Friday, August 27, 2010

Rocco and His Brothers

Ivorismo Rating ****

Luchino Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960) is a marvelous cautionary tale about survival in hard times. 50 years old now, it still holds up splendidly. A strange blend of social realism and operatic melodrama, it somehow still works splendidly. Made by a man of deep contrasts, Visconti was from a ridiculously rich noble family with roots going back to Charlemagne, yet still a committed Marxist. One of the Big Three of Italian NeoRealism, along with Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica, Visconti's work demonstrated a conflict between his Social Realist interests and his experience as a renowned opera director at La Scala, which was steeped in the Western aesthetic tradition. Thus, in Rocco & His Brothers, we have a sort of hysterical hybrid – a black-and-white soap opera with an equal amount of street grit--performed by an ensemble of real and amateur actors.
Contradictions are apparent everywhere. The film may not always make narrative sense, but this is the consequence of Visconti as zealot. Dramatizing the social consequences of Italy's internal Diaspora from South to North is no small mission. His contradictory goals are to make one family socially typical, yet also individually compelling. This is clearly not a sexy concept, yet somehow Visconti more or less pulls it off. All of the characters may be 'types,' yet all are given enough individual character touches that they transcend the problem of being contrived and overwrought that dogs so many other Visconti and Rossellini works.

The central conflict of the film is between the saintly Rocco (Alain Delon) and his ruthlessly hedonistic brother Simone (Renato Salvatori) over the love of a beautiful prostitute, Nadia (Annie Girardot). This clichéd love triangle is compelling thanks to the quality and beauty of the performers. Passion burns the candle at both ends, 24 hours a day for this whole mad Sicilian family. Forced by dire poverty to move from the Sicilian countryside to Milan, the Porondis, a widowed mother and her four young sons, join the oldest son, who's already got a steady job and a fiancé in the big city. Rocco, his mother, his brothers, the prostitute: they all begin as "types". Sure, there's a lot of "Mamma mia!" and hands raised to the Lord in despair. Sure, there's a lot of sweaty machismo. The boys spend a lot of time shouting at each other in their singlets. Yet the inescapable fact is that you can forget about the politics and the stereotypes. The Porondis are all very good looking and way cool!

Somehow, unlike his more mechanical attempts at propaganda in The Red Desert and The Damned, Visconti fell in love with his characters. The director lavishes his settings and characters with a pure Dickensian detail. As with his other masterpiece, The Leopard, Visconti shows a brilliant flair for tragedy and earthy good humor. As the inexorable logic of the plot and the fastidious peeling-of-an-onion detail take place, you can throw away all the specious chit-chat about social-realism and propaganda and just love this movie for what it is.

From the moment they arrive in Milan carrying bags of oranges and wax poetic at their first glimpse of snow, we are with the Porondis and aware of their collective naïveté. In no time at all, Simone (Renato Salvatori) becomes a prizefighter, part of a sleazy gangster's stable of broken-nosed, cauliflower-eared stumblebum gladiators. After winning a few fights, the fruits of victory for Simone are the free drinks and meals offered by nightclub owners. Taking up with a prostitute girlfriend, Nadia, (Annie Girardot) doesn't improve matters. Soon, however, Simone introduces them all to the poison of commercialism, corruption and urban brutality. After doing his military service, the saintly Rocco returns home to find no work and is forced to become a boxer, too. A few good paydays foment jealousy as Nadia, trying to 'reform' at the behest of Rocco and his long-suffering mother (Katina Paxinou), sleeps once again with Simone but flirts dangerously with Rocco. In the strongest scene in the film, the vicious Simone rapes the reformed prostitute right before the gentle Rocco's eyes and then slugs it out with him. This scene rings so true, the reality of the triple defilement is so powerful, so saturated with emotion and violent ambivalence that its rawness is shocking. I defy anyone to watch this scene and not be equally moved and exhausted by it. Anyone who thinks Alain Delon was just a blue-eyed, jet-black locked hunk of prettiness needs to see Rocco.

