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.

Criterion Sunday 424: Mafioso (1962)

The tropes of the mafia film may have been largely set out a decade later for American viewers, but clearly by 1962 they were already familiar enough in Italy for this broadly comic take. Alberto Sordi plays Nino, a Sicilian man doing a dull factory job in Milan, in the north of Italy, who returns to his home village with his wife and finds himself sucked into nefarious activities on behalf of Don Vincenzo (Ugo Attanasio). Much of the film is interested in the set-up to this apparent inevitability, as his gregarious character (exemplified by his jaunty moustache) and his desperate need to be liked and respected makes him the natural mark for the Don; it hardly hurts either that he seems to be a really good shot at fairground attractions, and so eventually he finds himself unable to refuse a favour for the Don, which turns out to be in New York. In truth there’s not really a whole lot of plot, just this small town family drama along with a bit of local tension over his northern wife (Norma Bengeli), who’s perceived to be snobby, but Sordi’s deft character work makes the film zip by pretty quickly.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Alberto Lattuada; Writers Rafael Azcona, Bruno Caruso, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli; Cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi; Starring Alberto Sordi, Norma Bengeli, Ugo Attanasio; Length 102 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), Wellington, Saturday 8 May 2021.

Criterion Sunday 374: Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves aka The Bicycle Thief, 1948)

Unquestionably a classic film, and one I have certainly seen before (originally in film class at university, years ago), it’s a heartbreaking story of a poor man (Lamberto Maggiorani) desperate for work in post-war Italy, where there’s hardly a huge amount going spare, who manages to snag a job but needs a bike. Partly it follows that classic formula of piling despair upon despair, because right from the title you sort of know how this is going to go, although I think the film is very careful about how wretched it makes his life. After all, he has his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola), who is steadfast by his father’s side, and he has good friends and neighbours even in his most desperate times, so there’s that counterbalance to the overall story of him searching for his stolen bike that he needs to do his job, with the tiny joys and small hopes that he has even in these dark times. And perhaps there’s a quality to the pristine black-and-white street photography that almost seems to elevate these humdrum and poverty-stricken settings. But I think what the film does best is have that compassion to show how it is a person could come to steal a bike, because the title is in plural after all, and in that desperate quest for the bicycle he sort of meets his antagonist of the opening few minutes within himself, even if he’s far less slick about it all. It’s a film in which the small moments, many of them focused on the son — the camera panning around Bruno as he watches his father speed by on a bicycle, or the way he tugs at his father’s hand — are the ones that really make the drama, but it also of course has its place in cinematic history at the head of a wave of “neo-realist” filmmaking, and a turn after the war towards ordinary lives in these changed political landscapes.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writers De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Gherardo Gherardi, Oreste Biancoli and Adolfo Franci (based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini); Cinematographer Carlo Montuori; Starring Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola; Length 89 minutes.

Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Wednesday 18 June 2000 (as well as earlier on VHS at university, Wellington, March 1998, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 12 September 2020).

Criterion Sunday 350: Sedotta e abbandonata (Seduced and Abandoned, 1964)

After his earlier Divorce Italian Style (1961), Pietro Germi has another knockabout satirical comedy about Italian customs — or, rather, that should be specifically Sicilian codes of honour. Stefania Sandrelli once again plays a beautiful teenage girl, Agnese, being chased by a man, Peppino (Aldo Puglisi, playing the fiancé of her older sister), though this time once he’s had his way — and made her pregnant — he tries to abandon her, which occasions all the ensuing humour. Naturally there’s plenty of dark material too, given that his repeatedly stated reasons for not wanting to marry her are that she’s “a tramp” (even though it’s his actions which occasioned his own low estimation of her), but there’s no stopping the Agnese’s father, the family’s patriarch (Saro Urzì), from trying to save his family’s honour. This involves local law enforcement, judges, violence, loud arguments staged for the benefit of the gossiping public, and other machinations to ensure that she is supported and the rest of his daughters can be married off too. Sandrelli for her part is largely a meek and unsmiling woman at the edge of the frame, imagined in various ways by the men around her, with little of her own agency, because this is a film about the very macho traditions of the community. The police chief himself is given to covering up the island of Sicily with his hand, so sick is he of thinking about it. There’s lots of boisterous humour, but also a fair streak of bullying and misogyny exposed thereby, that makes this a very Italian film, I think.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 7-minute interview with Sandrelli from 2002 in which she discusses making the film and working with Germi, as well as a short extract of her screen test (which she provides some commentary for).
  • Alongside Sandrelli’s interview is a similar length one with Lando Buzzanca, who played her brother in the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pietro Germi; Writers Germi, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli and Luciano Vincenzoni; Cinematographer Aiace Parolin; Starring Stefania Sandrelli, Saro Urzì, Aldo Puglisi, Lando Buzzanca; Length 117 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 31 August 2020.

