Category Archives: Italian

Saturn in Opposition (2007)

 “Rules exist even in relationships.”

In Saturn in Opposition (Saturno Contro), director Ferzan Ozpetek creates a vibrant, vital film that deals with issues such as friendship, death, loss and grief. The film quickly establishes the relationships between a close-knit group of friends and then charts what happens when tragedy strikes.

saturn-in-oppositionSuccessful writer Davide (Pierfrancesco Favino) lives with his lover Lorenzo (Luca Argentero). Others in the group include Davide’s ex-lover, Sergio (Ennio Fantastichini), married couple Neval (Serra Yilmaz) and Roberto (Filippo Timi), and successful therapist Angelica (Margherita Buy) and her husband, banker Antonio (Stefano Accorsi). Also in the group is the troubled, coke sniffing, pill-popping Roberta (Ambra Angiolini) and newcomer, doctor and budding writer Paolo (Michelangelo Tomasso). All these characters are introduced within the first minutes of the film, and it’s a bit overwhelming to absorb who they all are and their significance to one another, but no matter. Once the first few minutes of the film are over, not too many new characters are added, so it’s possible to settle in and just watch and enjoy this sensitive portrait of friendship.

In adversity, some of these relationships are stretched to the limit, and sadly already-strained relationships cave in under the pressure. Just how these characters offer support and love is the substance of the film that showcases Ozpetek regulars.

Ultimately this is not my favourite Ozpetek film, but then again there’s some stiff competition. I’d rank this one probably my least favourite with the following order: Steam, Facing Windows, Harem Suare, His Secret Life, and now Saturn in Opposition in last place. In some ways, Saturn in Opposition reminds me of His Secret Life–a death, and the friends who form an ad-hoc family of characters.

I loved the scenes that depicted Antonio and Angelica’s children. The parental presence seems largely absent in this home, and instead the daughter dominates and terrorises her younger brother. Clearly the adults in the film prefer each other’s company with the children left–more or less–to their own devices. Friendship–rather than familial connections dominate here, and this is underscored by Lorenzo’s father and stepmother’s visit. They remain largely ignorant of Lorenzo’s personal life.

Not a lot happens in Saturn in Opposition, but then again that’s the film’s structure, and the plot focuses on relationships not action. The film’s exquisite beauty is found in scenes with perfect shots–the empty bench, empty rooms and the final shot of the abandoned table–all echo the ephemeral qualities of life and the enduring relationships between friends.

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Filed under Ferzan Ozpetek, Italian

Burn (1969)

 “The guerilla fights for an idea.”

burnBURN director Gillo Pontecorvo’s scathing critique of colonialism is set against backdrop of the exploitative sugar trade of the 19th century. If you get over the problem of Marlon Brando playing a blond Englishman with a terrible accent, then this really is a marvelous film. To Brando’s credit, this was the film he was the proudest of in his long career.

The story is set in the 19th century, and begins when Sir William Walker (Marlon Brando) is sent by the British government to a small Caribbean island. The Portuguese, who now run the island, slaughtered the native Indian population and then imported slaves from Africa. The slaves work the lucrative sugar plantations, and the British seek to usurp the Portuguese as masters of the sugar trade.

When Walker, the British government’s agent arrives, a slave revolt is brutally squashed and its leader garroted. Walker was supposed to fuel this revolt and ensure its successful conclusion, so he casts around for a new rebel leader, seeking someone who has “nothing to lose.” Walker finds what he’s looking for in charismatic slave Jose Dolores (Evaristo Marquez). By persuading Dolores to rob the Bank of the Holy Spirit, Walker manipulates circumstances in which the slaves must defend themselves against reprisals. Walker supplies arms, and soon a slave revolt takes place.

This is a volatile period for those on the island. The sugar is rotting in the plantation fields, and somehow, the black slaves must be persuaded to stop the uprising, and get back to work accepting the yoke once more under the guise of employment. Walker is all too aware of Haiti as an example of a revolution “carried to [their] extreme consequences.” It may be useful to ignite a revolution, but it’s harder to stop it once it’s already in motion. One great scene depicts Delores–now a self-appointed general of the revolution as he enters a huge mansion to negotiate with the whites. The mansion is manned with black footmen, complete with powdered wigs. The slaves are ‘freed’ and the British take over the sugar trade on the island. But, of course, the slaves aren’t really free; they’ve just exchanged masters.

