Friday, May 18, 2018

Film Review: "Madonna of the Seven Moons"

The Gainsborough melodramas released in the 1940s were hugely popular with British audiences and mocked by critics. These films took place in dramatic period settings, with actresses in gorgeous, ornate costumes and hats, and sensational plots centered around women transgressing social boundaries, falling in love with rogues, thieves, highwaymen, and Heathcliff-like monsters, and even tasting the forbidden pleasures and pains of murder and robbery themselves in some cases. This focus on women's lives, with a particular emphasis on sexual autonomy or lack thereof, make these films fascinating for contemporary viewers.

Madonna of the Seven Moons, directed by Arthur Crabtree who had previously been a Gainsborough cinematographer, has been described by some as lurid, by others as stuffy, but I'd say both camps - the sensation-seekers who watch the pre-code pictures to get a glimpse of Marlene Dietrich's breasts and the oh-so-cool types who disdain any show of emotion that isn't strictly justified by the most gritty forms of trauma as overblown - are projecting their own understandings of what melodramas are on to a film that delves into what it means to be a woman through a character who is both Madonna and whore, but then again, neither.

In the opening scene, a pig-tailed Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert) in her convent school uniform is picking flowers in a field. A man approaches her and begins to undo his belt. A close-up shows her terrified face as she runs from him; the shot fades to black. In the next shot, she cowers in her room, in agony. This rape scene is all the more devastating for eclipsing the rape itself and instead centering the viewer's attention on Maddalena's anguish. Even by the end of the film, no one, not even the physician who attends her, ever finds out about this rape. It remains an unspoken secret with fateful consequences, but remarkably, given the film's religious values, Maddalena is framed as completely innocent, both before and after the fact. This sexual trauma profoundly affects her life, but it doesn't make her guilty - on the contrary, it absolves her later of a violent act that prevents the same trauma from occurring to another young girl.

However, this is not a movie about a woman surviving rape and becoming empowered. Instead, Maddalena, a good Catholic girl, agrees to marry the man her father has chosen for her, Giuseppe (John Stuart), and it turns out to be a good marriage in the conventional sense - not a passionate love affair, but a stable, caring relationship largely devoid of strong emotion. Her fervent religiosity as much as her extreme sensitivity mark her as a Madonna figure; she spends her life in good works. Her husband goes so far as to teasingly call her a saint. When her daughter Angela (Patricia Roc) returns from an English finishing school with an English diplomat boyfriend (Alan Haines, a puppyish and much less handsome David Niven look-alike) and some decidedly not convent-approved lingerie, Maddalena becomes increasingly agitated. After a chance encounter with a "dancer" (that is, a gigolo, played by Peter Glenville) with his eye on the pretty, pert, and still somewhat innocent Angela, Maddalena faints. When she wakes, there is a strange glimmer in her eye. She rises, draws a symbol of seven moons on the mirror with lipstick, and runs from the house with the contents of her jewelbox in her handkerchief. Maddalena's transformation is a literal one: she becomes Rosanna, a sultry, fiery, and sticky-fingered creature whose lover, Nino (Stewart Granger), is a thief with more than a little sex appeal. These two women in the same body are living two lives that collide and shatter, leaving hearts broken, bodies bleeding, and souls won back to God.

A pat psychological explanation is given for Maddalena's condition by family friend and doctor Ackroyd (Reginald Tate). He surmises that some trauma in childhood caused a rupture in Maddalena's psyche, splitting her personality. When anxiety and pain threaten to become too great, she takes refuge in the second personality, running from her sumptuous palazzo, devoted husband, and philanthropic works. However, no one in the film ever discovers what trauma wreaked such havoc. Only we, the viewers, know why Maddalena split into Madonna and whore.

At first glance, this dichotomy seems like one more tiresome iteration of the usual scenario, one where the whore must be destroyed and the Madonna martyred, but because the audience knows that it was a brutal rape that caused the psychological split, a different interpretation emerges. Sexual trauma forces Maddalena to repress her sensuality and so she becomes a near saint, but here's the trick: the film refuses to let Maddalena deny her sexuality. It's there within her, lurking whenever emotion overflows its boundaries. The whore personality, the underworld creature ready to knife her rival, permits Maddalena-reborn-Rosanna to engage in a smoldering romantic affair. She and Nino both during the course of the film devour pieces of fruit, letting the juice drip down their faces; while the demure Maddalena could never take such sensual pleasure in her food, the earthy Rosanna can. The character is torn between the body she can enjoy and the body that has been despoiled, a free expression of her desires and the utter repression of even the slightest reminder of physical feeling. The true villain in the film is not the murderous impulses of the human Id, nor Nino, the petty criminal, nor sex for the fun of it: the villain is rape and any man who attempts it. If Maddalena's ultimate salvation is found in God, it's in a conception of God as intensely forgiving and understanding.

