La Dolce Vita (1960)

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In the summer of 1958 several layers of Roman society collided in the flashing lightbulbs of celebrity, with Hollywood actors, aristocrats, drug dealers, designers, artists, writers, prostitutes, journalists and street photographers engaging in salacious conflicts that kept several scandal rags going with outrageous tales of a demimonde that seemed to congregate around the Via Veneto. Federico Fellini was taking note. A photograph of Anita Ekberg frolicking in the Trevi Fountain seemed to encapsulate the scene and a story took root in his brain. Along with Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli, Brunello Rondi and some uncredited assistance from Pier Paolo Pasolin, he came up with the script that would define the time and the place like no other. Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) is the urbane gossip journalist who secretly hankers after the life of his intellectual friend Steiner (Alain Cuny, playing a character loosely based on Cesare Pavese) but cannot cease his lifestyle of instant gratification. The opening shot is stunning:  a helicopter is taking a statue of Christ across a football field surrounded by ancient ruins, and chased by another helicopter. All at once the image shows us Rome ancient, imperial and modern, and God is leaving the city, opening up a world of self-indulgence. Marcello is in the second chopper and dallies with some beauties sunbathing on a roof. Right there we have some very economical socio-cultural analysis about contemporary values.  38 minutes in, the film’s raison d’etre occurs:  Fellini re-stages the Ekberg image, starring Ekberg herself. Surely this is the ultimate post-modern shot in cinema. This is a very glamorous film about incredible people in a state of pure decadence. It was much criticised at local level but Fellini had tapped into fascism’s true expression – the cultivation of image above meaning, the use of culture to promote an antithetical belief system, the failure of humanity, mob rule. Popular culture was the vehicle through which fascism was transmitted. Fellini was working as a caricaturist during Mussolini’s alliance with the Nazis, he was involved with several of the neorealist classics made right after the war and he had already made a couple of classic films:  his concept of reality did not mean the subtraction of meaning. Christening the scattini (street photographers) Paparazzo was only the start of it. He understood the power of voyeurism. Marcello’s disenchantment as he pursues his personal satyricon is groundbreaking and inimitable. The role changed Mastroianni, as he admitted. You cannot walk through Rome and not see it as it is here – ironically, Fellini recreated most of it at Cinecitta (a Mussolini factory that lured so many American filmmakers to free up their frozen profits and enjoy the sweet life):  that’s how I discovered the real Via Veneto is very hilly.  Rome is Fellini, Fellini is Rome. And as for Nino Rota’s score! As Jonathan Jones said some years ago, Fellini thought of everything first. We are still catching up. Simply great.

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My review of Shawn Levy’s book Dolce Vita Confidential which excavates in scrupulous detail the circumstances leading up to the film’s production is here:  http://offscreen.com/view/dolce-vita-swinging-rome.

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Tea With Mussolini (1999)

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Writer/director Franco Zeffirelli is one of the storied Italian auteurs, whose personal life and origins serve as the inspiration for this screenplay by John Mortimer, an Italophile of long standing. It’s 1935. Little Luca (Charlie Lucas) is the motherless boy who is taken care of by a group of expat English women in Florence, known as the Scorpioni, led by Mary Wallace (Joan Plowright) who is the secretary to the boy’s businessman father. He has no interest in the illegitimate fruit of his liaison with the late dressmaker and his wife makes the boy’s wife hell when she sees him. We are introduced to Arabella (Judi Dench) a keen artist but more effective at restoration who spends most of her days at the Uffizi;  Lady Hester, the obstinate widow of the British Consul (Maggie Smith); and wealthy American and serial bride Elsa Morgenthal (Cher) who returns to Italy after years away, keen to pay for Luca’s education and puts together a trust fund for his future:  she owes his mama a great deal. She’s a flamboyant art collector, despised by Hester. The Fascists destroy the daily afternoon tea that these ladies of a certain age enjoy but Lady Hester is convinced that Mussolini’s personal promises to her ensure their safety. Luca is sent to school in Austria by his father who no longer wishes him to be an English gentleman, but a German businessman. When he returns (in the form of Baird Wallace) in 1940 the ladies are rounded up as enemy aliens. Only Elsa and Lesbian archaeologist Georgie (Lily Tomlin) are spared due to America not entering the war yet. Elsa secretly helps Jews in the district and gets the ladies out of their prison-like conditions in San Gimignano and pays for their hotel accommodation – where she winds up with Georgie after Pearl Harbour and Americans are enemies now too. She hooks up with a lawyer who has her sign over everything to him to save her life – she thinks. Lady Hester’s grandson (Paul Chequer) cross-dresses as female to be spared getting shot by the fascists and lives with them until he can’t take it any more and joins the partisan gang of which Luca is now a part… There is a gracious ensemble of actresses here and the trick of the screenplay is to shift focus to each in turn while Luca is mostly an observer, growing up with difficulty as he sees Elsa with her lover and reacts with jealousy, leading to her being endangered. Baird Wallace doesn’t convincingly play the role but since his scenes are underwritten he probably does as well as he can. However, all ends well, with some amusing interaction with Nazis (believe it or not) when Arabella protects her beloved Uffizi from their bombs. When Lady Hester has to eat crow with Elsa, she does it in the most stylish way possible – saving her life. This may be Zeffirelli’s recollection, but it’s mostly fond vignettes with no real sense of the murderousness of the fascisti and their acolytes. It’s nice to see Dench returning to the scene of A Room With a View, and with husband Michael Williams in tow. Perfect entertainment for a day dripping with fog, frost curling at the windows.

