Saturday, November 30, 2013

The 8 Best Italian Movies of the 21st Century (So Far)

I'm getting extremely excited about Il giovane favoloso (The Fabulous Youth - they're going to need a better title in English) currently shooting in Italy about the great Romantic poet, Giacomo Leopardi, directed by Mario Martone and starring Elio Germano. I'll just have to pray to the distribution gods that this film will make it stateside. But, while we're waiting for what promises to be a gorgeous period drama, there are many great Italian films out there that have made it across the Atlantic. Due to the woeful market for foreign releases here in the United States, the most recent films on this list are from 2005.

8. The Tiger and the Snow (La tigre e la neve), 2005
Roberto Benigni's modern-day fable is partly Sleeping Beauty and partly a reworking of the plot of his internationally acclaimed 1997 film, Life is Beautiful. Benigni plays Attilio, a ridiculous but endearing literature professor, hopelessly in love with Vittoria (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife in real life). When Vittoria is seriously injured in Iraq, where she has gone on a research trip, Attilio risks everything to save her. Benigni's trademark humor, half slapstick and half pathos, strikingly beautiful camera compositions, and a lovely song by Tom Waits make this film a pleasure, if at times a bittersweet one.

7. I'm Not Scared (Io non ho paura), 2003
Set in 1978, the year in which kidnappings in Italy peaked, I'm Not Scared, based on the internationally successful novel by Niccolo Ammaniti, tells the story of Michele, a young boy growing up in the impoverished South who stumbles upon a kidnapping victim, a boy from a wealthy Milanese family, who is being held for ransom. Director Gabriele Salvatores elicited wonderful performances from the child actors, mostly local non-professionals, and the vivid cinematography captures the beauty and menace of the dry and poverty-stricken countryside.

6. Crime Novel (Romanzo criminale), 2005
Based on the true story of the notorious Banda della Magliana, a criminal organization that was enormously powerful from the early 1970s until the early 1990s, this film is a showpiece for many of Italy's leading actors (including Kim Rossi Stuart, Pierfrancesco Favino, and Stefano Accorsi), a taut and rather bloody thriller that manages to be intensely bitter and quite humanizing at the same time. Three young Roman delinquents, as close as brothers, build their criminal kingdom from nothing, eventually becoming the real rulers, if not nominally, of Rome, but police commissioner Scialoja is determined to bring them down.

5. The Embalmer, (L'imbalsamatore), 2002
This first film by Matteo Garrone (Gomorra) starring Ernesto Mahieux, Valerio Foglia Manzillo, and Elisabetta Rocchetti, is a twisted love story set in the bizarre world of taxidermy (a more accurate translation of the title is The Taxidermist). Peppino (Mahieux in a Donatello Award-winning role) employs Valerio as his assistant, imparting to him all his knowledge of taxidermy and becoming increasingly infatuated with the gorgeous young man. Valerio, however, prefers the beautiful Deborah to the short and much older Peppino. Banda Osiris provides a haunting, jazz-infused score.

4. The Last Kiss (L'ultimo bacio), 2001
Gabriele Muccino directs Stefano Acorsi and Giovanna Mezzogiorno in a film that perfectly captures the zeitgeist of its time. The central story follows Carlo and Giulia, a middle-class couple in Rome, expecting a baby. They are outwardly happy, but Carlo is terrified of the irrevocable responsibilities the baby will bring and grasps at a fling with a younger woman, in a misguided attempt to feel young. Carlo's friends and Giulia's mother (played by 60s starlet, Stefania Sandrelli) also struggle with their relationships, as they transition to the next stage of life and long for the freedoms of youth. Skip the abysmally bad American remake with Zach Braff. 

3. Primo amore, 2004
Another twisted love story from Matteo Garrone, Primo Amore is about Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan, who also collaborated on the screenplay), a goldsmith obsessed with finding love  - but only with the thinnest of thin women. When he meets Sonia (Michela Cescon), he determines that's there's no point in waiting: he'll create the thinnest woman possible. At times this film plays like a horror movie, not least because of how brutally (and truthfully, it should be noted), the realities of living with anorexia are portrayed. The award-winning score by Banda Osiris is beautiful.

2. The Son's Room, (La stanza del figlio), 2001
The best of Nanni Moretti's films is this devastating, heartbreaking, and utterly moving portrait of a grieving family. Giovanni (Moretti) and Paola (Laura Morante) live a comfortable middle-class life, with two well-adjusted kids. When their son Andrea (Giuseppe Sanfelice) dies suddenly in a scuba diving accident, they are forced to confront themselves and their relationships with each other. If this sounds brutal, be assured that it is, but it's also one of the most moving films about grief ever made, precisely because it's totally lacking in melodrama. 

