Saturday, 27 March 2010

La Notte (1961)

Synopsis: Michaelangelo Antonioni's portrait of an bourgeois Milanese couple and their marriage in crisis, very different from Rossellini's Journey to Italy but with some parallels. Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau play the couple throughout a day and a night (hence the title), reflecting on their relationship and what they really mean to each other.

A work of absolute, blinding, bloody genius. I could just leave it at that, but you wouldn't really understand why, would you?

La Notte is the second in Antonioni's trilogy about middle class malaise, which also includes L'avventura and L'eclisse. There were bits of the film (at the Gherardini party) that also reminded me (a little) of La Dolce Vita. Not just because of the laid back presence of the suave Mastroianni but the decadence and indulgence (both material and otherwise) of the characters. These people have no complaints, nothing to feel aggrieved about but with Monica Vitti's character, Valentina, especially we see a boredom with life itself. At one point she erases a piece of prose she has recorded, showing just how bored and despondent she feels.

This is a film about a marriage and the complacency of the couple in that marriage, how they take each other for granted or how their love has gone awry. The film opens with the couple visiting a dying friend, Tomasso, in hospital. We see Jeanne reacting particularly coldly/strangely. This is setting us up for one of the underplayed climaxes of the film. Whilst at the party, Jeanne phones the hospital to check on Tomasso's condition. She finds out he has died and her reaction tells us everything. Her face is that of someone who has just lost a great love and her earlier coldness suddenly becomes understandable. So, in the midst of cynical, almost wife swapping, middle class Italian Abigail's Party we get a moment of really delicate sadness.

As for Mastroianni, we see his attempt at philandering flounder (!) as Monica Vitti finds out he is married and rejects him. Valentina holds up a mirror to the couple, reflecting back the truth of their relationship. At the end of the film we see the couple leaving the party the following morning (see picture above). As they sit in a park at dawn, Jeanne admits her love for Tomasso and they both arrive at a pivotal moment. Jeanne pulls a letter from her bag and reads it aloud. The letter describes a man's love for a woman early on in a relationship. At the end, Mastroianni asks who wrote the letter and Jeanne reminds him that he had written it about, and to, her. This is a moment of desperate realisation, both are confronted by being found out as no longer committed to each other but not knowing what to do about it. They embrace and Mastroianni attempts to seduce his wife in what we gradually realise is a golf course sand trap. How apt.

The acting from all, but especially the women, is first rate. Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau were two female acting powerhouses of post war European cinema, playing real, complex women. Along with Vitti's other characters in Antonioni's films (she stars in both L'avventura and L'eclisse) and Moreau's Catherine in Truffaut's Jules et Jim, we are treated to really classy portrayals of women in love and in crises. You just don't get them like this anymore.

As for the way the film looks, there are not enough superlatives for Gianni Di Venanzo's exceptional cinematography (he was also responsible for the photography in Fellini's 8 and a 1/2). It's innovative, edgy, daring and original. The scenes shot in the city are full of ace tight shots but with mid/deep focus, giving a feel of stretching, distended space and perspective. Every frame is a gorgeous, modernist work of art. There is superb composition in almost every scene, and his use of light and reflection is just bloody lush (he manages to signal so much in the scene in which Monica Vitti switches the light off at dawn and the scenes with the reflection of Mastroianni and Vitti in the glass doors seem to crackle with energy). Watching this film a massive, massive visual treat.

See also: La Dolce Vita, Story of a Love Affair

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Thursday, 25 March 2010

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Synopsis: Married French woman and married Japanese man enjoy a passionate night together in Hiroshima before she recounts the experience of her first love - a German soldier. Themes of devastating loss, love, and the fickle nature of memory.

Alain Resnais' film is a story of interweaving themes of memories, from the tragedy of the Hirsoshima bomb right down to the micro level of a couple of strangers enjoying a night together and then reflecting on memories of love. There is also some seriously nice photography in this film, not only of post-war Hiroshima architecture but also of the couple and their embraces.

The introduction of the film sees the woman recounting information about what she has seen in Hiroshima and the man challenging her memories. We hear this in voiceover and the images are a combination of 1959 Hiroshima, post-bomb and its after effects and images of the couple embracing. This odd juxtaposition is set up with the opening shot, showing the skin of the couple glimmering, shimmering and being showered with what looks like glitter. This is then echoed in the images of Hiroshima victims' burnt and bubbling skin.

