Masculin Feminin (1966): The Children of Marx and Coca-Cola

“Times had changed. It was the age of James Bond and Vietnam.”

The film opens with a casual conversation between two young people: the young man, Paul (Jean-Pierre Leaud), bugs the girl, Madeleine (Chantal Goya), sitting across the way. Then, this conversation between young people in a cafe gets rudely interrupted by a marital spat that ends in a gunshot. Surely these are Godard’s proclivities at work.

One could say form follows function. Masculin Feminin is another reminder of how literary his cinema is. We often think of his films for their visual aesthetic thanks to the likes of Raoul Coutard (or Willy Kurant here). There’s no denying this, but they are always so pregnant with ideas and thoughts, some fully formed others feel like they were scribbled out on a notepad (because they were). It’s a task to be inundated with it all as he willfully challenges any level of perspicuity.

However, whether you venerate or loathe Godard, his cinema is a tapestry woven together from all his influences. It feels like dialectical cinema where everything is a symposium of love, arts, and politics as young people converse with explosive intertitles blasting away between scenes. But that doesn’t mean everything is a logical progression. Godard gives himself license to follow every passing whim.

Other times it’s uncomfortably direct. Leaud as his avatar starts interrogating Madeleine as she powders her face, but he gets away with it, since he’s always idealistic and a bit of a romantic. He asks her, “What’s the center of the world?” When pressed, he thinks it’s “Love” and she would have said “Me.”

Eventually, he spends more time with her and gets to know her roommates too, and he finds a new job polling the public. Leaud “polls” Ms. 19 giving her a line of probing, deeply personal questions. Later, he has a whole conversation about mashed potatoes and a father discovering how the earth orbits around the sun.

Godard is always in conversation with the films that inform him, but with Masculin Feminin we see a much broader acknowledgment and exploration of the contemporary culture. Madeleine’s meteoric rise as a Ye-Ye singer finds her on the charts in Japan only surpassed by The Beatles, Frances Gall, and Bob Dylan. Not bad!

That’s also not to say Godard gives up being in dialogue with films as well, including his own, which had become part of the cultural conversation in their own right.  Bridgitte  Bardot (from Contempt) shows up receiving notes from her director. Madeleine playfully chastises her beau, “You’re not Pierro Le Fou. He stole cars for his woman!”

Later, they sit in a darkened theater together watching a perturbing arthouse movie:

“We went to the movies often. The screen would light up, and we’d feel a thrill. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. But Madeline and I were usually disappointed. The images were dated and jumpy. Marilyn Monroe had aged badly. We felt sad. It wasn’t the movie of our dreams. It wasn’t the total film we carried inside ourselves. That film we would have liked to make, or more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live.”

If this doesn’t sum up the aspirations of the youth in front of the camera staring up at the screen within the screen, it must hold true for the young batch of filmmakers who Godard himself came up with. It’s a perplexing bit of dialogue and one of the most apparently self-reflexive and personal annotations within the entire picture.

As is, all of Godard’s male heroes and stand-ins feel dense although Leaud is always miraculously able to pull off some boyish prank or a bit of mischief and still maintain some semblance of relatable humanity.

Otherwise, how could girls ever put up with these guys much less love them? All the young women are pestered to no end and rendered endearing for all they must endure. I think of Ms. 19 and Elisabeth (Marlene Joubert) in particular. We pity them.

What do we do with the totality of this picture? From experience, you usually run into issues when you try and find the narrative arc or a conventional form to follow. Because Godard’s films boast so much in ideas, asides, and digressions. There’s so much to be parsed through and digested.

It’s easier to follow impressions, a train of thought here, or a standalone scene there that left some sort of tangible impact. In the social tumult and the moral morass of the 1960s, it’s almost as if within the collage of the film, we’ll find some substantive meaning. Then, again maybe not.

Leaud walks down the street with a girl and pops into a cafe for a moment only to come back out. He continues to walk and says, “Kill a man and you’re a murderer. Kill thousands and you’re a conqueror. Kill everyone and you’re a God.”

She responds, “I don’t believe in God.” Frankly, I don’t blame her, and if that’s the world’s conception of who God is, I wouldn’t want that God either. Still, we all try and answer existential questions with something, be it politics, pop songs, or fleeting teenage romance.

I read Godard’s film was restricted to adult viewers, but he probably thought he was doing a public service announcement for the youth generations in his own individual attempt to put a voice to the times. Whatever your thoughts on Godard or Coca Cola and Marx, alongside British Swinging London time capsules, Masculin Feminin helps capture this particular moment of ’60s European culture in a bottle.

It feels increasingly difficult to reconcile all the warring forces fighting for primacy and as a young person just trying to find love and make sense of one’s life, it’s never easy. We have more questions than answers. However imperfectly, Masculin Feminin synthesizes some aspects of this universal phenomenon, one that’s not totally restricted by time. We can all relate to this idea as long as we were young once.

4/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

Le Petit Soldat (1963)

“Photography is truth, and cinema is truth 24 times a second.”

Although Le Petit Soldat was released in 1963 — no thanks to the censors — it was actually filmed in 1960. This context is all-important because Jean-Luc Godard is still fresh off the sensibilities of Breathless, and they pervade this film as well.

Its plot follows the aftermath of a professor killed in a terrorist attack and a young journalist in Geneva, who is enlisted by French intelligence to assassinate a man named Palivoda. This is in the age of the Algerian War; the young man, Bruno Forestier (Michel Subor), has avoided the draft, and the man he’s assigned to kill is a National Liberation Front sympathizer.

If it’s not apparent already, the groundwork has been set for a political spy thriller. While balking at murdering the man in a drive by, Bruno simultaneously falls in love with Veronica (Anna Karina), a dark-haired beauty in a trench coat. His friends bet him he’ll fall in love the first time he sees her on the street. He sheepishly shells over the money after only a brief introduction. He’s instantly smitten.

