Tag Archives: based on true story

Roberto Succo (2001)

You can’t predict crazy

The film Roberto Succo from director Cédric Kahn, based on a true story, takes a hard cold look at the crime spree of an escaped Italian mental patient. Roberto Succo slaughtered his parents and was sent to a psychiatric hospital for a ten year sentence. He escaped, traveled to France and then embarked on a life of crime: stealing cars, and committing rape and murder along the way.

When the film opens a wild-eyed Roberto (Stefano Cassetti) who calls himself ‘Kurt,’ meets 16-year-old schoolgirl Léa (Isild le Besco), who’s on holiday in Southern France, at a seaside disco. He drives a flashy car, has wads of cash, is full of glamorous tales of his exploits, and Lea gets caught up in the drama of their romance. Kurt claims to be English, yet his accent seems Italian to Léa. There’s no sex between them-just some groping and the odd dry hump,  and when she returns home to the Savoy Mountains, he promises to see her again.

roberto succo

The film is largely episodic, and at times the narrative picks up as Roberto commits another crime or drops back into Léa’s life. In one scene, the police respond to a missing person’s report, and it’s at this point that police detective Thomas, (Patrick Dell’Isola) begins to piece together that a series of seemingly random crimes have been committed by the same individual who’s running amok across France.

After speaking to a few witnesses and putting together a crime spree map, Thomas concludes, correctly as it turns out, that they are dealing with a madman. Unfortunately Thomas’s superior doesn’t think the case is that serious….

While some of the film follows the dogged investigation, when scenes switch to Roberto, the tempo changes dramatically.  His victims will be leading their normal routines when suddenly Roberto bursts into their lives with his erratic, manic behaviour. Whether he’s ranting about endocrinology, Stendhal or Marxism, he’s clearly terrifying insane. Some of his victims are able to play cool while others aren’t so fortunate. In terms of violence, we see a post slaughter scene and photos of a slaughter scene. Not too gruesome in its distance but certainly dire enough to place a heavy weight on the narrative. The most terrifying aspect of the story has to be the sheer randomness of his attacks.

Meanwhile as the police dig for clues, Robert visits Léa. They have a relationship of sorts with him spinning various versions of himself and Léa either largely swallowing or deciding to ignore the glaring inconsistencies in his tales.

Roberto is clearly a fantasist and the film shows that well. At times he brags he’s a terrorist, a Marxist, and when given attention he’s caught in the moment as he spews out various elaborate, grandiose versions of his life. Stefano Cassetti delivers a convincing performance as the mercurial madman who doesn’t seem to have a goal other than ‘freedom.’ His victims exist to help him achieve that careening, elusive ideal. Towards the end of the film, he rants his insane version of the fate of one of his victims, and while we know his version is twisted, the horrifying fate of the victim haunts the scene.

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The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

I can think of quite a few films that deal with the subject of leading a secret homosexual life, but not so many that deal with the problems facing lesbians. BBC’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is based on a real life woman (1791-1840), a young Yorkshire woman living with her uncle and aunt at Shibden Hall when the film begins. Anne (Maxine Peake) is often in the company of lovers and friends Mariana (Anna Madeley) and Isabella ‘Tib” (Susan Lynch) and the three young women enjoy a great deal of freedom in each other’s company. This all comes to a screeching halt when Mariana is married off to elderly widower Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin). Up to this point, Mr Lawton’s presence, and his obvious hunt for the next Mrs Lawton, have provided the raw material for jokes.

Anne is heart broken and begs her lover Mariana to call off the marriage, but Mariana, who clearly knows what society expects of her, refuses. Anne wears black to the wedding, and afterwards tries to move on to a new love. Tib tries to console Anne, but the spark isn’t there.

Years pass and a few communications pass between Anne and Mariana. They swear a solemn vow to be true to each other, and Mariana assures Anne that her elderly husband is inching, daily, towards the grave. Meanwhile Anne, capable of great sexual passion, records her loneliness in coded diaries. She longs to share her life with the woman she loves and seeing Mariana under various pretenses just isn’t enough.