Cat O’Nine Tails (1971)

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Not Dario Argento’s favourite of his own films – too American, he thinks. But it’s more coherent than most of his output and graphically interesting at the very least. Karl Malden is crossword-setter Cookie Arno, a blind man who overhears an odd conversation in a car while walking past a science lab, the Terzi Institute, where couples are helped to reproduce. His little niece Lori (Cinzia de Carolis) helps him identify the man speaking. She lives with him since her parents died and all they have is each other. The man breaks into the institute. A scientist, Calabresi, knows what’s been taken and by whom and agrees to meet someone. Then he falls under a train. Journalist Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus) is investigating the death and it’s the first of a series – even the newspaper photographer who is developing what Cookie identifies as potentially incriminating evidence of the train death being a murder is garrotted. Eventually the killer is after Giordani – and Cookie – and Lori … Argento’s sophomore outing is fabulous looking – constructed around the prism of vision, point of view and perception. Everything is continuous within the spatial organisation, characters’ movement through interiors, colour, the repetition of shapes (look what he does with triangles and pyramids), and there’s a great chase using an underground car park plus a spectacularly odd sex scene between Franciscus and doll-like Catherine Spaak, playing the daughter of the Professor running the lab where an unusual research project concerning chromosomal dispositions toward criminality has triggered a serial killer. There’s a  fantastically inventive soundtrack by Ennio Morricone and the crisp cinematography is by Enrico Menczer. There’s no cat, by the way:  that title is an expression used to describe the number of false leads in the case. This is stylish as hell if not quite as shocking as some of the Maestro’s work. And the cars! Shot in Berlin, Turin and Cinecitta.

A Bigger Splash (2015)

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Four of the most beautiful people on the planet spend a few days together at a villa and one morning one of them is found floating on the surface of the swimming pool. Alain Page (writing as Jean-Emmanuel Conil) wrote the story La Piscine and Jacques Deray filmed it in 1969. It starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Ronet and Jane Birkin. All these years later Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino decided to remake it in a different setting (using David Hockney’s famous title), a volcanic Italian island where rock singer Marianne (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery with her documentary maker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenarts).  She isn’t speaking to protect her voice, he’s not drinking because, as we learn, he was in rehab following a suicide attempt. Old friend, Marianne’s producer ex Harry (Ralph Fiennes) arrives with a young American girl Penelope (Dakota Johnson) who’s apparently the daughter he discovered he had just last year. Tensions unfurl among the foursome and the complexities of Harry and Marianne’s previous relationship unravel as the heat pulses, Harry’s larger than life personality unsettles everyone and we wonder just what is going on: is jailbait Penelope really Harry’s daughter? Just look at Swinton’s reaction when Harry says to Penelope ‘You’re the best thing that ever happened to me!’ It’s something to behold. Not to mention that it happens at a karaoke party he’s orchestrated at the local bar. She doesn’t talk, he never stops. Marianne seems to be a female Bowie, a latterday Siouxsie Sioux perhaps, and Penelope likens her life to an album of twelve tracks – one side for Harry, one for Paul, six years each, with one good song on each side ‘to make people turn over’.  This is a tough film of relationships, fame, creativity or lack of it (how daring to have a singer unable to vocalise), the choices people make to withdraw and have different kinds of lives than the crazy ones they used to  lead. There’s a clever, ironic screenplay by David Kajganich and the volcanic landscape is a useful and unforgiving correlative for tensions that are going to boil over… Fiennes and Swinton are wonderful.