Madonna of the Seven Moons is a melodrama in the true sense of the term: it is a story about fairly ordinary people swept up into tragedy by circumstances beyond their control. It is difficult to see how a film that delineates such an exacting polemic against rape, while still portraying consensual sex as happy, romantic, and fulfilling, could be called lurid, and even more bizarre to call it stuffy. The psychology may strike the modern viewer as fairly antiquated, especially since split personalities in particular have become such a cliche of both weepies and thrillers, but in this case, a fairly simplistic idea of psychic rupture allows Crabtree, screenwriter Roland Pertwee, and star Phyllis Calvert to excavate and complicate the Madonna-whore dichotomy in a world where sexual violence against women is a fact of life. They accomplish this without rejecting Catholicism for blasphemy or vice versa. Sexual innocence is redefined: Maddalena's loss of virginity makes her no less good, and not even her extra-marital affair, pursued by Rosanna, makes her less good. Instead, sexual evil is staunchly defined as abuse, as one person taking another by force. Madonna of the Seven Moons lets us have our melodramatic cake and eat it, progressive sexual politics and all, too.

Monday, May 14, 2018

She's No Beauty: The Continuing Trope of the Ugly Duckling

It still strikes us revelatory, provocative, perhaps even shocking, when heroines aren't beautiful. It's presumed that any woman who could hold a reader's, or a viewer's attention for more than five minutes must be beautiful or else some sort of novelty, who fascinates by virtue of bucking the convention. But even the 'unconventional' heroines tend to be beautiful, or at least quite attractive, by most real-world standards: they simply don't recognize it because women - yes, still today, and probably for generations to come - are indoctrinated into a belief in their own ugliness. Bridget Jones isn't actually ugly and fat: the pressure to be prettier and thinner translates into a vicious cycle. We're not supposed to believe that she looks to other people as she does to herself. And even the "American stick insect" who makes Bridget feel so very unattractive in comparison would, were she the heroine of her own novel and not the nemesis of the heroine, feel just as desperately ugly and fat. The recent Amy Schumer film, I Feel Pretty, is predicated on this very idea. Schumer's character has to suffer a concussion in order to appreciate her own good looks. A silly controversy (prior to the film's release!) resulted when people expressed outrage at the premise of the film. It wasn't clear whether these very angry people were upset at the intimation that a woman as attractive as Schumer could have low self-esteem or if they were upset because the premise acknowledged the reality that actual looks bear little correlation with how a woman sees herself, but in any case, the movie hit a sore spot. Constant complaints are lodged that heroines are too beautiful for a real woman to aspire to be her, but at the same time, the longing for beauty and for a recognition of being beautiful means that calling a heroine anything but beautiful invites a firestorm.

And when a heroine really isn't attractive by conventional standards? Then she's an ugly duckling, and her confidence makes her into a swan. Confidence replaces beauty and paradoxically renders the heroine beautiful precisely because she isn't beautiful. Her other qualities - her intelligence, perhaps, or her kindness, or her selflessness - shine through the exterior and beautify it. In other words, ugly heroines are never allowed to remain ugly. To remain at the center of a narrative, she has to be made beautiful in some fashion or another. Ugliness is still strictly associated with character; the heroine is both beautiful because she is a heroine and a heroine because she is beautiful. Expanding the definition of 'beautiful' does not shake the basic requirement that beauty is necessary for a woman to have a story worth telling.

The feminist iteration of this usually insists on a beautifying quality that is often considered the compensation for plainness or ugliness: cleverness. Jo March, Anne Shirley, Sybylla Melvyn - these feminist heroines are not described as beautiful, but find me the film adaptation with a Jo, an Anne, or a Sybylla who isn't beautiful. Their 'ugliness' might consist of visible freckles, mussy or frizzy hair, a plain dress, or an unflattering bonnet. Ugliness can be resolved with simple make-over because it isn't ugliness at all, just a lack of self-esteem. The trick that gets pulled off is that Jo, Anne, and Sybylla when viewed as role models let us have our cake and eat it too. They are clever, ambitious girls, girls who must fight to earn their livings, support their families, and win a chance at the life they want, all this, yes - but they're also beautiful. In our imaginations, we touch up their portraits; through the gorgeous faces and trim bodies of film stars, they shake off the last vestiges of plain looks. Thus the needle is threaded. As soon as the plain or ugly girl is visualized, she is transformed at once, from a witch to an enchantress. Inner beauty always gets translated into outer beauty.

