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Michelangelo Antonioni – Poet of Alienation

Posted by keith1942 on September 18, 2015

Lecclisse

L'eclliseThe BFI have released a digitally restored version of one of the most famous films by this filmmaker – L’ecclisse / The Eclipse (1962). This is a welcome return of one of the most important directors of art cinema in the 1960s. I hope that this film will be follows by re-issues of L’avventura (1959) and La Notte (1961) 

Profile:

Antonioni was born in 1912. In the 1930s he experimented with 16-mm film and also contributed film criticism to a local newspaper. In 1940 he attended the Italian film school Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He then worked as a scriptwriter, including on one film for Roberto Rossellini. His first film as a director was a short documentary, Gente del Po, on which he worked from 1943 to 1947. In the 1950s he directed a number of features and continued as a scriptwriter, including contributing to Fellini’s The White Sheikh/Lo Sceicco Bianco (1952).

In 1960 L’avventura bought him international success. The film won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. It formed a trilogy with his next two films La notte, winner of the Best Film Award at Berlin in 1961: and L’eclisse, which also won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, in 1962. All three films starred the actress Monica Vitti; almost as regular in Antonioni’s films as was Giulietta Masina in Fellini’s. Antonioni was clearly seen as an auteur. His dominant theme was the emotional barrenness of modern man – the futile search to assert him or herself in a technological world and their frustrating inability to communicate with others. Ephraim Katz comments “Long lingering shots follow his characters until their inner selves are revealed. By their leisurely immobility the shots suggest the overbearing pressure that times exerts upon human emotions. The surrounding physical world is also used to convey a state of mind and to express the strains of alienation and psychological agony. Antonioni’s films are almost plotless, their narrative vagueness almost bordering on mystery. “ [In the International Film Encyclopaedia, 1994].

Antonioni

Italian film context:

Antonioni grew up under Fascism and his early filmmaking career paralleled the development of Neo-realism. These films focussed on the lives of ordinary people. Neorealist used location shooting, non-professional actors and a somewhat unconventional style compared with mainstream studio films. In the 1950s Antonioni’s films moved away from the Neorealist aesthetic and began to display the visual and narrative ambiguities of his most famous films.

At the same time changes in cinema audiences and film exhibition impacted on Italian filmmakers. These were part of wider changes in international post-war cinema. Cinemas, especially in rural areas and small towns, frequently closed. City based cinemas survived but prices increased. Moreover there developed what we now call ‘niche’ audiences. There were the mainstream popular films, including imports from Hollywood, And there were ‘quality’ or art films. The latter often made a virtue of black and white cinematography, which generally cost less. But it also provided a distinctive style as colour became the norm in the mainstream . Antonioni only made a colour film, The Red Desert / Il Deserto Rosso in 1964. Along with the style went a distinctive approach to plot, character and the resolution of the film story.

Antonioni – The trilogy

lavventura12

L’avventura, La notte and L’ecclise form a thematic trilogy. Antonioni made them between 1960 and 1962. All won festival awards, and they established his reputation and his directorial persona. Monica Vitti appears in all the films. Antonioni together with Tonino Guerra wrote the scripts. Eraldo Da Roma was the editor on all three films; Gianni Da Venanzo was director of photography on La notte and L’eclisse; and Giovanni Fusco composed the music for both L’avventura and L’eclisse. In the same period, apart from Fellini’s La dolce vita, Igmar Bergman directed Winter Light; and Alain Resnais directed Last Year in Marienbad. All great modernist films.

In L’avventura “A young woman, Anna [Lea Massari], disappears while cruising near Sicily in the company of a group of rich Italians. Her lover, Sandro Gabriele Ferzetti], and her friend, Claudia [Monica Vitti], search unsuccessfully for her, developing a tenuous relationship in the process. There is no resolution of the conventional type. Anna’s disappearance is never explained and ceases to be of nay interest. At the end of the film Claudia and Sandro achieve a bleak sympathy, but hardly a consummation. Nor are we permitted any semblance of orthodox narrative involvement. The film is paced very slowly, much of its action is seen in real time. Its characters communicate little dialogue, and more often than not, are to be found looking away from each other into the bleak and arid Sicilian landscape.” [Andrew Tutor]. 

La notte “is about an artist’s life at the height of Italy’s economic miracle; it depicts several hours, including the whole night, in the life of Giovanni Pontano [Marcello Mastroianni], a novelist, on the day of the publication of his latest book. Jeanne Moreau plays his wife. And Monica Vitti plays the daughter of an industrialist whom Giovanni attempts but fails to seduce.

Antonioni manipulates entrances and exits and ambiguous shifts of scale, in order to shift regularly between his principal characters while maintaining the impression that their independent actions are linked together, almost as if they see each other in their privacy.” [P. Adam Sitney].

 

L’ECLISSE [The Eclipse].

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L’ecclisse is set in Rome and the central relationship involves Vittoria (Monica Vitti) and Piero (Alain Delon). The plot involves the city’s Stock Exchange whilst the settings are mainly in the upmarket and fashionable EUR area of Rome. The film is [for my money] the most abstract of the trilogy.

The film is set in two areas of Rome, though there is also a light aeroplane flight to Verona aerodrome. The prime focus is in the EUR district where Vittoria lives in a modern, smart apartment. EUR was a project of the 1930s Fascist regime. It was to be an architectural and planning monument constructed round a great expo Exhibition. The exhibition never took place and the area was developed post-war as both a residential and business area. So the district has a mixture of styles from pre-war and post-war. And, as is so often the case in Italian films, architecture caries a particular resonance from the past.

The film opens in the nearby apartment of Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) whose relationship with Vittoria is coming to an end. Later Vittoria returns to her own apartment. Riccardo vainly calls there. Later in the film Piero will call, more successfully. There is also a sequence in the flat of a neighbour visited by Vittoria and a friend. This is a somewhat oddball sequence. The hostess has lived in Kenya for a period and she is quietly racist about the black people there. The women actually play and dress up in her collection of African costumes. I find this sequence dates the film in a way that does not happen with L’avventura.

