Monday, December 17, 2007

The Hundred Steps

The Hundred Steps is a historical film, depicting the life of Peppino Impastato, outspoken activist against the Mafia. The film is a terrific look into a significant time period in the history of Italy.

Researching Italian history, I am amazed to find how deeply the idea of communism is rooted in Italy. For a country so slow to industrialize, Italy has taken vast steps towards the left. It began with the Partito Socialista Italiano, PSI, or Italian Socialist Party in 1892. This party at its height was 860 thousand members strong in 1946, according to Wikipedia. This party eventually split into two separate groups: the reformists- who were strong in parliament, and the maximalists- led by Mussolini. Soon the Maximalist group overcame the reformists and ousted them from the party. Developed through leftist views came the Partito Comunista Italiano, PCI, or Italian Communist party, a group that reached higher prevalence than the socialist group with over 2 million members in 1947. The group was once led by Antonio Bordiga and Antonio Gramsci as they increased the rift between their party and the socialists.

The Red Brigades was a terrorist group active during the “Years of Lead” or highly turbulent time of political instability. There were many politically-motivated murders, one being the killing of Aldo Moro, who was assassinated during this time. Moro, a Christian Democrat, was trying to make compromises with the Communist party, led by Enrico Berlinguer, an agreement known as the compromesso storico, or historic compromise. In an extremist response, the Red Brigades kidnapped Moro and after 54 days of captivity, assassinated him. The terrorist group left the body in the trunk of the car half way between the Christian Democratic office and Communist offices in a symbolic gesture. Today there are also many different conspiracy theories concerning the death of Moro.

The actions of the Red Brigade show some significant resemblance to the FLQ, or Front de libération du Québec (Quebec Liberation Front). The FLQ was another terrorist group that used extreme means instead of peaceful endeavors. Like the Red Brigades, the FLQ was comprised of Marxist followers who wanted to declare war on their Anglophone oppressors, overthrow Quebec government, and separate from Canada. The group was active from the years 1963-1970, and was responsible for over 200 bombings and the death of five people. Two separate FLQ cells kidnapped two political figures, one after the other. First it was English-speaking James Cross, British Trade Commissioner, and than Pierre Laporte, Quebec’s own Minister of Labour. Laporte was soon killed (some reports suggest it was an accident). In order for Cross to be released they made several demands, including transportation to Cuba. Some of them were met and after two months, and Cross was finally let go. This period was known as the October Crisis.

This terror organization seemed to operate much like the Red Brigades, or least performed some acts that are closely similar. These actions took place less than a decade before, and proved to be successful on some account. The actions of this group could have likely inspired the Red Brigade’s kidnapping of Aldo Moro.


Color. The mise-en-scene in the film is very detailed. The use of the color red is abundant throughout the movie. For instance in the scene where the young Peppino is at his Uncle’s funeral, his small frame is surrounded (?) by an extravagant red thrown like chaird looking like the king of Communism (if there could be one). Also in the scene after his father first learns of his dealings with Communism, there is a red light covering him while he is lying on the bed, showing that this ideal of Communism was soon to encompass his life.

Music. There was also a significant amount of American music used in the film. In fact in scenes that show Peppino in progress, mostly have an American soundtrack in the background. I found this extremely peculiar, since for most American, the ideal of communism is taboo. II Iasldkfjfjdkls;a jlkewr Although the soundtrack featured artists synonymous with the anti-war, leftist view, like Janis Joplin and Lenard Cohen. I was also surprised to see how the hippie culture was vastly apparent in Italy during that time.

The story is one that is bittersweet. The reality of it even seems to contain dramatic, narrative elements. The way in which Peppino was killed mirrored the same way that his Uncle, whom he had a positive relationship with, was killed. There is also the probability they along with Peppino’s father were set up to be killed by the same person, Don Tano. Tano, who lived just one hundred steps away, was an interesting figure. In the 80’s he came to the U.S. and sold drugs out of pizza parlor. He was convicted in 1987 for drug trafficking and then later in 2002, was convicted of the death of Peppino Impastato. Tano died in prison. His drug empire was estimated at $1.65 billion.

A complex version of Tano exists in the film. In the scene where he visits Peppino at the coffee house we see a side to Tano that we have not previously encountered. You see the struggle inside of Peppino as Tano explains what he has done for his family. In a sense, Tano helping Peppino’s father, actually helped Peppino become what he was. Peppino’s family wasn’t suffering from financial peril and this allowed him and his brother to attend school. Is the scene in the pizza parlor a dream sequence, or did Tano really offer an escape path to Peppino?

It is very ironic that the Impastato business was a pizza parlor, which was also the means that Tano used to sell drugs in the states.

Thursday, December 13, 2007


"While he has not made a documentary, his film reflects a heightened sense of reality derived from the experience of life." --- Rob Edelman

“L’america” was directed by Gianni Amelio (the man responsible for a film we watched earlier in the semester, “The Keys to the House”) and released in 1994. What is unique about this film is that it brings traditional linear Italian film-making to new places by using the methods of neo-realism to carry the audience along on a dreamlike, ironic mythologizing journey whose mood and methods are all his own. This extremely powerful film, almost documentary-like in its presentation of its characters and themes, is as fantastic as it is vividly concrete and sad.

The film tells the story of two Italians, Fiore (Michele Placido) and his assistant Gino (Enrico Lo Verso) who go to the impoverished, wrecked post-communist Albania with the scam of setting up a shell shoe factory as what they - or Fiore, for the most part, because he by himself is the mastermind of the scam - think will be a profitable tax shelter. They corrupt an Albanian official named Kruja, which they turn into Croce (cross) to grease the bureaucratic wheels and obtain government approval for the plan. Unsatisfied with others who have cooperating families who are able to make claims, they find Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), an old man they are told is an orphan and has been imprisoned by the communists for fifty years. They sign him up as the Albanian figurehead "president" of the company. Fiore hurries back to Italy and leaves Gino in charge of watching over the derelict factory they have taken control of, and also to make sure Spiro stays out of trouble.

When Fiore leaves however, things go wrong, and as the story progresses, they get even worse, until Gino has lost everything - even his Italian identity. The journey we as the viewers go on is compulsive watching and echoes tragic wanderings like those of the father and son in De Sica's “The Bicycle Thief”, or the couple in Fellini's “La Strada.” Amelio achieves a sense of understanding and a sorrow and pity that a person can have only when everything has been stripped away from them and nothing but their essential humanity remains. Basically, you have to imagine the worst thing that could happen to you while on a journey, and then take that even further, and you have an idea of the trajectory and transformative emotional power of “L’america.”

When Gino finally gets ahold of Fiore on the phone, he learns that their scam has failed, and they are not only in deep trouble, but he and Spiro are both out of a job. Of course, Spiro says he knew this would happen all along. The Spiro character is extremely pivotal in the film. At first he appears as a derelict, worse than a bum, clearly out of his mind. When asked his age he holds up his fingers twice, and the viewer realizes he still thinks he’s twenty years old. But somehow there is a young man still inside Spiro that seems to emerge as the film goes along as a figure of great humanity, energy and hope.

The first disaster occurs when Spiro disappears from the nuns' institution where they have left him. After being a prisoner for fifty years, all he wants to do now is escape. Gino finds him and takes him on a journey along the coast in a jeep, but once they're out in the middle of nowhere, Gino is lost. He runs around frantically looking for Spiro, and when he gets back to the car, it has been stripped of its tires. He calls for the police, but since he only speaks Italian, no one can understand him. They can only stare at him. These faces Amelio shows us, and again at the end, in that powerful closing montage on the boat heading for Italy at long last, communicate more with these pained and tired expressions than any words ever could.

