Antonia. (2015)

Glimpse at the life of 20-something Italian poetess Antonia Pozzi lacks spirit, insight into her hysterical final act.

antoniaItaly
2*

Director:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Screenwriter:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Carlo Salsa
Director of Photography:
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom

Running time: 95 minutes

Oh, how terribly hard life must have been as a 20-something poetess living off her family’s fortune while writing poems that are never published during her lifetime. And how awful it must be to pine after two or three individuals that either shy away from her father’s criticism cutting potential suitors down to size or reject her advances and prefer to focus on their careers instead of life with her.

Antonia Pozzi, we are told via a title card at the beginning of Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s Antonia., a sumptuous recreation of the final years of her life, is one of Italy’s best 20th-century poets. However, she never saw her work accepted for publication while she was still alive, before she committed suicide out of a teenage-like compulsion to put an end to heartbreak when things don’t work out the way she thought they would.

Actress Linda Caridi’s portrayal of the most productive but most melancholic years of the life of this writer born into a very well-to-do family in Milan is commendable for its consistency and for never dissolving into kitsch. The film also has beautiful imagery that ranges from sweeping vistas of the Dolemites to an exquisitely framed shot of an interaction that takes place in a way that immediately conveys distance instead of the expected intimacy. But despite the technical mastery of the medium, the story fails to engage us because some of the young woman’s actions are simply childish, and while the camera is deployed in a way that does not attract attention to itself, there are also ridiculous close-ups of pages filled with the work, published much later, of this woman whose “struggles” we witness here.

But let us be honest, these are not struggles. She lives a life of luxury at home, exquisitely decked out by the film’s production designer Bruno Duarte, plies her passion for photography and seems to be rather skilled at developing her own pictures (presumably in her own dark room). She also has friends who respect her and has an outlet for her emotions in the form of her poetry. Perhaps that is why the two suicide attempts we witness do not elicit the tiniest bit of empathy from us.

This is Filomarino’s first feature. His previous film, a 20-minute short entitled Diarchy (Diarchia), starred Louis Garrel and Alba Rohrwacher as half-siblings who receive a visit from an acquaintance at their parents’ villa, and things suddenly get out of hand. The director showed he has not only the talent to put together a visually striking film but also a strong voice of his own with which he addressed issues of class by means of a thriller that in its final shot suddenly turns into a mystery.

But Antonia. is surprisingly lacking in layers, and while the editing does seek to sometimes fold different moments in time onto each other, the effect is shallow and dull. It is easy to blame the upper-class setting that is devoid of any serious struggle or dilemma, but the screenplay deserves most of the blame. Producer Luca Guadagnino’s similarly situated I Am Love (Io sono l’amore) was a tour de force because of its beauty, its performances and above all its wholly relatable human emotions and conflicts that included secrecy, lust and betrayal. By contrast, Antonia. is like a piece of smoothly polished marble that neither conveys a discernible form nor elicits an emotional reaction from the observer.

At one point, without any warning, Filomarino slows down his already lethargic production to play an entire song on the soundtrack while we watch Pozzi’s naked back , buttocks slightly exposed, while she is lying on the bed, presumably overcome by sadness or angst, or both, but we are even left out of the loop here, because we do not get to see her face.

Antonia. is not pretentious (although the title certainly could have done without the ridiculous full stop), but it certainly does not entertain nor does it penetrate the head or the soul of its main character. The decision to give us close-ups of her published work, wholly devoid of atmosphere, is unforgivable. It plays a big role in dragging this film about a calm but spoilt woman – who had fits of hysteria when her relationships did not work out – down to the banal and compares poorly to an opening shot of a Rodin sculpture. Surely, one of Italy’s best 20th-century poets was more interesting than this.

 Viewed at the 2015 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Diarchy (2010)

Short film with skeletal cast of characters is ambiguous, tense and gorgeous.

diarchiaItaly
4*

Director:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Screenwriter:
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Director of Photography:
Daria D’Antonio

Running time: 20 minutes

Original title: Diarchia

Rich half-siblings (one of whom is played by Louis Garrel) and the consequential visit of a stranger immediately bring to mind the provocative 2003 film by Bernando Bertolucci, The Dreamers, but the short film Diarchia, by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino (another Italian), is something quite different.