Throughout the film, Visconti swoops with his camera all over the streets of Milan, offering little stares at paving stones, children, people with other stories, and nooks and crannies full of daily grime and grunge. The passionate emotions of the characters and the screeching drama of the characters sting an audience into a state of empathy and wakefulness. It's Douglas Sirk on steroids. All deeply felt by its director and his ensemble.

Nino Rota's beautiful, passionate score is wonderful. Although Rota is best known for his association with Federico Fellini, his work here is clearly among his best.

Clocking in at 168 minutes, this is a demanding film. For anyone who insists the sixties started with the Beatles and La Dolce Vita, I'd suggest that they really need to start here.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul

Ivorismo Rating****

Rainer Werner Fassbinder met Douglas Sirk at the Munich Film Museum in June 1971. As the history of cinema goes, this truly was a momentous event. Having sobered himself up and steered clear of the rough trade bars for more than two weeks, Fassbinder's aching temporary self-denial from his addictions put him into a state of agonized bliss. Buoyed at basking in the light of the maestro, Fassbinder sat next to him through six of his German-born idol's films. The directors became uber close friends, sharing a correspondence, and Fassbinder--up to that point viewed by Germany's small coven of art critics as a clever former television director with a chip on his shoulder, a provincial East German exile with a penchant for self-advertizement--was able to re-imagine his personal cinema in a completely new way. Sirk, famous for such Hollywood melodramas as All That Heaven Allows, Imitation of Life, and Written on the Wind, walked across Fassbinder's mind like a colossus. Sirk's influence on the flaming young German upstart was both theoretical and aesthetic. Finally freeing himself from the kind of rigid, proto-Marxist thinking that compelled him to spawn what he snarkily referred to as "an oeuvre of orthodoxy," Fassbinder leavened his thinking.

Fassbinder’s metaphor-laden exposés of heartless social ostracism in West Germany had already became more gentle after The Merchant of Four Seasons. Yet his sometimes brutal directorial "touch" still remained very much the same. What Fassbinder adored about Sirk was his remarkable ability to fuse social commentary with soap opera in his screenplays. What we have in Fassbinder's masterpiece Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a sort of loose bebop version of Sirk's All That Heaven Allows. It may not be his most famous film, that kudos tends to go toward Fassbinder's more rigorous, politically correct and historically specific tomes to German history, Veronika Voss, Lili Marlene and The Marriage of Maria Braun, all of which were box office hits throughout the world. Far more eternal than Fassbinder's ironic takes on the modern German state's history, Ali’s story unravels like a bittersweet ball of steel wool. A postindustrial Deutschkeit fable about the fruits of racism and intolerance, it entertains just like Sirk's famous melodramas. Fassbinder's goal as an auteur was not just to subject his characters to the soap operatic beauty of pure misery so much as it was to expose such social mechanisms as racism and suburban conformity reeking havoc on his characters before they have ever loved.

In Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, a lonely, depressed cleaning lady, Emmi (Brigitte Mira), falls in love with and marries a Moroccan worker, Ali (El Hedi ben Salem). This leads to her being vilified by everyone in her world, especially her immediate family. Indeed, Fassbinder wastes no time in foreshadowing Emmi's dilemma from the start. Walking into the tavern where she first meets Ali, Emmi sees everyone freeze as she makes conversation with the big awkwardly handsome Arab. Fassbinder frames his scenes within windows and doorways and from within a room full of bright yellow chairs. Racism and a sense of isolation dog these characters in this 'new' West Germany. At the same time, Fassbinder's dialogue is filled with the clichés of middle class wannabeism. "All this work," Emmi says with a remarkable sense of gravity and innocence, as if she's pontificating upon a manifesto, "to get a little piece of Heaven."

