Carosello Napoletano (1954)

In 1950s Italian cinema, you can usually count on three things: black and white cinematography, realism (for the most part – magical realism is allowed), and definitely not musicals.

Carosello Napoletano (Neopolitan Carousel) is the inverse of all of these, making it a wacky surprise but an enjoyable departure from what we often think of during this period of film. Loosely speaking, it is the story of Naples throughout time, starting in the Medieval era up to the Unification, through the dawn of the 20th century and past World War I. It glides through these disparate time periods quite suddenly, using devices as concrete as sheet music blowing in the wind, to more melodic as “O Sole Mio” is sung in one scene, before the time-jump and the same tune is sung in the next era.

The Carosello kept jumping around so much, I honestly had a hard time staying on board and being fully engaged with the action, knowing we would bounce ahead shortly. In particular, the movie’s earlier segments told as a mix of operetta and ballet, with so much dancing and ensemble characters flying around it was tricky to monitor who was who, and whether it even mattered. (Would they be back again for the next song? Probably not.)

Things slow down by the 20th century, fortunately, and we get fascinating vignettes around immigration, the impact of war, and other historical moments in Naples’s history. A noteworthy segment has three middle-class men, sitting nonchalantly on a park bench, who notice a sign encouraging men to enlist in the armed forces. They begin fidgeting and tapping their toes in rhythm, matching the syncopated marching of an army. They suddenly burst up from their seat and march along down the street, joined by men of all uniforms and social classes, uniting together to perform their civic duty.

The film works best when the full Carosello comes together. The single segments don’t quite stand on their own, but the terrific finale brings all of them together. It’s Christmas in Naples, and a family we’ve been following most of the film (the backbone to our time-traveling adventure) doesn’t have a roof over their heads.

A son of the family gazes sadly into a window display, where a massive Nativity display is set, in an awe-inspiring moment of beauty. Italian Nativity scenes are unique in that they contextualize the birth of Christ within their own community; Nativity sets are massive, including bakers, accordion players, clowns – figures who probably weren’t roaming around in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, but their inclusion brings the story of Christmas closer to home (literally) and makes the community part of the miracle.


The camera pans out to show a living Nativity of Naples. The impressive Naples set we’d seen for the previous two hours is shown in its full, stunning sound-stage glory. The people we’d followed through centuries of history are all dancing together in the piazza, transcending time and place for the annual celebration. As lumpy as its parts may be, the whole of Carosello Napoletano is a colorful, thought-provoking, and touching look at the eternal spirit of Naples.

“White Christmas” Bing-isms

There’s a lot to love about Michael Curtiz’s White Christmas: the music, its homey warmth, and certainly star Bing Crosby’s otherwordly slang.

Here are a few choice phrases with a rough translation, so you can bring a little Bing into your everyday speech:

  • Slam-bang finish = a great finale
  • Hunk of dynamite = star performer
  • Mish-mosh = fight, scene
  • First sacker = first baseman
  • Scatback = fast, agile running back
  • Grab the cow = grab the milk
  • Time, time, cut! = slow down

Weekly Round-Up: November 22-28, 2015

Hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving (and Black Friday) week! I did a bit of traveling and got to enjoy some lazy movie time with the family last night.

  • Trainwreck (2015) – Amy Schumer gives a strong performance in this very raunchy romantic comedy about a woman struggling in a serious relationship. We get some funny moments (especially from LeBron James) but the narrative mostly falls flat. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) – Laughably out-of-touch romance about three American women in Italy looking for husbands. RECOMMENDED.
  • On the Town (1949) – Insane musical comedy about three  American sailors who have 24 hours in New York to see the sights and fall in love. Hi-jinks and several lousy songs ensue. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

Three Coins in the Fountain begins with stunning shots of Rome – sweeping vistas of elaborate gardens, intimate corners of centuries-old palazzos, and the titular Trevi Fountain, believed to grant the wishes of those who visit it.

All the beauty of Rome, however, isn’t a compelling enough reason to stay unless you’ve got a man. Three Coins in the Fountain is a bizarre, laughably out-of-touch story about three American women living together in Rome as secretaries – two for an American consulate, one for an English writer. Their worldly career paths are all for naught until they tie the knot!

The youngest (and real catalyst of the story), Maria Williams, has just arrived in Rome. She moves into an apartment with the two other secretaries, Anita Hutchins and Miss Frances. Upon her arrival, the trio rush to the Trevi Fountain to make wishes – for Maria and Miss Frances, to stay in Rome one more year; Anita makes no wish, as she plans to leave to America to get married.