One scene depicts Walker advising the local landowners on the merits of paying the former slaves for work, and he compares the situation of owning slaves vs. paying plantation workers to maintaining a wife vs. paying a prostitute for an hour. He asks “which do you prefer? Or should I say which do you find more convenient? A wife or one of these mulatto girls?” Then he proceeds to lecture about the salient characteristics of each situation based on economic factors: “what is the cost of the product? What does the product yield?” And in this manner, he breaks down human beings into units of production. It’s all simply a matter of economics for him.

The film analyzes the nature of freedom and empire through the slave revolts. Both the Portuguese and the British fail to grasp the notion that: “If a man gives you freedom, it is not freedom. Freedom is something that you must take.” As Delores says: “If a man works for another, even if he’s called a worker, he remains a slave. And it will always be the same since there are those who own the plantations and those who own the machete to cut cane of the owners.” Delores grasps the fact that the whites need black labour: “they may know how to sell sugar, but we are the ones who know how to cut the cane.” Soon, the Royal Sugar Company has exclusive “rights of exploitation” and this ‘right’ effectively controls the island’s entire economy. Thus corporations run politics and people are no more than troublesome commodities.

One of the interesting aspects of the film is the relationship between Walker and Delores. To Walker, achieving his goals is sport. This is not an emotional campaign for him, and he approaches his goals unemotionally, logically, and with a dispassionate analysis. To the wealthy white landowners he says that they will defeat Delores “not because we’re better than he is or that we’re braver than he is, but simply because we have more arms and more men than he has.”

The film feels a little cheesy at first. Many of the actors are dubbed in English, so the result is poor. However, if you loved The Battle of Algiers, Burn is an excellent companion piece. By the half way point, it’s clear that we are privy to something truly extraordinary, for the story expands and presents some great universal truths through the difficult relationship between Walker and Delores.

Walker is a wonderfully amoral character–he could have sprung right from a Conrad novel, but there are also shades of Graham Greene here. He makes friends with the slave population, but he only uses them to achieve his goal, and he’s not interested in their fate beyond that. The film portrays, quite brilliantly, the nature of a guerilla uprising and the continuation of the revolutionary flame. Walker seems all too aware of the danger of a popular uprising, when he cautions the white rulers “the guerilla has nothing to lose.” And that in killing a hero of the people, the hero “becomes a martyr, and the martyr becomes a myth. A myth is more dangerous than a man because you can’t kill a myth.” Similarly, “a hero who betrays is soon forgotten.”

Some of the best scenes take place as Walker ponders moral questions. There is much to be learned from this film concerning warfare, empire, and human nature, and developing a conscience can be hazardous to one’s health when dealing with corporations, empires and colonialism. For as Walker says “that’s the nature of Profit. One builds to make money, and to go on making it, to make more, sometimes it’s necessary to destroy. Yes, I think perhaps it’s inevitable.” Burn is a great political film with a memorable musical score from Ennio Morricone.

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Filed under Political/social films, Pontecorvo

Sacco and Vanzetti (1971)

“Are you an anarchist, a communist, a socialist, a union man?”

The true story of Sacco and Vanzetti is practically forgotten these days, but the 1971 Italian film directed by Guilano Montaldo recreates the politically charged murder and robbery case against the backdrop of the political insecurity of the times.

America in the 1920s was in the throes of a “red scare” and increasing labour unrest. More than 25,000 Italians had been deported for a variety of reasons–including for their political beliefs and involvement in the labour movement. Following a payroll holdup on April 15,1920, that left several people dead, the police arrested two Italian anarchists for the crime. This riveting film plots the genesis of the case–from the arrests through the kangaroo court trial–to its ugly conclusion.

In spite of conclusive evidence that Nicola Sacco (Riccardo Cucciolla) and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (Gian Maria Volonte) were not guilty (they both had substantial alibis for the day of the robbery), the court was determined to find these men guilty. Scenes from the emotionally charged courtroom make it perfectly clear that the unleashed prosecutor, Frederick Katzmann (Cyril Cusak) spouts racial hatred towards those he considered “from the dregs of society” while ranting about “democracy and justice.”

Ultimately, Sacco and Vanzetti’s beliefs as anarchists go on trial. Vanzetti, a fresh fish seller eloquently explains that “anarchy would create a world without frontiers” but any attempts to explain his anti-war beliefs end in the accusation that he was a draft dodger (he went to Mexico in 1917). The film does an excellent job of showing the state’s fear and lack of understanding of anarchists, and the world’s reaction to the heinous injustice exacted on these two men for their political beliefs.

The actors who play Sacco and Vanzetti look remarkably like their real-life counterparts, and the photography lends an eerie archival quality to the story. Well worth catching.