One writer who came very close to refusing to beautify her ugly duckling was Mary Webb. In her novel, Precious Bane, the heroine Prue Sarn has a harelip, or a cleft palate as we would say today. Because of this, she is considered unmarriageable at best, a dangerous witch at worst. Prue mourns the possibilities that are closed off to her because of her disfigurement (and because of her poverty and class - these things weigh heavily as well), but she also accepts that those possibilities are not to be. Webb, however, does not let her heroine languish in misery, she does not leave her buried in a farm she can't inherit, while her brother can, she does not let every person without exception dismiss Prue as a hopeless case. She meets Kester Woodseaves, a weaver who also brings down the ire of his neighbors when he intervenes and prevents a bull baiting. These two characters are superior in both intelligence and feeling than their countrymen and they both recognize those qualities in the other. But Kester is beautiful and Prue is not. His inner qualities appear in his face; Prue's are hidden by hers.

The happy ending is delicious! Why shouldn't Prue, this extraordinary, fairy-like creation of Mary Webb's, not marry the man she loves, a man who sees those extraordinary qualities that are invisible to everyone else? She argues against it, insists that he choose a girl who matches him in physical beauty, even pleads with him to recognize her own ugliness and to instead "marry a girl like a lily." But Kester won't give up. He tells her, "I've chosen my bit of Paradise." He then kisses her "full upon the mouth." Mary Webb comes as close as any writer I've encountered has to letting her heroine be loved, really and deeply loved, preferred to a far lovelier girl, without insisting on some sort of quasi physicalized transformation. The ugly duckling is no swan at all, but an ugly duck who has nevertheless found a handsome drake. The especial magic of this ending lies in the fact that Kester's love doesn't transform her into a "bit of Paradise," but recognizes that she always was a "bit of Paradise." As long as we are too afraid to let a plain or ugly heroine remain so even on the occasion of the fulfilling of her dreams, we continue to enforce the beauty standards that many of us who consider ourselves feminists deplore. If every ugly duckling must grow up into a lovely swan, then beauty, whether inner or outer, remains a gendered requirement for recognition and happiness.

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Brief Sojourn in Gaston Bachelard's Wardrobe

One of the profound things that adults forget too easily is how magical hiding places are. In the chapter on "Drawers, Chests and Wardrobes" in The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard reminds us of how to access that magic through image. "Wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed without these 'objects' and a few others in equally high favor, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy." Hence the immense, extraordinary fascination with C.S. Lewis's magical wardrobe ("Does there exist a single dreamer of words who does not respond to the word wardrobe?..."), or the tiny house of Mary Norton's borrowers, snugly hidden under the floorboards, or Mad-Eye Moody's trunk, which with a slight turn of the key reveals entirely different insides each time one opens it. There are mysterious suitcases, like the bag in which Mary Poppins keeps a roomful of furniture or the one in which Merlin holds a library, or Hermione Granger's beaded bag, with everything, from books of magic to an expandable tent, needed to defeat an evil wizard. In L.M. Montgomery's work, a blue hope chest, full of the memories of a dead love, floats, tantilizingly, through more than one story and novel, and the four little women close up their happy girlhoods in four little trunks, lined up in a row in the attic. One couldn't play at Little Red Riding Hood without a basket, its contents (whether they exist or not) covered by a kerchief, and genies do not appear out of nowhere, but from a lamp.

The magic of enclosed spaces is easily forgotten, or worse, too determinedly psychologized. King Louis XVI is notorious for his naive fascination with locks and the sexual metaphor that, according to legend, finally convinced him to consummate his marriage with Marie Antoinette. But the real magic of such spaces, especially if they can be locked, lies in a combination of their potential - "what good things are being kept in reserve in the locked wardrobe?" - and their secretiveness - "every secret has its little casket."