The second area is the old centre of the city. Here is sited the Stock Exchange, the apartment of Piero’s parents, and the office from which he works. Vittoria and Piero meet at the Stock Exchange, where Vittoria’s mother goes to check investments. This offers a bedlam of noise and frenetic activity. And in the first sequence there this is emphasised by a minute’s silence held for a departed stock broker. The Exchange is a centre of gambling fever, for me it recalled the shorter and stylistic different sequence in Fritz Lang’ Doctor Mabuse (1922). Piero is as afflicted as every other member of the exchange, at one point Vittoria says to him:

“you never stand still”.

The events at the Exchange feature a bubble and crash, reflecting actual economic events in Italy in 1961.

There is also a sequence at the Tiber. Piero’s sports car was stolen and the driven into the river. We see the car, and the dead driver, hauled from the river. But it is followed a by a sequence when Piero and Vittoria walk across a park together.

It is an exterior and a junction that dominates the last reels of the film. This is in the EUR district at a cross roads. There is an unfinished building with scaffolding and coverings: even a water running to a tank and leaking onto the road. We see this junction on several occasions. We see passerby, including a nurse pushing a pram. And at one point in the twilight a bus stops, passengers disembark and it drives on. It is here that we return at the end of the film. We see some of the passerby, including a man with a newspaper. Then the junction becomes deserted. We are waiting but never see what may happen. Visually this is a stunning sequence, with a series of shots of the junction, the building, and close-ups of detail. It also seems to be the most abstract sequence in an Antonioni film.

The film is constructed round dolly shots. The camera cuts frequently, often to oblique angles. They very much service the mise en scène. Characters are placed against objects, walls and buildings. There is a shot of Vittoria in Riccardo’s flat, on the extreme left of the frame, facing into the room and a mirror. Riccardo is separated by space, walls and furniture. When Vittoria and Piero first talk at the Exchange, they converse round a large pillar as the minute’s silence proceeds. Some of the shots, especially of Vitti, reminded me of those in La Notte. The shots are not especially long. There are a number of tracks in the film and they seemed mainly to occur when there is some sort of ending occurring.

We have both daytime and night-time sequences and a range of interiors and exteriors. What I had forgotten from a previous screenings was that a night-time sequence features a number of dogs. Vittoria chases these, in particular the pet of her neighbour. I cannot remember other dogs in Antonioni films?

Apart from dialogue and noise the soundtrack is sparse. There are two diegetic songs and a diegetic singer. Non-diegetic brief musical phrases occur early in the film. There are more of them in a sequence where Piero shows Vittoria his parent’s apartment. But the greatest amount of accompanying music is in the final lengthy, and also most empty of people, sequence.

Elclissee still

There is no doubt that Antonioni is an auteur in themes and style. However, this is a work [as his others] that relies on the team of filmmakers involved. The cinematography by Gianni Di Venanzo is especially fine. And the production design and editing are also excellent. Whilst the sparse music by Giovanni Fusco is atmospheric.

Like all of Antonioni’s films there is a high degree of ambiguity, both in regard to the characters and the plot, but also in terms of the themes it expresses. But this is certainly a modernist and alienating environment. But whilst the old centre has far more life and action it also is fairly vacuous, when it is not merely exploitative. The visual quality of the film offers great pleasure, and the sound and music add to this. It is also stimulating because whilst some viewers may be bored, [I have heard this said] if the film involves one it seems very difficult not to ponder and question after the final ‘Fine’.

Italy / France 1962. Produced by Robert and Raymond Hakim.

Screenplay: Michelangelo Antonioni and Tonino Guerra, with Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; cinematography: Gianni Di Venanzo; editor: Eraldo Da Roma; sound: Claudio Mailed and Mario Bramonti; production design: Piero Poletto; music: Giovanni Fusco.

Cast: Alain Delon (Piero); Monica Vitti (Vittoria); Francisco Rabal [Riccardo]; with Lilla Brignone, Rosanna Rory, Mirella Ricciardi, Louis Seignier.

Screening in a DCP, black and white with English subtitles: running 126 minutes.

Synopses from the Macmillan International Dictionary of Film.

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Hands Across the City / Le mani sulla città , Italy 1963

Posted by keith1942 on February 6, 2015

Nottola and cronies.

Nottola and cronies.

Leeds International Film Festival retrospective of his work in 2005. We saw a 35mm print of this film, made in black and white and in the 1.85:1 ratio. As usual the Italian soundtrack was accompanied by onscreen subtitles in English.

Rosi had worked as an assistant with Luchino Visconti and one can see a strong influence by this director and by the Neo-realist movement more generally on Rosi’s films. At the same time there is a strong individual development in the form and style of his films in this period. The preceding film, Salvatore Giuliano (1961), a study of politics, the mafia and corruption in Sicily in the years at the end of World War II, was an amazing experience back in the early 1960s. It combined a documentary style, with dramatic plotting and labyrinthine plot full of ambiguities. This approach was to be mirrored in later films like The Mattei Affair / Il caso Matei (1972) and Illustrious Corpses / Cadaveri eccellenti (1975). Hands Over the City offers a rather different approach: the ending of the film presents something approaching closure and the resolution of the conflicts chartered through the film are quite apparent.

A study edited by Carlo Testa (1996) proffers the term  ‘critical realism’ for Rosi’s films. The approach developed in neo-realism can still clearly be identified, but the use of drama is modified. Rosi’s films have a critical [Marxist] approach in which the distancing [reminiscent of some of the ideas of Brecht] gives a greater emphasis to the political dynamic.