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Filed under Italian, Political/social films

Days and Clouds (2007)

 “We kept living as though nothing had happened.”

The excellent Italian drama Days and Clouds (aka Giorni e Nuvole) charts the disintegration of the marriage of an affluent middle-aged couple as their fortunes change for the worse. When the film begins, the very attractive Elsa (Margherita Buy) has just completed a long-held ambition to graduate from art school, and her husband, Michele (Antonio Albanese) gives her a pricey pair of antique earrings and throws a surprise party. But all this appearance of wealth is a façade. The party is over quite literally when Michele reluctantly reveals that he’s now unemployed and has been for months. A former company director, he’s been squeezed out by his partners as part of a restructuring move. Elsa is flabbergasted to learn that there is hardly any money left to pay the bills, and that their lifestyle must change radically. Blindsided by the news, she tries to gauge just how bad things are.

days-and-cloudsThe film follows exactly how this couple copes with the many changes they must face, and there are moments when they are both in denial about the severity of their financial crisis. Elsa has no idea how much their monthly expenses are, and so she must rapidly learn some of the very basic facts about their finances before even beginning to make plans. Michele, on the other hand, has a very difficult time accepting that he can’t pick up the check for all of his friends at the expensive restaurants they habituate. Shame soon leads both Elsa and Michele to cut themselves off from their friends as they sink from their affluent lifestyle to a working class environment without fancy vacations, pricey wines or valuable antiques.

Director Silvio Soldini explored the dynamics of a marriage in trouble in his film Bread and Tulips, but in that film, the wife exploits an opportunity to run away. Not so in Days and Clouds where Elsa tries sticking to her marriage even as her formerly good relationship with Michele disintegrates as the money pressures mount.

As the couple loses their material possessions, Elsa markets her job skills and puts her art restoration interests on hold, working two jobs. Meanwhile, Michele discovers that no one wants to employ a middle-aged executive. This all raises questions: was their marriage “happy” because it was coated with affluence, or is their relationship stressed solely to financial pressures? To exacerbate the situation, it’s also quite clear that once Michele is stripped of his ability to earn a living, on many levels, his wife vastly outclasses him.

The film raises some intriguing issues, but while these issues appear for our scrutiny, they are not dissected and analyzed. For example, as the money pressures mount, we begin to wonder if Michele was really ‘protecting’ Elsa by keeping her in the dark about their financial situation, or if this was just one part of his continuum of denial. Through the course of the film, it becomes apparent that perhaps Michele contributed to his own downfall–certainly his ex-business partners think so.

Days and Clouds includes some simply marvelous touches, the acting is superb, and this is one of the best (and most painful) depictions I’ve seen of the decline of an upper middle class family. This is yet another wonderful film from Film Movement, and Days and Clouds is August’s selection for their DVD of the month club. For more information about Film Movement or to join the club, go to www.filmmovement.com

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Filed under Drama, Italian

Elective Affinities (1996)

 “This tragedy comes as deliverance.”

Elective Affinities is set in 19th Century Italy. Widow Carlotta (Isabelle Huppert) and Edouard (Jean-Hugues Anglade) meet again after a twenty-year separation. Their interrupted love affair immediately resumes, and they marry quickly. The blissful couple retreat to Edouard’s Tuscany villa, but when he announces that he’s invited his friend, architect, Ottone to stay, Carlotta is concerned that their solitude will be ruined. And it is ….

Ottone spends an evening explaining how elements “give up original bonds and reform”, and he even draws a little diagram to illustrate his subject. This is so heavy-handed that it comes as no surprise when Carlotta decides to invite her stepdaughter, Ottilia is join the fun in the country–and the idea is, naturally, that the four people will be affected by each other and form new relationships.

At this point, I thought I was perhaps about to watch some sort of film with a free-love message–you know–a sort of 19th Century Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice complete with bed hopping. I was wrong. The film degenerated into an overly-sentimental, queasy, self-righteous story with a heavy moral message. The guilty twist and suffer, and the morally correct characters are, well … insufferable.

It was a little unsettling to see Isabelle Huppert play the role of Carlotta–rather a cold fish, and it was especially un-nerving to see her close-up dubbed speeches. Otto’s character was wooden, and Edouard rather unbelievable–his eagerness at several points in the film was quite nauseating. The one ‘steamy’ scene was tepid at best–and again–extraordinarily heavy-handed.  From directors Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, Elective Affinities is based on the Goethe novel.

