Criterion Sunday 522: Il deserto rosso (Red Desert, 1964)

This may be Antonioni’s most inscrutable film for me, and watching it again I get the feeling that it may be one I need to see on the big screen to get into. Certainly I am always in awe of Antonioni’s control over framing and the way he places people within landscapes, moving through and weaving into and out of the frame, dominated often by buildings, here enormous crumbling industrial edifices belching smoke into the sky. Monica Vitti is suitably totemic herself, entering and exiting in a green coat, these block colours (green, red, blue, yellow) setting themselves off from the dull grey of the rest of the landscapes we see. It’s a film about industry in a sense, and about the modern world, but it’s never so straightforward as to have a plot exactly. There’s Vitti and then there’s Richard Harris’s character Corrado, and there’s a relationship of sorts between them, but quite what it all means is never discussed, quite where it’s all going is never clear, if there’s a start and an end these feel fairly arbitrary, because what we mostly have here is the movement and the deserted atmosphere evoked by the title.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni and Tonino Guerra; Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma; Starring Monica Vitti, Richard Harris, Carlo Chionetti; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 2 April 2022 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, April 1998).

Criterion Sunday 506: Dillinger è morto (Dillinger Is Dead, 1969)

I watched this a week ago and it’s lucky that it stays with me because I completely forgot to write it up at the time. In a way it’s like a movie perfectly suited to our pandemic times, albeit made decades ago. Our lead character is, of all things, a designer of gas masks (Michel Piccoli) — and certainly the question of living our lives in masks comes up, along with a sense of alienation that grows from that. He comes home to his wife (Anita Pallenberg), but his dissatisfaction is evident in both her and the meal that’s waiting for him, so he starts to cook another. Things move on from there, but the film is an accretion of details in a vaguely absurdist style that heightens his sense of disconnectedness from the world, and the revolver he finds wrapped up in newspaper clippings about the titular Chicago gangster only fuels that sense of disappointment with life. I suppose it could be said to satirically represent a man’s desire for a new life, even if it ultimately feels very masculine in the way he believes he can move out of his present circumstances (there’s a lot of performatively macho swaggering, and Piccoli bears his hairy chest once again after Le Mépris a few years earlier). There are certainly some ideas here that feel prescient, and a claustrophobic sense of space and time as he moves around his apartment, though I found it stylistically very much of its era in a way that was difficult to fully embrace.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Marco Ferreri; Writers Ferreri and Sergio Bazzini; Cinematographer Mario Vulpiani; Starring Michel Piccoli, Anita Pallenberg, Annie Girardot; Length 95 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Thursday 10 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 500: “Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy”

Unlike earlier Criterion box sets, the spine numbering for this one is rather contorted, as it follows the three films it collects. One suspects this was so that it could get the lovely even round number of 500. These three films are very much the ones that made Rossellini’s reputation, even if they weren’t his first. Rome Open City (1945) was filmed during the tail end of World War II, while Paisan (1946) was filmed in the aftermath with a series of shorter stories dealing with characters facing great moral quandaries. Yet for all these two films’ bleakness, they still can’t touch the final of the three, filmed in German amongst the fresh rubble of Berlin. Germany Year Zero (1948) is hardly a story of rebirth though and feels like something final and utterly bleak instead. Still, all three are beautiful, necessary works of cinema that remain among the finest to come out of Italy.

Criterion Sunday 499: Germania anno zero (aka Deutschland im Jahre Null) (Germany Year Zero, 1948)

After two Italian films (Rome Open City filmed during WW2, and Paisan after it), the third in Rossellini’s “War Trilogy” turns to the bombed-out ruins of Germany, with not a word of Italian spoken throughout. And somehow it manages to be not just the bleakest of the trilogy but perhaps amongst just about any film. That’s not evoked by anything graphic, though, but merely through the pathos of this character he follows, a young boy called Edmund (Edmund Moeschke) who is torn between childhood and the need if not the desire to be a man and help his impoverished family. In the background there are all kinds of hints towards the kind of behaviour that flourishes in this environment — albeit none ever spelled out, but left as rather disturbing little asides — such as of women and girls like Christl turning to prostitution, and of predatory older men. The most disturbing characters are probably thus Edmund’s former teacher Herr Henning (Erich Gühne) and a mysterious almost aristocratic figure he seems to be sending boys to (it’s unclear exactly what’s happening there), but who seem to express their feelings pretty clearly in the way they caress Edmund. Henning is still openly devoted to Hitler and has Edmund flog recordings of the Führer to occupying troops on the down low, while feeding him lines about sacrificing the weak to ensure the strong can survive, which gives Edmund ideas when he sees his father slowly dying and drives him to the film’s denouement, a bleak trawl back through everything we’ve seen as Edmund looks for some kind of absolution. Even more so than in Rome, perhaps, this is a city of bleak finality and that’s where the film leaves Edmund and us as viewers.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Rossellini, Max Kolpé and Carlo Lizzani; Cinematographer Robert Juillard; Starring Edmund Moeschke, Erich Gühne, Ernst Pittschau; Length 73 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Saturday 5 February 2022.

