The Passenger (1975): From Dust to Dust

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Jack Nicholson was awarded the distribution rights of The Passenger soon after the movie came out, and he purportedly kept it out of circulation until the 2000s. From my understanding, it wasn’t for the typical reasons. He wasn’t trying to kill it so no one would catch wind of what a debacle it was. On the contrary, in some way, he was looking to preserve its artistic integrity and keep it pristine. What better way to do this by only allowing it to exist in your memories.

These circumstances allow for an intriguing dialogue on art vs. commerce and what this means in the Hollywood landscape. Take, for instance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, released in the same year — wildly popular, an Oscar cash cow, and still well-regarded to this day.

I don’t want to make any unfair insinuations about Milos Forman’s film — it can still be art — but by sheer box office appeal, it readily fits the category of commerce. It was a highly successful film in many regards and no doubt a lot of people have seen it and enjoyed it immensely.

Whereas The Passenger is a film, also released in 1975, that probably only cinephiles have a passing interest in because it hardly has any visibility. Even as I dipped my toes into the filmography of Michelangelo Antonioni, I was made aware of all his other works from L’Avventura to Blow-up before I ever had an inkling of this movie.

But it does exist and it’s such a fascinating, understated counterpoint to the rest of Jack Nicholson’s career. You get a sense of why it would remain so near and dear to his heart even as it becomes difficult to categorize. For one thing, he plays journalist David Locke at his most sincere — normally he feels a bit disingenuous, here every action rings with a core resonance.

This in itself might be a strange remark. We meet Locke in Africa. He is following a fast-evolving story about the local liberation front. He’s conducted many interviews and promoted the revolutionaries, but there is this sense he still doesn’t know what he’s in the middle of. In earlier decades he would have been the imperialist trying to make sense of the natives. A generation after that he would have been Jake in Chinatown.

But the most curious development is this: Locke finds another foreigner dead in the adjoining hotel room. They shared a conversation earlier. Now, he looks to take on the man’s identity. It remains to be seen why he does it. Locke’s not a criminal or a spy; he’s a journalist, and yet there’s a premonition that seeing this other fellow’s life — a globetrotter, as it were — proves highly attractive. He’s not weighed down by the same regimen and responsibilities.

If you’re unfamiliar with Antonioni, the premise might sound like a precursor to Bourne or maybe an Alan Pakula paranoia thriller. However, it has none of those hallmarks. It’s never preoccupied with the narrative beats. They only seem to be there — to exist as a conduit with which to explore something else.

The movie shifts to Germany but location is far too convenient a reference point. The movie freely shifts wherever it pleases, within time frames, as a kind of exercise in fluid, stream-of-consciousness storytelling. Where the present and the past can literally crossover and play out into one another within a single scene. Prior conversations echo in Locke’s ears even as he begins globetrotting around the world.

Over time they play more like moments and memories than traditional scenes adding up to what we would consider a conventional plot. He meets with some revolutionaries and realizes he’s a gunrunner. His wife and her lover learn of his death, go digging through his interviews, and go looking for this missing person. However, it all spins together another totally elusive tale as envisioned by Antonioni. This is his whole modus operandi as a filmmaker.

Locke (or Robertson) thinks he’s being followed and he is, but there’s never a true sense of fear or dread. In fact, we don’t quite know what to feel. It could be called a mood piece or a tone poem although I’m not sure those are quite right.

These moments are plucked out of time. There’s a chance encounter in Barcelona. He casually explains to a young French student (Maria Schneider) he’s running away. She wishes him well — hopes he makes it — noting people disappear every day. Sometimes it’s just around the corner, sometimes it’s with the cut of a film, and sometimes it’s for good. In perfect cadence with Nicholson’s amiability, Maria Schneider has a pleasant forthrightness about her; she’s another creature drifting on by, made solely to exist in this world.

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It’s very rare to pull Antonioni away from the architectural landscapes he finds at his disposal because this is where he derives geometry, shapes, and with it an overarching composition for his works. Barcelona is a perfect marriage because one of its supreme talents was the incomparable Antoni Gaudi. Even a couple years of remedial art history tell us his buildings were of an unmistakable, singular design. The most startling progression is from dour Gothic interiors to these near-fantastical exteriors. Like Picasso and others like him, somehow in these shapes, or lack thereof, they derive meaning. Because how else are we going to ascribe it to our world?