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Filed under Isabelle Huppert, Italian, Period Piece

I’m Not Scared (2003)

A marvelous film

We know within the first few scenes of the wonderful Italian film, I’m Not Scared that the protagonist, Michele (Giuseppe Cristiano) is a very unique boy. He has a moment of choice, and whereas many ten year olds would opt for the easy way out, Michele does not. Michele’s sense of morality is apparent, and in spite of peer pressure, he chooses the moral action. Michele, a quiet, introspective boy lives with his parents and his younger sister in a remote area of Southern Italy. The year is 1978. It’s an endless summer–glorious days are spent playing with friends, and running with careless abandon through fields of golden wheat. Michele and his friends play some of their games at an abandoned house, and it’s here, Michele discovers a boy his own age who lies chained in a filthy hole.

I’m not Scared reminds me of The Devil’s Backbone in terms of the presentation of a child’s recognition of evil in the adult world. I’m Not Scared, however, does not contain elements of the supernatural. Instead this is the story of a boy who loves and obeys his parents, and then tries to reconcile a new horrible knowledge into his code of morality. The film, directed by Gabriele Salvatores portrays the child’s view of life exceedingly well. Too often, films resort to children as the know-it-alls–spewing out a ludicrous wisdom of life. Michele, however, remains a 10 year old boy–content to keep a secret, and yet simultaneously unaware of the ramifications of his knowledge. I’m Not Scared is a marvelous film in Italian with English subtitles.

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Lamerica (1994)

“Men with lice don’t sleep well.”

Lamerica from director Gianni Amelio is a political film set in Albania. Albania has just emerged from years of communist rule, and two opportunistic Italians, Gino and Fiore come to Albania to set up a bogus shoe factory. Fiore has done this sort of thing before. Gino–the younger man–has not. In order to set up the factory, the wheels of Albanian bureaucracy need to be greased. The plan is that investors or grants will fund the so-called factory, and the two Italians will set up the bogus company, grab all the money and run. This seems like a fairly simple plan, and one that has worked well for Fiore previously.

The minute Gino and Fiore arrive in Albania, it is clear that they are in the midst of a highly unstable and volatile political situation. 100s of troops are in the ruined streets, and starving beggars hound the well-dressed, well-fed Italians. Thousands of Albanians are desperate to leave and will go to any lengths to join the crowds of refugees swarming onto every ship, train or bus heading for the border. Italian culture permeates the poverty-stricken country. Everywhere they go, the Italians trip upon elements of Italian culture in the most unlikely places. The starving Albanians are narcotized by Italian game shows, and Albanian parents will give away a child on the off chance that fame awaits in Italy. Gino seems doubtful that the plan can work, but Fiore is more confident.

Albanian law requires the selection of an Albanian as the chairman of the company. The Italians require someone as a figurehead only–someone with no relatives, and their search leads them to the squalor of a former “model labor camp.” There, the Italians are introduced to a pathetic, filthy old man who is called Spiro Tozai. But Tozai is not quite what he seems.

When Tozai goes missing, Gino begins the hunt for his precious ‘chairman’. Gino leaves the relative comfort and security of his hotel to search for Tozai. One by one, the layers that separate Gino from the Albanians are stripped away, and Gino finds himself as helpless and desperate as the average Albanian. Gino is not a sympathetic character at all. He has no time for the beggars who line the streets–he is simply out for himself. In contrast, Tozai–a man who has suffered years of deprivation in a labor camp, cares for his fellow men. Gino’s complete degradation becomes his journey towards joining the human race.

There are only two professional actors in this film, and yet every performance was solid. Lamerica is a perfect film. I recommend it without reservations.

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Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)

“Under the evil influence of Uranus.”

Hercules Against the Moon Men–an Italian sword and sandal film–is every bit as absurd as its title suggests. Wicked Queen Samara (Delia D’Alberti) rules the kingdom of Samar, and she’s secretly in cahoots with the Moon Men–an alien race who’ve taken up residence on the Mountain of Death. Queen Samara regularly sends chained, screaming, resisting human sacrifices to the invaders. The people get so fed up, they send for Hercules/Maciste (Sergio Cianni AKA Alan Steel) a tanned, oiled, muscle-bound hero. He can knock down rows of the Queen’s men like bowling pins and effortlessly toss others into vats of wine.

The film is dubbed. The Alpha DVD is a bit crackly for the first scenes, and the picture is tolerable–but not clean and crisp. The film’s colour is faded. The most bizarre feature of the film is the hodge podge blending of mythology. There are bits of Roman and Greek culture weaved with Egyptian motifs, and even a pinch of the labyrinth of the Minotaur thrown in for good measure. There’s one scene with Hercules wearing what appears to be undies with a lacy waistband. Ultimately–this is truly cheesy cinema with zero camp appeal.

