This is the second half of the list.
51. FELLINI SATYRICON. Inspired by Petronius, Federico Fellini’s Fellini Satyricon followed the swank and soap opera of La dolce vita (1959) and the vacancy of 8½ (1963), in which a filmmaker who has just had a stupendous hit—read in La dolce vita—is given lots of money and freedom to make another film; but about what? Some find beguiling the idea of a film with nothing to say about the making of a film with nothing to say. I have nothing to say. Juliet of the Spirits (1965) was better but somewhat diffuse.
Fellini described his Satyricon as a science-fiction film, but about the past. It’s a kaleidoscope of humanity.
The film’s barbaric first-century Roman odyssey follows young Encolpio through a phantasmagoric landscape of gods, goddesses and grotesques, a false minotaur and a real hermaphodite, homosexuality and public sexual humiliations, carnival-like revelry, and fierce punishments. It opens with the student wailing against solitude and life’s injustice in front of a blank wall. Shit happens. On the same stage where a theater-piece is being sensually performed, a poor soul gets a hand axed off for real. The writer Eumolpo is tortured for plagiarizing and finally cannibalized by relatives. The film ends mid-sentence (as did Petronius’s uncompleted original), with the film’s assorted characters visually translated into the completed fresco—the once blank wall with figures frozen in time yet hauntingly alive, eternally.
Blending harsh reality and mysterious legend, Fellini’s masterpiece posits humanity’s hapless existence. It is also a film about the artistic process by which the past is given form and its characters, finally, direction and purpose—humanity’s redemption. A part of this form is the film’s interrupted quality; narrative threads are abruptly dropped, and interruptions are themselves interrupted by other stories envisioned as flashbacks: an expression of life’s uncertainty, richness, unfathomability.
52. THE DAMNED. 100 Greatest English-Language Films List, elsewhere on the site, entry #67.
53. MEDEA. “I have a dim foreboding of grief.” — Medea
The first half of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s anthropological Medea contains his most brilliant work; when the part corresponding to Euripedes’s tragedy kicks in, the film is less satisfying, partly due to the inadequacy of opera diva Maria Callas, whose striking poses do not add up to a performance.
But the first half! The film opens with his adoptive father, Chiron, talking to Jason, who is, first, an infant, then thirteen, then an older teenager, then grown, as the centaur continues, telling the boy the boy’s family history and, ironically, contrary to the passage’s continuity over time, registering a changing viewpoint, beginning with a belief in the gods and that “[e]verything is holy,” and ending in disbelief in any god’s existence.
But we know the story of the Golden Fleece, and that is partly why Pasolini doesn’t spoil his solitudinous vision of Medea’s barbaric culture with intrusive dialogue. In an extraordinary passage, a virgin is sacrificed—a boy this time—so crops will grow. His neck broken, the boy is communally slaughtered, his blood and body parts imbibed and devoured. Haunting pans of the barren land are correlative to the primitive madness we everywhere see. The hard edge of the film’s fiercely sunlit images collapses the distance between reality and ancient myth.
Medea’s relationship with Jason is an instance of cultural collision. The barbaric sorceress Medea: can her marriage to civilized Jason prosper? No. He betrays her, and to punish him she murders their sons and Jason’s new bride, bringing to fruition what we first see as her premonition or dream. “Nothing is possible!” she cries out at Jason.
The tenderness with which Medea tends to each of her children right before dispatching them is a highlight of the second half.
54. IL CONFORMISTA. The quality of Bertolucci’s films is all over the map, but it is universally agreed that, from Alberto Moravia, The Conformist, about Fascism’s ghosts, is exceptionally beautiful.
For many of us, when we were in graduate school or college, The Conformist was the film to see. When two glamorous young women danced together in a working-class dance hall, incongruity deliciously compounding incongruity, a heady intoxicant of perversity overtook our senses. The Conformist has remained one of the films of our dreams.
Mild-mannered Marcello Clerici’s mania to appear “normal” and to disappear into the crowd drives him into an ill-suiting marriage and into becoming a Fascist assigned to assassinate a former professor of his, an antifascist activist. The film begins in the 1930s and ends after the war, by which time Clerici appears to embody Italy’s determination to deny its political past.
The Conformist dazzles with its bits and pieces juggling the present and different degrees of the past. Vittorio Storaro’s color cinematography—at a level of achievement beyond what he contributed to the films that account for his three Oscars—deepens the impression that everything in the film is haunted by memory. Italy’s past is flypaper; but in the disposition of the Clericis’ marriage at the last Bertolucci also summons echoes of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
Bertolucci is famous for eliciting superlative performances: Adriana Asti, Before the Revolution (1963); Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris (1972); Ugo Tognazzi and Anouk Aimée, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man (1981); John Lone, The Last Emperor (1987); Keanu Reeves, Little Buddha (1993). On this occasion, with Jean-Louis Trintignant, Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli, however, Bertolucci broke the bank. The Conformist may be the most brilliantly acted movie ever made.
55. THE DECAMERON. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s episodic masterpiece springboards off Boccaccio’s crammed 14th-century text to reflect on modern times.
Shamelessly wealthy Andreuccio is tricked by thieves into an archbishop’s sepulchre to hand up costly garments, presuming his cohorts will share with him; but they lock him inside with the corpse. But who is the biggest thief? The Church, whose fabulous wealth comes at the expense of feeding the poor. Doesn’t the Church know the tomb will be robbed? This letting the poor think they’re getting away with something helps maintain Church authority. Similarly, by controlling the distribution of wealth, capitalism sets workers to low wages, the constant threat of unemployment, hence starvation, keeping them in tow. Again, redress waits upon some egalitarian afterlife.
Pretending to be a deaf mute, a poor boy becomes the gardener at a convent, happily servicing the sisters’ long-suppressed sexual needs until his cock is worn to a frazzle. Masetto cuts off sex with Mother Superior and tries negotiating a more humane arrangement. Upon his hearing and speaking, Top Nun proclaims a miracle. “Independent” at the convent’s whim, Masetto is reduced to being Church property, as indeed workers in factories and businesses become owners’ property.
When Elisabetta’s three brothers, wealthy merchants we never see do a stitch of work, discover that she and Lorenzo, a hardworking Sicilian laborer, are lovers, they murder Lorenzo. She severs his head and plants it in a pot of basil in her bed chamber.
A master artist surveys the gorgeous work he and his crew have wrought in a cathedral. He muses: “Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” To reach out; to share something of the dream with others. Pasolini’s delight at doing this counters the religious hypocrisy and capitalistic mean-spiritedness his Decameron condemns.
56. THE CLOWNS. I clowns, we’ve been told, is “minor Fellini.” Perhaps; however, it is a minor masterpiece. Made for Italian television, with additional support from France and West Germany, Federico Fellini’s phantasmagoric celebration of circus clowns provides, also, a valedictory for them. At the last, the death of a clown signals the loss of childhood, which signals the “last end” for which life prepares all of us “clowns.”
A boy wakes up in the wee hours at noise outside his bedroom window in Rimini; the big tent is being raised, for the circus has rolled into town. A haunting camera adopting young Fellini’s point of view enters the dark, sheltered domain of the tent. Someone smiles at the boy—at us, too, for we’ve entered the tent along with young Fellini. Seamlessly, this hours-early event is transformed into that evening’s performance. A midget-clown annoys a big clown, who plants an ax in his noggin: the circus as waking nightmare, the little clown an encapsulation of Anychild’s vulnerability, fears. (We’re reminded of childlike Gelsomina, strongman Zampanò’s “clown”-companion in Fellini’s La strada, 1954.) Flash to the present: dressed in a gray suit punctuated by a mortally red tie, the adult Fellini plans a documentary to answer this question: What has happened to the great clowns? The pseudo-documentary that follows introduces us to the different historic types of clowns and to actual reminiscing clowns. It dramatizes Fellini’s—and our—denial of childhood through serious inquiry, research, documentation. Yet it draws us close to what we have lost.
A clown, vanished, is presumably dead. His companion-clown trumpets the wistful tune that the other clown used to play, to summon him. Dressed in black, the missing clown appears to take the white-dressed clown with him: the end that either was born for.
57. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER. Surpassing Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les diaboliques (1954) and Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . . (1968), the other titans of boys’ boarding school films, Nel nome del padre is also Marco Bellocchio’s most savage and caustic work, one eviscerating both the bourgeois institution of the Italian college and the Church that runs it. The film is an assault on patriarchy and paternalism, which proceed from the father’s being the family head, which proceeds from God the Father’s being the most authoritative member of the Holy Trinity. The film also assaults Fascism, the political translation of the nation’s paternalism.