For one thing, whereas The Dreamers was animated in large part by garrulous discussions about philosophy and the cinema, with no small focus on sexual intimacy, Filomarino strives here for one thing only: tension. Having arrived at the grandiose summer villa of his friend Luc, the Italian Giano, clearly an outsider to this world of opulence, albeit faded opulence, does not want to fight back when Luc starts landing punches on him. But eventually, of course, he lashes out as way of standing up for himself and when he hits Luc, the Frenchman tumbles into the stairwell and breaks his neck.

Now, Giano has to clean up the mess by dragging the limp body from one room to the next so that Luc’s anonymous half-sister (whose line of work is unknown, even to Luc) does not catch him in flagrante delicto. These scenes are tense but not without some gallows humour that could have made Hitchcock proud, especially when Giano drives away from the villa with the cold body of Luc in the passenger seat, his eyes wide open and a big smile on his face. What happens next is unexpected and requires some analysis: Luc’s smile suddenly grows bigger, and he turns his head to look out of window, before a cut to black.

Having spent the previous 10-15 minutes in the company of Giano, who is concerned but in total control and shows very little if any anxiety at the prospect of being found out, this final moment initially seems like a condescending spit in our collective face, like those “it was all just a dream” epiphanies. But dig a little deeper, and the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, even though together they form a picture that may be abstract at best.

Let’s look at what the film is actually about. On the surface, which is certainly the area that ought to interest and engage the viewer the most, it is about a visit gone wrong, an unhappy coincidence, a death, a cover-up and an escape. The first half is playful but with at least one character a bit out of his depth, we also feel slightly awkward, especially when Luc starts punching Giano — softly at first, then harder and harder, almost like a bully. The second half is stressful but not exactly thrilling stuff, as Giano never breaks a sweat and even makes a point of staring at the half-sister moments after he accidentally killed Luc. There is a slight desire, but it is likely for the position she occupies and the life she lives rather than her looks.

When Giano is on the verge of leaving, the half-sister asks him whether he would like to join them for a ski trip, and there is a moment when, despite the obvious insanity of accepting, he seems to be considering the proposition. And although the title is never mentioned in the film, one has to take its connotations of tradition, and of the ruler as one of two equals, into account. “Diarchy” refers to the system of government that has two rulers instead of one. The small nations of Andorra and San Marino are two of the best-known examples.

Although the film is not very generous with its facts, we can surmise that Giano is not from the same social class as Luc and his half-sister, although it is unclear how he got to meet Luc and why he was invited along to their private residence, especially as we gradually realize that Luc and Giano do not know each other very well. This issue of class does not get much attention, but it might offer one of the best points of entry into an interpretation of the film; after all, the very first shot of the film is taken from the front of Luc’s car, decked out with the immediately recognizable logo of Mercedes-Benz.

The film is bookended by two scenes in Luc’s car. In the first scene, he is driving, and in the last scene, Giano is driving, although he only gets to drive because he has, by the looks of it, fatally punched his way into Luc’s position. And yet, when director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino suddenly reveals that this may just be a fantasy, he also brilliantly undercuts the possibility of Giano ever driving a Mercedes-Benz anywhere besides his own daydreams.

The camera moves around effortlessly inside the villa, and the technical credits are impeccable. These 20 minutes offer the viewer a great deal to ponder, especially after the first viewing, and except for a strange encounter with a fox, the second viewing will confirm that this is not a one-trick pony.

This Must Be the Place (2011)

This Must Be the PlaceItaly/Ireland

3.5*
Director:
Paolo Sorrentino
Screenwriters:
Paolo Sorrentino
Umberto Contarello
Director of Photography:
Luca Bigazzi

Running time: 118 minutes

You will be forgiven for thinking This Must Be the Place is a film about a cross-dressing Sean Penn. But if you look past the black nail polish, the lipstick and the eye shadow, not to mention the monotonous high-pitched squeals that pass for his side of a conversation, you come to realize his character, Cheyenne, is a bored former rock star from whom a calmness emanates that can soothe those around him, be they friends of strangers.

He lives in Ireland with his wife of many decades, a fire-fighter played by the always dependably quirky Frances McDormand, but the enormous mansion around him and the estate that extends into a forest-like garden do not thrill him; on the contrary, he seems to be drowning in all the space he owns.

He receives a phone call informing him his father, whom he hasn’t seen since moving to Ireland 35 years before, is on his deathbed; Cheyenne’s fear of flying leads him to take a ship to New York, where he arrives just in time for the wake.

