Tag Archives: italian cinema

Un-Cannes-y Valley: Nights of Cabiria

Federico Fellini, the grand master of Italian cinema, began his life behind a camera as a young lad among the neo-realists, a protege of sorts to De Sica and Rossellini and their own habits of redefining cinema forever. Fellini, like those masters of the form, sought to reject Hollywood convention and lay down a thick layer of everyday humanity with non-actors and grungier camera techniques less galvanized in Hollywood glamour and melodrama. This shift itself was a towering upheaval to the cinematic tradition, a tangible stimulant to directors everywhere to shake the foundations of film land and brace for impact.

But Fellini was not done shaking. The neo-realist movement, for him, was a jumping off point, a stepping stone for his own more whimsical, more blunted, and dare I say more challenging vision of what cinema ought to be. Beginning with the seminally shattering La Strada in 1954, Fellini married a form of realism to a carnivalesque wonder and an omnivorous desire to break with reality when it could help the emotional truth of his story at the expense of conventional logic. Continue reading

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Un-Cannes-y Valley: Miracle in Milan

I have not been cagey or guarded, although I may be a tad evasive from time to time, about my feelings on the neo-realist movement. Its importance to cinematic history needs no defense from me, but whatever role they served in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the limits of their technique should not be avoided. Realism in cinema can be bracing, and it was devoutly essential in the late 1940s, but a completely tethered commitment to the style is a limit to say the least. Of all the things cinema is capable of, realism is not the only worthwhile tempo for a film to play by. The freedom of realism can and often becomes its own prison. Continue reading

Pop!: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Edited

There’s an earthen quality to way Sergio Leone understands location that is almost otherworldly. The mood, the atmosphere, the sense of a place; they all seep up from the cracks, and he strangles you with it. Everything about the characters and the conflict is just laid out plainly and honestly on the screen in a sort of pure cinema we really didn’t see in genre works in the mid ’60s (horror excepted, and also, notably, the other great genre of the Italians in the ’60s). The sand doesn’t just exist; it hoarsely croaks, it robustly swallows, it does a stalwart, omnipresent, Herculean take-over of the entire event of the narrative and coats everything in a throaty sort of impact that cinema rarely attempts. We aren’t just watching sand. We’re rasping our voices. We’re searching for water. We’re drying out as we sit, welcoming each bead of sweat like an old friend to be ravenously devoured.
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Midnight Screaming: The Beyond

Update late 2018: After a Halloween rewatch, I stand all the more in awe of Fulci’s truly irrational editing scheme and his almost unholy skill not simply dropping us into an unraveling narrative but demolishing the presumption of rational sense-ordering in horror to begin with. The Beyond remains a truly scrambled, egg-beaten (or brain-beaten) perceptual experience, even in the already demonically playful realm of giallo-inflected fear, let alone the wider horror genre.

Original review:

It is a truth undeniable that Lucio Fulci’s 1981 Grand Guignol The Beyond lacks a capable narrative or characters, but this is true only in the way that L’Avventura and Breathless lack much in the way of conventionally sufficient narratives or sensible characters. They are all anti-narrative, anti-character films, and the deficiency is fully intentional in each case. They are films precisely about the deconstruction of narrative, and the characters intentionally maneuver themselves through their worlds in contrived, non-natural ways to illustrate a point about the artifice of narrative, of human activity, and of film and its relationship to the human condition.

Fulci’s vision is no different, although it is filtered through a different form. Just as Breathless is about the artifice of ordered narrative and the boredom it instills in filmic storytelling , The Beyond is too about the way films define order and conventional narrative. Except while Godard’s works read between the lines with finesse to explore that order past itself to expose it for the destructive self that it is, Fulci’s film takes the broadest brush it can find and cuts through the order with a giant blood-red stroke. While Godard’s work creates a sort of hyper-order to serve its purposes, Fulci’s denounces order entirely. Continue reading

National Cinemas: Black Sunday

If Italian cinema went high-brow with fine style, so too did it go low with head-first zest and no less rigor. If an argument is to be made for the 1960s as a golden age of European cinema, the undernourished portion of the claim is genre cinema. Not that genre cinema was at a low during the ’60s. Why in France alone we had Clouzot doing an all-time Hitchcock impersonation even as he ushered action cinema to the next level, Franju giving us grisly, poetically classy horror, Melville abstracting crime thrillers to their icy, cosmic cores, and even Godard and Truffaut dipping their toes in the water with their playful noir pastiches Bande a Part and Shoot the Piano Player, respectively.

But the crown jewel of ’60s European genre cinema cannot but be Italian cinema. The elephant in the room is Sergio Leone, elevating the Western by drawing out its cartoon core and emphasizing tactile feel over all else. Deeper still, however, we have a treasure trove of that most unholy of film genres: horror. Giallo would come in full force with the arrival of the glistening crimson reds and sickly yellows of the ’70s, but the ’60s saw no shortage of pristine, pitch-black Italian horrors, most of them admittedly directed by the master of the form: Mario Bava. Most famous for his color-first lurid later cinema that re-propositioned horror as a ballet of human motion and painted-on color, Bava got his start much earlier than we usually assume. In fact, his first film, and arguably his greatest, is a chiaroscuro masterwork fresh from the grave, a Hammer Horror pastiche that beat Hammer at its own game. I speak of course of the fiery death-drive of Bava’s Black Sunday.
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National Cinemas: L’Avventura

Edited June 2016

With Fellini long lost down the surrealist tube and intentionally distancing himself from his earlier realist days, someone in the early ’60s had to fill the neo-realist hole left by the likes of Rossellini and De Sica. Of course, it wasn’t going to be Michelangelo Antonioni, the chilly director of physical space and undersexed human boredom, but he would do in a pinch. Yet, if Antonioni studied the neo-realists well, he was his own beast altogether. Neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves attained a certain warmth in their intentional focus on human activity elevated to the realms of mythic quest, but Antonioni was very much fascinated by human inactivity.

