Rocco and his Brothers (1960)

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Tomorrow? Tomorrow? There is no tomorrow.  Widowed Rosaria Parondi (Katina Paxinou), an impoverished Italian mother, moves north to Milan with her close-knit family of five sons to find opportunity in the big city where oldest son Vincenzo (Spiros Focas) is getting engaged to the lovely Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale). But the two mothers dislike each other and the marriage is off.  A heated rivalry begins when two of Rosaria’s boys, soft-spoken Rocco (Alain Delon) and brutal Simone (Renato Salvatori), fall for Nadia (Annie Girardot), a beautiful prostitute with whom each has an affair. As each pursues Nadia, tension between them threatens to tear the family apart … Always at the movies! He lives on bread and movies. In a stunningly stylish and tragic epic portrait of Italian society after the boom, Luchino Visconti brings his preoccupations together – visually operatic, violent romanticism, literary and post-war realism, with brilliantly conceived characters finding their destiny against a backdrop of poverty and desperation. Time flies when every day’s the same. Wouldn’t seem so, but it’s true.  Written by Visconti with Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli and Massimo Franciosa, from a story by Visconti, d’Amico and Vasco Pratolini, inspired by Giovanni Testori’s novel Il ponte della Ghisolfa, this is an intense, overwhelming masterpiece, beautifully performed. See it and believe in cinema. What was beautiful and right has become wrong

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The Leopard (1963)

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We were the leopards, the lions, those who take our place will be jackals and sheep, and the whole lot of us – leopards, lions, jackals and sheep – will continue to think ourselves the salt of the earth. As Garibaldi’s troops begin the unification of Italy in the 1860s, an aristocratic Sicilian family grudgingly adapts to the sweeping social changes undermining their way of life. The proud but pragmatic (yet feline) Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina (Burt Lancaster) allows his fickle war hero (who changes sides) nephew, Tancredi (Alain Delon), to marry Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), the beautiful daughter of gauche, bourgeois Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) in order to maintain the family’s accustomed level of comfort and political clout when the fighting approaches their summer home in Sicily but the Prince is himself enchanted with her …  Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa’s masterful novel by director Luchino Visconti and Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Enrico Mediloi, Pasquale Festa Campanile and Massimo Franciosa, rarely have the obsessions of a novelist coincided so fortuitously with those of a filmmaker. The Marxist aristocrat Visconti had an intimate acquaintance with the notion of a society in transition and the magnificent central performance by Lancaster anchors the affect in nuance and specificity as he questions his identity and relevance.  The battle scenes that open the film are sunny, stunning and violent, shot almost entirely wide which gives them an appropriately epic quality. The final forty-five minute ball sequence during which the Prince dances with Angelica and Tancredi and the Prince’s daughters look on in variously anguished forms is tantalising:  there are shot choices that make you squeal with delight, almost as gloriously as Cardinale’s devastating laughter at the dinner table. Was there ever a more beautiful or seductive couple than Delon and Cardinale, reunited after Rocco and His Brothers? Not a lot happens:  the Prince realises his way of life (‘leopards and lions’) is changing and he is experiencing history as it unfolds. He discusses his ridiculous marriage with his priest Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli);  he observes a rigged plebiscite;  goes on holiday and a picnic;  hunts;  arranges Tancredi’s marriage to Angelica; walks home from the ball in the early hours of the morning and recognises the shabbiness of the decaying district over which he presides. The novel is wonderful and it is shocking to realise Di Lampedusa died before he could see it become a phenomenon in 1958. A magnificent, bewitching, bittersweet film adaptation made when cinema was great with an immersive score by Nino Rota that perfectly encapsulates a world in love with death. For the ages. We’re just human beings in a changing world.

Happy 80th Birthday Claudia Cardinale 15th April 2018!

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This marks the 80th birthday of the incandescent, preternaturally beautiful Tunisian-born Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. She trained at the Centro Sperimentale and made a big impression in Big Deal on Madonna Street, subsequently working with some of the great Italian auteurs like Mauro Bolognini and then shooting 8 1/2 and The Leopard back to back:  how’s that for masterpiece theatre?! That was a good year. She was ‘discovered’ by Hollywood but would only appear on a film by film basis and while she appeared in some terrific work like The Professionals and of course in the Italian co-production Once Upon a Time in the West she continued to work primarily in Europe and mostly in her adopted home, France (making an exception for the extraordinary Fitzcarraldo). Mysterious, feminine and feisty, powerful and poignant, she is singular in her beauty, her voice is distinguished by its hoarse quality and her career by its independence. She might not have become as famous in the English-speaking world as some of her counterparts but her commitment to auteur filmmaking means she has more and better films to her name. Ms Cardinale, we salute you. Happy birthday!

