9 posts categorized "Italian Cinema"

January 12, 2021

CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI — THE CRITERION COLLECTION

1aaFrancesco Rosi’s 1979 filmic adaptation of Turinese political activist Carlo Levi’s popular 1945 memoir, about his year spent in political exile suffering Draconian punishments under Mussolini’s fascist regime, is a fluid masterpiece of social realism.

The film’s evocative title is taken from that of Carlo Levi’s chronicle of exposure to Fascism's harsh effect on a specific group of people.

Although you might suppose from the title that Christ visited the small southern Italian town of Eboli, however the context is something more; Christ never went beyond Eboli, which is to say he never witnessed the tragic condition of the remote village of Aliano — renamed as “Gagliano: in the book and film.

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Levi wrote, “Christ stopped at Eboli where the road and the train abandon the coast and the sea, and venture into the wastelands of Lucania. Christ never came here. Nor did time, the individual soul, or hope, nor did cause and effect, reason or history.”

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In 1929, Carlo Levi — not to be confused with his fellow Turinese anti-fascist peer Primo Levi — co-founded the anti-fascist movement Giustizia e Libertà with Carlo and Nello Rosselli. Although Levi graduated with a degree in medicine in 1924, he was inspired to become an artist. Painting allowed Levi private time to carry on private political discussions with activist friends who would sit as portrait models in his studio. The ruse only worked so well for so long. In 1935, Carlo Levi was arrested and exiled to Aliano, in Italy’s Lucania region. The deprived village relates to a similarly poor remote Spanish settlement in Luis Buñuel’s 1933 bold documentary “Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan” (“Land Without Bread”).

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Aliano presents a “land of disease, poverty, and distrust — from a people abandoned and forgotten by the state.” Clearly, Mussolini’s intent was that Carlo Levi might not survive a year spent in a remote place plagued by malaria and fellow political exiles whose attitudes didn’t necessarily coincide with those of Levi. Rather, Levi was compelled to assist the community up to a point in spite of his less than charitable countenance.

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Francesco Rosi buries significant subtext in situational reality. For example, Levi adopts a stray dog at the beginning of the story only to silently abandon the canine soon thereafter. No mention of the dog ever comes up again. Rose elucidates through silence and absence. Less is more. Rosi’s eye for detail shines as when Levi meets his sister when she comes to visit; the siblings walk in perfectly matching steps together. Their DNA is the same. Rosi's deceptively simple detail speaks volumes about the honest and direct nature of the siblings's relationship, something that is revealed during their private discussions.  

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Rosi’s uncanny ability to incorporate a specific Italian region’s locals (playing themselves) provides a foundation of authenticity that underpins the complex narrative with understatement and grace. Even the film's one flash of anger occurs as a substitute for seduction during a scene where Levi's maid bathes him. To watch "Christ Stopped At Eboli" is to go back in time. Politics be damned, life is where you are. Physical exile is real. Intellectualism suffers; culture suffers.

Francisco Rosi remains criminally neglected it the pantheon of great filmmakers. Rosi is right there with Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti even if Rosi isn't as well known. The dynamic naturalism that Rosi captures and observes under his trained vision is astonishing if you take the time to savor it.  

Criterion treats this film with the respect it deserves. Lovely. If you dig collecting Criterion films, this one is a beauty.

Christstopped

Not Rated. 220 mins. Five Stars

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August 22, 2015

BLOW-UP — CLASSIC FILM PICK

BLOWUPMichelangelo Antonioni’s first English language film is an allegorical murder mystery whose abstract parameters delineate a society where images are more believable, and lasting, than reality.

Set during the height of London’s swinging mod '60s era of sexual liberation, drugs, music, and wild fashion, Antonioni takes a self-reflexive inventory of male-dominated British society via David Hemmings’s anti-hero fashion photographer Thomas. With his bushy head of dirty-blonde hair, convertible Rolls Royce, and hip live-work photography studio, Thomas lives the sexually promiscuous lifestyle of a “rock star” unencumbered by bandmates. Hemmings’s frenetic physicality and bedroom eyes create a compulsively watchable, but unreliable, symbol of youth culture.

Antonioni’s puzzling film is book-ended by a Greek chorus of mimes who ride recklessly around London spilling out of an Army Range Rover, an understated reference to the distant war raging in Vietnam at the time the movie was made. Dressed in whiteface and jester-styled clothing, the mute pranksters look like precursors to the violence-obsessed Droogs in Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (made five years later in 1971). And yet, Antonioni’s band of social renegades shares an odd unity of opposites with the British military, whose vehicle they inexplicably possess. Nothing is what it seems, and no one acts responsibly in the picture.