If the film is Buñuelian in content, it is also so in form: a black comedy in which human experience is heightened to the nearly surreal, and interwoven into whose fabric are flights of the fully surreal. The school morality play whose staging is usurped by the most rebellious among the students, who lend to it its bizarre tone, exemplifies fantasy’s invasion of reality. Variously fantastic images of the Madonna also contribute to Bellocchio’s form and style while at the same time suggesting the distorted images of women with which a patriarchic society is likely to become obsessed. Fascism, with its military trappings, exemplifies political fantasy’s invasion of reality. For all the wildness of its presentation, Bellocchio has wrought an intellectually coherent work.
The Jesuit-run school at its center is no place any boy would want to be—a point hilariously underscored by the film’s opening, in which a father and son assault each other as the former drags the latter to the school to enroll him. The pupils, then, have already chafed at authority. But the film’s anarchic spirit contests such an outcome as beating them back into line.
58. THE WORKING CLASS GOES TO HEAVEN. A man has a right to know what he is doing, what use he is.
“Use” and “use”: the contribution one makes to society through work, or the use to which one is made through institutional exploitation—in other words, how one is used.
Ludovico Massa, nicknamed Lulù the Tool, operates a lathe in a factory. He is a thorn in the side of co-workers because he is so damned efficient. He sets the inhuman standard by which others are fined for failing to keep pace. He is most at home in the grinding monotony of his work. He has become a machine.
Recalling Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), a shot of workers factory-bound suggests the perspective that Lulù, captivated by his labor, lacks. The appeals by Communists for workplace justice fall, in his case, on deaf ears. Then one day a workplace accident costs him an index finger, and the loss of this displaced cock, in which his sense of manhood is bound up, sets the stage for an even more unmanning blow: Lulù is laid off. The one-time tool of capitalists becomes the tool of Communists.
Writer-director Elio Petri (Ugo Pirro co-authored the script), himself a Marxist, shares in the critique of industrial capitalism; but the point of his satirical comedy lies elsewhere. Petri is targeting institutions—as he did in We Still Kill the Old Way (Mafia, the Church; 1967) and Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (the police; see 1970). Lulù’s absurd switch of allegiance underscores his continuing status of being owned—by this group or that, one ideology or another. Lulù remains locked up, albeit in a different institution—like his friend, Militina, whose experience in the military, another gripping institution, has resulted in his confinement in a mental institution.
59. THE GARDEN OF THE FINZI-CONTINIS. “I am happy I made [this film] because it brought me back to my old noble intentions. . . . All my good films . . . made nothing. Only my bad films made money. Money has been my ruin.”
Vittorio De Sica’s Garden of the Finzi-Continis is based on Giorgio Bassani’s 1962 autobiographical novel. Bassani escaped Italy in time to avoid the fate of other Italian Jews who were rounded up by Germans in 1943.
In 1938, Italy’s “race laws” barred Jews from public schools and libraries. Jewish life and death no longer existed in the eyes of the law; Jewish obituaries were prohibited. In Ferrara, Giorgio was a bourgeois boy in love with Michol, a member of a wealthy, aristocratic family that lived behind a great wall, which couldn’t finally protect it from the tumultuous history unfolding outside. Too attached to a family mystique, Michol doesn’t reciprocate Giorgio’s love. For Giorgio, love between them was always doomed because Michol and six million other Jews were doomed. There is no recollective narration; rather, the whole film is saturated with a sense of Giorgio’s memory, and this memory has made Michol prescient of what was to happen to so many.
The two Jewish families live in different worlds; Giorgio’s father even questions the Jewishness of the Finzi-Continis. Others make no such distinction, consigning members of both families to the same assemblage, the same fate of deportation. The film ends with an overwhelming sense of a single Jewry.
The soft, airy, gorgeous images of this eternally sad film dissolve into a haze of sunlight—conjured memories of the nation’s past too shameful, too tragic, to bring into sharper focus lest they prove unbearable. They achieve an elegiac tone, the visual equivalent of a distant tolling bell.
60. THE MATTEI AFFAIR. Again Francesco Rosi applies documentary and fictional elements to an actual set of circumstances: the life and death of oil industrialist Enrico Mattei (Rosi’s indispensable Gian Maria Volontè, superb), whom Time magazine called “the most powerful Italian since Cæsar Augustus.” The film takes the form of a journalistic investigation, especially into the matter of the ambiguity of Mattei’s death in a plane crash in 1962, for which it offers alternative explanations as though trying to get to the truth by finding the most suitable script. One way or another, whether by dint of mechanical failure or of a conspiratorial something-else, Mattei was taken down. This becomes the take-off for a consideration of everything surrounding Mattei and what he represents: Italy’s past hopefulness and national spirit (during the war Mattei had fought in the Resistance), a growth of experience in capital investment in public companies, and the corruption into which Italy’s postwar economic recovery summarily fell, and the exploitation of Third World oil resources that the new global fascism required. Rosi and his writers, including Tonino Guerra, take their largest aim at capitalism and the means by which it prevails. What, if anything, lay behind Mattei’s death? None of the film is idle speculation, because the analysis it ultimately provides illuminates Mattei’s life, not death, and his corporate empire-building (in what the state intended to be its own operation).
This piecing together of a man’s life owes a debt, of course, to Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) as well as Rosi’s own past work, all the while aiming at a nation-as-pilgrim’s progress. Rosi’s communist heart weighs the price to Italy’s soul of postwar upturn. Il caso Mattei is the ultimate Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The patient has recovered; but is the patient at all the same person?
61. THE AGE OF COSIMO DE MEDICI. 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #79.
62. THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE. Victor Erice’s El espíritu de la colmena reflects on fascist Spain. Two sisters, Ana and Isabel, eight and ten, live with their parents in a rural Castile community in 1940, shortly after the defeat of decency in the Spanish Civil War. Their parents are each in their own lives: their father intently experimenting with bees, having transferred a colony to an artificial structure that unconsciously projects the political environment; their mother, consumed by solitude. (In a warm, fleeting scene, however, the mother combs Ana’s hair.) The girls are largely on their own; at night, they whisper back and forth between beds. Ana and Isabel are also cocooned, not as a matter of withdrawal from fascist reality, but in childhood’s innocence and ignorance. But a stray wounded Republican soldier, whom Ana finds in an abandoned barn (she gives him her father’s coat for warmth), is about to be murdered. At night, in long-shot, it’s a massacre; so many bullets for one debilitated man. Ana’s world will be disturbed even worse than by her sister’s “dead” act on a floor of their home.
An itinerant projectionist has brought a movie to town: James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). Ana, who cannot understand why the townsfolk kill the creature, relates the soldier to it before his disappearance. There is little speech in this mesmerizing film, and only silence—sweet solidarity—between Ana and her secret friend.
The stone well, the barn, the schoolhouse, wild mushrooms, the father’s musical pocket watch: in long-shot or closeup, things are simultaneously mundane and mysterious. A passing train, in long-shot, is immense compared with the sisters.
Brown, beige, gray, white, black, occasional reddish brown, dark green, pale amber: Erice orchestrates colors of repression, with glimmers of life: the spirit of the beehive.
63. CARTESIO. Ironically, seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher René Descartes had to be coaxed into publishing, and no sooner had he done so than he was in political trouble. He took his time in order to allow for the greatest measure of reflection before committing himself to his convictions; but, in reality, the times weren’t ready for him no matter how much time he took.
One of Roberto Rossellini’s present-tense histories, Cartesio, which is phenomenal, brings its in-the-momentness to an open-ended point by leaving its subject in the middle of things. Descartes, beautifully played by Ugo Cardea, describes himself as a pilgrim journeying through his own thoughts; the film becomes torrentially moving once we realize that Descartes also is journeying from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. He insists on clear, honest thought in a world plagued by religious dogma—for which Rossellini devises the most gripping metaphor: as Descartes walks a street, conversing with a friend, those collecting victims of the plague in wheelbarrows are also going about their business.
Descartes contested the falseness of knowledge, the conforming of science to inherited prejudices, including those of faith. For him, Rossellini implies, “original sin” is whatever one has been taught that constructs a barrier between oneself and the truth. Descartes devises a list of twenty-one rules for the mind’s right use, one of which requires a methodical approach to testing hypotheses, observations and evidence that circumvents bias, prejudice. He is quintessentially his own man. Descartes is “attracted to mathematics,” he explains, solely for the “metaphysical truths” that can be accessed through its study.
Rossellini’s frames are elegantly restrained yet bursting with human activity. One series of shots confines people to the lower half of a room, with vast blank walls above them: interiors suggesting humanity’s place in the cosmos!
64. CONVERSATION PIECE. 100 Greatest English-Language Films, elsewhere on this site, entry #72.
65. THE PASSENGER. 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #81.
66. CRÍA CUERVOS. Raise ravens, and they will pluck your eyes out. — Spanish proverb
Carlos Saura’s Raise Ravens—nonsensically in the U.S., Cria!—is, like his Garden of Delights (1970), a political allegory about Spain under Franco, who died either before or after production began. It is also a sensitive evocation of a nine-year-old’s childhood, but this childhood, described by the adult Ana as “sad” and “indeterminate,” itself suggests the imprint of fascist Spain.