Much like the great Italian neo-realist filmmakers of the forties and fifties, Amelio uses real places and real people with great skill. What does all this mean? First of all, it's an affirmation of the sheer and inexplicable power of poverty. The fact that Spiro's insanity comes across as beautiful and hopeful shows that the film is not to be taken too literally. The film shows us a lot about Albania, colonialism, rich and poor nations and economic exploitation, yet at its core it is truly a film of heart-wrenching sadness. When we see those faces in the closing scene, the pain felt by these people is truly individualized, showing us the viewers that the problems highlighted not only in this film but in other issues plaguing the world today can be seen in one agonizing stare.

“L’america” is a breathtaking film, and clearly sets Amelio apart as one of the most powerful and humanistic Italian filmmakers working today.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Cento Passi

I Cento Passi

“I want to give up politics and life” – Giuseppe “Peppino” Impastato

This was the sentence that allowed the city officials in Cinisi to pass off Peppino’s death as a suicide. In reality the mafia dealt him out a fate he and his supporters probably could have seen coming, considering he spent the most important years of his life mocking them and their ill power.
The film I Cento Passi directed by Marco Tullio Giordana serves to recount the tale of Peppino’s life from his childhood to his unfortunate death and even beyond, to show his numerous supporters. This fast-paced film brings out Peppino as a people’s hero, sacrificing his safety and eventually his life to expose the government and mafia for what they really are. Peppino’s views on how the government should function and his radical ideas of Socialism thread through the film a story of a countercultural struggle against the people who have the power and refuse to give it up.
The opening of this ‘anti-mafia’ film is oddly similar to most mafia films that glorify the mafia code. The slow pacing and long shots certainly intensify the tension of the film. It takes young Peppino to a celebration where he becomes attached to his uncle Cesare Manzella, and also seems to be a young predecessor that might carry on the family’s name. We are introduced to Tano, who is the antagonist to not only this film, but also Peppino’s true life, when Peppino almost runs him over while trying to learn how to drive. Just like most mafia films the villain is introduced early and now all the audience is waiting for is someone to get whacked. It comes when Cesare is blown up in a car bomb, something that the audience can see from a mile away.
The oddest thing about this set of events is that in essence, they are all true. All of the events have probably been embellished a little, just to dramatically heighten the action, but all of the family relationships existed; Tano blew up Peppino’s uncle Cesare in the tragic car bomb fashion; and after Cesare’s death pieces of his body were found clinging in lemon trees meters away from where the explosion occurred.
After Cesare’s funeral the film takes a change of course and turns from looking like a mafia film into an anti-mafia film. The foreshadowing begins when young Peppino is sitting in a deep red chair at the funeral, away from the rest of his family. He is observing the rituals of the mafia and looking very critical of their actions. Subsequently the editing quickens its pace, showing us action and reaction shots that relay information as fast as the audience can process it. After the funeral Peppino visits the artist Stefano whom he heard speaking in public days before and asks him to paint a portrait of his late uncle Cesare. Stefano refuses and instead tells Peppino a story and a poem that will alter Peppino’s life forever. With the foreshadowing of red drapes flowing behind young Peppino, the film then thrusts us years later when Peppino is actively protesting with his Socialist group. The group is storming the police and a throwing themselves in front of a group of bulldozers that are trying to develop the land. The two lifestyles are juxtaposed wonderfully to start a parallel of politics between the two factions of the counterculture and the power holders.
The development of the mafia and mob bosses has probably existed a long time, and has been a group that has focused on the importance of deep politics. Sadly, the passive-aggressive way in which the mafia seems to get things done is by committing criminal acts such as murder in order to get what they want. In the opening scenes of I Cento Passi, there are many references to the changing times in Italy. A group of kids joke around when they are near a car asking where the horses went, and when the Socialist Stefano is speaking out against the dangers of the mafia, Cesare tells him the new wave of politics in Italy is a democracy, and people are getting more jobs and making ends meet. There irony in this statement because while technology is advancing, the common people are not experiencing any relief from the suffering. The economic miracle is simply only giving more food and power to the mafia. Certainly, the mafia would look forward to a capitalist society because in all ways that is how a mafia functions. They are very much a pro-bureaucracy group, with one person functioning as the head and many individual levels of bosses below that. It is this fundamentalism that helps fuel the mafia’s distaste for Communist believers. Politically these groups are far left, and far right, and the state of the society surrounding Peppino is clearly far right. At one point Peppino’s own father says he will kill him if he is truly a communist. Marxist followers focus on the rise of the lower class and the dissolving of classes that hold power in society. This power will fall into the hands of the people and an eternal utopia will form.
Peppino’s course of action through the film is to try and inform people using a deep mixture of media and culture. Italy is famous for its contributions to art and literature, and both will become devices which Peppino can use to deliver his message. When Peppino founds the radio station Radio Aut, he begins to broadcast daily messages to the people, poking fun at the mafia and similar institutions. This young, fast-paced generation seems to try and do anything to capture the attention of the people to inform them of the corrupt ways that need to change. The soundtrack to this Italian film that accompanies the radio station and Peppino as he travels around Cinisi is primarily an English one that has a lot of American counterculture rock bands. The sounds of Janice Joplin and Leonard Cohen help provide an atmospheric background to Peppino’s political crusade.
When his lack of fear for the mafia finally thrusts Peppino into the position where he believes he has enough supporters to start an actual political campaign, the tide turns for him. In the Sicilian town Peppino consults Stefano to get his input on the idea of him running for office under the Socialist Democratic party, and once he has announced he is going to run, the mafia steps in. They handle Peppino much like they are expected to, only in a much more gruesome manner. The kill Peppino and blow his body up so that there is no trace of him left.
The fact that the officials would try and hide his death as a suicide proves despite the adoration and agreement Peppino’s supporters had for him, it did not equate to years of power the mafia held. It is appalling that the government has kept the case closed on Peppino, and waited twenty years to take action against Peppino’s killers.
Considering the current political climate, this film is a very potent one. It is important for citizens, especially in a democracy, to know what is going on in the government. While Peppino’s ideas of government may not be a completely achievable goal, the freedoms he spoke out for, especially freedom of speech, are important to society. Had this film not documented Peppino’s account, many people would not know the lengths to which one man went to fight for what he believed, and I am curious to know what Peppino’s thoughts on the current state of the world’s politics would be had he not been brutally murdered thirty years ago.


Ruberto, Laura E. and Kristi M. Wilson, eds. Italian Neorealism and Global Cinema.
Detroit. Wayne State University Press, 2007.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Francesco Rosi’s The Truce (1997)

Francesco Rosi’s adaptation of Primo Levi’s 1963 novel La tregua (The Reawakening in the USA) deserves to be acknowledged for some important merits. First of all, Rosi took the responsibility to film the difficult work of an established and widely known Italian author. Secondly, he choose to adapt one of Levi’s books that is surely less famous than the survival account Se questo è un uomo (1947 and 1958, If This Is A Man) and in doing so, he decides to show a less explored topic related to the Holocaust: the survivors’ return at the end of the war. Thirdly, in retelling us the story of Primo Levi’s return from Auschwitz, Rosi increases the short list of Italian films about the Holocaust, a list that in 1997 counted only Kapò (1959) by Gillo Pontecorvo, Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (1970) by Vittorio De Sica, Pasqualino Settebellezze (1975) by Lina Wertmüller, and Jona che visse nella balena (1993) by Roberto Faenza. However, Francesco Rosi’s film, even considering the difficulties of approaching the Holocaust theme and the adaptation of a book highlighted by Milicent Marcus in her “Francesco Rosi’s The Truce,” fails to be compelling and to allow the viewers to become, as Marcus says, the “addressable others” (267). This failure is caused, in my opinion, by the excess of explanatory and didactic dialogues, especially in the second half of the movie. The film says too much with words instead of suggesting with images, and this is even more jarring when the words come from Primo Levi, a survivor who felt the burden of guilt for having escaped death and who wrote poetry and pages of an extreme symbolic power. When Rosi’s film ends, the viewer has the impression of having witnessed/observed a compilation of Holocaust topoi: the feeling of guilt of the survivor, the problem of Jewish camp collaborators, the role and the place of God during the time of the Shoah, the survivor’s responsibilities to let the world know, and the prisoners’ anguish for their families’ fates—all of this, but without having room to think about them, or, using Levi’s words, to meditate.