Marriage Italian Style (1964)

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Aka Matrimonio all’italiana. Eduardo de Filipo’s play Filumena Marturano was about his sister but Sophia Loren felt an intense connection to the subject matter, mainly because of her own illegitimate origins as the older daughter in the second family of a nobleman who wouldn’t divorce his first wife. She’s a very young prostitute who meets businessman Marcello Mastroianni during WW2 in a Naples brothel and after the war they meet again and have a twenty-year affair during which she has three children, one of whom is his. She finds out that he intends to marry another woman altogether – and will stop at nothing to prevent it and protect her children:  they all live together with his senile mother and she is there under the pretence of being her carer. She feigns her own imminent death but drops the act and won’t tell him which son is his. Working once again with Vittorio De Sica, her veritable father, the screenplay had a lot of contributors: Renato Castellani, Tonino Guerra, Leo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardini and their work manages to convey the up and down swing of this spicy relationship with humour, pathos and drama. (It had already been adapted in Argentina in 1950).  This was the year Loren reached the apogee of her career and her fame, with The Fall of the Roman Empire getting her a million dollar payday. Loren and Mastroianni are brilliant sparring partners and Loren got her second Oscar nomination for her bawdy, funny, engaging performance. They had already appeared opposite each other in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow and made a total of seventeen films together.

Juliet of the Spirits (1965)

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Giulietta Masina suspects that her event manager husband is a philanderer and a mystic confirms her worst fears so she hires a private eye to follow him and get the proof. That’s it, in a nutshell. Except it’s SO much more. She’s more contained, conventional, bourgeois than her cliquey flamboyant friends who show up to have a seance to celebrate her birthday. They all have artistic lives, huge hats, exotic lovers and her equally worldly sisters have beautiful little children to add injury to insult. The woman next door entertains her lovers in a tree house:  when Giulietta returns her cat she demurs from their offer to join them. She enters a world of fantasy and flashback, frequently finding an amusing correlative on TV for her woes and Fellini indulges his wife’s character in all kinds of daydreams and psychic excursions, memories of frightening nuns from childhood, intimations of sex in a brothel. She’s so different from the artificial environment in which she finds herself which is incredibly photographed and looking as fresh as if it were made yesterday. The images are like jolts to the senses:  this was the maestro’s first feature in colour and boy did he revel in its painterly possibilities with Gianni De Venanzo’s cinematography making pictures that sing. Critics argue about the film’s significance and whether it was his explanation to Masina for his own extra-marital life, but it is sheerly wondrous, a throwback to when films mattered.

Django (1966)

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What an iconic piece of work by the Italian auteur Sergio Corbucci, this spawned loads of imitators (c30) but none holds a candle to this nor stars that most beauteous of men, Franco Nero, except a very late ‘sequel’ in 1987, made without Corbucci. Of course it was influenced by Leone’s work but gained a major following for its equally laconic leading man who fought for the Union but is now drifting, dragging a coffin, in the company of a half-caste whore Maria (Loredana Nusciak) and becoming involved in a dispute between Confederate racists and Mexican revolutionaries. What can be in that coffin? All is revealed in highly symbolic fashion, with fighting in the streets and the graveyards. Exceptionally violent. What a delight it was to see Nero pop up in Django Unchained, but… The original and the best.

 

Boot Hill (1969)

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Aka Trinity Rides Again. Before Han and Chewie … there was Terence Hill and his bear of a companion, Bud Spencer, who died last month. For those not in the know, they made a series of spaghetti westerns under the ‘Trinity’ moniker. This is the only western I know that’s pretty much set at a circus and is the last of the preceding trilogy, God Forgives … I Don’t and Ace High, coming before it. It was renamed on re-release to cash in  on the success of the Trinity trilogy. Hill is Cat Stevens (I know … I know!) who’s been ambushed by a gang but hides away in a circus wagon. He’s helped by Thomas (Woody Strode) who wants him as bait to lure the gang into a trap. They’re led by Victor Buono, that oozing obese musical maestro from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?.  Hutch (Spencer) lives in a shack with a mute called Baby Doll and they agree to help get Cat’s claim deed back. A big pantomime of the events is re-enacted in the big top, and everyone, even the dwarves and dancers, takes part in a massive shoot-out and the gang is wiped out. If only we all had such good friends. Cat and Hutch ride off to make the Trilogy films. Written and directed by Giuseppe Colizzi who died shockingly young in 1978.

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 Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1969)

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Or, how a spaghetti western writer (Once Upon a Time in the West!) created the European slasher film with a stylish twist in this chic Roman giallo thriller. Dario Argento made his directing debut with this tale of an American writer (Tony Musante) who happens upon a near-homicide in a gallery and he and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) become the prey of an unhinged serial killer while assisting police. If it seems a tad familiar it’s because it’s a riff on The Screaming Mimi which was already filmed under that name earlier in the decade in the US. Wonderful camerawork and sheer chutzpah camouflage a few plot holes but this set Argento on a long and brilliant career. It’s hard to see it in the cut originally intended since it varied from territory to territory but worth catching any which way you can as it just hasn’t dated. And Maitland McDonagh has written a wonderful study of the man and his influential films which is a great read. See this first!