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Dressed in rags, Thomas exits a dingy London flophouse where he spent the night surreptitiously photographing homeless men without their consent. He will use the harsh black-and-white photos to add social realist weight (read, credibility) to a coffee table book he is putting the finishing touches on. Thomas is an equal-opportunity exploiter of men, as well as women, though he clearly savors humiliating the latter.

A quick change into his trademark white Levis and barely buttoned blue houndstooth shirt puts Thomas in touch with his arrogant photographer persona. Young “birds” wait outside Thomas’s door, begging for his attention.

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Yelling insults at underfed models during a high paying fashion-shoot bores Thomas to the point of instructing the women to close their eyes so he can furtively abandon them. Thomas can’t even muster integrity while applying his craft. He’s a poseur who knows how to use a camera. The fickle elf is on to his next project, scoping out an antique shop he wants to purchase. While there, our narcissistic man-boy skips into a public park where he covertly photographs a middle-aged bloke frolicking with his much younger girlfriend. In spite of his half-hearted efforts to remain undetected, the girlfriend (Vanessa Redgrave) catches Thomas and demands that he hand over the roll of film. Thomas’s coy refusal brings her, unannounced, to his studio to extract the photos through any means available, even if it means smoking pot and having sex with him. No luck.

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Upon printing the photos from the park and blowing them up, Thomas discovers a third person, a lone gunman hiding in the bushes. Is that a corpse lying on the ground where the couple once stood? Verifying the presence of a dead body in the park reveals the impotent nature of Thomas’s personality. For all of the virility and intelligence he exudes, here is a man unable to function responsibly. He may pretend to care about the value of life, but Thomas can’t access reality without the filter of his camera or the images it produces. Nothing is real when everything is staged. “Blow-Up” remains Antonioni’s most enigmatic, and yet broadly accessible film because it comments on consumerist culture so transparently.

Not Rated. 111 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)


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April 09, 2015

BLACK SOULS


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Mafia movies have changed since Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood-epic “Godfather” trilogy. Matteo Garrone’s brilliant 2008 gangster picture “Gomorrah” was a take-no-prisoners look at how the mob in southern Italy abuses and enslaves its citizens, corrupts its culture, and poaches its natural resources. Now Francesco Munzi is taking a more personal approach, via Gioacchino Criaco’s novel about a decades-old rift reopened between rival “'Ndrangheta" mafia families in Calabria. As the world’s most influential criminal organization and one of its most lucrative (it brings in $72 billion annually) the 'Ndrangheta mafia far outweighs the more widely known Sicilian "Cosa Nostra" Mafia that has folded into the 'Ndrangheta.

The Barracas and Carbone families are connected by the murder of a Carbone padrone by the Barracas several generations earlier in the bucolic region of Africo Vecchio. Teenager Leo Carbone (Giuseppe Fumo) chafes under the yoke of sheepherder father Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane); he longs to join the family business with his Uncle Luigi (Marco Leonardi) in Milan. Leo sews a few wild oats by shooting up a local bar before leaving for Milan to seal his plan, hopefully with Luigi’s blessings. Little does the tough-minded Leo realize the imminent consequences that his thoughtless actions against the local club will have on his family’s relations with the Barracas clan. Leo’s ember of hostility will soon engulf his family.

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The brilliance of “Black Souls” lies in its minimalist approach to elucidate the mafia mindset of intimidation and long-held grudges. This seemingly low-key picture provides a historic context of the dichotomy between the mafia’s past of traditional values and the sped-up expectations that the modern world demands. As much as Leo’s sensible father attempts to distance himself from the violence of his family members, he is just as apt to reach for a gun when circumstances seem to demand it. 

Francesco Munzi exerts a graceful restraint in the way he constructs the story (Munzi was a co-screenwriter), and how he frames the Italian landscape with a sense of dramatic vérité to reflect the impoverishment of the characters’ backgrounds. Munzi exemplifies the influence of the late Francesco Rosi, whose commanding use of Italian terrain contributed to the lasting effect of such majestic films as “Salvatore Giuliano.” The scrupulous Munzi also matches Rosi’s talent for casting naturalistic actors whose subtle performances leave indelible impressions that resonate with hostile silence. “Black Souls” hurts.

Not Rated. 103 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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