Rosi comes from the city of Naples. And the screenplay was written by Rosi together with his friend and fellow Neapolitan Rafael La Capria together with Enzo Provenzale and Enzo Forcella. The city has provided the focus for several of Rosi’s films and the South is a central issue in his entire output. The South / North divide is a central contradiction in Italian history and has pre-occupied writers and artists, including the in the formidable output of Antonio Gramsci.

The story presented in the film revolves around the political elite in Naples and the question of land. The key character is Eduardo Nottola This was Francesco’s Rosi’s third feature film and one of the films screened in the (Rod Steiger), a property developer but also a council member of the city. The film opens and closes on a development site which Nottola and his associates buy from the city for lucrative developments – ‘today’s gold’ in Nottola’s words. The corruption involved in land dealings becomes a major public issue when construction work in the poor quarter of the city causes the collapse of a Jerry-built block, with injuries and deaths.

Mani collapse

Much of the film is taken up with the manipulations and trafficking on the City Council. Here three groups jostle for power – right, centre and left. Apart from Nottola another key character is a leading left councillor De Vita (Carlo Fermariello), presented fairly sympathetically in the film. The other sympathetic councillor is Balsamo (Angelo D’Allessandro), the head of a hospital and member of the centre grouping. Less sympathetic and clearly prepared to endorse corruption and profiteering is Maglione (Guido Alberti), the leader of the right grouping and Professor De Angeli (Salvo Randone) the leader of the centre grouping.

These members of the city’s ruling class dominate the film. The ordinary working people, objects of the exploitation and oppression appear only occasionally. However the film’s treatment of these episodes is powerful. Right near the beginning of the film we see the collapse of the block of flats – the local people both run for cover and then run to attempt to rescue the injured and bring out the dead. We return to this area later when the council announces a plan to clear the area for development under the disguise of health and safety. The narrow street is filed with banners and the jeering populace. A little later the armed carabinieri back up council officials as the working class residents are forcibly moved. And then at the end of the film, in one of the bravura set pieces often found in Rosi’s film, we survey the city streets on the eve of an election. The camera moves around squares and arcades as the different political factions address, even harangue, crowds at hustings.

Working class opposition

Working class opposition

What is noticeable about the scenes in the working class area is the prominence of women. In the sequence where opposition is voiced to the council plans women dominate the mise en scène. It is they who are in the forefront of agitation whilst the men are much more muted. Rosi’s films tend to focus on worlds dominated by men: in parts a reflection of the social reality of Italy. Strong and central women characters are uncommon, though they do appear, as in his version of Carmen (1984). But they do play a prominent part in the presentation of the working class: notable also in Salvatore Giuliano. Only one woman among the elite receives much attention, Maglione’s lover (Dany Paris). However she is treated rather like a pet and expected to follow him round, and be heard only when he wishes.

The mise en scène in the film is rich in motifs. A recurring scene takes place in Nottola’s high rise offices. One wall is covered in a large-scale map of the city, reflecting his relationship to Naples. One of the later scenes takes place at night and the wide span windows present the darkened city as Nottola paces the room.

The council sequences emphasise the nature of the political traffic in the city. The council chamber is frequently the site of hurly burly argument. But such occasions are constant interrupted as the different groups move to smaller, less public rooms where deals take place. As you might expect from the title ‘hands’ are also a recurring motif.

The Council Chamber

The Council Chamber

Rosi’s film relies on a dynamic camera. The cinematographer is Gianni Di Venanzo, who worked on Rosi’s first five films. The film is full of sequence shots and at times the camera dashes towards events, at other times [as in Nottola’s office at night] it prowls round a character. The collapse of the block of flats is a bravura moment in the film. Rosi and Venanzo filmed an actual demolition, using a number of cameras to record the event. The sequence shots in the night of hustings late in the film has a similarly impressive quality.

The music by Piero Piccione is interesting. For much of the time the rhythm and tonal quality is reminiscent of films dealing with criminality. One sequence that accompanied the machinations of the councillors reminded me strongly of the compositions of Bernard Hermann.

The cast presents this world of machinations and cover-ups very effectively. Rosi himself recruited Steiger for the main part. His rather different style make shim stand out in the councillors world. He is a maverick, yet dangerously effective. Other characters like Maglione and De Angeli seem as if taken from the writings of Machiavelli. Carlo Fermariello, playing Da De Vita, was actually a real-life councillor now playing his fictional counterpart. This mixing of the professional and non-professional performers is a recurring constant in Rosi’s films. And he and his production team are able to effectively weave these styles together. So several times we switch from the murky world of the council, predominantly professional performers, to the more dynamic world of the street, predominantly non-professional performers.

Thematically the film deals with the corruption of the political class. One assumes that whilst the film is fictional Italian audiences would easily draw parallels with the actual political events in Naples and in the wider Italy. The film uses the non-de plumes of ‘right’, centre’ and ‘left’, though some reviews identify actual: parties such as the Christian Democrats. This may be clearer in the original Italian than in the English sub-titles. What is clear is that when the film depicts the church it is the dominant Catholic institution in  Italy. Religious leaders are not that prominent in the film, but they are always noticeable at points of public endorsement. Thus an opening ceremony for a development includes the blessing by a bishop or archbishop. Interestingly at one point De Angeli proudly shows off his art collection to Balsamo: these include not only two religious paintings but also an actual altarpiece installed in a side-room.

The film was successful in Italy, though reviews often took contrary positions. The article by Manuela Gieri (Hands Over the City: cinema as political indictment and social commitment: also 1996) quotes two examples:

Gian Luigi Rondi in the daily Il Tempo:

No, no no. Don’t come and tell me this is how one should make movies. This is neither cinema nor healthy polemic; it is a political speech, an electoral harangue ….

Whilst Ugo Casiraghi in L`Unita:

A wonderful film, Rosi has authored his most mature work. … It is a film essay with the clarity of a limpid and documented social study.