It’s fitting that a movie that’s plot was incited in a hotel room should end in one as well. There’s a near-imperceptible zoom during the film’s famed denouement — peering out into the world. Up until this point, the story seldom feels chaotic as if our hero is resigned to his fate, and he has a kind of solace in it.

Luciano Tovoli’s camera magically pushes through the bars of the window to view the sandy plaza outside. It’s these tracking shots across the horizontal plane of existence I won’t soon forget opening up the world to be fuller and more immersive. In one full cycle of the camera, it’s like we see the plot and a life’s journey come to its conclusion all in one fell swoop.

Like others, I spent time deliberating over the meaning of the title. In Italy, it was known as Professione: Reporter. In English, it was changed to The Passenger. There might be numerous logical readings for both, but for me, I couldn’t get the picture of those two dead bodies lying on beds. You have to see them to know what I mean. They feel empty when they are found. Only a shell of a human being because it’s true the spirit or the life force of the person or whatever you to call it, is gone.

We are a culture rich in euphemism or closer yet metaphors. In the biblical text, Jesus gave up his spirit. Others have fallen asleep. Hamlet talks about shuffling off this mortal coil. And others have passed on. For me, this is what the title resonates with. This idea of how we are only on this earth a finite time. We are not solely defined by our body and our vocation and all these other intangibles.

It’s the spirit inside — the beating heart, the breath in our lungs, our souls — these are what make us alive as human beings. So quickly do we arrive and in another moment we are gone. In The Passenger, death is not violent. It’s only a voyage finally coming to an end.

What makes it disconcerting is the lingering alienation and dissatisfaction propagated by the world. It feels like a sullen place to be. Death as such seems like a tranquil respite. Each must decide for themselves if this holds true for them. Because surely we are not meant to live life without hope, existing in a constant state of listlessness. There has to be more.

4/5 Stars

Rocco and His Brothers (1960): An Epic Family Drama

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One immediate takeaway from Luchino Visconti’s Italian epic Rocco and His Brothers is its gorgeous, swoon-worthy black & white that’s absolutely magnificent. It shares hallowed ground with films such as The Grapes of Wrath or The Godfather where the palette does yeoman’s work when it comes to informing the drama.

At its most essential level, the movie is about a poor rural family from the South journeying to Milan to make a new life for themselves. Their patriarch is dead and now his wife (Katina Paxinou) heads up north with her four boys to reconnect with the oldest brother.

Vincenzo (Spiros Focás) is courting a dark-haired beauty (Claudia Cardinale) with thoughts of marriage once he gets steady work. Their home feels gay and bright with the roving camera capturing the full expanse of their household. It’s positively overflowing with family, and we expect nothing less.

I think some contemporary critics were disappointed by its sheen which is very un-neorealist. But it does boast its own brand of truth about family and life and love and all the constellations of emotions that we grapple with every day whilst living with other people. In this way, it shares a brand of authenticity with those earlier generations of films.

Francis Ford Coppola was certainly influenced by the picture, not only based on his hiring of composer Nina Rota but also in a more general sense in courting themes about family. It makes for a compelling ensemble telling their stories in a manner that feels totally immersive and honest to who they are as human beings. And yet it’s destined for heightened tragedy akin to Rebel Without a Cause or West Side Story.

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What a raucous opening it is; it’s spectacular with the families pitted against one another and by families, I mean the mothers butting heads, while their children are left to pick up the pieces and play peacemakers. It feels all too real. Vincenzo quickly finds himself with an angry mother and a whole pack of brothers he has to find lodging for, no wife, and still no job. Everything goes to hell in a matter of moments.

Despite its sheer expanse, Rocco and his Brothers feels simultaneously well-organized and still free to follow the whims of life. Each brother gets a chapter of sorts and yet each one bleeds into the next. They’re never obvious sections and so it feels more like poetry woven throughout a story than hard and fast rules that must be adhered to.

For the time, Vincenzo lands them a temporary place to live, somewhere they can stay on until they get evicted. It’s not a promising life, but the family does receive a couple propitious bits of luck. Newly fallen snow means work shoveling snow, and the boys wake up early, downing their mom’s piping hot coffee, as they scramble out into the early dawn to bring home some bacon as it were.