I've been doing my German homework. I got in touch with my Swabian friend Martin and he pointed me in the correct direction. This is because the film's original German title reads Angst essen Seele auf, which actually translates as "Fear Eat Soul", while the correct German form would be  Angst isst die Seele auf. Deliberately rendered grammatically incorrect, the original title alludes to both Ali's terrible German and his shockingly naïve innocence. Ali's speech is ripe with Chance Gardner/Forest Gump-style aphorisms --"Think much, cry much" and "Money spoil friendship"--to the point where his talking seems canned and mechanical. Consequently, Fassbinder's genius is that, while he has created a sort of transposed facsimile of All That Heaven Allows, the cultural predicament explored in Sirk's film pales by comparison.

The wicked are everywhere in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. They constantly refer to the Turk and his uncivilized behavior. Yet they are the ones who smash in television sets, engage in vicious scurrilous gossip, and make nasty accusations toward the kindhearted Emmi. The film's infamous sea-of-yellow-chairs sequence clearly presages a rhetorical alteration in its view of a society's ambivalence about racism. Out of nowhere, people change. Emmi's crying and oft stated forgiveness for everybody have suddenly healed the wicked world. Inexplicably, the racists have gone through a period of redemption. Even Emmi's obnoxious son Bruno (Peter Gauhe), clearly a racist and never forgiven by his mother for killing the family cat, sends his mother a check for a new television. On the street, Emmi's perverse gossipy neighbors stop to make conversation and ask for favors, complimenting her for her constant kindness.

Change and forgiveness, for Fassbinder, forever the butch masculine queer outsider, whether it's sudden, organic, surreal, or magical, is a natural part of human progress, but still ought to be viewed in a cynical way. Still, the audience may indeed ask if it's really progress if a local shopkeeper begins to act politely with Emmi—despite her husband's brown face—because, really, she simply doesn't want to lose her business? Indeed, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul's second half shows how the constantly silent Ali is also affected by his sudden social acceptance. The 'good' neighbors who used to rant about Emmi bringing dirt into their building ooh and ah over the Moroccan’s big muscles. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul may even evoke a sort of Reaganite ideal to cure a racist world. The trickle-down effect of new money can conquer all resistance once the locals become willing to take a seat on the gravy train.

Still, when it comes to the human soul, neither words nor deeds are quite enough. Fassbinder insists there is still much construction work to be done. Ali is his masterpiece!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The 400 Blows

Ivorismo Rating *****

I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between. Francois Truffaut

The 400 Blows (1959) is absolutely one of the most moving experiences in beautiful storytelling I've ever had. It's the very touching story of a wide-eyed adolescent, very much inspired by the Writer/Director Francois Truffaut's own early life. His alter-ego, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), is an aggressive, brave boy growing up on the mean streets of Paris, already committed, he insists, to a life of petty thievery. The merciless adult world refuses to see him as anything but a disrespectful troublemaker. Yet as 'street' as the boy is determined to be, there another tender, intellectual side he sparingly shows, exemplified in a scene where Antoine lights a candle before a shrine to the writer, Honore De Balzac, in his bedroom. A rebel with a cause, Antoine learns as he goes along, so that, by the time the film's famous final shot, an achingly slow zoom leading to a freeze frame, shows him looking directly into the camera at the seaside. Finally aware of his surroundings and circumstances simultaneously, having just escaped from a boys' house of detention, Antoine stands on the beach, trapped between land and water, his past and his future.

Antoine is fully realized by Jean-Pierre Leaud, a splendid young actor who exhibits a kind of pure solemn detachment. Already bitter about events which have taken place long before the film's plot began, Antoine is vigilant about harnessing his emotions and contemptuous toward a hypocritical adult world. The actor and his performance meet seamlessly at Truffaut’s behest. Not surprisingly, this movie was the first in a long collaboration between actor and director. They would later return to the character in the short film Antoine and Collette (1962) and three more features: Stolen Kisses (1968), the wonderful Bed and Board1970) and Love on the Run (1979).

All five are truly great works of art, particularly Bed and Board, but The 400 Blows really is Truffaut at play in a class all by himself. Truffaut's first feature is the original film of the French New Wave. Dedicated to Andre Bazin, an important French film critic, it's a sort of poem from the fatherless Truffaut to a man who steered him away from trouble.

