Thirtyframesasecond

June 8, 2009

Boccaccio ’70 (1962)

Italy/France

Directors: Mario Monicelli, Federico Fellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio de Sica

205 min

Synopsis

Italy, the 1960s. Four stories inspired by Boccaccio. In the first, ‘Renzo e Luciana’, the two eponymous lovers conduct an affair without their work colleagues knowing as they would both be fired. They marry, but find living with Luciana’s family too overcrowded and search for any privacy. Luciana is pursued by her boss, Osvaldo. She suspects she might be pregnant but it’s a false alarm. Renzo is accused of harassing Luciana at work, but she reveals the truth about their relationship. They might be unemployed but they have each other.

In the second, ‘Le tentazioni del dottor Antonio’, the morally upright eponymous doctor throws stones at copulating couples in the street, accusing them of turning Rome into a brothel. He interrupts a theatre performance to protest and asks women wearing loose fitting clothing to cover up. A giant billboard advertising milk featuring the actress Anita Ekberg, is erected outside his apartment. He asks the Church and local authorities to intervene and he vandalises the billboard. One night he has crazed and delirious dreams where Ekberg comes to life and taunts him.

In the third, ‘Il lavoro’, Count Ottavio returns to his home beset by scandals involving call girls. Speaking to lawyers and colleagues, he realises his wife, Pupe, hasn’t returned home, but she sneaks back home whilst he’s in discussion about silencing the press. Pupe reveals she’s been to visit Ottavio’s call girls. She plans for her future, to get a paid job, although she finds it difficult to reject her life and do so. Pupe realises that prostitution is all she might be cut out for.

In the fourth, ‘La riffa’, Zoe, a carnival booth owner, auctions herself in a lottery to pay for her back taxes, which is popular amongst the local, lecherous men. She has a fling with Gaetano after he rescues her from being attacked by a bull (when she was wearing a red blouse), but he grows jealous when Caspar wins a night with Zoe from the lottery. Although nothing happens, Caspar returns to the village a hero, whilst Zoe is reunited with Gaetano.

Review

The portmanteau film was a curious cinematic phenomenon of the early 1960s – see also ‘Ro.Go.Pa.G’ (Rossellini, Godard, Pasolini, Gregoretti), in which top European directors made loosely connecting shorts, compiled and released together. For the producer of ‘Boccaccio ’70’, no doubt the appeal was to showcase the talents of marquee names such as Fellini, Visconti and de Sica, though he clearly didn’t mind undermining the fourth director, Mario Monicelli, whose short was removed from the international release, which led to the remaining directors boycotting the presentation of the film at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The portmanteau art film was a short-lived experiment; perhaps rightly so, since neither of the two mentioned have acquired a sterling reputation. One supposes the nearest Hollywood example would be ‘Four Rooms’, the universally derided Miramax release from the mid-1990s when the seeds of Quentin Tarantino’s descent into self-indulgence began to grow.

The format itself makes it difficult for any of the individual directors to flourish. The brief is simple; present an approximately 45-50 minute film on modern love inspired by Boccaccio, author of ‘Decameron’, which itself would be filmed by Pasolini in a decade or so. If Ponti had displayed any kind of foresight, then perhaps Pasolini might have proved an inspired choice to direct a segment, though his plans for the Trilogy of Life might have been some way off.

Even though Fellini and Visconti were probably at their creative peak, the restrictions placed upon them and their colleagues don’t especially help. The Boccaccio remit is probably no more than a gimmick to frame the film around. Each of their films seem personal and not overburdened by respect to the film’s inspiration. The short running times for each film, around half a feature length, means that each film feels rushed and not fully realised. There’s probably enough material in each to extend them to full length features but pressure to reduce the running time mean that ideas aren’t fully developed and narratives contrive too quickly and conveniently.

One of the more ironic factors to emerge is that Monicelli, slighted by producer Carlo Ponti, probably actually produces the most interesting and cohesive short. It’s a sweet tale of two young lovers who find themselves under pressure from family and employers, which threatens to tear them apart but of course resolves itself neatly. Marisa Solinas, in her first role, delivers a nicely understated performance and the overall sense of modesty is actually a welcome change from the excesses of the remaining short films.

