A Special Day (1977) with Loren & Mastroianni

a special day.jpgThe film opens with newsreel footage delivered to us in an undoctored format effectively presenting us a view into the past. It is the momentous (some would say fateful) day Adolf Hitler made his triumphant visit to see Benito Mussolini in Italy.

The year is 1938. And it has all the pomp, circumstance, military exhibitions, and blind nationalism one comes to expect with such historical depictions. Director-screenwriter Ettore Scola elects to give us the past instead of totally constructing a version of it. Because that is not what his film is about.

Even to consider Fellini’s farcical take on fascism in Amarcord, complete with swooning beauties and talking Mussolini faces in flowers, A Special Day couldn’t be more divergent. It works and operates in a much smaller more confined space, serving its purposes just fine. As the movie itself opens, we are immediately met with the most confounding of palettes — an ugly clay-colored hue — hardly the best for drawing on fond memories. In fact, it’s utterly unappealing.

This is not a criticism, mind you, because the pervading drabness is another calculated creative decision. What it provides is a very concrete articulation of the world. Furthermore, without committing to the broader context, Scola is able to focus his attentions on one building.

So yes, there is this huge cultural event with a gravitational pull dragging everyone out of the house in droves to celebrate with patriotic fervor. Everyone wants to see the Fuhrer and Il Duce for themselves. But this is all pretense, again, serving the smaller, more intimate scale of the film. It’s for the best.

Not totally unlike Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the housing complex becomes a limiting factor, but also a creative asset. The architecture and space evolve into something worth examining in itself. Within its confines, our two protagonists are thrown together thanks to an escaped myna bird. One is a long-suffering housewife (Sophia Loren) forced to stay at home while her family enjoys the festivities. She’s a middle-aged Cinderella with all the youthful beauty sucked out of her.

Her husband (an oddly cast and dubbed John Vernon) is an arrogant party supporter and all her six children are either brats or too young to know any better. Her station as a mother and wife feels totally underappreciated, even dismissed.

The other forgotten person she happens to meet is a radio broadcaster (Marcello Mastroianni), unwittingly diverting him from an attempt at suicide. Because the current regime has no place for subversive naysayers like him on the national airwaves.

There’s a questioning of whether or not there’s enough for a film to develop. Can it hold on and keep us on board for over an hour? Given everything so far, it’s a no-frills scenario. There’s not much to work with, and success in itself seems like a tall order. Thank goodness we have the likes of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. The promise of having them together is a worthy proposition and in this case, it hardly disappoints.

If you’ve only seen them in their star-studded, glamorized roles, prepare to be astounded. Loren could never look completely dowdy, but there’s definitely something forlorn about her. She carries it off quite well. Likewise, Marcello, normally a suave fellow, still has his prevailing moments of charm, but he too is equally subtle.

At least in the case of Loren, it seems like Hollywood only ever saw her as a screen goddess with an accent, and thus cast her in roles catering to that predetermined persona. And yet in her native Italy, in a movie like Two Women (1961) or her in A Special Day, it’s as if they gave her the freedom and the trust to stretch herself and really prove who she was as a bona fide actress.

The little doses of magic they drum up together carry scenes and if you’ve ever seen any of their movies, the intuitive chemistry coursing between them is, by now, almost second nature. Dancing steps of the rhumba to the cutouts on the floor. For one single moment, a saucy tune drowns out the choruses of a fascist regime.

Later she tries to quickly style her hair in the bathroom as he bungles grinding the coffee and sweeps it under the rug like a sheepish schoolboy. Or he makes his valiant attempt at fixing the lamp over the kitchen table that always leaves Antonietta bumping her head. These are the lighter notes.

But if these are the distinct instances of near frivolity, then A Special Day is about so much more on a broader scale. It casts an eye on a society that deems women as totally auxiliary in both intelligence and importance.

Likewise, one is reminded about the institutionalized hatred including vitriolic prejudice against homosexuals. Where people have lost their image and are merely cogs in a political, faux-religion of the state. Not everyone fits in. Gabriele even exhibits a touch of mild insurrection to the state by not abstaining from using the banned “lei” instead of “voi” when addressing others, as the former was seen as too effeminate by Italy’s fearless leader.

If not totally radical, the relationship at the core of this movie feels countercultural, even as it probably taps into the basic longings of many. In some strange, miraculous way they understand one another, unlike anyone they ever have before.

It’s how the film is able to be an empathetic portrait of humanity. Never has it been more evident that understanding can exist anywhere and between anyone in the most unusual of circumstances. So by the time the day’s festivities are winding down and the crowds rumble back in, the two kindred souls part ways to their separate ends of the courtyard, and yet there’s no way not to think about one another.

Gabriele starts packing up to be shipped off and deported because Mussolini’s regime is no place for a man like him. Antonietta puts together dinner for her family — all the normal duties required of her — existing once more as the silent life force behind the entire household. Her mind can’t help but wander to the only person who seems to know her, just as one’s eyes can help but glance at the light he helped fix only hours before.

He takes one final survey of his apartment, his room goes dark, and he’s escorted out of the courtyard, quietly, without any fanfare. The wide void between their apartments has never felt greater. It is the antithesis of a Rear Window ending.

After a few moments of leafing through The Three Musketeers — the book he gifted her — she wanders off to bed and follows suit by turning out the light. Darkness overtaking the day in the never-ending rhythms of life.

