in La haine (France 1995) when Vinz sees a cow in his housing estate. But then it occurred to me that the fantasies came because of the pressure suffered by Pio. There is a sense that Pio is his grandfather re-born and that he could rise above his misdeeds. I hope so. It’s very difficult not to warm to Pio as a character. He’s 14 years-old and frightened of travelling on a train – he’s not a gangster.
A Ciambria is photographed by Tim Curtin who also lensed Mediterranea and was in the camera unit on Beasts of the Southern Wild (US 2012), another film I haven’t seen. I mention it here because Jonas Carpignano was an assistant director on that film which also included in its crew the film editor and music composer of A Ciambra, Affonso Gonçalves and Dan Romer. I’m pleased to report that Peccadillo Pictures has picked up A Ciambra for a UK release in May. It’s well worth a watch. IFC/Sundance Selects released the film in the US in January: