Valentina Cortese 1st January 1923 – 10th July 2019

The death has taken place of the wonderful Italian actress Valentina Cortese. Trained at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome, she first appeared in elaborate costume dramas and following the war made the move to Hollywood, making a stop in the UK  industry for the Dolomites-set The Glass Mountain where her fine beauty and warm screen personality impressed and her role opposite Orson Welles in Black Magic drew the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck. She married actor Richard Basehart following their appearance in The House on Telegraph Hill, a view of the war from the American perspective following her local roles in The Wandering Jew and Rome, Open City which had made her an icon of Italian cinema. As an independent and mostly in the Italian industry thereafter, she would eventuallywork with Antonioni (Le amiche) and Zeffirelli (Brother Sun, Sister Moon and others up to Sparrow) who remained a close friend.  She had forged links with Fellini early with one of his first screenplays (Three Quarters of a Page) and later memorably played in Juliet of the Spirits. Nominated for an Academy Award for her fading actress Séverine in François Truffaut’s Day For Night, she continued in both film and television and worked until the Nineties including for Terry Gilliam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. She had a famously popular theatre reputation particularly for fans of high campIt took eight different actresses to play her in the film Diva! adapted from her autobiography “A real character, extremely feminine and very funny,” Truffaut said of Cortese. We cannot improve upon that. Rest in peace.

Franco Zeffirelli 12th February 1923 – 15th June 2019

The great Italian – or should I say Florentine – director Franco Zeffirelli has died at the grand age of 96.  He was a remarkable man, whose authorial stamp was distinguished by two particulars – his sympathy for young people and his flair for dramatising opera and theatre. Endless Love was for some of us kids the first time we saw real teen romance up there on the big screen.  Whole new generations were in floods of tears at the remake of The Champ. And there can be few students of Shakespeare who cannot recall whooping with delight at their viewing experiences of The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, which even got a shout-out by Cher in Clueless. That’s how good the man was at making seemingly incomprehensible lines and complex plotting accessible. He made Shakespeare relevant and fun. He did the same with several operas – he took La Traviata and made it a great night out at the movies. And he had vision of a very particular kind:  who else would have chosen Tommy Howell to play Young Toscanini? Or Robert Powell to play Jesus of Nazareth, the goodest good guy of them all?  He was a devoted son of Florence, making several movies and shorts there, recalling his own complicated upbringing in Tea With Mussolini, a tribute to the marvellous women of the ex-pat community who reared him following the death of his mother when he was 6. He was the result of an extra-marital liaison and named for the ‘little breezes’ in Mozart’s Idomeneo which set him on a path in that very idiom – starting as an assistant to Luchino Visconti in the theatre where he became an outstanding production designer (perhaps partly thanks to his da Vinci lineage) and director. He was one of eight Italians to be nominated as Best Director at the Academy Awards but his outstanding gift to us was his talent for seeing into the heart of things. Grazie e addio, Franco.

La Strada (1954)

La Strada

What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke? Gelsomina (Giulietta Masina) is a simple-minded young woman whose mother accepts 10,000 lire from brutish itinerant strongman Zampanò (Anthony Quinn) to take her on the road after her older sister Rosa has died doing the same job. He bullies her and she takes up with high-wire performer Il Matto/Fool (Richard Basehart) who is with a travelling circus which she then joins with Zampanò when he finds her. The men’s rivalry culminates in a death … Here we have a piece of chain that is a quarter of an inch thick. It is made of crude iron, stronger than steel. With the simple expansion of my pectoral muscles, or chest, that is, I’ll break the hook.Written by Fellini and Tulio Pinelli with Ennio Flaiano, this is the first of the maestro’s world hits and one of the classics of cinema. It is a tragedy told with immense humanity and vivid melancholy and is a tribute to the performing brilliance of Masina, Fellini’s wife and the inspiration for the central character, a waif of Chaplinesque attractiveness. Much of the film was shot around dawn, imbuing this picaresque of poverty with its unique tone of fatality. This marks a break with the director’s neorealist cinematic roots,  yet it is an unvarnished picture of post-war Italy, a stark contrast with the American Technicolor tourist romcoms being produced on location. However it embraces the vitality and symbolism of the circus and brings a distinctive worldview to global attention. Quinn seems unbearably tough while Basehart does well as a kind of trickster in this allegorical play on the fairytale.  Nino Rota provides the evocative score and the song which is repeated to such urgent effect. A devastating portrait of the destruction of innocence with the overwhelming power of melodrama. Once you lose your eyes, you are finished. If there’s any delicate person in the audience, I would advise him to look away ’cause there could be blood

The Bible (1966)

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In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form and void. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light. The first 22 books of the Old Testament are dramatised in 5 main sequences:  Creation, narrated by God (John Huston);  Adam (Michael Parks) and Eve (Ulla Bergryd) meet and procreate;  Cain (Richard Harris) slays his brother Abel (Franco Nero);  Noah (Huston again) creates his ark for the animals and there’s a spectacular flood;  and Abraham’s (George C. Scott) story is recounted – his long life with the beautiful but barren Sarah (Ava Gardner), the conceiving of his only son Isaac, with Sarah’s maid, and his calling by God to make a sacrifice. There are two shorter sections, one recounting the building of the Tower of Babel;  and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah… Am I my brother’s keeper?  An awesome epic of tension-free tedium that is quite literally beyond belief with some (few) honourable exceptions:  director Huston himself, who also narrates this Italian-American co-production and makes for an amiable animal lover;  the lustrous Gardner;  O’Toole in his brief appearance as the Three Angels; and the final sequence in which Abraham comes closerthanthis to putting his only son Isaac on the BBQ instead of the more conventional sacrificial ram. Nero was the film’s still photographer until Huston spotted him and started his screen career. Adam and Eve’s nude frolics were choreographed by Katharine Dunham. Huston’s girlfriend Zoe Sallis features as Hagar. Notable for a score by Toshiro Mayuzumi with uncredited work by Ennio Morricone, this will have you reaching for your own traveller’s friend – it’s light work after this. The screenplay, on the other hand, is credited to Christopher Fry although Orson Welles and Mario Soldati also contributed something or other. There is nothing that He may not ask of thee?

Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953)

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Aka Terminal Station/Stazione Termini. I’m starting to hate you. Married American Mary Forbes (Jennifer Jones) is on holiday in Rome visiting relatives and becomes involved in an affair with an Italian academic, Giovanni Doria (Montgomery Clift). As she prepares to leave, Giovanni confesses his love for her; he doesn’t want her to go while she is desperate to break off their relationship for good. Together they wander the railway station where Mary is to take the train to Paris, to ultimately reunite with her husband and daughter back in Philadelphia. Will she throw away her old life for this passionate new romance? … They caught them making love. Producer/director Vittorio De Sica was a tour de force of Italian cinema and when this was made Rome was becoming known as Hollywood on the Tiber – all those frozen tax dollars were waiting to be spent. This over-egged pudding doesn’t reflect particularly well on the spectacular array of talent involved.  Apart from the two stars – and it was Jones’s husband of two years David O. Selznick who set this in motion as a vehicle for her – just look at the names responsible for the screenplay:  Cesare Zavattini wrote the story, Truman Capote was credited with the whole shebang (presumably to attract financing) but in fact only wrote two scenes, Luigi Chiarini, Ben Hecht and Giorgio Prosperi. Selznick had originally commissioned Carson McCullers, whom he replaced with Capote, then Alberto Moravia and Paul Gallico were hired and fired. What an exquisite galaxy of midcentury writing greatness! Apparently Selznick wrote De Sica some of his infamously lengthy memos filled with production ideas each day and De Sica agreed to all his suggestions – but he spoke no English and just did his own thing. Everyone involved had a different concept for the film although Clift took De Sica’s side. Jones became depressed by the death of her ex-husband Robert Walker (he was killed by his psychiatrist) and missed her children during the shoot. A very unhappy affair, then, in more ways than one. Fascinating, not least to see the very contrasting acting styles of Clift and Jones which creates a highly emotive atmosphere with tragic foreboding, intimations of Anna Karenina throughout. Richard Beymer co-stars and Patti Page sings the theme song.  You didn’t look very wicked. I’m not an imaginative woman. It was you. It was Rome! And I’m a housewife from Philadelphia!

 

Before the Revolution (1964)

Before the Revolution

What do you think you’re up to ?  Revolution?  Parma, 1962. Student Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) struggles to reconcile his communist beliefs with his lifestyle. After his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) drowns, he breaks up with the nice middle class girl Clelia (Cristina Pariset) he’s been dating. When his parents invite his mother’s younger sister Gina (Adriana Asti) to stay they have a passionate affair … What David Thomson describes as a film characterised by romantic disenchantment was Bernardo Bertolucci’s audacious sophomore outing. Shot when he was just 22 and directly after his apprenticeship to Pasolini, it’s a striking piece of work, conjoining sex and politics directly and unapologetically. Bertolucci’s screenplay confronts the difficulties of post-war life in Italy in a loose adaptation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and examines the legacy of fascism while Fabrizio considers the merits and issues within the Italian Communist Party.  Distinguished by Vittorio Storaro’s black and white cinematography and a score by Ennio Morricone, this is an astonishingly assured piece of work, announcing the director’s philosophical intent with a quote from Talleyrand as the narration begins in a film which has its roots in the Nouvelle Vague style, bristling with ideas and a signature that’s already fully formed.

Me and You (2012)

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Aka Io & Te. You have nine lives like a cat. Introverted Italian teenager Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) tells his parents he’s going on a skiing holiday but instead hides out for a week in the unused basement of their home, a conflict-free zone, spending part of the time with his 25-year old arty half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) whose fragility and jitteriness are revealed to be the consequence of a drug addiction.  She starts to help him see the world differently … Me and you, if we didn’t have our own point of view, we’d be the same, right? Without a point of view, we’d stop fighting each other, and accept reality for what it is, without judging it. Undoubtedly Bertolucci’s ill-health contributed to his return to Italian-language cinema with this chamber piece.  It was his last film and bears his immense sympathy for the teenage condition, out of step with family and the wider world.  The relationship between brother and sister is nicely teased out, working out the best way to negotiate a way back into society. His relationships and exchanges with his mother (Sonia Bergamasco) and grandmother (Veronica Lazar) add mordant humour to the situation. It’s a small scale – even claustrophobic – drama of formal challenges, intimately reminding us of the great director’s concerns over the decades but pivoting to the psychological rather than the sexual. The screenplay is by Bertolucci with Niccolò Ammaniti, Francesca Marciano and Umberto Contarello, from the YA novel by Ammaniti. Nobody can hurt you when you’re high

Conversation Piece (1974)

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Aka Gruppo di famiglia in un inferno. There’s no sex life in the grave. Retired and lonely American University professor (Burt Lancaster) living in Rome rents out rooms in his palazzo to Bianca Brumonti (Silvana Mangano) a rather pushy marchesa, her teenage daughter Lietta (Claudia Marsani) and her boyfriend Stefano (Stefano Patrizi) and her own lover Konrad (Helmut Berger)…  He was too young to have learned this final nasty fact: grief is as precarious as anything else. Dreamed up by Luchino Visconti as a kind of updated La Dolce Vita, critiquing decadent society, this was co-written with regular collaborators Enrico Medioli and Suso Cecchi D’Amico.  It reunited him with his protegé Berger, and his avatar from Il Gattopardo, Lancaster, an iteration of literary critic Mario Praz (a specialist in romantic morbidity), who collects the titular paintings. Resplendent in furs from Fendi and ostentatious beauty, these unwelcome tenants turn the Professor’s life upside down against a backdrop of political chaos as this quasi-home invasion by the jet set takes a nasty turn while he is momentarily besotted by Konrad. This is a story of nostalgia and sorrow, a paean to lost love and beauty and art, a tone poem about modernity and death, the flailing of the elegant intellectual in a world losing to vulgarity. It’s a chamber piece likely due to the director’s recent stroke but still boasts opulence and telling detail with the dazzling Berger another incarnation of Tadzio, the angel of death from Death in Venice and Mangano revealed as a grotesqueVisconti at his most vulnerable and perhaps most charming. The way of progress is destruction

 

Suspiria (1977)

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You’re going to meet death now… the LIVING DEAD! Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) transfers to Germany to attend the Freiburg Tanzakademie, a prestigious ballet school. When she arrives, late on a stormy night, no one lets her in, and she sees Pat Hingle (Eva Axén), another student, fleeing from the school. When Pat reaches her apartment, she is murdered. The next day, Suzy arrives at her new school, where Miss Tanner (Alida Valli) introduces her to everyone, including the imperious Madame Blanc (Joan Bennett, in her final role) but has a difficult time settling in. She hears noises, and often feels ill, put on a special diet. As more people die, Suzy uncovers the terrifying secret history of the place and has to save herself from a witches’ coven …  I can see that once you make up your mind about something, nothing will change it for you. My compliments. Co-written by director Dario Argento with Daria Nicolodi (and vaguely based on the Thomas de Quincey essay Suspiria de Profundis), this is one of the classic giallos, a colourful, suspenseful exercise in paranoid conspiracy Gothic supernatural horror, with witches instead of politicians and a gutsy heroine who reigns supreme. There are several gorgeous set pieces, incredible cinematography (Luciano Tovoli) and production design (Giuseppe Bassan) and one of the all-time great scores by Goblin and Argento. And it wouldn’t be a Seventies Euro horror without Udo Kier! A delicious delirious dream of a film, every frame bearing the imprint of a master filmmaker. Crazy, sensational and utterly fabulous, this is peak Argento. Suzy, do you know anything about… witches?

Bernardo Bertolucci 16th March 1941-26th November 2018

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The film world has lost a poet. Bernardo Bertolucci has died. Equal parts sensualist, political animal and historian, his films frequently courted controversy but he was a true man of the twentieth century – engaged and enraged since his earliest days as Pasolini’s assistant, a romantic visionary in his own right, a Marxist, a dramatist making the cinematic link between eroticism and fascism. If The Conformist is the perfect statement about modern man’s detached disposition, it is an extraordinary analysis of abstract style made by a filmmaker of grave passions.  While Last Tango in Paris is a sorrowful inquisition into the behaviour of a grieving misogynist, The Last Emperor brought people to the cinema who only go once a decade:  a work of staggering beauty, made with regular collaborator, cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, with unprecedented footage of The Forbidden City telling the compelling story of a simple man adrift in a world of complexity.  1900 is a sympathetic portrait of Italy reawakening from its slumbers; while The Dreamers is a bittersweet account of the 1968 generation and the sexual awakening of adolescents discovering their political place in a world of tumult. Farewell to one of the greats. Addio a un maestro.

I left the ending ambiguous, because that is the way life is.
I don’t film messages. I let the post office take care of those.
I think that I used to love Hollywood movies. I remember great phases and moments. But, unfortunately, now is not the moment.
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