Though Bachelard was no feminist, it is no great leap to connect these insights with Virginia Woolf's, in A Room of One's Own, that the woman writer needs a room of her own that she can lock behind her, a space that no one can enter unless she permits, where she can dream up her books. There is something, however, even more profound here, beyond the intense power of poetry or the pragmatic needs of the artist. In illuminating the dark little corner of the mind where this truth gets forgotten, Bachelard reminds us that at the heart of any creative endeavor there is a core of secrecy, secrecy that radiates possibility, but dies quickly if too totally revealed. A wardrobe with its door taken off loses its magic, a lamp scrubbed and laid out to dry in pieces on a rack holds no genie. Total revelation, complete revelation, demystifies, but we are sadly deceived if we believe, we rational citizens of the world, that demystification enriches our lives. The childish schoolyard rhyme was utterly wrong: Secrets, secrets, are only fun, if they aren't shared with anyone.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

What We're Missing: Lina Wertmüller's "È una domenica sera di novembre"

Once a director from outside the United States gains a certain degree of international fame, it would make sense to assume that his or her films would get some sort of American release, but, in fact, the filmographies of even such titans of world cinema as Akira Kurosawa, Vittorio De Sica, and Chantal Akerman remain full of holes for Americans, especially those who are monolingual. The completist film buff will face a choice: learn a new language and go hunting in the archives, or accept that certain films will remain mere titles. In the case of Italian filmmakers in particular, English speakers face an impoverishment of unusually rich filmographies. Marco Bellocchio, Liliana Cavani, Matteo Garrone, Nanni Moretti, and Lina Wertmüller, to name just a small group of especially brilliant filmmakers, all direct, write, and produce short films, documentaries, and TV programming, which never get released in the United States. 

Documentaries in particular get short shrift, and as a result, the political impegno of these directors is a less salient, a less essential fact of their work for American audiences. Lina Wertmüller - the first woman ever to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar, for Seven Beauties in 1977 - directed a brief, forty-five minute documentary, for RAI in 1981, È una domenica sera di novembre ("It is a Sunday evening in November"). This film is not available with subtitles, nor does it appear to have seen any release on physical media. It is a work of reportage, a stark, intimate portrait of the devastation wrought by the 1980 earthquake in Irpinia, which left more than two thousand dead, more than seven thousand wounded, and approximately 250,00 people displaced from their homes. Though a narrator gently and lyrically describes the horror of being buried alive, and Gheorghe Zamfir's pan flutes waft over images of crumbled towns, the political fire and fury is permitted to explode through the raw (in more than one sense) footage of emergency personnel and ordinary citizens attempting to excavate people from the rubble. The dust is so thick that one could be forgiven for thinking it was snow. Although as a film, È una domenica sera di novembre is no masterwork, its very lack of overt technical work creates the illusion that there is no mediation between the viewer and the victims of the earthquake. 

Why should American viewers, who in most cases can't understand Italian, know about this film? Why is it important? I believe that it is important because it opens a window on emotions that are quite oblique in Wertmüller's sarcastically comedic narrative films: sincere agony, questioning of faith, quiet indignation, pity, full-hearted sadness, active compassion. Irony and sarcasm, the carnivalesque, the grotesque, parody, play, cruelty and sadism, that is, the qualities that make her narrative films so extraordinary, are not present in this documentary. Instead of bitter resignation, demoralization, or jaded despair, È una domenica sera di novembre presents us with a picture of mourning, indignation, and pleading for help, help that might actually be possible, and thus also hope. It reveals another facet of Wertmüller's project: here she is uninterested in parties or ideologies. She is concerned with suffering; by focusing on real human beings instead of fictional characters, she accesses a well of compassion and insistence on political action without reference to ideologies. One wishes that these sorts of precious materials, the 'lesser' works (the shorter, or more serious, or less marketable ones), could be made available to wider audiences. Until then, this is one more film that we're missing. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Does Feminism Require Autonomy?

One of the central frustrations of being a feminist critic is that it is far too easy to get caught up in ultimately meaningless disputes about whether or not a particular writer (novel, poem, film, painting, etc.) qualifies as feminist, a question both irresolvable and constantly under debate, since art has no objective ideological content, inconvenient as that may be. Rarely do such disputes get at the crux of the issue, the theoretical problem at the heart of any classificatory system. In order to determine whether a given figure or work is feminist, we would have to define what feminism is. That's the particular, and massive rock, threatening in the shoals.

