Roger Vadim :: France/ Italy :: 1968 :: 1h38

40,000 AD. The innocent and sensual Barbarella (Jane Fonda) is drifting through space in her fluffy shoe-box spacecraft, when she receives a call from the President. He needs her for a special mission to track down a potentially dangerous character called Durand-Durand, who has a developed a weapon in a universe which had become completely peace-and-love pacifist. She sets out to find him, leading her from one encounter to another, all of which are influenced by their attraction to the naive, accommodating young Barbarella.

When you consider a film which opens with Barbarella taking a call with the president in the nude, you know you are in for a ride. By the time the conversation ends, he closes with a flirtatious suggestion that they meet “in the flesh”. The tone has been set, so that when her first encounter on a foreign planet actually asks for sex directly(!), Barbarella is not remotely surprised. Although… she explains that on earth people have not made love for centuries, preferring a kind of pill induced psychedelic mind melt. To reply to the man’s disorientation, Barbarella explains that sex “was proved to be distracting and a danger to maximum efficiency”. And if you think that is the last absurdity you are going to hear, wait for some other little gems to come along: when was the last time you heard this phrase in a film: “De-crucify my angel” ?

The humour and visual spectacle -primarily focussed on the beautiful Barbarella and her revealing outrageous space clothes- carry the film well, breathing the atmosphere of the sexy comic book series by Jean-Claude Forest. The movie version could hardly have been anything other than camp, with psychedelic lava lamp special effects and clumsy models blowing up, but the sunny side of camp saves it: the extravagant sets and costumes which change from one encounter to the next (she keeps losing her clothes!), the out-of-this-world exchanges and the sexy naive 60s fantasy atmosphere which, in our current society, seems light years away. If it was not for Barbarella.

NB It was recorded simultaneously in French and English. (A good fansite)


Divorce a l’Italienne

19101659Divorzio all’Italiana
Pietro Germi :: Italy :: 1961 :: 1h44

Ferdinando (Marcello Mastroianni) is a 37 year old baron living in a small sleepy town in Sicily. Other then avoiding the southern heat during the day, there is but one thing haunting his days – his desire for the beautiful young Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). There is however a catch – the wife. His empty existence becomes filled with wild fantasies of murder to be able to separate himself from his “till death do us part” allegiance. As time cruelly drags by, and Angela affirms her love for him too, he starts to hatch a plan to trap his wife.

In a period of post-war Italy where progress is sweeping along, there are still remnants of another Italy, one in which divorce is cruelly illegal, where honour dictates behaviour and where the Mob can always lend a helping hand when required. The film clearly intends to show its contemporaries of the disparities (and injustices) in their rapidly evolving society. Italy has in fact changed so much, that watching the film today seems to land you in another world altogether, even if it was already a caricature at the time.

Obscure morality and historical relevance aside, what a dark comedy to watch! Mastroianni is, of course, fabulous as the devious bungling aristocratic anti-hero, whipping up sympathy where there should not be any. The movie is rightfully classed as a masterpiece of Italian comedy. If you have not seen its dry humour in the Mediterranean heat, I could not recommend it more.

Le Déjeuner du 15 août

19056835jpgPranzo di Ferragosto

Gianni Di Gregorio :: Italy :: 2008 :: 1h16

Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio), who is well into his forties, has no job or income and still lives in his comfortable family home with his ageing mother. She is a capricious but refined woman who requires a lot of attention and even more patience. Gianni offers her those but can barely squeeze a little life of his own in there. When those around him escape from Rome for some fresh countryside air in the mid-summer weekend, he finds himself left behind in the empty city with a motley of elderly ladies.

I suppose many people will amuse themselves wondering if Mr Di Gregorio is playing himself, or at least a little… as the Gianni in the movie is somewhat removed from normal society. He seems to have accepted that he will be taking care of his mother, at the expense of having his own life. This is a rare form of self-sacrifice in our day, and shows, through our own eyes, our expectations of an individual’s life. Can you live a full life without a romantic relationship? Can you feel content without being able to provide for yourself (and your family), without perusing some kind of personal development? How far from the ordinary can you be removed and still feel content about your life?