 

Lost Command (1966)

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This isn’t vengeance, it’s pointless slaughter. You’ve turned warfare into murder. Following a botched incident in Indochina in which his under-resourced paratroopers are overrun by communists at Dien Bien Phu, Basque Colonel Pierre Raspeguy (Anthony Quinn) is freed from Vietnamese war prison to assist in quelling the resistance to French rule in Algeria being led by Mahidi (George Segal) a former French lieutenant. Raspeguy is helped by Captain Esclavier (Alain Delon) a military historian who has tired of fighting and Captain Boisfeuras (Maurice Ronet) who breathes war. Raspeguy has to shape up an airborne unit to fight the insurgents with the promise of being made General and marriage to a beautiful countess (Michele Morgan) the widow of the man who died helping reinforce Raspeguy’s garrison. Meanwhile Esclavier meets local girl Aicha (Claudia Cardinale) and believes she’s on their side and not the FLN (National Liberation Front). After participating in a murderous ambush in a village Esclavier starts to take a different view of his nation’s activities in the name of war  … The bestselling French novel The Centurions by Jean Larteguy was acquired by producer/director Mark Robson and adapted by Nelson Gidding. It has lots to recommend it – several well-staged action scenes, issues of retribution and redemption and a to-die-for cast, reuniting as it does the beautiful young lovers from The Leopard, Delon and Cardinale, and it gives Quinn an excellent showcase in a vaguely biographical role (that of Marcel Bigeard, the commander in Indochina) as the colonel keen to justify himself after taking the fall. Political subtleties are necessarily worked out in broad characterisation with Cardinale as the stunning woman who plays both ends against the middle. Despite simplifying issues in the narrative this remains a rare English-language attempt to get to grips with a war that still has huge ramifications in France. The last image, with Delon leaving the military and seeing an FLN child activist painting a graffito, is a brilliant conclusion to a complex scenario.

Effie Gray (2014)

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He must be mad.  Young virginal Effie (Dakota Fanning) marries art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise) shortly after her family has endured financial hardship. When she enters his family home she finds that he has an unhealthy relationship with his mother (Julie Walters) and his father (David Suchet) is genially oppressive. On their wedding night her husband looks at her with … distaste. And never touches her. Her mother in law insists on dosing her with some strange herbal concoction that knocks her out. Mingling with the great and the good she finds a sympathetic friend in Lady Eastlake (Emma Thompson) the wife of his patron at the Royal Academy and she suspects all is not right particularly on a visit to their stifling home during a spectacularly awkward dinner.  On a trip to Venice it is assumed that Ruskin is quite mad and Effie is pursued by Raffaele (Riccardo Scarmarcio) who almost rapes her. When Ruskin commissions a portrait of himself from his protege John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge) the trio decamp to the countryside and an affection grows between the two young people:  it is clear Effie is starved of genuine human warmth. She summons her little sister Sophy (Polly Dartford) to visit her and makes a plan to escape… This project had a very troubled birth following two plagiarism suits against actress and screenwriter Emma Thompson. Notwithstanding the issues that caused the script to be redrafted this doesn’t come to life – something of an irony given that the living Effie was immortalised as the suicided Ophelia by Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Fanning isn’t the most energised or personable of performers at the best of times but she really is given little here and the interrelationships aren’t especially well exposed. Wise has likewise little to do except look pained and self-absorbed:  mission accomplished. It may well be true but it doesn’t mean it works on the screen. For a story with so much scandalous content this is a disappointment on a massive scale. Look at the paintings instead. That’s Tiger Lily Hutchence as the young Effie in the opening scene and how lovely it is to see Claudia Cardinale as the Venetian viscountess. Directed by Richard Laxton with some staggeringly beautiful landscape photography by Andrew Dunn.

