Alphaville (1965) and Godard The Humanist?

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“That’s always how it is. You never understand anything and, in the end, it kills you.”

As a simple rule of thumb — a heuristic if you will — you can learn much about a person based on what camp they fall into when it comes to the Nouvelle Vague. For simplicity’s sake, let’s suggests we have Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and “Other” (We’ll unfairly stuff Rohmer, Chabrol, Rivette, The Left Bank, and all the rest here).

Many probably wouldn’t need this scenario. All it takes is a one-word, guttural response: “Godard” or “Truffaut” For me, it’s Truffaut. It’s as if the wavelength he operates on so often connects with me. Whereas with Godard it’s always more a matter of admiration for his prolific creative powers and the intellect buried in each of his projects. I appreciate him from an analytical distance.

From the outset, Alphaville epitomizes the dichotomy of Godard: both the brilliance and what can make him utterly maddening at times. He’s the perpetual visionary iconoclast and artistic maverick like few others before or after (and he’s still at it!).

We’re met with a blinking light, like an interrogation lamp, shining down on the audience. The opening voiceover relates, “Sometimes reality can be too complex to be conveyed by spoken word. Legend remolds it into a form that can be spread all across the world.” This is our introduction to the computerized brain and technological chimera: Alpha 60.

Godard’s protagonist functions a bit like a world-wearied Buster Keaton in his later years. Lines covering his stone face are perfect for suggesting that he’s seen the world. This alone makes him sufficient, but expatriate Eddy Considine was also known in France for his long connection with the serialized crime detective Lemmy Caution. Here he is tasked with missions, but as should be expected with noir storytelling, each successive leg feels more befuddling than the last.

Godard took Caution to the extreme, totally untethered out in his devised limbo of clunky Parisian sci-fi. It’s the profundity of taking the labels of the future (my labels, not his) and making them feel mundane, like the contemporary moment. Still, it’s hardly a stretch to call Alphaville a forerunner to HAL,  Blade Runner, or even Altman’s Long Goodbye, a film where you have a dissonance between worlds and time frames.

There is one moment when the all-knowing voice says something to the effect that there is never the past or the future. There is only the present — where we can exist right now. So, really, there is not an issue of incongruity because everything we see is accepted as it is, functioning in this landscape as one.

Godard, working with his famed collaborator Raoul Coutard, initially doesn’t even bother with chiaroscuro, but instead an utterly binary palette. Horizontal slats of darkness above strips of light or vice versa. A cigarette and gun in Caution’s hand are both visible, while his entire face is literally pitch black.

Getting to Alphaville and a hotel in the heart of this metropolis is a trip. The lobby feels conventional enough. This is a mere extension of the Parisian landscape. And yet he gets led to his room by a lady who looks suspiciously like a lady of a night (especially when her clothes start coming off), and Godard adds another lovely non-sequitur when a thug all of the sudden materializes in the bathroom leading to a stylized struggle.

Our tough guy runs for his gun on the bed and shots ring out through the room. He makes the agitated but lucid observation moments later, “Everything weird is normal” in this town. He’s never been more correct.

We get a suggestion of what Godard is playing with — the conventions and ideas he wants to tinker around with — as both an artistic and intellectual exercise. Beatrice, the first of several femme fatales, we find out, is a level-three seductress. It’s all too apparent the misogynism has not evaporated in this alternate world.

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Anna Karina appears next as the daughter of a high-ranking official with intimate knowledge of Alpha 60. Caution christens her a “pretty sphinx,” and she is an unsuspecting product of the disconcerting sci-fi dystopia that has overtaken society. Ironically, it comes packaged a lot like Paris in the 1960s run by capitalists.

As far as gadgets go, Caution employs a portable lighter-intercom slightly less ostentatious than Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. There are government-sanctioned executions for those showing sentimentality, where the festivities are made into a bit of a water aerobics showcase. Another popular form of entertainment is theater executions — the electric chair in more diverting circumstances.

Logic is law. Tears and love are among those things outlawed. No one comprehends what “conscience” means anymore. I even made the initial assumption the books in the hotel rooms were Gideon Bibles. However, it turns out, “The Bible” is not theological but linguistic, in the form of a dictionary, as delivered by Jean-Pierre Leaud in a blink of a cameo. When words get eradicated from the cultural lexicon new editions are published and disseminated to the public.

As the tenets of society get more and more perplexing, Caution’s mission begins to spiral into chaos, toward the final destruction of the mechanical beast. Godard chops up cinematic reality with disruptive negative images that do feel otherworldly. There are car chases, murders, and corpses of those asphyxiated splayed on the floor. It seems Alphaville really is crumbling from the inside out.

The movie itself is full of these deconstructions, clever amalgams of Godard’s cultural proclivities, and his own personal wizardry. But if we are to fall back on my totally unessential litmus test, he rarely touches me to the degree Truffaut is capable of. There’s never the same laughter or warmth emanating from his characters.

Yes, in Breathless (1960) and Vivre sa Vie (1962) they come the closest and there are extended periods that speak to me, momentarily touching my heart and my soul, if I can be so transparent. But at a certain point, they end because Godard is not in the business of humanity as much as he is in the business of the mechanisms of cinema itself. He is the great artist. Truffaut the great humanist. In turn, each affinity made them into two of the most passionate filmmakers the world has ever known.

Both very avid, opinionated, obsessive cineastes. It even drove a wedge between them in later years after their catalytic collaborations in the early 60s. It’s not all that unsurprising. Arguably their most similar films conceptually, are vastly different in both vision and execution.

Consider Contempt (1963) and Day for Night (1973) or even Shoot The Piano Player (1961) and Alphaville (1965). The first pair act as two entirely singular odes to the art of filmmaking. The latter two are indebted to the glories of film noir and other cheap genre fare.

But again, it feels like Truffaut is far more capable of humanity. You never get the same sense of transparency from Godard. There is even a feeling he relishes his status as this cryptic figure — a reputation, I might add, he has maintained for most of his career.