The opening establishing shots

The film starts with eloquent captions that set the time and the place: Auschwitz, January 1946. In addition, the fire, the German shouting, and the barking dogs contribute to recreate a “familiar” Holocaust scene. After few minutes, though, Rosi decides to show us Primo’s tattooed arm with a close-up, as to re-center our attention to the protagonist of the story and away from the mass of prisoners running away from the Russian army. The symbolic power of the tattooed number allows us to read this image as an unusual establishing shot that contributes to our attitude toward the movie.

The same shot will be repeated at the end of the film. Primo is back home and he is about to start writing Se questo è un uomo. His survivor’s status is now full of responsibility: he is now a messenger and the number on his arm is there to remind him of his new duty.


The following scenes show the beginning of the long journey home. As in other films and literary works about the Holocaust, confusion and disorientation are the common feelings among the prisoners. Although apparently calm and serene (a state that Turturro’s Levi seems to be very comfortable with), Primo shares the same sensation as the repeated questions he poses in the first hour of the film testimony: “Go where?,” “Kept by whom?,” and “Where are we going?” This disorientation, however, does not coincide with the filming of the journey. The viewer is never lost and the journey, although winding, appears linear.

Rosi’s translation

As observed by Marcus in her article, Rosi takes the responsibility to be Levi’s translator and messenger in the market scene. In this scene, Primo tries to tell what living at Auschwitz was to the people at the market. Initially, he has the help of a person who is able to translate in Polish what Primo tries to say to sell his shirt. However, as soon as Primo starts talking about Auschwitz, the translator refuses to continue. Rosi, then, with the movement of the camera that pans until arriving on top of the people, makes the viewers aware of his presence and accepts the task of continuing Primo’s testimony.

Rosi’s “Cinema of Prose”

In fulfilling his duty of messenger of a messenger, as said before, Rosi is very assertive and didactic. In the second half of the film, in fact, in a series of short scenes, many issues related to the Holocaust are treated and apparently exhausted in a very simplistic way. Among these, I will talk about the problems of the camp collaborationists and of the German feeling of guilt as they are treated in two scenes of the film. The first issue is quickly approached when Cesare is distributing the meat of a calf and Daniele (a character who is never fully developed) prohibits Flora from having it because she “broke bread with the S.S.” Primo’s opposition to Daniele is clear and understandable. Nonetheless, the problem of Jewish collaboration with the Nazi deserved a much deeper analysis than the acceptance/refusal dichotomy and should have not been liquidated in terms of right or wrong.

The second issue is focused in particular in the Munich station scene. Although Marcus’ analysis of this scene highlights interesting connections for the image of the kneeling German, I still feel that Rosi’s choice does not pay enough attention to the extent of controversial historical and sociological knot. This image is much too conclusive to be credible, especially considering the historical context of 1946.

Rosi’s “Cinema of Poetry”

A scene that could be qualified as a moment of Pasolinian Cinema of Poetry is the scene in which the Italian survivors watch through a window the Russian family who gave them food to eat. Uncertain about their journey and about the fate of their own families, in this scene through the deforming glasses of a window this family appears like an unreachable mirage. The deformation and the color of these images tell us about the feelings and desires of these Italian men much more than they could explain with words by themselves.

In my view, if Rosi could have adopted consistently these stylistic choices, he would have realized a much more compelling movie that would have pushed the viewers to think about the survivors’ journey more than just consider it a mere act of tribute.


An article about Primo Levi’s death/suicide

A web site about Primo Levi’s literary works

Resnais’ poetic documentary about the Holocaust Nuit et Bruillard (1955, in French with English subtitles)

A page and a video about Willy Brandt kneeling in 1970


Marcus, Millicent. “Francesco Rosi’s The Truce.” After Fellini: National Cinema in the Postmodern Age. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Wilder West

Sergio Leone’s self described “Fairytale for grown-ups,” A Fistful of Dollars is an intense look at a different kind of West than classically portrayed. Before the film even starts the viewer gets the idea that it is not like any other of the genre. The opening titles depicting silhouettes in deadly shoot-outs with Ennio Morricone’s ominous score, prepare the viewer for a redevelopment of the idea of the “Wild West” as perilous and violent, com-pared to more the romanticized depictions in classical Hollywood westerns.The title sequence sets the tone for the unromantized tale of savagery in a frontier soci-ety. Leone takes well-established conventions of the genre and turns them on their heads to demonstrate arguably a more realistic picture of the west and its inhabitants. The most obvious reworking of the genres conventions are the characters who are gritty, conniving, evil and constantly involved in power plays, scheming against each other. The lead character, the man with no name (Clint Eastwood,) is the best at this: able to exploit both sides in their struggle against the other, while stacking his money in secret. His anti-hero identity strongly contrasts traditional roles of benevolent protectors from films like Shane and High Noon, where the lead man rids the town of bad guys for moral reasons and asks for nothing in return.In A Fistful of Dollars, the dichotomy of good and evil is absent, both sides are evil and TMWNN eliminates both indiscriminately for one reason only: money.
The main charac-ters reflect the different values of character in Italian culture at the time, and also serve as a commentary on global issues. As Alberto Moravia states in his review on the film, cited in the article “Per Un Pugno Di Dollari,” by Christopher Frayling: “The main charac-ters are everyday delinquents who were in the background of American films but who, in Italian ones, have invaded the foreground to become the protagonists. The qualities which make them attractive, in the eyes of our public, are not generosity and chivalry but guile, street wisdom and ‘ingenuity’.” Leone’s characters are realistic; they are more identified with than the immaculate and virtuous protagonists that previously dominated the genre.

Other distinct differences that play down the romanticization of the west are the visual violence, bloodshed and grime. Leone was not shy about showing brutality between his characters. The amoral position of virtually every character, embodies a code of shoot first and don’t even bother asking questions; TMWNN dispatches four Baxter thugs right in front of their stronghold and when the Sheriff protests, he tells him to get the corpses in the ground. When the Rojo brothers firebomb the Baxter compound later in the film, they shoot every survivor as they come out despite their pleading surrender. One of the most shocking instances of violence is the interrogation of TMWNN by the Rojos. The scene shows Rojo goons beating the living daylights out of TMWNN with close ups on his bloody face and hand, to the delight of Esteban Rojo. The film is packed with these dramatic close ups that show in detail the bloody wounds, and dirty, sweating faces of the characters, these shots are worlds away from the single smudge of dirt and solitary rip in Gary Cooper’s shirt in High Noon. Leone’s characters are dirty from the beginning and become more and more tattered and filthy as the film goes on.

An interesting anecdote about the realistic grime of this film: the poncho the man with no name sports in all three of Leone’s trilogy was never washed throughout shooting of any of the films.
The aspect of the film that pulls everything together into the “fairytale for grown-ups,” is Leone’s heavily stylized aesthetic. Influenced by many classic western directors as well as the films of Akira Kurosawa, namely Yojimbo, which heavily influence the films plot and characters. Leone makes use of the widescreen format, favored by many Holly-wood western directors, not only to convey the enormous landscapes but to layer his mise-en-scène with extreme close ups in the foreground and other action in the back-ground.These shots are subtle but are everywhere in the film; in the hostage trade-off scene especially, every Rojo family member is shot using this technique. The use of these extreme close-ups, often of squinty eyes, supplements or replaces a lot of the film’s dialogue and adds the operatic suspense that became trademark Leone. The ex-treme close-ups convey much more than any dialogue could. Other distinct stylistic points are the quick zooms that bring us in to the extreme close-ups, imposing high and low-angle shots, gun point-of-view shots and parallel shots of different character.

