This episode features some news updates (including the Criterion Channel launch) and an audio essay on Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis, discussing its portrayal of the saint and his ideologies, plus the cultural context in which his story unfolds.
On this episode, we’re discussing Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971) with special guest and Visconti aficionado Jon Laubinger (Film Baby Film, The 25th Frame Media)! We go into the film’s themes of beauty, art, and decay, as well as how setting and geography fit into this dark tale. Jon also shares great insight around how Death in Venice fits into Visconti’s filmography, and how it gives life to ideas the director explores throughout all his work.
Has any story been adapted to film more than the tale of Christ?
This past weekend (among countless others), I took a journey through faith depicted on film. Some regular entries could be The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur, two Charleton Heston epics that always air on TV this time of year, but I chose landed on three others: The Last Temptation of Christ (for its annual Good Friday viewing in my living room), The Gospel According to St. Matthew (which I had never seen but long wanted to), and Jesus Christ Superstar (a musical I’d seen a couple times, but was very familiar with the music).
Perhaps it was watching three tellings of the same story within a 36-hour time span, or a deep-rooted familiarity with the Passion from my Catholic upbringing, but seeing these very different takes on the life of Christ within a short period became a richer experience than the sum of its parts. Watching any of the films in isolation would have been viewing it on its own merits (and there’s nothing wrong with that), but assessing them more as complements to one another made each movie all the more unique, defined, and artistic.
The Last Temptation of Christ, as explicitly stated in its introduction, is a “fictional” exploration of Christ’s battle between “the spirit and the flesh.” The conflict within Jesus as both man and god is, frankly, the point of the film, and this thesis drives the depiction of Christ even as a character. He goes on an emotional arc throughout the entire film: first in torment, troubled by his internal pain; determination to understand His purpose; a loving, enlightened figure inspiring and healing those around Him; then a defeated, dejected shell; and finally, the courageous, benevolent Son of God who sacrifices Himself for the world. Christ is a fully realized, human character, and His emotional journey and experience as a man makes His ultimate sacrifice all the more heartbreaking and powerful.
The depiction of Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, however, embarks on less of a journey; in Pasolini’s film, Christ is confident, eloquent, though arguably cold, direct, and lacks the loving warmth we often see in Renaissance-era artwork or other film adaptations. The viewer’s relationship to Him is almost impersonal, with milestone moments such as Christ’s arrest and trial shot from a distance, from the perspective of a member of the crowd witnessing. This sense of detachment is washed away by the movie’s conclusion however, through the powerful depiction of the Resurrection. The cold tone permeating most of the film is foiled by a glorious chorus of song, believers rejoicing to spread the word of God, as Christ is heard in voice-over dialogue: “Behold, I am with you always, unto the end of the world.” Whether the voice is for His followers or to us directly, the disconnect is breached as He makes a promise to always be there.
The sense of glory from Christ does not quite shine through in Jesus Christ Superstar, the grooviest tale of the Passion ever committed to film. This depiction of Jesus is sad, frustrated, and troubled throughout, and no moments of miracles or God-given glory ever transpire. The life and spirit of the film come from, well, everywhere else: the excellent portrayal of Judas by Carl Anderson, going jumpsuit to jumpsuit as he fears for Christ, betrays Him, and even chastises Him. While Jesus is, of course, the center of the action, most of the songs and story are seen from the perspective of those around Him. Mary Magdalene is also portrayed terrifically, by Yvonne Elliman, effortlessly gliding between sensuality and an almost-motherly love toward Him. Jesus does not go on the emotional arc or display the vitality that the other characters do, and this may well be the point of the piece: the tale of Christ, told by the perspectives of those around Him.
These films are absolutely not to be taken as Gospel and are not documentaries (though how cool would it be if Jesus Christ Superstar were!), but experiencing three very different interpretations of this globally-known tale was a fascinating, enlightening journey through all the perspectives and artistic decisions that shape and contribute to our modern understanding of Christ.