Among the items his father left is a journal filled with pictures and details about his concentration camp warden whom he was tracing and who now lives somewhere deep in the American Midwest. It takes Cheyenne less than a beat to recognize the need to confront this man and take revenge for what he did.

Thus starts a journey filled with strange moments, ranging from a bison grazing on a front porch in Utah and a borrowed SUV spontaneously combusting on the open road to a grown man in a small town called Bad Axe, Michigan, walking around in a superhero costume in the middle of the night, and The Talking Heads’ David Byrne performing their hit “This Must Be the Place” in a New York club while a woman reading a magazine rotates around the stage. The film is filled with these stunningly surreal moments of Americana that all seem to be rooted in reality but are also very removed from out immediate lives; their meaning seems to be very straightforward but at the simultaneously elusive.

Time after time, Cheyenne is right there in the frame to ensure the moment is even stranger. His physique and the sadness behind his facial expressions remind us of Buster Keaton, if only Keaton had donned makeup and styled his hair to look like he had stuck his finger in an electric socket.

The film’s visual style has a distinctly minimalist feeling, though the camera movements are dynamic. Perhaps no film besides The Tree of Life has as many tracking shots for no apparent reason. The shots are certainly meant to be noticed, like when the camera rises up out of a golden wheat field to follow a car passing next to it, and the insistence on camera fluidity becomes irritating as time goes on, because the style is hollow.

This Must Be the Place sets itself up as a road movie of which the inciting incident is Cheyenne’s discovery that his father had uncovered the identity of his former captor. Along the way, schlepping his hand luggage with him everywhere he goes, Cheyenne meets a variety of people that suggest the real reason director Paolo Sorrentino made the film: His focus is the hodgepodge of characters as colourful as the American landscape that produced them, and visually the idea of “a land of contrasts” is hammered home very powerfully with separate scenes in which the television in the background shows Barack Obama and Sarah Palin.

There are many times when Sorrentino’s approach is perfectly complemented by Sean Penn’s acting, as a single-take scene with Penn having a near-nervous breakdown in front of David Byrne clearly shows, or when Penn humours a young boy whose father was killed in Iraq by performing the title song on his guitar.

But Sorrentino’s artistic sensibility, which sometimes skirts the edges of Jarmusch territory, tends to get him into trouble: Arvo Pärt’s exquisite “Spiegel im Spiegel” does not belong on the soundtrack when the scene is a lonely, overlit supermarket aisle, and neither does the climax warrant three consecutive, identical tracking shots of a man delivering a monologue. What follows the monologue, however, is exactly what the plot needed to come to a satisfying conclusion.

A refrain from Cheyenne describes the viewer’s impression very well: “Something’s not quite right here. I don’t know what exactly, but something.”

The film has good intentions, the camera makes the picture dynamic, a bit like a music video, and many of the smaller character parts are really touching. Unfortunately, the film never allows us to get close to them.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

We Have a Pope (2011)

Habemus papamItaly

2.5*
Director:
Nanni Moretti
Screenwriters:
Nanni Moretti
Francesco Piccolo
Federica Pontremoli
Director of Photography:
Alessandro Pesci

Running time: 102 minutes

Original title: Habemus papam

The election of a pope is nothing to be flippant about. Even for non-Catholics, the brief period of time that marks the end of one papacy and encompasses the conclave — during which a successor is chosen — and the eventual appearance of the new pope on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square piques interest like few other events.

When the College of Cardinals has chosen a new pope, by secret ballot and with all the cardinals in the running, white smoke rises from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel. In Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (from the Latin “Habemus papam”, the phrase spoken by the protodeacon of the College of Cardinals to announce the election of the new pope), the cardinal who is elected has a panic attack moments before he is to appear on the balcony and flees to his chambers to shun the burden the office brings.

Such anxiety is to be expected, of course, and in fact it is normal for the elected pontiff to break down in tears upon realizing what he is about to take on, namely dominion over a billion subjects. However, in this film, the cardinal, named Melville (Michel Piccoli), is out of his depth and has such insecurity that his staff seeks out the help of a noted psychoanalyst (Moretti) to help the Holy Father through this difficult time and eventually get him to the balcony.

The rest of the film is a long wait for the big moment. While we wait, we learn very little about the mystical figure that is Cardinal Melville, though it becomes clear he would prefer to act rather than pontificate. The psychoanalyst’s hands are also tied because he cannot use the normal psychoanalytical tools in this case: Questions about Melville’s relationship with his mother, his fantasies and his sexual desires are, naturally, all strictly verboten.

