Title: The Flowers of St. Francis
Release Date: 14 December 1950
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Joseph Burstyn Inc.
Summary/Review: I saw this movie at Brattle Theater many years ago in a tribute to Roberto Rossellini (it was preceded by Isabella Rossellini and Guy Maddin’s odd tribute film My Dad is 100 Years Old). It was my first Rossellini movie and probably my first Italian neorealist movie too. I remember being touched by the depiction of the simple faith of Francis of Assisi and his followers in medieval Italy.
The movie features actual Franciscan brothers playing the roles instead of professional actors. It’s broken up into several chapters or vignettes each with a different moral lesson. This movie is less dogmatically religious as some viewers may fear, but instead focuses on the whimsy of Francis who was known as “God’s Jester.” It’s a beautifully filmed and touching movie that I think I like even more upon revisiting.
Title: The Leopard
Release Date: March 27, 1963
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Titanus
Summary/Review: After being underwhelmed by Senso, a movie by the same director set in the same time period, I was not looking forward to watching another lengthy Italian historical drama. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie with Burt Lancaster in a starring role and I always like Claudia Cardinale, so I had those things to look forward to.
Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily in 1860 at the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s war of Italian unification. His favorite nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, L’Eclisse) is swept up in the romanticism of the rebellion and joins Garibaldi’s redshirts. The Prince more pragmatically supports Garibaldi from afar as a means of maintaining the aristocracy as it is. When traveling to his summer estate, the Prince reluctantly has to entertain the nouveau-riche mayor of the town Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). When Tancredi falls for Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Cardinale), the Prince once again pragmatically approves of the match since it will bring in much needed cash from Don Calogero’s coffers.
For a movie of this length, there isn’t much plot. Instead it’s a series of subtle performances among the sumptuousness of the elite’s lifestyle of the Prince contrasted with the crumbling world of the common people of Sicily. While I’m not all too interested in films about the fading of aristocratic society, since I think aristocracy should fade away, I have to admit that Lancaster’s nuanced performance makes the Prince a sympathetic character. This movie very easily could have been a melodrama, but instead it is something more restrained and revealing.
I have to confess that I watched this movie on a 3-disc DVD from the library. I popped in the first disc and watched the movie before realizing it was actually Disc 3, and what I watched was a shortened American version dubbed into English. Ironically, this is the only version of the film that features Lancaster’s voice since he’s dubbed by an Italian actor in other versions. I suppose that I failed to watch the version of the movie that earned the laudits of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, but I think I got a full taste of The Leopard for the time being.
Release Date: 30 December 1954
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Lux Film
Set during the Third Italian War of Independence around 1866, Senso is a sweeping Technicolor melodrama, romance, and war film. The story centers on Contessa Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli) who enters into a tryst with Austrian Lieutenant Franz Mahler (American actor Farley Granger dubbed into Italian by Enrico Maria Salerno). Initially Livia appears to be using her womanly guiles to support her revolutionary cousin Marchese Roberto Ussoni (Massimo Girotti), but she quickly gives into her passions and lusts (“senso” in Italian) and falls madly in love with Franz.
The “romance” of this movie is a hard sell for me since it’s clear from the beginning that Franz is a cad who is totally playing Livia for his own ends. I hate to admit this, but the battle scenes near the end of the film were the most interesting part of the film for me. Call me a philistine, but I found this movie to be pretentious dull. If this is the type of film the Italian neorealists were reacting too, I can better understand the impetus of their movement.
Release Date: 12 April 1962
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Production Company: Cineriz
Before I jump into the main review, I just want to note that old movies should have a warning label when a completely random scene in blackface is going to occur. I wasn’t ready when the film’s protagonist Vittoria (Monica Vitti) visits a neighbor Marta (Mirella Ricciardi), a white woman born and raised in Kenya , suddenly has her entire body covered in dark makeup and performs a “tribal” dance. To be fair, unlike some movies, the audience is not supposed to be on Vittoria’s side in this moment, and there’s a pointed judgement of Marta when she reveals she believes the Black Kenyans seeking civil rights are “monkeys.”
This is just one scene though in a longer film that follows Vittoria on her perambulations through Rome over an ingeminate amount of time, although it feels like it’s a few weeks at most. The movie begins with her ending a long-term relationship with Riccardo (Francisco Rabal) because she does not wish to marry. Over the course of the film she gets to know her mother’s young stockbroker Piero (Alain Delon) and reluctantly forms a romantic partnering with him that feels doomed from the start. Most of the film is shot on location emphasizing the post-war modernist design of Rome and its outskirts.
I feel this movie has many parallels with Cleo, From 5 to 7. Both films feature a stylish and conventionally attractive young woman, who struggle with internal turmoil and inability to connect with others against the background of a European capital. They even both touch upon African colonialism and independence movements. However I feel that Cleo, From 5 to 7 is the stronger film because it makes you feel an emotional bond with the protagonist while L’Eclisse just makes you feel hollow.