For the viewer this is a strong but odd connection to make - on the one hand we're witness to a brief but intense love affair and on the other we are faced with images of mass human devastation. This connection of memory and war reminded me of the War Memorial favourite phrase Lest we Forget and as we move through the film we are shown in parrallel how victims of Hiroshima are keeping alive the memories and effects of the bomb and how the woman struggles to keep alive the memories of her first love, both traumatic events.

The story was written by Marguerite (The Lover) Duras, and the erotic element is tangible but, as the film was made in 1959, fairly restrained. The start of the film is partly taken up with shots of the couple in the midst of their lovemaking, however this is not your usual soft focus, Vaseline-on-the-lense, Sylvia Kristel erotic film making. We are seeing the couple from above, with an intense spotlight on the man's back, with the woman's arms embracing him. We also see her hands caressing him and both of their arms entangling. So much is left out, unseen, but the bits that are seen are beautifully shot and point to so much more desire than, say, standard Hollywood love scenes.

As we watch the couple move through the following day and night, things start to unravel. The woman is quite happy to leave their one night stand as just that, but the man wants more and this is so disquieting to the woman that this sets off the real core of the film. The man's persistence (and contstant questioning of her past loves) forces the woman to confront memories of her first love and in the middle section of the film, we see the couple drinking whilst the woman recounts the story of this first love, during the war, with a German soldier. As such, the affair was illicit and upon discovery of being in love with a German (and his subsequent death and liberation of her home town), the woman recounts how she was made an outcast and kept in a cellar, going mad with grief and shock. Once again, a taboo love affair is linked explicitly with the traumas of war.

The woman's voiceover at the beginning, talking through her memories of Hiroshima, also speaks directly to the man. She is contradictory in the things she says to him, at one point saying "You are killing me, you are good for me". I loved this sentiment. There is a great honesty about her feelings at this point, that at the same time as someone can be the most important person in the world, they can also be the most inappropriate.

The final act of the film did drag a wee bit for me, as the couple keep returning to her memories and going to and from a bar to her room. However, this doesn't really distract from the overall powerful theme of the desperate struggle with memories of life changing events.

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Sunday, 21 March 2010

La Jetee (1962)

Synopsis: Post apocolyptic Paris. Survivors of a 3rd world war are being experimented on by scientists to attempt to travel into the past and future to bring back help. But, it's not really about that.

Another ace film about how we interact with our memories and the futile, desperate attempt to re-live or bring back past experiences. Chris Marker's incredible film, if you can call it that, is composed almost entirely of black and white still photographs, put together as a montage and used with a voiceover to tell the story.

The story explores how the protagonist (never named) taps into vivid memories to re-connect with the past and as the scientists conducting the experiment force him back to his past again and again, his memories become stronger and stronger until he feels as if he is truly re-living them.

As the film and story are so outside of the mainstream cinematic experiences that we are used to, it's difficult to decide if what we're seeing is the main character's real memories or something that he himself has concocted.

His strongest memory is of a beautiful young woman, at first seen at a pier at Paris' Orly airport. We then see him 're-visit' this woman again and again in different settings - at a store, in a park, in a museum. Eventually (the voiceover explains) they begin to form a strong connection and you get the feeling that our protagonist begins to manipulate the memories (almost like lucid dreaming) so that they become more powerful and more meaningful.

There is a lovely sequence in a natural history museum, in which the man and woman look at the stuffed exhibits and we see in many shots and in great detail their visit, the detail somehow strengthening the 'reality' of his memories.

However, the most stunning moment in the film comes as we see the man's memory of the woman laying in bed asleep. We hear birdsong, so can we assume it's morning? She appears naked and from the camera's point of view (as though either sitting on the edge of the bed or leaning up in bed and looking down on the woman) can we assume this is after love-making? There is no voiceover at this stage to tell us anything. The still photos here bleed into one another so smoothly and eventually, and just for a few seconds, a few frames of actual moving film finish the scene. This moving section sees the woman open her eyes and smile gently. The film then cuts abruptly back to the man undergoing experimentation. This is one of the most moving, beautiful, sublime sequences I've ever seen. [Note: I was reminded recently of the Andy Warhol film Empire, an eight hour, black and white silent film of the Empire State Building taken from one viewpoint. As the light changes and dusk arrives, the lights on the building switch on. As a viewer, having sat through maybe 30 minutes of nothing really happening, this transformation is breathtaking. The change in film in La Jetee at this point is somewhat like the Empire transformation.]