Le Petit Soldat is such a literary film thanks in part to its voiceover. Bruno, as Godard’s stand-in and cinematic conduit, references a myriad of things. He asks rhetorically about Veronica, “Were her eyes Velasquez gray or Renoir gray?”

It’s as if Godard is contemplating the muse in his own art. Still, he continues with a steady stream of namedrops including painters, authors, and composers. Van Gogh and Gauguin. Then, Beethoven and Mozart. Anna Karina prancing around to Joseph Haydn is definitely its own mood.

It occurs to me this is a distillation of Godard as a filmmaker. It’s a visual style wedded with these deeply mined traditions of literature and art.  Both cutting edge and steeped in the culture of the past before thenceforward going off and creating its own unique vocabulary.

Godard gleefully inserts himself all over the movie on multiple occasions where we see him in the flesh. It’s a spy movie as only he can conceive it totally deconstructed and aware of itself while simultaneously taking most of the thrills out of the genre.

Soldat remains a precursor to Alphaville by effectively turning the contemporary world around him into the environment for his latest genre picture. Whereas Breathless‘s jazz-infused contemporary aesthetic is accentuated by the black and white streets of France, here they are repurposed. Though it’s as much a film about driving around the city philosophizing as it is about any specific dramatic action.

Because Francois Truffaut, while not always disciplined, could spin stories with a narrative arc and genuine emotion. Godard is at his best as a philosopher and cinema iconoclast where his style doesn’t totally get bogged down by ideas, and he uses the medium in ways that would become the new standard. Or at least his own standard, before he decided to upend them again.

But in order to make the case for Anna Karina as more than Godard’s Pygmalion, it’s necessary to consider her screen image in depth. Whatever Godard gave to Anna Karina in terms of iconography or legacy, Karina gave that much back, and they will be inextricably linked for all times. Because if there was ever a reason to fall in love with her, it’s right there in Le Petit Soldat.

His alter ego riffs about God and politics, political left and right, quotes Lenin, and unravels his entire worldview (ie. about a man who loves ideas, not territories). When he asks his girl why she loves him, she shrugs her shoulders and says I don’t know. I don’t think she’s dumb, but whereas here we have one character who is in their head, she seems to be a creature who is real and present in the moment. She has a heart.

Whatever the digressions and despite the perplexing way Bruno interrogates her during their impromptu photoshoot, she is undeniable. If cinema is truth 24 frames a second, she somehow makes Godard’s cinema more accessible and real — she takes his theorizing on truth and gives it a pulse.

The movie is still a thriller, and it follows its own version of narrative beats. Bruno is framed, he continually has second thoughts about his assignment; he gets the gun, but things always get in his way. His heart is not in it — killing a man mercilessly — because this is not who he is.

Instead, he wishes to run away to Brazil with his girl. He’s locked away and tortured as a double agent for his troubles. These sequences are simplistic — contained in a hotel bathroom — and yet as they light matches near his fingertips and dunk him for minutes on end in the water, there’s a definite heartless menace about it.

We have the political bent of Godard’s cinema detected early on before his other overt efforts later in the 60s. It comes in the guise of his story as it unpacks current events, ideologies, and even controversy around torture.

True to form, he has the audacity to cram the final act of an entire movie into one minute of celluloid. He shows us some things and just as easily explains away the rest with voiceover.

It feels like he leaves just as he emerged. He’s totally singular. At times, maddening and bombastic, and yet always prepared with his own take and alternative approaches to convention. Godard will always challenge the viewer and make you reconsider how much you appreciate cinema even as he continually helps to redefine how we conceive things.

1960 or 63. It makes no difference. Le Petit Soldat has a young man’s malaise acting as a film for the coagulating disillusionment of the ’60s. This isn’t your father’s war nor one of his films — not the “cinema du papa” as Truffaut put it. If Godard’s style was coming into its own, with Karina cast front and center, then the propagation of his ideas is equally evident. Cinema would not be the same without his distinct point of view.

3.5/5 Stars

Note: This review was written before the passing of Jean-Luc Godard on September 13, 2022.

Bitter Rice (1949)

Doris Dowling has a name that sticks out in the opening credits for the very reason she was an American actress and she offered up a particularly memorable role as Alan Ladd’s vitriolic wife in The Blue Dahlia. Here she’s an Italian playing the moll of a two-bit hoodlum wanted by the police.

Bitter Rice opens with a curious kind of introduction. A man stares straight at the camera, breaking the unwritten contours of the fourth wall while providing some explanation of how rice harvesting is a bumper crop not only in China and India but in Northern Italy as well. A moment later, the camera pulls away revealing this presentation is all part of Radio Turin and suddenly the circumstances of the film are instantly placed in a palpable setting.

The lithe even upbeat nature of the picture allows us to fall into the world almost immediately. We have a milieu of migrant workers crossed with bustling train stations, lovers, policemen, and wanted fugitives all playing out in front of us as we try to take in the stimuli and come to grips with everything. The wanted man, named Walter (Vittorio Gassman), tries to mask himself by dancing with a pretty young field worker (Silvana Mangano). She gladly flaunts her dancing in exchange for attention as she’s accompanied by her portable gramophone.

In the aftermath of a chase, Francessca (Dowling) disappears into the crowd of workers to lay low with their cache while her boyfriend flees in order to stay out of the clutches of the police. If it’s not apparent already, a passing street vendor lets us know some priceless jewels were stolen from The Grand Hotel.

If it’s not apparent already, this opening gambit has the kind of thrust we might expect from Hollywood, not a backcountry Italian film, and it’s evident Giuseppe De Santis is well aware of the mechanisms of a thriller. However, he also allows his picture to sink back into rhythms that one would feel much more accustomed to with neorealism and a movie set in the province of Vercelli.

Suddenly a tale of illegals and registered workers is given a new context but timeless relevance to this very day. Francesca does not have a license, but she befriends the saucy young dancer, Silvana, who does her best to assuage the foremen and get her new companion on the ever-crucial list of approval. Her chances are tenuous at best, but Francesca, like so many others, has no other choice.