If it wasn’t apparent already “a special day” is meant to elicit two connotations. The state would have you believe the sights of Hitler, Mussolini, and grand feats of military might are the type of memories you won’t soon forget. Perhaps they’re even worthy of telling your children about someday.

However, for others, “a special day” means something far more. It has to do with empathy and truly knowing someone and being known like you’ve never been known before. For isolated people in a callous and lonely world of monotone, it’s so much more than all the bells and whistles at a parade. In its own unassuming way, A Special Day is a heart-wrenching love story to the nth degree.

4/5 Stars

Amarcord (1973): Life is a Carnival

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The most magical moments of Federico Fellini’s Amarcord occur at the very beginning and near the end. First, when the puffballs flutter through the air as a sign of spring and then, later, when a soft layer of powder signifies the advent of winter.

It’s a reminder of nature, of seasons, of how life is made up of rhythms, from beginning to end. If you live in California you miss out on that kind of tangible expression of life. You cannot capture the lyrical quality as the Italian maestro captures them over his vignette-driven spectacle with the aid of editor Ruggero Mastroianni.

Part of the reason I loved living abroad — in Japan specifically — there was some sense of the seasons, the utter sereneness of new-fallen snow, and a word to describe the wistfulness that often goes along with nostalgia and the lasting impression of memories (“Natsukashii”).

Fittingly, “Amarcord” is a provincial Italian expression for “I remember,” and this film is full up on quaffs of nostalgia and playful observation from the always lively creative reservoirs of Fellini. You cannot acknowledge the satire of his film without appreciating the affection embedded within it. They are closely related. Because even as you see all the faults and foibles, you cannot help but cast a sympathetic eye on these imbeciles — at least the lovable ones.

If someone else did it, you would get the sense of something mean-spirited, but when it’s your own people and your own way of life, somehow it comes off as not only humorous and perceptive but surprisingly warm.

The pacing is free; the scenes as loose as can be. Our only real markers of change are the aforementioned seasons. Around them, we get to know people. Spring means puffballs but also the local burning of an effigy on a giant bonfire to bring in the new season, complete with firecrackers and festivities.

School life is a lark full of windbags and crotchety oddballs who obliviously try to impart knowledge to their pupils on the highest arts. Their study regimen includes Greek, mathematics, the frescoes of Giotto, ancient history, the relation between church and state in Mussolini’s society, and so on. Each is a lost cause.

Around the dinner table, Mama and Papa Biondi have raging fits in what we might deem typical Italian fashion. They’re constantly bickering and scolding the bambinos for every infraction. In some upside-down manner, it’s a sign of their love and concern.

It’s true the town’s adolescent population, including their son Titta, get up to all sorts of dirty tricks, languishing in their fantasies, and going to confession only out of duty to their parents. There’s nothing contrite about it. Perhaps they don’t know any better.

You can make this argument judging from more general observation. Through Fellini’s lens, a fascist nation under Mussolini is often ridiculous. Flirtatious “Bellas” like the town hairdresser Gradisca (Magli Noel) swoon with nationalistic fervor at rallies, races, Grand Hotels, and the triumphant passage of the SS Rex — a vessel of national pride. That is until it capsizes all the beaming onlookers in their dingies.

One is reminded life is simpler and full of everyday peculiarities. Take Uncle Teo who gets a day on the town, outside of the mental institution, only to spend most of it barricaded up a tree, proclaiming how he wants a woman. One can only imagine it must be a lonely, dreary place on the inside. Then, there are snowball fights in the streets with the paths carved out of the snowpack and Gradisca a perfect target for all the gamely youth.

Nino Rota’s score accentuates so much mood, so much atmosphere, adding to the visual carnival, like a jaunty march and it is, taking us through time and sending us to places all over the little town.

On this grand scale, I’m inclined to like the idea of Fellini’s carousel of images, at least more than the particulars. This whirling, lively, rendition of life in its march of time speaks to so much about existence itself. The themes of looking back at the old ways — with nostalgia — but then also picking apart where we’ve come from to see the flaws and the idiosyncrasies. Some worthwhile, others worth stripping away and dismissing.

One of the most alarming takeaways is just how bawdy Italian culture is. Now it’s nothing new, but we are reminded of uncomfortable truths. Like the fact, Gradica is the ravishing eye-candy for every leering male in town, young and old. It speaks to so much about the male heart and mind, obsessed as it seems to be with women as commodities.

Eventually, Gradisca finds a man, her “Gary Cooper,” and we don’t have much inclination if he’s worthy of her or not. Still, it signals a change. Her wedding is a joyous Italian affair, but it also signs the beginning of the end. It’s as if, when she goes, along with her goes all the trimmings of their youth.

I am reminded of one moment when Grandpa is wandering around aimlessly in the fog. He’s not exactly a saint either. Regardless, he loses his way and laments the fact there are no trees, no people, no birds, no wine. If this is death, he’s not one for it. The situation solves itself easily enough when a carriage rattles by, and he’s found to be right outside his house.

Could this be Fellini’s way to comment on the situation and then temper it so quickly? Because a lot of the characters in Amarcord seem to be caught in this oblivious sort of fog. The greatest tools at Fellini’s disposal are merriment, humor, and even vulgarity to try and defuse situations, whether about love, death, politics, religion, whatever it is. And it’s a relatively effective form of satire a lot of the time.

