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.