Classic Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)


Title: The Battle of Algiers
Release Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Production Company: Igor Film | Casbah Film
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Bicycle Thieves (1948)


Title: Bicycle Thieves
Release Date: November 24, 1948
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production Company: Produzioni De Sica
Summary/Review:

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.

Rating: ****1/2

Classic Movie Review: The Conformist (1970)


Title: The Conformist 
Release Date: October 22, 1970
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Production Company: Mars Film Produzione | Marianne Productions | Maran Film
Summary/Review:

This movie set in the 1930s focuses on Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an agent of the Italian Facist secret police, sent to France to assassinate a former teacher,  Professor Quadri (Enzo Tarascio). The story begins with Clerici pursuing Quadri in a car driven by his handler Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) and returns to the car in-between flashbacks.  The flashbacks include moments further back in time such as his childhood when he believes he killed a family chauffeur who attempted to sexually assault him and more recently his engagement to his wife Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli).

The bulk of the movie, though, is flashbacks to events that happened in Paris immediately before the car chase when Clerici and Giulia went to Paris on their honeymoon and paid social calls to Quadri and his wife, Anna (Dominique Sanda).  Obviously, Clerici used this as a cover for the assassination assignment but I don’t think Giulia was in on it.  In fact she seems to be having a delightful time socializing.  In a weird subplot, Anna ends up making sexual advances on both Clerici and Giulia, which seems mostly an excuse for gratuitous nudity.

The movie ends with a coda set in 1943 with the fall of Mussolini and Clerici ratting out his blind Fascist friend to the monarchists. I’m not sure what this adds to the movie as Clerici is already established as untrustworthy and lacking values so it’s just doubling down on it.

The sets of this film very large spaces with Art Deco design that are reminiscent of Metropolis (apparently not a coincidence).  There is also some great camera work with light and shadow. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have much going for it. The psychological study of a Fascist just seems to be making excuses for someone who is clearly just a nasty Fascist.  I never feel any tension that Clerici is going to do anything other than what he’s set out to do, although the movie feints at him being conflicted. In sum, the movie is pretty to look at, but it feels hollow to me.  Who needs a pretty movie about a Fascist?

Rating: **

Classic Movie Review: The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1963)


Title: The Gospel According to St. Matthew
Release Date: October 2, 1964
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Production Company: Arco Film | Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France
Summary/Review:

Director Pier Paolo Pasolini was an atheist, homosexual, and Marxist, but took seriously Pope John XXIII’s invitation to dialogue with non-Catholic artists.  And after all, despite many Christians acting otherwise, the gospels (especially Matthew) tell a story of someone not unlike a Socialist revolutionary.  Pasolini used the techniques of Italian neorealism and cinema verite to film his retelling of the gospel.  And he cast ordinary farmers and working people, and even his own mother to star in the movie.  Jesus is played by Enrique Irazoqui, a Spanish economics student and communist organizer.  With olive skin, dark hair, and an impressive unibrow, this is not the the blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus of Hollywood biblical epics.

The dialogue in the film is almost entirely taken directly from the gospel of Matthew.  It was filmed on location in southern Italy, with minimal effort towards creating sets and costumes of the Roman province of Judea 2000 years earlier.  In fact, I think the poverty and decrepitude of 1960s rural Italy is very effective for telling the story of Jesus.

This is a long movie, but is artfully done with amazing composition in every shot.  I ended up watching it in bits and pieces over several days which worked fine since the gospel is episodic by nature.  But I’m sure this movie could also be enjoyed in a single setting.  Either way it’s more of a movie to let wash over you and to feel a familiar story in a new way. It’s also interesting that this is clearly a modernist take on telling the Christ story on film, but so very different from Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell which were a decade away (maybe they’re postmodern?).

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: 8 1/2 (1963)


Title8 1/2
Release Date: 14 February 1963
Director: Federico Fellini
Production Company: Cineriz | Francinex
Summary/Review:

Noted Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini had made 8 films on his own and one collaboration (hence 8 1/2) when he came up with the idea for his next film to be what would happen if a director forgot what movie he was making.  Marcello Mastroianni plays a famous director, Guido Anselmi, suffering from a creative block as he works on an epic science fiction movie.  He goes to a spa to try to relax and recover but his producer, production assistants, actors, and critics all follow him there. He’s continually pestered to work on the film while being unable to tell them anything about the movie, even to tell the actors the parts they will play.

Much of the movie depicts Guido’s feverish dreams and memories of his past. The line between his reality at the spa and what is happening in his mind is deliberately blurred. His mistress, Carla (Sandra Milo), arrives but he is not too happy to see her and puts her up at another hotel.  He also invites his estranged wife, Luisa (Anouk Aimée), to join him, setting up an obvious conflict. (Oddly, Luisa appears to be younger and more attractive than Carla which seems to defy the way philanderer’s typically think). He idealizes a third woman, Claudia (Claudia Cardinale), who he thinks can save his film and redeem himself. The most famous part of the movie is when Guido imagines all the women in his life in a harem, caring for him like a child, a scene that is incredibly sexist but also reveal his deep character flaws.