The juxtaposition of the film with the photography (almost a waking up) really brings home that feeling of a vivid memory being brought right back to you. A bit like Proust's Madelines but perhaps more ambiguous, as we can't trust all of our own memories. It also serves to remind us of the devastation as we move farther and farther from important events. It's almost impossible to recount accurately the feelings, images, smells and words spoken of even the most poignant experiences of our lives and this really is like some kind of a death.

At the end of the film, we see our hero being released from experimentation and allowed to permanently revisit his most important memory - first seeing the woman at the airport. As he runs toward her though her sees one of the scientists, who shoots and kills him. His desperate need to revisit his most important memory is really about point of our death.

The other thing about this film that amazed me was the use of still photography. Even though they were still photos, they had the essence or something of moving film. A bit like when you look at a sculpture that is so well crafted, it appears to be breathing.

See also: 12 monkeys (a remake of La Jetee), Vertigo, Groundhog Day, A la recherche du temps perdu, Clockwork Orange, Slaughterhouse Five

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Sunday, 14 March 2010

Journey to Italy

Synopsis: English couple Alex and Katherine Joyce (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) visit Naples to sell the villa of a recently deceased uncle. The trip sounds the death knell of their marriage, as the wife (Ingrid Bergman) attempts to re-live a pre-marital love affair with a now dead poet.

I had read much about this film in Laura Mulvey's book on time and film Death 24 x a second. The couple's trip is used as a way of exploring the problems of their marriage and director Roberto Rossellini (whose own marriage to Ingrid Bergman was on the skids) rejects convential narrative in favour of slowly revealing the feelings of both husband and wife through a series of seemingly benign scenes.

In stark contrast to a film like this is Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road. Both stories of marriages in peril, Rev Road falls down with both overracting and with a slightly over the top, dramatic ending. How many films about couples can you name in which you see their feelings and motivations slowly and undramatically revealed and then end on an ambiguous note?

Apparently, Rossellini used improvisation to achieve an uncomfortable, awkward feel between the lead actors. I wasn't sure if it was just stiff acting or something else but, especially with George Sanders, this technique ensures that both characters come across as people unable/unwilling to ever express their true feelings.

During the opening scene, Katherine states to her husband that their trip will be the only time since their wedding that they have spent time alone. She says this with almost a surprised air, maybe only realising it herself at that moment. This is a story about a marriage in crisis, past the stage of the cliche of Relate counselling, set in a time when relationship therapy was usually done whilst drunk and angry rather than in the psychologists' offices.

As such, there isn't much cod psychological language used between the couple. They simply state their unhappiness and decide what to do about it (divorce). In a scene in which Alex returns to Naples from a visit to Capri (to party - wink, wink - unsuccessfully), we see Katherine in the villa at night, waiting up for him. When she knows he is in the house, she anxiously switches her lamp off and pretends to sleep. We can see this as her displaying concern for his whereabouts but I think it says more about the delicate line that can be drawn in marriages/long term relationships when your perception of your importance to the other person is that you no longer matter. This is often reciprocal but without/before coming on as all Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, there can be a time when you are no longer secure in your position as spouse who waits up late and welcomes/admonishes your partner as they come home late. Things have changed and there is much dishonesty as we see Katherine's anxieties and how she hides them from Alex.

There are also several tip top moments in which we see Katherine driving around Naples. We see her talking to herself, verbally abusing her husband. I loved these bits as they were so honest (at least for me). We all have a go at our partners when they're not around, talking to them directly about all the things they do wrong. The sad thing is that for Katherine the time has passed for her to think of nice things to say about her husband.