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Bread and Tulips (2000)

“Once again, happiness knocked on my door in vain.”

Italian housewife, Rosalba Barletta (Licia Maglietta) is on en route back home after a holiday with her obnoxious loudmouth husband and their two teenage sons. Rosalba is inadvertently left behind at a bus stop. At first she intends to catch up with her family, but then she makes a detour to Venice–a city she’s always wanted to see. A one-night escape converts into a full-blown adventure, and soon Rosalba is living and working in Venice establishing a new life all of her own.

Rosalba’s overbearing husband furiously demands that she return, but his nastiness serves only to re-enforce the reasons she’s in Venice in the first place. When Rosalba doesn’t return, her husband (who is also cheap to the core) employs a plumber with an interest in detective fiction to hunt Rosalba down and bring her back to her ever-mounting housewifely chores.

Three characters aid and abet Rosalba. There’s Fernando Girasoli (Bruno Ganz), the loquacious waiter at a local Chinese restaurant, Grazia, the new age masseuse, and a florist with anarchistic tendencies. The naive plumber sent to track down Rosalba discovers that some detective novels tips are invaluable when tracking down a renegade housewife. While it is definitely true that the film’s appeal targets those who experience love in middle age, there’s also a delicious novelty to Bread and Tulips. It’s an utterly charming film. It’s romantic, but it’s also funny. And there’s a reassurance that stepping into a new life may be as simple as missing the bus. If you enjoyed Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, then there’s an excellent chance that you will also enjoy the very good-natured Italian film, Bread and Tulips. From director Silvio Soldini.

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Harem Suare (1999)

 “The Sultan likes happy endings.”

Director Ferzan Ozpetek sets his film Harem Suare (Last Harem) in the twilight days of the Ottoman Empire. The story revolves around Safiye (Marie Gillian), a harem dweller who was sold to the Sultan at age 8. Many of the women in the harem have yet to gain the aging Sultan’s attentions, and Safiye is one of the women who have not yet been chosen. Following an incident, Safiye gains the Sultan’s eye. He asks her name, and suddenly she is one of the favoured ones–this boils down to a night (or more) with the Sultan. If the union is fruitful, and a harem dweller bears a child, then this increases her stature in the community. She will earns jewels from the Sultan, and great envy and possibly even death from her many rivals ….

The harem is at once a protected, cosseted world for the women who live there, and a vicious hotbed of palace intrigue. Dozens of beautiful women try to find ways to spend their boring, unchallenging lives as they idle around the magnificent palace. They are little more than exotic, expensively maintained pets. Intensely threatened and jealous of one another, the women’s captivity breeds hatred and rivalry. To wile away the hours, the women spend hours naked in the steam baths, are massaged with expensive, fragrant oils, become addicted to hashish, and tell each other stories.

Story-telling is at the heart of Harem Suare, and this method of narration creates a languid timelessness and wonder–while also adding some confusing elements to the tale. One tale of harem life is told by the slave, Gulfidan (Serra Yilmaz) to a room full of harem dwellers. Gulfidan relates the story of Safiye’s rise in the harem, and her forbidden relationship with the eunuch, Nadir (Alex Descas). Other, fragmented sections of the film are composed of a now-aged Safiye (Lucia Bose) telling her story to Anita (Valeria Golina), a distraught Italian woman, as the two women wait in a train station for their respective trains to take them to their destinations. These two stories weave back and forth allowing the viewer to piece together the final tale. However, some viewers may be confused by some of the time elements–especially in the aging of Gulfidan. Gulfidan is Safiye’s maidservant, and she tells Safiye’s story to a room full of harem women long after the harem system has been disbanded. One should accept this impossibility as a device to illustrate the timelessness of a mystical conundrum.

Harem Suare is an exotic tale that exposes the incredible decadence and cruelty of a despotic system. The settings are breathtakingly beautiful, lush, and sensual. The story is tragic, and it conveys with a magnificent irony, the fate of the women who were selected for their unique talent and beauty but discarded when they ceased to be useful. The director’s subtle analogy to the fate of the harem women against the fate of the stray dogs of Istanbul is loaded with pathos. This is an absolutely stunning film, and by far my favourite Ozpetek film to date. The film is in Italian, Turkish, and French with English subtitles. Note to Ozpetek fans–the character, Anita is also the owner of the haman in Steam.

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Filed under Ferzan Ozpetek, Italian, Turkish