L’Innocente (1976)

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Third time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema and Sandra.

Not too much to latch onto initially: Tullio is a total cad without being particularly seductive, as he waxes lyrical about his new love interest while his wife Giuliana listens with meek resignation. “You talk as if I never existed” is her response to his exaltations of newfound youth. She grows into relative independence while his mistress Teresa remains satisfyingly aloof. Turns out to be something of a false start as its the process of regeneration in G that makes her suddenly attractive once more to T; there’s a nice setpiece in the grounds of a fading and neglected villa, held in waiting by T’s mother for the couple, where they attempt to renovate their relationship (“Let’s imagine being two people who meet for the first time”). The allure of immoral decadence becomes a central theme, with G’s inability to resist T shadowing LV’s own obsession with the poisoned aristocracy of his background and of his later films (the idea of T being the seducer is intriguing, too, given LV’s own open homosexuality. There is plenty of implied tension in the frequent fencing scenes and one particular peak in a moment between T and his wife’s lover in the showers, but the theme isn’t explicitly developed any further).

The screws are slowly tightened. Desperation mounts as each character plays themselves into smaller corners, with G’s piety and questionable devotion to her now-deceased lover tensed against T’s opportunistic bourgeois atheism and pride. T’s degradation seems inevitable from the outset (“I knew Tullio was mad but not to this extent” says his mother, I think) but Giancarlo Giannini’s taut performance allows for some particularly catastrophic moments: his tears on hearing of G’s pregnancy; the violin spasming as he stokes the fire during her muffled labour (although this is one moment among a few, here, when we feel cheated of more thorough consideration of female perspectives. In the end Teresa challenges his erratically romantic chauvinism and receives a predictably unsatisfying bid for affection as an answer). The penultimate catastrophe is a real climax, with G’s nervous devotion at Christmas carols juxtaposed with the tormented T leering over the cot like Herod.

Not quite as fun as S but more feels more personal (perhaps in part because it was LV’s last film, released posthumously even in Italy). Definitely a grower, too, which is impressive given the lack of formal or stylistic bombast to distract from such a resolutely romantic and aristocratic story.

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Il Divo (2008)

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Second time with Paolo Sorrentino after Youth.

Films that begin with glossaries are not making excuses for being complicated. Absolutely submerges you in the world of top-tier Italian politics 60s–80s. From recent memory would compare with The Clanexcept this is much more exciting, ambitious and breathlessly comprehensive. Throughout there’s a sort of bizarro inexplicability to actions, motives, affiliations; everything is just beyond our reach, whether through overwhelming connectivity or hilarious freakishness. Lock Stock introductions with police-file titles and monikers (personal favourite: the cardinal, “His Healthiness”) rattling around are all held in balance around the gliding, hunched performance of Giuliano Andreotti by Tony Servillo, an amazingly distinctive and outlandish turn.

It’s a bit of a whirlwind rush (although surprisingly traceable thanks to some carefully edited flashbacks); dogged by the feeling that you’re missing out on more than you’re getting, which is quite uncomfortable. As with Y, though, there are some stunning set pieces and brilliant highlights. The celebration at the 7th premiership, with the cacophony of African drums, feels decadent and unhinged, introducing Carlo Buccirosso’s performance as Milton Friedman-lookalike Chancellor of the Exchequer Paolo Pomicino – his ridiculous naked exuberance reinforced the visual similarity with Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder. Often complicated poignancy in GA’s humanity: earlier suggests importance of involuntary reactions like vomiting for evincing inner functionality; generosity with constituents is unexpectedly tender; flicking through tv channels with his wife, skipping news reports spitting his name, settling on a cheesy 70s pop concert, holding her hand mechanically in tribute.

Would reward another look, I’m sure. Would put it with Petri (especially Investigations) for scathing diagnosis. Stylistically maybe Danny Boyle in the incendiary variety.

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Sandra (1965)

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Second time with Luchino Visconti after La Terra Trema. Shit French poster, I don’t care how appealing CC is – though LV is kind of asking for it with the level of sensationalism here.

It’s hard to suss this guy: a Marxist aristocrat who directed smash operas as well as probably my favourite neorealist film. Anyway, this seems worlds apart from LTT, except for continuity in the maximalist emotionality, as well as a windswept precariousness of modern man. Set largely in a town soaked in universal “provincial desparation,” according to brother Gianni, “the only town I know that’s condemned to die a disease,” the victim of actual landslides and inhumed pasts. This Stromboli connection largely takes a turn toward the latter, more symbolised aspect.