However, every once in a while you remember it can only get us so far. The “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” mentality, doesn’t quite fill one up with assurance. At least it’s not lasting. Because whether we like it or not, time is always high-stepping onward regardless of whether we’ve made peace with it or not. The turning of the seasons signify life and also death. No one feels that more than Titta. That’s what he’ll remember. Only time will tell if it gets any easier.

3.5/5 Stars

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Sophia Loren is an extraordinary treasure of the cinema. We know her from numerous Hollywood pictures but there’s something especially gratifying about hearing her in her mother tongue. It’s not that she is necessarily less herself in a picture like Houseboat, speaking English dialogue, but we can take it in the opposite way.

Seeing her in a film like this, with such a reputable director like Vittorio De Sica, in her native Italy, adeptly pulls us into the searing drama. It feels like we are seeing more of her. Because the beauty of emotions through cinema is the very fact they can speak to anyone from any nation, regardless of time or place. So it is with Two Women.

Though quite young to play a mother, Loren is, nevertheless, more than up to the task, emotionally exuding a fierce maternal strength in the face of everything. She’s not afraid about calling out certain men as pigs for their leering ways and forward behavior.  In fact, it seems highly prevalent behavior, troubling as it is to admit. Along the road, the relationship between mother and daughter is paramount and it evolves as they are burnished together. Eleanora Brown is only 11 years of age and yet she too, like her onscreen mother, is endowed with a maturity, a presence, far beyond her years. They carry the screen together.

However, Vittorio De Sica’s film is simultaneously a portrait of Italy during the war with Cesira (Loren) trying to eke by a living with her daughter Rosetta, away from Rome. They make the trek to the countryside to escape the destructive onslaught of Allied bombs. We begin to see war with a human face where goodness is maintained in the face of evil. For instance, she relents and gives aid to two stranded Englishmen, sharing a meal and a bottle of wine together cordially. They reciprocate some of the hospitality that has been extended to them by local families.

From all I know of Jean-Paul Belmondo as an unorthodox anti-hero for Godard and Melville, he seems somehow miscast for this role, completely disregarding the fact he’s not Italian. His Michelle is an enlightened man of intellect denoted by spectacles. He welcomes the change coming in the waning days of war and rebukes the people for being more dead than Lazarus. Not even Jesus Christ can resuscitate them he says. It seems a harsh indictment.

We can also hear Cesira counting sins and trying to decipher how children fit into the insanity of war. Because there’s little doubt war is exactly that. Planes continually dropping bombs from the skies overhead. Emaciated German soldiers demanding food at gunpoint and a hostage guide to lead them toward freedom. Finally, American forces move in with their liberation party riding in on their tanks and the mood lifts.

Thus, it’s a war film with soldiers of all different stripes and allegiances, but vastly more importantly it regards the lives of the laypeople and folks affected by the outcomes of such a global conflict. It is their homes and their families that are torn asunder. Their bodies are in need of nourishment. They are the ones in constant danger of becoming collateral damage.

It’s a disheartening form of whiplash sending us into so many conflicting fits of emotion. From the highest elation down to the mundane and finally heightened senses of fear and suffering. Humans should not be subjected to such extremes.

Two Women (1961): Sophia Loren in Her Mother Tongue

Then, comes the scene you hear whispers of when anyone mentions Two Women and it’s true there is certainly a “before” and “after” effect from such a life-altering experience. All we can do is look on helplessly as the two travelers are overpowered by soldiers looking on lecherously, almost giddy with delight. The rest we understand implicitly. In the moment, it almost feels comical and ghoulish; it’s bitterly ironic these egregious acts are committed in a deserted church building of all places.

What is most piercing is the immediate aftermath because there is no way to disregard or forget what has just occurred. It is apparent in the eyes, the overwhelming despondency — the broken spirits of both mother and daughter.

They are left behind clinging to their bodies, clothes torn to shreds. There is no classical element like the Rape of the Sabine Women. It is all a facade, a galling lie. Rosetta becomes almost catatonic due to the horrible shock. Again, so much dwells within their eyes, going unspoken, hidden behind their glazed expressions. It is deeply unfeeling to simply label them two more casualties of an unjust war. Instead of putting words to it, the greatest form of agency is to allow us the opportunity to try and sympathize with them as closely as possible.

Sophia Loren is a reverred sex symbol and yet we cannot observe her in this light without also acknowledging the brokenness found widespread across culture. Where women are objectified, ogled, and desired. Where something sacrosanct like romantic love is trampled over for something cheaper, easier, and completely licentious.

Surely it’s within the context of war where these unspeakable things happen but still there is no excuse. The way the women are treated in this film is painfully devastating. Yes, Michele is lost, families are torn apart, and so much more, but this one incident is emblematic of it all. It’s one sign of so many other underlying issues with humanity.

The beauty of De Sica is the fact he never seems to be trying to capitalize on any amount of drama. He was a master of steeping us in very real emotions so we can better understand the plight of others not so different than ourselves.

I spoke earlier of a classical painting and somehow when the camera slowly pulls away from a mother with her child cradled in her arms, this unmoving portrait evoked the Pieta for me.  Fitting for a tradition steeped in religious imagery of the crucifixion. But it goes beyond the love of a mother for her child. Anyone familiar with the story knows that it revolves around a purportedly perfect individual’s undying love for the imperfect.

Michelle chides the townsfolk for being more dead than Lazarus. Perhaps even his own death cannot shock them back to reality but that does not mean there cannot be some semblance of hope left over. Love and resurrection; these things are still possible for those with hope and faith.