Of course, the responses are more to do with the political; values of the reviewers than their review of filmic qualities. But in a way that speaks to the effectiveness of the film: its project is clearly delivered. The film won The Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year. Like all of Rosi’s films it successfully straddles the popular and the art film – It is engrossing and at times exciting whilst also providing the viewer with stimulation and challenges.

Poet of Civic Courage The Films of Francisco Rosi, edited by Carlo Testa, Flicks Books 1996.

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The Great Beauty / La grande belleza.

Posted by keith1942 on October 19, 2013

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This is the new feature by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino. Like his earlier The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo(2008) this stars Toni Servillo. Here Servillo plays journalists and bon viveur Jep Gambardella. Jep is celebrating his 66th birthday and nearly forty years of both professional success and the enjoyment of being a leading light in the social circles of the Roman bourgeoisie. As the film develops we learn more about Jep, including flashbacks to a failed youthful romance. And we learn that after an initially critically successful first novel Jep has forsaken ‘art’ for journalism and celebrity.

The film is full of images of Rome and also of the glittering but empty socialising of bourgeois celebrities and their acolytes. This immediately refers us back to Fellini’s great 1960 portrait La Dolce Vita. And there are strong parallels between Jep and the protagonist of Fellini’s earlier film, Marcello. Both are involved in journalism, though the new feature exclude the excesses of the paparazzi. Both appear to have opted for the shallow pleasures of celebrity culture rather than deeper emotional involvement. Both display a surface cynicism, which may mask more disquieting emotions.

However, by the end of their respective films there is a clear divergence. Our final sight of Marcello is on a beach near Rome, where he watches a group of fisherman hauled in a monstrous strange fish. Then he sees a young girl, across an outlet of water, making signs. But he cannot understand her. We are left with Marcello’s puzzlement and a large close up of the young girl. Simple credits follow against a black screen.

We leave Jep as we realise that, after a break of nearly forty years, he is starting to write a second novel. It will clearly be some sort of telling of the lost romance of his youth. The credits unroll against a slow tracking shot along the Tiber, under bridges and pass embankments. Marcello is left against the vast, grey and mysterious ocean. In Jep’s case we have an old-fashioned and [I think] somewhat romantic image of water.

The Great Beauty is able to suggest a particular resonance because it is in colour rather than black and white. The texture of the river, and the green fonds in the current, give a particular feel to the palette of the image. There are parallel differences in the images of Rome that both films provide. Fellini’s film open with the impressive aerial shot of both Rome and a Christ-figure. Sorrentino’s introduction to Rome of the C21st down plays religion and suggests the Rome of the tourists. Equally the decadent parties we see in the Fellini film are shown in black and white and have a sharp acerbic feel. Sorentino’s parties are show in vibrant colour, with digital effects, and initially seem just like pop videos.

This is the Italy of Berlusconi, some way from the late 1950s Rome of Fellini. The latter saw an ‘economic miracle’ that has eluded the media-savvy contemporary politician. Intriguingly Sorrentino’s earlier Il Divo presented a portrait of the politician Andreotti, whose career more or less spans the decades between La Dole Vita and Berlusconi. S&S suggested a ‘loose trilogy’ with these three films by Sorrentino, and given that The Consequences of Love deals with the Mafia, we have central institutions and players in Italy in the second half of the C20th.

The Great Beauty seems to reference both cinema and the larger society. Another film that chronicles the changing relationship between the two is Cinema Paradiso (1988). And this would seem to provide another set of references in this new film. The flashbacks to the young romance reminded me strongly of Tornatore’s film. And in both films the older, jaded character displays a sense of change in response to the past. In The Great Beauty Jep is provoked by the widower of his lost love. And the voice over of the opening lines of Jep’s new novel at the closure reminded me forcibly of the montage of censored film images that closes Cinema Paradiso.

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Bernardo Bertolucci before the revolution.

Posted by keith1942 on July 11, 2011

Background and films:

Bernardo Bertolucci was born in Parma in 1940. His father was an established poet and film critic. The young Bernardo grew up in the countryside and played with the younger rural children. At ten his family moved to Rome. After school he studied at University but did not finish his degree because of other interests. He first made his name with a volume of prize-winning poetry, but already his passion was cinema. His father was friendly with the writer and filmmaker Pier Paulo Pasolini. Bertolucci was invited to work on his film Accattone (1961). His own first feature was based on a script by Pasolini, La commare secca (The Grim Reaper, 1962). It tells of an investigation into the murder of a Roman prostitute and uses a flashback structure to detail the investigation.

His next film bought him attention and awards, Prima della rivoluzione (Before the Revolution, 1964). It is set in his home city and freely adapted the novel by Stendhal, The Charterhouse of Parma. The film shows the influence of Jean-Luc Godard. Bertolucci was already impressed by both Godard’s films and by the nouvelle vague. The influence was evens stronger in his next film Partner (1968). This is a sort of agit-prop film and dramatised the youthful politics of that year. It is full of overt stylistic gestures and the narrative is elliptical and confusing.

By 1970 he was able to win the support of the Italian Television Company Rai for two films made both for theatrical exhibition and television. These are two of his most impressive and critically lauded films: both are set in the fascist Italy of the 1930s. La strategia del ragno (The Spider Stratagem, 1970) follows a young man, Athos, who investigates the death of his father, a noted anti-fascist, in 1936. The story is taken from a novella by Jorge Luis Borges, Theme of the Traitor and the Hero. The film dramatically switches between the events of the 1930s and the contemporary investigation by the son: with both father and son played by the same actor. The film plays with narrative, with memory and with perceptions of these.

The second film was Il conformista (The Conformist, 1970). This is taken from a novel by Alberto Moravia, set in 1938 but with the story adapted to the interests of the director. The protagonist, Marcello, suffered a sexual assault in his childhood. His resulting ‘conformity’ springs from a desire to be like others, to be ‘normal’. This drives him to become involved in fascist plot to murder a liberal opponent living in exile in Paris. The opponent is in fact the protagonist’s old university teacher Professor Quadri. Filmed with stunning visuals, it explores politics, psychology and cinema itself.