1. Good Morning, Night (Buon giorno, notte), 2003
One of my favorite films of all time, this drama directed by Marco Bellocchio is a re-imagining of the 1978 kidnapping of Italian prime minister and leader of the Democrazia cristiana Aldo Moro, from the perspective of his kidnappers, the Brigate Rosse. Maya Sansa stars as a member of the Brigate Rosse, torn by her sympathy for Moro, played by Roberto Herlitzka. Both a fascinating portrayal of the contradictions of radical politics and a heartbreaking depiction of the moral costs of following one's beliefs, this haunting film is one of the most perfect films of the 21st century and is likely to remain among them as the years go by.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

6 Great Movies Set in the Jazz Age

Continued obsession with The Great Gatsby and fairly regular attempts to make it into a decent film (notably, with little success) have led to a pop-culture love for the Roaring Twenties and all it's come to represent - illegal booze, jazz music, flappers, the rise of free love, and pre-code cinema. Here are six great films set in the 1920s to keep your appetite whetted for that elusive and seemingly unattainable great adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

Auntie Mame (1958)
Based on the bestselling novel by Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame stars Rosalind Russell, in a deliciously funny role tailor-made for her, as the madcap aunt. The film opens in her luxurious Manhattan apartment on Beekman Place in the Roaring Twenties, where newly orphaned nephew Patrick meets his aunt for the first time, and where Mame first informs him that "Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" A lush and memorable score by Bronislau Kaper is the icing on the cake. 

Bad Girl (1931)
Frank Borzage, though not terribly famous today, was one of the great directors of the twenties and thirties and his films were major players in the first Oscars ceremonies. His Bad Girl, despite its title, is about a perfectly decent couple (Sally Eilers and James Dunn), ordinary people doing their best to deal with marriage, careers, and an unexpected pregnancy. The film is surprisingly moving and one of the few Hollywood films of its time that gives a realistic portrayal of working class people. Some of Borzage's other great films include Seventh Heaven, a heartrending World War I drama set in Paris, and The Mortal Storm, one of the earliest Hollywood films to address the atrocities committed by Nazis against Jews.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Louise Brooks, in her most iconic performance, stars as Lulu in Georg W. Pabst's silent masterpiece. Lulu is a force to be reckoned with, so sexually alluring to both men and women that they are ready to commit any act, no matter how reckless, for the chance to possess her. Whether you interpret the film as a misogynistic expose of the dangerous excesses of female sexuality or as a feminist parable about the impossibility of containing female sexuality within patriarchal constraints, Pandora's Box is one of the essential films of silent cinema. The Criterion release includes four scores, two orchestral, one improvised on piano, and one cabaret-style. 

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Certainly a top contender for the best musical of all time, this fabulously entertaining film stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, and the glorious and hilarious Jean Hagen. Kelly and Hagen are popular silent film stars, who suddenly have to adjust to making talkies, the only problem being that Hagen's tones are less than dulcet. The songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed are great fun and the performances of them are iconic and remain fresh, despite frequent imitation. 

Some Like it Hot (1959)
Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis are down-on-their-luck musicians who witness the St. Valentine's Day massacre and, in a desperate bid to save their skins, dress up as women and join an all-female band, whose singing star is Marilyn Monroe, wearing an ever-diminishing series of sexy gowns. Things get complicated when Spats Columbo (George Raft) shows up for a convention of gangsters, calling themselves the Friends of Italian Opera, at the same hotel where the band is playing. Billy Wilder's film is often and justifiably cited as the greatest comedy of all time. 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)
William Inge's Oscar-winning screenplay tells the story of Deanie (Natalie Wood) and Bud (Warren Beatty), a teenage couple, whose desperation to sleep with each other attains ever more melodramatic proportions as their parents and teachers attempt to pressure, wheedle, and terrify them into abstinence, even as Bud's sister, Ginny (Barbara Loden), becomes the epitome of the flapper. Splendor in the Grass is one of the most painfully raw depictions of adolescent love and desire ever put on film, aided by splendid performances all round and brilliant direction by Elia Kazan.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Six 19th Century Novels Every Feminist Should Read

Long before our grandmothers were born, women, and a few wonderful men (John Stuart Mill first and foremost), were striving for a more equitable society for women. Writers in the 19th century tackled social reform in their novels as a catalyst for change, from Dickens protesting the abysmal conditions of the workhouse in Oliver Twist  to Wilkie Collins voicing support for fairer inheritance laws in No Name. The women on this list were, in the main, self-avowed feminists, but even those that were not, saw writing as a means of combating social injustices. As usual I have tried, in the cases of authors like Alcott, Eliot, and Bronte, to choose less familiar works.