The film opens with black-and-white photographs of Ana and family. Color photos follow—also snapshots of the past, but, in juxtaposition with those preceding it, also suggesting the present. Finally, the appearance of both color and black-and-white photos within the same shot, intermingling time frames, suggests memory. Ana’s mother, Maria, is dead; Ana’s father, in bed with his mistress as Ana listens outside his door, is about to be, from a heart attack.
Ana’s father was a military officer—one of Franco’s soldiers. The night of his death the camera moves through the darkness of his house; emblematic of Francoism, he is the darkness in the house. Maria might have been a concert pianist, but her husband’s rigid authority denied her this. He had translated the home into Francoism.
Geraldine Chaplin plays (beautifully) two roles: Maria, as the adult Ana recalls or reimagines her; the adult Ana. The film is surrealistic, so there is really no way to determine whether or when Ana the child is imagining herself as a grown-up or remembering her mother, or whether or when the adult is Maria or Ana, or a conflation of both. In the same frames, both child and adult appear; but who is comforting whom? Daughter bereft of mother reflects mother bereft of daughter, and fascism has tightened the tangle of experiences and memories entrapping both Anas.
67. PRIVATE VICES[,] PUBLIC VIRTUES. Neil Burger’s The Illusionist (2006) is the thinnest, dullest, most inconsequential film to touch upon the “Mayerling affair”; Hungarian master filmmaker Miklós Jancsó’s Vizi privati, pubbliche virtù, from Italy and Yugoslavia, is the liveliest, most intriguing, most passionately moving. (This assessment takes into account Max Ophüls’s estimable De Mayerling à Sarajevo, 1940.) Among young royalty and others, amidst marvelous classical, folk and martial music, dancing and laughter, and assassinations passed off as murder-suicide—this last incident is among the film’s numerous “what ifs”—Jancsó addresses “people and the masks they wear,” historical figures who have “a face for every occasion.” In one extraordinary party sequence, during which Crown Prince Rudolf learns that his father, Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of both Hungary and Bohemia, has stepped down, giving him, Rudolf, those positions, we see a mask of Franz Joseph covering a girl’s vagina, suggesting the repressiveness and tyrannical nature of Franz Joseph’s rule, and, in an even more stunning shot, a lateral view of Rudolf removing from his face an identical mask of his father. This is heady stuff.
Indeed, there is much intoxicated revelry, illicit and group, and even incestuous, sex, an astounding degree of nudity, including frontal, both male and female, all played out with sensual abandon at the Mayerling estate following a failed assassination attempt against the Emperor, in which his only son and heir played a part. It isn’t merely a contest of power; Rudolf, here, despises everything his father stands for. In Jancsó’s film, liberated sexuality denotes opposition to and contempt for tyranny, and surely reminds one of the heavy, puritanical Soviet hand that was part of the package of oppression that Jancsó’s own Hungary was enduring.
The film, in Italian, was written by Giovanna Gagliardo.
68. ILLUSTRIOUS CORPSES. The same year that the U.S. produced its middling, indifferently acted All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976), another film exemplified the conspiratorial political thriller at full-throttle. While police inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura, in his finest performance) investigates a high court murder, other judges, prosecutors and magistrates continue to be killed. Dark, convoluted, blurring the line between paranoiac perception and a reality suited to paranoia, Francesco Rosi’s Cadaveri eccelenti makes its way through a sludge of suspects, beginning with the Mafia, before lighting on right-wing assassination squads—the sort (though not in Italy) that the U.S. government is routinely fond of supporting.
Rosi once described the film as “a journey through the monsters and monstrosities of power,” and along the way both Left and Right are in for close examination. But the particularity of such actual case studies as Rosi’s The Mattei Affair (1972) yields here to a more unbounded, featureless province, that of the waking nightmare. Illustrious Corpses, based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, is Kafkaesque.
This kind of film hews to a line of unearthing the truth. Fittingly, this one begins in catacombs, amidst mummified corpses, suggesting the shadow of mortality dogging us and pressing our activities, including insane political acts, and introducing a permeative claustrophobic sense. We feel “buried alive”; Rogas becomes buried in the case.
As assassinations mount, Rosi investigates their cost to society. Indeed, the horror of the unfolding event threatens to sweep away society’s institutions. Like a cancer, the conspiracy has a life of its own—a power to effect social consequences beyond the grasp of all its members.
Rosi risks Kramertosis by casting Charles Vanel, Max von Sydow and Alain Cuny as legal V.I.P.s, but his taut control, not to mention gifted actors, keeps this a burrowing, enveloping film.
69. PADRE PADRONE. In Father and Master, based on Gavino Ledda’s memoir, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani portray Ledda’s coming out of the shadow of his father, a Sardinian shepherd whose severity is dictated by overwhelming poverty, harsh terrain, hard work, and Italian patriarchy. Until he is 18, Gavino works (as his mother puts it) “alone alone” in his father’s pasture, guarding sheep and tending to crops.
The film opens with the actual Ledda, age 35, now a linguist despite having been illiterate for the first half of his life, stripping a tree branch and handing the result to the actor playing his father, saying, “My father always carried a stick.” The actor graciously thanks Ledda, but this graciousness instantly evaporates as the actor slips into his role and into the schoolroom from which he will remove little Gavino. This concise opening ironically reflects on the extent to which environment contributes to human behavior; but for their different circumstance, the father might have been like the person who is playing him. In mimicking his father by fashioning the stick, moreover, Ledda makes the kind of implement with which his father punished (and, once, nearly killed) him. Because Ledda betrays no emotion, we fill in by imagining how Ledda must feel amongst his private memories. The Taviani brothers have drawn us into their film.
There is the slow, trotting journey to the distant, isolated pasture where Gavino must stay, and the father’s moving attempt to educate his son as to the sounds of the pasture. Conjoined with images of Nature, the father’s voice becomes disembodied, creating a haunting echo of the past.
The first part of the film is brilliant; the second part, charting Gavino’s victory over his past through education, should have been condensed into a page or two of script.
70. THE TREE OF WOODEN CLOGS. I must have a cruel streak, for once upon a time I dismissed this film with this witticism: “De Sica, and ye shall find.” Over the years Ermanno Olmi’s peasant epic Tree of Wooden Clogs has grown on me, although I still question its reputation as a masterpiece.
The theme is ownership: property rights versus natural rights. Near the turn of the century, families struggle to survive in a Lombardy farm district whose landowner takes three-fourths of the fruits of their harsh labor, paying them a measily amount based on their comparative productivity. One daring, devout family decides their son will go to school, for which he must walk many miles going and returning. When his shoes give out, the boy’s father fells a poplar tree to make him a pair of new shoes. This is deemed stealing, sealing the family’s fate.
The richest part of this long film, which Olmi wrote, directed, (gorgeously mutedly) cinematographed, and edited, is the rhythm of life it conveys, at work and socially, portraying its events, including detailed studies of people hard at daily work, measured against a breathtaking sense of eternity. Shortly after Roberto Rossellini’s death, the spirit of his humanistic Francesco, giullare di Dio is evoked (see 1950), here given the political context of tumultuous Italian history that, unbeknownst to these farmers, will help determine the course of their families’ future.
Beautifully acted by nonprofessionals, the film mixes documentary realism, authenticated by the recollections of his own family’s elders upon which Olmi drew, and selfconscious, hifalutin art, such as the explosions of Bach on the soundtrack. De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti!
If some of us once dismissed this film in reaction to the fulsome praise it received, it may be time to give it a second chance.
71. CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI. 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #84.
72. THREE BROTHERS. The three Giuranna sons have gathered for their mother’s funeral in a Puglia village, in Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers. Nicola, the youngest, works in a factory in Turin and is an activist for workers’ rights. He and his wife are divorcing. Single, Rocco works at a boys’ reformatory in Naples. The eldest, Raffaele, happily married with a grown son, is a Roman judge, whose current case involves terrorists, making him a potential target for assassination. In the country, the father, Donato, interacts with his granddaughter and reminisces about himself and his wife when they were newlyweds.
Rosi’s film opens on the exterior wall of the institution where Rocco works: concrete and orderly windows. In terrifying closeup, rats lurk on the grounds outside; the cut to Rocco waking up suggests this is a dream. Donato’s lush rural surroundings contrast with Rocco’s milieu. What different times and lives—a point ironically underscored by the fact that Vittorio Mezzogiorno plays both Rocco and Rocco’s father as a young man. Charles Vanel is excellent as Donato.
But father and sons are each now a stranger to the three others. Nicola remarks, “My hometown is no longer a part of me, nor I of it.” In a wonderful shot, Rocco is upstairs, in the foreground, back towards us, looking out the window, and in the courtyard below his siblings are both walking very far apart. Rocco begins to cry. During the funeral, a flock of birds flutter; we see their shadows on an outside wall. Each of the sons is at loose ends in his life, although Raffaele (Philippe Noiret, in one of his greatest roles) is best at concealing this.