Criterion Sunday 498: Paisà (Paisan, 1946)

This film of Rossellini’s is less contained than his first in the “War Trilogy” that started with Rome, Open City. After all, it tells six separate stories rather than the one, across the length of Italy in the period leading up to the end of the war, as the Americans and British are found fighting the Germans on Italian soil. We see stories of partisans but also of women and children — whether living in poverty and desperation (as in the second and third stories), or helping out on the frontlines (as in the first and fourth) — and their encounters with the Allies. It’s not a film of hope, as there’s plenty of bleakness, but it feels like a series of stories that is trying to say something about the experience of war rather than (perhaps more usual) propaganda-friendly stories of triumph against adversity, or victory against fascism. In most of these stories, there is no victory because there aren’t really any good or bad guys, there’s just the struggle to survive when there are so few opportunities, and then in the fifth story there’s a different struggle that seems entirely abstracted from the war, of a group of Catholic monks whose primary interest is in ensuring the souls of the non-Catholic Americans can be saved. There’s a bit of humour in it, but a wealth of humanity, and even if the individual stories can sometimes seem a little bit moralistic, as a whole it offers a sweeping view of wartime struggle that it may be my favourite of his works.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Klaus Mann, Federico Fellini, Marcello Pagliero, Alfred Hayes and Vasco Pratolini; Cinematographer Otello Martelli; Starring Carmela Sazio, Dots Johnson, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 25 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 497: Roma città aperta (Rome Open City, 1945)

I’ve seen this before, but I must have underestimated it. When you’re studying film and told that something is a classic, you can’t help but want to react against it, find it a bit boring, especially when you’re young. In fact, I’ve seen it twice and don’t recall much about it, but I think I wasn’t coming to it in the proper frame of mind. It practically invents the “neo-realist” style of filmmaking, shooting on the streets (in a Nazi-occupied city no less), telling a story with next to no budget, but with some great actors and some evocative faces. In fact, it’s pretty great, as indeed everyone knows, and not just for its technical achievements. The blend of heartrending tragedy (I mean, it’s wartime; most everyone dies) and moments of levity, like the priest earnestly turning away a statue of a monk from the naked bottom of another statue, or playing football with a bunch of kids. Moments like that make it all the tougher to see the same characters in much different circumstances. It’s about resistance to fascism, it’s about surviving in an occupied city, but it’s also about transcending that spiritually. I’m not even sure the church had a particularly great record during the war in terms of resistance, but these are the things you want to believe, that there were those who had a more ennobled spirit. It makes the difficult times worth bearing.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei and Federico Fellini; Cinematographer Ubaldo Arata; Starring Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at the National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 22 August 2001 (and earlier on VHS at the university library, Wellington, October 2000, but most recently on Blu-ray at home, Wellington, Tuesday 18 January 2022).

Criterion Sunday 494: Downhill Racer (1969)

This is an interesting film, not least because it wasn’t what I was expecting from a sports movie. In terms of its visual style, it unexpectedly looks forward to those political thrillers that Redford would do in the 1970s, with a sort of shifty energy to the camerawork, which has an almost documentary quality at times, capturing little moments in the lives of these professional skiers competing in various German and French resorts for a place on the Olympic team. That’s not to say it’s perfect; as others have mentioned, it seems to lack the strong driving narrative tension that such movies usually deploy in terms of the arc of the champion towards either ultimate victory or defeat. In that sense, perhaps it’s better to see it as a character study than a traditional sports movie, and as the lead, Redford takes a chance in playing him as a deeply unsympathetic self-involved narcissist. Given the frosty alpine settings, that does tend to make this a tough sell in terms of emotional investment, but somehow that does make it rather interesting at the climax when it’s hard to know whether you want him to succeed or to fail spectacularly. Certainly, he crashes out in personal interrelationships long before he gets a shot at Olympic glory.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Ritchie; Writer James Salter (based on the novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall); Cinematographer Brian Probyn; Starring Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Jim McMullan, Kenneth Kirk; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a hotel (DVD), Queenstown, Saturday 1 January 2022.