Because it becomes a story of each brother exercising their worth. They are valued by the manner in which they are able to provide bread money to the family unit. Rocco (Alain Delon) bumbles his way around a dry cleaner weathering all the young ladies teasing with a good-natured stoicism. Ciro goes the sensible route, conducting his schooling so he can land a suitable job at the local Alfa Romeo factory.

Simone (Renato Salvatori) fancies the idea of joining the local boxing gym as a chance at some easy dough, and he gets the biggest break out of all of them. A trainer takes a chance on him, and he wins his first fight, despite a belligerent temper.

If these scenes are only preliminary, they provide the framework to understand our characters going forward. Simone presumedly lacks the moral prerequisites for a lengthy boxing career: a rejection of drinking, smoking, and women. Rocco is called upon to be his sparring partner and his guardian.

After his glorious showing for the home crowd, the brothers proceed to get embroiled in a street fight only to wander off with the pretty streetwalker Nadia (Annie Girardot). Simone’s behavior doesn’t bode well. Life roles onward and with few prospects, Rocco pursues his military service. It’s far from a digression. Instead, it reflects the passage of time

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Rocco is one of those enigmatic figures who watches the world and seems to see everything. Those who think he’s quiet or unfriendly, over time, come to realize he’s perceptive, carrying deep reservoirs to make the most of life and have faith in everything around him. There’s a dashing nobility to him. This becomes even more true when he returns home.

The first person he meets at a sidewalk cafe is a face from his past: Nadia. He, smartly dressed in his uniform. Conservative. She, in her sunglasses looking him over. She’s no longer with Simone — at least they drifted apart — because she was serving a prison term. In Rocco, she finds someone understanding and kind who never demeans her. She feels understood in his company. Pretty soon a subtle romance blooms between them, warm and tender.

What we haven’t taken into account is Simone. The time has changed him as well. Now he’s hardened, disgruntled, and disillusioned with his boxing career. He dedicated himself to smokes, drinks, and pool with the boys. But he’s also intent on ripping Rocco and Nadia apart. Jealousy takes hold, and it’s the stuff of melodrama. To detail it all now would be rote and a disservice.

You need to see it as he brings them down to his level with a wounded tenacity nearly as electric as anything Dean or Brando managed in East of Eden or Streetcar. Suddenly, everything that was so blissfully and right between the two lovers is besmirched. And they cannot get it back. The way the camera clings to them violently as Simone tries to advance on Nadjia feels convulsive. It’s the film’s cataclysmic event.

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In its wake, Rocco ascends in his own boxing career channeling his hatred into his rounds in the ring and shedding tears for how the harshness of the world has changed him. 

As Vincenzo settles into his own familial life, it is Ciro’s turn to respond to the fracture between his other brothers. He confronts both on his mother’s behalf, entreating Rocco, “A seed gone bad must be weeded out. After all, trees are meant to bear fruit.” However, the well-meaning boy doesn’t quite know how to apply this teaching into practice.

Rocco continues on the rise in his singular objective. Simone’s sunk into the gutter as not only a malcontent but the laughing stock of the community — his debts piling up and Nadia staying with him, partially out of malice and a promise to Rocco. It is here where the film’s editing comes front and center as the two brothers go their separate ways.

My mind is drawn to a curious interchange between mother and son as they dialogue on the self-destructive nature of the black sheep of the family:

“It’s not for us to judge him but to save him.” – Rocco

“Christ will regret the suffering he visited upon us.” – Mother

“We’re no longer under God’s grace. We’re our own enemies.”

Rocco proves himself again to be this near-otherworldly figure. He has an almost unfathomable amount of grace for others, and yet he’s prepared for penance and to take the burden and sorrow on his back. He is Christ-like and yet unable to be their savior.

It makes for a dismal denouement drained of all hope. Still, the family must pick themselves up out of the muck and the mire and make a way in life — each brother on his own path. Rocco finds his face plastered all over the news kiosks for his latest exploits. Simone has fallen into disarray. Ciro represents a certain hopefulness — what his brothers used to be, and Vincenzo is what they could have been — both settling down with families. Little Luca’s fate is yet to be decided. He’s indicative of the fight still left to be forged.