4/5 Stars

Tristana (1970)

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In the Hebrew Pentateuch, the Levitical law lays out a framework of precepts quite clearly that the people were meant to follow. One iteration can be paraphrased like so: If a man marries both a woman and her mother it is perversion. There must be no wickedness among you.

Doing a once over of the Spanish elite Don Lope (Fernando Rey), we see in him a man who came out of nobility and nevertheless lives a fairly humble life for the very fact that he’s never held a day job. He’s upper class by title and pretense only. Subsequently, his moral makeup is very much the same as he nobly provides a home for an orphaned ingenue (Catherine Deneuve).

Like his status, it is nearly all for show. It’s under the pretense of charity and the guise of a gentleman that he takes in the young Tristana, still in mourning following her dear mother’s death. Don Lope touts himself as a gallant defender of the weak and undoubtedly sees himself as a dying breed of man. Still, as his devoted housekeeper, Saturna remarks, when it comes to women he’s got horns and a tail. It’s hardly a secret.

We note the times in Spain during the 1920s or 30s. It is an irreligious generation as reflected in the deterioration and lack of importance placed in the church bell tower which used to be crucial to the daily rhythms of people’s lives. Now they’re too distracted by other pleasures.

Don Lope for one, does not concern himself with issues of money. Haggling is of great distaste to him. Instead in the quiet corridors of some great cathedral, he asks Tristana for a clandestine kiss. It’s the root of his perverse desires. Afterward, he makes troubling statements like, I’m your father and your husband and he seems to wholeheartedly believe them.

So despite the presence of Deneuve, in some respect, the narrative is more akin to Viridiana (1961) than Belle de Jour (1967) with Rey once more involved in a romantic tryst where he seems to be the main proponent of the relationship.

His spiritual beliefs come down to a few basic points including the assertion that Jesus was the first socialist and that the real priests are the men who look after the weak, fighting against hypocrisy and the powerful. He’s not altogether wrong but the words prove ironic coming from his lips. Because we know full well his own seemingly incongruent behaviors.

Still, it’s too true that we can equally criticize the advice of the local priest. However benevolent he might be, his words to Tristana stands in the face of what seems to be inherently right. He knows full well what Don Lope has done and yet he does next to nothing to protect the girl. All he can entreat her is to stay with him because he seems to have changed and treats her well enough.  That is all.

Fernando Rey’s character is obviously problematic to grapple with even if the performance itself is of merit. Because he’s this baffling mixture of old-fashioned values which give the pretense of respectability and honor. He’s not outrightly despicable, masking his indiscretions well. Perhaps because in his own mind’s eye these are hardly sins at all.

In realizing this we’ve come to what’s most problematic about him. Because he’s created his own code, in a sense, since there is no universal moral code that he falls back on. He is a strict adherent to moral relativism. You see, usually religious people, people who grew up in faith have something to check themselves with — Levitical law for instance.

Far from being legalistic, grace was in theory supposed to accord adherents the ability to forgive others but also be forgiven and live in complete freedom if they were penitent. But Don Lope can’t be troubled with religiosity, the commandments, and dos and don’ts of the church are all he sees. They seem so restrictive. Undoubtedly because most of the people living by them misinterpret their intentions and as a result carry on repressed even harshly ascetic existences. And yet in disregarding the same, Don Lope’s own “morals” cause him to step over accepted boundaries.

Thus, his relationship with Tristana from the day he betrays her innocence is forever tainted. And there is no grace there and no sense of repentance as if he actually did nothing wrong, and so he doesn’t really change. It only serves in making his victim more bitter by the hour.

Rey’s performance might be the most crucial but being partial to Catherine Deneuve there’s no question that her transformation from a young grieving woman of such pure naivete is striking. Because she’s so innocent only to become tarnished by Don Lope’s behavior. She’s a far cry from the woman she arrived in his home as — both physically and mentally. It’s taken its toll.

She is plagued by morbid dreams but Bunuel has gotten a great deal more subtle with his surrealist diversions skillfully weaving them into the framework of reality with seamless aptitude. There are individual moments that you don’t realize are actually dream-like until the bubble has burst and you’re out of them.

So the film utilizes a fairly straightforward narrative for Bunuel but that must be taken with a grain of salt. Because it’s contorted along the same lines of subversion and social norms that the Spanish director is usually fond of lambasting with his typical iconoclastic verve. It’s not always blatant in this picture but still evident.

Ultimately it becomes a story of revenge as Tristana finds love with another man (Franco Nero) and yet still feels trapped by Lope. As a result, her heart grows hard and full of resentment toward the old man who ruined her. To return the favor, she is all but ready to ruin him. It’s a lovely sentiment.

In reading some over the career of Luis Bunuel I’ve realized the correlation between him and Alfred Hitchcock in a couple areas. First, they were very much visual filmmakers who knew what they were shooting before they ever got on set. The movie was already inside their heads and made. They simply needed to use the actors and equipment at their disposal to get it done.

Furthermore, thematically since they both had a Catholic background and a slightly sardonic wit, you often see touches of those sensibilities throughout their pictures. Hitchcock in the likes of Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), also considered themes of sexual obsession and deep-seated vices which Bunuel held a similar preoccupation with. I’ve always held a preference for “The Master of Suspense” but I must still pay my deference to the latter as a tirelessly inventive filmmaker who proved to have remarkable longevity.