Though postcolonial criticism has problematized the conception of a universal feminism, there is still a strong tendency to assume that one's own feminism is the feminism. American feminism tends to be expressed in a rhetoric of empowerment, strength, and autonomy and thus, American feminist critics tend to seek out literature and art that reflects those particular values and enacts them through characters and the success of those characters. The blind spot for these critics (and I confess, I too have at times been willfully unaware of that blind spot) is Americentrism, the presumption that the American iteration of feminism is universal and universalizable. Classifying whether something is feminist or not isn't an especially enlightening exercise, but nevertheless that classification often determines the fate of a given work if it's written (composed, painted, etc.) by a woman. Women writers who can be assimilated easily into current American feminist paradigms stand a chance of being instated, or reinstated, into the canon, or at least the gender studies curriculum or woman-centric imprints of the publishing houses.

Witness the example of one of my favorite writers, Grazia Deledda. She was only the second woman to win the Nobel Prize and was publicly lionized by such writers as Giovanni Verga and D.H. Lawrence (who also translated one of her novels). She's one of the only women among her literary generation in Italy to achieve a lasting critical reputation, and, although she's not discussed as much as, say, D'Annunzio, she continues to have a presence in scholarly work and many of her novels remain in print. Such is the case in Italy.

In the United States, she is almost completely unknown. There are numerous reasons for this - few Italian writers have been enshrined in the canon established in the English-language world, only a tiny percentage of published works in English are translations - but Deledda could be recuperated, as other women writers have been, by feminist critics and scholars actively seeking out literature by women. In order for this to happen, more of her work needs to be translated. However, the claim that Deledda was a feminist writer (and thus worthy of institutional inscription in literature departments and publishing lists) is a tenuous one in the American context, simply because her books don't dramatize the specific, historically and culturally contingent values of current American feminism. Her heroines are not empowered in a contemporary sense; they are brave for daring to kiss a boy and accept a brother's beating afterwards, or for taking a train journey alone. They dress demurely and transgress the rules rarely and with trepidation, calculating their chances for success in secret. Her women do not enact autonomy by today's standards; they are not independent, not trendsetters, only rarely exceptional. Judged according to the standards of today's American feminism, this Italian writer who published her major works a century ago doesn't hold up.

The shame isn't that Deledda didn't anticipate the development of a future ideology in a foreign country; the shame is that this ideology is so narrow-minded that it can't conceive of a feminism that expresses different values. Deledda's female characters exist in a circumscribed world where any ambition, especially an artistic one, was looked upon as abnormal in a woman at best, sinful and outrageous more often than not. In today's America, despite structural and cultural limitations that are quite real, rhetorically women are expected to work, to have ambition - that is, they are expected to be autonomous. If autonomy is the yardstick by which we measure the worth of a woman's writing, then Deledda doesn't have much to offer. But, if that's the case, then feminist criticism is little more than a vigorously shaken sieve, sifting out the sand from what just might turn out to be fool's gold. Feminism has been theorized now for nearly three centuries as a philosophy of greater inclusion: what irony, then, that its current commentators are more concerned with excluding anything that might threaten its, and their, assumptions.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Against Fluent Translation

In the English-language context, it is typically assumed that a good translation is one that reads as though it had originally been written in English. The scholar and translator Lawrence Venuti calls this fluent translation, as opposed to foreignizing translation, which emphasizes the original's difference from English. As Venuti points out, there is a political dimension to which method a translator chooses, or a publisher accepts. If the translation is fluent, the text is domesticated, folded into English-language cultures and values; if it is foreignizing, it makes use of English-language cultures and values to make the text intelligible without assimilating it, at the very least signalling that the text is the product of a different cultural paradigm.

Despite the supremacy of the rhetoric of diversity in American liberal politics, the conservative impulse to render all translations fluent continues to dominate. Few translations (about three percent of American book-length publications in a given year) ever reach English-language readers and those that do are, almost without exception, fluent. Diverse literary voices are only acceptable if they are easily assimilated by American readers, easily interpreted along American political lines and social values. When translators are mentioned at all, they are either praised for clarity and accuracy (even when the reviewer can't read the original) or damned for awkwardness and obscurity. At the heart of this understanding of translation is a decidedly American assumption of human universality, a belief that emotion translates smoothly from one context to another without need for mediation, that an essential, cohesive self can be metaphysically expressed in a text, regardless of its original language, and that difference is identity-based and superimposed upon a foundational, generalized humanity. 