The next film to be released was the notorious Ultimo tango a Parigi (Last Tango in Paris, 1972). The film is famous or infamous for its explicit sexuality. But it is also a complex investigation of traumatised states and is powered by one of the outstanding performances in modern cinema, with Marlon Brando playing the protagonist Paul. The film was censored and banned and Bertolucci was actually prosecuted in Italy. But it also established him as a commercial property in international cinema.

His next film had been developing for a couple of years. But now it was supported by the Hollywood studios Paramount, United Artists and C20th Fox. This was mixed blessing. The film depicts the development of political consciousness and class conflict in the countryside of Emilia Romagna in the first part of the C20th. However, the Italian title Novecento (1900, 1976) also carries the connotation of the whole century. It was an epic production with major European and Hollywood stars and expensive location and technical resources. The final film ran for over five hours. But the English language version was cut to less than three hours, and the original version is usually screened in two parts.

Despite this Bertolucci was still able to win resources for international productions, usually of large proportions with large budgets. La luna (1979) is a drama involving incest, set in Italy but with the Hollywood actress Jill Clayburg in the lead. Three even larger epics followed: The Last Emperor (1987), winner of nine Oscars; The Sheltering Sky (1990) from the novel by Paul Bowles; and Little Buddha (1993).

Then, probably exhausted by these vast enterprises, Bertolucci returned to two smaller Italian based dramas. Lo ballo da sola (Stealing Beauty, 1996) follows a young American girl who visits Italy in a quest to find out about her father and her sexuality. L’assedio (Besieged, 1998) is set in Rome and charts the relationship between an English musician and his paid African house-servant. Bertolucci’s most recent film is The Dreamers. It is based on a novel by Gilbert Adair: both he and Bertolucci were fans of and heavily influenced by the nouvelle vague. The film follows a ménage à trois of cinephiles in the Paris upsurges of 1968.

A few years ago Bertolucci suffered a mishap in an operation and nowadays he is frequently confined to a wheelchair: however, he is planning to direct another film.

Fabrizio and Cesare at Festa dell'Unita

Style and themes:

As with many successful directors Bertolucci has relied on regular collaborators throughout his career. Giusseppe Bertolucci, his cousin, has produced a number of his Italian films. His first wife Adriana Asti was the lead actress in Before the Revolution. He also used the same editor, Franco Arcali, on many films: and Arcali has also contributed to some of the screenplays. And [like several Italian filmmakers] he frequently used music by Ennio Morricone. The most noted collaborator has been the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, [who worked as assistant cameraman on Before the Revolution]. The partnership commenced on the two RAI productions and they continued to work together up until The Sheltering Sky. Storaro became a celebrated lighting cameraman in this period and was sought after by such filmmakers as Warren Beatty [Reds, 1981] and Francis Ford Coppola (One from the Heart, 1982). The lustrous visual style of a number of Bertolucci’s films is very much down to Storaro’s prowess. There is also his second wife and fellow filmmaker, Claire Peploe, who has jointly scripted several of his later films.

Bertolucci’s films have both a distinctive style and distinctive themes. In the 1960s he was very influenced by Jean-Luc Godard and used similar and unconventional techniques such as the jump cut and elliptical edits. These are both apparent in Before the Revolution, along with a freewheeling camera also reminiscent of the French directors. The scene where Fabrizio and Cesare talk seated opposite each other on park benches is very reminiscent of Godard. There is also a touch of Michelangelo Antonioni in certain scenes: possibly due to the cameraman Aldo Scavarda who also filmed L’Avventura.

Since becoming involved in more mainstreams productions his films have been closer to the conventional techniques found in Hollywood films. But consistently through his career he has shown a close attention to the relationship between camera and subject. His films always have examples of fluid and impressive moving cameras. Like one of his idols Roberto Rossellini he works to explore the space between camera and subject. The opening sequence of Before the Revolution as Fabrizio finds Clelia at church is similar to sequences in Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy, 1953).

His films are full of cultural references: to art and paintings, to music especially to the operas of Verdi; to writers and philosophy; and most noticeably to cinema itself. Before the Revolution opens with a monologue by Fabrizio, which includes part of a poem by Pier Paulo Pasolini. The ending features Verdi’s Macbeth, performed at Parma’s Teatro Regio. In between we twice hear a song by Gion Paoli Vivere ancora soltano per un’ora (To live again only for an hour), including accompanying the dance by Fabrizio and Gina on Easter Sunday. And there is there is the conversation with a friend after a film-show in which he and Fabrizio discuss the filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard, Nicholas Ray and Roberto Rossellini. This scene includes the line ‘style is a moral fact.’

One of the frequently recurring themes is the relationship and conflict between fathers and sons. In Scene by Scene he remarks that a son kills his father [either literally or symbolically] in nearly all his films. In Before the Revolution Fabrizio’s real-life father is a distant and unimportant figure, [as indeed in the book]. But more central to the narrative is the ‘father-figure’ of Cesare, the teacher and mentor. At the end of the film the sequence of Cesare at the school is separated from Fabrizio at his wedding. And Cesare is reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick to his young pupils.

Bertolucci is also generally regarded as a political filmmaker: he himself claims that a Marxist perspective informs his films [or at least some of them]. I have not actually found anywhere an explanation of what interpretation of Marx he follows. Among his documentaries is one made for the Italian Communist Party [PCI], which he joined in the late 1960s and it is Euro-Communism that has dominated the Italian Party in this period. However, the 25th April 1945 sequence in 1900 appears more radical than the PCI line, either in the 1940s or in the 1970s. [Bertolucci scripted the film with his brother and long-time collaborator Franco Arcalli]. There are political discussions by characters in his films, but there is not the analytical framework that is found in some of the films of Francesco Rosi [for example Il caso Mattei, The Mattei Affair, 1972). Certainly his earlier films are more explicitly political.