4/5 Stars

Review: 8 1/2 (1963)

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Is the subject of this film a religious one? – A Religious Leader 

Yes, well, in a manner of speaking. – Guido

It famously opens with a dream. Our main character stuck in a silent traffic jam, completely disillusioned by the scene around him until he’s able to escape everything inhibiting him and soar into the upper echelons of the atmosphere. But it hardly lasts. Soon he finds himself tethered, being brought back down to earth.

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Our protagonist of sorts turns out to be Guido (the famed Italian icon Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who is going through a spell of director’s block. His most recent activities include an extended stay at a luxury spa at the behest of his doctors. It’s also early on in the film that someone asks him if his next film is also going to be one devoid of hope. It’s a very quick statement but in some sense, it sets the groundwork for Fellini’s entire film.

And it is a very personal film and a fascinating exploration of the art of filmmaking — the thing making it the most compelling is the strange suspicion that parts of Fellini himself dwell inside of Guido. Perhaps Guido shares a bit of his philosophy and stance or more precisely Fellini is like his main character.

The film within a film soon becomes evident and in that sense, it’s also a personal picture. Its title being derived from the number of pictures the Maestro had directed thus far. And numerous meta qualities come to the fore, most obviously when Guido is going through the screen tests his producer (Guido Alberti) and wife Luisa (Anouk Aimee) among those viewing the proceedings.

But going back to that issue of hope, the film’s finale has always been striking to me but I realized that it takes on new meaning put in the context of higher issues altogether. In some respects, Guido or Fellini, whichever you prefer, is trying to derive some sort of higher meaning, whatever that means to him.

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That’s in part why he has his legions of characters join hands in an almost communal dance of absurdity. Simultaneously, a journalist can be heard throwing his questions out, “Are you for or against eroticism?” and in the same breath, “Do you believe in God?” Because this is Fellini’s answer — the solution he has drawn up for himself. There is a sense of grandiose absurdity which is full of dreamscapes — where the distinction between reality and fantasy hardly means anything. Because in the eye of the beholder they are hardly different.

On purely a level of spectacle, it’s indubitably a fascinating set-up. Fellini is known for his quintessential style. To be Felliniesque is to be wrapped up in the surreal and the fantastic. But the philosophical conclusions that go hand in hand with such a provocative approach to film are rather disheartening. If this is part of what Fellini is trying to grapple with as it pertains to love and ultimate truth then 8 1/2 does fall back on a rather dismal ending.

As Guido explains to the man of the cloth, he is looking for some flash of understanding, some obvious moment of truth, like Saul at Damascus. He, like all his peers, carries the foundations of a Catholic upbringing. The religious authorities tell them that there is no salvation outside the church. His strict Catholic school told him what was wrong. Likewise, Guido plans to have a spaceship in his next film — humanities “new Noah’s Ark.” And it’s true that space exploration has been the final frontier, a beacon of potential hopes and truths. You see that in later works like 2001 and Solaris.  However, Noah’s Ark was also a vessel to escape destruction as much as it was a ship of exploration.

In drawing other cinematic comparisons, Fellini’s film revolves around a pointless MacGuffin (the phrase Asa Nisi Masa) rather like Welles famed Rosebud. Truthfully, this is a comedy in the same way perhaps Citizen Kane is a comedy. In a similar way, Guido seems isolated, but his mind, in particular, is twisted up with fantasies.

The most divisive scene in the film is yet another fantasy conjured up by Guido that is either extraordinary humorous or sadly indicative of his state of being depending on how you view it. He dreams himself in the stead of all the women he has crossed paths with thus far. — all ready and waiting on his whim — his personal harem of sorts — totally and completely objectified for his pleasure. Again, it’s played for truly comic effect but what are the implications?

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As the eternal beauty Claudia (Claudia Cardinale) notes, “He doesn’t know how to love.” She speaks of Guido’s protagonist but as the meta-ness suggests, this protagonist is Guido himself and going down even a layer further maybe even Fellini too. It’s precisely these problems that tie back into Guido’s disillusionment. “There’s no part in the film. And there’s no film. There’s nothing anywhere,” he says to Claudia.

Chaos and nothingness. True perfection is nothingness. His final conclusion? Life is a celebration. Let’s live it together. In essence, it’s true but the carnival showmanship and parlor tricks cannot obscure the bottom line here. As Francis Schaeffer once noted someone like Fellini “has no way to distinguish between right and wrong, or even between what is objectively true as opposed to illusion or fantasy.” That’s a terrifying world to come to terms with. During filming, Fellini supposedly kept a note on his camera to remind himself that this was a comedy film. But much like Citizen Kane, perhaps there’s a need to label it a Tragicomedy. You cannot deal with such issues without elation being matched with some amount of melancholy.

5/5 Stars

The Bicycle Thief (1948)

Enzo_Staiola_in_Bicycle_ThievesThe original title in Italian is Ladri di biclette and I’ve seen it translated different ways namely Bicycle Thieves or The Bicycle Thief. Personally, the latter seems more powerful because it develops the ambiguity of the film right in the title. It’s only until later when all the implications truly sink in.

Vittorio De Sica’s film is unequivocally emblematic of the neorealist movement.The most notable traits are the images taken straight off the streets of Rome, depressed and forlorn as they are. The setting truly does act as another character, adding a depth to the film that cannot be fabricated. You can’t fake some of these scenes either whether it’s Antonio scavenging for his bike in the pouring rain or the sheer mass of humanity that is found in places like the Piazza Vittorio.