 A Long Fatal Love Chase - Louisa May Alcott
Written in 1866, but not published until 1995, this brilliant gothic novel by the author of Little Women stands in vivid contrast to Alcott's works for young girls. The longest and most fully developed of her sensational stories, this novel was originally rejected both for its length and its controversial content. Rosamund is a lonely and isolated young woman, trapped on an island with her cantankerous guardian, until she is swept off her feet by the Mephistophelian Phillip Tempest. After a hasty marriage, Rosamund discovers that her husband has another wife and rather than crawl into the corner and die (as most heroines of her time would have done), she makes her escape, commencing the chase of the title. A strikingly frank depiction of sex and sexuality, set in a world where women were owned, virtual slaves, by their husbands.

Shirley - Charlotte Bronte
Bronte's second published novel is set in Yorkshire during the Napoleonic Wars, a time of civil unrest and economic hardship. Shirley is an unusual heroine and a joy for feminists - an unmarried and completely independent woman landowner, whose lively interest and involvement in her own business concerns leads her to philanthropic efforts for the working classes. Her friend, Caroline, is a more traditional female character, though she also struggles against the constraints and hypocrisies of her society. While the overt theme is the political and social agitation caused by industrialization, the book offers an extremely critical implicit examination of women's roles in a rigid patriarchal society. 
Romola - George Eliot
Romola is a brilliant and highly cultured young woman living in Florence in 1492 - Columbus has just sailed to the New World and Savonarola is about to embark on his frenzy of religious reform and rebellion against the Medici family, which will culminate in the Bonfire of the Vanities and a series of bloody riots. Amid the religious and political turmoil, Romola undergoes a startling transformation from a naive girl easily led into a bad marriage to a strong woman whose deeply felt compassion gives her life purpose. The theme of duty is central to Eliot's story, particularly when the duty of obedience transforms into an equally strong duty of resistance.

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert was charged and eventually acquitted of obscenity when Madame Bovary was first published, a trial that rendered the work notorious and extremely popular. It's no wonder that the overzealous found the book obscene - this early realist work is about Emma Bovary, a bourgeois wife whose boring and tedious marriage drives her to seek romantic thrills in adulterous affairs. Emma is first and foremost a romantic, unable to accept that the humdrum reality of respectability even qualifies as real experience. While Flaubert can hardly be considered a feminist, his critique of bourgeois marriage and his scrupulous refusal to condemn Emma's adultery make the novel a milestone for feminists.

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
In Gaskell's social novel, Margaret Hale is forced by circumstance to move from an idyllic country home to the bustling industrial town of Milton (based on Manchester) where her observations of the cruelties and deprivations suffered by the working classes leads her to fierce disputes with John Thornton, owner of one of the town's cotton mills, and involvement in the campaign for political reforms for workers. Margaret becomes an advocate and friend to the mill workers and a force for peaceful change, eventually embarking on business propositions of her own, informed by the labor struggles she has witnessed and supported. North and South was severely criticized when it was first published, with male critics averring that Gaskell, as a woman, could have no genuine understanding of the complexities of industrialism and the labor market. Feminist and Marxist critics have since embraced the novel for its prescient political stance.

Valvedre - George Sand
Any of George Sand's novels could be included on this list, but Valvedre has the unfortunate distinction of being less well-known. The novel is a scathing critique of traditional ideas of femininity and the catastrophic effects such ideas had on love relationships during a time when divorce was all but unobtainable. Henri is a young botanist, eager to fall in love, working in the alps with a distinguished naturalist, Valvedre. When Alida Valvedre arrives, already discontented in her marriage, she and Henri tumble into a precipitous affair, defined by their closely held and delusive romantic ideals. All three protagonists are deeply sympathetic; their choices are tragic because of the social restrictions under which they live. As usual, Sand's female characters are complex social and moral beings. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

L. M. Montgomery: The Forgotten Feminist

When one searches for great proto-feminist and feminist writers of the past, certain illustrious names appear again and again: George Sand, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kate Chopin. But when we look back at writers like Louisa May Alcott, L. M. Montgomery, Gene Stratton Porter, and Jean Webster, they are usually dismissed as writers of juvenilia and it can be hard to see how revolutionary their feminist politics were and how fiercely they were expressed in their novels and stories. In many ways, these authors, who wrote primarily for audiences of young women, did as much if not more for feminist progress than the more aggressive and overtly political feminist writers, writing for an adult public.