Criterion Sunday 334: Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)

In covering a miner’s strike in western Kentucky in the early-1970s, Barbara Kopple has shown us a side of America that rarely gets seen on-screen. Sure we’re all familiar with stereotypes of yokels from the Appalachians, but this film is about the work — coal mining, in this case — and the dangers of that work, the threats from the company owners, the meagre amount of pay and the terrible conditions of both the workplace and these people’s everyday lives. It never condescends to its subjects, and it’s firmly on the side of the strikers as they are aggressively confronted by strike-breakers, gun-toting ruffians who ride around in their pick-up trucks scarcely concealing the contempt and anger they have, and the force they’re willing to deploy to get their way. The police, too, are very much on the companies’ side, so we see the unequal force but also the vehemence of the strikers — and, notably, the women who are married to the miners, whose support is as strong if not stronger than their partners. From this tumult a number of characters start to become prominent, not least Lois Wood who keeps a gun in her bra and argues on behalf of confronting the violence they’re shown with their own violent resistance (she doesn’t quite get her way on that, mind).

Kopple contextualises the strikes with a sidebar on union politics (her original documentary subject before this one took over), notably the assassination of Jock Yablonski by the then-leader of the miners’ union in 1969, and the subsequent trial (shades of Harvey Weinstein as we see this previously vital man being wheeled into court as he performs being an invalid). Testimonies from those supporting the strike also recall the bloody 1930s when the so-called “Harlan County War” raged in a series of strikes that inspired a rich heritage of folk music, some of which we see performed (such as “Whose Side Are You On?” by Florence Reece, an old lady by the 1970s, but no less passionate about the union).

In short, it’s just great to see the urgent and heartfelt engagement with labour rights that subsequent decades of right-wing rule have since undermined so entirely. Of course, even by the end of this film it feels like so much is unresolved and will continue, as indeed I imagine it continues now, both here and on countless other fronts around the world, but the rights of the poorest in society should never be up for debate, and it seems sometimes as if it is constantly necessary to take a stand to protect them.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is The Making of ‘Harlan County U.S.A.’, a short documentary made for this release, in which Kopple and her producer and cinematographers reflect on the filming, and the dangers they faced in covering this story. There are also some interviews from a miner and one of the women shown in the film (the daughter of the film’s most interesting character, Lois Wood), though the intervening years and the very poor living conditions of the miners suggest that many of the main participants in the original documentary have long since passed. It’s fascinating of course to see how the film came together, and to get a sense of what we didn’t see in the telling of this story.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Barbara Kopple; Cinematographers Kevin Keating, Hart Perry and Tom Hurwitz; Length 103 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 11 July 2020.

Criterion Sunday 333: I pugni in tasca (Fists in the Pocket, 1965)

There’s a certain strain of Italian cinema in the 60s that seemed to deal with psychological character studies of individuals straining against societal expectations or mores (I’m thinking of Pasolini’s Theorem, but I’m sure there are others like this). I only feel sure of it, because I’m equally sure I have difficulty really connecting with these guys, though I suppose at a superficial level they look like me (well, they’re usually younger, if I’m honest). Still, there’s a lot going on with Alessandro, “Ale” for short (Lou Castel) in this film, as he finds himself increasingly set against his family, increasingly wound up by their inability to function (hence the title’s imagery). He thinks about killing his mother and developmentally challenged younger brother, as a favour to his sister/girlfriend (it’s a bit unclear quite how Paola Pitagora’s Giulia fits into his life) and older, more “normal” (if dull) brother (Marino Masé)… and slowly these ideas start to coalesce into action, shocking when it happens. The idea of how his ideas of a better life conflict with societal norms are sort of at the core of the film, and of course this makes him a deeply dislikable individual. Of course, maladjusted young men with bad ideas, sadly, will probably always be with us.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Marco Bellocchio; Cinematographer Alberto Marrama; Starring Lou Castel, Paola Pitagora, Marino Masé; Length 108 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 10 July 2020 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999).