One reason might be that he lost his admiration for Godard. In The Conformist there is an in-joke, Professor Qadri’s Paris address and telephone number are actually those of the Godard in real-life. Another factor was Bertolucci’s developing interest in Sigmund Freud and his participation in psychoanalysis [from 1969 to 1984]. This is most apparent in The Conformist where the film’s resolution is much more in line with psychoanalytical ideas than those of Marxism.

This presumably connects with Bertolucci’s tendency to presenting fairly explicit sexuality: and frequently abnormal sexuality. Last Tango is the most notorious example but it recurs throughout his film career. Before the Revolution is quite explicit for the early 1960s and involves incest between Fabrizio and Gina. And later films like The Sheltering Sky and The Dreamers had problems because of some of the explicit material. 

Gina in the film

Novel and film:

Some reviews suggest that Bertolucci’s film only uses the names and settings of the novel by Henri Stendhal [Henry Beyle]. It seems more complex than that. The Charterhouse of Parma is set in an Italy divided and dominated by foreign rule. The French revolution inspires a movement for democracy and self-determination which reaches its peak in the year of 1860 and the Risorgimento. In Before the Revolution, set in 1962, Italy still needs a thoroughgoing revolution to provide real democracy and determination.

The two main characters from the book, Fabrizio and Gina, have fairly similar characteristics in both the book and the film. The main difference is that their attraction is consummated sexually in the film. In the book Fabrizio is inspired by the ideals represented by Napoleon, whose invasions of Italy were seen by many as a liberation. In the film Fabrizio is inspired by the ideals of the PCI to liberate the working and peasant classes in Italy. In either he is torn between his aristocratic or bourgeois class position and his ideals. Gina, a Duchessa, despite her close blood relationship to Fabrizio, develops a powerful passion for him.

Clelia is much less developed in the film than in the book. In the latter she represents a romantic attraction for Fabrizio. It is with her that the hero has illicit [as outside marriage] sex. In the film she is mainly an icon, a representation of one class choice.

The book does not really contain a character like Cesare, but there are parallels with the Conte Mosca. Officially part of the liberal movement the Count is a Machiavellian politician. But he also provides a father figure for Fabrizio, who relies on his advice and experience. He loves and marries the Duchessa. A relationship paralleled by Cesare’s brief assistance to Gina when she leaves Milan: and there is another scene between them in the script but which is left out of the film.

There is also the tower. In the book Fabrizio is imprisoned here: and Clelia’s father supervises the jail. It is during his captivity that the Fabrizio / Clelia affair develops, including various devices by Fabrizio to attract her attention. Meanwhile the Duchessa Gina is emotionally distraught as she attempts to save Fabrizio from imprisonment and possible execution. In the film we see a young girl up in a tower first throwing stones and then calling to Gina who waits for Fabrizio outside Cesare’s house. At this point Gina becomes extremely distraught, an early indication of her psychological state. It is an intriguing echo from the book. There is also an important sequence relating to the opera in Parma.

At the end of the book Clelia has died, as has Fabrizio’s concealed offspring, a son: Fabrizio, after entering the Charterhouse of Parma [a monastery] dies after one year later and the Duchessa shortly after this. Only Count Mosca survives. At the end of the film Gina has returned to Milan: Fabrizio and Clelia has entered what would promise to be a sterile marriage: and Cesare alone remains in the world committed to revolution.

 

Pesant solidarity in 1900

 

Films and history:

There is a dividing line in Bertolucci’s work between films produced in his native land and the larger, international productions for which he is most famous. In the 1980s he left Italy claiming he had lost all sympathy with the culture. The fuss over Last Tango was likely a contributing factor. His films up until 1970 are informed by a particular interest as Italian radicals and liberals questioned their history, especially that of the fascist period. The key influence here is Antonio Gramsci. A communist leader in the 1920s who was imprisoned by the fascist and died in captivity. In prison he wrote a series of notebooks including an analysis of the Risorgimento. This landmark event in Italian history has featured in many films; especially the liberation of Sicily led by Garibaldi, [two key films are 1860, 1934 and The Leopard, 1963]. Gramsci claimed that the revolution was unfulfilled, as power was retained by the existing ruling classes in a new form. A recurring aristocratic line in The Leopard sums this up: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” A similar claim could be made for post-1945 when the Italian bourgeoisie, [with clandestine support from the US Intelligence Agencies] was able to disarm the partisans, overwhelmingly dominated by socialist and communist politics.

In Before the Revolution Fabrizio is questioning his class and his country’s history at just this time. The original novel by Stendhal was set in the early C19th. In the book the hero Fabrizio is from an aristocratic family, but inspired by the excitement of Napoleon and the French Revolution. The invasion of Italy by French revolutionary forces was a major spark in the development an Italian nationalism. Over the course of the book Fabrizio is tamed and reduced to a comfortable aristocratic existence, though he suffers personal bereavements. The parallel with post-war Italy adds a commentary to the film. It should be added that, as in the film, his Aunt Gina is as much a central character as Fabrizio.

If Before the Revolution uses the metaphor of Stendhal’s novel to obliquely comment on the intellectual in the 1960s, similarly concerns can be discerned in his other historical films of the period. 1900 opens at the beginning of the century with the birth of a new male child in the opposing households of a peasant family and a land-owning family: Olmo and Alfredo. The film follows their parallel stories and friendship over the years of radical socialist agitation and the subsequent victory by Mussolini’ fascists. The film ends in 1945 as the peasant wreak vengeance on the fascists and their bourgeois paymasters. However, the peasants are themselves disarmed, by the Committee of National Liberation as ‘democratic’ bourgeois politics are re-asserted.