All Roads Lead to Rome (2015)

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Be honest:  it’s January. It’s miserable. You’re back at work weeks early (February is about right – right?!) and you need to escape. So where better than la bella Italia?! And in the fine company of Sarah Jessica Parker, a woman I have adored since Square Pegs, way back in the days of analogue. She’s Maggie, the divorced former journalist now college lecturer (CCNY, since you ask) who takes her bolshy teenage daughter Summer (Rosie Day) to her old haunt in Tuscany to bail the kid out of a relationship with a vile junkie who wants her to take the rap for drug possession because she’s underage and it won’t criminalise her. Lovely. No sooner have they arrived than Maggie’s old lover of decades past, artist Luca (Raoul Bova) materialises in the villa next door where a very young woman, his presumed girlfriend, and his bitchy mama Nonna (the marvellous Claudia Cardinale) also show up. Summer wants out and so does Nonna so they steal Luca’s car. Nonna has a wedding to attend in Rome – her own! and Summer wants to go back to NYC to do the right-wrong thing for the junkie BF. Maggie and Luca chase them in her rental the whole 300km to the Eternal City … As we know road trips are emotional journeys (sob!) and all parties get the opportunity to share and care with each other amid some mayhem that could have been better choreographed – and there are a lot of long driving scenes along very dull looking roads until the police get involved and Luca tells them Summer kidnapped Nonna. Summer is a horribly noxious teenager whose view on her behaviour is altered not by the wisdom of her elders but by a come-on from a Lesbian who picks her up hitching a lift. Talk about playing into the zeitgeist of ‘gender fluidity’ as they now call it. Neither particularly well written (Josh Appignanesi, Cindy Myers) nor directed (Ella Lemhagen) or shot (whoever), this could have been so much sharper and better handled: they meant well but then there were 20 producers, this decade’s version of a Europudding …  The only scenes that really work are with Parker and Bova (they have nice chemistry) and those TV sendups when Paz Vega gets the chance to imitate the peculiarly slutty Italian journalists in the kind of cod-hysterical news presentation that characterises Berlusconi-dominated media. SJP deserves a whole lot better but it’s nice to see Cardinale in action.

8 1/2 (1963)

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A great film, like fine wine, simply gets better with age. And the viewer’s increasing age helps too.  Fellini’s masterpiece – well, one of them – is a magnificent, epic carnival of creativity, narrative, beauty, obsession, dithering, memory, fantasy, love, family, sex, religion, school, acting, obligation and film. He and Ennio Flaiano devised the story and the screenplay was assisted by Tullio Pinelli and Brunello Rondi (the team behind il maestro’s La Dolce Vita). I hadn’t expected to watch it today, but there it was and I was gripped, even moreso than before. Perhaps its impact and universality derive from the need to make sense of things, to construct meaning, to sort things out rationally so that a narrative can be constructed and things have a natural flow – which of course life rarely does.  And filmmaker Guido is constantly disrupted by the people in his life and the film critic sent to haunt him. And there’s a ruddy spaceship and he’s supposed to make a sci-fi film. Guido’s past and his inner life surround him in a mythos of fabulism and fatalism. In the fifty-plus years since its release, it is very difficult to make the claim for any film, anywhere, that it is better than this.  All human life is here. The beautiful confusion indeed.

The Pink Panther (1963)

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First there was the music. Then the cartoon on BBC every evening. Then there was the pink chocolate bar! It came as quite a shock to my eight-year old self to learn there was a full-on movie and there wasn’t a cat in sight! What an entertainment this is, the first in the Inspector Clouseau series which led to a lot of seriously diminished returns twenty-plus years later but what joy this brings. Glamour, fun, fabulous locations – Paris! Rome! Los Angeles! Cortina! – and an incredible cast. Sellers picked up the moustache and coat en route to location with no clue about what would materialise. The eternally underrated Blake Edwards had already made some terrific films (see Experiment in Terror, a great home invasion thriller with another Mancini score, if you don’t believe me) but this made him a household name. There are those who prefer A Shot in the Dark, the first sequel. But I love this. Now I’ll just have to watch it again!

 

The Professionals (1966)

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Monday you see Robert Ryan in Crossfire, Tuesday you see him act for Richard Brooks 19 years later in a very effective, beautifully made, western, about 3 ageing fighters hired by wealthy Ralph Bellamy (imagine!) to rescue his wife (Claudia Cardinale) from wicked Mexican bandit (Jack Palance.) How wonderful is it to see those marvellous national parks shot so beautifully by Conrad Hall – and Lancaster re-teamed with Cardinale 3 years after Visconti’s The Leopard. Terrific, well written entertainment adapted by Brooks from Frank O’Rourke’s novel.