Journey from France (some Summer With Monika urban tour shots over the credits), a neutral space between the Italian S and her American husband Andrew in which they appear sedately alienated together (an opening party like the objectification in L’Eclisse). A Journey To Italy where S becomes seduced by the fossilised walls of her hometown the stale and drifting spaces of childhood home, always shot diagonally and with depth like Kane’s Xanadu. Not long before ghosts are disturbed: the maid’s face at a window like Peter in Turn of the Screw or the character from that Chris Cunningham video for Portishead.

The central ghost, most complicit in this unwanted rediscovery, is G. We meet him a scene of spectacular natural intensity, trees and hair blowing in the gale hiding S’s emotions – definitely provincial Brontë gothic. His introduction of the psychosexual angle is vintage sixties and helps complete the sense of melancholic perversion that made me think of Del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone. “You’re jealous of the phantoms of this house,” S tells the increasingly spooked A; yes, he’s “frightened of everything … as though there were something between us.” Again Antonioni in the framing, with this split visually evoked through blocking and gorgeous, wide mid-range shots. S leading A through locked doors of the past, following a paper trail of forgotten childhood communications with her brother – a “morbid game.” Fractured into different wings of the home, each member of the trio is kept awake at night by spectral whistling from the town outside.

G’s input introduces two other angles which work in fascinating contrast, each frequently threatening to overbalance the other. Most divisively, he injects a few thousand kcal worth of melodrama – CC holds her own, to be sure, especially with the operatic, black-gloved reaction to her mother’s haunted piano playing (in a visit definitely parallel with Wild Strawberries). But G’s affectations of doomed romance culminates in some pretty spicy death pangs (I do wonder how much this tone could be blamed on the unfortunate dubbing with which Mubi burdened their screening).

However, this richness is incised by genuine and sypathetic tragedy. Those secret communications were under the nose of an oppressive stepfather and poisoned mother (see Elektra myth), apparently partway responsible for the denunciation and murder of the siblings’ upstanding Jewish father, at Auschwitz. Their plotting of revenge and erstwhile illicit affections are linked as impulsive responses against this embattled isolation. Down in the dripping cellars – definitely DB and Nostalghia – they wrangle with this history: “what does a child know about passion” curses G; but they “have the same memories … hear the same music.” (cf. The God Of Small Things). A, elsewhere a haplessly drowned-out voice of reason, implores S to simply forget the past upon which a future might be built – a worryingly insidious exhortation after his earlier praise of her resilience in dealing with holocaust testimony at work (I forgot what her job was).

Certainly a weird one: no-one comes out clean in the wash, with the doomed siblings both victims and schemers, balanced against the insensitive but compassionate A and the morally ambiguous but rather foul Gilardini, the step-father. The aristocratic world, of which LV himself was a scion, is corrupted and incestuous but beautifully alluring (Buñuel also in a marble hand touched by S) and under invidious threat. I thought S worked on all of its levels.

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I Clowns (1970)

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I wrote in my notes on Baby Driver that “It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching someone else have so much fun.” I Clowns is perhaps the best example of this, being Federico Fellini’s ode to his beloved world of the circus.

The film flows and tumbles like a continuously performed act, but it can be structurally divided into three parts. We open with a seemingly fictional depiction of the impact of the arrival of a circus on a nondescript, provincial Italian town. A little boy scrambles to a windowsill to witness the raising of a bigtop tent, the room behind him tall and drab like the fantasy nightmare in James and the Giant Peach. “If you don’t behave I’ll get those gypsies to take you away” warns his mother – we get the impression that FF’s lifelong experiments with mischief stemmed from a longing that such a parental punishment might have been meted out to him.

The opening circus shots are fantastically edited, with a childish perspective suggested by frequent appeals to the camera (winks) and an occlusive perspectival preoccupation with aspects of the show (particular actors or sounds), like significant memories forming. Was put in mind of the spectacular structure of wrestling (which is born out by IC‘s second section’s exposition of the traditions of clown types and roles).

The revelatory conclusion to this first section is an examination of the relationship between the circus characters and the townsfolk. The little boy claims not to have enjoyed the show because its cruel humour and anarchic actors resemble the intimidating and inscrutable adult world around him: in the town, coachmen bicker and scuffle like violent clowns, a leering old man exudes their complicit leering sexual humour, (most brilliantly) a town drunkard is wheeled away in a rickety barrow by his apoplectic wife. These figures are frequently shot from below against mundane backdrops; they are almost literally upstaged in their performance of everyday behaviour.