Set against the beautiful countryside of Anne’s home, we see how Anne progresses through her life. While Mariana calls Anne, “Freddy,” she also has the nickname of “Gentleman Jack,” and after Anne refuses to marry a local landowner, his spite makes sure that the rumours spread.

Anne, Tib and Mariana are allowed quite a bit of freedom, which included sharing beds with one another. But all this was approved of in the context that these young ladies were doing exactly what society expected them to do–and that included taking the husbands arranged for them and ‘doing their duty.’ (Sex and children). There are clues that some people were quite aware of Anne’s sexual orientation, but either chose to ignore it or else they imagined that it would pass once she found a suitable husband.

It’s interesting to note that no-one is suspicious of the sexual orientation of Anne’s aunt and uncle. The uncle is a substantial landowner, but there’s no mention of a wife, and of course the sister acts as a housekeeper. But they are passed the age of sexual queries. They may both be gay for all we know, but it no longer seems to matter to society. Also of note in that while the mingling of the single sexes was monitored and scrutinized by polite society, two or three girls alone together was …. well no big deal until one of them refused to marry a suitable husband.

As the film, which cut out some of the most interesting parts of Anne’s life, continues, we see Anne become increasingly masculine in dress and behaviour. There’s one scene when her hair has been curled and it looks god-awful, yet still the femininity garners compliments.

A lot more could have been done with the subject matter, but it’s well casted, well acted and pretty to look at. Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack is currently posted preproduction on IMDB

Director James Kent

Writer Jane English

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Cinema Verite (2011)

Add Cinema Verite to the list of worth-catching HBO films. This interesting, well-acted and thought-provoking film is based on the story behind the very first reality TV show, and after watching the film, I was surprised that I hadn’t heard the story of the Loud family–the subjects of a 1973 PBS documentary miniseries called An American Family. Attractive Santa Barbara based Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) along with their 5 children seem like perfect raw material to producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini)–the man who had the creative idea to film an American family as entertainment–not a particularly easy sell according to Cinema Verite. Gilbert is directed towards the Louds by a mutual acquaintance, and when he pitches his idea of filming the Louds in their upscale Santa Barbara ranch style home, at first Pat is resistant but then folds and agrees to participate. The cameras move in and the action begins.

On one level, the Louds appear to be the perfect American family with a stay-at-home attractive mother, a hard-working Nixonite dad and 5 talented children, but under the surface everything isn’t as Disney as it first appears. Cinema Verite depicts Gilbert as being fully aware of the potential for cliff-hanging drama within the fractured family structure.

This 2011 film which runs to 86 minutes cannot, of course, do justice to all the drama contain in the 12 episodes that aired in 1973, so while some issues and events are given centre-stage, other aspects of the Loud family drama are given short shrift. Nonetheless, this is a very entertaining film which asks some relevant questions: is there such a thing as reality TV when participants are aware that cameras are recording their every word? Does the presence of cameras inevitably cause people to commit acts they wouldn’t otherwise? Do people get caught up in their own roles and, in essence, subconsciously write a script for the roles they are playing? Does a camera turned on the family dynamic cause more introspection? Finally, of course, there’s the question of whether or not the series subjects are exploited, and that’s covered in the film’s final scenes.

The Loud family saga explodes through Bill’s exposed infidelities with numerous women including one brainless wanna-be actress, and then there’s the oldest son, Lance (Thomas Dekker) who takes up residence at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, and becomes best friends with Candy Darling, Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn before he decides to go and find himself in Paris. The film doesn’t emphasis the radical cultural impact that Lance’s homosexuality must have caused through the episodes weekly beamed into American living rooms. Lance Loud was the first openly gay person to appear on American television, and he basically comes ‘out’ during the course of the series. One scene depicts some of the nastiness he faced as a result of the programme.

Diane Lane as Pat Loud is as superb as ever, and she’s also a very sympathetic character–a woman who’s managed to submerge her suspicions about her husband’s infidelities until the cameras arrive. Cinema Verite argues that the Louds participation in the series caused the family to implode. Perhaps a meltdown would have occurred without the camera crew on hand, but there’s a very strong argument that at the very least the Loud family’s participation in the series hastened the family crisis.

From directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini

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Manuela Sáenz (2001)

“If you wonder about Bolívar, it’s enough for you to know that I loved him when he was alive, and now that he’s dead, I praise him.”

Set in the 19th century, Manuela Sáenz from director Diego Rísquez is the story of the lover of Simon Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who fought against Spanish rule and united a number of South American countries into La Gran Columbia. Manuela Sáenz played a significant role in Bolívar’s life but seems largely lost to history. This film is the perfect companion film for the Columbian political satire, Bolívar is Me.

Manuela Sáenz begins in the year 1856 with the arrival of a whaling ship in Paitu, Peru. On the ship is the young Herman Melville (Erich Wildpret) who’s heard that Manuela Sáenz lived there at one time. He’s astonished to learn that she is still alive, and he seeks her out. Now partially paralyzed, she lives with her two faithful servants and a number of dogs named after Bolívar’s enemies in a primitive hut which overlooks the ocean. Impoverished, she’s managed to survive by translating and also selling tobacco. Melville meets and talks briefly to Manuela (Beatriz Valdés), but he only seems to stir unhappy memories (this actually happened btw). She asks him “Why do you want to meet this ruin of history?” He replies: “Well, I’ve always been interested in legends and you are one of them.” Meanwhile diphtheria arrives in Paitu and the death toll begins to climb….

The film is told with flashbacks and the ‘present’ is filmed in sepia while the past is in colour. Through the flashbacks we see a few glimpses of Manuela’s early life. She was a bastard child, the product of an Ecuadorian woman and a Spanish officer and grew up in a convent–although those 2 latter details are not made clear. Later her family arranged marriage with a British merchant, Dr. Thorne, but her life changed drastically when she met Simon Bolívar and they quickly became lovers. Scenes show how she left her outraged husband, and she was later made a Colonel in Bolívar’s forces. Other scenes depict how some officers were appalled by her behaviour and resented her presence while others embraced her commitment.

This is primarily the tale of the love story between Manuela and Bolívar, and the emphasis is on their relationship rather than the events that took place, so when revolts and battles occur, there’s little detail which really is a pity. The film doesn’t emphasise that in sympathy with the revolution against Spain, she’d already left her husband in 1822 before she met Bolívar. The sexual passion between Manuela and Bolívar is evident, and when circumstances force them to be apart, their correspondence keeps the relationship alive. Manuela’s greatest treasure is a box full of his letters.

When Bolívar is finally overthrown and sent into exile, Manuela remains behind, but her presence is a dangerous reminder of Bolívar. Bolívar’s enemies considered her capable of starting a counter-revolution, so she too is sent into exile. Scenes show a long arduous trek with her loyal supporters (former slaves) before she finally settles in Paitu where she  remains until Melville’s ship sails in.  

The film quality is spotty; some scenes appear more faded than others. One of the scenes depicting the burning of a body is a little over done, but apart from that, this is an interesting film in spite of the fact that it left this viewer dissatisfied with the patchy history of Manuela. While her passion for Bolívar is evident, her defiance of social laws, which includes leaving her husband and dressing in men’s clothing, hints at a fascinating woman. Other scenes however leave a lot unexplained. She holds a mock execution, for example, which angers Bolívar and he ultimately bans her from his presence–not a permanent ban, I should add.

Manuela Sáenz, a Venezuelan film, is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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Dostoevsky (2010)

“I wanted to write about the world of moral chaos.”

Dostoevsky is a 2010 8 episode mini-series made for Russian television from director Vladimir Khotinenko, and if you’re into Russian film, Russian history or Dostoevsky, then this marvellous DVD is well worth the purchase. The film doesn’t begin with the start of Dostoevsky’s life, but rather it begins as he’s about to be executed for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. This incident was a pivotal event in Dostoevsky’s life–not only did it mark the beginning of his harsh exile in Siberia, but it also marked a turn in his moral outlook which consequently impacted his literary work. Veteran actor Yevgeny Mironov plays Dostoevsky, and I can’t think of another Russian actor who could tackle this fiercely nuanced role so effectively. Interestingly Mironov also played the title role in the 2003 television series version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Each of the episodes begins with Dostoevsky sitting for the famous portrait painted by Petrov, and then from this point, the action segues usually from memory. Here’s some highlights from each episode:

1) Dostoevsky’s mock execution (not quite accurately portrayed) and his exile &  imprisonment in Omsk, Siberia

2) Dostoevsky as a private and later a lieutenant in the Russian Army stationed in Semipalatinsk, Siberia and his love affair with Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva (played by the exquisite Chulpan Khamatova), the consumptive and miserably unhappy wife of an unemployed bureaucrat.