Pasolini takes us to the outskirts of life and challenges our assumptions in the moving and intelligent Mamma Roma. Almost a mix of Nights of Cabiria with Mildred Pierce, this thoughtful tale of a woman who will do anything for her son leaves nothing at face value, and pulses with the confusion and pain of everyday life.
Anna Magnani gives a captivating performance as Mamma Roma, a former prostitute who saves up to move with her son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) to Rome, where she wants to begin a new chapter in life. She renounces her past and takes on operating a vegetable cart in the piazza market, and she encourages Ettore to go to school to mingle with the right sort of neighborhood kids.
Ettore’s path takes a different turn, however. He becomes smitten with Bruna (Silvana Corsini), a young woman already with child. His friends tease that she goes out with “everyone,” but Ettore doesn’t mind, and forges a tender connection with her. Mamma Roma doesn’t approve of the match either, and urges him to forget about her and take on a respectable job as a waiter in Trastevere.
Through all its ups and downs, Mamma Roma is consistently engaging for its rich, authentic portrayal of real, complex characters. Mamma Roma herself is a loud, boisterous prostitute one moment, and an affectionate forward-thinking mother the next. The girl Bruna is frequently attacked for her reputation despite her mostly angelic demeanor; then when Ettore is beaten down and his weakness revealed, she laughs in his face and joins the other boys. Characters ebb and flow and take on different roles throughout the story, rejecting stagnant personalities for more genuine, complicated impulses when facing trying circumstances.
Its deep respect for everyday life is heightened through the fluid religious undertones. Mamma Roma is often portrayed as a Mary figure, dedicating her life to her son and suffering the terrible loss that befalls him. Ettore is the Christ, driven by some innate destiny and is even held strung with his arms open in a prison. Bruna could be the Magdalene, to whom Ettore is drawn despite what society may think of her.
Pasolini’s films are anything but ordinary, and the humanism and authenticity flowing through Mamma Roma elevate what could have been some weepy melodrama into intelligent and thought-provoking art.
An angry mob, gripping torches and machetes, floods the streets to confront the outsiders. Fingers are dismembered before our very eyes. Innocent men are lynched. This is nor a horror movie, but a historical drama recounting the horrifying events that took place almost fifty years ago.
Canoa: A Shameful Memory is an absolute juggernaut. It is a 360 snapshot of a particular time and place, muddled by socio-economic, religious, political, and regional tensions of the late 1960s. We observe the events of an awful tragedy like a fly on the wall: a reporter gets a call that a group of university workers has been attacked, and several killed. After glimpses of the aftermath, we are pulled away from the immediate matter at hand, and meet the faces of Mexico, 1968.
A poor farmer who must give away 10% of his crop to corrupt officials. A priest whose influence over his parish extends past religion into politics and beyond. A wealthy bureaucrat, who is grateful for the public goods and thinks the poor should quit complaining. And an omnipresent narrator, arguably the most reliable, who insists we can trust him and provides commentary on all the action.
After this first act, during which director Felipe Cazals provides an admirably rich portrait of the time and place, we dive into the main narrative: a group of young university employees from the city Puebla decide to go mountain climbing at La Malinche. Knowing the tragic fate awaiting them, each decision and delay brings an extra layer of dread for us, the viewers, as we approach what we already know will be a horrifying end.
Canoa is an incredibly troubling film, of a mistaken conflict between a small town and (perceived) radicals from the city, hauntingly ringing true in today’s hostile and occasionally violent political climate. Cazals never turns away, forcing us to witness and grapple with an unstable and untrustworthy society.
This razor-sharp work is punctuated by a fascinating shot at the end: our narrator atop a staircase, facing another camera, walking down stairs, scurrying up and doing the take again, then speaking to us once he’s down. The pseudo-documentary feel breaks its own wall, from cameras capturing life and people in real-time, to rehearsed and scripted action. Is he such a reliable narrator? Can he be trusted as the voice of Canoa, or a more rational citizen, or even Cazals himself? The overlapping and contradicting nature of history is a subtly recurring theme throughout the story, and the double take within a “documentary” adds a sinister layer to an already-disturbing tale.