I found the movie overlong, although the last hour is very strong after a slow start. I’ve always hated songs about musicians bemoaning being on “the road” since it seems to just be complaining about their job, and this movie is the director’s equivalent.  Nevertheless, Mastroianni’s charming and nuanced performance of the deeply flawed Guido makes it a worthwhile exercise.  Fellini’s eye as director is also evident in the remarkable he way frames shots, edits, and weaves in the hallucinatory visions.

This is definitely a movie everyone should watch at least once, and probably more than once to catch the small details.

Note: The soundtrack includes several familiar classical music pieces as Guido and co. attempt to work on a science fiction space epic.  I think it’s interesting that just a few years later, Stanley Kubrick would make a science fiction space epic with a soundtrack of familiar classical music pieces, although I don’t know if there’s any intentionality.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: La Dolce Vita (1960)


Title: La Dolce Vita
Release Date: February 5, 1960
Director: Federico Fellini
Production Company: Riama Film | Pathé Consortium Cinéma | Gray Films
Summary/Review:

As I’ve been going through the Classic Movies project, there have been movies I haven’t enjoyed but always got a sense of why they’re considered classics.  That is until a got to La Dolce Vita, a movie I struggled to watch because it seems to me to be a 3-hour slog of self-indulgence built around a character with no redeeming qualities.  That character is Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni), a celebrity gossip writer living “the sweet life” rubbing shoulders with the cafe society, all the while being amoral, lecherous, and abusive.

The movie does not have a traditional plot but is more of a series of vignettes from Marcello’s life. Some critics break it down into a significant series of seven nights and seven dawns, while others say the numerology is not important.  For me, it was a challenge to just see Marcello being awful again and again.

In these vignettes, we see Marcello:

  • meet a wealthy woman, Maddalenna (Anouk Aimee), and take her to the flooded apartment of a prostitute where they presumably make love.
  • discover that his girlfriend Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) has attempted suicide and drive her to hospital, and then attempt to call Maddalenna.
  • welcome the famed Swedish actress who has made it big in Hollywood, Sylvia (Anita Ekberg) and follow her as she climbs the dome of St. Peter’s and has a party.  Eventually the two end up in the Trevi Fountain, when the “magic” is broken by the sunrise.  (The scenes of Sylvia wandering the narrow streets of Rome with a stray kitten on her head are some of my favorite in the movie).
  • cover the media circus around an alleged sighting of the Madonna by two children, that ends with people trampled to death.
  • attend a party at the home of his intellectual friend, Steiner (Alain Cuny), and have a philosophical conversation.
  • take his father (Annibale Ninchi) out nightclubbing and have him go home with a dancer (only to seemingly suffer a heart attack).
  • attend another party thrown by aristocrats at a castle where he meets Maddalenna again.  She speaks to him from another room through an echo chamber and he all but promises to marry her as she makes out with another man.
  • gets in a fight in the car with Emma, hits her, and abandons her on a roadside.
  • gets called in when Steiner murders his children and kills himself and his to notify Steiner’s wife as his photographer friends swarm around.
  • goes to yet another party where he tries to turn it into an “orgy” and humiliates some drunken women.

Rome has changed quite a bit in the 15 years since Rome, Open City, and much of this movie is filmed in newly constructed, modernist apartment blocks and public buildings.  The rubble of the war is replaced by the rubble of construction sites.  A theme of the movie is clearly the hollowness of modernity and the excess of the post war boom.  Cinematically, La Dolce Vita is full of ingenious shots and great moments.  I just wish it didn’t require spending so much time with such awful people.

The good news is that I have this extremely catchy tune, “Patricia,” stuck in my head.

 

Rating: **1/2

Classic Movie Review: Umberto D (1952)


Title: Umberto D
Release Date: January 20, 1952
Director: Vittorio De Sica
Production Company: Rizzoli | De Sica | Amato
Summary/Review:

This movie is categorized as Italian neorealist which translates to meaning depressing AF!  Umberto Domenico Ferrariis (Carlo Battisti) an elderly man living on a pension and threatened by his landlady (Lina Gennari) to pay his back rent or face eviction. Over the course of the film we learn that she is getting married and wants to redecorate Umberto’s room to include in her upgrade apartment.  The gentrification theme feels very relevant.

Umberto’s only friend is the young maid, Maria (Maria-Pia Casilio), who is facing her own struggles as she has become pregnant by one of the two soldiers she’s dating. Umberto goes to the hospital to be treated for tonsillitis, but also to enjoy a few days of free meals and to sleep without bedbugs.  Returning home he has to search for his beloved dog Flike in a harrowing scene at the pound, where less fortunate pups are being brought to a gas chamber.  Umberto attempts begging and giving away Flike but finds himself unable to do either, and the movie ends ambiguously.

As sad as it is, Umberto D is a beautiful and human depiction of an unfortunately all too common real life struggle.