I couldn’t help thinking, with her chewing gum and sizzling hot music, Silvana is bred out of the same world that supplied movie posters of Gilda in Bicycle Thieves. It’s this influx of American product in its many modes — a new form of cultural dominance — steamrolling the former fascism into submission to good ol’ American capitalism.

The way she flaunts herself and becomes the focal point of the picture, I couldn’t help but compare her to Virginia Mayo in some of her saucier roles like Best Years of Our Lives or White Heat — down to the gum chewing. If it were an American film, Bitter Rice would fit somewhere within the landscape of The Grapes of Wrath or maybe Border Incident.

There’s little doubt it has a kind of collective political philosophy to present — its own vein of social commentary — and it delivers it not only through narrative, but visual depictions of the life these people are subjected to.

In one breathless comment, Silvana tells a soldier (Raf Vallone) posted nearby, “In North America everything is electric!” He’s informed enough to know “even the chair is electric…” As a side note, the Italian constitution completely abolished the death penalty for all common and civil crimes starting in 1948. Already it presents a kind of ideological chafing that must be contended with.

Upon their arrival, the rice workers receive a hero’s welcome, and we are reminded this is a yearly ritual with its own unique patterns. There’s something marvelous about taking part in these seemingly familiar habits even as we see them for the first time as an audience.

The packing of mattresses with straw, the throwing of hats to all the field hands who catch them out of the air en masse. It’s strangely riveting. Or there are the mating customs played out year after year with men yelling over the wall to the fair maidens below, searching for former flings and future partners.

We come to realize it’s built on its own kind of ecosystem. You have the foreman’s, the lines of workers bent over in the muck and the mire every which way, and they sing their river ballads to pass news along the line.

With the jewels to get between them, Francesca and Silvana find themselves positioned among the two factions of documented and undocumented workers. It’s not a simple task, and then Walter turns up again. He can only bring trouble.

Like their opening foray, there’s something about the dance scene between Silvana and Walter burning with a palpable sensuality. But what it also does quite effectively is pluck the film out of its neorealist roots and make it even momentarily something more. It’s like a precursor to the passionate sashaying in Picnic. It feels like very much a Hollywood creation and yet it’s simply De Santis’s version of it.

Likewise, the film is not totally averse to forging its own version of a love triangle (or diamond) with Francesca and Silvana finding themselves attracted and repelled by the conman Walter and another character, the soldier Marco. These see-sawing relational dynamics are the fodder for unadulterated melodrama exemplified by violent pursuits in the pouring rain, passionate embraces in mountains of rice, and a great deal more.

While the rest of the harvesters get overtaken with merriment in the wake of a wedding and subsequent beauty contest, there’s something much more catastrophic going on in the background. Silvana becomes the self-destructive queen of it all.

By the end, I stand totally astounded. Bitter Rice jumps off the deep end going from Italian Neorealism toward gut-busting, blistering drama with the dark tinges of noir. This is what it borrows from Hollywood quite effectively, reminiscent of a picture like Border Incident or even Cape Fear. In tight quarters, violence becomes especially animalistic. When a beast feels cornered, he must lash out.

Also, I still am fascinated to know why Doris Dowling was cast in a film that was otherwise completely Italian, and yet there’s something rather ironic and bewitching in her and Magnano becoming cultural foils for one another. It becomes a far more complicated portrait of the corrupting forces of greed and capitalism.

Dowling, as the quintessential, steadfast Italian girl, and the Italian actress as a poisoned vessel of sensual pop culture materialism. What’s more, it leaves a truly incisive impression and that’s most important of all. You won’t soon forget a film like this, and it just might have the power to captivate viewers on both sides of the globe with its pulpy sensibilities.

4.5/5 Stars

Ossessione (1943)

You half expect cinema to have remained dormant in wartorn Europe during the 1940s. That’s part of what makes Ossessione such a fascinating curio within this context. In fact, the film almost never made it out of the decade alive. One can only imagine how unpopular the picture might have been with the reigning government.

It doesn’t exactly preach good old-fashioned fascist values and Mussolini looked to exterminate the picture completely. Legend has it that Visconti, who had also joined the communist party, managed to salvage a copy so that his film debut could live on and he got out of the war as well with a sprawling career still to be determined ahead of him.

I learned only very recently that Visconti started out as an assistant on the films of Jean Renoir of all people. Not only does that seem like the most propitious of apprenticeships, but it’s also easy to trace the lineage of the Italian from the Poetic Realism of the French Master that would eventually coalesce into Italian Neorealism.

The films of Renoir and Michel Carne are fully present in this early work with the opening images of a train evoking something like Le Bete Humaine or Toni. Gino Costa (Massimo Girotti ) is the kind of working-class hero you’d expect in one of those earlier pictures or even some of John Ford’s work.

He’s an itinerant bum who used to be a soldier and then a mechanic in a former life. Now he’s hitched a ride on a truck bed only to be dumped outside a roadside tavern. And Visconti proceeds to introduce his primary couple through the visual synecdoche of two pairs of legs.

Finally, we see their faces together. They’re in a kitchen. Although Anna Magnani was originally meant to have the role, Clara Calamai channels the sultry come-hither coquettishness quite well even when it’s impossible to unsee the platinum blonde of Lana Turner in the part. But they have their own instant spark, like flint — burning with a consuming passion tantamount to spontaneous combustion.

If you’re well aware of the story already, she is a young woman married to a chubby misogynist named Bragana (Juan da Landa), who thinks he’s more than deserving of the marital comforts afforded by such a wife. He calls on her to rub him down after a long day, and she can’t bear to touch him. She has designs for someone else.

While her husband goes off with the local priest to do some duck hunting, in an early example of a bike-and-talk, Giovanna is quick to stoke the flames of romance with her much more desirable confidante. Visconti’s unauthorized rendition is purportedly more faithful to its source material although it’s hardly as streamlined as MGM’s later adaptation, essentially leaving more space for narrative asides.