3) Dostoevsky in St Petersburg 1959: his troubled marriage to Maria, his continuing struggles with his literary career, his love for an actress.

4) Continuing disintegration of marriage to Maria , his passionate affair with Apollinaria Suslov (Polyina), closure of the literary magazine he ran with his brother Mikhail, 1863 trip to Wiesbaden, gambling at casino, public reading of Insulted and humiliated.

5) Dostoevsky, driven almost insane by his passion for Polyina,  follows her to Paris. Goes to Baden- Baden–the death of Dostoevsky’s brother, Mikhail–the death of Maria.

6) Heavily burdened by debt, Dostoevsky makes a bet with publisher that he’ll write a novel in one month. This novel is appropriately called The Gambler, and when Dostoevsky makes the bet to complete the novel in a month, he’s yet to write a line of it. Under immense pressure to meet the deadline (if he loses the publisher has all rights to anything  Dostoevsky produces for the next nine years), he seems destined to fail. With this all or nothing scenario, Dostoevsky employs the quiet, self-possessed Anna (Alla Yuganova) as a stenographer.

7) Marriage to Anna. Baden-Baden 1867. Meets and argues with Turgenev. Anna gives birth to first child

8) Dostoevsky’s family life and continued literary success.

The series depicts Dostoevsky as a complex man, an introvert who falls in love easily, and his love affairs seem to satisfy some facet of his personality. His compassion for Maria, for example, long  outlived any emotional attachment, his second marriage gave him some emotional stability, and his affairs drove him to the brink of insanity. Several scenes depict Dostoevsky in society, and these scenes serve to highlight Dostoevsky’s complexities through his conversations with other intellectuals who repeatedly attempt to pigeon-hole his intricate beliefs & his deep-rooted compassion.

The film doesn’t delve into the production of Dostoevsky’s great novels, and that’s a bit disappointing, and instead the plot focuses on Dostoevsky seen through the prism of his relationships, and his struggles with poverty (at one point for example, he and Anna have to pawn clothes in order to send a finished manuscript of The Idiot back to Russia), and there are also a few allusions to some of the deeper references to his life.  We see Anna doggedly working on a stamp collection, and while there’s no background to that hobby, it’s a reference to the discussion Dostoevsky once had with Anna about women. He claimed that women would approach stamp collecting with the thrill of buying a new expensive album, but that the excitement of stamp collecting would wear off shortly after making the expensive purchase. Anna, who later managed Dostoevsky’s life and career with intelligent, quiet and protective passion, bought a cheap album and proceeded to collect stamps for the rest of her life.  The film also hints of the manner in which she dealt with Dostoevsky’s ever-grasping stepson, Pavel. Watching the film and appreciating the monumental struggles this brilliant author suffered serves to create wonder–not only that a man of this intellectual calibre suffered for the want of a few roubles, but that he never gave up the quest to write the novels he left for the world. 

For this viewer, the film has some unforgettable scenes: Dostoevsky chuckling outside of the casino at Baden-Baden. His pockets are packed are full of his winnings and he chuckles like a child constantly patting his pockets. At another point, he’s trying to finish The Gambler within a month and he’s down to the wire and feeling ill. Anna settles him on the couch and he mutters something about being spoiled. She replies that a man cannot be spoiled by love, and we see the wheels churning in Dostoevsky’s mind as he absorbs that comment. The camera is behind Dostoevsky, so we catch a side view, and somehow the camera captures the thought process in Dostoevsky’s brain–simply by focusing on a close up of an eye and an eyebrow–as he reevaluates Anna.  Another incredible scene takes place between a smoothly depicted Turgenev and an impassioned Dostoevsky (involving the spiteful rumours from the former that the latter molested a child). There’s also a great moment between Dostoevsky and his stepson Pavel as he whines about being poor: “Pasha, this is stupid to be ashamed of poverty, You should be ashamed of stupidity.” Finally one of the film’s most explosive scenes in which Mironov is Dostoevsky takes place during a public reading of Pushkin’s The Prophet. Absolutely incredible.