Fellini’s short maintains his nascent interest at this juncture in dreams and the subconscious as he wittily punctures the pomposity and hypocrisy of a self-appointed moral guardian but is prone to lapsing into self-indulgence at every turn. Visconti’s short is a detached and remote account of the emotional and romantic woes of the upper bourgeoisie where the wife strives for independence but realises she can’t abandon her life of privilege, yet Visconti makes it tough to care for this self-absorbed married couple. de Sica showcases the acting talents of Sophia Loren in full-on sex-kitten mode but relies too much on exploiting this persona, with all too frequent cuts to lecherous old men leering at her when she bends over or removes her blouse. It’s simple and cheap attempts to gain laughs, nothing more.

More than anything though, these films are a tribute to women. They’re smart, sassy and sexy, constantly in charge of the men they’re involved with, who’re constantly given the runaround. They strive for independence and sometimes find it difficult to attain, but they’re empowered nonetheless. With this in mind, Monicelli’s short seems all the more distinguishable from the others. His Luciana is merely trying to be an equal to her man and navigating the problems that society’s imposing upon their relationship. She’s not the equal of Anita, Pupe and Zoe. So Monicelli’s short becomes something of an unnatural fit, not really working in the overall context of the anthology but almost acting as a standalone film that’s been surgically attached to the others. One could never claim with any justification that any of these shorts are amongst the greatest works of the respective directors; they’re light, often enjoyable but ultimately trivial shorts that pique one’s curiosity but never leaves one really satisfied.

‘Boccaccio ’70’ was released on DVD on 1 June by Mr Bongo films.

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June 4, 2009

Marriage: Italian Style (1964)

Italy/France

Director: Vittorio de Sica

102 min

Synopsis

Naples, the 1940s-1960s. Filumena, an attractive middle aged woman, falls ill whilst driving. Her neighbours take her to her bed. Domenico, her on-off lover, is having an affair with a young cashier, Diana, whom he plans to marry. Concerned about Filumena’s welfare, he visits. He has a flashback of how they met during the Second World War. She was a 17 year old prostitute and Domenico has kept her as his mistress ever since, with no intention of ever marrying her. He sets her up in apartments and provides employment but rejects any commitment. When he disappears for months on business, one of Domenico’s employees, Alfredo, proposes. Domenico returns and offers to introduce Filumena to his mother. An old, senile woman; Domenico asks Filumena to be her maid, even sleeping in the maid’s room. Filumena regularly observes Domenico’s faithlessness.

In the present, Domenico offers to marry Filumena on her deathbed, which is overseen by a priest delivering the last rites. After, Filumena reveals her deception. In her flashbacks, Filumena reveals she gave birth to three boys, which Domenico is unaware of. They have been raised by a family friend, unaware of who their real mother is. Domenico discovers this and seeks an annulment of their marriage. Filumena tells Domenico one of the boys is his. He then attempts to discover which. No closer to finding out, he and Filumena physically argue, then embrace. This time, they marry for real.

Review

By the 1960s, neo-realism, the movement that had reinvigorated Italian cinema after the Second World War, was an afterthought for Italian film makers. Those directors who’d made their names with neo-realist films had moved into different projects and different genres. Fellini was becoming more ambitious and self-reflexive. Visconti entered a world of lurid and increasingly overblown melodrama. Rossellini worked on more historical-based films. Vittorio de Sica, one of the founders of neo-realism, was working more in the field of comedy, usually with Sophia Loren. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ fits perfectly into this template, following the likes of ‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow’ with its typically Italian ribald sense of humour.

This said though, despite the admiration of Hollywood (the film collected two Academy Award nominations but didn’t the Academy just love anything Italian in this era?), one can’t help but thinking that de Sica, after directing the seminal ‘The Bicycle Thieves’ and ‘Umberto D’, is spreading his talents a bit too thinly here. The remaining former neo-realists adjusted to the decline of the movement (although a relative latecomer, Pasolini was doing his bit with ‘Accatone’ and ‘Mamma Roma’), but de Sica seems to have settled into a nice routine of undemanding and trivial comedies, albeit those that have a fair amount of entertaining qualities. Doubtless they made Loren a star and contributed to Mastroianni’s iconic status, but one feels that they do no long term favours for any personnel involved.

Still, Loren is nothing if not impressive, carefully balancing a series of emotions as she tries to hoodwink the lover who’s kept her at arm’s length for two decades, proving that there’s far more to her than meets the eye. Her acting gifts match her looks. Already in her collaborations with de Sica, she’d proved herself more than capable of breaking out of the carefully constructed image of her, whether it’s the more comic performances in ‘The Gold of Naples’ or the more serious, dramatic performances of ‘Two Women’. Here, she shows an equal amount of range. There’s no doubt Filumena’s role is given more importance by de Sica, thus giving Loren more to work with. Mastroianni looks suave and dapper, but is really playing a by-numbers cad who finally sees the error of his ways. He’s deliberately afforded little depth.