When Melville loses his way in Rome and ends up on a late-night bus, mumbling to himself, we see a very human (not only vulnerable, but frail) side to him, and though he seems to be a gentle soul, the idea of him writing an encyclical is quite absurd. This man cannot be pope. He is not only emotionally and psychologically but also — and this is where the film utterly fails — intellectually ill-equipped for the papacy.

This last piece of information is problematic in light of the fact that the cardinals have spent a great deal of time with him prior to his election, but have elected him nonetheless. Whatever the viewer’s personal beliefs about the possibility of a pope elected by divine guidance, it would seem patently obvious this situation is very unlikely to occur if the cardinals had some sense of their colleague.

Unfortunately, we are not afforded any such look at the man who would be pope and cannot accurately judge whether the cardinals were mistaken or blind. Even if one believes the conclave works according to the will of God, the film remains flawed because the ultimate resolution will be deeply unsatisfactory.

The idea of being pope, of having such immense power, must leave one breathless, and thus there is ample room to empathize with dear Cardinal Melville. In a very powerful moment, during the conclave, the fear the other cardinals have that any one of them will be elected is communicated to the viewer by means of a very effective voiceover that mirrors Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asks his father to let “the cup pass from [him].”

But never again do we see the future pope ask anything of God (he thanks God for even less), and though there may be speculation he has lost his faith, the film provides too little for the viewer to assume anything; on the contrary, We Have a Pope revels in its own timorousness and defies our expectations to get any closer to Melville than the cardinals or the psychoanalyst.

The humanization of the pope is a wonderful starting point, as was Nicos Kazantzakis’ treatment of Christ in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, but no one simply gets dropped inside the College of Cardinals, much less elected pope, if he has not proved some leadership skills. Such leadership, alas, cannot be detected in the role played by Piccoli, and therefore the whole premise of the film is undermined.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

8½ (1963)

otto e mezzo Italy
5*
Director:
Federico Fellini
Screenwriters:
Federico Fellini
Tullio Pinelli
Ennio Flaiano
Brunello Rondi
Director of Photography:
Gianni Di Venanzo

Running time: 137 minutes

Original title: Otto e mezzo

The splendour of Fellini’s eighth and a halfth film lies in its ability to entertain us so effortlessly while being simultaneously incessantly creative, weaving together dream, fantasy, recollection and present reality, and commenting on the struggles of an artist while doing all of the above completely coherently.

After all these years, just like Citizen Kane, the film it is often compared to, despite the two being very different in many ways, it is still a gorgeous piece of work that, mostly thanks to the music of Nino Rota, glues your eyes to the screen as it is never quite obvious what might follow next. It is funny and sad and sexy and naughty and breathtaking, and there is nothing out there quite like it. This was made before postmodern cinema was à la mode and it is all the better for it, as the focus is not on connected texts in film or literature; instead, the film looks inward, at its main character, a director named Guido Anselmi, played by Marcello Mastroianni, and by extension at Fellini, who treats the ennui of his character with droll asides and yet evokes real empathy in the viewer.

We first meet Guido in a dream immediately after the opening credits. He is sitting in a car in a traffic jam in Rome and tries to escape from his vehicle, but can’t. Everyone around him is staring at him in stony silence while his deep breathing is become more and more pronounced, anxious. In one car, a man is stroking the exposed arm of a voluptuous woman as she purrs. Suddenly, Guido is seen flying out of the car, along the cars stuck in traffic. He flies up towards the clouds, past an unfinished construction that we would later learn is part of the set for his film, before he is pulled down by a piece of rope, or string, attached to his leg, and falls into the sea.

There is much to analyse here, from the setting of the beach and the excited woman in the car to the smoke that fills his car as he tries to escape and all the people passively looking at him in silence. But it is the images themselves that catch our attention. The stark black and white and the surreal visual of Guido flying along the road, into the sky, before crashing down into the sea when someone pulls the rope and another commands it by reading from a screenplay, “Down, for good!” suggest Icarus but also the fragility of his own position, a prisoner of strangers’ looks.

The first time we see Guido’s face in close-up, he is looking in a mirror. Perhaps sooner than us, he realises he has to face himself, and much of the film will be devoted to this enterprise, and although the things he finds are not discoveries and don’t necessarily lead to some kind of catharsis, it helps the viewer accept the final moments of the film, one that does not offer closure but that simply extends the merry-go-round of Guido’s life one has been presented all through the film.

