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 401: Night on Earth (1991)

Jim Jarmusch wasn’t unfamiliar with making portmanteau movies (this one or Coffee and Cigarettes), and elsewhere at the very least has divided his films into distinct chapters, as he did in Stranger Than Paradise (one of which was initially released as a short film before he had funding for the rest of the feature). So it’s not unusual for him that here he covers people driving taxis in five different cities, two in the US (LA and NYC) as well as Paris, Rome and Helsinki.

It’s interesting to see people online responding quite differently to each of these five segments. The Roman section is probably the most divisive, but then again it largely depends how you feel about Roberto Benigni as a screen presence. He riffs away on various themes, mostly of the illicitly sexual variety, while driving a priest across Rome, and so the humour is largely broad and upfront. It’s not what Jarmusch is perhaps best known for, and it’s certainly not my favourite kind of humour, so it largely passes me by. NYC is also pretty broad in its humour, but it’s fun to see Giancarlo Esposito and Rosie Perez play off each other, so soon after Do the Right Thing, and they attack it with plenty of energy. Paris, meanwhile, uses one of Jarmusch’s favourite actors, Isaach de Bankolé, and I do always love just watching his face and the way he channels emotions — of course the taxi setup means that watching faces becomes much easier for us as an audience as everyone is facing forward and largely unmoving. That said, the blindness metaphor into which Béatrice Dalle is cast is a little heavy handed.

This leaves the first and last segments, probably my own favourites, because of the way they use the limited space (there is very little that takes place outside the taxi journeys), as well as the iconic actors in each: Gena Rowlands and Winona Ryder in the former; Matti Pellonpää in the latter. He has a face I could watch for ages, and so it’s a great way to wrap the film up, melancholy and doleful though he is.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • The main extra is an almost hour-long audio recording of Jarmusch answering questions from fans which have been sent into and filtered by the Criterion office. He is generous with his answers and gives plenty of context to what he was doing with this film, as well as shedding light on his own artistic practice, so it’s well worth listening.
  • Another feature is a 5-minute piece from Belgian TV to mark the release of the film back in 1992, in which they bundle Jarmusch into the back of a Paris taxi and have him talk about the film. He actually hits a few of the same points as he did 15 years later in the Q&A featurette above, but it’s still a good interview.
  • The booklet has five writers linked to each of the cities in the film speak to their section of the film, with evident warmth from many, though they don’t always love their own city’s section the most within the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Jim Jarmusch; Cinematographer Frederick Elmes; Starring Gena Rowlands, Winona Ryder, Giancarlo Esposito, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Rosie Perez, Isaach de Bankolé, Béatrice Dalle, Roberto Benigni, Matti Pellonpää; Length 128 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Sunday 21 February 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 2000).

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 278: L’eclisse (1962)

Antonioni, I feel, made a lot of films about boredom, or about people being bored, and it’s easy to slip into imagining they are boring films (to some, they are of course), but I love the moods he creates. Monica Vitti and Alain Delon slip into and around the frame in an almost endlessly reconfigurable number of ways, stopping only to look disconsolately off screen (and that’s how Vitti ends her screen performance in this film, last of a loosely-themed trilogy by Antonioni). She doesn’t seem to want love, or finds it boring perhaps, and then falls into the orbit of Delon’s stockbroker, whom she is equally unpassionate towards until near the end. Like the character halfway through L’avventura (1960), here all the film’s characters seem to disappear just before the end, as the world they’ve created continues, silent and without passion, in the places they have lived their lives and plan to keep living them, the water ebbing away from a rusted barrel, while the architecture blankly comments on the streets below. It’s a rondo of sorts between these two characters, and a movement through dead space, beautiful but always ultimately suffused with a boredom that emanates not just from the characters but from those around them, as if it’s the state of the universe.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michelangelo Antonioni; Writers Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Elio Bartolini and Ottiero Ottieri; Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo; Starring Monica Vitti, Alain Delon, Francisco Rabal; Length 126 minutes.

Seen at National Library, Wellington, Wednesday 16 October 2002 (and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 23 November 2019).

Criterion Sunday 272: La commare secca (aka The Grim Reaper, 1962)

Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film is made in the years after Neo-Realism, with a script worked on by Pasolini, and has something of a similar feel to his compatriots in telling a mystery about a prostitute found murdered, whose body we see near the start. The police follow up with a number of suspects, whose intersecting stories we hear and see over the course of the film. The filmmaking is direct, but with little flourishes such as those of the dead woman getting ready for her day, each a single shot inserted before the torrential rainstorm that repeats through each of the stories we hear. There’s also a nighttime park where all the suspects cross each others’ paths, and shots of characters are seen repeated from multiple vantage points, suggesting the many counter-narratives that are presented here (and of course the debt it owes to Rashomon has been mentioned many times by critics, even if Bertolucci hadn’t seen it as he claimed).