There were a couple of points in the film that were not explained. At one point, for example, Anna, Dostoevsky’s new stenographer and future wife shows up to work one day and Dostoevsky’s eye is damaged. Has he been beaten up or was this a result of an injury sustained during a seizure? We don’t know. The film has a few subtitle problems but nothing you can’t work out for yourself.

There are two recurring motifs throughout the film: one depicts Dostoevsky throwing a dice during a childhood game, and this motif is placed to introduce the seismic shifts in Dostoevsky’s life–often incidents that take place on a whim or by chance, and the second motif is the continual placement of the roulette wheel juxtaposed with Dostoevsky’s hard labour in Siberia and his task to turn a giant wheel with bloodied hands. As the roulette wheel and the giant wheel to which Dostoevsky was chained, day after day, are structured similarly, the motif underscores Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling which enslaved him as surely as his sentence to Siberia.  Ultimately the film, loaded with splendid performances, will give you insights into Dostoevsky’s life and work, and that’s no small achievement. This really is a marvellous bio-pic. Grab it if you find it.

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Yaroslav, Tysyachu let Nazad (2010) Iron Lord

I die with the sword in my hand.”

As a fan of Russian cinema, I took a chance on the 2010 film Iron Lord (Yaroslav, Tysyachu let Nazad) from director Dmitri Korobkin. Apart from a short youtube clip, I had no way of gauging whether or not the DVD was worth the purchase, and it’s not available, at least at the time of this post, for rent. These low budget historical/adventure films often end up cheesy, but I was surprised to find that Iron Lord was an entertaining film–not too heavy on gore– despite its historical and war-like setting.

The film begins with a rapid explanation which sets its story in its historical context. It’s the beginning of the 11th century. Grand Prince Vladimir rules in Kiev, and it’s been two decades since he brought Christianity to Russia. His sons rule different areas of the land, and collect tribute from their respective regions–some of which is sent to Kiev. Vladimir’s youngest son Yaroslav (Alexsandr Ivashkevich), oversees the most eastern section and rules in Rostov. There’s a  problem collecting tributes, however, mainly due to the intervention of brigands who also harvest slaves from the local tribes. When the film begins, Yaroslav sets out to collect his tribute only to run right into a band of brigands and their latest haul as they head along the Volga trade route.

Yaroslav and his men, including the mercenary Berserker viking, Harald (Aleksey Kravchenko) take a stand against the brigands which results in the decimation of a pagan shrine of the Bear tribe. Following the attack, Yaroslav reasons that the region will not be safe unless he builds a fort there and offers protection to the local tribes–you can’t after all expect regular tribute payments if those who owe it are being hauled off into slavery. As Yaroslav and his men continue their journey, they capture a woman, Raida (Svetlana Chuikina), the daughter of the chief of the Bear tribe,  Yaroslav decide to return her to her village….

Meanwhile back in Rostov, Prince Sviatozar (Viktor Verzhbitskiy) waits for Yaroslav to return to marry his daughter, Princess Zhelanna, but with each increasing success of the brigands, he begins to suspect that there’s a traitor in their midst….

Skullduggery, battles and even a couple of romances vie for screen time in a film which has very little down time. In spite of the fact the warriors use axes, swords, bows and arrows, and various other pieces of crude weaponry, there’s surprisingly little gore, and the few torture scenes are not overdone–perhaps this is due to the fact that everything is very basic. No iron maidens here–although there is a one mention of a rack, but torture is relegated mostly off-screen. In one torture scene, one poor devil is tortured with a stone removed from the fire, while outside children play with stones, halting their game to listen to the screams.  Scenes show life in Rostov and also in the Bear pagan village which is a nest of traps, underground tunnels, and an enormous grizzly bear who is the manifestaion of their god, Veles. The director seems to use a low-budget handicap to good results. Consequently he succeeds in conveying the crude realism and casual violence of the times; I was ambushed by a couple of the plot developments, and that’s always a good thing.