There’s a nice degree of if not social satire, than social observation, in how the Filumena-Domenico relationship functions on a grander level. She runs his businesses and makes him wealthier and then takes care of his ailing mother. All of the while, he’s playing the field, moving from one woman to the next. He’s far more dependent on her than he cares to imagine. Yet she’s able to seize the initiative and make their relationship more one of equals through initially hoodwinking him into marriage and then stalling his attempts to annul the marriage by teasing him about which of her three sons might be his. She claims it’s one, perhaps it’s all three. There’s some nice comic moments as Domenico tries to remember dates or thinks which of the boys most takes after him. Filumena’s power lies in his curiosity and inability to find out the truth. She demands that all her children must be treated equally. Whether there’s any political undercurrents to ‘Marriage: Italian Style’, it’s difficult to say, given the sheer superficiality of this frothy farce, but there’s definitely a sense of bringing the bourgeois bounder down a peg or two from the initial feigning of illness to his final submission of her will.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is genuinely fine on its own merits. Had it not been the collaboration of seriously talented personnel, you’d overlook the shallowness quite easily and just enjoy. There’s that constant impression though that you’ve been short-changed somehow; that ultimately, it’s a nice-looking, nicely-acted but completely inconsequential piece of work that could have been better, more substantial. Whilst it’s amusing in the main, the more bawdy aspects of humour just seem lazy. When Filumena and Domenico first make love, the next time we see Filumena, she walks down the street and dozens of boys and men just gawp at her, transfixed. This scene could have come from hundreds of films, which maybe even imitated this one, but it still feels too obvious. It’s lightly handled by de Sica, who never takes the film too seriously and one might even feel entitled to compare it to classic Hollywood battles of the sexes romantic comedies, although I’m not sure it’s an avenue worth pursuing. ‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is all about surface and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny.

‘Marriage: Italian Style’ is released on DVD on 8 June on Mr Bongo films.

March 23, 2009

Il Divo (2008)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:33 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Italy/France

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

110 min

Synopsis

Italy, the early 1990s. Veteran Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti is appointed Prime Minister for a seventh time. As he writes his memoirs, he recalls the deaths of colleagues, rivals and opponents including former Prime Minister Aldo Moro, kidnapped and murdered by the Red Brigade, confiding only in the priest Don Mario. The murder of MP Salvo Mira, a colleague of Andreotti’s exposes the links between the party and the Mafia, which causes the downfall of Andreotti’s government. Giovanni Falcone, the judge who prosecuted many Mafiosi, encouraged by Andreotti’s own anti-Mafia policies, is also found murdered.

Andreotti’s inner circle attempt to secure him the Presidency, although their lobbying in Parliament results in a humiliating defeat for the former Prime Minister. Numerous individuals implicated in corruption investigations commit suicide, and although Andreotti is similarly accused, he remains unscathed. It was alleged that Andreotti met one of the most prominent Mafiosi, Bontade, and greeted him in Mafiosi fashion, a charge that Andreotti denies. Andreotti is also accused of ordering the murders of journalists and policemen. It emerges that between 1969-1984, Andreotti embarked upon a tension strategy, provoking radical elements to promote the political dominance of centrist parties. This involved collusion between the Mafia, the Vatican and the political establishment to isolate extremists. Andreotti is put on trial.

Review

Paolo Sorrentino’s fourth film and his fourth collaboration with actor Toni Servillo (after ‘One Man Up’, ‘The Consequences of Love’ and ‘The Family Friend’) is his most ambitious and successful film to date and was awarded with the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2008. The release of ‘Il Divo’ and Matteo Garrone’s ‘Gomorra’ hinted at a renaissance in Italian cinema, which to international eyes at least, seemed to have been propped up single-handedly by the films of Nanni Moretti. Although both directors have been on record as denying whether there’s any overt connection between their films or whether they indeed represent a bright future for Italian cinema, there’s no denying that both consider the murky underbelly of Italian politics and society; the influence of organised crime on everyday life and the disturbing connection it holds with the establishment. Both recall the grand tradition of Italian political cinema; the films of Rosi and Petri, but demonstrate a Hollywood-influenced style.