And yet even Godard, with all his enigmatic stylings, can continually surprise me like so many others. This is his ability to morph with the times and take on new forms like a Bob Dylan — to make a flawed musical comparison. For me, it was the final line of his movie — all but forcing me to eat my words — forcing me to feel empathy.

Natascha remembers how to say “I love you” as they drive away from the hysteria of Alphaville back to the Outer Countries. For Godard, this is a heady statement, the height of sentimentality even. It’s unexpected but fitting, his constant muse throughout the 60s, Anna Karina, emblematic of his most fertile creative period, it’s her words that ultimately define Alphaville. I love you. Maybe Godard is a humanist after all. At the very least, Karina in all her affection helps to humanize him.

4/5 Stars

Note: Since writing this piece, Anna Karina passed away on December 14th, 2019. R.I.P. to a legend. 

Port of Shadows (1938) and The Face of Jean Gabin

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“Like the movies. I see you. I like you. Love at first sight.” – Jean Gabin

Jean Gabin has one of the great visages of the cinema. But in making such a statement you immediately run the risk of giving the wrong impression. To actually see him on the big screen is to know what I mean. He is not classically handsome in the Hollywood sense, fitting somewhere in between Spencer Tracy, Bogart, and Fonda when Hank had a chip on his shoulder. And yet set off in black and white as Gabin always was during his most prolific periods, there is something unmistakable about his face.

It is worn with the grooves, contours, and the residual sadness that come with life. He gives the impression of seeing the world, having his heart ripped out, being battered and bruised, while still choosing to press on anyway. You could say he has the entire French experience of the early 20th century on his brow. He’s simultaneously a projection of their best self in the face of hardship.

Historically, the cultural mood and the looming world war to come were ill-omens, as far as the release of the film was concerned. It was far too portentous to be met without some amount of resistance

In Port of Shadows, Gabin fittingly plays a jaded soldier who catches a lift to the nearby port town of Le Havre. In an opening act of clemency, he keeps his truck-driving benefactor from quashing a mutt masked by the billows of fog. It’s an instant flag. We know this man. His emotions are not obvious, but they are there; he concerns himself with the well-being of others. There is a heart under there somewhere. Scene after scene his constant companion is the runty little dog, a continual reminder of who he is as a man.

Along with setting up its star, we soon learn director Marcel Carne cares about his characters and takes care of them. Not that the environments are unimportant. Between the pitch darkness of the highway or the smoky and garish interiors of the club, there’s atmosphere aplenty. But Carne is focused on his players; their faces and distinct movements, allowing them to be focal points of scenes in a generally clean, uninterrupted fashion.

Between the instantly palpable world and the menagerie of players cycling in and out, Port of Shadows cannot help but feel like a prototype for everything from Casablanca to the entire film noir movement with its smoky brand of realism.

I don’t know much about the time frame of when the picture takes place. In all honesty, I’m not all that concerned with that so much because instantly you are pulled into a world’s depth of field with its shadow and fascinating figures. There’s a compulsion to fall into the story and be as fully involved as possible.

He’s in town, flat broke, and there’s an unspoken understanding he’s not looking to get noticed by the local gendarmerie — most obviously a deserter. This is one of those picturesque places where you can fall in with drunken vagabonds and find yourself on the receiving end of neighborliness.

As is, everyone who is down-and-out or in trouble seems to go to Panama’s, though it serves as little more than an old shack with a couple of rooms.  A sorry excuse for a hangout and yet it has far more life than the fancy club in town. It’s the people there who truly make it worthwhile.

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Jean (Gabin) is given a meal by the ragged proprietor, gets some fancy talk from an amiable artist, before meeting the most important person: Nelly (Michele Morgan). She’s young but precocious, mature beyond her years. The same might be said of Morgan who assuredly holds her own against all her male costars. She’s thoroughly outnumbered yet she handles it poise.

It’s a testament to the strength and varied colorfulness of the characters that the illustrious Michel Simon almost becomes of less interest as Nelly’s despicable godfather, especially compared to the peculiar sots he was tasked with portraying in Boudu and L’Atalante. His big scenes come near the end of the picture anyway.

Mostly this is a love story. In a rare moment of self-reflexity, Jean mentions how theirs is a movie romance. It’s this heightened sense of romantic reality. If we put it up against anything we experientially know to be true, it’s poppycock, but between the eyes and embraces of Morgan and Gabin, it just feels right.

We also learn more about Jean. Not only is he capable of deep measures of love, but he has no tolerance for lowlifes and scum — those lacking a sense of honor or principle. You have it out with a man face-to-face with fists, not from behind. One of his main targets is the local gangster Lucien who is nothing more than an arrogant rich kid with too much time on his hands. He wants his hands on Nelly. Jean is having none of it. He cuts directly through the artifice, slapping him around for his impudence.

The story comes to a head on the docks and again, of all places, at the bumper cars in the middle of a carnival. You do not mess around with Jean Gabin when a girl is involved. This could be the movie’s ending; the romance would be the euphoric and the hero would remain triumphant. However, it is a movie and so a greater, darker, more wistful avenue of drama is in order.

Because Jean knows he is not safe, though he has gratefully taken another man’s identity. It is better for him to leave on the latest vessel shipping out to Venezuela the following day. His love for Nelly is great, but there is a need to move on, to let her be while also keeping her away from the trouble that would come from knowing him. He does the selfish or heroic thing (depending on how you look at it), in cinematic terms, and he doesn’t tell her. He holds off as long as possible.

One fine sequence is at the waterfront bar with kegs of alcohol lodged right outside the door. There’s a conversation at the bar between the bartender and an old acquaintance we’ve already met. At a distant table, our protagonist, with his new identity bequeathed him by the philosophizing painter, charts his course for Venezuela aboard the freighter now sitting in the harbor.

These seem like mundane enough scenarios, but instead of a normal cut, Carne rides an extra with his camera, acting like the seamless segue between the two conversations. It’s a classy and efficient way to keep the scenarios fluid even in a seemingly sedentary state.

