22 posts categorized "Historical Epic"

December 10, 2013

THE LEOPARD — CLASSIC FILM PICK

The Leopard

An inadvertent precursor to Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1976 masterpiece “1900,” Luchino Visconti's magnificent adaptation of Giuseppe di Lampedusa's only novel is a historically rich tale of a generational shift during the Italian Revolution in Sicily circa 1860. This is Italy’s version of “Gone With the Wind.”

The contained-yet-epic chronicle is told through the eyes of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Bert Lancaster), an aging Sicilian aristocrat who watches the imminent collapse of his carefully maintained nobility at the barrels of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s republican revolution, which has made its way onto Sicily’s shores.

The film opens with an announcement that a soldier of the defending Bourbon government has been killed in the garden of the Prince’s vast mansion estate during family prayers. Salina’s luxurious way of life is disintegrating before him. The Prince knows that reforms will soon claim his family’s land and property. Violent winds of change will erase generations of tradition and culture.

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Burt Lancaster’s incarnation as a Padroné — in both “The Leopard” and in “1900” — puts an inextricable link between Visconti’s and Bertolucci’s treatments of similar subject matter pertaining to the rise of fascism in Italy. Where “1900” comprised a half-century embodiment of 20th century Italian experience, “The Leopard” offers a look at the circumstances leading up to it.

A last-ditch plan for his bloodline’s continuity lies in a strategic marriage between Salina’s career-soldier nephew Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) and the lovely Angelica Sedara (Claudia Cardinale). Angelica is the daughter of Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), the bumbling mayor of the small town of Donnafugata, where the Prince and his family habitually spend their summers.

Delon’s classically handsome character is an opportunistic soldier adaptable to changing allegiances that will insure his place on whichever side is winning. He is Prince Salina’s heir apparent. With three daughters and an irresponsible son, Salina trusts Tancredi in spite of the younger man’s cavalier attitude toward politics. There is little doubt that when fascism becomes the popular coin in the years that follow, that Tancredi will side with Mussolini’s brutal regime without regret.

Leopard Ball

Luchino Visconti, himself a Marxist child of an aristocratic family, includes a wealth of social and physical details that cue the audience as to a myriad of nuanced information about the social struggles seething beneath the surface. The film’s 45-minute extended climax occurs with a grand ball in Palermo that encompasses the passing of an era. There will never again be such a party. It remains one of the most haunting and edifying sequences in the history of cinema.

A tellingly intimate conversation between Salina and Angelica, in the condoned presence of Tancredi, speaks volumes about the aging Prince’s urgent desire to regain his youth. It also exposes the resignation with which he abdicates his authority. The erotic tension is bittersweet.

Bert Lancaster gives the performance of his career in spite of the fact that an Italian actor dubs his voice. Lancaster’s every gesture and facial expression transmits the text and subtext of his Italian character with an immense sense of regional authenticity that is beguiling to watch. He idyllically matches the nobility of the upper class Sicilian non-actors that Visconti uses to populate the ball.

“Jackals and sheep” would soon replace the “leopards and lions” of Prince Salina’s era. “The Leopard” is cinematic proof that majesty and dignity once prevailed.

Gattopardo-cardinale-lancaster-delon

Rated PG. 187 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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December 14, 2012

CALIGULA - CLASSIC FILM PICK

CaligulaIf ever there was a cinematic guide to Roman debauchery — real or imagined — “Caligula” is it. That this bizarre and unforgettable film was directed by Italian softcore master Tinto Brass (“Salon Kitty”) and includes performances by some of Britain’s finest actors (Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, and Helen Mirren) adds to the salacious aspects of this infamous movie. Penthouse magazine publisher Bob Guccione produced the film with an eye toward generating a new genre for mainstream pornography, though his vision proved to be doomed.

The rise and fall of Emperor Gaius Caesar Germanicus (a.k.a. Caligula – played by Malcolm McDowell) is presented in an epic theatrical manner befitting a modern-day —pornographic — stage performance. Tinto Brass’s enthusiasm for sparsely appointed grand-scale sets lends an airy atmosphere to the sexually charged political environment of the story.

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A quote from the Bible introduces the theme. “What shall it profit a man, if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul.”

McDowell's brief voiceover narration plants his snide retort to the small-minded biblical premise: “I have existed from the morning of the world, and I shall exist until the last star falls from the heavens. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man and so I am a god.”