But I am left to return to my opening metaphor. Whether it’s Tom Joad or Michael Corleone, and in this case, Rocco, these are young men who made irrevocable choices in their lives from which there is no turning back.

The chasm between who they were and who they become couldn’t be more disparate and in all accounts, it has heady implications on their family unit. What they do, they do for their loved ones, and they still see everything they love crumble around them. It’s not a new concept — it’s not novel — but there’s something distinctly profound in this. Because we all experience something of the same.

My final thought is only this. It occurs to me that the Parondi brothers might all represent the seeds in the parable, falling all along the road. I’ll leave it up to you which ones will make their way through the straight and narrow and which ones will bear fruit. Because human beings are often resilient, and they are often granted second chances in life if they accept them. Perhaps they can remain under God’s grace after all or maybe it’s not for us to know.

4.5/5 Stars

Girl with a Suitcase (1961): Claudia Cardinale Shines

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It’s a slippery slope when you begin to consider the attractiveness of women in films because the conversation can get needlessly superficial. All I will say about Claudia Cardinale is that God was very good to her. But beyond her immaculate beauty, the joyous discovery of Girl with a Suitcase is unearthing a character underneath.

No, she is not playing herself, but in the figure of Aida is someone we can readily empathize with. We meet her and she’s riding in a fancy convertible with a suave young, smart-aleck named Marcello Fainardi (Corrado Pani). We watch them, and they make a handsome pair, but all the while it’s a matter of deciphering the nature of their relationship.

When he ditches her suitcase and flees back to his family mansion inhabited by his younger brother and protective aunt, it becomes all too clear. She’s been duped and he led her on, boasting about some business connection of his. It was all a ruse.

As our dramatic scenario becomes more clear, A Girl with a Suitcase suggests a premise not too far removed from Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde, both about women who seem to be victims, whether it’s of love or, more broadly, society on the whole.

Forman plays up the comedy to make his story into something, more and the same might be said of Valerio Zurlini’s earlier film. Marcello all but disappears from his movie, and it becomes framed as one of those coming-of-age stories through the eyes of a young impressionable boy. In this case, the eyes belong to Marcello’s younger brother Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin).

He vows to cover for his sibling, although he doesn’t realize the extent of it until Aida shows up on their steps, armed with her suitcase, looking for someone. Instantly he’s conflicted between his initial agreement and the pity he feels for this woman.

In one passing moment, he asks his tutor, a local priest, whether we are responsible for what our relatives do. His mathematics teacher ironically seems generally incapable when it comes to answering questions of morality. In an effort to extend the man some grace, maybe he believes a boy’s problems are never as big as they seem. It takes some perspective, and perhaps he’s right.

However, he also misinterprets the thoughts that occupy his youthful pupil’s mind. There’s an importance and a candor behind his inquiries. You can see the gears turning in his mind because he is a creature of compassion. Youth often knows no other way.

Soon he becomes Aida’s benefactor and confidante. He provides her a loan, invites her to take a bath in their mansion. What’s comforting is how there are no ulterior motives between them and so they relax and come to appreciate one another as equals and as friends.

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She in turn tells him of her unofficial fiancee. Sometimes she loves him madly. Sometimes she wants to strangle him for his ego and selfishness. She’s a singer he’s a musician, but he holds antiquated views about a woman’s place; he wants to clip her wings. She says “In art, couples don’t work,” She bemoans the men in her life. One robs me, another dumps me. Only Lorenzo extends her common decency.

I’m no musical savant but the soundtrack is a fine extension of the world with this almost tinny harpsichord quality we often associate with 18th-century drawing rooms. It’s cultured and yet set against the conversations still manages to be intimate.

She becomes more and more loquacious as he eagerly listens to everything she has to say. In the kitchen, they eat eggs and she finishes up the dishes, regaling him with her travails with a troupe of dancers. They frequented the cruddiest hotels on their circuit with nights full of conversations about hopes and dreams, careers, and future husbands. These are the most intimate of things and Lorenzo is let in. They feel a connection.

If there is anything like drama in the movie it’s generally subtle. Aida takes advantage of a big shot and dances with him at the hotel. Lorenzo watches jealous and angry with her for being so phony. Then, her boyfriend returns and it stings a bit more.