Criterion Sunday 493: Gomorra (Gomorrah, 2008)

This film about the Camorra, a criminal organisation operating around Naples and Campania, harks back to those films so popular in the 1990s, in which multiple different strands cohere into a full narrative picture. There’s not much in the way of overlap in terms of the characters between these five stories, but together they give a sense of the grunt work involved in propping up the business interests of a gang. There’s the expendability of the foot soldiers, especially when they become damaging to the organisation, but also the limitless resource of workers disaffected through poverty and urban alienation; there’s the middle managers, guys just trying to keep their heads down and get by but who nevertheless get dragged into violence and revenge; and then there are the artisans (like the tailor Pasquale) who have little interest in the vested interests, but cannot help but be pulled in and affected by the control wielded by those with power. We don’t see any kind of coherent power structure, just a bunch of loud older guys with guns in the background, and a lot of meek and young people up front in this film, which ultimately seems to be about the corrosive effects of corrupt government and poverty leading to few available choices for its protagonists. And for all its multiple strands, it manages to cohere nicely by the end with a lot of small character-based touches that deepen the film’s interest and reach.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Matteo Garrone; Writers Garrone, Roberto Saviano, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio and Massimo Gaudioso (based on Saviano’s non-fiction book); Cinematographer Marco Onorato; Starring Gianfelice Imparato, Salvatore Cantalupo, Toni Servillo, Salvatore Abbruzzese, Marco Maror, Ciro Petrone; Length 137 minutes.

Seen at the Ritzy, London, Friday 24 October 2008 (and on DVD at home, Wellington, Thursday 30 December 2021).

Criterion Sunday 463: Il generale della Rovere (General della Rovere, 1959)

This is a solid film, no doubt, though by 1959 I can’t help but feel this kind of moral drama about the end of World War II was already rather long in the tooth, as well as something Rossellini had himself already explored quite extensively. Still, it sees him collaborate with actor/director Vittorio De Sica, who plays the title role with a great deal of conviction, a small time criminal who is drafted in by the Germans to impersonate a resistance fighter they’ve accidentally killed, in order to extract key information about the ongoing resistance efforts against the Nazis in Italy, and who comes to take on more of the character of the man he’s impersonating. It takes a while for it to get to that point, and that first hour or so of the film where he’s plying his trade in 1944 Italy is compelling stuff, giving an evocative sense of Italy in this period and the kind of moral dubiousness that was at play. I can’t fault any of the filmmaking of course, but it feels like something oddly out of time just as various New Waves were starting to take hold around Europe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Roberto Rossellini; Writers Sergio Amidei, Diego Fabbri and Indro Montanelli (based on the novel by Montanelli); Cinematographer Carlo Carlini; Starring Vittorio De Sica, Sandra Milo, Hannes Messemer, Anne Vernon; Length 132 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Sunday 19 September 2021.

Criterion Sunday 434: Classe tous risques (aka The Big Risk, 1960)

If there’s one thing I can credit the Criterion Collection with introducing me to, it’s the whole gamut of French policiers and gangster films of the 1950s and 60s especially. Sure, I’d seen maybe a Melville, but now I feel like I’m starting to get through a lot of them, and this early feature by Claude Sautet, which has become somewhat overshadowed in film history by the contemporary work by the Nouvelle Vague, very much fits into the Melvillean tradition, if not being itself a source of influence for Melville as he went more abstractly noirish throughout the decade. It has the laconic soul of a western in the way this big guy gangster Abel (Lino Ventura) communicates through body language and scowls. He’s on the run for a heist that’s netted far less than expected, and the trail of cops leads to death, which is particularly difficult for Abel as he has two small kids to protect. There’s a whole world between these characters that we already have a sense of, even before they speak, and when a young kid helps Abel out (Belmondo, fresh from Breathless), there’s an extra frisson of concern because Abel doesn’t know him and worries he’s being set up. Of course there’s paranoia and fear, but mostly there’s just an easy sense of being amongst shifty guys all of whose futures are looking pretty bleak.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Claude Sautet; Writers Sautet, Pascal Jardin and José Giovanni (based on Giovanni’s novel); Cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet; Starring Lino Ventura, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Sandra Milo, Marcel Dalio, Claude Cerval, Michel Ardan; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Friday 28 May 2021.