This means, in practice, that literary works that are thorny, difficult, recalcitrant, strange, that is, in some way, unassimilable, almost never get translated into English. Monolingual English speakers exist in a culturally coherent bubble, challenged only by alternatives that are nevertheless contextually intelligible. The current practice of translation permits American readers to presume their own normalcy and insists on a utopian, near-magic conception of communication across languages and cultures. Fluent translation is cultural isolationism clothed in anodyne diversity politics. Its a way to take credit for multiculturalism without confronting its challenges, self-satisfaction in the guise of humility.

This doesn't mean that every translation needs to be enormously challenging for English-language readers: it means that not every literary work can be rendered in smooth, lucid, concise English. It means that a genuine interest in openness to the other requires living with some frustration and discomfort, moments in which the reader realizes a given work wasn't written just for him. Foreignizing translation threatens the reader's narcissistic sense of normalcy and cultural superiority. It's impossible for any one person to learn all living languages, but foreignizing translation, translation that embraces alterity, with all its difficulty, with all its irreducible untranslatability, has the potential power to foment cultural exchange without the prerequisite of universalism, in itself culturally contingent. If diversity is to be genuinely valued in American literary culture, then fluent translation needs to be recognized as the assimilationist practice that it is, and foreignizing translation must be encouraged. If we can't tolerate a text that doesn't pander to our own values, how can we hope to be tolerant of human beings different from ourselves?

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The 10 Best Italian Films Since 2006

When I made a list in 2013 of the best Italian films of the twenty-first century, I was so hamstrung by lack of access that none of my choices had been produced later than 2005. Since then, between a proliferation of streaming services and some exciting DVD releases, I've been able to access a wealth of Italian films, from comedies and documentaries to fantasy films and dramas. Sadly, Il giovane favoloso, or Leopardi, the film that I anticipated so breathlessly in my previous post, was a disappointment, but in compensation, here are ten wonderful movies. All of the films on this list are available with English-language subtitles and have seen international release.

Behind the White Glasses (2015)
This documentary about Lina Wertmüller, the brilliant director of Seven Beauties, Swept Away, and Love and Anarchy, is a charmer: a film that recognizes her extraordinary capacity to have fun, no matter what, no matter how dark or hopeless circumstances might be. Wertmüller discusses not only her films, but her musical collaborations with Nino Rota, her work as a very young assistant director with Fellini as he made 8 1/2, and her opera productions. Especially precious are the interviews with a lively, twinkly-eyed Giancarlo Giannini, the muse of her greatest films of the '70s. Though formally Behind the White Glasses doesn't break new ground, it has a bright and bushy-eyed quality that fittingly reflects the irreverent, but never fluffy character of Wertmüller's films.

Golden Door (2006)
Emanuele Crialese's hallucinatory drama about a family of Sicilian immigrants' journey to the United States is bracingly well-lit and slips in and out of magical realism like a dolphin, leaving behind the grainy, gritty style of neorealism for the hyper-intensity of hope amid agony. The film's original title, Nuovomondo, literally means NewWorld, and immigration is, indeed, portrayed as a voyage from one world to another. The widowed Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato) hears the tales of man-sized vegetables and dragon-sized sheep, of roads paved with gold, that he's assured he will find in America, so he buys passage for himself and his sons. The scenes set on Ellis Island are heart-breaking, especially for those of us with personal ties to that haunted place.

Habemus Papam (2011)
Though not on a par with Caro diario or The Son's Room, Nanni Moretti's romp through the election of a new pope, released when the unpopular Pope Benedict was still the Supreme Pontiff, is one of his best recent efforts. Moretti assumes a lighter, less overtly politicized approach than in previous films; the institution of the papacy is less raked over the coals than lightly singed. Michel Piccoli plays Cardinal Melville, reluctant to accept the burden of the papacy, while Moretti himself plays the psychoanalyst secretly called in to cure the errant new pope of his desire to escape responsibility for global Catholicism. An especial treat is a scene of the cardinals playing an impromptu game of volleyball.

Loose Cannons (2010)
This sweet-tempered, sunny comedy directed by Ferzan Özpetek doesn't land every joke; it's warm and messy and occasionally veers into unintended farce. The performances, though, by Riccardo Scamarcio, Ennio Fantastichini, and Alessandro Preziosi elevate material that could easily slide into the typical hysterical, stereotype-dependent mainstream Italian comedy, while Özpetek's off-kilter weirdness (suicide by cake?) adds dimension to the quirkiness. Tommaso (Scamarcio) confides in his brother (Preziosi) that he's planning on coming out to their conservative, blustery father (Fantastichini), only for his brother to steal his opportunity, causing the father to have a heart attack. Meanwhile, Tommaso's boyfriend is driving up, expecting to meet the family. Fantastichini's mad-eyed paranoia that the entire city is mocking him recalls Saro Urzì as the dishonored father in Germi's Seduced and Abandoned, while the warm glow that pervades Tommaso's life when he ceases hiding his sexuality makes a better argument for inclusiveness than speechifying. 

