Saturday, June 16, 2018

5 Essential Italian and Italian-American Documentaries

For the 250th (!!!) Unbearable Bookishness of Blogging post, I recommend five fantastic Italian and Italian-American documentaries, uniting two of my great passions in my life, my ethnic heritage and a film genre that rarely gets the support it deserves.

Frank Serpico (2017)
Italian-Americans are dogged by the stereotype of the mafioso, but few in our community offer as resounding a refutation of that stereotype as Frank Serpico, the cop who exposed corruption in the NYPD and became a cultural icon even before the hit 1973 film about his life starring Al Pacino. Directed by Antonino D'Ambrosio, this film does a superb job of narrating Serpico's undercover work, his fight against corruption, and the shooting that nearly killed him, but it's the story of the aftermath that makes this film so compelling. Was the shooting an accident or was it a frame-up? Was the delay in getting help to a wounded cop the result of a mistake or a closing-up of the ranks? Without sugarcoating Serpico's rather prickly personality, the masterful editing by Karim Lopez makes a cogent case for his ongoing sense of paranoia and persecution, delicately peeling away the calcified layers of conspiracy theories, lies, and self-serving glorifications that have obscured the truth.

Italianamerican (1974)
Martin Scorsese is a towering figure in the international cinema world, but in this film he's a young guy with a camera spending a Sunday at home with his parents. Produced after the breakout success of his Mean Streets, this documentary could almost be an average Italian-American son's home movies, if it weren't so beautifully constructed. Catherine and Charles Scorsese, already accustomed to playing small roles in their son's fictional films, talk about their experiences as Italian immigrants, the wine-making and religious processions and meatball recipes they brought to America, and the hardships, prejudice, and strange name changes that America gave them in return. This film has become increasingly precious as the Italian diaspora in America has assimilated or transformed into the 'brain drain' of today. It's a testament to the vibrant, rich - and delicious! - nature of Italian-American culture. Catherine Scorsese's meatball recipe is included in the credits!

Love Meetings - Comizi d'amore (1964)
Although Pier Paolo Pasolini is far better known for his Marxist-Catholic film, The Gospel According to Matthew, or his brutal post-neorealist film, Mamma Roma, my very favorite of all of his films is this documentary. In it, Pasolini travels around Italy and asks the people on the street what they think about sex, love, homosexuality, divorce, reproduction, and prostitution. Occasionally he checks in with novelist Alberto Moravia, psychologist Cesare Musatti and (ex-fascist) poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, representing the intellectuals of the time; though at first these interviews seem bizarrely condescending, Pasolini subtly undermines notions of cultural and social authority by contrasting these two sober, articulate men with the anarchic, irreverent variety of the ordinary people on camera. Pasolini is not interested in neutrality, but he resists the polemicism that must have been so tempting when dealing with interviewees who believe that the stork brings babies, that divorce is evil and will cause the destruction of the state, or that brothels are necessary for men to remain healthy enough to work. Neither cruel nor patronizing, the film combines a bracing political realism and a lyrical quality rare in contemporary documentary filmmaking. 

Tosca's Kiss - Il bacio di Tosca (1985)
One would be forgiven for assuming that Daniel Schmid's lovely homage to opera was nothing more than a heartwarming little tour for grannies and aging music critics, but instead this visit to the nursing home Giuseppe Verdi founded in 1896 for retired opera singers is a treat that is both a love letter to the art form, but also a dry-eyed examination of what it means to devote one's life to music when it means sacrificing everything else. The star of the film is undoubtedly Sara Scuderi, a diva who sang Tosca with Beniamino Gigli at La Scala, but the denizens of the nursing home are a colorful bunch, throwing open old costume trunks to model their favorite roles and playing out scenes from Rigoletto in the hallway. Ultimately quite bittersweet, Tosca's Kiss is essential for opera fans, but has much to say to someone quite ignorant of its appeal: Scuderi and her compatriots are facing death with dignity and joy mixed with sadness through the medium that devoured their lives. There is stunningly little sentimentality in their outlook on what's left of their lives and the film declines to make up the deficit.