Take Montgomery for example. Her heroines have professional ambitions, they crave independence and they work to get it, their romantic interests are secondary to goals central to their identities, and they strive to be self-determining social entities. Montgomery doesn't preach or discuss politics. Her characters express their politics through their decisions and choices. This is more radical than it first appears. Most young women protagonists in books of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had no professional ambitions. Work was born of necessity, not ambition, and women were not expected to have a vocation, a calling. Montgomery was one of the writers who blew that idea to pieces. While some of her heroines have success and others do not, their professional ambitions were unusual in and of themselves. Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables and its sequels) and Emily Byrd Starr (from Emily of New Moon  and its sequels) both become published authors and cherish this accomplishment far above all others and both delay romantic attachments so that they can have a chance at a career.

Today, the have-it-all generation takes issue with that kind of decision, but Montgomery understood all too well what it meant to mix marriage and a career and she also understood that young women needed heroines who were brave enough to follow a career, even at the risk of remaining an "old maid." These young women have their romantic entanglements, but they are never willing to give up their own identities in the process. Anne Shirley never thinks of herself as Gilbert Blythe's girlfriend - she thinks of herself as a writer and a teacher. Emily Byrd Starr, like Jo March in Little Women, is beloved by a man jealous of her writing and unable to countenance a relationship in which he is not supreme - both young women ultimately reject these suitors. They cannot give up their occupation for the sake of a man.

Not that romance is inherently anti-feminist. What is so remarkable about these heroines is the way they exercise choice when it comes to romance. They experience great loves, but they don't lose sight of themselves in the midst of it. Most of these loves develop out of friendships; that is, the relationships are reciprocal from the start. Anne and Gilbert, Emily and Teddy, Valancy and Barney - all these couples come together with mutual interests, shared confidences, and the recognition of individual goals and desires. In The Blue Castle, it is Valancy who proposes to Barney and not the other way around - an extremely radical step in the right direction, flouting tradition and giving Valancy as much agency as Barney. The romantic and marital choices of these heroines are made freely and purposely and this is precisely because they are not afraid of saying no and staying single. They have other, more important irons in the fire.

Montgomery and other writers similarly ignored  should be recognized for their contributions to the feminist struggle. Their work remains relevant today, even more so in the economic conditions under which we've been living since 2008. It remains extremely difficult for women to balance careers with families and there is an alarming paucity of heroines in literature and film who are more focused on their professional and personal ambitions than their romantic lives, but L. M. Montgomery and so many of her compatriots provided us, a hundred years ago or more, with feminist heroines that have been the companions of young women and lodestars guiding the way to a more equitable future.

Monday, November 4, 2013

10 Movies Classical Musicians Will Love

I have a lot of pet peeves about the way music, or really any of the arts, is portrayed in films. I hate the silliness of the ecstatic composer (poet, painter, etc.) writing down his inspired work in a euphoric frenzy. No years of hard labor for them! Or the actors "playing" instruments so inexpertly that kindergarteners could give them a run for their money. There are many other similar annoyances that ruin otherwise decent films for people who know music. I've already shared some great novels about music; here are 10 great films about classical music and musicians that musicians themselves can enjoy.

Amadeus (1984)
Amadeus is a great film, historical inaccuracies notwithstanding, replete with some of the best performances and recordings of classical music ever put in a movie. Legend has long held that Antonio Salieri was mortally jealous of Mozart's prodigious talent and that it was Salieri who anonymously commissioned the glorious and tragically unfinished Requiem - historical evidence contradicts this, but it's nevertheless a great story. Tom Hulce's polarizing performance as Mozart is a work of genius or a travesty depending on one's point of view, while F. Murray Abraham as Salieri plays him as a man capable of villainy and yet deeply empathetic and appreciative of true artistry. The costumes by Theodor Pistek are sumptuous and beautifully reflect character and social class, from Mozart's fluffy pink wig to Salieri's unadorned and darkly colored frock coats.

Death in Venice (1971) 
This adaptation of the Thomas Mann novella directed by Luchino Visconti stars Dirk Bogarde as Gustave von Aschenbach, a composer (in the original novella he is a writer) who becomes obsessed with a stunningly beautiful Polish boy while staying in Venice for his health. Aschenbach watches the child from afar, unable to fully understand his feelings, but unable to tear himself away, even as disease descends on the city. In Visconti's film, Aschenbach is Mahler's alter-ego, with his third and fifth symphonies playing the part of the fictional character's music. A meditation on human mortality and the dubious immortality of art, beauty, whether corporeal or artistic, and the tenuity of temporal bonds.