About the delinquents, from poor families, whom Rocco helps, Raffaele tells him, “It would have been better had they not been born.”
73. THE TRAGEDY OF A RIDICULOUS MAN. Ugo Tognazzi (best actor, Cannes; Italian critics) is ferocious and sharp as sixtyish Primo Spaggiari, who has pulled himself up from working-class roots to own a cheese factory in Parma. His birthday occasions the brandishing of defenses against time, including his first-time purchase of a yacht. His twentysomething son, Giovanni (Ricky Tognazzi—like his father, an actor-director), while chiding Primo’s gift to himself as “pompous” in a charming, affectionate note, has added to it: a flare gun; a yachtsman’s cap that proves a perfect fit; a pair of binoculars. With the last, Primo espies Giovanni’s kidnapping below. Through notes presumably written by Giovanni, a billion lira-ransom is indicated.
Writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci’s astounding La tragedia di un uomo ridicolo splits Primo’s voice amongst voiceover, private speech aloud, and conversational intercourse, early on enrobing Primo’s face and form in darkness, conveying how lost Primo feels with his son absent and in such danger, and also suggesting Primo’s interiority as a source for what is happening. Œdipus’s ordeal, after all, proceeded from his biological father’s fear of Œdipus, and a patriarchal nation such as Italy lends especial clarity to history’s replacement of fathers with sons. The police suspect that Giovanni has arranged his own kidnapping to fund Leftist causes, while Primo, suspecting that his son is dead, connives to use the ransom, part of which his wife Barbara has raised, to revive his faltering factory. Barbara, however, cannot give up her son’s ghost.
Presumably realistic images appear fully surreal—for instance, the factory’s tunnel stacked with gold bars; at the same time, the weave of conversations and Primo’s self-conversations tangles us in delightful confusions as to what is happening, and when.
Like Primo, Bertolucci leaves us to “solve” the film’s central “enigma” for ourselves.
74. BLUE PLANET. Franco Piavoli’s Il pianeta azzurro compresses a cycle of the four seasons into a day and a half in a rural setting. Time passes, bringing changes; indeed, the film is about the passage of time.
Fields, trees, sand, river; the effects of wind and rain on all these; flora and fauna: others have catalogued the sights and (amplified) sounds that Piavoli, working as his own color cinematographer, has conjured for this gorgeous film. But to describe it, as some have, as a “Nature documentary” is to miss the point. The natural landscape affects the humans, the farmer and his family and neighbors. People remain unseen so long as the “blue planet” is to their liking, representing hope, possibility, an easy breaking through of obstacles. But the long-shot of the family house at dinnertime, with doors and windows open, revealing reddish light indoors confronting the darkness outdoors, hollowing it out, carries a suggestion of anxious blood in addition to humanity’s precarious accommodation with Nature. One can go further: the reddish glow intimates human sacrifices.
Earlier, Nature is portrayed as wet, overflowing, erotic, fecund, and a frolicking couple, in the throes of youthful passion, seems to suggest harmony between humanity and Nature. If one isolates a segment of the seasonal cycle, one can believe this. But Piavoli’s theme runs counter to this. His film exposes this alleged harmony as humanity’s delusion. Anticipation of the culminating winter invites lonely regret for one woman alone in her bed at night and quarrels among people during the day; its arrival chills the landscape, replacing the earlier balmy breeze with a blast of cold wind that turns the landscape into a metaphoric graveyard. The blueness of life has progressed through prussian blue to the cold blue of a corpse. Nothing grows.
75. BLOOD WEDDING. Federico García Lorca’s 1932 play Bodas de sangre was based on an actual murder involving feuding families; for Alfredo Mañas’s 1974 musical adaptation Antonio Gades devised choreography suited to Emilio de Diego’s music. Flamenco ballet is—yes, this is possible!—both flamboyant and austere, as is Carlos Saura’s film version, again choreographed by and starring Gades. It is the most exciting dance film I’ve seen.
It reminds me of Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944), which begins with the backstage preparations for a performance of the play at the Globe Theater, and then gradually draws us into the play’s medieval action before returning us to the framing device representing Shakespeare’s day. Saura begins and ends his film with the same sepia photograph: at the outset, perhaps of Andalusian villagers; at the close, of the dancer-actors in costume posing as them—yet a photograph haunted by the reality the villagers represent. At the beginning, there are preparations for a performance, including the thoughts of dancers as they apply makeup. Elvira Andrés, artistic director of Ballet Nacional de España, who worked on the film: “Saura wanted to see what happened when the dancers arrived and their preparations for the day[,] and he made wonderful photography from it. The images are memorable because they are authentic.”
This is followed by the performance—a rehearsal set against enormous windows in a bare-bones rehearsal space. The drama passionately unfolds: a bride takes off with her former lover, and a knife duel to the death ensues between the two men. By that time, we have been so fully drawn into the action that our hearts are poised to burst.
In a way, then, the film is about us, the audience—about our willingness to suspend disbelief. We embrace the human reality a performance represents.
76. CAMMINA, CAMMINA. Hauntingly beautiful, Ermanno Olmi’s masterpiece is cinema’s greatest foray into biblical territory—and its least dogmatic. A commemorative reenactment by peasants of the journey of the magi to witness the birth of Christ drifts into the actual event, triggering again for the first time King Herod’s rampage of slaughter in Bethlehem. A “road picture” by caravan and foot, Keep Walking questions the faith of the faithful, the distinctions to which they cling in order to certify their faithfulness, and the disparities they often ignore between their behavior and professed beliefs. It’s a restless film.
One of the opening events is little Rupo’s denunciation of Mel[chior], one of the magis, for ritually sacrificing a lamb, the boy’s sweet, innocent companion and, symbolically, The Lamb—Jesus. By film’s end, the three “wise men” and their entourage will have furiously withdrawn under threat from Herod, leaving Mary and Joseph and the newborn infant in peril. A lamb will prove the sole survivor of Herod’s raging fear of prophecy that this baby, not he, will prove to be the King of Kings. Did the infant Jesus, then, perish? Did he survive, or did only the idea of him survive? Is the grown Christ’s summary crucifixion a projection of the earlier event? In her brilliant analysis, critic Susan Doll asks, “What are the implications of building a religion based on the savior’s death?” In the film, his translator warns Mel that he will end up celebrating not Christ’s coming but Christ’s death.
The film also conflates Testaments, identifying disparate humanity in its overwhelming aspiration. Doll points out that Olmi’s version of the magis’ journey suggests the Israelites, “who escaped Egypt to wander across the desert in search of the Promised Land.” Wanderers all, we are searching for home.
Olmi wrote, directed, cinematographed, edited.
77. IDENTIFICATION OF A WOMAN. Niccolo, a filmmaker, has difficulty focusing on the woman he is with. Mavi has detached herself from family; nevertheless, Niccolo obsesses on them. With Ida (Christine Boisson, superb), Niccolo obsesses on the past—on Mavi. Niccolo takes up his nephew’s innocent suggestion to make a dumb Star Wars-level piece of escapism, which finds him (on film) star-trekking toward (the newspaper says) a dangerously expanding sun, to jolt himself out of space and time and into the moment.
Niccolo and Mavi take a motor trip into the country, where they get lost, and stuck, in an immense fog. By providing a kind of protective cover, this fog, a projection of their anxiety and ambivalence, releases the couple’s worst mutual behavior. When Ida accompanies Niccolo to Venice on holiday, the other great set-piece seems to evoke this alternative couple’s stability and shared contentment. But it turns. On the water, in a canoe, Ida and Niccolo find themselves in a vast floating fog, the measured sound of lapping water adding to the melancholy to which the lovers differently respond: she, with her whole spirit; he, analytically. Ida and Niccolo float apart, together. At their hotel, Ida learns by phone she is pregnant, and the relationship drowns. Is Niccolo able to live with someone else’s past—Ida’s, or the child’s father’s?
What a joyous tonic Michelangelo Antonioni’s Identification is for all the strident, empty stylizing, sociologizing, politicizing and manipulation that take up so many screens nowadays. Mysterious pressures invisibly weigh in on his characters, leaving us to wonder whether our own lives, too, are an elusive fine thread whose course is best picked up somewhere unexpected, uncharted, far, far beyond our familiar sensible or emotional galaxy, in the direction of the sun’s perfect (if dangerous) clarity—somewhere beyond the clouds.