Criterion Sunday 323: I bambini ci guardano (The Children Are Watching Us, 1943)

Vittorio De Sica and writer Cesare Zavattini collaborated on a number of the best-known Italian post-war films, still regularly getting onto those best ever lists, ones like Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. This film, made in 1942 and intended for release in 1943 though scuppered somewhat by an escalating war, marks their first collaboration (or the first one that Zavattini put his name to anyway), and it has a lot of the hallmarks that would come to define De Sica’s particular brand of humanism. It has a great empathy for the character of Pricò (Luciano De Ambrosis), a small child of six-years-old, caught in the middle of a wrenching breakup between his parents (Isa Pola and Emilio Cigoli), as the mother is tempted away from the marriage and her son by her lover Roberto. The film’s big events though — the departure of the mother, and the climactic departure (as it were) of the father — are telegraphed very subtly, as the camera remains focused on the child, often indeed being at quite a low angle to the events. The lighting too can be equal to the drama, as in a confrontation between father and son where even at his tender age the son realises he mustn’t reveal what he knows or it will break his dad. It has a melodramatic way, then, but underplayed in the style that would come to define Italian Neorealism, and — for a film made at this time — entirely without any wartime propaganda.

[NB The Wikipedia page lists this as a 1943 film, but it may never have received a proper release that year, which is why Criterion has it down as 1944.]

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There are only two extras on the disc, being 8-minute interviews with its surviving star Luciano De Ambrosis (who played the kid), as he reflects on working with De Sica and how much he really remembered about the shoot, and De Sica scholar Callisto Casulich, who gives a bit of background to the filming and release.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Vittorio De Sica; Writers De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Cesare Giulio Viola, Margherita Maglione, Adolfo Franci and Gherardo Gherardi (based on the novel Pricò by Viola); Cinematographers Giuseppe Caracciolo and Romolo Garroni; Starring Luciano De Ambrosis, Isa Pola, Emilio Cigoli; Length 84 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 6 June 2020.

Corpo celeste (aka Heavenly Body, 2011)

Another film you won’t currently find on Mubi, but this debut feature by a major modern filmmaker is just one of the types of strands Mubi regularly presents. In fact, it’s one of the places I’ve been most fortunate to catch up with the early films of important contemporary filmmakers. As just one example, right now (i.e as of 25 March 2020) you can find Neighbouring Sounds, the debut film by Kleber Mendonça Filho (of Aquarius and Bacurau fame).


I loved Rohrwacher’s latest film Happy as Lazzaro and seeing her first feature film reminds me that a lot of what I loved there is present in all her work. It doesn’t feel heavy-handed at all to me, but rather a very gentle coming of age narrative, about a young girl (Yle Vianello) who starts to really get a sense not so much of adulthood itself, as of the disappointments that this world she’s entering can present, specifically around religion. She has come to Italy, a devoutly Catholic country, after a period of having grown up in Switzerland, and finds the church there to be somewhat disappointing, and the classes she attends just a little bit lacking in serious intent. While Santa, one of the lay women who runs the classes, fusses over the very much middling priest (Salvatore Cantalupo), our heroine Marta sits there impassively watching and judging all the nonsense that is passed off as being part of faith. It’s true that some of the symbolic reaches the film goes for are pretty strong — the crucifix mounted to the roof of the priest’s car as he speeds around the mountain ridges feels like one such — but overall this film prefers to focus on the quiet and melancholy experienced by Marta as she navigates this world.

Corpo Celeste film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Alice Rohrwacher; Cinematographer Hélène Louvart; Starring Yle Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Anita Caprioli; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Wednesday 15 January 2020.

Criterion Sunday 296: Le notti bianche (aka White Nights, 1957)

Is this how people used to meet, just chatting up beautiful weeping girls standing on canal bridges? Perhaps it’s a lost art, though Marcello Mastroianni, for all his film star looks, does have to spend the first third of the film apologising for his forward approach. Once it gets going, it’s a three-way story of a woman torn between two men, one (Jean Marais) who has left her and promised to return, and another (Mastroianni) who is right there, hungry for attention and for love. It’s all shot with great monochrome beauty on what looks like sound stage sets, though Visconti isn’t shy of showing the poverty coexisting with his beautiful leads, as they sneak away for trysts under bridges being used as shelters by homeless people. There’s a sense here about the disjunction between the romantic ideals so gorgeously expressed in some of the cinematography and the big, melodramatic emotions played out at times between the two, and the bitter truth of reality, and of how people live. There’s a lot to admire in this film, of course, but probably best of all is Mastroianni’s brief fit of dancing to a Bill Haley song in a gaudy young person’s nightclub bar. That alone would make the film worthwhile, but there’s a lot else going on besides.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Luchino Visconti; Writers Suso Cecchi d’Amico and Visconti; Cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno; Starring Marcello Mastroianni, Maria Schell, Jean Marais; Length 101 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 February 2020.