Canoa: A Shameful Memory is certainly not for everyone, but those who can stomach the intense violence will be taken on a culturally insightful, intellectually challenging, and wholly unforgettable journey.
Somewhere in the grey area between perverse intimacy and crippling isolation lies Maureen (Kristen Stewart in a rich, vulnerable performance), the titular Personal Shopper in Olivier Assayas’s latest masterwork. Maureen’s twin brother Lewis died suddenly, and they agreed that, upon death, the deceased would give the surviving twin some sort of sign. Both are mediums, attuned to the spirit world, but Maureen has trouble interpreting what is a message from beyond at all, least of all from her brother’s ghost and not some other presence.
Personal Shopper is genuinely chilling at times, but it feels less like a horror film and more of an exploration of grief and mourning. Upon her brother’s death in Paris, Maureen moved herself there, and by the time we arrive, it’s been three months and she still hasn’t heard anything. She can’t bear to abandon hope though, so she takes on a job she despises, as a personal shopper for the high-profile Kyra, as she bides time waiting for Lewis to appear.
This American in Paris leads an isolated and challenging life, as a foreigner in a new place, running errands by herself, with the occasional Skype from her friend Gary. When mysterious text messages start popping up on her iPhone, she at first is hesitant and cold in her responses, then gives herself in. She gripes about her boss, reveals her insecurities, and is persuaded to try on Kyra’s bizarro harness lingerie, leading to an intimate solo moment in Kyra’s bed. Maureen even agrees to meet whomever, or whatever, is at the other side of these iMessages.
On the one hand we watch and are appalled, maybe confused, by the actions taken by Maureen. She is steadily pushed out of her comfort zone and lets herself be taken advantage of. But for someone in her situation, desperate for any sign or contact with her departed brother, we sympathize with her – who wouldn’t do anything they could for one more moment with a loved one?
I admit I left the theater in tears, remarkably moved by this haunting, lonely tale of loss. Its fascinating narrative and painfully authentic themes will ring true to anyone who has mourned and desperately waited to see the light.
It opens with two men and a woman, drinking and having fun on a dark, murky beach. Two young mermaids, a strawberry blonde and brunette, appear at the surface. They serenade the men, casting a seductive spell, and are invited to come ashore. The woman lets out a piercing scream. The screen fades to a sublime sea-green as the disco beat of “I Feel Love” throbs in the background. My boyfriend leaned over and whispered to me, “You love this movie already.”
And I did. Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure has everything I could possibly want in a film: mermaids, singing, murder, tragic romance. It is a singular vision and wholly unique experience; you have never seen a movie like this.
The duo, two sisters named Golden and Silver, become part of a Polish family and join a nightclub band, transforming from two-legged bipeds into mermaids, onstage, to an enthralled audience. The songs are hypnotically staged, with pulsating electric lights pacing the stage as the mermaids gently sway in an oversized champagne glass, or rocking out and driving an audience into a frenzy.
The Lure is more than the no-holds-barred pleasure party depicted in its trailer, however. Golden and Silver come to face struggle and even heartbreak as they adjust to life on the land. The neon vibrancy of the club is a powerful contrast to the bleakness of their quiet ballads. Golden immediately finds love, but learns that winning the man in her life comes with sacrifice. Silver is left lonely, and fears her longtime bond with her sister is in jeopardy by Golden’s newfound romance.
Here is where the true gravitas of The Lure comes to the surface. Without feeling open-ended and vague, there are several nuggets to contextualize Silver and Golden’s story, and broaden the universe we find ourselves in. While a somewhat minor character, a former merman Triton, who has cut off his tail and lost his horns, is the only such creature we encounter, and as a horned being, is leagues away from the King Triton-esque image we have of these creatures.