Guido has checked into a spa to relax and work in peace on his latest screenplay, but he is at his wits’ end, and very playfully, but intentionally ominously, we share his point of view when he arrives outside, people greeting him with a nod of the head and a smiling, all the while looking straight into the camera, and Rota’s rendition of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries takes over the soundtrack.

The only bit of self-reference that comes into play is from the mouth of Carini Daumier, the script consultant who very likely represents the worst of the worst self-involved and terribly opinionated film critics out there, who discusses Guido’s screenplay with him and tells him bluntly:

You see, what stands out at a first reading is the lack of a central issue or a philosophical stance. … That makes the film a chain of gratuitous episodes which may even be amusing in their ambivalent realism. You wonder, what is the director trying to do?

These words refer, of course, to the film itself, and while Guido plays the main part in the flashbacks of Fellini’s film, it might not be Guido but rather the main character in Guido’s own film, and in this way the two overlap significantly, though it is irrelevant to our entertainment what scenes belongs to which film. In the final scene, for example, a character from Guido’s childhood, Saraghina, appears, though this scene is suddenly set in the present, and she hasn’t aged. Was that scene not a memory but rather a scene Guido had in mind for his own film? At another point, early in the film, Guido’s walks down his hotel corridor singing Rota’s music we’ve been hearing on the soundtrack. How is this possible? Was the music actually playing in his world? Where, and who played it? These are the kinds of questions that demonstrate the film’s clever interplay between different fictions in the story, and the fact we don’t mind so much signals the skill and success of Fellini with this film.

The film is packed with scenes that can be either memories or potential events (most likely autobiographical in some way) in Guido’s own film. But far from being “gratuitous episodes” as Daumier fears, they are absolute marvels of storytelling, often with either a great deal of dialogue or a complete lack of dialogue. One is spoilt for choice for examples, but among the most talked-about scenes is the one that takes place in a bath house, or more accurately Guido’s harem. 

Fellini’s  is daring and adventurous and eschews an intellectualisation of its subject while making us wholly aware of the trials and tribulations of the central character and not undermining the severity of his situation. The theme is not overwhelming and the actions themselves are often staged in restricted spaces, but the film is as monumental as anything the cinema has produced. After so many years, the film still delivers a powerful blow to the system, because it shows what can be done with the medium. Like the enigmatic formula Guido as a young boy is told to repeat to protect him at night, “Asa nisi masa”, there is a formula to this film, but the power of the director is such that it takes on a magical quality only he knows how to wield.

This is one of the finest films ever made.

Dante’s Inferno (1911)

Italy
4*

Director:
Giuseppe de Liguoro
Screenwriter:
Dante Alighieri
Director of Photography:
Emilio Roncarolo

Running time: 68 minutes

Original title: L’Inferno

Though creaking a bit with a load of peripheral characters that appear for a mere handful of seconds, as they are usually physically constricted from moving around, this very first filmic depiction of the “Inferno” part of Dante’s Divine Comedy is a remarkable visualisation of the story in a way that the cinema had not really taken advantage of before.

The one striking exception is the director whose style certainly influenced director Giuseppe de Liguoro: Georges Méliès, whose formative tendency (films whose meaning was enriched, even informed, by their visual style, in contrast with the Lumière brothers’ documentary-like films that strove to capture the world as it is without demonstrating any real creativity from the filmmakers, except for their placement of the camera) is on full display in this film that takes place in the underworld.

The film’s opening montage already gives us a peek into the underworld, presenting us with fragments of despair whose characters or settings we do not know yet (they will all be revealed over the course of the film), but the writhing bodies present a world undeniably abhorrent that rapidly comes into view.

Dante’s Inferno is very text-heavy as a screen full of words precedes nearly every scene, and this screen tells us what we are about to see and especially who the diverse assortment of characters are that Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, meet on their way through he underworld. The problem is that the film’s one-hour length means the entire journey has to be condensed and all of the duo’s interactions with the condemned last a very short amount of time.

Sometimes, the names of the characters are onscreen for a longer period of time than the physical individuals themselves. But Dante carries on, carried – as  are we, the viewers – by the trance-like music that accompanies the film’s most recent release, of the German electronic band Tangerine Dream.