My Brother Is an Only Child (2007)
Riccardo Scamarcio again stars in Daniele Lucchetti's tale of two brothers growing up in the turbulent '60s and '70s, but it's Elio Germano who steals the show as hot-headed troublemaker, Accio, who veers violently from a masochistic vocation for the priesthood to neo-fascist thuggery, only for his political extremism to be annihilated by its consequences on his radical brother (Scamarcio) and his alluring girlfriend (Diane Fleri). My Brother Is an Only Child is an ambitious film; it attempts to distill the complexity of extreme party and sexual politics through the relationship of two brothers. Remarkably, it succeeds.

Passione (2010)
John Turturro's homage to Neapolitan music strings together performances, both archival and new, from nearly every major performer to emerge from Naples in the past century, from Enrico Caruso to Sergio Bruni and Renato Carosone, all the way up to Pietra Montecorvino, Raiz, Peppe Barra, and Almamegretta. The rich miscuglio of traditions, from lyric opera to Arabic, Spanish, and African song, results in an exhilarating aural experience, matched by the pulsating rhythmic editing of Simona Paggi and the color-saturated, sinuous cinematography by Marco Pontecorvo.

The Sicilian Girl (2008)
Whatever moralism it might participate in, most mafia films assume the perspective of the mafiosi. It's rare for a woman to take center stage in such films, even rarer for her to be an ally of law and order, rarer still for her to be an agent and not just a victim. Based on the life of Rita Atria, a seventeen-year-old girl who became a star witness in the investigation of Cosa Nostra, the film fictionalizes her story, but director Marco Amenta, who previously directed a documentary about Atria, resists the worst sensationalist excesses. The Rita of the narrative film (Veronica D'Agostino, at times too shallowly expressionistic) begins keeping a diary after she witnesses the assassination of her father (Marcello Mazzarella). Obsessed with vengeance, especially after her brother (Carmelo Galati) is killed by the same assassin, Rita turns upon the whole mafia system.

Tale of Tales (2015)
Matteo Garrone's stunningly gorgeous and often gruesome fantasy film, adapted from three stories collected in Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti, stars an international cast that includes Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, and Alba Rohrwacher. In the first tale, a childless queen impregnates herself by eating the heart of a slain sea dragon, while in the second, a king offers his daughter's hand to any suitor who can identify an exotic skin, in fact the skin of a grotesquely huge pet flea, and in the third, two old crones are courted by a prince enchanted by their ethereal singing. Garrone and his fellow screenwriters make no attempt to domesticate these slyly cruel stories, reveling in their strangeness and their witchy anarchy.

Vincere (2009)
Director Marco Bellocchio elicited from Giovanna Mezzogiorno her best ever performance, as Ida Dalser, Mussolini's (Filippo Timi) first wife and the mother of his son. Working with newly discovered archival materials, including letters and diaries, Bellocchio and fellow screenwriter Daniela Ceselli reconstruct a devastating history; Dalser and her son were considered threats to Mussolini's regime and thus they were separated and eventually incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals where both would die under suspicious circumstances, forgotten by posterity and excised from official records. The textured cinematography, with its velvety reds, inky blacks, murky browns, and silver-sheened greys, is by Daniele Ciprì. A masterpiece.

The Wedding Director (2006)
Another marvel directed by Marco Bellocchio, The Wedding Director stars Sergio Castellitto as a filmmaker in crisis, confounded by his latest project, an adaptation of Manzoni's I promessi sposi, who finds a flimsy excuse to flee to Sicily. There, he becomes entangled by an invitation from a prince to direct the wedding video of his daughter. Obviously responding to films like 8 1/2, Contempt, and All That Jazz, in which directors (re)enact personal and creative imbroglios by making a metafilm, The Wedding Director isn't brassy, nihilistic, or trying to exude a cool aesthetic. It's introspective, exploring the ineffable spaces that open up when relationships, whether with people or artworks, real or imagined, fall apart.