Mamma Roma (1962)

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.

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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.

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Canoa: A Shameful Memory (1976)

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.

Personal Shopper (2016)

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.

The Lure (2015)

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 friend 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.

Criterion Book Club: “Making a Film” by Federico Fellini

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.

ANNOUNCEMENT: Criterion Book Club

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:

  1. Novels/plays that have been adapted into films in the CC.
  2. Biographies/memoirs of key directors, writers, actresses, etc. with films in the CC.
  3. 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!

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Someday I’ll get a straight answer from you, and I won’t know what to do with it.

 

Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings is full of individuals lost in underlying turmoil but manage to dig themselves deeper, rather than find a way out. Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is a pilot and co-owner of a mail air line, who knowingly sends his men and himself in danger, accepting hazardous weather and unsafe working conditions as part of the job. Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is a former showgirl bound for home, who decides to put her trip on hold and stick around for Geoff, who admits he would never ask a woman for anything. Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth), Geoff’s old flame, chooses ignorance over learning the truth about her morally questionable husband Bat.

All of these characters, and more, are swirling around Barranca, South America (no country is given), in a world somewhere between Casablanca and Gilda (though it was made before both landmark films). Barranca is a bustling banana port o’call, and Geoff’s airline carries mail back and forth over the Andes. The large troupe of Americans who call Barranca home are seeking some sort of escape: from responsibility, from home, from their pasts.

This might sound like the perfect recipe for film noir, but Only Angels Have Wings doesn’t fit cleanly into any easy genre. It is part adventure thriller, with well-constructed, often heart-stopping, sequences of flight and their sometimes-tragic aftermaths. It is part romance, as Geoff and Bonnie become acquainted, and the feelings that echo back as Bonnie shows up. It’s even part western, with the standard themes of escape from traditional society, isolating oneself in a “man’s world,” and dropping domestic responsibilities.

To be honest, a lot about this movie is weird. Early on, we get cues that Brooklyn-born Bonnie is right at home in Barranca, engaging with the locals (despite referring to Spanish as “pig Latin”), and wildly playing “Some of These Days” on the piano in a scene that had me giggling nonstop. Later on in the movie she whips out a gun and shoots him in the shoulder. And, in an interesting subversion of gender norms, Geoff never has a lighter on him, and needs Bonnie or Judy to light it for him. The macho fella who wouldn’t ask a woman for anything, still needs them to get through the everyday.

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Would you like Rita Hayworth to light your cigarette?

But a well-rounded, genre-bending (albeit sometimes confounding) film suits Hawks well. The man who later brought us a subversive, challenging western in Red River and the excellent, tongue-in-cheek screwball comedy musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes proves his mastery of and flexibility within genre pieces, so a film that touches so many avenues is a perfect fit for a man of his talents.

In addition to the strong directing and crazy choices, we also get great performances, particularly by Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. Jean Arthur plays what appears to be her usual “type” as the plucky pal, bringing on the gravitas when appropriate. Early on in the film (spoiler alert!) a pilot has a fatal crash, igniting a firestorm of emotions for her: desperate grief at the loss, anger and frustration at the men for (she believes) not caring, then tepid complacency as she learns that’s just the way things are in Barranca. Her complex, layered reaction both highlights her adapting to her new environment, as well as an early sign that she’s not just some fast-talking gal: she has depth and real emotion.

Rita Hayworth, in her too-few minutes onscreen, sets everything ablaze with her piercing eyes and deep, seductive voice. She’s not quite a fully-fledged femme fatale in this one, but she makes some gusty moves, even visiting her former flame in his bedroom. Jean Arthur even pops up at the end of this scene but scurries away, which is unfortunate — I would have loved to see some screen time between two archetypes during this era of film.

Only Angels Have Wings is an exciting, genre-bending film taking us into exotic locales, entrenching us with questionable characters, and dazzling us with complex performances.