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s an interview from 2003 with Bernardo Bertolucci about the film, in which he recalls starting his film career with Pasolini on the latter’s debut Accattone before being giving the reins of this Pasolini project at the age of 21 (Pasolini was focusing on Mamma Roma at the time). It was always tied to Pasolini, Bertolucci ruefully recalls, despite his best efforts to differentiate it, such as with a constantly moving camera or little poetic inserts (as mentioned in my review).

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Bernardo Bertolucci; Writers Bertolucci, Sergio Citti and Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on Pasolini’s short story); Cinematographer Giovanni Narzisi; Starring Giancarlo De Rosa; Length 93 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Thursday 31 October 2019.

Criterion Sunday 236: Mamma Roma (1962)

Pasolini’s second film is this slice of the kind of subject matter that Fellini was more used to serving up, which is to say a richly melodramatic story of the former sex worker of the film’s title and her relationship with her son Ettore. Of course, stylistically, Pasolini’s take is hardly comparable to Fellini, aside from the garrulous camera-hogging of Anna Magnani in the central role recalling Giulietta Masina. This is far more focused on the fragile ground on which Magnani’s character tries to rebuild her life, as her honest profession as a vegetable seller in the market is undercut by not just forays into vice in order to try and provide for her son’s future (a little play-acting with a pimp and a sex worker to blackmail a restaurant owner into getting him a job) but also the return of her former pimp Carmine. Fragile too is Ettore’s self-identity within his social circle — he’s a young man trying to prove himself by courting one slightly older local woman — while meanwhile given a hard time by his male friends, all of which combined with a revelation of his mother’s former career, seems to push him over the edge. Pasolini’s attention then is on wider society — including, of course, the church — and the part it plays in destroying a family. Magnani remains at the heart of the film, though, and there are some particularly striking tracking shots showing her walking around the darkened streets lit by ethereal street lights, as people hove into view out of the darkness to engage her in conversation before peeling off again. She may be trying to constantly move forward, but she never seems to be given the chance to get anywhere.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini; Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli; Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofalo, Franco Citti; Length 106 minutes.

Seen at home (DVD), London, Monday 21 January 2019.

Criterion Sunday 189: Lo sceicco bianco (The White Sheik, 1952)

Early Fellini is probably the best Fellini, in my opinion, free of the baroque stylisation he would later fall victim to. That said, I find it difficult to imagine this as an Antonioni film (he was one of the writers of the original story, if not the screenplay), because it’s so filled with the extra touches Fellini would throw in, all light and music and movement and mugging for the camera. The lead actor is particularly good (Leopoldo Trieste), the one who plays the hapless husband making excuses for his star-struck wife, and it wasn’t until watching a making-of featurette that I realised this wasn’t a satire on film, but rather a satire on a very specific type of literature in which narratives were photographed for magazines, hence why I was confused about the nature of the shoot. Anyway, it’s all very pleasing and silly really.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Tullio Pinelli and Ennio Flaiano; Cinematographer Arturo Gallea; Starring Alberto Sordi, Leopoldo Trieste, Brunella Bovo, Giulietta Masina; Length 83 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 3 December 2017.

Roman Holiday (1953)

It’s a classic trope, the fantasy of royalty cutting loose and partying with the plebs, like normal people. I’m not even sure if this was the original iteration, but you can’t possibly help but watch it 60 years on and think of A Royal Night Out (2015) or The Princess Diaries (2001) or the hundred other films of that ilk which share the theme, including Notting Hill (1999) which updates the formula from royalty to celebrity. Still, this one has Audrey Hepburn being utterly delightful as Princess Ann from some unspecified Ruritanian country (she’s convincly regal too, although she did have an aristocratic background, after all), and Gregory Peck being all solid and leading-man-like as American reporter Joe. They have an easy rapport as they spend the day together, which begins when he finds her the night before, curled up in the street sleeping, having snuck out of her comfy palatial digs, then makes the royal connection from a photo in the paper. I feel like most people probably already know this film far better than I, but suffice to say there’s a simple enjoyment to the everyday activities they cram in, going sightseeing, going out dancing, getting a haircut, and flirting. It’s a comfortable classic, and works well with the easy charisma of its stars and the photogenic quality of the setting.

Roman Holiday film posterCREDITS
Director William Wyler; Writers Ian McLellan Hunter and John Dighton [and Dalton Trumbo, uncredited]; Cinematographers Henri Alekan and Franz Planer; Starring Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 12 December 2015.