There is nothing gratuitous in this film. No fat. None whatsoever! Everything builds incrementally to the impact of that final shot. We first meet Antoine when he is living with his mother and stepfather in a tiny crowded flat where everybody bumps into each other. Antoine's sluttish mother (Claire Maurier) is a bottled blonde who favors tight sweaters and relentlessly nags about having no money to her miserable son and his stepfather. The stepfather (Albert Remy) is actually pretty easy-going. He is not nasty to the boy, or mean-spirited like the mother, but is clearly not emotionally available either. Both parents are away most of the time, neither one paying any kind of close attention to the boy. Basically, Antoine is ignored. He might as well be an object, like a vase or a carpet, for all the attention they pay him. Worse, they judge him harshly trusting in the self-interested based foibles of other vindictive people.

Atypically, in school Antoine has been written off by his teacher (Guy Decombie) as a troublemaker. His mother never even thinks to ask her son his side of the exaggerated tale the teacher tells her about Antoine's bad behavior' at school. Indeed, just like the old blues song says, if Antoine didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any at all. So, when a sexy pinup calendar is being passed around the room, he has the bad luck to be the one the teacher catches clutching it. Standing in the corner as punishment, Antoine makes faces for his classmates to giggle at before he desecrates the wall with graffiti. That night, when his homework is interrupted by another one of his mother's hissy fits, the boy uses it as an excuse to skip school the next day. Absent again the next week, Antoine tells his teacher the ridiculous lie that his mother has died. Soon, however, she turns up at school, very much alive, her tightly encumbered breasts pointing at the teacher's lying eyes through her wooly sweater like mocking fingers.  Seething with rage, she urges the teacher to punish the boy. At that point, Antoine becomes an object of contempt for both his teachers and parents.

That night, cramped into the narrow alcove which is his 'bedroom, Antoine writes about "the death of my grandfather'' in a close paraphrase of Balzac, whose writing he has memorized as an act of love. It is, of course, composed by the boy as an act of paraphrased homage, it is blown out of all proportion by his hysterical teacher as an act of deliberate, vindictive plagiarism. Humiliated one time too many, Antoine sets out diligently to become a true bad boy. He and a friend steal a typewriter, but, of course, get caught trying to return it. For this outrageous act Antoine is sent off to a juvenile detention home.

Completely abandoned by his parents, his fate is left to the caprices of the bureaucrats who run the social services. The most awful scene imaginable takes place as we witness his parents disgustedly discussing his case with a social worker. Once again, they might as well be discussing a broken vacuum cleaner or a coat. "If he came home, he would only run away again,'' his mother insists. As a result he is booked at a police station, placed in a cell, and then put in a paddy wagon with pimps, prostitutes and thieves. As the boy is driven through the dark streets of Paris, Antoine's face stares out through the bars like a thousand-year-old martyr. The sadness of his existence as he stares out at a mean old world still never fails to move me no matter how many times I see it.

Please don't misunderstand; Truffaut's film is not altogether dark and miserable. Yes, it's shot in a grainy black-and-white in the midst of the Parisian winter, but there are still episodes of pure joy. One pristinely brilliant scene shows a physical education teacher leading the boys on a jog through Paris. Shot from a distance above them, we see the boys escape two by two, until the teacher has only two or three boys to bark orders at. The one moment of redemption and possibility for the family follows one of Antoine's foolish mistakes. After lighting a candle to Balzac, the boy sets his little cardboard shrine on fire accidentally. Angrily, his parents smother the flames, but then their exasperation dissipates, and the whole family goes to the movies and lends up laughing on the way home.

The cinema gave Francois Truffaut a life. This film, made when he was only 27, clearly marks the dividing point between classic and modern cinema. Truffaut is my beloved when we're talking modern directors. Truffaut (1932-1984) died of a brain tumor at 52. He left behind 21 films. All are good. This one is close to perfect!