When Giovanna clings to the security of her current life, Gino sets off on his own alone soon falling in with a hospitable street salesman, “The Spaniard,” who entertains the crowds. In what can only be expressed as noir sentiment, the tides of the narrative bring the couple together quite by chance.

Bragana is pleased to see their old friend and Gino gets pulled back into the whirlpool taking in some opera at a local tavern. This more than anything betrays Visconti’s affections for the stage.

Consequently, it’s also a film where arguably the biggest moments play out off-screen. I’m thinking of the illicit couples’ first rendezvous and then the fatal accident altering the course of the entire picture. Not all of this is due to content concerns either, but it does highlight how Visconti and his scripting compatriots, Mario Alicata, Giuseppe De Santis, and Gianni Puccini, conceived the story.

It offers another kind of dissonance because we don’t get to see what actually happened even if we’re well aware of their mutual intentions. We must wait for events to play out to see how the canker and unrest reveal themselves in due time. The most explicit response comes when Gino peels off  somebandages and then a violent struggle over a trinket ends in a passionate kiss. This might be the movie summed up in visual terms.

They must reckon with an unsettling state of limbo: freedom that feels more like purgatory as they stew in their infidelities. A man of the cloth suggests that they part ways because people do talk about their situation, real or imagined, and of course, it is very real.

Instead of detonating the story to be a full-blown melodrama like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione maintains these high levels of human intimacies. Gino reunites with his old pal again beyond delighted to see a familiar face, and yet it ends in fisticuffs because his fellow traveler is able to put words to everything he’s currently tormented by.

Then there’s a demure “ballerina.” Gino meets her knitting on a park bench, and they share an ice cream. I had to acclimate myself, thinking only momentarily that she was Giovana, but the emotions in the scene are enough to give this away. Because being around her Gino feels different; it’s as if, ironically, her purity is able to cover all his sins or at the very least help him forget them.

But the digressions only aid in leading him back to Giovana. If they aren’t totally a destructive pair, frolicking on the beach together, having rekindled their chemistry, then there’s some kind of fatalism that needs to be satiated.

In passing, Ossessione might earn the labels of Italian neorealism for its striking, ever austere imagery emblematic of the post-war working class. But it’s also often designated as film-noir for its sordid details and futile finale. However, I can’t stop but marvel at how Visconti was able to make the picture to begin with. Even after its initial release, it was hit with so many roadblocks of censorship and copyright problems only to gain a second life.

What an auspicious way to start a career, especially under such tumultuous circumstances. Much of the finest pieces of art are born out of the burnishing fires of the furnace and, for that matter, a certain level of creative obsession.

4/5 Stars

Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

It occurs to me, like with Jean-Pierre Melville (and so many others), that the landscape and context of the war years left such a lasting impact on Robert Rossellini, and they are made manifest in his films. Although it’s shot over a decade later, there’s still a lived-in quality, committed to a kind of authenticity.

Whereas others, namely Americans, experienced the war and then returned home (albeit with PTSD), for these men war was a stipulation of everyday life. It was the water they drank and the bread they ate, suffusing into all aspects of society.

Vittorio De Sica is called upon to play a far different kind of gambler than he was in The Gold of Naples. His blustering lunatic is displaced by a miserable loser stumbling and bumbling his way through a mediocre existence.

Emmanuele Bardone, like everyone else, is getting trampled on by this war, just trying to survive. His debts pile up, no thanks to his rampant gambling habits. He pleads with his girlfriend, a fair-weather beauty (Sandra Milo), who has had just about enough of the meager life he can offer her on his half-baked promises. It’s to no avail. She’s not intent on bailing him out again.

Thus, he must find other means to scrounge up the funds to pay off a German Sergeant Major. They’re buddy-buddy — gambling acquaintances — but it doesn’t keep them from attempting to stab each other in the back. It’s one of those uneasy partnerships engendered by the war. Because Bardone is such a man: feckless, unctuous, self-serving. He’s always looking to get ahead, whether by courting Nazis or fellow Italians frantic to track down missing relatives at any cost…specifically well-off Italians.

Physically, Vittorio De Sica strikes me as a man whose stature and features are impressive, quite effortlessly handsome. Yet, he’s capable of bringing something out of them, wringing the comedy and the tragedy with the body God has given him.

I don’t know why exactly, but I want to compare him to Cary Grant — a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously — so whether debonair or a bit of a cad, we still find it within our hearts to root for him.

He vows to help a rich widow and her daughter-in-law in what feels like just another confidence game preying on their desperation. His gambling gets interrupted by air raids, and he crawls back into the life of one of his other girlfriends (Giovanna Ralli).

Something else happens that he knows absolutely nothing about, but it changes the course of the entire picture. A famed dissident is accidentally shot dead at a roadblock, but a cover-up ensues. The capture of Generale Della Rovere is spread around town despite a botched assignment within the Nazi ranks. Now they must find a man to fill his place: Bardone is fingered for it, and he has no bargaining power in this economy.

We’re privy to the Nazi’s intricate filing systems and notecard records helping to mechanize their ruthless war machine, but they’re also more than prepared to play spy and counterspy with a sorry drifter’s carcass.

Narrative-wise it feels like the story can easily be split into two distinct segments. Because it takes a good hour before De Sica is actually cast as the Generale and suddenly the stakes of his new life are raised.

This film was one of Rossellini’s more profitable efforts and with it came an actual high-concept idea. But this never feels like what the director is truly interested in. He skirts around the “plot” as much as possible to make this story about a character and a world.

When he is finally in prison, all the rebels and convicted patriots pledge their services through cell windows and the surrounding walls. They believe him to be who he says he is…meanwhile, Bardone maintains his pact with Colonel Muller to coax out the Generale’s contact on the inside. He’s met with a crisis calling for some self-examination.