In the final shoot-out between Ramon and TMWNN, Leone compares the two by first photographing each man’s dusty, spurred boots from low angles, then close-ups as each man loads his weapon and finally the extreme close-up on each man’s filthy face in a final stare down before TMWNN subdues Ramon. TMWNN is so fast on the draw the shoot-ing is done more by the gun than him, so shoot-outs are photographed from the gun’s point-of-view. These stylistic considerations give a personality to the film and build authentic suspense throughout.A Fistful of Dollars’ baroque take on the western sparked the massive wave of Italian “Spaghetti Westerns” that revitalized the genre in a dramatic but more realistic fashion. The era of quixotical Hollywood westerns was at an end, with the emergence of the wilder west.

Archive of Leone’s films and other info about the director.
Samples Ennio Morricone’s score.
A fistful of Clint Eastwood.
Singing Cowboys.


Frayling, Christopher. "Per un pugno di dollari/ A fistful of dollars." The Cinema of Italy. Ed. Giorgio Bertellini. New York: wallflower, 2004.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Suzy and the Twisted Technicolor Nightmare: Dario Argento's Suspiria

“Bad luck isn't brought by broken mirrors, but by broken minds.”
~Dr. Frank Mandel

From the opening frames of Dario Argento’s highly stylized nightmare Suspiria (1977) until the frenzied closing, the viewer is inundated with richly nuanced sub text and metaphor. Part of a trilogy told by Argento based upon Thomas de Quincey’s “opium dream” of three mothers in his novel Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Suspiria tells the story of the wide-eyed, childlike Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) arriving for the first time at the prestigious ballet academy in Germany where she will be studying.

Down the Rabbit Hole...

Upon her arrival, a panic-stricken young woman is fleeing the building, and is soon thereafter murdered (in a uniquely Argentian baptism of gore). After Suzy begins settling into life at the academy, several strange occurrences including unexplained dizziness, hemorrhaging incidents during dance practice and additional murders complicate matters significantly for our poor, naïve protagonist. Suzy will go on to discover that the academy is in fact run by a coven of witches who plan to eradicate her, and she must summon her courage and overcome her innocence to defeat the head witch, the ancient Helene Marcos.

An Anti-Fairytale: The Maiden versus the Hag

The female archetypes portrayed in the film run the gamut. Our pure-as-the-driven-snow protagonist, Suzy, offers a counterpoint to the devious and malevolent women that populate the film, most notably the omnipresent and omnipotent Helene Marcos, who serves as the polar opposite to the goodness that Suzy represents. Like the “Hag” and “Maiden” archetypes of fairytale literature (Gould), Helene is the evil Queen to Suzy’s Snow White; we are not actually introduced to her until the very end of the film, and even then we are only allowed to see her in pieces. Ostensibly her visage is so horrifying we cannot be allowed to gaze upon it. Even Suzy’s fellow students, when they are introduced to her, are catty and cruel. Can Suzy ever really trust anyone?

Suzy, in Technicolor

Helene’s academy is inhabited by her coven of witches who do her bidding, and the most dominating presence in this vein is clearly the sadistic Miss Tanner; her thick German accent and severe presence evoke Nazi-era monsters such as Ilse Koch, dubbed “Buchenwälder Schlampe” (The Bitch of Buchenwald) by the inmates who suffered horrifically at her hands. Miss Tanner serves as one of several fascist elements in Suspiria. In her essay “The ‘Mother’ of All Horror Movies”, Linda Schulte-Sasse explains: “What was National Socialism if not a historical version of what the witches achieve on a seemingly apolitical level: a systematic reign of surveillance and paranoia, a disciplining of the body and social behaviour (those punished in Suspiria are the ones with a "strong will"), a process of selecting who belongs to the ‘we’ and elimination of who does not.”

A Blood-Splattered Space: Carol Clover’s “Terrible Place

The action of the film revolves entirely around the chilling dance academy, an absurdly stylized space that seems to defy logic almost as much as the film’s plot, characters and subject matter completely flout reason. We are ushered into experiencing the spaces of the film as such in the opening apartment scenes, when the fleeing girl and the woman are gruesomely murdered.

Killed by falling compass in a geometric nightmare

Everything about this space is ludicrously over the top. The architecture of the apartment, the vibrant, screaming color scheme and the almost slap-dash madness of the building’s layout; these elements all help prepare us for entry into the main event, the arena in which the essential action will take place: the dance academy. A bizarre charlatan of a building, bathed as it is in a violent red, the building seems torn directly from Argento’s own phantasmagorical imagination; however, it is in fact an actual location: Haus Zum Walfisch (Whale House) in Freiburg, Germany.

It is this space that echoes the idea set forth by Carol Clover in her essay, “Her Body, Himself” of the “Terrible Place” in the slasher film canon, the veritable fun house of horrors in which our protagonist will experience the most unspeakable of terrors, where she must face down and defeat the slayer or become yet another victim of the meat grinder. In Clover’s estimation, “The house or tunnel may at first seem a safe haven, but the same walls that promise to keep the killer out quickly become, once the killer penetrates them, the walls that hold the victim in.”

Bloody Red and Bruised Blue: Color in Suspiria

A phantasmagorical version of the NBC Peacock

Undoubtedly the most striking element at work in this film is the use of color. Color which at once saturates, overwhelms and assaults the audience, not a single shot is free of its heavily stylized use. Reds (the most prominent of the film’s colors) permeate the image to warn us of impending doom; softer lavender and blue hues steep the frames in their ominous glow. Indeed, it is the colors and the image that dominate this film, carrying the audience beyond the narrative. Schulte-Sasse explains that, “Throughout the film we are held captive by image and sound; each movement from space to space—whether the drive from the airport, a walk up or down the gilded school staircase, or a subjective traveling shot through the red Jugendstil corridor of the dance school—is experienced more aesthetically than in narrative terms.” (Schulte-Sasse) According to an un-credited source in the trivia section of the Suspiria page on, the film was shot on standard film stock and printed using the outdated 3-strip Technicolor process on one of the few remaining machines to achieve the over-saturation of color.

Malicious Melodies: Goblin's Soundtrack

The film’s menacing score is provided by Argento-favorites Goblin, an Italian prog-rock band who also scored Argento’s Deep Red and George A. Romero’s horror classic Dawn of the Dead.

Their unnerving score perfectly compliments the ominous tone of this film, offering timely portents of danger. The music is heavily laden with frightening sound effects (screams, whispers, etc.) that add to the hysterical pace of the film.

While its highly stylized manner may alienate some, I believe it truly adds to this richly surrealistic nightmare of a film. Personally, I found Suspiria difficult to review, due to the overwhelming amount of symbolism and metaphor it contains and my desire to write many more pages. As a long-time fan of Profondo Rosso, I highly enjoyed this film, and I would certainly recommend it to both Argento fans and horror fans alike.


Suspiria at

Suspiria at Wikipedia:

Reviews at Rotten Tomatoes:

Review at Slant Magazine:

Comprehensive site on the life and work of Dario Argento:

Goblin’s website:


Gould, Joan. Spinning Straw Into Gold: What Fairy Tales Reveal About the Transformations in a Woman’s Life. New York: Random House, 2005.

Schulte-Sasse, Linda. “The ‘Mother’ of All Horror Movies.” Kinoeye. 10 June 2002.

Clover, Carol J. Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P., 1992.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Forced into Nothing in Primo Amore

“What’s the point of being here?” Sonia asks Vittorio when she gets the impression that he does not want to talk to her when they meet for the first time. This is the question I kept asking as I watched Primo Amore. In this film, Vittorio, a goldsmith, finds Sonia perfect in every way except for her body, so she starves herself to be the perfect body for him. I cannot see why Sonia would go through such torture for a man who never tells her he loves her nor does anything that can be construed as an act of love. Yes, he does ask her to move in with him into a place where they can see the Romeo and Juliet castles. But he is not the passionate Romeo compared to her self-sacrificing Juliet. When he tells her, “Don’t disappear,” the irony undercuts any romantic meaning as she is disappearing by starving herself to please him. In the final scene, he tells her that he will be nothing if she goes away. However, he utters this to her after he declares that she is nothing while she is naked with her head down.