Maria crosses paths with the handsome prince Dino, an eligible bachelor of questionable repute (known for his exploits with “Venice Girls”). Despite the warning signs, she is smitten by him and decides to frequent his local haunts, take notes on his likes & dislikes, and pretend to share his interests to win him over. Good plan, right?

Anita Hutchins has already turned in her notice, under the guise that she is returning to America to get married. In reality, however, there is no fiancee waiting for her and she just needed a reason to say she’s leaving. Romance finds her though, in the form of an Italian colleague at her work – Georgio, played by Rossano Brazzi whom you may recognize from David Lean’s Summertime. Romantic pursuits between Americans and Italians are frowned upon in her office, however, and Anita’s employer even offers to pay for her to see a doctor in case she’s in a jam. (!) To make matters worse, Georgio is poor and can barely support even himself.

Miss Frances, the the slightly older mother hen of the nest, has been secretary for the writer John Frederick Shadwell for 15 years. She seems content enough with her life, until one of Shadwell’s servants gives her a baby kitten – commenting having cats is a nice way to keep from being lonely. This is the last straw (apparently) and she quickly finds herself engaged to Shadwell; only for him to retract the offer the very next day. Naturally, she follows him around the rest of the day, eventually confronting him at a bar where he’s about to get drunk. Her response is to order the same amount of drinks and to get drunk as well. He guides her as she stumbles back, drunkly, to his apartment in the middle of the afternoon. (What is this movie?)

Three Coins in the Fountain reminds me of Where the Boys Are – all-American girls, displaced from home, looking for husbands. Times have certainly changed since 1954, but it is bizarre, even for the time, how backwards some plot elements are. Perhaps it is a testament to the power of Trevi Fountain, and how far people will go to make their wish a reality.

Seven Samurai (1954)

After seeing Seven Samurai, I now consider myself a Kurosawa fan. I was first impressed by the groundbreaking Rashomon, most noteworthy for its visionary storytelling techniques. While Seven Samurai follows a more straightforward narrative, it is an excellent epic rich with meaning and emotion, earning its hearty 3 1/2 hour length.

First and foremost, Seven Samurai just tells a great story. The basic premise is that a rural Japanese village is being ransacked by bandits, and upon the advise of the town elder (the Old Man), they seek the aid of samurai to defend them.

As the film’s title suggests, it is as much about the samurai as it is about the community. Each man brings a different set of experiences to his mission, and the ways in which they mesh or conflict with the townspeople are what bring the movie its true fire. We experience issues like class conflict, and the tension between loyalty to one’s own versus the community.

We are given an extraordinary performance by Toshiro Mifune (star ofRashomon), as a wild and coarse samurai. His acting is consistently entertaining and, while his role is not as twisted as that in Rashomon, he is still very fun to watch and he really gets a chance to prove his emotional range through this film.

While the script’s structure is not as groundbreaking as Rashomon, the overall atmosphere and mood Kurosawa establishes is often dark and unsettling, creating a distinct and somewhat surprising mood. (Granted, as someone who is used to the classical Hollywood tradition, most Japanese films surprise me.) The treatment of women, for one, is often a very unique element throughout the film; there is a difficult scene in which a farmer forcibly cuts the hair of his daughter, for fear that she be found by the bandits and captured, or worse. When the bandits do come to town, the male villagers round up the women and essentially cage them, forcing them to watch their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons fight the more aggressive and better-equipped bandits from the sidelines.

These battle scenes are particularly unsettling, as they are very realistic and un-glamorous, providing a fresh interpretation of the often too-sleek samurai story. There is no glory in these battles, filled with cheating (even the most honorable samurai steals a musket from the bandits) and desperation as both sides are crawling through the rain and mud fighting for their lives.

That is what is so extraordinary about this film; the setting may be another time and place, but it was impossible for me to watch without wondering what I would do in that situation. We see ordinary people pushed to do what they have to do to protect themselves and their own. At the end of the day, the townspeople are able to reclaim their land back as their own. The samurai, tragically, do not, as the survivors stand in solace at the graves of their fallen brothers. The leader says the victory is the townspeople; the samurai, however, have failed.

Seven Samurai is full of profound statements and often difficult emotions and situations to grapple with. The film may be easy to follow, but it is anything but certain how to weigh the moral uncertainties Kurosawa presents us with. This Japanese epic is an extraordinary film that is worthy of its ambition.