78. DEMONS IN THE GARDEN. Not long after the Spanish Civil War, in a small village, a family’s conflicts mirror a divided nation. Gloria runs a black market food store with the help of her elder son, Oscar, while her favorite, Juán, is part of Franco’s entourage of guards. Oscar hates Juán, whose affair with Ana, Oscar’s wife, precipitated his flight to Madrid. Childless with Oscar, Ana is drawn to the care of Juán’s small son, “Juanito,” whose rheumatic fever enables him to manipulate her, his grandmother and Ángela, his mother, Gloria’s impoverished, orphaned niece, whose sympathies remain with the anti-fascist side loyal to the vanquished republic. When Juán returns home, violence explodes.
Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón has co-written (with Luis Megino) and directed a narrative film that nonetheless moves from shot to shot, not scene to scene. Perhaps it is its thoroughly absorbed historical symbolism that spares this wonderful film the taint of “visual storytelling.” Dark, oppressively atmospheric and precisely lit, Demons in the Garden is one of those works—John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) is another—where it’s impossible to determine whether characters and objects are emerging from darkness or disappearing into it. Everything bears an awful sense of both ill-fated history and ill-fated prophecy.
However, Juanito’s view of reality is definitely emerging from the dark of a child’s bewilderment and ignorance. Juanito sneaks about spying and eavesdrops—for instance, when he is pretending sleep or an imminent heart attack. His perception is volatile. His father sends him another tin soldier, “a guard from Franco’s personal escort,” which inspires the boy to make his elders arrange a trip to Madrid so he can see Juán at work. But he recoils from his father, seeing Juán as nothing more than a waiter serving a master.
This breaks the boy’s heart.
79. AND THE SHIP SAILS ON. Bettered only in the Federico Fellini canon by Fellini Satyricon (1969), E la nave va is a meditation on the persistence of war and its ravages on humanity set against time’s passage. It is among Fellini’s most moving works. Like his masterpiece, it comments on human folly.
A celebrated opera singer’s ashes are onboard a luxury liner that sets sail days after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb. The ship is transporting her friends to an island where her funeral service is to be held. Among the other people onboard are Orlando, a journalist and the humorous guide who speaks to us directly between attempts at interviewing guests, and Austria-Hungary’s Grand Duke.
The film begins scratchily in sepia and silence; this bravura opening depicts the dockside activity, a good deal of it involving playful children, prior to the ship’s departure. The intricacy of this activity, especially since it’s captured primarily in long-shot, evokes allegorical paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. The artifice of the studio-bound details (cellophane ocean, solid, material smoke, etc.) likewise prepare us for an allegory, or at least a parable. The boiler room, with men working below as elaborately dressed guests espy them from on high, may even remind us of Dante’s Inferno—although guests sing for the workers, who applaud. (But do they really enjoy this zoo patron-like intrusion into their workplace?)
Color is itself distancing: browns, white, black, and a touch of red.
When Serbian refugees are brought onboard, spirited peasant dancing augments the plentiful operatic singing. (This film is full of wonderful music.) What is the captain to do when an Austro-Hungarian battleship demands that the refugees be turned over? The Grand Duke intervenes, but only so the funeral service can proceed.
80. THE HOLY INNOCENTS. From Miguel Delibes, Mario Camus’s Los santos inocentes is an incisive, haunting portrait of the political connection between Franco’s fascism, the Church, and the feudalism of land barons in Spain’s countryside in the 1960s. Impoverished peasants Paco and Régula work for Pedro, who manages a vast rural estate. Their problems are real, unlike those in the mansion that can be credited to high-born vanity and indolence.
Paco and Régula have three children: a sick, bedridden child, her older sister, and Quirce, their son who resists the status quo encapsulated in his mother’s by-rote utterance, “We’re here to serve.” This boy, serving in the military, delays using his leave to go home. The film alternates between him in the present and his and others’ flashbacks. There is one other member of the household cramped into small quarters: Azarías, a simple man who as a result of washing his hands in urine to keep them from chapping was discharged after sixty years of service, causing him to move in with Régula, his sister. Régula desperately wants her older children somehow to get an education.
Paco believes that his relationship with Ivan, the landowner’s son, is special. Ivan avidly hunts birds on the estate, and gamekeeper Paco is his guide, assistant and strength; but when Paco breaks a leg after falling from a tree, Ivan shows a total lack of concern. Quirce’s insolence prompts Ivan to speak of the need for “hierarchy.” Paco’s tumble to the ground visually suggests the potential for a collapse of hierarchy, and something else later drives this home: when he is perched on a tree branch, Azarías’s roping Ivan below and hanging him because the latter, frustrated that without Paco his hunting sucks, shot to death Azarías’s pet goshawk from the sky.
81. LONG LIVE THE LADY! See 100 Greatest Films List, elsewhere on this site, entry #87.
82. THE LEGEND OF THE HOLY DRINKER. Because it has an air of fable or legend about it, La leggenda del santo bevitore somewhat resembles Orson Welles’s The Immortal Story (1968) or Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997). Some may even be reminded of Vittorio De Sica’s Miracle in Milan (1951).
Written, directed and edited by Ermanno Olmi, the film derives from Joseph Roth’s 1939 novella, his last work. Roth was an Austrian Jew who exiled himself to Paris with the rise of Hitler in 1933. Roth, who wrote about Jewish life (for instance, in Job, 1930), suffered from chronic alcoholism, like Andreas Kartak (Rutger Hauer, beautiful), the protagonist of Legend, who, impoverished and homeless, sleeps under bridges in Paris in 1934. One day a stranger gifts Andreas in the street with 200 francs, explaining a debt he (the stranger) owes to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, and Andreas promises to repay the 200 francs, when he is able, to a nearby church. But each Sunday something comes up, including pleasant distractions or shards of painful memory from his haunting past; and, even though the 200 francs lead to more and more money coming his way, Andreas doesn’t repay the debt he owes. Olmi’s enchanting film is a study of loss, shame, perseverence and redemption.
In the opening shot, the solidity of the outdoor stairs down which Andreas walks is wobbled by falling leaves, which evoke transience. The whole “legend” that unfolds may be Andreas’s dying fantasy; doubtless, much of what Andreas “sees” are apparitions or delusions induced by chronic drinking. Holding the pocket watch they gave him years earlier when he set out on his own, Andreas “sees” his parents in a bar. He passes out at table; when he awakes, the elderly couple are gone.
83. OPEN DOORS. Former documentarian Gianni Amelio’s Porte aperte is cinema’s most electrifying study of judicial process. In 1937 Italy, Tommaso Scalia, a former compliant Fascist accountant, murders within minutes the employer who fired him and the man who replaced him as a result of pervasive corruption for which he was scapegoated, and then rapes and murders his nagging wife, whom he had forced into prostitution to pick up some of the slack of their vanished income. The death penalty is almost certain for this “Beast of Palermo,” except that one of the three judges presiding in the case, Vito Di Francesco (Gian Maria Volontè, brilliant, at times manically so), who is opposed to capital punishment on the grounds it politically serves State interests, turns the trial into a probing investigation of the defendant and the complicated context of his actions in hopes of unearthing a mitigating circumstance that might justify a sentence of life imprisonment. It’s a tough patch to hoe. Even Scalia desires a prompt dispatch.
Based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia, the script by Amelio, Vincenzo Cerami and Alessandro Sermoneta, among the dozen or so finest ever produced, encompasses vibrant exchanges among the judges, between Di Francesco and the enraged widow of one of the victims, between Di Francesco and the young boy whom Scalia’s execution would orphan, between judges and jurors. No film better demonstrates how human personalities, grounded in both common and widely differing individual experience, weigh in on legal process. Without resorting to the theatrics of rhetorical statement, Amelio has made a witheringly anti-fascist film, its visual aspect keyed to its profound humanism and analytical bent.
If I had to choose one film, had he lived so long, that Roberto Rossellini would have embraced as beautiful kin to his own work, this would be it.
84. LETTERS FROM ALOU. Looking for more bountiful economic opportunity than Senegal, his African homeland, can provide, Alou (Mulie Jarju, marvelous) becomes an illegal immigrant in Barcelona. There, Alou connects with fellow illegals, variously interacts with the natives—this includes his romance with a Spaniard—, finds work, finds other work, tries to legalize his status, mourns (uninhibitedly) the death of a roommate, eludes the police, all in an unhurried narrative that finds him, rather than sullen, both disappointed and perplexed by the racial hostility he encounters. Eventually Alou is caught and sent home; but the end of the film finds him, undaunted, on his way back to Spain. He has grown used to white people, he explains; and he isn’t about to leave behind the woman he loves.
Letters from Alou is without rancor or self-pity; its tone instead resonates with Alou’s youthful “Let’s-see-how-we-can-negotiate-this” attitude, a disposition of adaptability aiming at assimilation—finding a way to “belong” on foreign shores. Except elliptically, Montxo Armendáriz’s film doesn’t assault intolerance; it isn’t a smug, one-dimensional, self-righteous diatribe. Rather, in an engaged and engaging way the film observes Alou’s engagement of racial intolerance and other hardships with which life challenges him and his compatriots. Alou is in Spain as a matter of choice; he is committed to the experience, including all its turns, that this choice has brought on him.