Known commonly as an apolitical director, Fellini introduces here a muted critique of stiffly prohibitive and humourless authority: a stationmaster reacts irately to a trainload of taunting children, insisting that a cartoonishly fascistic guard enforce a uniform discipline – the next convoy stare out at us from their carriages beneath arms raised in fascist salutes. Though clownish characters are shown to ape lower-class behaviour, their performances encourage antiauthoritarian lampooning; a world without clowning is a world of dire and dangerous conformity.

IC‘s second section follows FF’s own efforts to document the contemporary world of the circus in Italy and France, in particular. His cinematographic troupe bounce off each other and the world that their filming in often pretty amusing ways (they argue constantly, and often visually reflect the clowns they are filming). I love this idea because it’s FF telling us not just that films are like circuses, but also that making films is like the circus – all the stuff we don’t see behind the scenes is a clownish world of calamitous collaboration. This notion helps contextualise his enduring fascination with the childish world of the circus: as a director, he never really left it.

This stretch is IC at its most documentary – the potted history of European clowning is interesting with its esteemed characters and disputed traditions. Its history seems very much still up for grabs, with scholars and documentarians debating the aetiology of circus tropes and traditions – it is also the past of the circus, not just its future, which is in doubt. Dramatisations of legendary performances are often revealing and poignant: there’s the tale of a revered but terminally ill clown who sneaks out of the convent hospital for one last show (shot in ragtime fast-motion), and accounts of the famed Fratellini family performing in prisons (echoing IC‘s opening shots of incarcerated audiences) and insane asylums (the value of such performances for the disadvantaged stirringly contributes to my [admittedly prejudiced] enthusiasm for conservation of this entertainment tradition – “the whole world needs to laugh again with clowns!” beseeches and old custodian).

There is a distinctly melancholy skein running through this middle section: retired clowns toast their deceased partners; family historians reminisce about lost legends. I was reminded of Stewart Lee’s uncomfortable routine about the ghosts of dead performers haunting him onstage – I heard him say, in a podcast interview with Scroobius Pip of all people, that he drew on actual personal bereavement to make these performances feel more realistic, and that he was accordingly feeling a morally dubious fatigue after the exploitation of his own memories. The world of the circus seems to be consciously crowded with ghosts

…a sensation carried boldly through into IC‘s final section: a dramatised circus performance loosely centred around a funeral for a revered clown. It’s a riot of colour and motion, with the proceedings quickly descending into chaos after the destabilising interventions of various attendant clowns, weeping as they burn their noses and smack each other silly. It’s a Fantasia-esque escalation, shot from perspectives nimbly varying between ringside spectatorship and in mediis rebus involvement. FF’s own show reincorporates some of the striking Jodorowsky-esque imagery that I loved in Juliet of the Spirits (IC having been released six years after FF began experimenting with LSD), with slapstick surreality running amok.

There is a wonderful touch at the end: a journalist appears to be interviewing FF on the sidelines of the manic meta-chaos unfolding in the ring; he quizzes “are you trying to create a parallel–” until two buckets are chucked from the melée onto their heads. Shut up and enjoy the show!

Though IC is essayistic in structure, we’re therefore taken full-circle: the little boy is given the opportunity to put on his own show, not to be intruded upon even by his critical future self. Deserves to be judged more or less by its own standards; I can only compare it to F For Fake – this is just as fun, just as personal, just as idiosyncratic and just as captivating.

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L’Eclisse (1962)

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Third time with Antonioni after Blow-Up and La Notte.

Firstly, I’m taking the shot of Vittoria pulling up in a cab, gesticulating at angrily impatient drivers behind to calm down, as a pretty amusing joke on us. It actually helped me settle in.

We begin with V and Riccardo boxed into an apartment. It’s overflowing with furniture and trinkets, introducing the theme of the objectification of people (later, most obviously, V will compare needles, thread, books and men as the often identical). There is a stultifying ennui that foreboded another immured, eventless trudge like the second half of LN, though there is an undercurrent of profounder dissatisfaction – C insists that “there must be a reason”, we try to diagnose where V can’t. Thankfully they quickly take it outside into the pale, empty morning. “I’ve always come with you, why not today?”