Still referred to by his childhood nickname “Little Boots,” McDowell’s Caligula is a spun-off version of the hedonistic sociopathic character he incarnated as his stock-and-trade for such films as “A Clockwork Orange,” and “If…” With easy entre to his cunning historical character, McDowell’s smirking love god defiles all he touches. Not least of which is his sister Drusilla (Teresa Ann Savoy), with whom he maintains an incestuous bond.

Caligula2

Called upon to visit his syphilis-suffering imperial grandfather Tiberius (Peter O’Toole) on the island of Capri, Caligula observes the orgiastic lifestyle to which he will soon aspire. Tiberius tutors Caligula in the art of meting out fatal warrantless punishments. A soldier is made to drink copious amounts of wine before being gutted so his intestines spill out.

The emperor instructs Caligula while a bevy of satyrs and nymphs carry on various sexual acts around them. Tiberius’s “speaking” statues fornicate and masturbate continuously. The filmmakers present a formal interpretation of Grand Guignol sexuality across a three-tiered stage. Giant gold phalluses adorn the area where sexual performers frolic. Some are deformed. Witness the man with four legs, another with two faces and three eyes.

Tiberius explains the distorted logic with which he rules. “Every senator believes himself believes to be a potential Caesar, therefore every senator is guilty of treason — in thought if not in deed.”

Caligula

The quick-study Caligula soon turns Tiberius’s lessons on his master, enabling the murder of the emperor and usurping his role as leader of Rome.

However distracting the film’s titillating use of nudity, and outrageous set pieces of sexual conflagrations, “Caligula” remains true to the historical nature of its text. It also remains a towering example of erotic cinema.  

Caligula 08

Not Rated. 156 mins. (A-) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)


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August 11, 2012

GONE WITH THE WIND — CLASSIC FILM PICK

Gone With the WindStill one of the most admired Hollywood films ever made, “Gone With the Wind” is a stunningly beautiful adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s epic Civil War novel. Taking inflation into account, “Gone With the Wind” holds the record as the biggest moneymaking film in American cinema history.

On its surface, the movie is a celebration of the audacity of the Southern spirit — as embodied in Vivien Leigh’s pitch-perfect portrayal of anti-heroine Scarlett O’Hara. But a closer reading finds a cutting commentary on the South’s hypocritical, opportunistic, and racist attitudes that continue to infect American culture.

Scarlett O’Hara is a tactless shrew born into wealth. She lives on her family’s enormous mansion-appointed cotton plantation, Tara, in Georgia. The year is 1861. America is on the brink of civil war. Scarlett’s slight frame and button-nosed beauty belie a wellspring of simmering jealousy. Green is her favorite color. Scarlett’s romantic obsession with Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes, knows no boundaries. Not even Ashley’s marriage to his own cousin Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) dissuades Scarlett from conniving to win him as her own possession. Scarlett only wants what she cannot have.

Scarlett and her circle of high society confederate peers put up a façade of Southern politeness that hardly disguises their condescending arrogance and delusional ignorance. Branding someone outside of their social sphere as “white trash” gives them a brief sense of superiority, even if the derogatory term is more self-reflexive than they care to recognize.

Gone With the Wind

Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler is a rebellious cad of boundless masculine charm. His dark reputation precedes him. Thrown out of West Point and disowned by his Southern family in Charleston, South Carolina, the irrepressible “Mr. Butler” is a world traveler with no illusions about people or political realities. A constant smile and a quick wit make him a well-defended outlier able to effortlessly maneuver any realm of society he finds himself in. Rhett Butler is a “man’s man.”

An opportune nap enables the lusty Rhett to overhear a divulging romantic discussion between Scarlett and Ashley wherein all cards are laid on the table. Mr. Butler sees Scarlett for exactly what she is, and yet he is nevertheless attracted to her on a sensual level. He represents the oil-and-water antidote to her devious nature.

As much as the film is about the North’s devastating defeat of the Confederacy, it is about the doomed relationship between a woman incapable of love, and the a man who foolishly makes the mistake of thinking he can handle her. Keeping hope for hope sake doesn’t mean that Scarlett’s glass is half-full. Rather, it means it will forever remain empty.

GoneWiththeWind-colesmithey
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