The film’s naturalistic acting helps Armendáriz reach a captivating middle ground between fiction and pseudo-documentary—a region of expression that neither overcontrives content nor forces upon it a rigid shape, but nevertheless meets the formal requisites of art. At times evoking the dark, rich though subdued colors of Goya, but without enforcing on the frames a sluggish, painterly selfconsciousness, the film’s visual aspect (enriched by Alfred F. Mayo’s beauteous color cinematography) is incomparable.
85. DREAM OF LIGHT. Portrait of a man at work: Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo, also known as Quince Tree of the Sun, is among only a handful of Spanish film masterpieces. At once dreamy and realistically particular, Dream of Light is a documentary hybrid, and even when its elastic nature expands to include scripted elements it captures life.
There is a lush, fruit-bedecked quince tree in Antonio López García’s courtyard. García, a realist artist, plays himself. We watch him recommence his autumn ritual of painting the tree. The process begins with the preparation of the canvas indoors and the meticulous engineering, outdoors, involved in determining the painting’s center, the direction of light, the staking of the painting stance. Whenever it seems that calculations might demystify the creative process, the subject of the painting, the tree, is there to remystify it.
Over time, we watch García paint his tree—and life goes on. His wife, who is a fellow artist, family members, including offspring, friends and neighbors, and even strangers such as a visiting Chinese artist: all sorts of people drift in to converse with García as he goes about his work. In time, the work and this other activity all become part of one thing, García’s openness, his humanity, a rhythm of life. Eventually inclement weather intercedes, canceling the project before it can reach fruition. What is the point then? Possibility—and García still communes with his cherished tree. Shifting gears, he begins drawing it.
What a glorious film this is, radiant with life, finely realistic and yet punctuated with mysterious shots of the moon that suggest the infinite and eternal regions of imagination and inspiration. Assisted by rich color cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe and Ángel Luis Fernández, Erice has created a moving meditation on the passage of time.
86. THE MEMORY OF WATER. The disembodied voice is of a Russian man, Joseph Gruferman, during his last moments; images of trees, child and water are ancient memories of himself before his mother and he fled Stalinist Russia for France after his father’s “disappearance” at the State’s hands. Scenes of mother and son follow, but they are to be separated from one another, just as they have already been separated from husband and father, and homeland. “At what grave will I kneel, Mother,” the voice asks, “if I don’t know where you are?” Now an exhumed voice: that of Ivona Gruferman, Joseph’s wife, who died thirty years earlier. She reads from journals she kept to redeem her “anonymous existence.” She recalls her own separation from parents and sister—the time she spent in a Nazi death camp. The images accompanying her voiceover are images of death camps; the scene of one’s liberation is populated by an indistinct procession of ghosts. Ivona did not understand what she was being punished for. She never saw her father, her mother or Lea again. Ivona is fearful “it” could all happen again, endangering Myriam, her and Joseph’s daughter. Indeed, the springboard for this creative Spanish documentary is an event that occurred only two years into the past: in southern France, the desecration of Carpentras Jewish Cemetery—part of an outburst of like incidents in the 1990s throughout the world, including the United States.
Argentinian filmmaker Héctor Faver, working from his and Eugenia Kleber’s script, patiently, poetically explores a plane of existence haunted by memory. Two other essential collaborators are black-and-white cinematographer Gerardo Gormezano and Lito Vitale, who composed the plaintive score. La memoria del agua may be the most lyrically sad movie ever. It is about two Holocaust survivors who came together and created hope.
87. LAMERICA. 1991. Communist Albania has fallen. Two Italians arrive armed with a scheme to pretend setting up a shoe-making concern; the interests they represent will pocket the grant money. They recruit from detention Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli, poignant), a presumed Albanian, to chair the fake company; but when Spiro takes off right before he can be presented, young Gino (Enrico Lo Verso, tremendous), one of the con-artists, searches him out. In the process, the boy is immersed in the poverty and deprivation of ordinary Albanians; for the first time, his humanity is tested. It turns out that Spiro, an army deserter from World War II, is Sicilian, like Gino; the fraud of an Albanian identity was to keep the Communists from executing him when they took power from the Fascists, who had imprisoned him. When both are “fired” from their crooked jobs, Gino and Spiro try returning to Lamerica, that is to say, home. Arrayed against this attempt are the authorities who wish to keep Albanian refugees from entering Italy.
Amelio’s Open Doors (see 1990) is cool, analytical, precise; Amelio’s Lamerica, his masterpiece, though, is sweeping, volatile, passionate. No less political, however, it is cinema’s most stinging indictment of the “new capitalism,” for which the exploitative scheme is both an instance and a metaphor. The color film opens with black-and-white Fascist newsreels, circa 1939, boasting the end to Albanian poverty, which nevertheless continued unabated, with new “invaders” now poised to exploit Albanians afresh, promising jobs and livelihoods, but only to line their own well-stitched pockets. In a dire form, the beleaguered Albanians become emblematic of all pawns of capitalism. Italy, like the United States earlier in the century, sparkles with promise; but will refugees fare better there than in Albania?
The montage of human faces aboard the crowded ship: heartrending.
88. BEYOND THE CLOUDS. Based on his short story collection That Bowling Alley on the Tiber, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Beyond the Clouds—with assists from Wim Wenders—is a spacious, summary work, a mystery of sorts, that gathers up moods and images, ghostly echoes, from the filmmaker’s past. Its theme is the gap (wherein the human heart is most guarded and secretive) between desire and attainment, imagination and reality. What the enchanted eye takes in, the flesh can’t hold; even as love overwhelms with powerful emotion, it shifts, confounds, remains elusive.
In the film’s final episode, suddenly captivated by a girl he catches sight of (Irène Jacob, sublime), a boy pursues her for the balance of the day and into the night, only to be told by her that he cannot see her again because she is entering a convent that morning. He asks, “What if I fell in love with you?” She: “You would be lighting a candle in a room full of light.” The boy’s flaming moment of impossible love reflects the girl’s love for Jesus; for, by intensifying her glow, this pure devotion of hers, with its effortless capacity to still the boy’s exaggerated mortal anxiety, proves an irresistible force of attraction for him, although it is precisely, also, what makes her unsuitable for him. The boy has not been fooled or victimized, either by girl or cosmos; rather, he simply doesn’t grasp—as so often we do not—the impetus behind his falling in love and, as a result, lights upon a partner who must abandon him. Piercingly, the “relationship,” stillborn, ends before it has begun.
Always Antonioni urges on us and on himself a fuller view of things; and the fuller the view, the less knowable and more mysterious humanity and life itself show themselves to be.
89. ULYSSES’ GAZE. Poised between calm survey and piercing elegy, a slow, measured camera sleepwalks as its trackings—a fusion of ancient and modern wanderings—follow a filmmaker (Harvey Keitel, magnificent) who, separated from his Greek homeland—hence, his family; hence, himself—for 35 years, returns from the U.S. to research a documentary on Miltos and Yannakis Manakis, brothers and pioneering Greek filmmakers, the film claims, who began their own documentary recordings in 1905. Death interrupted elderly Yannakis, who was shooting a blue ship of hope sailing across the ocean; we ourselves “see” the solemn image as it haunts the American’s speculative mind’s eye—this, a part of Yannakis’s ultimate work, although none of the film stock was ever developed. Death, politics, war, indifference: all these have marked the passage of the missing three reels that the American, commissioned by the Athens Film Archives, has come over to locate. One of several guides is his brother, a journalist; and, eventually, this search brings the American to Sarajevo, the fog-enshrouded, bleeding heart of the Balkans, a war-targeted city of civilians in a region steeped in and torn apart by long, terrible conflict.
“In the end is my beginning,” the American has said of this “personal journey.” And, persevering, he reaches “the end”; for he does find Yannakis’s missing reels and even views the developed footage. But this “end” only begins his burden; for amidst war’s rubble and ripped or canceled lives, he discovers that his heart—which he had thought belonged to cinema, career and mid-life malaise—admits the prior and transcendent claim of humanity.
In Ulysses’ Gaze Theodoros Angelopoulos has passed the 1900s through a prism of family, art and politics, achieving a monumental vision of Western civilization in disarray, trauma, sorrow—broken idealism, bleak prospects, partisan strife—and undying hope.
90. THE PRINCE OF HOMBURG. Marco Bellocchio’s films blend fantasy and reality in pursuit of an analytical outcome. Dark and dreamy, like Kleist’s play, The Prince of Homburg departs from Kleist’s (conscious) intent and accumulates into an indictment of war.