These lulls lead up to what can only be seen as the film’s inevitable tragedy. Like the most sublime expressions of cinema, Port of Shadows is a visceral, emotive experience capable of so many things. It’s a piece of art: humorous, tragic, brooding, and searingly romantic. In short, a sheer pleasure to take part in.

4.5/5 Stars

Floating Clouds (1955): Capturing Japan’s Post-War Zeitgeist

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The Odyssey to finally get to Mikio Naruse has been a long and arduous one. I must admit, like many before me, his name carries none of the recognition we commonly lavish upon Kurosawa, Ozu, Mizoguchi, and a select few. So, for the longest time, there was no pursuit. His name was totally unknown.

However, as you begin to familiarize yourself with Japanese cinema (and I must admit to still being a relative novice), there are certain names that you keep coming back to. Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa fall right behind the illustrious trifecta. Certainly, you have the Japanese New Wave directors like Shohei Imamura, Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara.

However, for some reason, I just could not stop thinking about Mikio Naruse. It seemed like I was always being reminded of him. Whether it was Kurosawa praising his writing or Hirokazu Kore-eda saying his style was more akin to the lineage of Naruse and not Ozu. Again, it reflects an oversight on many film aficionados. We do not pay Naruse much respect because, frankly, there’s not much access to his work in America.

In fact, because I am so fortunate to come of age as a cinema lover in a world that is so globalized, with content so accessible, it is not a form of helplessness that I have felt too often. It’s not simply a matter of his film’s being hard to come by; it felt like only a few were readily available.

This absence of his work made it all the more imperative to reach him. Finally, I can attest to dipping into his filmography and finding myself deeply fortunate to have made his acquaintance. If it’s allowable to use a German word to describe a Japanese condition, Floating Clouds captures the zeitgeist of Japan in the aftermath of WWII.

The film’s structure feels as fluid as its title. It trusts the audience to follow along without voiceover cues of any kind, drifting in and out of the present and flashbacks set before the war had ended. This is the fashion in which we get to know our two “destitute expatriates” now reunited in 1946.

They met for the first time in Indochina. It’s a world we can contrast with another romance like Red Dust. An outpost out in the forests of Asian proves a far more bearable place to pass the war.  If you recall, the earlier film is made by the red hot chemistry between Clark Gable and Jean Harlow (and with Mary Astor).

Except in such a patriarchal society, like Japan, it always seems to be the man who has the say. Tomioka (Masayuki Mori) begins his acquaintance with Yukiko (Hideko Takamine) with slight jabs at her, all but solidifying his gruff character for the entirety of the film. These rocky foundations give way to passionate romance and Naruse does something dynamic by cutting right between a kiss in the past to one in the present. So much has changed and yet nothing at all. Much of Floating Clouds is about this reconciling this past with the present.

The pensive serenity is one of the unifying hallmarks of the picture. This is another point of departure with a Hollywood romance like Red Dust. This, paradoxically, feels like a grand statement — choosing a tranquil path in a medium that is so often filled with noise and a world full of constant turbulence.

Even in considering his countrymen, Kurosawa is often more dynamic in composition and action. Thus, it seems most obvious to contrast Naruse with Ozu. However, whereas Ozu heralds his presence within the frames through the meticulous craftsmanship and attention to detail, you do not necessarily see this to the same degree in Floating Clouds.

It is stripped down to a near Verite approach, which still cannot be mistaken for shoddy work. In fact, it boasts beautiful interludes between two people on par with a picture like Late Spring. It’s not a perfectly ordered fabrication of reality where human drama plays out. The spaces feel rich with the impoverished and worn layers of Japan as it lay. The people are much the same, unadorned yet imbued with truth.

Hideko Takamine is extraordinary for how she is able to manage a spectrum of emotions — exuding an inner strength and individuality — while still giving way to honest feelings of regret. She can be the adulterer, the nagging lover, the broken heart, all of the above , as they cycle through time.

No less important is Masayuki Mori as he acts as her perfect counterpoint. He gives her nothing, or at least very little. Every potentially thoughtful action is dismissed and any form of commitment is avoided doggedly. There is even so much about their preferred temperaments putting them at odds. It seems like circumstance and they’re own interactions together all but destined them to part ways and move on with life. He returns to his wife “nobly,” while she is supported by the brother-in-law who formerly took advantage of her. Every relationship is riddled with these personal dilemmas.

There is another brief snapshot that resonated with me — both in its mild humor and how it proved indicative of the times — when Yukiko is walking down a street alone. In the periphery, we see what looks to be a Japanese woman with an American G.I. He seems to be at least a head taller than everyone else. Then, almost on cue there comes a voice, speaking my native tongue: English.

It’s a second G.I. looking for a date, and he affably asks her in broken, bastardized Japanese (rather like what I’m capable of speaking), if she’s alone and where she’s going. She simply smiles and moves on, either to brush him off or resign herself to a superficial evening of companionship. He exists as more of an archetype than a fully defined character even given that his name is “Joe.”

However, what it provides is a fascinating counterpoint to what we are used to in our little universe, where everything commonly revolves around the western world, if not America. Pictures like House of Bamboo, Sayonara, Teahouse of the August Moon, they all give us a very specific and tailored experience.

It’s somewhat strange and fascinating to feel like the “other.” The soldier here is the sailor in Lola (1961) or the soldier in The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). In fact, they all serve much the same function. They come to represent a different type of relationship and with it a diverging life, even if it’s only meant to be a momentary fleeting fancy. 

This is not a picture where we see the chaos and the bloodshed. After all, these two were the “lucky ones” stationed in Indochina. And yet we see the shadowy imprint of a former life involving suffering, poverty, and the ignominy of surrender. It doesn’t seem too farfetched to claim Floating Clouds somehow channeled the thoughts and feelings of a generation. The Best Years of Our Lives might be similar to a generation of Americans.

Consequently, as a viewer in this contemporary moment and an American on top of that, there is a realization of how much I take for granted in this story. I am more like the American soldier than I am this couple. It proves a humbling observation, carving a path toward some sense of empathy.