Lorenzo’s never had so many conflicted feelings welling up inside of him and so he tells Aida a white lie that might wind up hurting her. There’s a lovely moment on the steps of some museum. She is waiting in good faith. Instead, the father shows up to question her and get to the bottom of what is going on between them. Lorenzo is disconsolate. He came home drunk. Won’t study. He lies.

What can it be but something more than friendship tearing him apart? The movie does well to highlight what an ambiguous task it is to begin making sense of relational boundaries. In one sense it makes sense we do have marriage and dating to try and make sense of romance and feelings. To help us understand our emotions in a manageable context. Still, when you’re in love (and even when you get older), it is such a bewitching force.

How do we describe it? Yes, there is love between them. Is it romantic? Possibly. But there is a level of concern there proving far more genuine than we are normally used to seeing. Because youth often takes people as they are and sees the best in them when others are either dismissive or manipulative. While this is a beautiful thing, it can also lead to heartbreak. Sometimes it happens by accident.

For a good portion of the movie we almost forget about Lorenzo following Aida to the beach as she returns to her lover and then quickly finds a new one. They’re dancing in the cafe and then lounging on the beach together. She’s both obliging but not quite ready to give herself over to him. Then, Lorenzo returns and for the first time in his life, he’s prepared to make a stand to win her.

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In everything from The Leopard to The Pink Panther or even Once Upon a Time in the West, Cardinale feels more like a dressing — one element of an ensemble. She does quite well and leaves a lasting impression, but in Girl With a Suitcase, she shines all the brighter.

There’s none of the money or pretentiousness that comes with bigger productions. Granted, there’s nothing wrong with any of the aforementioned movies. I like each one of them, but here it’s different. It’s intimate and alive in its characterizations in ways those other films were never meant to be. That was not their function.

Those were always about Marcello’s story or Alain Delon’s story, Burt Lancaster’s or David Niven’s stories. This is mostly hers. By the time it’s done, we know full well she’s not just a pretty face, but a lovely personality with a beating heart.

To my knowledge, it’s the finest showcase of Claudia Cardinale’s individual talents, and she deserves to be remembered in her own right: As a supernal, full-bodied beauty, yes, but also a tender, joyous personality. She is more than a pretty face. With that beating heart come fears and desires bubbling up through her character. And she’s beautiful inside just as she is broken. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they might even be interconnected.

Lorenzo learns this truth even as he grapples with his own affections and desires. Because the ending of the movie is reasonably dismal. If you’ll pardon the liberty, I’m reminded of a phrase: Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but the girl with the suitcase has no place to lay her head. In her case, it might be partially self-inflicted though not all her own doing. The society around her exacerbates her struggles.

I’m not sure if I know an Aida personally, but I can imagine her. A woman who is used or taken advantage of, who wanders or has no one who truly wants them or loves them, so they keep on looking, keep on searching, and continue getting hurt. It’s a downbeat cycle — totally futile — and yet in the youth of Lorenzo is still a resilient hope and a prevailing decency. This is what we must cling to for the future. Otherwise, there is no possible response other than despair.

4/5 Stars

La Visita (1963): Commedia all’italiana and The Human Heart

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The premise of The Visitor is born in a rapid succession of images and shots. It’s a meet-cute correspondence so-to-speak as an attractive young woman venturing into her 30s looks to find an eligible man to invite into her home on some kind of ill-defined get-to-know-you basis.

It would not be possible without an advert in a newspaper fishing for a husband who meets certain basic qualifications. It’s not quite a blind date, but it might as well be. It somehow feels akin to the hook-up, internet, online dating culture we are awash in during the 21st century. At least, this is the 1960s alternative.

But lest one gets the wrong impression, it also feels a bit like 84 Charing Cross Road, except there is no pretense of books. They’re two lonely people looking to get together with someone for the sake of companionship. If they’ve read the Good Book, they know it’s not good for man (or woman) to be alone.

The pretty single woman, Pina, waits for the train from Rome bringing her mystery man. Sandra Milo though still her beautiful self all but transforms into a different woman than most are normally accustomed from her in anything from the director’s earlier Andua or Fellini’s 8 1/2.

If you’ve seen anything from Divorce Italian Style to Two Women, you might not be totally surprised (or scandalized) by the misogyny, but somehow it never feels right because it reflects the lustful intent in the collective hearts of men. It’s not the actions that are most troubling; it is what they suggest about society-at-large. When the colloquial name for someone is “Miss Booty,” you realize the seat of the issue.