Our time is divided between V’s urban perambulations (it felt as if one’s entire world was one, long Sunday afternoon) and the local stock exchange. It’s a bullring of fiery gesticulation and soaring columns like an ancient forum or a temple full of money-lenders. This is the film’s most explicitly political field, but it’s also distinct and strange: we are given equal-length, mid-range shots of people in clear focus, framed by chaotic movement; the effect is less a braying mob in motion than the weird time-dilation of a train station or still photographs of cafes, markets, libraries. It epitomises the MA appeal of spaces that we can sink into and walk around in; the plot threads a quiet route through the movement and the poetically framed images of alienation.

There is a strange scene with V at a neighbour’s: the latter has travelled from her home in Kenya, where she adopts a colonialist perspective (sometimes anthropological, sometimes geographical, sometimes explicitly racist – it’s a nation, in her words, populated by a handful of Oxford elites and a welter of “six million monkeys”. V isn’t happy with this). Africa appears to have been objectified in the same modernist, open-plan world that V is used to (elephant’s feet coffee tables, etc.). V tries (pretty shockingly) to kindle a connection through blacking up and dancing to a record of polyrhythmic drumming. The host isn’t amused and sullenly requests they stop “playing negroes”. I haven’t read much comment on this scene; to me it suggests V’s warped escapism, a singular moment of vitality and animation channeled through a perverted notion of externality – she seems as trapped in her world as Lidia at the bar in LN or Thomas after his epiphany in B-U 

..this is suggested in the next scene, which involves a private flight, a ravishing view of Rome by air; but we’re whisked back to the stock exchange. There are poignant moments throughout L’E: the swoop of a plane coming in to land but ducking out (V watching in the foreground in the classic MA framing); a lonely punter drawing flowers on his receipt outside the SE having lost big; V quietly relating that her mother pins much of her misfortunes on the death of her husband, memories of poverty compelling her forward to her own habit of speculation.

V takes up with a new man, Piero, a flashy and impatient young stockbroker. They start with a great movie kiss – over a pedestrian crossing, quiet morning after P’s stolen car had been dredged up from a river, smashed and dangling a hand of the drunkard who’d commandeered it outside V’s house the night before. Much of the rest of the film is scenes from their haunted courtship, moments of imperfect connection like kissing across a window, discomfort on a sofa. They wander – there is so much room to breathe here, none of the patience-testing rigidity and isolation of LN. There is a culminating scene in a dead house, portraits leering and clothing ripping, cut to outside with V framed as the loneliest girl in the world. I loved the split between P among the ringing telephones, V slipping outside and framed against the trees.

They never meet at the appointed time – instead a slideshow of urban scenes from before, faces from before. The Atomic Age on a newspaper, streets empty like a Sebald novel. The architectural structuring of the film is brought home with images of curved lamps, buildings frozen in construction – sculpture, arrangement, and parallax.

This ending, perhaps MA’s defining formal statement, reasserts L’E‘s granite and gallic academic quality; this is lovely analysis that teases out a lot of the visual themes that slip in unnoticed and bloom after consideration. L’E is political and ponderous but also totally elegant. It’s much more engaging than LN, though probably less than B-U. Definitely helped piece the two together.

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L’Assassino (1961)

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Interesting to watch this after Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion; in many ways seem polar opposites. Despite all efforts Alfredo is unable to escape suspicion. Yet both him and the tyrant of Petri’s later classic end up directing their anger towards (and thereby testifying against) a stultified system that promotes apathetic stasis, with neither the innocent nor the guilty getting what they deserve.

Released almost simultaneously with La Dolce Vita and La Notte. I think this is my favourite Mastroianni performance – less of the adult Holden Caulfield, less of the moneyed apathy, more up-close frustration and pent-up anger, pleading and insisting. A’s futility here is signalled early with the one-way mirror and the police’s delaying tactics, to which he can only respond with a jab and “you’re ill mannered.” The scenes in the cell with the drowned souls compress A into a torment that forms the film’s empathetic zenith.

“Everything from now on could be important to you”: A loses his human rhythm, his ability to define the contours of his own life – any memory or action can be elevated or dismissed according to the interests and narratives of his accusers. Playing with the top button on his coat – we see the processes of him internalising this unease (in the cell complaining of strange ideas entering his head). His very identity is not good enough (“this is the way I express myself!”)