There are many noteworthy special effects in the film, and the moments when Dante or Virgil or Dante’s muse, the young Beatrice who has an impressive spinning halo above her head, lift off to float away or fly off are very effective and do not seem as rudimentary as one might have expected. It’s pure Méliès for the contemporary viewer: at once fantastical and uncanny because of the slight awkwardness of the movements or the stammering nature of such an old film of which not all the frames were in perfect condition.

Sometimes, the use of superimposition and even of forced perspective (see, for example, Dante and Virgil meeting the giant Antaeus) is equally splendid. At another point, a headless man appears holding his own head – it is very easy to guess how this was done, but the effect is rather good.

Famously, Dante is reminded to “Abandon all hope [ye who enter here]” and the images we get certainly fit very well with this notion. Those trapped down below have been sentenced to suffer for their sins for all eternity and the variety of ways in which they have to pay for their time spent on earth can make for rather uncomfortable viewing, from the Summonists (those who have cheated the Church) trapped with their heads buried in the sand, and the spendthrifts who have to roll bags of gold around their circle, to the hypocrites wearing cloaks of gold on the outside but filled with lead on the inside.

Dante is a bit of a wuss, as he faints or screams all the way through Hell, once even pulling a tuft of hair from a head sticking out of the ground, but on the other hand the majestic Virgil, wearing a white sheet and wearing an olive wreath on his head in the style of an Olympic Games winner, and gesticulating hither and thither in extremely melodramatic fashion, doesn’t make any better an impression.

It is a frightening moment when Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucanus appear and give the travelling duo the Roman salute, as within a few years of the film’s release, it would be co-opted by the fascists in Italy and Germany and become the Hitler salute.

This world where steam seems to be everywhere is a place where no one wants to end up. It is a place of endless misery, and the film presents a thorough catalogue of the pain and suffering that awaits those who choose to live according to their own vices and desires. It is sometimes rather obvious that the story was conceived on the first level to warn Dante’s fellow Florentines of their reckless behaviour, but the rundown of the levels of Hell makes for a powerful visual argument against immorality.

The film is unfortunately very episodic, and even the relationship of the two main characters, Dante and Virgil, is not allowed to develop. But as a purely visual experience, this film is a feast.

To Forget Venice (1979)

Italy

4*
Director: Franco Brusati
Screenwriters:
Franco Brusati
Jaja Fiastri
Director of Photography:
Romano Albani

Running time: 101 minutes

Original title: Dimenticare Venezia

Quite extraordinary. Here is a film that reminded me of Bergman’s playful After the Rehearsal in its treatment of memories – nonchalantly inserting them into the physical fabric of the present – and yet it had the lush sexual undertones of a provocative Fellini. It deals primarily with the passing of time, and yet this is no cause for anguish but rather a reason to reaffirm the happiness that life can provide. In typical Italian style, the film is warm and very human despite some melancholic themes, and deals frankly with issues relevant to all of us.

The film starts with an opening credits sequence that at first seems wondrous and radiating childlike energy, as groups of children play in a forest with barely an adult in sight, while opera music bellows on the soundtrack, transporting us to a place of rapturous enchantment. One of the only adults around is Claudia, a girl in her late twenties, and toward the end of the sequence, she notices a young man and woman having sex in the distance. She sneaks a peek, but makes sure the children don’t see the couple, and moves on.

One very short but infinitely clever moment is staged by director Franco Brusati: Three small girls sit at the base of a tree trunk lifting up their skirts ever so slightly. In front of each of them, going downhill, a shallow furrow has been dug out. When all is clear, and the signal has been given, the girls let loose to have their urine race against each other and make it to the end of the furrow in first place. It is a moment of sublime beauty and minimalism that will be visually referenced later in the film at a point that offers a stark contrast to the feel-good ambience of this youthful scene.

At a farmhouse in the Italian countryside, the middle-aged Anna (Mariangela Melato) is living with her partner, the young Claudia, and Anna’s late uncle’s widow, the aging opera singer Marta (Hella Petri). Marta is planning a trip with her family to Venice, and has invited her brother, Nicky (Erland Josephson), and his very handsome young boyfriend Picchio, along for a small family reunion.

Nicky and Marta have not seen each other in a long time, and Nicky’s arrival back home brings all sorts of beautiful memories, of his own sexual awakening and of the joy he saw on his sister’s face during childhood. One of these flashbacks depicts a birthday party (set to the sound of an Italian lullaby, Ambarabà ciccì coccò) that is straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film and is the highlight of the film, both blissful and soulful in its representation of a memory that underscores one of the film’s constant threads: the ineluctability of the passage of time.