The climax of the film (for me) takes place at Pompeii (a coincidence that we're talking about a violent eruption kept at bay for years that finally destroys people). Immediately after deciding to divorce, the couple are taken to view an unveiling of the plaster casts of two people (a man and woman, husband and wife) buried alive in the Vesuvian lava. As the earth is carefully brushed away to reveal the likenesses beneath, Katherine is overcome with emotion. It is at this point that so much comes together: the couple knowing that their marriage is dead and that they are in some way looking at themselves, and that, like the archaeologist unearthing the bodies, they are finally revealing their true feelings to each other that have been buried for too long.

This scene had me blubbing like a loon. It is without melodrama, and in this dry, raw and honest way, Rossellini rips open many a lie about marriage to reveal the truth - that many people sit dormant in dysfunctional relationships far beyond their 'natural' end and in many cases marriages end not because of big events such as infidelity but that it is often a case of there being a hair's breadth between staying together and splitting up.

As the scene continues, and as Alex and Katherine make their way back to the car, the accompanying music swells and the camera pulls out to a wide shot of the couple walking away I honestly thought Rossellini was about to end the film here. For a few moments I felt genuinely shocked, not believing that a director could be so cruel to both story and audience. Howevever, as the film continued to its actual conclusion I wondered if this would have, in fact, been the perfect ending. A truly crushing blow to any hope for happy resolution.

Memory and how we try to resurrect the dead
Much of the story is taken up with following Katherine as she re-lives a previous love affair with a soldier poet. We find out very little about her ex-lover and we come to understand her feelings about him through watching her visit museums, churches and tourist attractions. These visual clues help us build up a picture of Katherine's poignant attempt to re-live memorable moments with this lover. Her memories of her time with him, however brief, are all she has and this revisiting, replaying of significant events allows her to wallow in her still strong feelings.

As the lover is dead, it would be impossible for Katherine to actually replay meeting him or even moving their story on. All she has are the poems he wrote and the times they spent together. I found these scenes incredibly moving and sad, speaking as they do of something that can never, ever be regained by Katherine (or by any of us?)- her brief experience of what she believes was true love, or certainly a truer love than the one she has with Alex.

These scenes are crucial in illustrating the strength of memory versus the history of actual events. We never see Katherine with this man, we have no idea what he thought of her and so we can only go on her memories and re-enacting of previous events. This highlights how our memories are so fragile - we may have very strong rememberances of old lovers but how true are they? Did we really mean as much to that ex-lover as we hope, pray, felt at the time? Or, is the re-living of beautiful memories a way of strengthening the good parts, and trying to weaken or even block out the reality of it not working out.

Whilst watching this film, I was reminded again and again of James Joyce's short story The Dead. This story tells the tale of a married couple (Gabriel and Gretta) who go to a Christmas party with friends and relatives in Dublin. At the end of the evening and when the couple are preparing for bed, Gretta (set off by discussing a song) is overcome with memories of long dead ex-lover. As Gretta relays the story to Gabriel, she sobs and after she is asleep Gabriel thinks how strongly his wife must have loved the young man, and how he himself has never felt the same way about anybody.

Both Katherine and Gretta's memories are of love affairs cut short by death. The very nature of 'unfinished business' means that for both of them, memories are key. As they never got to test out a marriage with their former lovers, they are destined to replay what might have been. To use the cod psychology so loved by modern marriage counsellors, neither find 'closure' and that is what makes The Dead and Journey to Italy so emotionally devastating.

The film ends with Alex and Katherine getting caught up in a street procession in their car. Katherine gets out to walk and gets swept along by the crowd. As she is eventually reunited with Alex, there is ambiguity as to whether or not they will divorce. They still love each other in a way but surely this is just a last ditch attempt to salvage a non existent relationship.

A Journey to Italy is an adult, intelligent story of a marriage as it ends. Rossellini does not patronise his audience with trite messages or a happy ending. Instead he gives an honest account of the daily struggle many married folk face in reconciling their memories of past/potential loves with the reality of life with the spouse they have chosen.

See also: The Dead, Revolutionary Road

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I Vitelloni

Synopsis: Postwar Italian rites of passage film from Federico Fellini. We follow five friends as they wander aimlessly through several events in a seaside town. The story centres mainly around the philandering of one of the gang, Fausto. We watch as he tries to escape responsibility and how this affects the rest of the group and his wife, Sandra.