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 Eventually, her lover turns up again — still as brusque and egocentric as ever, looking around at her plain surroundings and commenting on how well she’s doing. These types of evasive, indirect proclamations are all she ever gets. So she’s hanging on his words, getting whisked this way and that with partial promises and empty hopes, never going anywhere. Later on, he has his eyes on the pretty young wife (Mariko Okada) of an acquaintance (even soaking in the public bath together). After all, in superficial terms, she is much more “desirable.”

To consider the American soldier again, he was on leave for two months before shipping home. Even in the short amount of time, he was overflowing with geniality. If we take Floating Clouds as indicative of all of Japanese society, it proves a telling portrait. There is no affection or sense of vulnerability within men. Endemic to the society and more so a holdover of the war. It’s not simply about women being overly emotional, though this is often the cultural expectation. More emphatically so, the men lack any type of emotion. They are ingrained with this stoic (sho ga nai) mentality.

There are numerous walk-and-talks, and the scenery and setup might as well be interchangeable, but the subtext and junctures in their lives are starkly different each time. So we have all these snippets wedged in between their life events as they orbit in and out of each other’s lives.

It’s easy enough to juxtapose it with Citizen Kanes dinner table scene where a relationship is seen crumbling in a matter of minutes. Stretched out as it is, within Floating Clouds, these walks continue this metaphor of progression. It is the progress of life, of a relationship, and of the world existing around us. Because while the steps might remain the same, the circumstances are different around every bend. Time marches on with each footfall.

It’s not about being ships in the night either — that they missed out on one another’s company — simply put, they are abrasive together. Their traits and identities are constantly causing them to attract and repel each other again and again.

The lasting image is a bent head, but this is not one of Ozu’s quiet forlorn scenes where a father has just made the honorable decision to give up his daughter. These are ugly, bitter tears. He is weeping. And this man, for the first time in his life, is providing physical acknowledgment of how much another individual human being meant to him. In a Hollywood picture, the action would be meaningful, but not unprecedented. In this movie, it feels heart-wrenching because we have yet to anything so transparent.

It’s an evocative final note in a work rarely prone to this kind of overt outpouring. It’s the cathartic release in a bittersweet tragedy. All we can do is bemoan the fact this man was never vulnerable enough to admit the depths of his love during life. Unfortunately, in this particular life, there is no resurrection.

4.5/5 Stars

Small Change (1976): A Story of Love and Adolescence

Argent_poche.jpgFrancois Truffaut has a knack for understanding children in all their intricacies. One suspects it’s because he’s never really grown up himself. He is a child at heart with even his earliest films of the Nouvelle Vague channeling the joy and the passion of a younger individual.

First, there was The 400 Blows, most literally, as an autobiographical docu-drama of youth and then Jules et Jim brimming with the freneticism to tell a historical romance with frolicking verve. I feel much the same energy as the boys hurtle through the streets of their little town of Thiers against the opening credits.

He accents it with the scoring of Maurice Jaubert and later on applies the crooning of Charles Tremet to give it an unmistakably French spirit. It’s a different time, a different generation even, but Truffaut has not lost any of his passion or lust for life, once again managing to tap into the exuberance of youth.

It’s nothing spectacular mind you. Small Change is mostly vignette-driven. It subsists off minor pieces of observation and scenes that might easily have a place in real life. Truffaut takes interest in the daily activities of kids and the important business that takes up their time. We are afforded the opportunity to sit back lazily and appreciate the mundane aspects of the community as they happen.

The local school is a humble place, but its admirable pursuits in the name of academics are as old as the Greeks. Resources are one thing certainly. It helps to have means and yet more crucial is a safe space for incubation where young minds can lean into their curiosities. Mediator thy name is teacher, and what a delight to find some of these individuals are more than up for the task.

Boys struggle to memorize and offer the proper feeling to their assigned passages until Ms. Petit ducks out and one of their members can be heard out of the second story window giving a rendition that would make future thespians everywhere proud. It’s moments like these that surprise us magnificently.

If you will, they’re like anti-400 Blows moments or more exactly triumphant answers to the earlier film. Where teachers aren’t authoritarian tyrants all the time nor kids untethered hooligans. Sure, there’s some of both intermittently, but Truffaut finds time to make both factions gel and feel human.

Mostly it comes with living in a neighborhood where everyone knows everybody else. Patrick gladly takes a neighbor’s young son back home and stops by to say hello to the teacher Mr. Richet and his wife, who live down the hall.

Movie theaters are communal spaces where everyone shows up. Ms. Petit’s even there in the back with her boyfriend. It’s a reminder to all the younger generation, adults — even teachers — are real people too.

There is one new boy in town whom nobody knows and his personal life is all but invisible. He doesn’t talk much, his personal hygiene leaves something to be desired, and he seems to lack all the materials they’re supposed to bring to class. He’s one of those kids some might term a “bad influence,” but even he can get in on the latest episode of Columbo making its round through the corridors of the school the night after.

Julien, with his shaggy mop of black hair, is one of them even as he plays at the outsider and shows signs of a tumultuous home life. Youth can be tender even as it’s also shown to be mean-spirited and crude at times. What’s joyous about Small Change is how affection and quality relationships are allowed to take center stage. They are present with teachers and parents too.

But there’s space for humor too. A single mother scrimps as she takes care of her baby and looks eagerly for love. Her little boy is a precocious one wandering into all the open doors, terrorizing the cat and such trifles. In one death-defying stunt, he takes a fall and comes away from it giggling while leaving his mother with a near-heart attack.

Sylvie is a little girl who uses the water from her fishbowl ( inhabited by Plic and Ploc) to brush down her favorite bag, dirtied with age and similar means of upkeepI’m reminded of a hilarious incident where the resourceful little girl balking at going to dinner with her parents commandeers her father’s bullhorn and manages to have an all-included dinner pullied to herself through the open window.

In a concerted effort to save some pocket money, the rambunctious De Luca boys go into the haircutting business, maiming their friend’s head in the process with the most grotesque results.