Women of the Resistance - La donna nella Resistenza (1965)
Available as a special feature with the Criterion release of The Night Porter, this film was one of the documentaries that the young Liliana Cavani directed at RAI for television broadcast. It is a precious document, for it collects the testimony of Italian women who participated in the resistance movement against the Italian fascist and Nazi occupational forces. Their contributions were rarely publicly acknowledged, although, as we discover through this film, they were not only helpmates, but protagonists in the struggle, fighting alongside the celebrated heroes, being tortured alongside them, sent to concentration camps with them, and in some cases, dying with them. Cavani's direction is scrupulously hands-off. The camera lets the women entrust their testimonies to the camera, with little ornamentation or emotional manipulation. Simple narration explains some of the shocking footage of atrocities, but otherwise acts merely as an echoing, less important voice in the chorus. Though not at all easy to watch, this obscure little film refuses to reify heroism: these women pay for every act of compassion, courage, and struggle, and pay dearly, for the rest of their lives. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Film Review: "Gone to Earth"

American audiences have rarely been able to see the original cut of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Gone to Earth because American producer David O. Selznick, believing it to be a poor star vehicle for his wife Jennifer Jones (and perhaps also itching to be the main creative force on the picture), recut and even reshot significant portions of the film for the stateside release, retitled The Wild Heart, and by most accounts, an incoherent, condescending mess, marred by explanatory title cards and an obvious toy fox instead of the charismatic animal used during the shooting. Despite the continued affection and admiration for the Powell-Pressburger productions, many of them masterpieces, Gone to Earth is still awaiting a proper release in the US, though one can find it coming and going on streaming sites and all-region DVDs. This is a great pity, as it deserves to be considered among their 'lesser' works, with the caveat that a lesser Powell-Pressburger is a gem and a treasure by the standards of ordinary directors. 

Based on a powerfully expressive, exquisitely modulated novel by Mary Webb, the film follows the wide-eyed, artless Hazel Woodus, for whom the dearest creature in all the world is Foxy, the fox she saved as a cub. Hazel has the fortune, or rather the misfortune, to be not only beautiful, but, raised motherless and with no playmates but foxes, cats, and rabbits, astoundingly innocent. Her two pursuers are Edward Marston, a chaste minister who believes that the purity of his love can protect Hazel from harm and himself from acknowledgment of his own desire, and Jack Reddin, the local squire, a sensual, earthy man whose pleasures up until he meets Hazel are brutally physical, whether bedding women or hunting foxes. Hazel is torn between them, torn between the spiritual calm and domestic neatness of a life with Edward, a life in which she can trust that Foxy remains unharmed, and the, for her, incomprehensible carnal attraction of Reddin, with his broken down, but grand estate and trunks full of magnificent dresses, left by his dead ancestors. But Reddin 'has blood on him,' since his main pursuit in life is fox-hunting. Hazel's innocence, Marston's earnest religiosity, Reddin's selfish, possessive desire, and Foxy's vulnerability swirl together into tragedy. The final scene of this film is utterly extraordinary: even watching on a tiny screen, with a significant interruption in the middle, those last five minutes flattened me and left me sobbing. 

In the film, Hazel is played by Jennifer Jones - but one of the first things an audience has to forgive if they're going to give themselves over to the magic of this film is to accept that Jones's complete inability to sound at all English, let alone speak in the Shropshire dialect, can be passed over as a venial flaw. Jones, though, is a bewitching presence on screen. Her accent may be atrocious, but her smiles, and the way she capers across fields, or cradles Foxy, are more important to her performance. The rather thankless role of Marston is given to Cyril Cusack, exceptionally good given how little of the meat of his character in the book can be transferred to the screen. Marston's struggles are moral, interior, and deeply repressed; Cusack succeeds in exposing the na├»ve futility of his self-sacrifice without making him look ridiculous. The true star of the production is Powell-Pressburger favorite David Farrar, as Reddin, whose violet eyes shoot lightning bolts of passion, fury, and incredibly sexiness, without softening the cruelty of Reddin's nature. In interviews, Michael Powell said many times that Farrar could have hit the zenith of stardom, if he had wanted to, but Farrar seems to have been utterly deaf to the call of fame. He is, indeed, a magnetic, seductive force in Gone to Earth.

The screenplay was a collaboration between the two directors and is generally quite faithful to the book, like all adaptations cutting a great deal, though usually with a calculated good taste. Only one scene is added, Hazel's baptism, which neatly conflates a number of smaller, though highly significant instances into one, more visually dramatic episode. The cinematography by Christopher Challis is stunningly gorgeous, though I will quibble that it is not as brilliant in its use of color to create mood as Jack Cardiff's work in Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes. The music by Brian Easdale, one of the most important of Powell and Pressburger's regular collaborators, opens up the ferally romantic world of Webb's Shropshire and dramatizes the conflict between sexual desire and fear, God as love and God as terror. With a less evocative score, it's difficult to believe that Gone to Earth would be at all convincing. It is as good an adaptation as possible, but it does not quite measure up to the novel, lacking its piercing, pitiless philosophy, written in such heavily scented, adorned language and yet so fearfully modern in its treatment of God, sex, violence, and innocence. Webb's book is a tragedy of near Biblical proportions; the film does not quite achieve the same grandeur. Even so, it ought to be considered, along with A Canterbury Tale and The Small Back Room, an essential Powell-Pressburger work, another jewel in the crown.