The film begins with an introduction to a group of five male friends in an Italian seaside town in winter. They are all attending a local beauty contest. We watch as one of the young men (Fausto) chats up a woman and is rejected. Soon after we discover that his girlfriend, who has won the contest, is pregnant with his child. A thunderstorm rolls in and puts an end to the evening's festivities.

This is the cue/setup for the rest of the film's action, as Fausto attempts to escape the responsibility of being a husband/father. Even when he accepts these roles, he continues his philandering and mistreatment of his wife.

As we watch his continuing immoral actions, we also see the effect that this has on his wife's brother and another one of the group, Moraldo (played by the beautiful Franco Interlenghi). Moraldo provides the thoughtful, moral centre of the film. He stands by and watches as Fausto disrespects his sister time and time again with other women. At two points in the film he even acts as an apologist for Fausto's actions.

However, it is Moraldo who is the one finally to leave this laddish lifestyle and the town at the end of the film.

The climax of the film shows Fausto's wife disappear with their baby. Fausto's frantic search for them (along with his friends) brings his bad behaviour to the fore, with Moraldo finally realising the consequences of his friend's actions. As Fausto is searching for Sandra at the beach, he encounters a woman that he tried to pick up whilst with his wife at the cinema. His aggressive hounding of her is constrasted in this scene as she propositions him. Fausto rejects her as he is looking for his wife and child, and we see possibly a changed man, one whose focus is now where it should have been all along.

(Interestingly, I've also been watching the U.S. TV series Six Feet Under recently and this part of the story is replayed in the 3rd season, with the lead character Nate Fisher, desperately searching for his lost wife at the beach and regretting how he had previously taken her for granted.)

Sandra and baby are eventually found safe and well with Fausto's father, who proceeds to give Fausto a good belting, highlighting Fausto's position as a child himself, still needing a parent to reinforce moral boundaries and make him be a man.

See also: Six Feet Under (3rd season), Diner,

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Thursday, 11 March 2010

The Deutsche Borse Photography Prize - The Photographers Gallery

Out of the four photographers selected to battle it out for this years £30,000 prize one stands head and shoulders above the rest. Magnum photographer Donovan Wylie's photographs of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland, taken after it had been decommissioned, make up an impression body of work on location, architecture and the relationship between politics and built environment.

Just to mention that the other contenders (all by women, by the way) were okay but fairly undergraduate compared with the mighty Wylie. This was partly due to subject matter and partly due to the ways in which work was presented. But this is my blog, so I don't have to talk about any of them. Back to the Maze (so to speak).

All of us in the UK with even a small knowledge of contemporary history will be familiar with the Maze prison, what is was and what it symbolised. This was the place where the worst of the worst prisoners from 'The Troubles' (always sounds like a dicky tummy rather than a decades long civil war) were sent. This was the place where Bobby Sands (among many others) died after going on hunger strike. This was the place where republican prisoners began using 'dirty protests' to make a point about their status as common criminals as opposed to political prisoners.

For those of you who have seen Steve McQueen's (no, not THAT Steve McQueen) film Hunger, you'll know that life in the Maze was at times extreme, brutal, inhumane (not that it's a documentary, I hasten to add).

Donovan Wylie's photographs show a very different set of buildings from those in your memory. The buildings, walls and fences that he documents are devoid of human life of any kind. All we see are the concrete and steel constructions left behind. Without any prisoners to set the scene the one storey, H-block buildings could almost pass for a modern school building, especially with the high fences which (rightly or wrongly) now surround many educational establishments. Even the bars at the windows (seen from the outside) could pass for vertical blinds.

The buildings become sterile, bland, uniform. A far cry from the contents they used to hold and the use to which they were put. It's very different from looking at, say, a Victorian prison (which at least alludes to the Gothic way in which prisoners are treated) or a concentration camp (which usually look like farm outbuildings - designed to hold humans viewed as animals).

These buildings look like your local doctors surgery or inland revenue office. What does that say about how we, as a society, viewed the buildings and the prisoners inside? Does it mean that as the images were somewhat sanitised, this made is easier to accept the conditions and treatment dished out on the inside?


There is an almost comical set of photos depicting the interiors of cells. Each one is taken from an angle that captures the windows/bars and the bed, many with early morning sunlight falling delicately onto walls that you imagine were once covered in human faeces. What is comical about these photos is that in each one there is a set of curtains to cover the windows at night. Every set of curtains is a different pattern, as if you were visiting various relatives' houses, where there is a different colour scheme and carefully thought out and matching soft furnishings.