It’s all there out in the open, with an apparent authenticity. In its simplicity, it feels like a real story with real people. This too is aided by De Sica casting non-actors in the main roles. In fact, Lamberto Maggiorani’s gaunt face is somewhat unremarkable (sharing some resemblance to Robert Duvall). Put him next to a poster of Rita Hayworth and it becomes even more evident. Still, he too feels human in a way that Hollywood stars just cannot quite pull off. It’s easy to believe him and invest in his story.

The same goes for his young son Bruno. He’s one of the cutest precocious kids you’ve ever seen, reminiscent of Jackie Coogan in Chaplin’s The Kid. But it’s also his point of view that makes this film even more tragic later on. This father-son relationship has weight to it.

And that makes Antonio’s dilemma that much more perturbing and ultimately so traumatic for the audience. De Sica’s film is so humble and yet its depths are ripe with so many universal truths and moments of sincerity.

Here is a man trying to provide for his family. His wife, his son, and his baby. Work is hard to come by in the post-war years. Any opportunity is a good one and Antonio gets that. But he needs a bike. His wife sacrifices her sheets so he can get his bike — so he can maintain their whole livelihood as a family.

That’s why it’s so crushing. Everything hangs in the balance of this unfortunate but seemingly mundane event. When Antonio’s bike is stolen it truly means tragedy because there is no lifeline, no direction to turn.

And he does his best to recover his stolen property. Going to the authorities, rounding up his friends to search for it, even tracking down the boy who undoubtedly nicked his bike, but none of it leads to a successful conclusion.

Another day finished with no hope for tomorrow, no money to bring home to his family so they can eat and live. He’s got nothing — a reality that’s made painfully obvious when he and Bruno sit down for dinner at a restaurant. They eat a meager meal as those just behind them gorge on a full buffet of courses. Bruno eyes them longingly and his father tries to lift his spirits, secretly knowing that he can never offer that to his boy.

It puts his lot into a jarring perspective, suggesting the state of the affairs in Italy. But what makes the Bicycle Thief truly timeless is not its scope or what it says on a grand, majestic scale. It’s an intimate film and perhaps the most personal story ever put to film. In a matter of a few moments, it says more with the moral dilemma of Antonio than many lesser films conjure up in a couple hours.

And because this is not a Classical Hollywood film, it does not sell out to its audience. There is no obligation to the viewer to keep them from being downtrodden — because that might rub them the wrong way and actually evoke a searing response. But there can be beauty in that and De Sica’s film is certainly beautiful for precisely those reasons.

It feels real, it feels honest, and rather than sugar coating the world, it draws up a reality that is almost as old as the world itself. So yes, this film is so-called “Neorealist” and yes, it most certainly makes good use of its contemporary setting of Rome in the 1940s. But if any film can claim timelessness Bicycle Thief might just be the best bet because at its core are the type of issues that are not unique to time, space, language, or any other man-made barrier. Every person knows what it means to steal — to battle with their conscience — upending the moral framework that guides their lives. That hasn’t changed even if the context has and that makes The Bicycle Thief continually relevant.

It ambushes us with the same emotional wallop each and every time. I mentioned Chaplin before briefly, but it didn’t occur to me until some time later that we leave our characters walking off into the sunset rather like Chaplin’s Little Tramp, except it’s a very sad sunset indeed.

5/5 Stars

Red Desert (1964)

red desert 1John Donne is noted for writing that no man is an island, but if this film is any indication, there might be a need to qualify that statement to suggest that some women are islands — at least when portrayed by the elegiac Monica Vitti. Red Desert begins with blurred images and a high-pitched piercing melody playing over the credits. From its opening moments, two things are evident. It gives off the general sense of industry and it features one of the most extraordinary uses of color ever with the blues and grays contrasting sharply with the brighter pigments.

In fact, it’s oftentimes easy to think of Michelangelo Antonioni as a filmmaker well-versed in the poetic imagery of black and white but you have only to see Monica Vitti in her green coat standing with her son like two solitary beacons, to know that he is equally fit for color. He is a master equally skilled with a new palette.

You could make the assumption that the world has become a sort of wasteland. More comic depictions of these themes are obvious in the works of Chaplin and Tati. In my own mind, a bit of Modern Times and Playtime began to float to the fore. There were bits and pieces of those films that felt like they could be analogous to what Antonioni is trying to accomplish here with his images of the industrial Ravenna. There are smokestacks, bells, whistles, factories, machines and so on.

It’s easy to quickly surmise that this is all a condemnation of the world slowly going to hell because there’s no doubt that many of the opening visuals are bland and austere. But underlying Red Desert is a stark beauty that permeates the entire landscape. Thus, Antonioni’s perspective is perhaps a lot more nuance that the viewer will even acknowledge at first.

In an interview, he once said the following, “It’s too simplistic to say—as many people have done—that I am condemning the inhuman industrial world which oppresses the individuals and leads them to neurosis. The line and curves of factories and their chimneys can be more beautiful than the outline of trees, which we are already too accustomed to seeing. It is a rich world, alive and serviceable.”

red desert 2However, even if this word does reflect its share of beauty, it is Monica Vitti’s character who still embodies paranoia and disorientation with the modern civilization. In other words, she is the one out of step with the contemporary world that she finds herself in, due in part to an auto accident and a subsequent stint in a hospital. She is struggling to readjust to reality.