The protagonist is the titular young German general who is fighting the Swedes in the Thirty Years War. Swept up in romantic reverie centering on his beloved Natalia, he leads a cavalry charge prematurely. The offensive action succeeds; but his unintended disobedience of military orders requires his death. The Grand Elector, Natalia’s uncle, orders this after a trial; meanwhile, Natalia must marry the King of Sweden. Brave and heroic on the battlefield, the Prince disintegrates into fear at the prospect of execution. Natalia’s pleas on the Prince’s behalf win the Elector’s retraction of the death sentence—with this caveat: the Prince must agree to this outcome in writing. Honor and military code preclude his doing this; but before going to his death, the Prince secures the undoing of the planned political marriage for the sake of his and Natalia’s undying love.
War, then, is at war with human feelings. It distorts, falsifies much that is human. Masks replace humanity: Hohenzollern may not be comrade of the Prince that he appears to be; the Grand Elector, anticipating Melville’s Captain Vere, is certainly not the loving surrogate father that the Prince believes him to be. Even the Prince’s cowardice turns out to be a mask!—irony of ironies.
Bellocchio conjures images that intercept a voluminous dream. Outside a window in a dark room, soldiers on horseback pass; they appear as an expressionistic regimented train of ghastly silhouettes—a war-haunted European history, a revelation of the Prince’s tormented soul, a harbinger of his death:
the convoluted suicide preceding his dreamt wedding.
91. ETERNITY AND A DAY. What is Time? Grandfather says it is a boy playing jacks on the beach. — the voice of Alexandre as a child, now coming back to him.
It is routinely claimed that Roberto Benigni won the 1998 Palme d’Or for Life Is Beautiful. That year, in fact, the world’s most prestigious film prize was unanimously awarded to Theodoros Angelopoulos for Eternity and a Day, the loveliest Greek film in creation.
Writer, widower Alexandre, convinced he is about to die, is full of aching memories of childhood and of Anna, his wife, while family members cannot quite fit what may be his last hours into their schedule. He therefore befriends an eight-year-old street child, an illegal immigrant from Albania whom he rescues from being kidnapped and sold. One is an exile; the other is about to be.
One leg of the pair’s odyssey is across the border to the boy’s village, razed by war and populated, in a ghostly long shot, by erect, unmoving male bodies. In the eerie fog and snow, are these prisoners corpses? The child has lied; no grandmother awaits him. Alexandre takes the boy back to Greece, where the white of a bride’s gown, in contrast to dingy yellow buildings and street, electrifies a wedding procession.
Derivative of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957), the film has the pair walk through a scene from the past that Alexandre tells the boy about. Before Alexandre visits his ancient, bedridden mother, they find Selim, the child’s friend, dead in the harbor. The boy visits Selim in the morgue and burns his clothes underneath a building under construction, with other refugee children in attendance. It is a ceremonial farewell to friend and homeland—an acceptance of exile.
A passenger appropriates a bouquet of flowers left on a bus.
92. IN VANDA’S ROOM. “The real torture was knowing that other people could smoke [smack].”
Having viewed the films out of order, I must fix this in my head, because Vanda Duarte, the heroin-addicted woman with a racking cough in No Quarto da Vanda, the tremendous three-hour middle film, is a through-character in Portuguese writer-director Pedro Costa’s Fountaínhas trilogy. The same Cape Verde slum outside Lisbon where Ossos (1997) was set is now in the early stages of being gradually demolished. This process is further along in Juventude Em Marcha (2006), by which time former inhabitants have been relocated. Vanda, who began as Tina’s hardworking, spirited chum, now shares affectionate, nostalgic scenes, and drugs, with her sister, Zita; their bickering usually resolves itself in laughter. In the last part, Zita dies; Vanda still coughs but is in recovery; alone, she is a television-viewing zombie. Ironically, in No Quarto da Vanda, her TV set is on without her paying notice.
Visually intricate, astonishing (Costa digitally-videographed), Costa fixes his camera for long takes inside various apartments; but another passage detailing Vanda’s neighbors consists of short, rapid shots. Costa’s fixed camera attempts to impose stability amidst the dismantling of homes and lives. Relatedly, a man nails something to the wall with a hammer. Life goes on until it’s sent packing.
All films exist on a continuum whose poles are documentary and fiction. Costa’s fiction is extremely close to documentary; like Robert J. Flaherty in Nanook of the North (1922), Costa has his nonprofessional “actors” play themselves doing what they otherwise would. No Quarto da Vanda took the prize of international critics at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival “for presenting life in its near-original form.”
I was premature in declaring Juventude Em Marcha Portugal’s greatest film. This may be it instead.
93. THE PROFESSION OF ARMS. Austere, sad, overwhelming, Ermanno Olmi’s Il mestiere delle armi is one of the great war films. Revolving around Giovanni de Medici, who led papal troops in Charles V’s early sixteenth-century war against the Pope, it owes something to Roberto Rossellini’s present-day histories and the cinema of Peter Watkins. The practice of war has shifted, from bayonets to firepower. Captain de Medici himself was taken down by the newfangled artillery and died at 28. The film ends on an historical note: the plea that cannons should be outlawed for wartime use. But, as we know, even worse weaponry followed.
The opening long-held shot is brilliant: a head shot where we cannot see the human being underneath his metal face mask—alien, estranged, unnatural: emblematic of war itself. Later, the process of making cannonballs is patiently shown, powerfully reiterating the message. But by far the film’s most compelling aspect consists of its gray, fog-entrenched, melancholy landscapes, the battlefields of lost souls whom combat divides from their humanity. Olmi’s son, Fabio, contributes haunting color cinematography.
An already fractious Italy is ripe for the invasion of mercenary German troops; but war’s agony supercedes political considerations. The aim is victory, which is to say, clarity; but war extends ambiguity. Here is a film that exemplifies “the fog of war.” Soldiers have chosen their jobs or roles; they haven’t been impressed into service. Yet does anyone really choose such an unfathomable and unexpectedly shifting workplace or its inconceivably horrific activities, and its deaths?
Indeed, the film begins at the end, with Giovanni de Medici’s death, which it unravels, deconstructs. The implication is that this outcome was inevitable. The condottiere’s fate could not be diverted by his status of hero. War devours heroes for the sake of its own myth.
94. BUÑUEL AND KING SOLOMON’S TABLE. They were countrymen, both from Aragón; Carlos Saura considers himself Luis Buñuel’s disciple. Perhaps Saura’s masterpiece, Buñuel y la mesa del rey Salomón, which Saura wrote with Agustín Sánchez Vidal, whose documentary A propósito de Buñuel (2000) had investigated Buñuel’s Surrealism and atheism, is an attempt to imagine Buñuel alive again (nearly twenty years after his death) and inside his head as Buñuel contemplates making another film. It opposes time as well by imagining as Buñuel’s cohorts in the adventure at the heart of this impossible film of Bunuel’s dreams inside Saura’s dreams two other deceased Spaniards: Catalonian Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, who had died, conventionally, in the arms of the Church about a half-dozen years after Buñuel; Andalusian poet/playwright Federico García Lorca, whom a band of fascists murdered in 1936 at the advent of the Spanish Civil War. In reality, the three young men had been eternal friends (for a time), Dalí and García Lorca lovers—before Gala intervened and Dalí married her. In Saura’s achingly dark, mysterious, beautiful film, the three search through fantastic corridors and catacombs in Toledo for the lustrous magical table of King Solomon, which permits one a view of past, present and future.
Saura’s film cuts between the “present” that Saura imagines, in which Buñuel imagines the never-was film, and the world of this imagined film—a region (depending on your point of view) that dips below or rises above the surface of reality to confront phantoms of the past, the hereafter, the nothing-after.
There is an image that owes its visionary style to Dalí: while Buñuel as a young boy watches, a young girl on the beach lifts up the ocean, a rubbery sheet of water, and espies the horrors underneath: against Nature, Franco’s Spain.
95. GOOD MORNIGHT, NIGHT. In 1978, a Red Brigade kidnapped and executed/assassinated Italy’s presumed next president, Aldo Moro, 61, president of the Christian Democrats, which sought to strike a compromise with the Italian Communist Party: a bourgeois appropriation of the Left that threatened to shift ground beneath class struggle. The revolutionaries aimed at keeping alive a Marxist dream of social and economic justice.
But the ill-conceived event required killing five bodyguards before Moro himself was snatched. The abductors announced Moro would be tried by them. Parliament replaced Moro with Giulio Andreotti, whose coalition government, including Communists for the first time in Italy’s history, orchestrated a virulent crackdown on terrorism.
Good Morning, Night, writer-director Marco Bellocchio’s brilliant satire, parallels rather than reproduces the original event. It discloses the “inside” view of 23-year-old Chiara (Maya Sansa, superb)—a changing viewpoint, it turns out, as she takes in the television news coverage, and alternates between her workaday life as university librarian and her hidden life as a revolutionary.