Because as Pina brings this bookish-looking fellow named Adolfo (Francois Perier) back to her humble abode, the cringe-worthy gaze of the camera — his gaze — continues to dictate the picture. What we have before us is obviously in the mode of so-called “Commedia all’italianaor “comedy the Italian way.”

It’s the Italian spin on the sex comedy, which in Hollywood would look a bit more like Pillow Talk or at the very least Buona Sera Mrs. Campbell. And yet unlike Hollywood, there seems to be little narrative drive. The picture is contented to amble along, which can be both its greatest blessing and a defining curse.

At its best, it casts a sardonic eye at the fragilities and flaws running deep within Italian culture and certainly all its romantic dalliances. But there is a fine line between reveling in the passionate desires and simultaneously trivializing this pervasive trend in society.  There’s an effort to try and smooth it over with humor.

The quirks are present in full force. A parrot sounding unmistakably like Donald Duck and a turtle named Consuelo. Local weirdos abound including an oafish peasant ready to throw jealous temper tantrums and get any sort of rise out of the visiting Roman that he can.

Throughout their courtship, recollections coming stream back whether it’s work — the purportedly well-off bookkeeper is actually hated by his boss. They’ve also maintained relationships in a laundromat and with an itinerant truck driver, respectively, never quite finding time to talk about their former lovers. Perhaps it just slips their minds…

Dinner provides another telling arena. As the man gets more comfortable with himself, we begin to see a bit more of who he is, especially piggish, gobbling away at her dinner and relishing in all the gluttony before him to satiate his appetite. Likewise, there’s the youthful siren (Angela Minervini) tugging at him, reminiscent of Marcello’s desires for Stefania Sandrelli in Divorce Italian Style.

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Except there’s no lacquered pretense of suavity or manners —  not really. The pudgy face, bespectacled lout is precisely that and his interactions with the flaunting girl prove painful to watch. This relationship with Chiaretta comes to a head at a gathering outdoors where all the teens and adults mingle over dance. The wheels fall off the cart. Pina is hurt and feels betrayed by her now uninhibited man. It doesn’t come out immediately. Still, it’s there.

Eventually, she lashes out at him, for his arrogance, his treatment of animals, and of people, including herself. She has a point, and don’t get me wrong; he’s completely deserving of her wrath. But if he gets berated, I might be deserving of a few choice words along with most everyone else. He woefully admits that this is what happens to one living alone. We cannot condone his behavior. It’s a sorry excuse and yet…the harrowing thing is how mundane he is in his substandard treatment of others.

Can we conveniently write them off as lonely, insignificant people trying to get by in the world? I’m not sure. Will we enter the insidious gray area of writing off his behavior or condoning it? It’s possible. I didn’t enjoy being subjected to the utter pitifulness of it all and I’m not sure if I’m ready to admit seeing some of their qualities reflected right back at me. We are not immune to the loneliness they feel. We see all their defects.  Can we acknowledge our own?

This final question remains: Will they find their happiness or live a life weighed down by this sense of miserable drudgery? Redemption begins with not simply a change of actions but a change in heart. It always strikes me Italian-style comedy rarely seems possible without some manifestation of human tragedy. There’s no more human way to grapple with our own boorishness, our own misapprehensions, and our own inadequacies.

3/5 Stars

Adua and Her Friends (1960): Starring Simone Signoret

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It’s movies like Adua and Her Friends from director Antonio Pietrangeli that remind me of the elemental joys of watching movies you’ve never heard of before. It’s a humbling experience to acknowledge how much of cinema there still is to explore and how names like his sometimes arbitrarily get past over.

Because the only reason I ever made my way to the picture was on the merits of the cast alone and taking stock of the names, it is quite the epic ensemble. Simone Signoret anchors with her typically self-assured beauty. Sandra Milo is frisky and if not for her brunette locks, certainly a dumb blonde archetype. Then, Emanuelle Riva, stretching her own range, is angsty and cross with the world that women such as they are subjected to. The three actors are a trio of standouts along with one very special guest to be mentioned later.