It's difficult to know without doing further research, whether or not republican and loyalist prisoners ever used these cells but it would have been meaningless to decorate afterward. This means that violent, murderous men had their living quarters dolled up like your great aunt's living room. This is so surreal and so incongruous that it actually made me laugh.

After visiting the exhibition, I trundled off to the gallery's bookshop to look at the accompanying book for the photos. In the book, there is a long series of photos of different sections of the walls and fences, following the entire way around the Maze complex.

Looking systematically through this set of pics, with each section of wall, death strip and fence looking almost identical, leaves one feeling disoriented and confused. It also reminded me of those early video games in which you wandered around a maze, turning left, right, left, left, right until you found your treasure/the exit. At the end of these turns though, you only find a concrete wall.

The prints, in landscape and framed simply, are really nice. Almost all the photos look as if they were taken in overcast but bright daylight (in fact many were shot as near to dawn as possible) and are clean, fairly crisp and almost military or documentary in their style. He has used colour (and correction facilities) but it is washed out and very grey, although hardly surprising what with the amount of concrete. Most of the exterior shots feel very flat (he uses a digital Hasselblad) and even with the history of such a place, there is very little visual to attest to the nature of those previously imprisoned.

Anyway, I bloody loved them and I hope he wins.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


Synopsis: Warring factions of the Camorra fight it out on a grim Italian housing estate. The film follows various characters including a tailor, a young boy and two teenage would-be Scarfaces as they weave in and out of the Camorra's affections.

I saw this modern Italian gangster film after I'd seen the French prison film Un Prophete and they make interesting comparisons. It could be said that gangster films (especially in Hollywood) have previously enjoyed somewhat of a glamourisation. Thinking of such classics as The Godfather, Scarface (B&W and colour versions) and Goodfellas, audiences have been treated to such ultra stylised accounts of organised crime that they forget that there is a reality behind the gloss.

Un Prophete is not glamorous (think of an Oz and Hunger mash-up and you're just about there) but there is still a nod to the cool, trendy, gritty gangster flicks. The use of U.S. hip-hop in the soundtrack and the fact that we see at the end how crime does pay means that for all its attempts at keepin' it real, Un Prophete and Gomorra are really worlds apart.

Gomorra is neither stylised nor does it shy away from the horrible reality for those living with both poverty and violence on a daily basis. In this way, Gomorra is more akin to US TV series The Wire in its multi layered depiction of drug-related organised crime and its place in modern society. Where a film like The Godfather shows us the top level of an organised crime family (or one man's rise to the top of said organisation) and its relationship to corrupt politicians, both Gomorra and The Wire clearly illustrate the different levels involved, from the young boy running errands right up to the official illegally burying toxic waste.

Admittedly, the five series of The Wire has more time to set out such a complicated story and goes into minute detail, but Gomorra is successful in depicting such complexity in just over two hours. The Wire also has its share of humour and grotesque Dickensian characters. Gomorra has virtually no humour and no over the top characters.

The story, such as it is, moves along without a soundtrack of gangsta rap or '60s rock music. Instead we're treated to dreadful Italian pop, securing it firmly in its time and place. The photography is fairly colourless, with perhaps the grimmest housing estate since Nil by Mouth, but care is taken over framing and tracking, which gives the film a serious, confident feel.

Standout scenes for me include watching a succession of young teenage boys donning bullet proof vests to be shot at by Camorra henchmen as a test of manhood and loyalty. Utterly insane but, as with the rest of the film, totally underplayed. Young boys are utilised to grim comic effect later on when they are employed to drive trucks of toxic waste to a quarry after one of the original drivers is injured by having some of the waste spill on him. That the official happily gets a bunch of kids to drive his scum trucks rather than sort out a disfigured driver says all you need to know about his morality.

Another character we follow is the assistant to the toxic waste burying guy, who towards the end of the film we see having to dump a tray of ripe peaches by the side of the road. This, for him, is symbolic of the wasting or destruction of nature by what his boss is doing. He immediately walks off, preferring lower wages but a clearer conscience.