Vittorio treats Sonia like gold not as something of high value but as a literal piece of gold, as an object, to be molded into weighing nothing. He first sees her as gold when he visits her while she is modeling for a night drawing class. The moles on her body remind him of the gold specs arising from the molten liquid.

He makes gold pieces that weigh nothing that he tries to force people into manufacturing. He believes that if he reduces Sonia into nothing then she will be something precious. Unfortunately for him, scraping Sonia away causes her to break down on several occasions either crying, fainting, or sneaking bites of onion imagining it as a piece of chicken. At her final breakdown in the restaurant, I cheered for her as she attacks the neglected fettuccine dish and steals bites from the kitchen exclaiming, “I want to eat whenever I want.”

Vittorio does not seem to desire her as a sexual being as she loses weight. However, the close-ups used in the sex scene reduce Sonia’s body into pieces of flesh suggesting that he desires her in this reductive state. Yet, as she continues to starve herself, she and Vittorio have reduced their physical intimacy to hugs and scant kisses. This makes them seem more like friends than lovers.

Garrone seems to be obsessed with framing Vittorio around straight lines. Vittorio lives in a prisonlike apartment building. He and Sonia walk often down a street lined with street lamps. They also frolic in the woods in the midst of barren trees with very smooth trunks, showing by analogy how Vittorio thinks that a woman should naturally be thin as a stick. These straight-lined images suggest that Vittorio is imprisoned in his straightforward thinking. He can only see what is in front of him.

In one scene, what is in front of him is a Sonia who is blurred (Vittorio is also blurry but not as much as Sonia). His blurriness coincides with his “pep-talk” to Sonia. He explains that he is not with the present Sonia who weighs 45 kilos (99 lbs) but with a future Sonia who will weigh 40 kilos (88 lbs). Sonia appears blurry to show the audience how she is reduced to nothing physically and to show how Vittorio does not consider her feelings.

The impact of that image makes me forget that Sonia had set this torture in motion. In a visually uninteresting full shot, a skinny woman walks by Sonia at the pool. Sonia looks at the woman and then at Vittorio who has his eyes on the book. The close-ups and the blurry images make me blame Sonia’s condition completely on Vittorio even though she made the decision to starve herself. These shots make her look trapped into being nothing. And I am trapped by the aesthetic beauty of these shots. Thus, I sympathize with her struggle to fulfill someone’s desire for beauty.

In the final scene, Vittorio says “Only what truly counts remains.” And I remain disconcerted by this film so much so that I have to go eat for Sonia.

A monstrous comedy of manners

"Netflix shares fell 3%, but if the Canadian dollar does not reverse its overvaluation, Blockbuster might be forced to slash 4th quarter forecasts by as much as 19%," or so might say Loris while trying to distract himself from the "obscene bombardment" being put on by his female roommate for some reason unknown to him.

Roberto Benigni, best known here in the States for Son of Pink Panther and more recently La Vita è Bella, worked with screenwriter Vincenzo Cerami, directing and starring in a trilogy of loosely-related films: Il Piccolo Diavolo (1988), Johnny Stecchino (1991) and the film we'll concern ourselves with here: Il Mostro (1994).

Like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), considered "the greatest film of all time" (Schlegel, 2007), Il Mostro also has at the beginning an opening animation in which a skeleton shows fear of a monster and has its bones scattered.

The title monster is a serial rapist and killer of women, emblematized by a small dog in the animation sequence. Opening animation sequence aside, the film begins quite seriously with a stark, static shot of the tenements at night, followed by an indoor shot of a woman's leg stopping a stubborn elevator door from closing. After the opening animation sequence, there is an aerial shot of the tenement where our protagonist lives, then, after a montage showing the crime scene investigators at work as the police chief tells the press what he knows about the monster, we cut to the police chief's press conference. The monster has claimed his 18th victim, and the police chief explains not only the heinousness of the crime but also the veil of normalcy which has enabled the criminal to elude the police so far. But soon the police chief and the police doctor, Paride Taccone, forget that the veil of normalcy excludes eccentric behavior in broad daylight, such as Loris exhibits. I'll leave it to you to guess who the monster really is: he's introduced early in the film.

A cut from this press conference to Loris (Benigni) looking crazy at a party would seem to want to plant the idea that Loris could be the title monster. But I don't think I'm spoiling it for anyone when I say Loris is not the title monster. This is not a comedy of unrelated twins, like Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator or Benigni's own Johnny Stecchino. But it is a comedy drawn from "the well of miscommunication" as the plots of so many Frasier episodes are. As with Johnny Stecchino, many jokes are set up in the first act and their punchlines (or payoffs) postponed to the third act.

Loris is a barely employed mannequin-carrier. He tells his boss he needs the work. Not surprisingly, he's months behind on his rent and the landlord wants to kick him out and get a paying tenant in as soon as possible. Loris is actually fairly inventive in figuring out ways to scare off potential replacement tenants so he doesn't get kicked out. Also, he has to avoid making eye contact with the building caretaker, so he walks past his office window crouching down (leading to one of the film's recurring jokes).

Because of his weird behavior, and an accusation by an older lady mistaken by Loris for a nymphomaniac, the police chief becomes convinced that Loris is the elusive serial killer who's perturbed the constable's sleep for several years now. Loris is secretly filmed and the footage is shown to several policewomen.

None want to take the case, save one, Jessica, and even she has her doubts after she sees Loris apparently having rough sex with a mannequin. Jessica tries to rent Loris's apartment but the landlord wants to sell it rather than rent it. Loris makes a secret deal with Jessica to be his roommate. The police chief and Paride, the police doctor, tell Jessica she must provoke Loris to try to rape her, and to be ready with her gun to arrest Loris. As she gets to know Loris, Jessica grows to doubt that Loris really could be the serial killer who's so far eluded the police. On at least two separate occasions Jessica goes to the police station to express her doubts about the identification of the killer. Also, she gradually falls in love with Loris; this we learn in the same way we learn in Chasing Amy that Holden is falling for his lesbian friend Alyssa: through a romantic montage.

After the first time Jessica goes back to the police station to tell Paride she doesn't think Loris is the killer, Paride invites himself to the apartment on the pretext of being a tailor there to fit him for a designer suit. He's really there to perform a whole battery of medical tests, and though Loris finds this weird, he remains perfectly unaware of what's really going on. Jessica puts a stop to this just as Paride is about to perform a prostate exam. Paride brings his wife, Jolanda, along, and by coincidence she sees Loris wielding a meat cleaver on two separate occasions. When Jolanda gets stuck in a window trying to escape, Loris tries to help her get unstuck, but from the terrace it looks like Jolanda is being raped. As soon as Jessica and Paride go into the room, Jessica understands exactly what has happened.

Now, Roger Ebert wonders how the female leads in certain romantic comedies could fall for Adam Sandler's character in movies such as The Water Boy, or Billy Crystal's in The Animal. Here in The Monster I find it slightly easier to believe that Jessica (Nicoletta Braschi, Benigni's wife in real life) could fall for Loris. But instead of seeing Jessica in the background smiling at Loris's antics, for the most part we see her quietly thinking things over: the best example of this is when she's out in the terrace and Paride goes away with Loris to try to give him a testicular exam.

When Loris goes take the Chinese oral exam is when Jessica gets a crucial piece of evidence that will enable her to crack the case wide open, though at the time she doesn't realize its importance. Both Jessica and the Chinese instructor wish Loris luck, but Loris can't even get the very first question right, the one question that should be a no-brainer to anyone taking Chinese lessons: 您的名字是什么?