Rating: ****

Classic Movie Review: Rome, Open City (1945)


Title: Rome, Open City
Release Date: September 27, 1945
Director: Roberto Rossellini
Production Company: Excelsa Film
Summary/Review:

Filmed in the final days of World War II, Rome, Open City is a neorealistic film depicting a fictionalized account of the Italian Resistance Movement in 1944. There’s not much acknowledgement that Italy was an Axis power as by the time film begins, Rome is under control of the occupying German forces and the Italian fascist puppet government.  The main figures of the resistance in the movie are communist Giorgio Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), Francesco (Francesco Grandjacquet), Pina (Anna Magnani), and parish priest Don Pietro Pellegrini (Aldo Fabrizi). Don Pietro is supposed to marry Francesco and the visibly pregnant Pina but the crackdown of SS officers seeking Manfredi sets everyone in motion.

The film depicts the grim realities of the deprivation of a wartime city, betrayals, grim torture, and flat out murder.  But the film also contains moments of humanity, particularly Don Pietro’s devotion to protecting the resistance.  And there is hope in the children who assist the resistance and are the future of Italy.  Technically speaking this is a “low-budget film” but considering the conditions under which it was made it is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Rating: ****

City Stories #5 – Venetian Visions


13 years ago this week, my wife Susan and I spent the first three days of our honeymoon in Venice, Italy.  There is no other city like Venice, and even other cities named Venice or theme park recreations lack the accretion of human construction over centuries that makes the entire city a colossal sculpture of water and stone.  Below are snippets of my favorite memories. If you enjoy this City Story, please check out my previous writings about Brooklyn, Derry, London, and Chicago.  

 

Arriving at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport, we took the Alilaguna water bus into the city. I quickly got acquainted with the lagoon when a wave of briny water splashed through the window and soaked my shirt.

* * *

While Susan napped, I strolled blindly through Venice’s alleys ending up in Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Children were playing soccer in the square and I got involved by kicking back a ball that went astray.

* * *

In the evening we consume cones of limone while listening to the orchestras on Piazza San Marco. We try to dance in the mostly empty square, but that inadvertently prompts every flower seller in eyeshot to approach us and aggressively try to make a sale.

* * *

The next morning, Susan catches a glimpse of everyday Venice from our hotel window, watching a man and his dog pilot a work boat down the canal.

* * *

On our walk through the city, we climb the spiral stair to the top of Scala Contarini del Bovolo . We are greeted by a slim, friendly gatto wearing a jewel-encrusted collar. The view here is more intimate than the Campanile, with views of tiny Venetian backyards and clotheslines.

* * *

We visit  the Scuola Grande di San Rocco — home to a fraternal organization that performed charitable works for plague victims — and is richly decorated with religious art by Tintoretto. We enjoyed interpreting the religious themes in the dozens of giant canvases on the walls and carrying large mirrors to study the murals on the ceiling.

* * *

As the sun begins to set, we walk to get a closer view of  La Salute Church. The approach included walking through a covered alley that felt like a dark tunnel. We emerged from the tunnel and found ourselves amidst twig-thin fashion models in a photoshoot. We are certain the photographer said, “Yes! Gauche Americans are exactly what this picture needs to make the cover of Elle!”

* * *

We ride a gondola at night, and Venice looks just right from the water. In the darkness, we can peep in windows, look at the stars, and listen to the gondolier greet doormen and waiters as we pass. We laugh as the motion-sensor doors on one of the fancier hotels slide open as we glide by.

* * *

The next morning while we’re eating our breakfast at the Hotel Riva, we the same fashion models from the night before posing for another photo shoot. The whole crew come into the hotel for coffee and pastries, but the models stay true to stereotype and refuse to eat anything. More tart succo di frutti and cherry preserve on rolls for us!

* * *

On our final morning, we visit Basilica di San Marco, where the glimmer of  mosaic tiles shine in the darkened interior. After years of settling, the marble flooring rolls like the sea. The walls use many marbles of different colors — pink, green, grey, white — like a Neopolitan ice cream.

***

Those are some of our memories of Venice. Have you ever been to Venice?  What do you remember most?

TV Review: NOVA: Iceman Reborn (2016)


TitleNOVA: Iceman Reborn
Release Date: 17 February 2016
Director: Bonnie Brennan
Production Company: A NOVA Production by Bsquared Media for WGBH Boston in association with ARTE France
Summary/Review:

Ötzi, the 5000 year old mummy found frozen in ice in the mountains along the border of Italy and Austria, is a source of continual fascination.  I was lucky enough to visit his resting place at the  South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology during my honeymoon in 2005. This documentary focuses primarily on artist Gary Staab getting unprecedented access to the mummy and using 3D printing to create a sculpted duplicate of Ötzi for researchers and students to learn from.  In-between scenes of the sculpture’s creation, scientists offer insights into Ötzi’s last meal, his role in society, his many tattoos (possibly related to a prehistoric healing method), and a genetic analysis that shows him most closely related to Sardinians.  There’s even evidence that he suffered from Lyme disease.  There’s a lot to learn from Ötzi and it appears that he will continue to offer insights into the human past.

Rating: ***