And it’s no wonder that Antonioni made a string of four films with her because she has a remarkable gift at personifying all that is distant and aloof in a human being, while still bearing immense powers of attraction. In this case, it’s the visiting recruiter (Richard Harris) who is taken with her. But not even a fling with him can remedy what she is struggling through. There’s no one who can fully understand her, not even the audience.

red desert 3As per usual with Antonioni, his film invariably feels to be altogether more preoccupied with form over content and that’s what is most interesting. It’s fascinating some of the environments he develops. Atmospheres full of billowing fog, wispy trees, stark alleyways, gridiron structures and all the while the color red pops in every sequence. There’s no score in the typical sense, instead, the dialogue is backed by foghorns, machinery, and an occasional electronic sound effect.

We get a little better understanding of her psyche when he recounts a mesmerizing story to her young son about a young girl who spends her afternoons swimming in the glassy water off the coast of an immaculate island. The pantheistic fantasy she so vividly paints for him is strikingly juxtaposed with the world around her — a world she has yet to feel fully comfortable in. However, both worlds somehow seem empty.

4.5/5 Stars

L’Eclisse (1962)

leclisse3Two people shouldn’t know each other too well if they want to fall in love. But, then, maybe they shouldn’t fall in love at all.” – Vittoria

When it comes to being aloof, apathetic, and distant Monica Vitti knew no equal, and she works so marvelously against the worlds that Michelangelo Antonioni creates. Her sultry pair of eyes speaks volumes as far as sensuality and charm — making words hardly necessary. When we look at her and how she moves so indifferently through this romantic space with her former lover, it becomes all too obvious. There’s no feeling there. There’s no magic left to be tapped into. That happens with love sometimes, and it’s excruciatingly painful, even to watch.

In these opening minutes, nothing is said yet it’s hardly boring. There’s something tantalizing about sitting and waiting for some piece of exposition to come our way. Besides Antonioni’s extended shot length, a steadily smooth camera, use of mirrors, and a wonderful manipulation of the interior space to frame shots keep us constantly engaged.

leclisse5The initial scene in the stock exchange is gloriously tumultuous and it never lets up. This is the dashing young Piero’s (Alain Delon) domain that he rushes through with lithe business savvy. What this arena becomes is the quintessential Italian marketplace, a hectic theater of business made up of all kinds, involved parties and observers alike. Vittoria (Vitti) is one of those who looks on with mild interest and really throughout the entire film she is a keen observer as much as she is a person of action.

Through the mutual connection of her distraught mother, she and Piero become acquaintances. No more, no less. But we expect there to be more, because how could you waste stars like Vitti and Delon without at least a few romantic interludes? But we are made to wait patiently as they share a little contact, watch the extraction of Piero’s car from its underwater mortuary, and take a long walk.

Again, Antonioni continues with glorious panoramas, a meticulous framing of shots, and exquisite overall composition of mise-en-scene. It makes every image that comes onscreen hold merit and they stay onscreen certainly long enough for you to truly appreciate them. He’s audacious enough not to feel the need to have his figures centered in the frame, and he dances around them, placing them really wherever he pleases, but there’s still something strangely satisfying about it. Doorways, trees, pillars, heads all work nicely.

leclisse1And the narrative becomes perhaps even more tantalizing than love because it’s the prospect of romance that keeps it going. But it never seems fully realized. It’s frustrating, unfulfilling in a sense, like most of his films. Whether it’s an unsolved mystery or the most perplexing conundrum mankind has ever faced romantic attraction, he always leaves us an open-ended denouement.

There are laughs and moments of immense satisfaction, but they are transient — invariably lasting for only a very brief instant. In fact, this film’s finale is a dour twist that submerges L’Eclisse even lower than we could ever expect. With a title such as “Eclipse,” there’s a potential for foresight, but there also are very few warning signs. Then, all of a sudden, we are privy to a newspaper dotted with headlines like “nuclear arms race” and “fragile peace.” That is all.

It’s in these final moments that L’Eclisse takes a far more haunting turn than Dr. Strangelove and any of its compatriots. It just stops. No explanation. Not even a sign of our protagonists. Again, it’s that maddening ambiguity that comes with waiting out this lull. But the ultimate joke is that there is nothing after the lull. The frame literally gets darker and quieter and then everything ends altogether. There is nothing more. Enveloped in darkness, it simply ceases to be, another enigmatic visual tour de force from one of Italy’s most fascinating titans.

4.5/5 Stars

Journey to Italy (1954)

journeytoitaly1Journey to Italy is the splintering of a relationship where the slivers of bitterness begin to wedge themselves under the skin. It’s like slow, painful, nagging torture. Roberto Rossellini’s noted romance film feels like the antithesis of Roman Holiday. It avoids the other film’s bustling streets for more secluded getaways. It leaves behind fairytale romance and fun, for the bitter onset of marriage and middle-age. It seems hardly exciting, mostly driving and sitting, drinking and eating. Rather droll to say the least. And yet this in itself is juxtaposed with lively impassioned tunes and historic pieces of architecture and sculpture snuggled up against the Italian countryside. Because it is a goldmine of culture whether you look at Pompey or the remnants of the Greeks and Romans. There is a glorious history here and yet it makes for a rather meandering backdrop for our two stars Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. Again, Bergman especially was a big name (and at the time Rosselini’s lover) and though usually a supporting player Sanders was usually held in high regard. They feel like the exact inverses of Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, in a way that’s rather intriguing.

journeytoitaly2Yet again, as an audience, we do feel like tourists taking in the sights, but this time we’re riding along with a couple who don’t know what to do when they’re alone together. They don’t know what one is to say or how one is to act, because, in all honesty, they haven’t tried too hard. We don’t get much of their backstory, but they are certainly well-off because he takes his work seriously and it shows. But he hasn’t taken his marriage all that seriously and that shows too. His wife is more like his partner in this business endeavor they have going. She keeps up appearances, and he can offer her a lot in return, but hardly love.