Meanwhile, Patrick is smitten with the mother of a classmate, Madame Riffle. The lavish advertisement of a man and woman on the wall of a shop fills his mind with dreamy ideas (Comfort on the rails). Still, unlike one of his cocksure peers, he’s tentative when it comes to necking in the theater with their classmates. It’s not the right environment for puppy love. He doesn’t know the girls they’ve met up with. There are too many people around. It’s all forced.

He gets his chance later on with a pretty girl at camp named Martine who causes his heart to go pitter-patter. They only have eyes for one another even amidst the teasing of their peers. You can tell how genuine and sweet it is in the clumsy, bright-eyed manner of youth.

With Truffaut’s own views of adolescence, trauma, and innocent love, one is reminded of descendants like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. This is where he gets it from. There is not one without the other. What makes Small Change intermittently wonderful is how it captures the specificity of its unique time and place. In its own way, it’s an unadulterated descendent of The 400 Blows from a brighter, happier time.

It’s as if Truffaut and the rest of the world has found the love they’ve been craving.  At the very least, they have enough hope to keep on trying. That’s one of the beauties of youth: indefatigable naivete, at times, yes, but more so, relentless optimism.

On the last day of school, before the bell rings for summer, Mr. Richet gives his attentive pupils one final rallying cry:

“Time flies. Before long, you will have children of your own. If you love them, they will love you. If they don’t feel you love them, they will transfer their love and tenderness to other people. Or to things. That’s life! Each of us needs to be loved!”

4/5 Stars

Note: The film is also known as Pocket Money in English-speaking countries, although due to the release of a Paul Newman movie of the same name a few years prior, Steven Spielberg suggested the alternative title for the American release.

The Story of Adele H. (1975): Starring Isabelle Adjani

L'histoire_d'Adèle_H.I didn’t think about it until the movie began, but the only person I’ve ever known to only go by the initial of their last name was for the sake of keeping their anonymity. If you’re a nobody, it doesn’t matter who knows your name.

In this case, if you’re the great Victor Hugo’s daughter, they stand up and take notice. Especially if you run off to Halifax Nova Scotia to pursue a British soldier named Albert Pinson of some dubious repute. Hence Adele H.

This is her story based on the diaries she left behind. It’s during the American Civil War. It’s still left to be seen if the Confederacy will be able to succeed. Adele’s father is currently exiled from his homeland, and she is intent on receiving the invitation of marriage from the man she once rebuffed.

When she lands in the new environment, there’s a timidity furled about her to go with her obvious affluence. She picks up a coach and converses in impeccable English with the driver looking for adequate lodging for someone like herself.

The place settled upon is a boarding house run by a Mrs. Saunders, and there she finds a welcoming albeit humble abode, the perfect home base to begin her inquiries. It seems a noble mission in the service of love.

I’ve come to like Francois Truffaut’s brand of economical period piece. Because usually we come to equate them with ballooning budgets and grand narratives, but Truffaut seems more interested in the character studies. If The Wild Child and now The Story of Adele H. are any indication, it’s the personal relationships he’s invested in and this allows the director to step into the cultural moment and still somehow make them highly resonate with us in an altogether different era.

Isabelle Adjani is the portrait of youthful innocence and she is so young, so beautiful, and full of emotional fervor. It’s hard not to be carried away by the passion of her performance.

Her first meeting with her beloved Lt. Pinson (Bruce Robinson looking like a British incarnation of Alain Delon) blooms with this candor even as it becomes obvious he’s moved on — he no longer has feelings for her, if he ever did — and what’s even more heartbreaking is how madly she still desires to be with him.

Even as the film cuts back and forth between French and English, one is reminded how French really is a romance or romantic language. English sounds so blunt and harsh, at times, in comparison. Maybe as a native French-speaker Truffaut’s not attuned to his actor’s tones in English. Maybe he’s playing off these very elements. No matter, the French is quiet, melodious, and even rapturous in the most passionate declarations.

I don’t understand the literal translation (without subtitles) but the underlying feelings are crystal clear and devastatingly powerful. Her zealousness, the pleading professions of love, met by a soldier whose stoic aloofness only draws out her urgency even more.

One is reminded of a scene where she enters a party — dressed in the hat and tails of a gentleman — but she doesn’t seem to bother hiding the fact she’s incognito, and she gets inside. We see in through the glass as someone goes to fetch Pinot, and he’s forced to make a show of the whole thing by pulling Adele outside and trying to make her listen to reason. Through Nestor Almendros’ fluid cinematography and Truffaut’s intentionality, we understand the whole dynamic without hearing the words spoken.

Or there’s another instance where Adele is presented with a couple volumes of her father’s works by a bookkeeper who is more than a bit smitten with her. But her eyelashes flutter in the most mesmerizing manner, and she proceeds to lash out at him. She doesn’t want to be reminded of who she is and where she comes from.

By now Adele has crossed over to the point of desperation, tears, and, ultimately, obsession. The story begins to sink and devolve into something else entirely. For the first time, we realize what might really be going on.

This might be the most propitious time to insert a morsel about the real Adele Hugo. She most certainly would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia. Truffaut doesn’t actually make his film about mental illness per se, and that is problematic if we are clamoring for a wholly authentic biopic.

Instead, we must watch Adele’s descent without much explanation. At night she’s overtaken by terrors and during the day she doggedly pursues any means to bring her eternal back to her. First its vague thoughts of hypnotism, then deceit, and character assassination, effectively besmirching her lover’s reputation with anyone else who tries to wed him.

It’s these interludes which somehow evoke the possessiveness of Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven and yet far from being vindictive, Francois Truffaut casts them in the most pitiful of lights. The film is spellbinding for much of the outset, and Adjani remains steadfast through it all. She carries it along based on her immense graces alone.

However, as the dirge-like rhythms drag on, it can hardly maintain its running-time, following Adele through events that feel like foregone conclusions as she becomes more dismal and delusional. It feels like most of the ideas have been expressed to their full potential, and now we must wallow in her trail of unrequited love.

Finally, she follows her man to Barbados only to be left as a shell of her former self escalated by her complete and utter deterioration. When the film ends it feels like a courtesy to all parties. To Adele because she needn’t suffer anymore and for the audience because we could hardly be more woebegone.