The most obvious barrier to ‘Il Divo’ succeeding outside of Italy is the fact that most audiences will be ignorant of recent Italian political history and will know almost nothing of Andreotti. The challenge for Sorrentino is to engage his audience with these events. Given that Andreotti’s political career spans six decades, it’s impossible to cover much material, hence Sorrentino’s decision to concentrate his film upon the era during which Andreotti’s final government and his party collapsed and he stood trial. Using a series of titles, on-screen captions, flashbacks, memories and monologues, Sorrentino is able to communicate with his audience, to inform them of Andreotti’s rise and the events that caused his fall (though in true Italian style, he has survived and remains prominent in public life). Thus, a series of dizzying cameos of politicians and other public figures with brief biographical details underpin the film, never more prominent than the opening scenes of numerous assassinations in true Goodfellas style. Getting to grips with the material was always going to be an issue, but Sorrentino attempts to clarify as much as possible, though perhaps its natural for non-domestic audiences to watch with a degree of breathless confusion.

At the heart of Sorrentino’s film is the exceptional performance of Servillo. On the surface, his Andreotti is completely unremarkable, seemingly lacking the kind of charm and charisma that united a wildly ambitious and competitive faction (which naturally fell apart once Andreotti was investigated as each tried to save their skin) in awe and reverence. With his prosthetic ears and permanent deadpan expression, Servillo plays Andreotti as some kind of nimble-footed Nosferatu, seemingly only alive thanks to a cocktail of medication and acupuncture. Andreotti is a man of few words, who gives n0thing away with his expressions or body language save reading his hands. As such, using Andreotti as the subject of a biopic makes for an oddly detached film. Although he expresses regret about the death of Moro, during which he questions why the Red Brigade didn’t kidnap him instead, a much stronger and useful victim for their cause, we almost learn nothing about the man himself.

It’s to Sorrentino’s credit therefore that the film retains a rich sense of drama when its subject to so tough to dissect. Nearly two decades on, Andreotti’s equivalent might he Berlusconi, another great survivor of Italian politics. But imagine using Berlusconi as the subject for a film. One might be able to capture his vanity, ego, political incorrectness and courting of controversy with some ease, almost to the point of self-parody. There’s nothing striking about Andreotti; much like the authorities failed to make anything stick to him, Sorrentino can’t make anything stick either in his representation of him.

‘Il Divo’ succeeds in observing the innate corruption and instability of Italian politics, where governments seem to be established and collapse at the drop of a hat. The scenes in Parliament, characterised by chaos, indiscipline and violence seem a world away from the conduct we associate with our own legislative bodies, where even childish name-calling is frowned upon. Although the film doesn’t allow the opportunity to consider why this is, Sorrentino reveals to devastating effect that the entire establishment had colluded to maintain order and stability by isolating dissenting voices and even threatening to undermine democracy itself if necessary. The complicated legal developments that first tried and then ultimately acquitted Andreotti demonstrates a society almost willing to absolve its politicians of any wrongdoing and protect them at all costs and it’s quite a damning outlook.

Even as a director who’s made his name for his visual flair, nothing in Sorrentino’s prior work suggested the breathtaking aesthetical excellence of ‘Il Divo’, which is more influenced by contemporary American film than the European tradition. The montage of assassinations that start the film recall Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellas’, whilst the slow-motion strut of Andreotti’s inner circle as they attend the establishment of his seventh government knowingly references Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (hinting again at the unholy alliance between organised crime and the political establishment). Not that Sorrentino ever surrenders substance for style; the two work hand in hand brilliantly. ‘Il Divo’ can only ever exist as a snapshot in the long and colourful political career of Andreotti but captures the essence of the man and his approach to politics perfectly, and whilst some audiences might be frustrated by their own lack of knowledge about the subject, it remains a constantly fascinating experience.

October 14, 2008

Gomorra

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 8:41 pm
Tags: , , ,

Italy, 2008

Director: Matteo Garrone

With: Salvatore Abruzzese, Simone Sacchettino, Salvatore Ruocco

137 min

Synopsis

Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists

Naples, the present day. The Camorra, the criminal underworld organisation runs a number of legal and illegal activities to finance itself, which are shown through a series of separate narratives. Toto is a young boy who runs errands for his mother, but falls in with the Camorra. Don Ciro is a middle aged accountant; the human face of this world of crime, who becomes increasingly aware of the violence around him. Marco and Ciro are two reckless young men under the influence of Hollywood gangster films, who attempt to go their own way, outside of the Camorra. Franco is a superficially respectable businessman who disposes of toxic waste in abandoned quarries with no regard for safety. Pasquale is a tailor who accepts a lucrative offer from his Chinese rivals to improve the standards and productivity of their workers. At the same time, the Camorra is engaged in war with rival organisations, increasing the violence and bloodshed on the streets.