In the film’s first half, Red Brigade members rent and set up the apartment and establish their relationships with Moro, whom they confront with their intentions and motives. In the second half, Bellocchio seamlessly interweaves actual action and surrealism that is keyed to the dreams and, perhaps, only the thoughts of characters, especially Chiara’s. It is riotously funny how the Pope and Moro’s fellow politicians seek public ways to appropriate Moro’s misfortune for their own benefit. Bellocchio suggests that the state pursued Moro’s end by thwarting any possible exchange of Moro for imprisoned Leftists. Ultimately, Moro’s family opts not to participate in the media event that the public funeral for Moro becomes. Meanwhile, we see Moro in the flesh, jauntily walking, safe and sound, down city streets—whose wish fulfillment this, we can never be sure.
96. MICHELANGELO’S GAZE. Text introduces this fifteen-minute film: “In 1985 Antonioni suffered a stroke and was confined to a wheelchair. In 2004, through the magic of cinema, he made this visit to San Pietro in Vincoli.” This visit, then, enables the artist to transcend imaginatively his limitations. We’re about to witness an illusion.
Light, then his shadow, precede Antonioni as he enters the immense structure through an outside door. The angled overhead long shot establishes his small place in the universe. He is Everyone. As he enters another part of the hall, again his shadow precedes him. The sound of his footsteps confirms his materiality. (Later, he coughs.) Sacred music is heard toward the end, but mostly this is a silent—the dream that is cinema.
Michelangelo Antonioni, bespectacled, looks up at the other Michelangelo’s Moses. Closeup of Moses’s head; tighter closeup; Moses’s eyes; upward pans; Antonioni gazing; closeups of Moses’s impassive eyes; Antonioni searchingly gazing. The camera views Moses from a myriad of perspectives.
Antonioni’s hand feels the sensuous folds of marble. A closeup of the human hand as it moves forward (in hauntingly subtle slow motion) collapses the identities of both Michelangelos; for isn’t the sculptor reaching through eternity to the creativity he left behind, and isn’t the statue the film that Antonioni is creating? The sixteenth century; now; eternity: time itself collapses.
Motion and the illusion of motion: dissolves; the camera, panning across features (such as the flowing beard), seems to animate the statue, releasing it to the flux of the artist’s own mortal condition. Before exiting the hall, Antonioni pauses for a backward glance and passes through a shaft of blue light to the outdoors. The camera does not follow. It remains in the dream.
Antonioni won’t give up art a moment sooner than necessary.
97. COLOSSAL YOUTH. Reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s Farewell (1981), Portuguese writer-director Pedro Costa’s Juventude Em Marcha completes his Fountaínhas trilogy. The Cape Verdean shantytown is being demolished, its inhabitants relocated northward to a housing project in a Lisbon suburb. The film begins with the voices of indeterminate people and ends with the sound of an infant’s contentment.
Apparently, 75-year-old communal patriarch Ventura (Ventura, dignified, without false nobility, part of the nonprofessional casting) has lost one home but has yet to be deposited in another. Thus the somber film largely consists of his homeless wanderings and drop-ins here and there, including on a daughter or, possibly, surrogate daughter. One character may be a ghost; other ambiguous elements set reality on the border of memory and myth.
This thoroughly absorbing work, besides providing an unwincing portrait of poverty, casts Ventura amidst the “new” environment; early on, a low camera finds the tall, gracious man “outgunned” by the sterile white buildings towering him. Their juxtaposition is correlative to the battle that the old man embodies. Uprooted, the Creole souls, having already suffered more than their historical share (colonization, slavery), now must face the lonely prospect of losing their culture; their memories and collective memory are being “whited out.”
In some ways Costa made an unannounced, uncertified Dogme 95 film. (The purist movement had already run its course.) Certainly his (gorgeous) use of natural light—he and Leonardo Simões digitally videographed, transferring the result to 35mm—suggests this; his dim, luxuriantly dark interiors on occasion evoke Rembrandt. Costa fills much space with nothingness—a projection of both current feelings of the characters and their worried-after destiny.
Costa may cut from one doorway to another or include in the same shot two doorways, one canceling the other. There’s no place to go.
98. FADOS. Since the nineteenth century, the wistful, melancholy fados of Portugal have been a tradition of music—sung, danced, performed by instrumental groups—that bespeaks the sense of separation of those who moved to Lisbon from rural Portugal and from Portuguese colonies in Africa and from Brazil, which Portugal likewise colonized. Separation: separation of present from past, of place to place, “the memory of those departed like the wind.” One sings of “my old Lisbon of another era.” Another: “The wind blows too hard for me to rest.”
One of the three or four most brilliant musical films ever, Spain’s Carlos Saura’s Fados, filmed on a Madrid soundstage, records the ache of separation that is the fado’s soul, but also combines past and present to ease the ache, as when contemporary dancers make their moves in front of a huge screen on which is projected a fadista from the past in performance. The film’s opening movement, as the credits appear, suggests the heart of Saura’s method: A black screen moves steadily screen-left, revealing a huge screen on which is projected images of Lisbonians in the street walking towards an invisible camera, separated from dancers dancing in front of the screen in haunting silhouette, in effect, ghosts separated from their own substance. Throughout, Saura orchestrates performers in the flesh (sometimes, their faces move in and out of shadows), silhouettes, mirror images, multiple exposures and back projection to indicate layers of separation. Love is uncertain in some fados; in one, the singer pleads against the possibility of romantic rejection, while in another another singer has already been rejected: all this another elusive embodiment of separation.
The ultimate fado that Saura shows performed is the most stirring, aching lament imaginable. It is the soul in full in its divided state.
99. GOMMORA. The Camorra is an actual criminal mob whose base of operations is Naples, Italy. Matteo Garrone’s sober, unblinking, coolly observant Gomorra is pulsatingly contemporary, riveting, unsentimental and, cumulatively, massively moving. It is based on the 2006 book by 26-year-old journalist Roberto Saviano; since its publication Saviano has needed constant police protection. We learn at film’s end that the Camorra, a money-making colossus, has invested in the rebuilding of New York’s World Trade Center.
The film juggles five plot-lines, two of which remain unresolved, the others testifying to gangland’s decisive spirit of retribution. In the latter group is a haunting, powerful plot-line revolving around 13-year-old Totò, a grocery store delivery boy whose acceptance into the Camorra leads to disaster: first, one-time playmate Simone’s becoming his “enemy” after Simone joins a rival gang; secondly, after a street killing, his reluctant set-up of Maria, his customer and Simone’s mother, for a response-kill. Yet even here there’s a loose end: Totò’s immediate group has acted thusly without official instruction.
The Camorra “manages” industrial toxic waste by illegally dumping it. Franco, the gang’s agent, bullies educated Roberto, his increasingly distressed young apprentice. When some of the waste spills on one of the transportation crew, Franco refuses to call an ambulance and the men in turn refuse to work. Franco exits the scene, leaving Roberto in charge; when he returns, he brings with him the new crew: children. Roberto’s conscience churns.
Whereas Totò turns in to the gang drugs and gun dropped by dealers in a police pursuit, two reckless older teenagers horde a stash of arms and are dealt a death sentence.
Garrone’s camera moves deliberately, often very briefly. No violence titillates here; it is all dreadful.
Grand Prix, Cannes; best film, director, script, European Film Awards, David di Donatello Awards.
100. I AM LOVE. At his birthday dinner, patriarch Edoardo Recchi Sr., Milanese textile factory owner, announces, “I don’t want to die, and I won’t, so long as the business continues in the same spirit in which I created it.” But Edoardo does die, offscreen, and his legacy is uncertain to son Tancredi, to whom he had ceded the factory. Did Edoardo exploit Jewish workers to build up the business? This possible past may have contributed to the current state of globalization, which a Hindu in London, seeking to buy Tancredi’s factory, promotes as the proper lens through which to perceive the current world. Thus is he able to praise war, despite its deaths and disruptions, for advantaging technologically primed India. “Capital is democracy,” he regrettably believes.
Emma is the name that Tancredi gave his Russian wife (Tilda Swinton, excellent—best actress, Dublin). “When I moved to Milan,” she tells Antonio Biscaglia, her son Edoardo Jr.’s partner in a projected countryside restaurant, “I ceased being Russian.” “What is your real name?” this young lover of hers—her quasi-oedipal lover—asks. “I no longer know it.” With Antonio, she feels freed, closer to herself—perhaps Kitesh, the nickname she recalls having been called at home. “You don’t exist,” her husband tells her when she confesses her new romantic/sexual alliance.
Like The Godfather (1972), Luca Guadagnino’s Io sono l’Amore is exceptionally dimly lit—but to an artistic purpose, not merely Francis Ford Coppola’s artsy-fartsy pretentiousness. The characters, enshrouded in shadows, slip into being shades before our unsteady eyes. This circumstance is triggered by the horrible death of a family member, who, curiously, seems “less” dead for his survivors seeming “more” dead.
The camera flits and pans, its nearly nonstop motion accumulating, poignantly, into a metaphor for evanescence.
Best film, Boulder.
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