It isn’t particularly easy to identify the different camps (brigands, the Varangian army, etc) as a title announcing the location of a scene comes on the screen in Russian, so it’s important to keep on your toes for this one, or you’ll miss some of the action. The DVD cover states that this adventure tale is based on a true story, and it is true that Prince Yaroslav united Russia and established the town of Yaroslavl on the Volga.

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Vénus Noire (2010)

Some stories need to be told, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those stories–transcribed to film–result in an enjoyable or entertaining experience. This of course brings up the whole question of just what we expect when we place a DVD in the player. I know that I want to be entertained. If I’m educated in the process, then that’s great, but while Vénus Noire (Black Venus)  tells an incredible story, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Am I glad I watched it? Yes.

Vénus Noire begins in France with a scene of eager young doctors at the Royal Academy of Medicine. It’s 1815 and this is a lecture hall filled with young men studying medicine. The lecturer proceeds to hand around a jar containing the unusual genitals of a “Hottentot” woman, and he also has a life size cast of the woman’s body. The upshot of the lecture is that the Hottentot woman resembles the baboon–rather than the human. That sort of gives you an indication of what you are in for with this story.

Vénus Noire is Saartjie Baartmann (Yahima Torres), a former servant from the Cape who in 1808 travelled with her entrepreneur employer, Hendrick Cezar (Andre Jacobs) to London. Lured by the promise of riches and the possibility of owning her own farm in the Cape, Saartjie becomes a highly successful draw and a big moneymaker. Hundreds squeeze into the shabby little theatre and watch the so-called Hottentot Venus who is dressed in a sheer costume, paraded around in chains like a wild animal, and managed with a whip. Off the stage, Saartjie smokes cigars, knocks back booze and even shops followed by two black attendants, but Saartjie and Cezar’s performance outrages certain members of the African Association (Britain saw the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807) who see Saartjie as horribly exploited. Saartjie and Cezar end up in court with both of them arguing that she performs of  her own free will. She’s not a slave, and yet due to racial inequalities, it’s easy to argue that the act which is in extremely bad taste, also exploits Saartjie–after all what other choices does she have?

When Saartjie is more or less forced to leave England due to the messy trial, things go downhill. They hook up with animal trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) and Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) and become the entertainment for various Paris salons, kink shows, and brothels. If Saartjie was exploited before, it’s nothing to what awaits her in Paris….

At 159 mins. Vénus Noire is a long film, and throughout the course of the tale, Saartjie’s act doesn’t basically change–although it is modified to include even more degrading exhibitions. During the performances, Saartjie objects occasionally, and most of the objections occur when she’s fondled by the audience or required to exhibit her genitals–either at kinky parties or for French doctors. Films which require the audience to accompany the protagonist on a journey of degradation can be extraordinarily painful and even an exercise in masochism. As the endless scenes from Saartjie’s act continue, I’ll admit that I had a difficult time watching performance after performance of this poor woman who is trotted out for ‘entertainment’ repeatedly.

Vénus Noire is most interesting for its blurred boundaries. Is Saartjie, for example, performing of her own ‘free will’? Well, if ‘free will’ means that she agrees to walk on stage, then, yes, she’s there of her own free will. But if ‘free will’ means that Saartjie wants to perform for a leering, groping crowd, then the answer is ‘no,’ Saartjie is not acting through free will. There are several other instances of the blurring of boundaries in the film–Saartjie is forced to exhibit her genitals for the pervs of Paris and for the doctors of the Royal Academy. Is there a difference? Both lots pay for the pleasure, and one lot may be drooling, but for Saartjie, who’s on the receiving end of the voyeurism, there’s little difference.

And of course, finally, the Royal Academy, measuring every angle of Saartjie’s body (reminds me of the Nazis)  make note of her genitals and extraordinary buttocks, yet panning the audience of Saartjie’s shows, we see only crowds of freaks–the ugly, the deformed, the pock-marked–a race of imperfects who squintingly point a finger when noticing the differences of others.

From director Adellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)

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