Furthermore, he didn’t follow the neo-realist mantra of letting his people do the talking while his camera shakes and rattles about. Instead, Antonioni took a hands-on approach, positioning his characters delicately, defining them in wide compositions that sequester those characters into personal hells. He calculated every frame with a spatial dogmatism akin to Bresson or Hitchcock, but his mantra was more geographic, more geometric than those individual-centric directors. Antonioni, more than any director before, acclimatized his audience to the physical space around his characters. While the typically open-oyster cinematic world usually carves space out for individuals to thrive as the focus, Antonioni curdles space into a malevolent force that fights back. Antonioni’s genius is in how he exposes his characters’ world through methods his characters might approve of; his filmmaking is detached and rigid because his film is about the detached and the rigid. He was making a film for his characters, but a film that deeply laments those characters as they eschew a world of connection and turn the human-world relationship into a war of attrition.
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National Cinemas: The Battle of Algiers

Update 2018:

With Italian cinema, one tends to think of Antonioni as the extension of neo-realism’s elusive, analytical, and slippery, intangible qualities, its modernism and post-modernism, and Pontecorvo as expanding the style’s more incendiary, ground-level spontaneity, its immediate “realism”. But although The Battle of Algiers is a punchy, vicious shiv of a movie, it isn’t merely surface-bound. Or rather, it sometimes uses its surfaces as cryptically and mysteriously as Antonioni, not simply exposing a conflict to us with an incendiary call for action but teasing out the various intangibles and uncertainties in its ability to call for this action, to participate in this conflict, to even see it without mediation. As swift and instant as the film confronts us, it also confounds any so direct a reading by intimating the limits of its ability to “experience” the reality that its verite aesthetic purports to glimpse first-hand.

Which is to say, Pontecorvo’s work reveals mysteries of its own as well, and it exhibits a vision of existence as brutally existential as L’Avventura and as protective of its secrets as Blow-up. And although it’s certainly a white-hot cinematic firebrand, open-hearted and unafraid of its convictions, it also exposes more subterranean depths the more I see it. For instance, the distinctly modernist (even post-modern) composition of the infamous scene where the veiled women expose the bombs hidden within their outfits. The three veiled women are viewed through a mediating, veiling mirror in the film’s most famous shot, the mirror projecting a cinematic self-consciousness about the mediating cinematic process. It suggests that what we experience in cinema is a mirror of ourselves, not a reflection but a warped and thus incomplete refraction, or a reflection which hovers between a direct reality and a displaced representation of that reality. Or, as Homi Bhabha says in the intro to Frantz Fanon’s famous Black Skin, White Masks on images more generally: the “image—as point of identification—marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split—it makes present something that is absent—and temporally deferred—it is the representation of a time that is always elsewhere, a repetition. The image is only ever an appurtenance to authority and identity; it must never be read mimetically as the “appearance” of a “reality.”  (XXX). The women veil themselves, cinema veils them, and post-modern cinema thrives on its skillful manipulation of its own self-awareness about the way it veils reality.

Pontecorvo’s film plays with this gap, this veil between past and present, this sense in which we can witness a mediated past through film, where film is a ghost which touches the past but is not the past. Particularly set against the historical containment of black and African bodies within film scenes, their objectification and imprisonment within frames which tend to view them head-on as curated objects lacking any curiosity or internality or resistance to being viewed, the veiling gestures in Algiers – the characters registering an opacity of their own, not fully acquiescing to our desire to “understand” them – are provocative.  In other words, the film comments on its own veiled language, questioning its and our ability to truly know them via its and our gaze, to look at them head-on as the Westerner in Fanon’s frame might want. As gritty and “realistic” as the film appears on the surface, it also veils and unveils itself in various ways, debating truth and fiction in its faux-verite aesthetic rather than merely reminding us of a reality we didn’t know beforehand.

Original Review:

A stark, harrowing portrayal of the Algerian war, The Battle of Algiers is a message movie, but it doesn’t feel like one. It’s brutal, unflinchingly human, and confrontational to the core. It depicts people engaging in horrible acts and forces us to try to make sense of it as best we can, for it knows it cannot. This film never lets up, using a gritty, clear eye-on-the-wall camera to depict the harsh day-to-day realities of colonial and revolutionary violence to force us to confront that which we’re afraid to.  Rather than emphasizing philosophy or discussion, it focuses on action and reaction, conveying how this environment, in its perpetual dehumanization, allowed no room for anything else. Colonialism, as depicted here, was a violent regime that dehumanized its victims and gave them no recourse for action excepting the very violence perpetuated onto them. And the film doesn’t suggest it – it burrows it into our soul. It emphasizes gritty, hard-earned hyper-realism and puts us in the trenches of an urban jungle marred by guerrilla warfare. It allows us no comfort.  Unlike many Italian masterworks of the 1960s, it is not rooted in impressionist professionalism, carefully modulated for impact and respectability; instead it unleashes itself upon the audience as a primal, implacable fact that doesn’t end when the frames cut it off. It cries out, refusing to be left unheard.
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