Tag Archives: Italy

My Cousin Rachel (1952)

It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.

My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.

Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him. 

Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….

Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.

The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events.  Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.

There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel? 

Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.

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Filed under Drama, Period Piece

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

Food for my son, you cheap slut!”

Implausible but utterly delightful, the 1945 film Madonna of the Seven Moons from director Arthur Crabtree and based on the book by Margery Lawrence was one of the era’s successful Gainsborough costume dramas. Its story appealed to a female audience for its issues of escapism and the double life led by the film’s main character, Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert). So cast aside your skepticism at this story of Italian passion acted by a British cast whose upper class accents drum up visions of empire, and just enjoy this unlikely costume drama.

Maddalena is raped by a gypsy as a young girl, and she never discusses the incident. Finding relief in religion at her convent school, she’s horrified by the idea of marriage. Fast forward to Maddalena as the wife of successful wine merchant Guiseppe Labardi (John Stuart) as they await their only daughter’s return to Rome from boarding school in England. Angela (Patricia Roc) left as a child and returns five years later as a budding young woman who–to her mother’s horror–wears short skirts and travelled home alone with a young diplomat. While Angela’s father can accept the changes in his daughter, Maddalena cannot, and she overreacts rather dramatically to her daughter’s dress and actions. Since we are in on the fact that Maddalena was raped as a teenager, we understand what motivates her, and mainly it’s a concern that the same thing doesn’t happen to her daughter.

The plot thickens when Maddalena wakes up one night with a different identity. Stealing her own jewels, she grabs a train to Florence and disappears…

Labardi reveals to Angela that Maddalena has disappeared three times over the course of their marriage–the first time was right after the ceremony (so we can guess what that was about), the second time was when Angela was at boarding school, and now this disappearance makes the third time. Angela is determined to find her mother and tracks some of the missing jewelery to Florence.

Meanwhile Maddalena has returned to her old haunt in Florence. With no memory of a former life as the wife of a wealthy wine merchant, she knows herself only as Roseanna, the jealous, passionate mistress of Nino (Stewart Granger), the leader of a band of petty crooks. Maddalena returns to Nino’s life, throwing out his current mistress Vittoria (Jean Kent) with threats of violence. It’s great fun to see Phyllis Calvert morph from the neurotic pampered wife to sexually liberated gypsy.  Since Maddalena/Roseanna has been in and out of Nino’s life three times in almost 20 years, the story has some plausibility problems–not to mention the fact that it’s entirely possible for Angela to be Nino’s child, but the film doesn’t sail those dangerous waters, so instead Maddalena as Roseanna picks up where she left off.

Angela’s hunt for her mother is complicated by the fact that she trusts slimy gigolo/thief/con-man Sandro (Peter Glenville) to help her find her mother. Straining the coincidence factor, Sandro also happens to be Nino’s brother….

Ok, so it’s implausible, but I love these old Gainsborough films. Can’t help myself–although I think the best of the lot has to be The Wicked Lady followed by The Man in Grey. These costume dramas were designed to make the audience forget their real-life problems and provide the glamour that was glaringly absent during the austerity of WWII. Given that these films were tremendous box-offices successes in their day, I’d say that the studios achieved their goal, and for classic film lovers, these Gainsborough Pictures are gems to watch.

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A Month By the Lake (1995)

a month by the lakeFans of British films set in the picturesque tourist destinations of Italy should really enjoy the engaging and highly entertaining film, A Month By the Lake from director John Irvin and based on a story by H.E.Bates. And while nothing much really happens in the film it’s an enjoyable romp, thanks mainly to the talents of the film’s leading actors Vanessa Redgrave and James Fox.

One of the unspoken rules in films that depict the British abroad, is that away from the damp and the fog of their native land, they tend to drop inhibitions and go just a little crazy as they engage in activities and relationships they wouldn’t dream of indulging in in their native land. Take Shirley Valentine and Where Angels Fear To Tread–just two of dozen of titles that explore the behaviour of the British abroad.

A Month By the Lake begins with Miss Bentley (veteran actress Vanessa Redgrave) striding up the steps of an elegant lakeside Italian villa. This is the Lake Como resort Miss Bentley has visited every year for 16 years, but this is the first time she’s come alone. Although her father has recently died, Miss Bentley returns alone to the resort as she loves Lake Como and has made firm friends amongst the other guests. This is, we are told via voice over narration, that last glorious summer before the war.

But while rumours of war grumble in the background, the action focuses on the villa and its guests. There are a couple of middle-aged American women there and also the solitary retired British Major Wilshaw (James Fox). Lonely Miss Bentley is attracted to Major Wilshaw on the very first day, and while circumstances throw them together upon occasion, he’s beguiled by the saucy, young American governess, Miss Beaumont (Uma Thurman) who has charge of two little Italian girls.

This gentle romance follows the trials and tribulations of Wilshaw’s courtship, and while the film could so easily have become cliched and like a million other films on the same subject, A Month By the Lake is saved by its wry humour and sly look at the many foibles of human behaviour–vanity, willfulness, boredom and loneliness all gilded with the fact that these characters are far away from home and the repercussions of their behaviour may not wash ashore on their doorsteps.

The film keeps the shadows of impending war in the background, but the sense remains that so much is on the brink of loss and destruction. Vanessa Redgrave steals the film as the buoyant Miss Bentley, so easy to underestimate and designate as “spinster” while underneath passion and an irrepressible zest for life longs to burst free

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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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His Secret Life (2001)

 “I don’t know who he was.”