Since Paride found a lawn ornament of one of the seven Dwarves in Loris's closet, he for some reason becomes convinced that the way to provoke Loris and catch him red-handed is by dressing Jessica up in a Little Red Riding Hood costume, not Snow White. By now Jessica doesn't want to go along with this, but Paride insists that the order comes straight from the police chief. Jessica acquiesces and performs as instructed: she makes sure Loris sees her with the costume and tells him she's leaving. Instead of trying to rape and kill Jessica, Loris just lets her go and records a message telling her their rental agreement is now cancelled.

Jessica is back at the police station to express her doubts on Loris being the killer when the 19th victim is announced and the police release Loris's likeness and identify him as the killer. Jessica goes to the crime scene and finds the clue which leads her to find the real killer. Practically the entire town chases Loris, though many of them have reasons other than Loris being a killer to chase him. Loris also goes to the real killer's apartment, leading to the film's climax in which Jessica confronts Loris and the real killer.

With that straightened out, Loris and Jessica can now express their love for each other, and the first real kiss in the film occurs fairly close to the end. Their weird crouching walk into the sunset mediates (puts a spin on) the final walk at the end of Modern Times, the only Charlie Chaplin comedy in which his Little Tramp character walks into the sunset with a woman and not by himself. Chaplin's Great Dictator concludes with the Jewish barber and his girlfriend (played by his real-life wife at the time, Paulette Goddard, who was also his love interest in Modern Times) spatially separated, together thanks to the radio broadcasting Adenoid Hynkel's unexpectedly pacifist radio address. Chaplin and Goddard divorced with less than a decade together, while Benigni and Braschi are still together. (Rabin, 2007)

Il Mostro did very well in Italy. Here in America, what little reaction there has been to it has been often negative and disappointed by comparison to La Vita è Bella. This film probably wouldn't have been introduced here if it hadn't been for the success of La Vita è Bella: the IMDb's Studio Briefing for 30 March 1999 reported that "Lions Gate wants to see whether an Oscar and critical and audience acclaim can rekindle interest in Roberto Benigni's 1996 movie Monster, The (1994) (Il Mostro). It plans to open the film exclusively in Los Angeles on April 2 and in New York on April 16." They go on to quote Kenneth Turan's review in the Los Angeles Times which calls Benigni "the funniest man on film today." As the film hasn't been theatrically screened in the Midwest, I can't find any reviews in the Detroit Free Press or Detroit News. To get the New York Times review, I'd have to subscribe to their online service, or look through the microfiche at the Detroit Public Library.

In the context of Benigni's oeuvre, one scholar finds Il Mostro a step backwards from the social relevance of Johnny Stecchino, and the later La Vita è Bella as a step forward from Il Mostro. Whereas the earlier film "was an effective deterrent against the fascination that the gangster image exerts on young men," Il Mostro shows "a regression to [Benigni's] earlier style of predominantly sexual jokes," while La Vita è Bella is a comedy which treats Holocaust survivors respectfully and "suggest[s] an outlook that tragedy is unequipped to convey." (Viano, 1999) Pinocchio (2002) is considered another flop in Benigni's oeuvre. (Rabin, 2007) While Benigni has been called "the Italian Buster Keaton," (Gehr, 1996) he is found to diverge from Keaton "primarily in terms of the artistic intent of his Chaplinesque sociopolitical ambitions." (Watson, 2008)

As Professoressa Past has said, it's good to have several people at the class viewing of the film. In the case of a comedy, it can be quite instructive to see what gets a laugh and what doesn't. In the case of our class, the following got the most laughs:

The scene in which Loris seems to be having sex with a mannequin;

Loris flunking the Chinese exam;

When Loris sees the severed human hand in his Chinese teacher's jacket and tells him: "I'd give you a hand but you already have one." (from the subtitles);

My classmates will let me know if I missed any big laughs at the moment I stepped out to get a little water.

There are some translation issues: the antique store owner, in recalling the telegraphic notification of Loris's death, calls him a "poveraccio;" this is not at all translated in the English subtitles. Credit is due to the subtitlers, however, for translating "hand in the marmalade" as "red-handed" or "hand in the cookie jar." There's also a word which is a swear word in Spanish and seems to have the same meaning in Italian, and also exhibits the same semantic drift towards generalization.

Technical notes

The Region 1 DVD has two sides: widescreen and fullscreen. To view widescreen, put the side labelled "WIDESCREEN" face up into the player. The fullscreen version has the opening animation sequence letterboxed. However, in some DVD players (such as those made by KLH), to get widescreen on the widescreen side, you might need to go into the set-up menu and select "4:3 Letterboxed" rather than "4:3 Pan Scan."

Also, English subtitles are not on by default on this DVD, you have to turn them on either in the Set Up menu or with your remote control's subtitle key; though in my case this led to the pleasant realization that I could understand a lot of the dialogue without the help of subtitles.

The class reading for this film, the Blackboard article, is a PDF photocopy and not PDF text (one of my pet peeves), but more noticeably for my classmates, it's not right side up. That's easily enough fixed in Adobe Reader 8 with the command View -> Rotate View -> Clockwise (keyboard shortcut Shift-Ctrl-+ on Windows, probably Shift-Apple-+ on Mac OS X).


Richard Gehr, "The Monster" The Village Voice 41.17 (1996): 69

Maurizio Viano, "Life Is Beautiful: Reception, Allegory, Holocaust Laughter." Film Quarterly 53.1 (1999): 29.

Nathan Rabin, "My Year of Flops Case File #78: Pinocchio (2002)" A. V. Club Blog, October 23, 2007. Accessed October 26, 2007.

Nicholas Schlegel, e-mail message to Pete Bublitz, June 27, 2007.

William Van Watson, "The Italian Buster Keaton? Benigni's The Monster and The Comic Machine" Beyond Life is Beautiful: Comedy and Tragedy in the Cinema of Roberto Benigni Ed. Grace Russo Bullaro. Leicester, England: Troubador (2005): 66

External links

IMDb's entry on Il Mostro. What more is there to say about this one, other than that this is the website of record for most matters pertaining to movies?

Netflix's entry on The Monster (1994). You can get some information on this film there, but you have to be logged in to read Netflix customer's reviews of this film. I rated this film 4 stars ("Really Liked It") while the average of 12,754 ratings as of today is 3.5 stars (3 stars is a plain "Liked It"). Another Netflix customer, (considered 58% similar in tastes to my own, though I don't know how they measure that) gave this film 5 stars ("Loved It") and even goes as far as saying that it is Benigni's best film second to Life Is Beautiful. Another customer, considered 68% similar in tastes to my own, gave this film 1 star ("Hated It") and wrote that "There are a few moments of inspired physical comedy by Benigni, and one excellent breathless monologue by Braschi, but the good bits are few and far between. Most of the film consists of painfully obvious gags, telegraphed long before the punchline, based on situations that don't even make sense within the context of the film."

Note that the plot summary given there as of today is incorrect: Loris does not meet "a woman (Nicoletta Braschi) whom he thinks is "easy" -- only to learn that she's a cop;" for "Wanda la ninfomana" is only seen briefly at the party and there is nothing to indicate that she's a cop, while Loris had never seen Jessica before when later in the film she comes into the apartment to inquire about renting. I would guess that the Netflix employee who wrote this mixed up the plot of this film with that of Tomcats (1999), in which Michael (Jerry O'Connell) is arrested by a policewoman (Shannon Elizabeth) with whom he falls in love. That policewoman also falls in love with the suspect and also visits his apartment, which is for some reason filled with "pleather."

One more thing: Netflix shares were at $24.94 each when I posted this blog entry.