But heavy as this theme is – and its effects are very visible, if not devastating, from a chance meeting with the much-older version of a young Rosino, who had once shared pornography with the young Nicky, to the brutal cut from a young birthday face to the same face at the gates of death – it is modulated by the theme of love that is subtly underscored by the different relationships, all of them gentle and understanding, and only once made explicit, in Marta’s impromptu performance of “L’Amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s opera Carmen during a lunch excursion in the forest.

Everyone is convinced times stands still for them, and they have such illusions because their memories haven’t faded, but once they are confronted with the visible effects of time, as Nicky is during his meeting with the old Rosino, can serve to thoroughly disabuse them of such ideas. In a late-night conversation with the gorgeous Picchio, during which Brusati shoots and lights him so as to cut a very angelic figure, strongly lit from above, Anna makes the same mistake of saying “Everything around us changes, grows, matures, dies, but we don’t.” She is wrong, but she still has a long way to go before such a realisation will dawn on her.

An unabashedly joyful celebration of life, To Forget Venice is nostalgic without being sentimental. The significance of time, and the healing power of the passage of time, is very quietly implied, but the film’s characters seem aware of it only obliquely. Nicky has come to be comfortable with himself, though he has lost his quirky boyhood looks, while Picchio is still beautiful but has not really become truly comfortable in his skin, or in his relationship with others. In one scene, before the very old maid Caterina enters his and Nicky’s room, he pushes the two beds apart “for Caterina’s sake”, while Nicky just looks at him, amused at the young man’s fear of being found out. It is a pity the director did not have the same level of comfort in presenting these relationships to us and there is barely any physical contact between the couples.

It is a pity this film is not more accessible (at this writing it is not available on DVD and even a VHS copy is near impossible to track down), but Erland Josephson’s presence, as in Bergman’s and Tarkovsky’s work, is a dependable sign the filmmaker chose to examine the finer parts of human existence with an eye and a paintbrush that few others possess. That filmmaker is Franco Brusati and with To Forget Venice he has created a very important film that deserves to be seen.

Videocracy (2009)

Italy / Sweden

3*
Director: Erik Gandini
Screenwriter: Erik Gandini
Directors of Photography:
Manuel Claro
Lukas Eisenhauer
Running time: 85 minutes

Videocracy, a documentary by the Italian-born filmmaker Erik Gandini, looks at the extent to which Italian television culture has become Italian culture tout court: it is a culture based on the most extreme kind of artifice and ignores the strides women around the world have made for their rights in the past century. In short, the current Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has shaped a culture that applauds the debasement of women – relegating them to the kitchen and rendering them mute and big-breasted – and he has used his many television stations to promote this idea over the past few decades.

Of course, this is not the first time Berlusconi serves as inspiration for a film – in 2006 Nanni Moretti memorably depicted him in Il Caimano – but Videocracy uses people close to Berlusconi, such as talent scout Lele Mora and celebrity Fabrizio Corona, to present us with a very good idea of the vast media empire that Berlusconi controls, and the power he exerts – not only politically, but ideologically and even culturally.

Italian television systematically presents women as objects of desire – no more, no less. Young Italian women want to conform to this figure of the silent mannequin, so that they might become objects of desire and (the dream!) marry a footballer. The apex of such stardom is the figure of the “Velina”: the silent blonde, who appears onstage during a talk show or a game show always hosted by a male presenter. From time to time she might break out into a 30-second dance routine called a “Staccheto”, before returning to her pose. The film paints a very tragic picture of the extremes of a heteronormative society in which there is no gender equality.

Director Erik Gandini has collected a great deal of material to show us this artifice in all its gaudy glory, but he does not dig much deeper. For example, I thought the character of Lele Mora, an old talent scout who invites young male celebrities to his house so that they can lounge around the pool and he can spy on them from his bedroom window, had great potential as a counterbalance (or at least a contradiction) to the very explicitly heterosexual foundations of Italian society. The fact that such an influential figure has what amounts to a harem at his house in Sardinia presented a wonderful opportunity to Erik Gandini, but rather than pursue this avenue, Gandini gives us Mora’s comparison of Berlusconi with Mora’s own idol, Mussolini. It is a silly moment that lasts much longer than it should (Mora has a Mussolini ring tone on his mobile phone), but Gandini picks up this train of thought again later in the film during a scene of a military parade, with the expected close-ups of boots marching and Berlusconi looking on as the artillery passes in slow motion.