Aside from De Sica, Hannes Messemer has to be the other obvious standout as the German SS man. He’s hard and difficult to like, especially when wearing a Nazi uniform in wartime. However, he’s not a cartoon and even momentarily there are these ever so faint flashes of nobility. He cannot be pinned down; his duty as a military officer trumps everything, and yet the contours of his person make us grapple with more than we are used to in a Nazi.

Because as much as we don’t want to admit it, every Nazi was a human being. He is another soldier, driven by duty, perhaps an ideology, and yet still complicit in these grievous sins against humanity.

There’s also what feels like a level of moralizing to the picture. Because we have this space created. It is now the 1950s. Suddenly Rossellini is out from under the complete specter of the war, and he’s able to make his hapless vagabond into an unsolicited hero. A cynic could brand it as little better than a post-war potboiler.

And yet as he tramps out into the snowy prison yard, there’s a steely conviction about him for the first time in the movie. It takes the obvious arc of this character and imbues it with something fleetingly profound. Surely this is the sensibility of Rossellini.

I recall Lino Ventura in Army of Shadows, Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored, and now  Vittorio De Sica. They all share something in common. They were valiant heroes to the end and sometimes their heroism is unwonted. It doesn’t matter so much the road you’ve taken as long as you make it there in the end. There was never any doubt.

4/5 Stars

Europa ’51 (1952)

Europa ’51 is one of those films butchered by time and yet eventually, it was stitched back together to resemble how it was intended to be viewed by its director. Its serpentine history to restoration hints at its subversive elements, although on the surface, it seems like a fairly common breed of drama about a middle-class family.

It reminds me somewhat of De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us purely because it provides a striking reminder neorealism is not only an exploration of those in abject poverty. It can be about those who have a relational or familial deficit too.

In this case, we begin with the one and only Ingrid Bergman. She returns home to the bustling preparation for a dinner party. A strike is tying up the local roads, and it’s only a minor inconvenience. The same might be said of her misanthropic son.

She hardly has time or patience for his concerns because there’s so much to do. She treats him with the kind of shortness and insensitivity you can hardly begrudge parents. It feels like a momentary lapse in priorities more than a callous act of neglect. Soon enough she’s with her husband and guests — one of them brings the conversation to politics and “leftists” — and it’s easy to leave childish trivialities behind.

Then, a catastrophic event shocks her, and the dormant maternal side reveals itself — one of warmth and affection. She racked with the kind of guilt you can never hope to placate. With the movie being so weepy at such an early juncture, there’s a question of where it might go, but Bergman remains the driving force. She goes searching for something…

On her pilgrimage, one of the people she finds is Giulietta Masina, playing a mother to all with a generous spirit and a heart of gold. She’s taken on far too many children, only some of them her own, but she loves them dearly, fussing over them and getting so much joy in providing for them. There’s a frantic charm to her as she busies herself and makes the household run in spite of her meager means. It’s appealing to Irene.

Meanwhile, her husband (Alexander Knox) remains mostly unfeeling, blowing his top when he perceives another man in her life. He fails to recognize this is the only man who has extended her any human kindness and understanding. For this and other sins, she winds up in a psych ward. Remember, we are trading in melodrama.

Irene comforts her tearful housekeeper with a newfound poise. She receives a visitation from the ward’s priest, and they share their mutual philosophies. Experience has led her to discover her own distinctive on what life is about: Love for ourselves feels too narrow; she feels compelled to reach out to others. Love has no limits. Evil is born from the fact we never give all our love to those who need it most.

Irene avoids questions from the priest about a God and his grace stating we must be filled with love for all so that all might be saved through love. The words ringing with the most resonancy go like this, “I came to earth not to lose sinners but to win them — the miracle of Christianity.”

Suddenly, I liked the movie more and more as Bergman’s developing character is revealed, and I learned Rosselini envisioned her out of the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi.

For the majority of my life, I’ve lived in a western, predominantly Christian society, where these core truths pervade the mindset in thought and word, if not entirely in our deeds. There continues to be a shift; many more people are unaffiliated with organized religion or don’t identify with a specific faith. Much of this makes sense as hypocrisy becomes more and more visible in the social media landscape.

I’m left curious. Instead of being swayed by the political or social movements of the day and age or their specific tribes and subcultures, either to fit in or to rage against the status quo, what if people decided to stand out in a far more radical way?

What if they actually took to heart the teaching to love their neighbors and God with all their heart, mind, and strength. Bergman feels a bit crazy, she is countercultural, and impossible to categorize: an exceptional anomaly.

She would play Joan of Arc later, but this is her first foray into the part of a modern-day saint who eschews and then slides beyond the conventions of her age. These kinds of characters fascinate me namely because they challenge my own convictions and hypocrisies.  “How many men condemned by their society and burned at the stake in their day were right?” It’s a sobering question…

3.5/5 Stars

Stromboli (1950)

“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” – Romans 10:20 (taken from Isaiah)

Isabella Rosselini gave an interview where she posited her father was not so much a neorealist but a maker of “probable films.” In other words, they were built out of reality and its probable outcomes while never having the pretense of a true documentary. They were invented yet plausible.

Stromboli is not a type of food but a remote Sicilian island. Rossellini conceived the film thanks to two auspicious events. First, came the famed letter from Ingrid Bergman acknowledging her desire to work with the Italian filmmaker. Then, there was a drive from Rome to Naples past a refugee camp where a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman made eyes at all the passersby. I have no way to substantiate this anecdote, but it all seems to gel with the movie we have before us.

As in an earlier picture like Paisan, Rossellini is content to live in the linguistic ambiguities of the moment, and it makes for something striking and different. We’re constantly trying to make sense of the world and navigate it as if it were real life.

Ingrid Bergman’s part is shaded by her roles in Casablanca and Notorious just as Rossellini has the likes of Rome, Open City and Paisan behind him. The war years left such an impression on that entire generation and the cinema was equally marked.