Much of the film (pre-incarceration) feels like Bad Timing; unreliable recollections of a corruptive romance. Here instead of Roeg’s psychosexual entrapment, flamboyantly chaotic and unsympathetic leads, and alienating, impatient editing we have grounded and extroverted systemic observation. The focus is wide; Rome’s central squares and peripheral coastlines are both ravishing, with Petri content to let action play out against fine backdrops often seemingly for their own sake. This is a beautiful city, but its beauty has nothing to do with today’s humanity. (a strong sequence is the cavalcade of accusers, who seem to channel general and atmospheric grievance through their pointing fingers – everyone needs a scapegoat) The political stridency tides L’A over into more The Spy Who Came In From The Cold territory as A is whisked away and anticipates his interrogation like the poor victims of Rome, Open City.

The three jokes: A pretending his grandfather is being sought by the fascists; Antonella pretending she has told her husband about her affair with A; the rest of the film playing the joke of futile accusation on A.

Interesting themes of authority and empathy: the sense that truth is incidental, because the act of confession itself is more important than the crime confessed, is highly Catholic. The implications of the crime itself bleed out into general soul-searching through the flashbacks; one particularly notable being the brief and guilt-stricken hosting of his mother, whom he has abandoned in his grubbily plutolatrous adulthood (something about the dad in LDV, can’t even remember). In the end he is simply “a good boy” and off he goes.

Lacks the Morricone bombast and absurdist, feverish rage of Investigations, but is a good story that weaves its way through a beautiful town (in HD), and serves as an interesting comparison piece. Plus MM.

7

La Strada (1954)

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Fourth time with Fellini, after La Dolce Vita, and Juliet of the Spirits. Correction: this is my favourite.

Return of Giulietta Masina, who takes centre stage for me. I like Ebert: “in one way or another, … [in] most of her other films, she was always playing Gelsomina.” Fool: “she has the right face.” Direct and untainted expression. G is a mime before she has put on any makeup; Fellini accentuating the studio dubbing gives the picture a silent quality – G seems silent even when she speaks. (Nino Rota again on the score: thumping whirling hightop fare, artfully deployed: wiki on themes, but also see trudging quiet while Zampanò instructs then comic flutter as he turns his back, G smiling up at her new hat.) Was reading about the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire again today, with that haunting picture of the crying clown coming to the rescue.

G is always in the absent Rosa’s place. Her compulsion to stay with Z is at least in part down to a search for her dead sister, who has come before her physically and in life – G asking if she’d done this or that. G isn’t like R, says her mother; she’s kind – Z is only on the beach for one of them.

Negotiation between experience and performance: G laughing as Z slaps the waitress’ backside – everything seems comic vaudeville until she’s left in the street. The Fool’s Houdini death. Z himself is a scowling brute, a savage condemning himself to break his chains over and over again, snarling liberation. “What is there to think about?” The two fools are Shakespearean: they know more than he’d like to admit.

G planting tomatoes; G smiling as the nun says they move from place to place to avoid “putting down roots”. With the stone she seems to have found a sense of place, but it is a lie. (I don’t want to be a star / but a stone on the shore) Z to circus master: “she’s not like us who have travelled the Earth.”

Osvaldo in the cot! His face even more expressive than G’s; locked away upstairs like a forbidden mirror. G’s humour is so physical, Bergsonian in imitation of objects, it connects with children. To me O is Childhood, like the essential female Arlette immured in JotS. G is hurried away. FF working towards the oneiric structuring of his next decades.

Other people: the wedding is a riotous gallery, a Breughel cross-section fed by a tireless mother. (coldness contrasting with G’s own, bipolar) The crowd staring up at the fool, directed by a loudhaler, the rope and the lights – fascism in the darkness? I see Florentina Hubaldo in G tottering spinning down the lane following the small band; (cut to the Journey to Italy crowd pursuing the Catholic procession) I see Andrei Rublev‘s opening blue drunkard in the communal joy of F’s circus shenanigans.

FF’s mise-en-scène is ace in this; the backdrops are sparse when they need to be, glitteringly cluttered when they need to be. Love the countryside in this film: empty but sweeping, often human. Hardy in the gothic violence behind the simple story, (Steinbeck, Night of the Hunter too especially in Z) the local economies of relationships, God’s thundering dull power.

To find one fault, FF steers us towards the poignant ending on a slow and steady decline. There is a heartbreaking bump though: Z hesitating, leaving the trumpet by the sleeping G as he escapes her company in the wagon across the snow. Kidding himself that he hasn’t already taken her dreams of performance and joy with him. (Of course the trumpet leitmotif comes back to haunt him)

Elemental. A huge achievement after his neo-realist period. Every month that goes by, I feel more that Italy is cinema’s greatest nation.

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