Wikipedia's entry on The Monster (1994). I edited this entry this past Wednesday; that seems to have stirred editing activity on this article, which aside from one edit earlier this month and another back in June, had been fairly dormant since April and worked on only sporadically since the article's creation back in 2005.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Primo amore"

Toxic Love

Matteo Garrone’s Primo amore (2004) has been described as “a horror movie about desire,” which seems fitting. Often, the scenes depicted are horrifying and alarming. The director takes an uncomfortably close look at obsessive love, further complicated by the troubled characters’ various psychological issues. When the two protagonists, Vittorio and Sonia, meet for the first time this becomes rather obvious. Some of Vittorio’s first words to Sonia are “I thought you’d be thinner.” Her reaction is troubling; although she seems somewhat stunned by his comment and feigns a desire to leave, she continues to entertain his conversation at the cafe and goes on to take a walk with him. The most obvious disorder of course is Sonia’s developing anorexia nervosa, at Vittorio’s insistence. However, it is important to look at the other factors which contribute to this obsessive, stomach-turning love story. I found it difficult to diagnose each character as having one category of psychological disorder, as they seem to suffer from symptoms of several including but not exclusive to borderline and obsessive compulsive personality disorders, shared psychotic disorder, masochism, and sadism. The extent to which each character is affected by these disorders offers them a chance for more sympathy from the viewer, for perhaps they must give in to their desires and urges without thinking of consequence or how they affect the people around them. For example, Sonia has an emotional outburst at a boutique, and the film depicts the action in medium shots, until the salesgirl attempts to comfort Sonia. The camera then moves into a tight close up of the three characters, and it seems as if the salesgirl gets sucked into the toxic bubble (of obsession, co-dependence, masochism, and sadism) around Vittorio and Sonia. Descriptions of these disorders may be found at

Viewer as Voyeur

Several of the techniques employed by the director give the viewer a strong sense of voyeurism. This is a concept usually reserved for those who are aroused by watching other people in sexual acts, according to Wikipedia. However, the word voyeur can describe someone who receives pleasure by witnessing other people’s suffering or misfortune. This definition can describe Vittorio, yet he not only witnesses, he participates in Sonia’s misfortune. Although the film is unpleasant to watch, as the two protagonists have such deeply rooted psychological issues, as a viewer I felt intrigued. There are several reoccurring shot techniques, which allowed me to feel this voyeuristic thrill. First, there are many shots (long, medium, and close-up) in which the action is framed through a hallway or doorway, for example the scene in which Vittorio visits his doctor. As he stands behind a doorway, the viewer may get a sense of being left out somehow and more curious about what is occurring. Second, there are scenes that are shot in high angles, which make the viewer feel above the subject. Next, there are the numerous, often awkward, over-the-shoulder shots. Finally, there are those seemingly hand-held shots, such as those used in the scene where Vittorio searches for Sonia in the woods. These aspects all strongly suggest a voyeur’s perspective for the viewer to assume.

Grates, fences, bars across windows and doors: trapped

As the film develops, the viewer acquires a strong sense of being trapped. Many visual aspects within the mis-en-scene including grates, fences, windowpanes, and walls contribute to this feeling. The apartment Vittorio occupied before he and Sonia move into the house was especially confining. After the couple’s first sexual encounter, Sonia meanders onto Vittorio’s porch where they have a strained conversation; the scene ends with Sonia grabbing onto the metal bars that surround the porch in a manner reminiscent of a prisoner grabbing onto a jail cell’s bars. Through cinematography, Sonia’s skeleton even seems as if it entraps her, her sense of self, and her soul even. As her weight recedes, these parts of her leak out until her bones are surrounding nothingness. In contrast to these confining structures, images of the green forest surrounding the house are used to depict life and freedom. The recurring juxtaposition of shots outside against the foliage, complimented by wildlife sounds, against those of the restrictive indoors led me to the conclusion that the only option for life would be outside. Although Sonia’s mind slipped away with her body, she seems to realize this in the end scene where Vittorio has her backed up against a wall (literally and figuratively). Once she takes the only seemingly viable action, the camera gradually moves out to show Sonia crouched just outside the door in the forest among the trees. Perhaps now she may finally return to join the living, and not the walking dead. Though the scene ends in darkness, there is some comfort to the darkness of the forest. As viewers, we are finally freed.

Many insightful reviews may be found at

Friday, October 19, 2007

Emanuele Crialese: Respiro

With all the beauty and style of a classic painting, Emanuele Crialese's Respiro invites the audience into the stunning landscape and intriguing lives of its inhabitants. Wife and mother, Grazia (Valeria Golino), is a free-spirited woman who cannot abide by the limitations of the structured and tranquil island life. Her uninhibited tendencies are too much for the Lampedusians, particularly Pietro (Vincenzo Amato), her fisherman husband. Pietro tries, much to her frustration, to keep her under control by any means necessary. Although it is never clarified to the audience, the viewers learn that Grazia has a disease (possibly that she is manic depressive). Because of this, or perhaps because Pietro realizes that Grazia's problems are too extreme for him to treat alone, he decides to send her to an institution in Milan. This decision caused Grazia to flee her husband's watchful eye and hide in the caverns near the beach. Her son, Pasquale (Francesco Casisa), is the only family member who knows of her whereabouts. Pietro finds Grazia's dress near the water, and assumes that she has drowned. The knowledge allows Pietro, as well as the rest of the city, to gain a new understanding of Grazia, and perhaps even a new respect for her.

There are a variety of subtle images throughout the film that imply deeper meanings than those overtly discussed by the characters. Subtle signs and facial expressions portray inner emotions, a form of poetry (symbolism) which is common in writing, and mastered by this film. One particular use of this device is when Grazia takes her husband's fishing net and wraps herself in it. This perfectly displays for the audience the trapped feeling that Grazia feels simply by following the rules of the island. What I found interesting in this scene is that the director had Grazia try and move in the net. While this particular scene can be amusing (a woman in a fishing net does strike a humorous chord), this image is actually one of the main themes in the film. Grazia, though feeling trapped in her everyday life, tries to fight against the rules (she tries to walk while wearing the net).

This feeling of fighting against the rules leads into another common theme in the film, water. Water serves many purposes in this film, and not simply providing a beautiful backdrop for our characters. Pietro's job (fisherman), a favorite pastime of Grazia and her sons (swimming), and the location of the film (on an island) are all dependent on water. Water, as it does in many films, serves as a motif for rebirth or renewal. Grazia is a character who thrives in the water: we often see her swimming or walking on the beach. There is a scene near the beginning of the film in which Grazia removes her dress and simply floats in the water. Perhaps this is an example of how she lives her life: free (as she floats, without control, in the current). Water is used as renewal most evidently in the final scene in which Pietro finds Grazia in the water. The image of the Lampedusians surrounding Grazia in the water is a very strong image, and one that allows for a deep discussion of the possible meaning behind this. This image acts as a symbol of forgiveness, showing that Grazia's "death" has allowed the townspeople to gain a new understanding for her and the way she lives her life. Previous to her supposed death, she was urged by her husband, as well as many others, to reside in an institution in Milan. Then, after a mere few days in the "afterlife", the people seem to have forgotten the uninhibited nature of Grazia, and instead welcome her back into the community as one of their own. This is where the water motif becomes strong. The underwater shot of the Lampedusians and Grazia swimming reminds me of a spiritual image. There is a soft glow to the water, which adds to the "heavenly" atmosphere. Perhaps this image is used to portray support or rebirth, but it is definitely an image that displays renewal: it is something that allows the audience to believe that Grazia will integrate herself back into a community that will accept her.

Overall I found this film to be a stunning example of what happens when striking cinematography is mixed with a beautiful story: the end product is a film that one wants to watch over and over. The atmosphere in the film is tranquil, even though the main character is not. A film like this, which has countless motifs and images, can be discussed on many different levels: narrative, cinematographic, poetic, psychological, and spiritual.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Straps and eyes, fingers and existential nothingness

“It may be nothing.” – “Yes, it may be nothing.”
Nothingness: though scarcely explicitly expressed, it´s one of the issues all of the upper- middle class characters in Michelangelo Antonioni´s La notte are compelled to deal with.
But it´s not by accident that this nothingness is being expressed only near the end of the film in a dialogue between the two female protagonists.
The women (this suspicion is confirmed in the course of the film) seem to be the key to understanding this symbolically laden and challenging film, that tries to delve into the times of the sixties, into the mentality of the industrially booming postwar Italy.