Criterion Sunday 49: Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957)

Looking over a plot summary for Nights of Cabiria, I admit I found myself somewhat exasperated to see yet another Fellini film based around a happy-go-lucky prostitute. Surely a male-authored fiction by one such as Fellini (whose co-writers all look the model of patriarchal entitlement) could be counted on to treat sex workers as little more than adolescent male fantasies of sexual availability. After all, I found some of the treatment of the prostitute character in 1973’s Amarcord to be rather puerile and breast-fixated — hardly uncommon in 1970s cinema in particular, and that particular film was clearly made from the point of view of teenage boys. In any case (to return to the film under discussion), here, earlier in Fellini’s career, the spirit of his filmmaking seems different, closer perhaps to the neo-realism of his roots. There’s a real generosity towards the title character (played by Giulietta Masina), introduced being pushed into a river by a boyfriend who makes off with her purse, and who goes on to be screwed over by a succession of further weak men. She’s had a difficult life, but she has a strong friendship with a neighbour (and fellow prostitute), Wanda, with whom she has plans to get out of the game once they’ve paid off their mortgages. It’s once again a film with an episodic, wandering narrative, but at the core of everything is Cabiria, who despite her many setbacks manages to retain a cheerful if at times sarcastic demeanor. This is hardly to say it’s a feminist masterpiece, but it’s certainly got a lot more depth than I’d initially given it credit for.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Federico Fellini; Writers Fellini, Ennio Flaiano, Tullio Pinelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini; Cinematographers Aldo Tonti and Otello Martelli; Starring Giulietta Masina; Length 118 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 16 August 2015.

La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty, 2013)

A film has to be very sure of itself to carry off such a long running time. Having now seen it, I’m unclear exactly how it managed it — the narrative is discursive, flitting about fairly freely — but it has, becoming in the process a rather heady and passionate film about Rome and its social whirl. Now I’m at home, sipping on some red wine because it feels like the Roman thing to do, wishing I was a smoker like the film’s protagonist, and wondering how much an apartment overlooking the Colosseum costs.

For yes, the world the film inhabits is of the very upper echelon of Roman society. Played by Toni Servillo, Jep is a jaded columnist for an upper-middle-class paper who has one early novella under his belt but has since lost focus on this kind of writing in favour of embracing the social scene and all of its parties — many of which take place at his spectacular pad. He has just turned 65 and, amongst all the socialising and partying and fun, he occasionally turns his mind to his past and his future. His best friend Romano (Carlo Verdone) wants to leave Rome after 40 years, his relationships such as with ageing stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) are fleeting, and the appeal of interviewing artists is waning as he considers picking up the pen and becoming one himself again. And yet over the film’s great length Jep’s nostalgia and self-doubt never really becomes much more than a passing thought — the film’s focus is far more on the rush of images and sensations than on sententious moralising.

There’s a strong affection for the hedonism of its characters. The aged figures may seem ridiculous partying with younger people and taking drugs, but they aren’t judged for it excessively. The film’s sharpest satire is reserved for the artistic world, as we encounter various ridiculous endeavours in different media over the course of the film — most notably and hilariously a naked performance art piece, but also, amongst others, a child prodigy painter forced much against her will by her parents to create live art in front of party guests, and the earnestly pretentious play that Jep’s friend Romano finally gets to stage. But if there’s a fundamental emptiness to the characters and the lifestyle that this satire suggests, the film also seems to want to replace it at length with meaning. An aged nun visits near the end, called by everyone “the Saint”, and though barely able to move or speak, imparts the force of simple spirituality to the usually wry and quipping Jep.

The success of the film is largely down to its unforced style, and the roaming, untethered camera of Luca Bigazzi, so adept at finding beautiful compositions (though Jep’s sartorial elegance, Rome’s ancient architecture, and the luxurious settings hardly hurt). An initial few shock cuts (cannon fire, screams) turn out to be false prophets, as the film settles down — though not to a conventional narrative, for the flow of images and events is as constant as it is largely unmotivated by plot. This is the Rome of Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy, but it’s a Rome that the director and cast seem to love and have great fondness for. It may move in strange directions, with little flashes of surrealism, but it’s always captivatingly presented. Calling it Fellini-esque (as many critics have) almost seems reductive, but then I’ve never had a great tolerance for the carnivalesque excesses of late-period Fellini. This is generous filmmaking, and frequently rather gorgeous too.

The Great Beauty film posterCREDITS
Director Paolo Sorrentino; Writers Sorrentino and Umberto Contarello; Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi; Starring Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli; Length 142 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Sunday 22 September 2013.