If anything, The Story of Adele H. touches on the darker caverns of Truffaut’s creativity, and yet maybe it’s simply because we always remember the youthful giddiness in his pictures instead of the forlorn aspects. More than anything it makes one appreciate how eclectic his body of work is and the through-line connecting every picture is authentic humanity — even humanity unhinged — in some way, shape, or form.

It just so happens Adele Hugo’s humanity was a bit more depressing. The sad thing is, probably few people actually know her name or, frankly, care about it. In spite of this, Truffaut manages to cast her as a creature of unwavering love on the scale of Wuthering Heights or other comparable works.

At 20 years of age Adjani already had completed a role for a lifetime. If you didn’t get the impression already, she has a magnificent aura about her, half spectral beauty, half tragic heroine.

4/5 Stars

The Wild Child (1970) and Truffaut’s Empathy

Wild_child23.jpgThe Wild Child (L’Enfant Sauvage in French) is based on “authentic events,” as it says because Francois Truffaut became fascinated by a historical case from the 1700s. A feral boy was discovered out in the forests and then taken under the tutelage of a benevolent doctor.

Although he had initially wanted to adapt The Miracle Worker, Arthur Penn got to it first and released the rendition of Helen Keller’s story to much acclaim. Instead, Truffaut pored over the medical observations of one Dr. Jean Marc Gaspard Itard relating to the curious case of the aforementioned Victor of Aveyron. Somehow this effort follows in the same vein of The Miracle Worker but feels entirely organic and indigenous to Truffaut’s roots.

There are several immediately striking elements about The Wild Child that become immediately apparent. At first, I wasn’t expecting the black & white cinematography, but somehow it makes so much sense. It’s an intuitive expression of the world and frequent Truffaut collaborator, Néstor Almendros, shoots the world with a stark, no-frills tintype aesthetic proving quite extraordinary.  The pictorial simplicity is impeccable. Meanwhile, the soundtrack is equally spare, all but scoreless, aside from interludes of Vivaldi when appropriate.

The second notable aspect was the opening dedication to Jean-Pierre Leaud. This only makes sense if you consider the lineage of Truffaut and where he has come from. Certainly his first and greatest achievement was The 400 Blows, which starred Leaud as a wayward youth — not far removed from Truffaut’s childhood or Leaud’s own.

Their relationship remained closely intertwined even as it charted the course of the Nouvelle Vague with the works of Jean-Luc Godard and the resurgence of the Antoine Doinel character in Antoine and Colette, Stolen Kisses, and the still forthcoming Bed and Board.

Of course, in following the historical discovery of a feral boy in the woods of 18th century France, the environment and context could not be farther removed. The opening moments are a striking wilderness chase scene with the naked boy living off the land and fleeing from a pack of hunting dogs, looking to smoke him out and earn the good graces of their masters.

It’s the story of civilization impinging on the natural world even if it is under unusual circumstances. The narrative isn’t an altogether novel one if you remember any historical examples of Native Americans who were shamelessly paraded through so-called “enlightened” western society, like sideshow attractions, only to be decimated by their diseases.

Still, Truffaut films are nothing if not personal, and The Wild Child fits into this personal collage. Each one of his films, individually and together, is sculpted by his ideas into vessels of art and creativity — ways in which to see the world and make sense of it.

If nothing else, somehow he seems to empathize with the circumstances. First, from the child’s perspective, to be left for dead, without parents until the age of 1,1 and then thrown into a world you cannot comprehend. But he has also evolved into the adult — in this case Dr. Itard — who, in a show of sympathy, makes the boy his charge, if not a pet project.

Truffaut is so invested in this role he throws off all pretense of merely being behind the camera and takes on a role in front of it. Both cinematically and practically, he is the boy’s mentor and guide without an intermediary of any kind.

You can see how deeply he empathizes with other human beings and somehow the good doctor seems like a fitting stand-in for Truffaut himself, on multiple accounts. In a society that looks down at this boy, seeing him merely as an outcast, an idiot, a pariah, Truffaut/Dr. Itard sees someone worth salvaging. He won’t give up on the creature’s intelligence nor his primal urge toward morality  — some latent iteration of the noble savage.

And yet he can still be an exacting, obsessive taskmaster. All for the creature’s own good mind you, but there you are. Whether it be the acquisition of language, intelligence, or cinema, you can easily see how any of the three could overlap. He has the end goal in mind, and he’s so unswervingly devoted to the success of his pupil, even to the point of feeling callous at times.

Was this the way it would have been with a wayward, youthful Leaud? Was this Truffaut with his mentor and father-figure Andre Bazin? All seem to be hinted at and as an audience, we can only surmise. Because you have this complicated tie between teacher, antagonist, and friend underlying this film, regardless of its period context.

Someone who opens up the world to you in their infinite wisdom, but no doubt causes you to want to rebel at other times. This is integral to our nature, not only as children but when we grow up too. Only when we’re older are we granted the full lucidity to see everything clearly with the benefit of hindsight. To see the motives behind discipline, tough love, and the implementation of rules.

If I’m to search my own heart, it is not always noble. It is not inclined toward good and has a predilection toward selfish and petty ideas. It takes some framework, some discipline to rein in, but not with the dismissiveness of the civilized elite from Paris and the learned academics. The honest to goodness humanity of Dr. Izard/Truffaut and the maternal affections of Madame Guerin are a fine place to start for reference.

Victor isn’t a miraculous case study during his time in their home by any means. He’s a work in progress. But isn’t he a far cry from where they found him — naked, wild, and living in a hole — self-sufficient though he may have been? As children, we are often content making mud pies in the sand when he could have something far better.

As someone who has dabbled often unsuccessfully in the field of education, you realize it’s the little victories that feel like moving mountains. Thus, when Victor begins to retain information, return home of his own accord, and spell at the word “LAIT” when he wants milk, these are miraculous in themselves.

Still, it takes the adult to have the foresight to know what will be in the child’s best interest. Things get more convoluted when the dynamics change. That, folks, is what we call the teenage years. Because it’s true sometimes, what people think is in their best interest differs greatly.