In another section we follow a tailor who, as well as working in a factory knocking off haute couture, gets tempted, sells his talents and teaches a rival Chinese factory lessons in couture cutting and sewing. We see him visit the Chinese boss and enjoy his first taste of Chinese cuisine and then as he gives his first lesson. This is the true face of globalisation.

One of the most poignant and, for me, Wire-esque scenes comes near the end, in which the tailor is now in a new job (long distance lorry driver) after being attacked as a traitor by the Camorra bosses. He watches a TV in a service station as Scarlett Johanssen is photographed wearing one of his knock off dresses. We now see the circle complete.

I reckon Gomorra should be compulsory viewing for anyone wanting to watch The Godfather, GoodFellas, Scarface, The Sopranos or any other typical gangster film/TV show. This film is not about cool personalities, hip dialogue or fast-paced action. It takes a cold, hard look at what it's like to be poor in a country where organised crime is still pervasive from the bottom to the very top.

See also: Un Prophete, The Wire

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Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Broken Embraces

Synopsis: An ageing film screenwriter/director looks back at the events leading up to a tragic episode in his life. There is catharsis and redemption in his close friends and collaborators.

***WARNING: Contains spoilers***

I really enjoyed this, as I have done other Almodovar films. It's his fourth collaboration with the divine Penelope Cruz and is one of his more sad, melodramatic works, rather than the farces of his earlier ouevre. There is the complicated love story, various vengeful characters, some Almodovar regulars and the bright, bright colours.

What I really liked about this film was the focus on a lost love and how important memories are. As the main character becomes blind, we can take this as a symbol of how, as his love dies, so does his need to see the world.

After an introduction to the main characters world, we begin the complex storytelling of how he meets and falls in love with one of his leading ladies (Cruz). We see how her attempts to leave her jealous husband end in danger and injury (to both her physical body and to his film).

The scenes in Lanzarote, to which the couple have escaped, illustrate how we could all be perfectly in love if only we could escape those around us and be free. There is a very telling scene in which the couple watch Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia. This film within the film focuses on a couple's travel to Pompeii and the memories of old love affairs and romances. Almodovar a true film lover, and in this film - about a film director and actors, he uses other films to underscore his themes.

Another beautiful scene which uses film wonderfully is toward the end. We see the director (Lluis Homar) 'watching' the video of him and his lover in their final moments together, shot from a car travelling behind theirs. He asks that his companion slow down the projection and as Cruz and Homar melt into slow-mo, he touches and strokes the TV screen to 'see' his lost love one more time. It is a fabulous moment, Almodovar is so aware of the importance of speed and rhythm in film and at moments like these Broken Embraces could be seen as a film essay companion to Laura Mulvey's book Death 24 x a second.

See also: 24 hour Psycho, Viaggio in Italia,

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Monday, 1 March 2010


Synopsis: Slightly odd bloke looks for lost daughter in New York City. Goes a bit mad. Meets a mother and daughter. His time with the daughter helps with his trauma. A bit.

I'd seen Lodge Kerrigan's Claire Dolan some time ago and was left intrigued about this filmmaker. The two films have much in common - both are studies of people on the fringes of society struggling to exist and who both use children as catalysts to their attempted recovery/route back into society. Whereas Claire Dolan has a somewhat cold atmosphere with lots of architectural photography, Keane is a much closer look at one human being, almost at micro level. Both films also share a real sense of menace, of threatened violence and underlying chaos.

(In many scenes, Claire Dolan has a really similar feel to David Cronenberg's A History of Violence. There is something eerily stagey (not many extraneous characters or shots) and uncomfortable about the stories.)

Anyway, back to Keane. We never know for sure if the main character, William Keane (played by Brit actor Damian Lewis), actually had a daughter or what sort of mental illness he is suffering from. Some of the scenes are a little overdone (some lines delivered straight from the Ratso Rizzo school of shouting) for my tastes but overall the balance is about right.

A couple of scenes really stand out and bring together Keane's fears about what may or may not have happened in the past. He takes the daughter (Kira) to a McDonald's for dinner, goes to the bathroom and when he returns he has a moment looking at the young girl from afar. We can't be sure what he's thinking, but he's convinced that his daughter was abducted after he left her alone for too long, so at this point you wonder if he's testing himself or subconciously trying to replay the scene with a happier outcome. Whatever, this is a beautifully played scene that leaves you with more questions than answers.