It is not easy. Gianni needs money and yet does not work. Of course if he would work, then who would take care of his mother? Should he be working to be able to pay for a home for her, so that he can start a relationship of his own? Then his mother would be all alone, unhappy and less well taken care of than in the company of her own son. The dilemma of the ageing society laid bare.

When we see the elderly ladies laughing and interacting together, it is almost as if a choice has to be made in society, that either the elderly or the young have to sacrifice themselves for the other. This awkward thought is dispelled later on, at least somewhat, as the characters all find a place for themselves in this unexpected weekend away without leaving. This is a touching and funny film, which should have been released here in May when everyone has one foot at home and the other in a long weekend away. It would have added a nice tie-in with the reality around us.

Miracle à Santa Anna

Miracle à Santa AnnaMiracle at St. Anna
Spike Lee :: USA :: 2007 :: 2h36

The movie has one main topic- that the country which waged war, the USA, against a racist, fascist regime, Nazi Germany, may have had a few unresolved racial issues of their own. This central thesis is wrapped up in a bickering-amongst-themselves all black platoon being stranded in a bickering-among-themselves all Italian village.

There is more than enough material in this movie to have made a good war movie, but unfortunately, the film is presented in an unfinished form. A love triangle between two platoon members and an Italian beauty, and the unlikely relationship between a GI and a little boy, are both story-lines which could have easily been left out. The central theme, racism in the USA, is the only thing which really matters to Spike Lee, and he should have edited out the rest, and tied up the loose ends he left blowing in the wind. Not to mention the title, which conjures up different theories depending on who you ask. But let us talk a little about the first few minutes of the film, as that pretty much covers the thesis.

In the first few minutes: you see an elderly man watching a John Wayne movie on television and he mumbles: “We served our country too”. If you know we are supposed to be looking at racism here, you run the scene back in your head: the elderly man watching is black and John Wayne’s platoon is in WW2 uniforms and they are all white. So the old man was once a soldier, we can suppose, and he identifies himself more with other black people rather than with John Wayne as a soldier. John Wayne can not represent an American soldier, the scene suggests, but only a white sacrifice. The bitterness felt by the old man, a feeling of having been bypassed by the white majority of his country, is seen here in John Wayne’s whiteness. We could suppose that if he had not felt racially discriminated, John Wayne could have played the American GI without him feeling left out.

The movie goes through quite some length to show how they, the black soldiers (/ African American community in general) were not treated equally to the -majority- white troops by the US army. In the war itself, the man felt more at home in Italy than he did back in the USA. The movie is not supposed to be an anti-American pamphlet but rather wants to place the black soldier on the screen, to rectify the customary John Wayne image of the GI’s. But notice that to attain such a level of bitterness as the old man must have had some 40 years after the war when he makes the comment, racism must still be rampant around him. Or at least, he perceives himself as being excluded. If Spike Lee wants to argue against racism, then he should not force his viewers to take on a racist eye -the old man is black, John Wayne is white- to be able to understand his message. It is not a good step in the right direction.

Cutting out the initial scenes, the aforementioned side stories, the typical racial debating by the soldiers, the seemingly endless series of tear-jerk climaxes and you will find quite a descent war movie in there. Not only would that leave you with quite an exciting film, but it would also do justice to Spike Lee’s ambition of showing African-American soldiers fighting in Europe. But as it stands, the movie is just too messy to watch. You are better off just sitting next to the old man to watch John Wayne, even if he is white.

Caos Calmo

Caos CalmoCaos Calmo
Antonello Grimaldi :: Italy :: 2008 :: 1h55

Pietro’s life takes a cruel turn when his wife Lara dies in an accident in their holiday home. Pietro returns to Rome with his 10 year old daughter Claudia, lost in the void of Lara’s absence. When he brings his daughter to school, he decides to wait outside till she comes back out again. Sitting on the bench under the trees mourning, his work, his family, his emotions, all pass him by.

The movie is not only very original in its set-up, following Pietro as he passes his time in front of his daughter’s school, it is also beautifully made. Filled with subtle details: most of Pietro’s life shows up on that little square. He takes on new priorities in his life (like a little game he plays with a passing child), meets new people and sets himself back into the saddle. Pietro’s development from his confused and shocked state of his wife’s death to coming to terms with being a widower with daughter comes through a re-think of his entire life up to that point. Not in the sense that his life needs remodelling, but rather to be able to look at it up close.