Review

Hollywood interpretations of the gangster film have either deliberately or otherwise tended to create a romantic and mythological portrait of this world. This is an issue Garrone tackles with one of the narrative strands of ‘Gomorrah’, with the independently minded Marco and Ciro. These two men are naïve and hopelessly out of their depth; their view of the criminal world completely influenced by films, not experience. Their main influence is De Palma’s ‘Scarface’, which ironically glamorised Tony Montana’s ambition and success, encompassed in the blimp that informed him “the world is yours”. ‘Scarface’ remains the best example of the gangster film least taken at face value, with impressionable audiences overlooking the theme of crime as unrestrained capitalism run amok, but concentrating on the cool of Montana. Marco and Ciro re-enact scenes from ‘Scarface’, quote dialogue endlessly, falsely believing, like Montana, that they are invincible.

Garrone does not consider the Camorra as a glamorous organisation, and demonstrates this by showing it not from the top end of the hierarchy where power and finances reside, but at the lowest possible level. The five separate narratives focus on individuals who join the Camorra as a means of making a living. These are the foot soldiers doing the organisation’s dirty work. Setting the film in a dirty run down housing complex which seems to be controlled by the Camorra and houses those on its payroll, Garrone provides us an insular environment that might be part of any inner city. This is a tight-knit and self-sufficient community that has no interference from outsiders. Despite the violence, the only instance the police intervene is when the mother of a boy who has rejected the Camorra is murdered. It is therefore no surprise that when the boys on the estate reach adolescence; they seek to join the Camorra. There are no other opportunities for these boys; there is no obvious world outside the organisation, and joining the Camorra is a rite of passage. Toto and several other boys are initiated into the organisation by being shot at whilst wearing a bulletproof vest; after which Toto is informed; “now you’re a man!” Once one grows up in the world of the Camorra, this is one’s future is clearly mapped out.

Garrone is also keen to show a contemporary view of Italian society in the wake of rising immigration. These new communities have also turned to crime as a means of establishing and sustaining themselves, and they represent serious rivals to the activities of the Camorra. The North African community deal in hard drugs, whilst the Chinese community run clothing sweatshops and seek to undercut the Camorra-controlled fashion house for whom Pasquale in the tailor. These new communities are just one of the emerging threats to the power and position of the Camorra. Rival criminal organisations are another, and the growing civil war between these warring elements results in the amount of bloodshed that has some of the peripheral, non-violent participants in this power struggle wanting to escape, although escape is impossible.

Perhaps the most disturbing impact of ‘Gomorrah’ is not the violence and illegal activities of the Camorra, but the legal enterprises they engage in, which have an impact on the lives of all Italian citizens, and even across the world. As an epilogue, Garrone provides statistics about the work of the Camorra. Not only are they the most vicious organisation in Europe, responsible for the most murders (40,000 in the last thirty years), but they are also involved in the reconstruction of the Twin Towers. It should be of great concern that projects such as these are funded by illegal activities, but perhaps these potential ethical minefields are overlooked, even though they afford a level of respectability to the criminal organisations that fund them.

Inevitably, ‘Gomorrah’ will be compared with Hollywood gangster films, and the closest comparison is probably ‘Goodfellas’. Both are based on in-depth and investigative accounts on the activities of criminal organisations. Although Garrone does not employ the stylistic touches that Scorsese did, preferring to present the Camorra simply as it is; a violent and brutal community without sympathy and compassion. However, Garrone uses a number of technical flourishes to emphasis his attitude towards the Camorra. One superbly directed scene implicates Don Ciro, the accountant, from the violence he sought to distance himself from. As he leaves a bloodbath, the camera begins directly above him, and then turns 360 degrees, as if to witness the violence around Don Ciro, that he is partly responsible for, which precipitates a complete crisis of conscience. Garrone also presents this community in a nutshell in an early long shot of the entire housing estate, which focuses on its brutal architectural design, but shot from a distance allows the audience to absorb its insularity and ability to entrap its inhabitants. Avoiding the pitfalls of many films of the genre, of mythologising its protagonists and affording them a tragic dimension, ‘Gomorrah’ is an intense adaptation of the Robert Saviano novel, which reveals the violence and brutality that characterises this organisation, but also hints at the social issues that allows such organisations to flourish.

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