The uncertain background of the mermaids is also alluded to when the duo first gets to the club. The owner asks how they learned such good Polish, and they respond that they learned it at the ports in Bulgaria. We have no other hints of where they are from, how old they are, though they mention that they eventually want to swim to America. The idea of these vagrant, potentially ancient, beings coming ashore and wreaking havoc makes The Lure all the more chilling and deliciously sinister.
While not for everyone, packing a fair share of gore, disco, and nudity, The Lure is a delightful treat if you can open your heart to an otherworldly dark fairy tale. I would gladly once again give in to its seductive siren song.
Much like the films he directs, Federico Fellini’s book Making a Film is a fluid, stream-of-consciousness work that ebbs and flows across time, places, and subjects. And like his films, it casts an undeniable spell and is completely enchanting.
I name it as a general “book,” as it is part memoir, film theory, and sociological study all at once. What initially drew me to it, besides Fellini’s name, was the potential of new insight into his films, and Making a Film certainly delivers as expected: he shares the juvenile experiences that inspired Roma and Amarcord, outlines the the larger-than-life iconography of 8 1/2, and provides perspective on nearly all his films. (I would have liked more on La dolce vita, one of my favorites!)
Beyond its insights on filmmaking, however, Fellini’s text most impressed me with its thoughtful perspective society. His recurring theme of clowns throughout his film is certainly discussed here, and he offers a thought-provoking world view from this lens. He argues everyone is one kind of clown: the White Clown, authoritative, cruel, foreboding; and the auguste, primitive, playful, childlike, and naive. The two exist as foils, and can be defined negatively when paired against each other. He goes so far as to list off who he considers to be which kind of clown.
In my very favorite passage, he reflects on how the struggle of making a film runs parallel to everyday life and struggling to get by. Even when entering a situation with set expectations, it’s important to stay flexible and adapt to what life has to offer. In Fellini’s words:
Making a film isn’t about obstinately attempting to adapt reality to preconceived notions; making a film also means knowing how to recognize, accept, and utilize the progressive changes that preexisting ideas are subjected to by the continuous, parallel coming into being of what happens.
Making a Film is an enriching read, both for devotees of Fellini’s filmography, casual students or film, or even someone who knows nothing of his works. It is a meditation on the creative process and finding inspiration and motivation in the most unlikely places. Like his films, he humanizes and romanticizes the everyday, transforming the mundane into something miraculous and beautiful.
Been brewing on this for a while, and excited to kick off 2017 with the Criterion Book Club.
What is the Criterion Book Club? It’s a monthly digital book club, focused on literature tying back to the films of the Criterion Collection. All are welcome to join the Facebook group here!
These books can include:
Novels/plays that have been adapted into films in the CC.
Biographies/memoirs of key directors, writers, actresses, etc. with films in the CC.
Analysis/criticism of films or individuals who are featured in the CC.
As a digital book club, we can chat about books in the Facebook group, through blogs – the possibilities are endless! (Just be sure to link back so we can find it!)
Here is a calendar for 2017’s reads —
Jan: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini
Feb: “Picnic at Hanging Rock” by Joan Lindsay
March: “Godard on Godard” by Jean-Luc Godard
April: “The Last Temptation of Christ” by Nikos Kazantzakis
May: “The Graduate” by Charles Webb
June: “Something Like an Autobiography” by Akira Kurosawa
July: “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster
Aug: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life” by Sophia Loren
Sep: “The Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris
Oct: “Rosemary’s Baby” by Ira Levin
Nov: “Hitchcock” by Francois Truffaut
Dec: “The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography” by Frank Capra
With over 800 films in the Criterion Collection, there is a wealth of books that go along with them – please feel free to chime in the comments section or in the Facebook group for other reads to check out (either as recommendations or ones you’ve been meaning to pick up)!
Hope this takes off as a fun activity for fans of the Collection – happy reading!