4/5 Stars

 

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972): Prime Luis Bunuel

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In school, I remember being enthralled by Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at Folie Bergerie” when it donned on me we were integrated into the piece, and the artist was messing with our preconceived notions by literally toying with our perceptions.

As an artist who came into his own a generation later with the likes of Salvador Dali, Luis Bunuel oftentimes manages the very same feat of artistic manipulation through his films. He’s the iconoclastic prince and lambaster of the bourgeoisie. He is a craftsman with an intuitive sense of how to toy with, not only his subject matter and his characters, but the audience sitting before him.

Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which we might posit as an exemplary monument to his life’s work, begins with a vaguely familiar premise. People are gathering on the pretense of a dinner party, not unlike Exterminating Angel. Except there is no invisible force holding them there. Quite the opposite. For inexplicable reasons, they keep on getting interrupted and thwarted in their attempts to sit down together for the most curious of reasons.

To their credit, the central sextet sells out to the whole charade. Fernando Rey is up to his smutty old tricks as a respected foreign ambassador with a lecherous side cultivated under the right circumstances. His frequent companions are the Thevenots, Francois and Simone (Paul Frankeur and Delphine Seyrig). Nor can one forget the Madame’s air-headed sister Florence who always seems to be perpetually tagging along.

First, they go to their dinner engagement at a friend’s home for round 1. Alice Senechal (Stephanie Audran) isn’t expecting them because she thought she invited them on a different date and her husband Henri (Jean-Pierre Cassel) isn’t at home. It’s an honest enough mistake. Except the next time, it’s more of the same as their libidos get the best of the hosts. Their maid Ines takes it all bravely with a sweet, unassuming smile as if playing dumb to all the idiocy going on around her on any given day.

It is most definitely a film of first world problems gone awry. We have a bunch of dense and pompous people of exceptional superficiality before us. However, this very easily arrived at prognostication starts giving way to more and more surrealist tinges.

The film hits the skids as Bunuel takes us into a realm all his own. Whether it’s the mind of a mad genius or a perverse old man is up for debate among the literati. But of course, he would hardly give their discourse (or mine) a thought.

Things start getting ridiculous with meal after meal stacked one on top of the other to the point of dizzying regularity. Every scene crammed together features a new dining table or a new conversation over drinks with a dash of the absurd for garnish.

Not to mention nested dreams before the days of Inception because of course, everyone, even Bunuel, seems to have some fascination with the meta, going so far as inserting his own dreams into the story purely because he can.

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What becomes the guiding force is this quintessential fluid sense of absurdism accentuated through the execution of more complex shot sequences utilizing zooms and tracking shots. They maintain the continuity while helping to maintain this Bunuelian sense of dreamscapes. Because for him that’s much of what the world is, a stream of consciousness, and there’s no necessary distinction. And yet there are times within the film he acknowledges them so explicitly as if to send a self-aware wink to the audience.

Meanwhile, he has gleeful fun forcing his characters to walk down the road together toward nothingness. One moment they’re waking up from a crazy dream. The ladies settle down for tea only for none to be available and instead they’re treated to the ghastly stories from a sad-sack lieutenant’s abysmal childhood.

All bets are off when they’re interrupted by cavalrymen winding up their maneuvers and then passing around a joint in the parlor. Another time they’re arrested for some nameless crime and another gunned down by mobsters without pretense.

I’d hardly call these moments spoilers because Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is full of non-sequiturs. Anything is capable of happening at any moment. Sometimes all of dinner is a stage, and the guests merely players. Other times Vietnam seamlessly fits into the context of the scenario’s commentary (“If they bomb their own troops there must be a reason”).

In a sense, Providence is replaced by the rhythms of chance and the bizarre, laying the groundwork for the director’s implicit worldview. But of course, it stretches much further than that imprinted onto the themes and the very fabric of the characters.

The hypocrisy of the social elites is always being closely tied with religion. Bishops are to be made light of and Bunuel’s conception of their rituals can best be summarized by one telling image of a crucifix, cradled in the arms, getting dirt unceremoniously dumped on top of it. Or for that matter, the same priest gives absolution to the man who killed his parents only to think better of it.

But not for a moment would we mistake any of these abrupt outbursts for true drama; each individual instance is only a trifle, a way for Bunuel to follow his flights of fancy like he always does, trampling everything around him with wry exhilaration.

Whatever madcap visions you can imagine in their drawing-room, they basically wind up coming into being. Although Bunuel doesn’t have the same carnivalesque showmanship of Federico Fellini or the technical and spectacular panache of a Hitchcock, he nevertheless invariably keeps their company.

For better or for worse, his films and the visions they employ stay with you. What’s more, his conception of the world is quite transparent. Fellini was mirrored in the director in 8½. There are shades of the “Master of Suspense” in Scottie from Vertigo, and just about every man in a Bunuel picture bears his mark and, at the very least, his philosophy of total irreverence.

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What’s striking is how volatile and relevant he feels in the modern age. I for one always find it perplexing to come at his work because not only does his filmography undermine the tenets of classical narrative convention, he also does much to play his audience as well.

“The Folies Bergere” was mesmerizing as we began to understand we are part of the piece. A Bunuel film is similar because you are brought into it as well and yet one could argue he goes a step further by making his audience the butt of the joke.

All your personal hangups and hypocrisies — social, political, religious, romantic — whatever they may be, will be ousted and laid bare. His players are easy targets as representations of the trivial social elite. But then we were tricked into spending all this time with them that ultimately went nowhere. So let me ask you, what does that make us? Be forewarned Bunuel might just get to you too.

4/5 Stars

Army of Shadows (1969) and The French Resistance

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Army of Shadows is another film from Jean Pierre-Melville that falls back into the realm of the autobiographical, even as it’s based on a book by French journalist Joseph Kessel. Because Melville, a resistance fighter himself, had a previous history with this very same world. The names and dates were real, living history for him, and he gladly blended it all into his movie.