There are several scenes I liked in this film. The opening scene of the breakup is strong as both characters have things they want to say but not the words to say them. One scene in the Rome Stock Exchange lampoons the greed of capitalists forced to take a moment of silence for a recently deceased colleague as they grumble about lost earning potential. And the final sequence of the film where there are multiple shots of Vittoria and Piero’s meeting spot with neither character ever appearing is a fascinating way to end a film.
Ultimately though, I have to agree with film critic Jon Lisi who wrote that L’Eclisse “is beautifully made, historically important, and boring as hell.” After Blowup and L’Avventura this is the third Antonioni film I’ve watched and I’m glad there are no more on my list of Classic Films. I can see why his work is considered important but I don’t enjoy watching them.
Release Date: June 18, 2021
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Pixar’s latest release is part Pixar formula, part innovation. The story is a coming-of-age comedy mixed with fantasy elements that is similar to other Pixar films. The animation veers away from the more photo-realistic style of recent Pixar releases with more cartoonish character designs and a fairy tale rendering of the Italian Riveria. The biggest disappointment is that Disney chose not to give this movie a wide theatrical release because I expect it looks amazing on the big screen.
The story centers on Luca (Jacob Tremblay), a young teenaged sea monster who is curious about the human “land monsters” and their artifacts that fall into the sea, but his strict parents warn him to keep away. Before he can get all moody and start singing “Part of Your World,” he is accidentally scooped up onto land by Alberto (Jack Dylan Grazer), an older teenage sea monster who has made a home for himself in an abandoned tower. The sea monsters take human form on dry land, the transformations being a great visual effect used throughout the movie.
The boys bond in friendship, and dreaming of exploring the world on a Vespa, they go to the local town. They meet Giulia (Emma Berman), an adventurous teenaged girl and misfit, and the trio work together to earn prize money in a triathlon of swimming, past eating, and bicycling. The movie tells a story of young people forming friendships and finding a place where they feel like where they belong, while dealing with bullying and prejudice. As you can expect from Pixar, there’s a lot of humor, charm, wonder, and tear-inducing heartfelt moments.
Release Date: 29 June 1960
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cino Del Duca
Anna (Lea Massari) is a long-distance relationship with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and meets up with him for a yachting trip in the Mediterranean with her friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) accompanying her. The yachting party stops at a small, rocky island in the Aeolian chain. Anna and Sandro have an argument and later Anna disappears. The rest of the film is Claudia and Sandro searching for Anna even as everyone else in the party seems indifferent.
Anna is not missing for even 12 hours before Sandro begins aggressively making sexual advances on Claudia. Because this is a movie made in the 60s in Italy, Claudia doesn’t kick Sandro in the groin as he deserves but instead gradually begins to reciprocate the attraction. And so their journey through Italy following hints of where Anna may have gone is also a romantic fling.
The film has a strong technical aspect filmed on location in stunning natural and human-built landscapes as the backgrounds and unique cinematographic approaches to filming in them. I was glad that Claudia ended up being the main character after first thinking it would be Anna because Vitti is a much better actor. Or to be more charitable, Claudia appears to the be the only female character in the film who is written as a complete human and Vitti seizes the opportunity to make the most of it. Several times in the film Claudia and other women are surrounded by man who ogle them. It seems to me that a theme of this movie is that men treat women as objects who are disposable and easily replaced.
Critics who favor L’Avventura tend to play up its influence on the visual language of cinema. Others say that it is pretentious and dull. I tend to lean in the latter direction, but I also sense that this is one of those movies that can only be fully appreciated on the big screen.
Title: The Barefoot Contessa
Release Date: September 29, 1954
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Production Company: Figaro
The Barefoot Contessa is part of the trend of “show business is sleazy” satirical dramas following on the heels of Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve (the latter written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who wrote and directed this film). Writer/director Harry Dawes (Humphrey Bogart) is part of a Hollywood team traveling Europe looking for a “new face” when they discover flamenco dancer Maria Vargas (Ava Gardner, born in North Carolina and not the slightest bit Spanish) in Madrid. Maria becomes a superstar after making three films with Harry, before marrying Count Vincenzo Torlato-Favrini (Rosanno Brazzi). But since the movie begins at Maria’s funeral, and the film is told in flashback, we know that things are not going to end well.
Despite the title, the movie is not really about Maria. She is more of an object for men to desire and for more conscientious men like Harry to philosophize about. To be fair to the film, it makes no pretence at being a movie about Maria and spends a lot of time in voiceover monologues by Harry, Count Vincenzo, and even the sleazy publicist Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien) who works for a couple of millionaires who are pursuing Maria romantically. But it strikes me that the movie would be much better if it was from Maria’s perspective. The dialogue in the film strives towards witty repartee, but misses the mark so that it just embarrassing. The film starts very well, and the friendship between Harry and Maria is very strong, but ultimately The Barefoot Contessa is a disappointment.