It struck me that is a film about a faltering relationship and here is a couple that seems to be apart as much as they are together.They think that the best thing they can do is stay away from each other because no damage can be done that way. There’s jealousy, pettiness, biting sarcasm, all ready and waiting to be unleashed. Alex fosters a liking for a young Italian girl, and although Katherine doesn’t know all the details, she suspects as much from him. To combat Sander’s snide tone that can cut to the quick, Bergman counters with a thick layer of sulking.

journeytoitaly3Thus, I’m not sure about the denouement of this film. Will they stay together or get the divorce that they both seem to have come to terms with? It seems like they might possibly make things work, or is that just the work of the romantic Italian countryside around them? Because no passionate embrace can alleviate and completely overshadow their myriad of problems. They are unable to communicate on a meaningful level, and they treat each other rather poorly more often than not.

In fact, this film is an interesting study, but there is a lack of investment in these characters. After all, it’s only a quick snapshot that gives us a feel for a relationship. I’m probably partial to the similar feeling Before Midnight (2013) because we are already given two films beforehand to truly grow invested in the characters and their story. But there’s no doubt that Rosselini’s film with Bergman and Sanders is well worth the journey.

4/5 Stars

The Conformist (1970)

conformist3 I had never seen anything from Bernardo Bertolucci, but a few of his other films that came to mind were Last Tango in Paris and 1900. I was expecting some mix of The Godfather and Le Samourai set in Italy during the 1930s. In all honesty, those were the meager reference point I was going into this film with. In some respects, it felt like my first time with The Leopard or The Battle of Algiers, because I thoroughly enjoyed the films, but the history and backstory really eluded me. Not knowing the ins and outs, what was fictitious or what was reality, I was forced to strip it down. So even if I could not track with everything, I could appreciate it as a piece of cinema trying to paint a picture of a certain time and place.

That’s what Bernardo Bertolucci and his cinematographer Vittorio Storaro do so well, and it turns The Conformist into a visual delight. It can stand on that merit alone, depicting gray facades that are only an outer shell for beautifully stylish interiors, flooded with light and infused with colors and textures. The drawing rooms are luxurious and Paris and Rome become the perfect backdrop for a world that vacillates between the bleak and the decadent. It’s the clean modernization of this fascist society intermingled with the ways of old. Storaro on his part, even makes leaves compelling and a man walking down the street becomes fascinating with dutch angles and contorted perspectives. That’s just the visual side of this film.

conformist1The Conformist, at its core, is a character study of one man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who is trying to find normalcy in a 1930s Italian world that is dictated by fascism. He’s a member of the secret police, who is assigned to knock off a political dissident seeking asylum in France. The target turns out to be one of his former professors so that in itself begins a personal conflict. There is a constant clashing of the state and duty with family and kinship. But within this main objective which drives the entire story and eventually takes Marcello from Rome to Paris, there is also a lot of personal baggage to be parsed through.

Although Marcello is pursuing the professor with his comrade Manganiello, a barrage of flashbacks cast some light on the rest of his life. It develops the framework for this man, what he does, and why he does it. His mother lives in their crumbling family mansion contenting herself with the companionship of her Japanese chauffeur “Tree.” Marcello’s father is locked away in an asylum. That is his family of origin and even going back to his childhood, he was traumatized and sexually abused. Now, in the present, he tries to conduct a normal lifestyle with his fiancee Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), but when he goes to confession on her prompting, we realize how hardened he has become. His family does not seem all that important to him and religion is little more than a social structure.

conformist5And when he finally travels to Paris with Giulia, to meet with his old professor and complete his objective, that task gets complicated when he sees Anna (Dominique Sanda). Whether they know each other from before or not is ambiguous, but what’s not ambiguous are his advances towards her. It’s another weird, twisted dynamic because she knows that he is a fascist, and Marcello knows he will soon enough have to kill her husband. His wife and Quadri’s wife get along quite well. There is no animosity there, just like there seems to be no visible animosity between Marcello and his former teacher.

Murder should not enter this equation just as adultery doesn’t seem logical. Marcello even has his doubts, but again relationships, love, and family all take a back seat to the cause, just as he takes a back seat and lets everything run their course. But he cannot maintain his perfect veneer forever. There has to be a breaking point somewhere and so there is. With the fall of Mussolini, no one wants a conformist and Marcello is stuck in this gray area.

In The Godfather, since they are in America, at least they have some corrupted notion of family and religious faith. They accept capitalism although they work outside of it at times. But in The Conformist, although Marcello likes the idea of family, he really does not desire it. He falls for another woman in lieu of his wife, and yet that woman is of little concern to him when it comes to the agenda of the state. He looks for normalcy and maybe he gets it in a sense, but underneath it lies so much pain, dirt, and corruption. Just look at Marcello. He’s a repressed, misogynistic, faithless, fascist conformist. We expect him to be like Le Samourai, and he can’t even pull a trigger with confidence. He’s a pitiful, messed-up man who has been riddled with fascism. It didn’t kill him, but it might as well have.

4.5/5 Stars