It’s also defined by the director’s well-established palette of choice. True to form, it leans into his typically dismal and dour canvass as an overt extension of its characters’ malaise. A rainbow proves a total impossibility in a Melville picture. Equally surprising is a smile on a face or an intonation of laughter.

In the opening interludes, a prison van takes a detour past a rural cottage to pick up a couple basket of provisions. It’s a curious juxtaposition and somehow a fitting bit of exposition about our setting. Because Army of Shadows is a modest epic if you will, ably covering all the ambiguities of an institution like Vichy while simultaneously documenting the moral gradient of good and evil Hannah Arendt so perceptively termed “banal.”

Our hero is a bespectacled, well-mannered man named Philippe Gerbier (Lino Ventura); he also happens to be a vital member of the underground. Hence his arrest and sentence to a local camp. He seems unphased by the whole ordeal as if he’s been here many times before. It’s all unextraordinary after the countless things he must have seen and done.

The subsequent inner monologues are honest if not pedestrian, perfectly in line with the world being developed. Because it’s a film as much about expressions as it is words. Reading over people, waiting, biding time, and weighing the options laid out. In these early instances, Ventura establishes himself as an apt hero, given our context.

In this unsparing portrait of the war years — at the same time both moral and unsentimental — he’s the perfect barometer of the times, rarely showing emotions. He dare not. You come to understand why, when faced with the ordeal of having to dispose of one of your own — a craven traitor — for the good of the outfit.

The zealous young recruit Le Masque (Claude Mann) is eager to do his part, but he’s quickly stripped of his illusions. What follows is a devastating death scene — implied though it may be — because it effectively takes away all pretense of heroes and villains. It sets a precedent for the entire picture and where it will dare to go in order to pay homage to those who went before. One shudders to think that this is one of the easier decisions they have to make.

It becomes a reality of wartime existence. People die unceremoniously; they’re interrogated and tortured even as this onscreen brutality remains minimal. Still, each and every time we’re well aware of the aftermath and the ensuing consequences. It doesn’t make it any easier. The one lesson the experienced pass on to the naive is to always carry a cyanide capsule on your person.

Although the film is unsentimental, it’s not altogether unfeeling. Rather there is a maintained sense of wistfulness around the frames. Mainland Europe has been sent through the wringer, and it went on so long they almost came to accept the status quo. Even the German “Heil Hitlers” feel a bit bedraggled and half-hearted by now.

Army of Shadows is built on the foundation of a profound paradox. Because in reflecting its own subjects, it remains extraordinarily aloof while still managing to be deeply personal, even intimate.

They keep their humanity guarded. To show it would be a weakness to be exploited. But in this razor-thin web of moral ambiguity and dubious decisions, it’s the one element holding them together.

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It’s striking that while he walks down a dank corridor flanked by SS troopers to a foregone conclusion, scenes flash before Gerbier’s eyes. A pretty nurse in London. Walking in the forest with Mathilde (the inimitable Simone Signoret) amidst the calm of nature. They are glimmers of something else totally contrary to what he is experiencing at the moment. He clings to them fiercely because they offer some semblance of humanity.

The same might be said of Mathilde — an extraordinary woman of immense mettle with only one weak point — a family for whom she cares deeply about. Again, you cannot totally eradicate their hearts and souls.

This is not an action film; the events making up their days feel rudimentary and yet in each case, something might go horribly wrong. We live life right alongside them in this state of perpetual anxiety. Gerbier takes on an old acquaintance (Jean-Pierre Cassel) to run errands including transporting vital radio parts past the authorities.

They conduct a late-night rendezvous with a British submarine to evacuate P.O.W.s and some of their leaders back to the British Isles. In fact, these are some of the film’s most curious digressions.

A medal is bestowed for bravery. Gerbier and his companion Luc Jardie (Paul Meurisse ) view the raptures of Gone with the Wind in the cinema rather pensively. Even with the air raids, life is seemingly brighter in Britain, with bits of freedom still hidden away behind closed doors and in dance halls. We wonder where the film can go from here? Is it stalling? No, it’s giving us the respite we desperately need.

I deeply admire seemingly ordinary people who are unwavering in their resolve to walk into the lion’s den for the sake of liberty, knowing full-well what they are getting themselves into. I believe Willam Goldman called it “stupid courage.” There’s no more startling example than those who willfully returned to Nazi oppression.

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In this case, it’s an easy choice as Gerbier feels beholden to rescue his comrade Felix (Paul Crauchet ) who is currently being held at Gestapo headquarters, tortured to the point of exhaustion. It spells an end of the beginning because, in these dismal days of ’42 or ’43, things would only get worse before they got better.

Army of Shadows settles on a cruel conclusion indicative of the storyline thus far. In this way, the film maintains its narrative integrity. There’s no happy-go-lucky denouement slapped on. No such luck. They are faced with the impossible problems — the “Sophie’s  Choices,” if you will. I am reminded of Mathilde masquerading as a nurse, helpless to save a friend lest she betrays her cover. Or there’s Luc breaking with precedent by showing his face in public to pay his final respects to a friend.

In its day the film was a victim of poor timing, being released in the wake of ’68 with De Gaule, the former war hero, more despised than ever for his handling of the student protests.

Thus, the film became commercial and critical collateral damage, even failing to garner wider release in American until 2006! However, now it’s easy enough to look at it and one can hardly begrudge Melville his brand of patriotism since it strikes such a resonate chord with his own experience. As such, I’m led to deeply respect the film for its uncompromising perspective. It drains you of all veneration and hero-worship from the opening shot of German soldiers clomping through the Arc de Triomphe.

The true miracles are of an ordinary nature. Survival and yes, maintaining even a shred of decency in such a compassionless world. Sometimes the ultimate act of love is the most painful. The most devastating revelation the very fact that everything you might be clinging to could just as easily be a lie. What’s more, we might never know.

Forget villainy. Heroism is not a far cry from jaded, fatalistic acts of duty by insignificant little people sadly forgotten by time. I felt compelled to believe its depiction even as they unnerve me. It leaves no pretenses about war-torn France.

4.5/5 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 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