She plays Karin, the aforementioned woman who woos the man on the other side of the barbed wire. They have little in common. They can hardly communicate with one another; she’s trying to get her Visa to immigrate to Argentina, and her secondary option is to marry this lovestruck P.O.W. It seems like she has no choice but to accept.

The foundation of their marriage is built on sand instead of hearty bedrock, but it’s hardly the only one you could imagine during the war years.  A certain level of convenience outweighed many other cares. And so they set out on a life together back in his rural hometown.

Not only is Karin an obvious outsider, but she’s also unnerved by the new environment — it’s a humble fishing village — lorded over by an active volcano! What a strange and otherworldly film it is as we are whisked away with Bergman to a land that we do not know using a language that we do not speak. It’s at both times mesmerizing — a world full of curiosities — and perplexing.

Bergman notes it’s a “Ghost Island.” For Antonio (Mario Vitale), it’s all he’s ever known as home and so immediately we have a blatant disconnect. His wife tries to reach out and grab hold of anything reassuring.

It feels less like Rossellini is trying to shoehorn the film into English and more so that he is building a story out of what he has at his disposal. Where language comes in bits and pieces. Shared spaces must be navigated in ways where people can meet in the middle and English is the language of mediation. You never know who knows what or how they learned it. I had this experience on many occasions, and it never ceases to fascinate me. Isn’t it true so many people have intriguing histories if you only get to know them?

Stromboli showcases Bergman at her most disdainful, telling her husband how very different they are — born of separate classes — and she is a “civilized” person. Granted, most of her criticism is out of fear. Whether or not all the words are clear, he understands the emotions behind them, and they wound his pride as he looks to find work to eke by a living to support her. She spends her first days moping around the house and bawling her eyes out, always reacting to the circumstances around her. It’s rarely the other way around.

One man who becomes a kind of confidante is the local Father (Renzo Cesana) simply because he speaks English immaculately. He recounts to her how those who have gone away help those who have stayed behind. He’s an amicable figure, exhorting Karin to be patient.

But the relationship changes as she becomes more standoffish and unadorned in a way you would have never witnessed under the watchful eye of Classical Hollywood. And although she seems to find solace in his company, it crosses a line, and he becomes uneasy. He cannot provide the kind of comfort she requires even as she cries out, “”Your God won’t help!”

If it’s not entirely a movie about self-reflexivity, then at least you have the parallelism between real life and dramatized events. Rossellini and Bergman stirred controversy because although both were married, they set off on an affair together. It became the topic of scandal and derision across the U.S.

Similarly, the women of the town become scandalized by her immodesty in herself and perhaps her interior decorating. She hangs out with women of ill-repute and other men without the presence of her husband. It’s yet another injury to Ingrid’s image, both real and imagined.

But with the rougher edges of human drama, there’s something pensive and even gorgeous about all the fishing sequences. They loom some kind of unknown danger or foreboding. Maybe this is my own projection. Because like Bergman’s character, when I look at this life I see the perceived ugliness. There’s no better indication than the moment he shows her why he bought a ferret: so it might catch rabbits for them.

For her, this is violent and repulsive. For these people, it is their way of life and their individual comfort. It’s what they know most intimately. After all, didn’t God provide people the earth and the sea so they could seek sustenance from them?

The climactic moment when the fishermen bring up the nets has something so satisfying about it even as there is a kind of real thrill in the air pulsing through all the men on screen. Water spraying everywhere, yells, and hands busying themselves with spears to bring in their catch.

This is only topped by a volcanic eruption in full force. Bergman vs. a Volcano is not something I ever thought I’d see, and yet here it is. She flees and seeks refuge up in the hills, totally crushed by her own fear and doubt. And then in a moment, she wakes up and this desolate world around her almost feels like a visitation from God — the beauty — the mystery, it’s all there finally speaking to her.

Rosselini isn’t a deeply pious filmmaker; nor did he seem ardently religious, but in pictures like The Flowers of St. Francis and Stromboli, he does show a fascination with faith and humanity’s relationship with a God. Here it’s not so much meditative as it is a struggle. Karin, like Job before her, cries out to God in anguish on innumerable occasions.

Could it be the passing birds overhead are a reminder? That God through his common grace watches over the birds of the air and all the more so his other creatures. Or is this all wishful thinking with the volcanic deathtrap soon to be overtaken by hellfire and brimstone?  Where is God and if He is there, why does He hide his face? These are the existential questions percolating in the human heart, and Karin feels the full brunt of their weight as she lashes out into the void.

The movie cuts out before we get a response. Going back to the opening quote, is this Rossellini reaching for an answer?

“I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” Of course, the director leads us to a state of existential dissonance between what we read and what we witness. Meanwhile, he alighted on a tumultuous road with his greatest muse.

4/5 Stars

My Name is Nobody (1973)

For those familiar with the tales of Odysseus, My Name is Nobody earns its name from the witty trick the Greek hero uses to escape the Cyclops. However, the movie should draw more comparisons to the works of Sergio Leone than Homer.

It’s difficult not to immediately calibrate the film’s first scene against something like the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West; it’s as much about the stretching and manipulation of time as it is the near-wordless actions. There’s even a clock ticking in the background.

We have a callback to Fonda getting a shave at the Tonsorial Parlor in My Darling Clementine (feet even propped up) however, here the scene is done up with this new sense of impending dread, and we can’t quite fathom why. We just feel it.

Again, getting a shave, milking a cow, brushing a horse, are mundane activities undertaken by three strangers, and yet the scene imbues them with this uneasy energy. They could be Jack Elam, Woody Strode, and Al Mulock biding their time at the creaking train depot for Charles Bronson.

Although Leone’s not the director; he conceived the original idea, and Tonino Valerii, who was Leone’s assistant director on some of his most prominent films, knows what it means to milk the moment through images and sound.

