3 posts categorized "Classic Cinema"

September 01, 2020

CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI — THE CRITERION COLLECTION

Christ stopped at eboli

Francesco 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.

Christstopped4

Not Rated. 220 mins. Five Stars

COLE SMITHEY

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

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May 11, 2020

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

Sweet Smell of SuccessAlexander Mackendrick (director of “The Ladykillers”) may have been of British descent, but his quick-paced 1957 sardonic drama — about the symbiotic relationship between a decadent Manhattan newspaper showbiz columnist and a hungry press agent — captures America’s indulgence in greed, corruption, and aggression like none other. Drawing on the noir style and subject matter of Billy Wilder’s perfect “Ace in the Hole” (1952) “black political drama” would be a suitable moniker for the dark pitch of cynical social satire that “Sweet Smell of Success” examines, rather than the “film noir” attribution that it frequently attracts. Here lies the defective foundation of the American Dream as viewed from an American viewpoint (Burt Lancaster’s company produced the film).

Sweet smell

The story takes place during a day and a half in the life of its New York City characters. Fey toady press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) is in the doghouse with his Walter Winchell-type gossip columnist mentor-and-abuser JJ Hunsecker (emphasis on the second “J”). Mackendrick’s ravenous camera moves through Manhattan’s late '50s Broadway theater district on a nocturnal quest for truth.

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According to JJ, the frequently groveling Sidney is not responding quickly enough to JJ’s orders to rev up the rumor mill to break up a hot romance brewing between Hunsecker’s adult sister Susan (Susan Harrison) and a bland jazz guitarist named Steve Dallas (Martin Milner). Steve Dallas isn’t exactly the next Tal Farlow on guitar, but he’s earned Susan’s romantic devotion. JJ wants to shut the whole thing down with a smear-job on Steve Dallas that sticks. “Communist” is a convenient accusation. JJ’s incestuous emotions seethe in his sexually impotent [or bound] mind. Sidney is working through an imagined apprenticeship with JJ that he hopes will eventually lead to his mentor’s place. The latent homosexual dominant/submissive subtext that exists between the two men underscores JJ’s impotent but nonetheless incestuous desires for his sister. Trouble in mind; trouble in action.

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Neither man has an ounce of ethics but both fake morals to mask their true devotion — to power and money. Sidney calls everybody “baby” or “sweetheart” to get what he wants for his master. He sees though JJ regardless of how beholden to him he is. Sidney tells his de facto boss, “JJ, you’ve got such contempt for people it makes you stupid.”

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Based on a novella by former press agent Ernest Lehman (“Sabrina”) and adapted by Clifford Odets, the great leftist poet of Harold Clurman Group Theatre — “Sweet Smell of Success” exists in a self-loathing urban bourgeois stratosphere where a gossip columnist like JJ Hunsecker can make or break a career depending on whether or not he mentioned it in his column.

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Burt Lancaster’s JJ Hunsecker is a nasty master manipulator, but he doesn’t know his limits — and he doesn’t care because he’s been rewarded so much and so long for his ruthless tactics. He’s irresponsible. JJ’s capacious power has blinded everyone, including him. Still, his days are numbered.

Cocosse | Journal: Flick Review < Sweet Smell of Success | Alexander  Mackendrick (1957)

Neither the antagonist (JJ) nor the film’s (purposefully) falsely represented protagonist (Sidney) has any redeeming traits. They suffer ongoing degrees of retribution, but each will carry on in the prescribed despicable methods to which each is accustomed.

Sweet smell

“Sweet Smell of Success” flopped at the box office. It is in Time Magazine’s list as one of the top movies of all time.

Not Rated. 96 mins.

5 Stars

COLE SMITHEY

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

Cole Smithey on Patreon

May 09, 2020

THE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE & HER LOVER


CookThiefLoverPeter Greenaway's reputation as Britain's most ferocious intellectual filmmaker reached its apex in 1989 with his sixth feature film. Although everything about this black comedy including its tongue-twisting title challenges audiences, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" remains Greenaway's most successful effort. Methodically constructed in the Jacobean form of Elizabethan revenge tragedies, the movie is an unrestrained attack on Margaret Thatcher's version of Ronald Reagan-style capitalism that infected the globe.

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Greenaway conceived his film as a play, "a performance," with which the audience is meant to engage. His strict adherence to formal laws of theatrical dramaturgy, including proscenium staging, is attenuated by a non-stop assault of physical and verbal violence from the film's loathsome antagonist Albert Spica. In the role of Albert, Michael Gambon embodies his boorish character with a virulent toxicity of epic scale.

The Cook, The POTUS, His Wife and Her Lover | Linnet Moss

Greenaway lets the audience know what it's in for during a tense opening sequence. Albert dislodges the owner of a haute cuisine restaurant named Le Hollandaise. The restaurant's proprietor "Roy" (note the allusion to a "king") hasn't been keeping up on his protection payments to Albert, a mean-spirited mob boss with a taste for fine dishes he can barely pronounce. Peter Greenaway predicted a future he hoped wouldn't arrive. It did. The vicious way Albert tortures Roy and smears his nude body with feces reflects the same cruel brand of devastating psychological humiliation later committed by guards at Guantánamo prison.

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Against Albert's orders his elegant wife Georgina (Helen Mirren) smokes cigarettes as a singular act of insubordination. Knowing her turn will come, she nevertheless tolerates Albert's brutish behavior toward others. Inside the grand restaurant Albert confers with his "employee," a veteran French chef named Richard (Richard Bohringer), about the menu.

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The dining room's red color scheme is watched over by Dutch painter Frans Hals's "Banquet of the Officers of the St. George Civic Guard Company" —  another thematic poke by the filmmaker. Albert spews his cockney variety of verbal bile at a large rectangular table that allows for Greenaway's formal tableaux compositions to blossom. Challenging thematic ideas come in spades.

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Striking costumes by Jean-Paul Gautier and a haunting musical score by Michael Nyman augment the film's purposefully artificial execution. Georgina strikes up an affair with Michael (Alan Howard), a solitary man who reads as he dines across from Albert's table of savages. Over the course of the next few nights the lovers retreat to the restaurant's bathroom and kitchen to make love between courses. Their trysts represent a desperate escape of independent thinkers from an oppressive outside world that would just as soon eat them alive, or dead.

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"The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover" is a masterpiece of British cinema built on several hundred years of literary tradition. The film must be viewed more than once to begin to digest its pungent and subtle layers of rope-thick satire. There are far worse cinematic fates to be had. 

Cookwifethieflover

Five Stars

COLE SMITHEY

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

Cole Smithey on Patreon

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