Neither does Gandini succeed in tying his different threads together. Berlusconi is certainly at the centre of events, but in this 85-minute film we get a story of sad idealism in this society, where a 25-year-old mechanic named Ricky wants to impress the girls by singing Ricky Martin songs while performing karate, but he fails (because of Berlusconi’s television society, the film would have us believe, but it’s actually because he is bad at what he does). He has a firm belief that television ensures “that you’ll be remembered forever” and that an appearance on television puts you “10 steps above everyone else”, making it possible for you to compete with the football players for the hearts and bodies of those sought-after Italian women, i.e. the Veline.

We also get a glimpse of the sad life of Fabrizio Corona, an oversexed narcissist whose business dealing with the powerful elite in Italy is the stuff of gangster films. He memorably refers to himself as a modern-day Robin Hood who takes from the rich and gives to himself, but the storylines of Corona, Ricky, Lele Mora and Berlusconi are never really properly tied together.

Gandini also provides a very awkward voice-over that is annoying because Gandini speaks in English, which is not his native language, and there is no apparent reason why a better trained English speaker could not have delivered the narration.

The film lacks a tight focus on its subject and is happy to make us laugh at the madness of this television society, whenever the film is not relying on our admiration of its access to a forbidden world. One moment that does stand out is Berlusconi’s campaign video, a karaoke song about the excellence – nay, godliness – of this man who calls himself President (a label perpetuated by Gandini himself, who never calls the man “Prime Minister”).

Viewed at the Jihlava International Film Festival 2011

Death in Venice (1971)

Italy
2*

Director:
Luchino Visconti

Screenwriters:
Luchino Visconti
Nicola Badalucco

Director of Photography:
Pasqualino De Santis

Running time: 130 minutes

Some films don’t age well. It’s usually not a question of the film’s content but rather of its presentation. Death in Venice, in which an artist spends all his time and energy stalking a young boy whom he considers to be the embodiment of beauty, lacks the content to sustain its more than two-hour running time and uses an excessive amount of zooms to animate the content that is deteriorating as steadily as its decrepit central character.

Dirk Bogarde plays Gustav von Aschenbach (allegedly, this character is loosely based on Gustav Mahler), a musician who goes to Venice in order to recuperate after a fainting spell. At the Grand Hôtel des Bains, where he stays for the duration of his trip, he notices a young Polish boy, Tadzio, played by the Swedish actor Björn Andrésen. Tadzio is enigmatic and stands out from the crowd not because of his looks, but because the director chooses to bathe him in light wherever he goes.

I thought the androgynous Tadzio was rather bland, and his ridiculous haircut is an embarrassment. This teenager notices Aschenbach’s gaze and delights in the attention, often meeting his gaze and holding it, smiling quizzically at the older man who is always hovering around him but too reserved to introduce himself. Aschenbach chooses to keep his distance, but I found his passivity very frustrating: Ultimately, the character seems to choose inaction over action. He chooses to drool and does not interact with young Tadzio. Empathy becomes more and more difficult, if not impossible, because the character is so pathetic.

Aschenbach’s interest in Tadzio is not unwanted by the young boy. This point could have been made with some subtlety and developed in an interesting way, but the film contains scene after scene in which Aschenbach leers at Tadzio while Tadzio smiles back in silence. Not much else happens. Oh, right, there is the cholera epidemic, which slowly grabs hold of the city and squeezes the life out of its victims, in the same way that all my interest in Aschenbach’s lovelorn existence is squeezed dry. But by that stage, we have long stopped caring.

Almost every scene contains a zoom, and this kind of filmmaking, in spite of Visconti’s pedigree, seems more like a childish fascination with the zoom than a director who has a firm grasp on the medium. Mahler’s music is used sparingly (the only music on the soundtrack), and some scenes, like the two boys wrestling on the beach while Aschenbach watches in horror is presented without any sound – a very prudent move.

However, the film itself is plodding, to say the least, and Aschenbach’s character might as well have been a zombie. The flashbacks are even worse than the scenes set in the present: Abstract discussions of art and beauty pepper the storyline in the past and provide a very theoretical framework for the character. The setting, pre-WWI Venice, is admirably recreated, and the final shot of Tadzio on the beach is magnificent, but for the most part Death in Venice is underdeveloped and completely overrated.