THE WALLS OF MALAPAGA (René Clément, 1948)

Jointly from France and Italy, a key work of postwar European psychology, René Clément’s Au-delà des grilles (literally, Beyond the Gates), in Italy known as Le mura di Malapaga, beautifully fleshes out a highly melodramatic scheme of past, present and future in order to portray, combinately, European trauma and uncertainty. It won the Oscar as best foreign-language film (despite what Wikipedia currently claims, its languages are both French and Italian), and Clément took the directorial prize at Cannes.

Having killed his wife, Pierre Arrignon has fledFranceby boat to elude the police; he meets, in Genoa, Cecchina, a 12-year-old girl who “adopts” him to assuage the loneliness inflicted by her household’s paternal absence. With good reason, Cecchina’s hardworking mother, Marta, is estranged from her husband, who stalks and intimidates her. She and Pierre slowly become a couple, arousing Cecchina’s jealousy, but sparking fierce loyalty and love from her when the police are closing in. Ironically, what inadvertently dooms Pierre is Marta’s decision to try to hide her night of love with him from her daughter.

In its original form, the cunning script was written by Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Alfredo Guarini, the last of whom also produced; from there, Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost adapted it, translating some of it into French. The film blends elements and atmosphere of pre-war French poetic realism and wartime and postwar Italian neorealism. The former movement reflected the gradual shrinkage of free Europe under Hitler’s aggressive thumb, the loss of the continent’s soul, and the fear and despair attending all this, while the latter movement homed in on anti-Fascist and working-class struggle—social and political difficulties. Clément’s blend of styles representing both movements—one wonders whether he was familiar with Luchino Visconti’s magnificent, moody Ossessione (1942)—symbolizes the degree to which the postwar European present lugs the hefty phantom of Europe’s recent past.

And here is where reviewers who fault Jean Gabin’s performance for being indifferent themselves falter. Leaning on his earlier roles in the 1930s for Julien Duvivier and Marcel Carné (think Pépé le Moko, 1936, and Le jour se lève, 1939), Gabin has his Pierre sleepwalking in both their pasts—the actor’s and the character’s. And Europe’s. This combinate “past” executes Pierre’s fate when the law snatches Pierre out of Marta’s arms, with the added irony that Marta herself has unwittingly contributed to this outcome. Marta may theoretically possess self-determination, but this is an illusion; there she is, ultimately, as heavily “determined” by the past as is Pierre, dooming their love and  future together. Marta—Isa Miranda’s stupendous performance won her the best actress prize at Cannes—does her best to bring together what she imagines to be, and indeed may be, her competing roles as mother and a woman-in-love. She ends up torn between the pasr that Pierre represents and the future that her daughter represents. At least Cecchina may prevail; but note that her strong feelings for Pierre may instead generate a trauma that blights her entire life.

Ensuring its original critical success, the film was perhaps most admired for the fine and atmospheric realism that attends its setting: Genoa’s actual tenements and crowded streets. Louis Page’s black-and-white cinematography, in which dull grays deliberately dominate, is essential to this environmental portrait. Moreover, we watch as this environment contributes to Marta’s profound falling in love—and to the moralism of reacting neighbors that they mistake for morality. The absolute realism of Miranda’s depiction of a community restaurant waitress reminded me of Carole Lombard’s brilliant enactment of a waitress in They Knew What They Wanted (Garson Kanin, 1940). Clément’s use of nonprofessionals in a swarm of roles finds Miranda and Vera Talchi, who plays Cecchina, blending right in.

But what has obscured the quality of this film over time? Perhaps a want of thematic interpretation has resulted in the assinine conclusion reached by some that the aspect of poetic realism “cheapens” or “undermines” the aspects of neorealismo and documentary. Perhaps, also, a much more famous (and notorious) film, Stromboli (1949), the first of Roberto Rossellini’s collaborations with Ingrid Bergman, has eclipsed, in turn, the reputation and even the existence of Clément’s thematically related film. I, myself, prefer the Rossellini—but, then, I would prefer almost anything by Rossellini to almost anything by Clément. However, one cannot live by Rossellini alone.

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