It’s not even the heart and soul of the movie, but like the earlier picture, it gives us the essence of the style and certainly Jack Beauregard. Because after giving the public a shock by turning Henry Fonda into a bad man, Leone’s done the western icon one last favor by canonizing his legacy for a final time.

Before any of this gets perilously high-winded and overly contemplative, it should be mentioned forthright that My Name is Nobody remains an unadulterated comedy on multiple accounts. Given what I’ve said already, I’m not sure if this comes as a shock or not. But what’s even more imperative is how it’s intended to be this way.

The dialogue is pure pap. It feels generally tone-deaf and totally out of sink with some of the best images of the movie, but this is all very much in the tradition of the Spaghetti western no matter the language, locale, or subject matter. It’s telling the only actor who actually dubbed himself was in fact, Henry Fonda. Again, he’s given the ultimate deference and his audience probably expects nothing less.

I’m also no music man, but there are elements of Ennio Morricone’s compositions here — the man who wrote the book on the Spaghetti soundtrack — seeming to gleefully parody himself. The interludes during the title credits are merry and gay literally popping with an almost sickening buoyancy. Later, it devolves into a melding of Wagner and chanting chorale arrangements that can only hearken back to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

Here we get our first look at Terence Hill. He’s a vagabond who catches fish with his bare hands. This too builds off the same persona he had in They Call Me Trinity. He’s the anti-Eastwood if we can call him that — bearing a convivial manner — though equally adept when it comes to gunslinging.

Since there is no Bud Spencer, he gets Henry Fonda as his main partner in crime. Nothing against his most prolific friend and countrymen, but you’re definitely getting a different kind of picture with this change in personnel.

True, it’s hardly Fonda’s best work, but he feels strangely at peace with his surroundings and coolly confident since he’s done this so many times before. He’s not capable of going into parody in the same manner as Morricone’s score. Or if he does, it only aids in burnishing his already established legend.

Because he has a pedigree with forging the West you never had in a movie like They Call Me Trinity, though it shared some tonal similarity thanks in part to Terence Hill’s quick drawing ne’er do well. Fonda manages some amount of grandeur in a movie that otherwise is happily preoccupied with slapstick and scatological humor. There’s Sam Peckinpah’s name listed on a tombstone for goodness sake! And yet Henry Fonda, that is Jack Beauregard, provides a certain level of enduring gravitas to the proceedings.

It functions relatively effectively because Nobody (the name of Hill’s character) idolizes the older gunslinger so much. He makes us believe in him even as many of us bring our own history with Fonda to the movie already. The younger gun can best be described as a historian of Jack Beauregard and better yet a fanboy. He knows all about his exploits and has followed him from his earliest days.

He’s a peculiar sort of figure. At once, seeming to jostle for the spotlight and dog the renowned fighter, and at the other end, trying to grow his acclaim. He wants people to remember Beauregard as the larger-than-life figure he was in real life on countless occasions. But he also wants the man to go out by living up to his expectations. He can only do this by facing off with The Wild Bunch, a pack out of outlaw roughriders at least 100-strong.

The fun and games of the movie happen at a bustling carnival. Nobody takes the time to shoot a stilt walker down to size and pie a fat-headed vendor. He’s equally game for some gunplay in the saloon showcasing both his tolerance for alcohol and his uncanny sharpshooting.

All of this feels like an audition for a bout with Beauregard. Because the whole movie they toy with their adversaries, whether it’s in a funhouse, over bombs, or dynamite. Nobody ably turns some of his playthings into bobo dolls and runs off with a train filled with gold after staring down the engineer in a urinal. Yes, this really happens.

But of course, the movie is never about rivalry and this is how it sidesteps the usual trope others will remember from The Gunfighter or I Shot Jesse James, et al. In the final stand we have The Wild Bunch kicking up a dust storm in a face-off against a solitary, bespectacled Henry Fonda at the ready with his shotgun. He’s kept his part of his bargain, for the sake of his legacy and his ever-present shadow has provided him a fitting piece of assistance.

Although I have little call to cast aspersions on the picture, it feels like My Name is Nobody strives to be both comedy and elegy. It can never fully succeeds at either, but there are distinct elements to be appreciated. One of these is Fonda, and he goes out as a “national monument” rightfully so.

It’s not his greatest western by a long shot, but his last round in the saddle puts a fitting denouement on Fonda’s career adding its own addendum to the kind of Liberty Valance mythos or the cyclical lineage of toxic gunfighters. The pronouncement “Nobody shot Jeff Bearegaurd” maintains its double meaning. Sometimes myths aren’t bald-faced lies. They can also be acts of willful preservation and frankly, peace of mind.

In My Name is Nobody, there’s a warm jocularity to it all, down to the very last shot. It’s an accommodating movie, and although this keeps it from being totally profound, that’s okay.

3.5/5 Stars

They Call Me Trinity (1970)

When I was living abroad it was one of my European friends who first introduced me to Terrence Hill and Bud Spencer. I had never heard of them and was anxious to learn something about the duo. Regardless of what their names imply, both men are Italians with aliases befitting American action heroes.

They Call Me Trinity is one of their most lucrative pairings together, and it fits into the historical narratives I know well. It is a spaghetti western a la Leone or Corbucci, but it was made with deeply comic inflections.

We all know the laconic heroes: Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” or Bronson’s “Harmonica.” Hill seems to be one of their ilk, although he can be found lounging lazily on a litter pulled by his horse. He proceeds to get up and walk into the nearest cantina looking half-naked as he scarfs down a skillet of beans and drains a bottle of booze with a hearty belch. It’s the kind of showing that draws the curiosity of all bystanders. He represents a different kind of temerity — totally comic in nature. It helps he’s also ludicrously fast on the draw.

If he’s one source of easy laughs, the other is his brother played by Spencer, a sheriff in a nearby town at odds with some of the locals. It doesn’t help he’s got one of their buddies held prisoner. Bambino, as he’s called, showcases some farcical gunplay and superhuman brawn, wiping the floor with anyone who dares challenge him. Also, he’s not too pleased to see his blood relation, who quickly turns the showdown into a spectator sport.