Fantasia (1940) 
Disney's masterpiece was not a success when it was first released - it was too avant-garde and too culturally sophisticated for popular audiences, hard as that is to believe now that it's considered a kids' classic. The idea of pairing classical music with animation, particularly abstract animation, was daring and new. From the stunning abstract sequence set to Bach's Toccata and Fugue to the comic ballet of animals set to Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours, from Mickey's enchanting fantasy set to Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice to the powerful and frightening Chernobog surrounded by ghouls set to Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, every section in this film is dazzlingly ambitious. Leopold Stokowski conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in one of the greatest masterpieces of avant-garde filmmaking.

Kolya (1996)
Directed by Jan Sverak and written by and starring Zdenak Sverak, Kolya, set just before the Velvet Revolution, is about Frantisek, a confirmed bachelor and cellist, who has lost his position with the Czech Philharmonic because he is deemed politically subversive. A sham marriage with a Russian woman ends up landing him with the care of her 5-year-old son, Kolya, who speaks no Czech. Frantisek slowly and sometimes ineffectively faces the challenges of being a father, worrying over the boy when he's sick, giving him violin lessons, and eventually fighting for the right to be the boy's permanent guardian. Kolya is an eloquent and heartbreaking film.

The Pianist (2002) 
Roman Polanski's film stars Adrien Brody, in a truly amazing performance, as Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist and Holocaust survivor whose memoirs are the basis for the film, though many of Polanski's own memories as a Holocaust survivor were also included. The film's accurate depiction of the Warsaw ghetto and the atrocities committed there makes for brutal viewing, but the film ultimately finds small sources of hope amid overwhelming despair. Szpilman's identity as a musician permits him to hold on to his sanity, even as his family, home, and career are taken away from him and destroyed. Though not for the faint of heart, The Pianist is an exceptional film.

The Piano (1993)
Jane Campion's critically acclaimed film stars Holly Hunter as a mute woman sent to New Zealand to live with a husband she has married by proxy without having met him. She brings with her her illegitimate daughter (a superb performance by 9-year-old Anna Paquin) and her piano, the instrument that has acted as her sole means of expression since she ceased speaking. Campion's original screenplay tells an absolutely original story about female agency and expression within repressive social constructs, frustrated sexual desire, and the miniscule events that can suddenly escalate into violence. Harvey Keitel and Sam Neill contribute excellent performances.

Three Colors: Blue (1993)
The first of renowned Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colors Trilogy, this film is a reflection on emotional liberty and the bonds that connect human beings to each other. Juliette Binoche stars as a woman, devastated by the violent loss of her child and her husband, a prominent composer, in a car crash, who tries to cut herself off from all human interaction as a way of coping with her grief. Questions soon arise as to the actual composer of the works credited to her husband and she becomes entangled in the decision to complete a final work, a piece on the Unity of Europe. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak and the score by Zbigniew Preisner, as well as Binoche's harrowing performance, enrich this complex and ultimately sublime film.

Tosca's Kiss (1985)
Daniel Schmid's documentary film brings us into the lives of the retired opera singers that live in the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a nursing home founded by Verdi in 1896 and a refuge for musicians that have devoted their lives to their art. The retirees reminisce about their professional lives, singing their favorite arias and scenes, trying on their old costumes, pulling out old photographs and phonograph records. A moving portrait of both the sacrifices and the rewards of an operatic career, Tosca's Kiss is an essential film for classical musicians.

Vision (2009)
Margarethe von Trotta's biopic of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century Benedictine nun and one of the most prominent mystics of her day, is a meditative rendition of the extraordinary life of a woman who, in her fight for religious reform and greater spiritual rights for nuns, could be considered one of the earliest feminists. Hildegard was also a scholar, philosopher, natural scientist, poet, and composer and the film uses her gorgeous music to excellent effect. Barbara Sukowa's performance is powerfully understated and the recreation of medieval convent life is evocatively rendered. 

The World of Henry Orient (1964)
Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth give wonderful first-time performances as two teenage girls obsessed with a has-been womanizing concert pianist, played in a delightfully sleazy performance by Peter Sellers. Screenwriter and novelist Nora Johnson based her story on her own childhood obsession with Oscar Levant, who musical fans will know from An American in Paris and The Band Wagon. A particular highlight is the concert scene, in which Peter Sellers plays a parody of modern music - one of the most musically literate comedic scenes ever in a Hollywood film.