It is worth noting that two of the most radical characters in the film are women: Anita the mother and her daughter, also Anita. In the 25th April 1945 sequence we first see Anita and other peasant women capture the fascist leader Attila and his wife Regina. The returning and armed male peasants take the captives off the women. But shortly after they themselves are disarmed. Strong women are a recurring feature of Bertolucci’s films, even if they usually centre on a male protagonist. Though strong, the women can also be problematic as is Gina in Before the Revolution.

The two films set in 1930s fascist period, Spider Stratagem and The Conformist, study characters apparently on the opposite sides of the political divide. Both films undercut the values and perceptions of their protagonists. Athos, in Stratagem, penetrates beneath the myth of his father’s death. The conformist Marcello appears to have discovered his sexuality rather than any political point at the conclusion. However, the later film does contain a brilliant cinematic metaphor. Marcello discusses with Quadri Plato’s image of chained captives who only perceive the reflection of reality in the shadows of the cave. The point is reinforced visually by the shadows from the shutters which place the characters in a noir world equivalent to that offered by Plato.

Other stylistic tropes appear to make parallel points in other films. Bertolucci is fond of mirror shots, and several key sequences in Before the Revolution are filmed reflected in the mirror. Quadri explicitly compares support for fascism with the illusion of a reflection rather than reality. Before the Revolution also uses a high level of light: scenes are almost ‘whited’ out at times. This reflects the mists of the area round the Po River. It also seems to comment on the characters inability to see with clarity.

 In The Conformist the idealist nature of Plato’s philosophy does rather suggest a pre-eminence for the idea over actuality. This would appear to be the curse of the intellectual, [certainly in Bertolucci’s world]. Fabrizio is the first of a number of characters in these films attracted intellectually to the philosophy of the proletariat, but unable to break away from the chains of their class.

The quotation that opens the credits for Before the Revolution is in part a comment on the cinema of Bernardo Bertolucci: “Those who have not lived the years before the revolution cannot realise the sweetness of life.” [Talleyrand]. 

Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione), 1964 Producer: Iride Cinematografica. Assistant director: Gianni Amico. Screenplay: Bernardo Bertolucci and Gianni Amico. Photography: Aldo Scavarda. Music: Gino Paoli, Ennio Morricone. Editor: Roberto Perpignani.

Cast: Francesco Barilli (Fabrizio), Adriana Asti (Gina), Allen Midgette (Agostino), Morando Morandini (Cesare), Cristina Pariset (Clelia), Gianni Aniico (Friend), Cecrope Barilli (Puck), Guido Fanti (Enore).

Running time: 112 minutes. Black and white with Dupont colour, 1.85:1.

[Notes for a talk given at the National Media Museum before a screening of Before the Revolution: now available from the bfi in a high definition digital print.

A full-length and restored 1900 has been issued on DVD and Blu-ray. A restoration of The Conformist should be distributed later this year.]

 

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Le Quattro Volte

Posted by keith1942 on March 26, 2011

Italy / Germany / Switzerland 2010.  minutes, colour with  [a few] subtitles.

 

The title translates as ‘the four times’, and presents a pastoral cycle where dialogue is redundant and we see and hear people as they live and work. The film is set in a village in Calabria, at the lowest point of the Italian peninsula. This is place of wooded hills with the village set on a stark promontory and modern society seems a long way away. I loved this film, with its gradual pace, at times witty observation and obvious empathy for the place and the people.

The sense of a cycle is created by the film opening and closing in a charcoal kiln. In between we meet an elderly goatherd. Every day he takes his flock to pasture in the hills, accompanied by his dog. The man has some ailment for which he takes a traditional remedy, partly religious. His illness results in the sheep dog guarding the goat pen in his absence which leads to a delightfully funny sequence as the villagers celebrate what is [apparently] Good Friday.

Next we meet a baby goat born into the herd. On his first trip out into the hills the young goat strays and finally takes shelter under a tall tree as darkness falls. Later in the cycle the tree is felled, stripped and transported to the village where it is the focus of a traditional celebration. This includes young men demonstrating their virility climbing the pole. Finally the timber from the pole provides the centre of the fire in the charcoal kiln. The cycle carries on, man, animals and nature experiencing birth, death and rebirth.

The film uses predominantly long shots and long takes, creating the sense of the slow, gradual change and development. There is much sound but it is the sounds of life and action rather than a spoken language that matters. I was completely absorbed by this simple observation of a particular and distinctive world. My only [mild] complaint was that whilst we know what has happened to the goatherd, the goat and the tree, we are left uncertain as to the fate of Vuk, the sheepdog. I hope he had a comfortable retirement home.

 

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The Leopard / Il Gattopardo

Posted by keith1942 on November 10, 2010

Italy 1963 

Visconti’s epic drama from the period of the Italian Il Risorgimento has received a further digital restoration. It was screened in 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, and was immaculate, with pristine image and colours. It can now be seen in the UK in a High Definition digital transfer, which is almost as good as the 35mm version and one of the best HD versions I have seen. 

The film follows the fortunes of the household of the Prince of Salina, Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) during the tumultuous months when Garibaldi led his ‘thousand redshirts’ in overthrowing the reactionary Kingdom of the Two Scillies. This was the most famous event of the process of unifying Italy. The film enjoys Visconti’s perfectionism in décor, and setting. There is a sweeping music score by Nino Rota. The buildings, the characters and the events all seem compelling historical recreations. Visconti was also a great director of actors, despite or maybe because of being extremely autocratic. This must be Lancaster’s finest performance, and even small parts [including the dog Bendicò] are convincing. This is the Italian language version, so Lancaster’s lines are dubbed. And one slight regret is the absence of his own fine speaking voice. But the Italian language version is far superior to the English-Language [USA] version.