Beyond their sibling rivalry, Trinity is just the man who could let everyone know Bambino is actually an escaped convict and not a true sheriff; he stole the job from the real man while he bides his time waiting for his cronies. None of this is of great importance

It must be said that the sense of reality is always strained to the nth degree in these Italian western pieces, normally shot in Europe with international casts, copious amounts of dubbing for various audiences, and any number of anachronistic flourishes. The dubbing is so prevalent it becomes an artistic decision more than a purely merchandising one. It’s part of the charm of the Spaghetti western and Trinity gladly soaks in this tradition.

The eponymous hero calls on his brother’s sense of propriety to help a clan of defenseless Mormons, whose pious hospitality is brutalized by Mexican marauders who might as well be under the commission of a corrupt landowner (purportedly Farley Granger) intent on pushing the migrants out.

Trinity is rallied to their cause by two bodacious Mormon daughters (Gisela Hahn and Elena Pedemonte) and Bambino reluctantly takes part thanks to their fine stock of horses. He might be able to gain something out of the arrangement. When his friends do arrive, they start instructing the righteous people on how to defend themselves and fight their battles.

They make their final stand, and it’s full of kinds of cathartic poundings and pummelings of the enemy. The good guys put up a valiant fight. It’s not quite The Magnificent Seven, but it has an ending worthy of its own characters.

From time to time, it’s a pleasure having heroes like these who feel a bit like a reincarnation of Laurel & Hardy for the buddy, western, action movie era. Bud Spencer as a bit of an indestructible hulk with an irascible temper. Hill as the handsome rapscallion who’s more than easy to root for.

They would follow up this success with many more — some westerns and then other pairings taking advantage of all the crazes taking over the international movie industry. I was introduced to them in Miami Supercops, which indubitably ripped off a handful of Miami Vice episodes and any number of cop shows being released in the ’70s and ’80s.

Here you have a great deal of the charm in Hill and Spencer. The Spaghetti Western was a hit in how it took the American conventions and gave them a facelift through pastiche and violent homage. It sounds like a formalistic mess and in many ways, it is, but that’s also part of the charm.

3/5 Stars

The Hired Hand (1971)

It’s true that Peter Fonda comes out of a western tradition of sorts, which is merely an indication of his family’s presence in the film industry. Obviously, one of his father’s identifying genres was the western, and he worked with some of the greats from John Ford to Sergio Leone.

Films like My Darling Clementine have become the bar with which to evaluate future generations. Then, Peter’s older sister, Jane, of course, tried her hand with the wildly popular Cat Ballou. It’s not high art, but there’s a great deal to appreciate between her gallivanting around and the drunken histrionics of Lee Marvin.

However, with The Hired Hand, Peter starred and directed a western of a very different breed. There’s a hallucinatory quality to the movie suggesting it’s not too far removed from Monte Hellman’s acid westerns of a few years prior. It’s composed mostly of images swimming in the restless score of Bruce Langhorne.

We already have Warren Oates and Peter Fonda, and it’s obvious the genre is funneled through the vision of the counter-culture that brought us pictures like Easy Rider and even Two-Lane Blacktop. In some of his earliest feature film work, Vilmos Zsigmond provides a casual, unsentimental sense of the landscape fitting the overall canvass developed by both the editing and score.

In their passing dreams, floating just out of reach, the California coast acts as a kind of far-off oasis for the three drifters staked out by a river bed. I couldn’t help thinking of generations before. Peter’s father as Tom Joad headed to California and faced his own brand of disillusionment with the dream packaged for him. Expectations didn’t meet reality.

Peter Fonda is besieged by the discontentment and malaise of his generation, but if we recall The Grapes of Wrath maybe this youthful sense of Sehnsucht, while morphing and evolving, is not totally lost or forgotten. It’s only reimagined in new forms and under new banners.

After days without bathing and nights without a warm bed, they roll into a town. But it’s not much better than the backcountry they’ve been frequenting. At any rate, it’s hardly the picture of civilization.

The film remains mostly a sullen affair plagued by death, but not just physical death, the death of joy or adulation in any sort of quality life. It starts grappling with the life of a drifter — the camaraderie of saddle buddies — and the solace of a settled home life. Because Harry Coilings didn’t always live this peripatetic existence. Once he was married. Funny how he never mentioned it before to his companions, but then again, the overwhelming emptiness in his heart has made him crave something different. So he and Arch pay a visit to his former missus.

Warren Oates has gained some welcomed acclaim since his death as a kind of cult favorite, but in The Hired Hand there’s something especially welcomed about him. He’s congenial and faithful, a source of affability in a movie that is mostly lacking in any kind of generosity toward its audience. Fonda gives us nothing. Verna Bloom has nothing to give because her character has learned to insulate herself. And there’s really no one else to offer any kind of condolence.

The film’s barely a meditation on marriage. There’s hardly time to build this into something substantive nor entirely profound, but we do have a sense of this male camaraderie. And suddenly it gives the movie a central question. Fonda must reconcile this relationship, one that has stayed with him for years on the lonely roads, with that of a distant wife who never expected him to show his face again. Whether he totally acknowledges them, they are both of great importance to him.

At first, I mistook the finale — a giant bloody shootout — for a pointless exercise. What good does it do? Very little aside from bludgeoning us with a bleak view of the world. However, it does speak to a man’s vow of friendship. While other elements of this western are irrevocably different from the past, there’s some small amount of stability in such a simple trait as this. Is this stupid courage like the screenwriter Bill Goldman enthused about? Probably.

It’s also a glimmer of something laudable speaking to the exact same listless despondency an entire generation was looking to grapple with from Easy Rider to Five Easy Pieces. This alone doesn’t make it a superior western, simply by having a muddied, unadorned sense of the world. But Peter follows in the footsteps of his dad and sister to leave his own impression on a deeply American genre.

3/5 Stars