Our opening image is a telling one with peppy jazz playing against the brick buildings and cobblestone streets. These exterior shots give us some sense of the adjacent world: the caverns of a local brothel. We learn they have been shut down by the Merlin Law (1958) and must find some new way to subsist.

With no real prospects, four of the women set out to make their own future. They buy up a run-down property partially secluded from town, to turn it into a restaurant, strictly on the level. This is no Risky Business. I could see them remaking this film generations later only for it to lose all of its flavor and charm in translation.

Because they hit every single roadblock imaginable along the way. The nightmares of going into business with starkly different personalities chafing against one another. Managing to get off the ground with the exorbitant amount of startup costs thanks to a deal with the devil. Having your soft open for a handful of customers only to run out of ingredients and any amount of things to feed them. You name it and they have the issue.

But the impediments don’t feel obvious nor the humor madcap and over the top. It finds a happy medium in a perceptive often nuanced equilibrium fluctuating between hardship and laughter. The jazz and sunny countryside neutralize any hint of a dramatic outbreak and though the picture is a tad long, it does allow a certain width and breath to cycle through all sorts of scenes.

Thus, the buildup of the restaurant from a fledgling even flimsy enterprise into a bustling, highly lucrative undertaking, is all the more believable. We see it happening and get to relish the process. This is the movie at its most delightful. It’s not as purely comedic, but even for the briefest of moments, you cannot help but recall Playtime’s own bungled restaurant opening. The difference for these women is their very livelihoods are more obviously at stake.

It plays best as scenarios and momentary interactions. The Father from the local convent drops in, trading conversation and well wishes for the secondhand scraps to serve as slop for his pig. The first customers start trickling in, enticed by the “restaurant” sign over the arch, which leads to an all but empty pavilion lined with tables.

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Each woman has a man in their life, whether physically present or generally absent. Milly hooks the nicest beau of the bunch, smitten with both her and her cooking. Marilina courts the most demons and tries to steady her tumultuous personal life by bringing her young son to live with them. His upbringing causes some squabbles, which ultimately culminate in his baptism.

It’s a poignant moment reflecting the women entering a realm of religious piety. It’s not so much that they have been radically changed, but the way they are perceived and how they make their living gives them a new lease on life. The goodness and inherent decency in them are given a chance to shine through. One is quickly reminded they are not defined by the men who drift in and out around them. The cornerstone of the entire film is their female camaraderie — the affection they hold onto — even when they bicker amongst themselves.

All the villains in the picture are of the opposite sex, and it makes sense given the cultural framework and their past profession. They’ve been relegated to a specific caste of society and in their efforts to break free, they meet the hegemonic forces that be. The most blatantly obvious antagonist is the peremptory Doctor Ercoli (Claudio Gora), who bankrolls them and requests 1 million lire a month for his recompense. When he actually inspects their premises, it reflects just how pitiless he is and how powerless they remain. It still feels like they are owned.

The rest of the louts are more like abject scoundrels and losers. Lolita’s purported beau has all but run off with their money and when he does show his ugly face again, he has the gall to try and pump her for more, spinning tall tales of going on the road again where he’s a big name.

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Their love is not lasting nor their promises secure. Of course, Marcello is charismatic as a car salesman; he always seems to be in all his pictures. There is something pathetically despondent about him at times, but it only serves to mask his swings in infidelity.

Signoret’s moment of ultimate realization is a bitter turning point. She recognizes who he really is and leaves him to his own devices. In the moment, she’s deeply hurt and yet she has an unassailable resiliency to take every beating with poise. Not that she’s unemotional, but she will not be totally trampled by the world around her even as she is wounded.

They reach their lowest point, completely destitute and scandalized, despite everything they did striving to make an honest living for themselves. Instead, they get their pictures plastered all across the pages of the red hot Il Tempo.

Their final act of rebelling is a cathartic one as they go out on their own terms. However, there’s more. Even at its most abysmally low, Signoret soaked head to toe in the rain, jeered by the ladies on the streets, she still maintains her composure.

She’s fallen far but like another French icon, Jeanne Moreau, she captures the screen and even if she’s been toppled, there’s no way to totally crush her. If nothing else, she commands our undivided attention and makes Adua and her Friends worthy of its title. They are a force to be reckoned with no matter what the tabloids might read.

4/5 Stars

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 here 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.

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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 that 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