Professionally, Pietro is surrounded by the management of the a big Italian cinema channel. The company is in the middle of a discussion of whether or not to merge with an American group. This discussion rages on passionately around him, but he does not really defend or lobby for his opinion on the matter. Working life just continues, with his secretary or his colleagues passing by on the little square to sort things out which can not do without his input, or just to get something off their backs. There are several remarkable ideas at play here. Firstly, the idea that cinema as just another product to be sold is far removed from a vision of cinema as a one of the pillars of Italian culture. Losing control of their own cinema barely seems to touch the executives because they deplore the current situation. Of course this becomes bitter-sweet, when you realise you are watching an excellent Italian movie and not a popcorn supplement. Secondly, Pietro is an important man and his absence from the office does not seem to have much effect on his career or the functioning of the organisation. Everybody can be missed for a while, the organisation just solves most issues organically to fill up the void.

Caos Calmo shows a quiet stream flowing, with Pietro standing at the side watching. As he stares into the stream, focusses his eyes, slowly but surely he can see the undercurrents. The movie is not a particularly joyful one, but it is filmed realistically and most importantly, it is very funny. The humour removes the weight of the sadness, making the exercise a pleasure to watch. Highly recommended.


Anche libero va bene

Kim Rossi Stuart :: Italy :: 2006 :: 1h48

Renato has two children who are the world to him. Raising his children and dealing with the world around him is a lot asked for his fragile composition. He tries to stand tall, to surmount the pressures on him. But it is not easy. To at least have the illusion of strength, he mimics assertiveness with an air of arrogance to, if even just for once, have the impression he is not being walked over. But his efforts are insufficient, his weaknesses exposed to a world which does not accept them. His 11 year old son stands as his support, even though he is really too young to handle it. Renato lashes out around him to protect himself, hurting the others and hurting himself.

A sad, dramatic tale which is so ordinary that it is easy to relate to. But Renato is so weak that it is frustrating. There is not much left of Italian culture in this movie, it is just a family in a crisis, a crisis induced by an imposed freedom of a modern, liberal society. A society where people have to fend for themselves, people who are not capable of it. Consider the core as Houellebecq rendered credible, but add on a crust of humor. This can not be watched lightly, as, any which way you turn it, it is a depressing tale.

The Queen

The Queen

Stephen Frears :: U.K. :: 2006 :: 1h39

The young new Labour leader Tony Blair has just been elected Prime Minister of the U.K. when Lady Diana has a fatal accident in Paris, shocking the nation. Queen Elisabeth II is in Scotland with her family when it happens, and finds herself thrust into conflicting possible courses of action. The popularity of Lady Diana would suggest a return to London and a public burial, but she is no longer a member of the Royal Family, so she would not want to indulge in populist behavior as a standing head-of-state. The Prime Minister starts to feel the pressure mounting by the public and the press to take action to channel the sorrow felt by the nation.

Filming recent events is a risky business as all the involved parties are still around, in this case both the Prime Minister and the Queen still exercise the same roles as in 1997. But Stephen Frears recounts a very probable version of the sequence of events. But consider the following: the suggestion of Prince Philip’s infidelity, the weak and timid ‘modernizer’ Prince Charles willing to go behind the back of the Queen to protect himself, and a naive Mr Blair who changes his views on the monarchy based on the character of the Queen Elizabeth II. How true is that really? How negative was the Queen’s opinion of Lady Diana really?

Watching this very well constructed movie is somewhat superfluous. All the events are well known, and the speculations elaborately discussed, but as uncertain as ever (unless the Queen and Mr Blair both publish their memoirs). An analysis of England’s leading figures in difficult times is a challenging subject seemingly well developed, but the inevitable speculation-aspect and possible consequences for the people involved reduces the enjoyment. Whether or not you pass the threshold to take a seat in your local cinema should not depend on your love for Lady Diana, who not only did not survive the over-exposure, but here, she only shines in her absence.