 

The film adapts the famous and successful novel by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.The author was a Sicilian nobleman and the book clearly relies to a degree on his own family history. The novel’s main protagonist is the Prince of Salina, and the leopard graces his coat of arms. It also symbolises his character in the C19th Sicilian society. A critic commented on the book: ”The crumbling of his estate and his class … is made by him to appear to himself and the reader as the inexorable work of Time and Death, …” (John Gatt-Rutter in Writers & Politics in Modern Italy, 1978). In this sense the book fits in with the famous analysis of Antonio Gramsci, that Il Risorgimento was a ‘passive revolution’. By that he meant one in which the people were left out as the ruling class transformed itself, absorbing the new, rising bourgeoisie. This is the sense of a frequent comment in Italian politics to ‘tranformismo’, a transformation not of the state or the people but of its establishment. The distinction between these two writers is that whilst Gramsci writes with critical frustration, Lampedusa writes from a pessimistic perspective. But it is also one with irony. The book contains numerous references to post-Risorgimento events and a final sardonic chapter set in 1910.  Gatt-Rutter also discusses the point-of-view of the novel, which is predominantly that of the noble Prince of Salina himself. Though there is one chapter seen from the perspective of his confessor Father Pirrone, and the final chapter is after his death.

The film focuses on 1860 to 1862. It follows the novel fairly closely, though it leaves out the final chapters and the frequent references to post-Risorgimento events. The film does retain comments by Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) on nobles, transferred from a visit to his home village to a break in the journey to the family estates at Donnafugata. And the pre-occupation with death in the penultimate chapter with the Prince on his deathbed in 1883 is caught in the closing scenes of the film, following a lavish ball in Palermo. Visconti’s view of the events of 1860 seems close to that of Gramsci. The plot and dialogue frequently remind us of ‘tranformismo’ as the ruling elite, composed of nobles like the Prince of Salina, accommodate the rising bourgeoisie, such as don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). This class collaboration is sealed in the engagement of the Prince’s [poor] nephew Tancredi Alain Delon) to [rich] Sedara’s daughter Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). And one function of the immensely long ball scene is to publicly recognise this union.

At the time and since there have been numerous criticisms of Visconti’s film and the stance on this earlier period. Many comments compared the film to the original novel and identified nostalgia for the vanished life of the Italian aristocracy [into which Visconti himself was born]. It is also the film about which some critics started to use the word ‘decadent’, critically devaluing Visconti’s later films in comparison to an earlier more radical period.

Like the character of Visconti himself I think the film has contradictory qualities. The emphasis on the lives and activities of the elite in this time of momentous change is clearly there. There is little screen time devoted to the ordinary working and people, either urban based or peasantry. This makes for a strong contrast with the earlier classic film on Il Risorgimento, 1860, directed by Giusseppe Blasetti in 1933. That film is dominated by the rebellious peasantry of Sicily and to a lesser degree the volunteer ‘redshirts’ who fought the battles that led to the collapse of the Bourbon rule.

However, the film of The Leopard does address the nature of the revolution more strongly than the novel. Visconti and his team have inserted an impressive sequence depicting the Battle of Palermo. We see the enthusiastic redshirts: the Bourbon mercenaries who shoot civilians under orders of the secret police: and the men and women of the city who flock to support the ‘thousand’ and to wreak vengeance on the agents of the reactionary regime.

In the film as in the book Tancredi has joined Garibaldi’s expedition in the mountains and fights in the battles against his own class. He does this because as he tells Don Fabrizio, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This is an epigram repeated a number of times in both book and film and expropriated for his own use by the Prince. In both versions Tancredi sticks to his morals [or lack of them]. When the Piedmontese military suppresses Garibaldi and his men Tancredi joins the Piedmontese army. As his political ambitions rise, he abandons a tentative interest in Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta (Lucilla Morlacchi) and sets out to woo Sedara’s potentially wealthy daughter, the beautiful Angelica. Sedara, who has already made a fortune, including buying up land that once belonged to the Salina family, is happy to endow Angelica, and Tancredi’s ambitions as his entree to elite society.

The book provides ironic comments on this behaviour from an omniscient narrative voice. In the film Visconti uses mise en scène, camera and editing. In one scene the Salina family arrives at Donnafugata for their summer retreat. They sit in the local church stalls covered in the dust of the journey. The camera tracks along this line of ghostly figures, seemingly prefiguring their social death as a declining class.

And there is pointed cut as we approach the long final sequence of the film. There is a shot of the peasants working in the fields, the music of the ball rises on the soundtrack, and suddenly we see the couples whirling round the floor at the elite gala in Palermo. This vividly presents the gulf between one class and another. The theme of ‘tranformismo’ also dominates the ball. The key guest is Colonel Pallavico. And his hosts are eager to congratulate him as the man who shot and suppressed Garibaldi’s further expedition to liberate the Papal States. In the welter of reactionary self-congratulation is the representative of the new dominant class, Sedara.

It is at the ball’s conclusion that Visconti and his writer make their most powerful comment on this class coalition. Don Fabrizio walks home from the ball, gazing at the stars and thinking of the relieving embrace of death. The final shot of the film shows him disappearing into the shadows of a Palermo street. Meanwhile Tancredi, Angelica and Sedara travel home in one of the carriages. As dawn approaches volley’s of shot ring out. We hear only the sound, but we and the passengers in the carriage know that it is Colonel Pallavico and his men executing the remnants of the Garabaldini. In the end an iron heel achieves the passivity of the ordinary people. So it seems to me that both visually and through additions to the plot that Visconti and his team offer a somewhat subversive version of Lampedusa’s tale.

However, this is not straightforward subversion. John Gatt-Rutter further comments on the novel, “… such is the power of the characterisation that Fabrizio’s presence tends to fill the whole novel and overwhelm it, …” This is equally a characteristic of the film. Lancaster’s superb performance dominates the film from start to finish. And it is his world that is beautifully re-created and which provides the visual pleasures of the film. So there appears to be a contradiction in this epic between the politics of comment and aspects of its visualisation of story and characters. Audience assumptions and experience are likely to be important in how they read this film.

 

The restoration has been carried our by a number of associates, importantly the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation.

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