Title: Journey to Italy
Release Date: September 7, 1954
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Italiafilm | Junior | Sveva | Société Générale de Cinématographie (S.G.C.)
Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders, who kind of reminds me of Jim Backus) are a couple from England who drive to the Naples region of Italy (no explanation of how they got their car across the Channel) to sell a villa they recently inherited from an Uncle Homer. Katherine is more engaged in seeing the local sights while the workaholic Alex just wants to get it over with, until he starts flirting with a local woman and takes a side trip to Capri with her.
Of the course of the film, it is revealed that Katherine and Alex’s marriage is as dead as the couple preserved in the ash at Pompeii, and like the cracks of Vesuvius the steam of resentment is rising. Yes, Rossellini does a great job of working in the local attractions as metaphors. Although this film is directed by an Italian and set in Italy, the dialogue is in English. Apparently, Rossellini gave the actors their lines only shortly before filming a scene with no time to rehearse. It explains the halting, hesitant delivery but I think it has the opposite effect than Rossellini hoped as everyone just looks unprepared.
Nevertheless, this is a good film, beautifully shot and an honest depiction of the dissolution of a marriage.
Title: The Battle of Algiers
Release Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Production Company: Igor Film | Casbah Film
I’ve meant to watch this movie for quite some time but never felt I’d be “in the mood” for a grim depiction of guerilla warfare and the horrors of colonialism. While my assumptions of the movie are correct, I also found it to be a gripping drama that tells a very familiar story. Set in the Algerian capital during the early years of the Algerian War for Independence, 1954-1957, it depicts the atrocities committed by insurgents and the police and military in an escalating series of reprisals in neorealist newsreel style. The movie reminded me of films of conflicts in Ireland, such as The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Bloody Sunday. But it’s also familiar from just watching the news from Iraq in recent decades.
The movie focuses on Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a real life figure who is recruited and rises to a leadership position in the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The role of counterinsurgency is taken by Colonel Philippe Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the movie), a fictionalized character based on the leaders of the French paratroopers who are called in to suppress the revolution. But by and large, this is an ensemble film with hundreds of non-professional actors, many of whom were veterans of the war.
The Battle of Algiers begins and ends in 1957 with Mathieu victorious, with the rest of the film being an extended flashback. But an epilogue shows the a revived and unified movement for independence beginning in 1960, which eventually lead to Algeria winning independence in 1962. I find it stunning that this movie was made just a decade after the events depicted, shot on location with so many people who lived through the war in the cast. It must have been so raw for them, but it also adds to the feeling of documentary-style authenticity.
This movie is not easy to watch with its unflinching depiction of mob violence, shootings, terrorist bombings, and torture. But it is an important movie to watch as it is a document not just of the Algerian War for Independence but of the repeating pattern of colonized and oppressed people rising up for their freedom, meeting harsh reprisals, and expanding into guerilla warfare.
Title: Bicycle Thieves
Release Date: November 24, 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production Company: Produzioni De Sica
I watched this movie once before, perhaps at the Brattle Theatre, about 20 years ago when the title was still being translated as The Bicycle Thief. I didn’t remember it well despite it having a very simple story of poverty and injustice. It slots right in-between Rome, Open City and Umberto D for its unsentimental, neorealist portrayal of everyday life in post-war Rome, and I believe it’s the best of the three movies.
Antonio (Lamberto Maggiorani) is one of many unemployed men in Rome and as the film begins he is able to get a position hanging posters around the city. The catch is that he needs to have his own bicycle. Antonio has pawned his bike, so his wife Maria (Lianella Carell) pawns the linens they received as wedding gifts in order to retrieve the bike. Things are looking good for Antonio and his young family, but on the very first day of work, his bike is snatched by a thief ((Vittorio Antonucci).
The better part of the movie is spent on a Sunday where Antonio and his adorable and resilient 8-year-old son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) search for the bike and the thief. The encounter a number of dead ends and the increasing sense of desperation of finding one bike in a city of millions. There’s one joyous scene where Antonio rewards Bruno for his endurance by taking him for a simple meal, but even there they have to witness a wealthier family eat an elaborate meal. They are able to find the thief but the people in the thief’s community stand up for him and with no other witnesses or the bike itself, the police are unable to act.
In the heartbreaking finale, Antonio desperately attempts to steal a bike himself, only to be swiftly captured. This movie is not a happy one, but it is a very honest and human story. It’s also wonderfully filmed and acted, and one of those movies where the city is its own character in the story. Bicycle Thieves is a definite all-time classic.