Antonia (Margherita Buy) and Massimo (Andrea Renzi), childhood sweethearts, have been married for 15 years, when he is suddenly killed. They appeared to have a happy, settled, and successful marriage, although there are warning signals that Antonia, a doctor, fails to see. Devastated by her loss, Antonia finds a clue that Massimo hid secrets from her. Through some detective work, she discovers that her husband had a long-term relationship with another man–the sultry, Michele (Stefano Accorsi).

his-secret-lifeHis Secret Life from director Ferzan Ozpetek (Facing Windows) raises some fascinating questions. How much do we ever really know anyone–especially if that person goes to considerable lengths to hide a certain side of their character? Massimo’s death becomes an opportunity for growth for Antonia. She’s rigid and often judgmental, and even her mother bemoans the fact that Antonia needs to ease up on her approach to life. When confronted with Michele’s band of friends, Antonia discovers a group who has largely been rejected by society, and yet they are totally accepted by each other. Massimo, who appears just briefly in the beginning of the film, remains an enigma to those who loved him best, and the film, thankfully, makes no effort to understand his motives. Instead the story largely concentrates on Antonia’s exposure to Massimo’s secret, the range of emotions she experiences when she learns the truth, and her reactions to the individualism expressed by the people she meets at Michele’s flat. Unfortunately, the film declines into a rather silly romance, and while the romance itself raises some serious questions about Antonia’s behaviour, the sell-out ending, ultimately, panders to naivety. In Turkish and Italian with English subtitles.

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The Wide Blue Road (1957)

 Another brilliant film from Pontecorvo

wide-blue-roadIf you enjoyed Gillo Pontecorvo’s films The Battle of Algiers and the more obscure Burn, then there’s an excellent chance that you’ll enjoy The Wide Blue Road. While this film is less overtly political (Italian Jewish Pontecorvo is a Marxist), there’s a subtle political message there.

The Wide Blue Road is set in the islands off the coast of Italy. Since the closure of the local quarry, the only source of income for the local men is fishing. Some men have shelved their nets, and turned to using dynamite to get a bigger catch. Dynamite fishing is illegal, but the local coast guard must actually catch fisherman in the act of using dynamite in order to prosecute them.

There’s an acknowledged status quo on the island. Squarcio (Yves Montand) is known to be a great fisherman, but he’s long since given up fishing the old-fashioned way, and now uses dynamite. Everyone knows he fishes this way, but the other fishermen don’t condemn Squarcio. They see him as a fellow victim of financial hardship. The coast guard officer is also an old friend of Squarcio’s, and while he also knows that Squarcio uses dynamite, he doesn’t pursue the matter. Squarcio’s childhood friend, Salvatore (Francisco Ravel) hopes to develop a co-op amongst the fisherman and eventually buy a fridge, so that the fisherman can control more of their profits. As it is, the merchant who owns the only fridge on the island gives the men a pittance for their catch.

The status quo on the island alters when a new coast guard officer arrives. He wants to capture Squarcio, and Squarcio, won’t give up dynamite fishing–even though his wife (Alida Valli) urges him to stop. Squarcio’s quest to support his family by illegal fishing develops into a relentless, stubborn and self-destructive drive.

The Wide Blue Road (La Grande Strada Azzurra) is really a marvelous film. Yes, it’s the story of a simple fisherman, but it’s much more than that. One of the film’s major themes is an examination of Individualism/Capitalism vs. Socialism–Salvatore’s efforts to form a collective are at first assisted by Squarcio, then ignored, and finally undermined as Squarcio places the finances of his own family above all the other families on the island. Squarcio’s desire to provide for his family crosses a moral line when he compromises the other families, and as a result, Squarcio and his family become social outcasts.

The Wide Blue Road is a beautiful film. There are some breathtaking scenes of the ocean full of sailboats as the fisherman gather to begin a day’s work. The film is a touch sentimental in a few places, but overall, this is an engaging, intense story of one man’s hubris. In Italian with English subtitles.

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Beast with Five Fingers (1946)

 “In my mind there is no doubt the hand is walking around.”

In a plot that would make Edgar Allan Poe proud, the gothic thriller The Beast With Five Fingers explores the idea of revenge from beyond the grave. The reclusive and wealthy Francis Ingram (Victor Francen) lives in his villa in Italy surrounded by his nurse and caretaker, Julie (Andrea King), hanger on-composer Bruce Conrad (Robert Alda) and librarian Hilary Cummins (Peter Lorre) who’s obsessed with the occult and has free use of Ingram’s extensive library for his research. A stroke has left Ingram wheelchair bound and with one arm paralyzed. Ingram, who is imperious, demanding and controlling has fallen in love with Julie, and she wants to leave as she finds the situation with Ingram has become too suffocating.

When Ingram is killed in an accident, his relatives–Raymond and Donald Arlington (Charles Dingle & John Alvin) hurry over from England to claim the estate. At the reading of the will, everyone is surprised to learn that Julie is the sole heir. A squabble breaks out between Julie and the Arlingtons who promptly threaten to challenge the will. Ingram’s wily lawyer offers to represent the relatives in what promises to be a lucrative case, but then one night he’s strangled.

A trail of clues leads to the crypt that houses Ingram’s body, and when his coffin is opened, the police inspector discovers that Ingram’s hand has been removed….The Beast With Five Fingers is a gothic film with heavy psychological overtones that play with several plot layers–is Ingram’s hand really on the loose, murdering those who attempt to thwart his will, or is this a trick designed to cover another’s murderous intent? That’s for the viewer to decide. Yes, the film is cheesy, semi-hysterical and silly, but it’s still rather well done, and it’s one of those films that stick to your brain long after the credits roll. From director Robert Florey.

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