The other scene that stands out is at the end, when he does finally get to replay the past by taking Kira to the bus station (without telling her mother) in which his daughter was originally abducted. He allows Kira to go and buy candy by herself and watches her for most of the time, letting her out of his sight for a short time before returning to where she is waiting for him. It's very tense as you are half expecting her to be kidnapped, becoming just as paranoid as Keane. The scene, and the film, end with him telling the girl that they're going back to her mother. It is at this point you think that he's finally been able to work through his demons/fears about the fate of his daughter.

Whether or not this film is about mental illness, it's an interesting look at how we all deal with past traumatic events. How is it that some people can pick up again very quickly, deal with trauma and move on when many of us cannot let go of painful memories? Many times there is a need to replay past events over and over until there is some change or catalyst that then allows us to get past that scratch in the vinyl, get back into the groove and listen to the rest of the record.

See also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Claire Dolan, Bunny Lake is Missing, The Lady Vanishes, Flight Plan, Taxi Driver, The Searchers.

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The Class

Synopsis: Parisien teacher Francois muddles through a year with some tough kids. Makes some stupid decisions. Etre et avoir it ain't.

The Class (original French title: Entre les murs - Between the Walls) won the 2008 Palme D'Or at Cannes and rightly so. This had me opened mouthed at times, such is its honesty and bravery. The film has a cast of mostly real teachers and pupils and is based on the lead character's memoir of life in a French school. It has all the 'realness' of a documentary but without the naff voiceover and patronising tone. This is film where everybody makes mistakes and no-one solves any problems.

Interesting points for me:

The whole film is set inside the school, pretty much in the one classroom. There's no showing Francois out at night with his mates, getting all shouty and dramatic about the events during the day. All you see are the (often fraught, and almost always uncomfortable) interactions between teacher, pupil and parents/family. It's not claustrophobic, but it does pull you in to that world so you really do feel like a fly on the wall or another pupil, watching the events unfold over the school year.

They don't feel like performances at all. It really does feel as if you're part of the action. Not one of the 'actors' look as if they're acting, it's all properly naturalistic. And the way the scenes unfold feel much more than mere improvisation - they are REALLY HAPPENING. Yes, you think, that is how a teacher would react to that question. Yes, you think, that is how a small disagreement gets way out of hand. I don't know if it took much rehearsal, or maybe no rehearsal at all but Streep, Pacino et al have never performed like this. I know that's not the point, but there's so little bullshit to the action, it opens your eyes to what filmmaking can sometimes do.

Dramatic tension
At times this film is very uncomfortable to watch. Not because there's any graphic violence, bad language (okay, there is a bit of bad language) or horror. It's uncomfortable because they are showing you real life awkward moments. When a teacher insults two female pupils (sort of) inadvertantly, you immediately know that he's made a dreadful mistake and you can't help get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. You've been there, made an ass of yourself and didn't know how to get out of it.

There are also the countless moments in the classroom when the rowdy pupils are giving Francois a tough time, constantly questioning the status quo and his treatment of them. There is also the relationship between Francois and Khoumba, a pupil going through a typical difficult teenage phase. Neither of them have a clue how to really handle it but it is Khoumba who at least attempts to express it in a letter to Francois.

However, for me, the most dramatic moment in the film is when a troubled and troublesome pupil and his mother attend a school hearing to decide if he is to be expelled. It's not only that his whole future could be in jeapordy if he's expelled (although this point is not laboured half as much as it would have been in a conventional film), it's that he has to translate for his mother when she is defending him, something that he wouldn't do for himself. It is a properly heartbreaking scene.

The film ends with a teacher vs. pupil football match at the breakup of school for the summer holidays. Nothing has really been resolved because that's what life is like and we know that Francois will have the same difficulties the following year.

This film is powerful in that it doesn't shy away from the pain of life but it is very delicate in its portrayal of this. There are no great speeches or 'maverick' characters delivering cocky one-liners. This is about as realistic and honest a portrayal of difficult human relationships as I've seen in a long time.

See also: 400 blows, Etre et Avoir, Half Nelson.

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