Nothingness, and yet there is so much to say about this film, in which Monica Vitti and Jeanne Moreau play the roles of Valentina and Lidia so convincingly, both intangible and helping to “manifest their strange resistance to meaning of their numerous superabundance of it”, that we remain breathless.
The epicenter of the film are recently successful writer Giovanni Pontano and his on first sight eerie wife Lidia. The film starts with Giovanni and Lidia going to visit their fatally ill friend Tommasso Garano. That the existential ground, on which the protagonists are moving, dealing with life, death and nothingness, is never detached from sexuality – becomes clear, when the first strap falls off the shoulder onto the upper arm – here of the nymphomanic woman in the hospital. That this connection throughout the film will never be trivial becomes clear a moment after that when instead of reacting jealously to Giovanni’s liaison with the woman in the hospital she envies the woman’s inability to control herself, a hint to what Lidia will be struggling with, with her (in)ability to express herself, falling into nothingness instead.

One could write volumes just about the scene that follows:
Lidia – escaping her husband’s book party (and the intellectual middleclass), takes a taxi to San Sesto, walks through the streets, through a strange world which is not her world at all. She observes boys setting off rockets and fighting. The spectator, bewildered, wonders what she might be searching for and why, but we won´t find out. Nothingness again and no frame of reference to cling to, yet so much foreshadowed. The melancholy, the searching for sense, for independence, for own paths, the emptiness, the incapacity to express oneself (and to envy uncontrolled instead), the allusions to the industrial boom, for example in form of the rockets that are fired by the boys, the (only discreetly shown) class society of postwar italy - but we move on, and see Lidia calling her husband in order to get him pick her up, claiming that everything is alright.

Nothingness again in the nightclub and close-ups of Lidia’s fingers moving over the table, seeking Giovanni’s attention in vain.
The spectator is left behind with an eerie awkwardness, maybe feeling the nothingness that Lidia seems to be experiencing - implicitly expressed when Lidia changes her mind again and finally wants to go the party they were invited to “Tanto per fare qualcosa.” (Just to do something).
So we move on to the upper class party of the industrial magnate Gherardini, a paragon of a superficial and hypocritical high society party, composed brilliantly and perfected by the background sounds Antonioni chooses: a jazz band playing smooth jazz music, mixed with womens´ giggling and laughter and people exchanging empty phrases. It´s a party you don´t want to be at: nothingness again.

For the most part Giovanni and Lidia attend the party separately. Once in a while they are shown in shots together, we see the condescending glances Lidia throws at Giovanni or Giovanni asking Lidia, “ma è possibile che tu non ti diverti mai?” Answering that she enjoys herself more alone she points to a woman she saw inside “Anche li c´è una donna che si diverte da sola. È anche una bella ragazza.” It´s not the last time that we will see these two women paralleled.

So Valentina appears. She is playing a game on a huge chessboard, probably marble, childish like and erotically creeping over the floor, when Giovanni joins her. They start a strange flirtation that will last for the whole night. Their dialogues are minimalist, naive, existential, erotic, cynical and superficial at the same time . Astonishingly it´s especially Valentina who is leading the conversation, turning it around and it´s Giovanni following her.
While Giovanni is involved in this flirtatious exchange, Lidia calls the hospital and learns that their friend Tommasso just died. Lidia makes a slight effort to tell her husband but there is no space for death on the party and Giovanni interrupts her in order to follow Valentina. No space for death – yet it is so present.
So the party goes on.
And Lidia leaves the party with some man who asked her to dance.

Meanwhile: the downpour scene. With a sudden rainfall, women are diving childish-orgiastically into the swimming pool completely dressed. One woman is smoothing her body against a statue, kissing it over and over. It´s a strange mixture of uncontrolledness, instinct, and childish-orgiastic-erotic behaviour that is supposedly not by chance being let out in precisely that moment in which nature in form of a strong downpour comes into play. And instead of hearing women giggling or vulgar laughter in the background we get to hear women groaning.

On the other hand, there are women that are reflecting on a high level, for example Lidia and Gherardini’s wife, spitting out the truth and unmasking the hypocrisies of their husbands and the upper class mens’ world in general in an amusingly cynical way.

Back to the triangle comprised of Valentina, Giovanni and Lidia.
When Valentina finds out that Giovanni is married to Lidia, she feels “misery […] creeping back, like a melancholy dog.”
It´s exactly that melancholy, connected closely to the feeling of nothingness and emptiness, that the women in this film are able to feel and to express, unlike the men. At the same time, the “real feelings” seem to be made impossible and outcries become possible only in a hidden or covered way: – in the “immediate” behaviours of the women during the downpour, in the cynical objections of the industrialist’s wife or in the behaviours of the two female protagonists, in feelings of emptiness, in attempts to break out and escape or to distance themselves from the world by cynicism – but they are never as far away from the real world as the men.

So it´s always women to whom Antonioni in La notte leaves the most beautiful, the most depressing and frustrating, the most cynical, the most intelligent but also the most silly remarks.
And what all of these women seem to have in common is that their remarks seem to be the most unadulterated, immediate and therefore closest to truth.

The camera supports this focus on the women. It is permanently searching and observing their bodies, close-ups are shooting their eyes, their movements, their hands and fingers, maybe trying to follow their ways through this world. That these movements are often filmed in a highly sexualized way is only too “natural” – since sexuality is one of the ways the portrayed women try to stay alive, to feel something, desperately. But even this assumption, and here we see Antonioni´s ability to never become simple or bromidic, is breached when Lidia states to have found her real vice: “it´s warm, it´s soft” and it´s got nothing to do with sexuality, it´s alcohol.

She admits her vice in a scene, that might be of high interest approaching the film: Lidia is coming back from her short excursion with the man she was flirting with, wet from the rain, and meets Valentina and Giovanni in the hallway. Valentina asks her to come with her to help her get dry.
Lidia confesses her despair to Valentina with Giovanni standing unnoticed by the two in the background, in the doorframe. She says, “Stasera vorrei solo morire. (Tonight, all I want to do is dying). An end to this agony, something new.” And Valentina answers, “It may be nothing.” “Yes, it may be nothing,” confirms Lidia. And it´s obvious that this agony Lidia is experiencing is her fight against nothingness.

When Giovanni and Lidia turn around to leave the camera is taking a shot of three backs, two of which could easily be mistaken for one another: the same cut of the dress, the same color and cut of hair. We see two backs of women, of whom one is already fighting against her age, against an unloving and failing marriage, drowning her feelings of nothingness in alcohol, cynicism and silence, and the other one, still young, obviating nothingness with cynicism and in a mixture between childish and erotic behaviour. But both of them are still struggling with feelings – or the absence of feelings – and their senses are not yet suffocated by hypocrisy.

Asked about a potential new morality Antonioni distinctly expresses his disregards against morality or religion, claiming “We live in a society that compels us to go on using these concepts, and we no longer know what they mean… When man becomes reconciled to nature, when space becomes his true background, these words and concepts will have lost their meaning, and we will no longer have to use them.”
He opposes the artificiality and superficiality of the upper-middle-class in postwar and industrially booming Italy his search for a way, or way back, to “nature” and “truth”, discovering layers relentlessly, letting the camera go in search of the truth. “We know that under the image revealed there is another which is truer to reality and under this image still another and yet again still another under this last one, right down to the true image of that reality, absolute, mysterious, which no one will ever see or perhaps right down to the decomposition of any image, of any reality.” (Encountering Directors, 23).
So is that the womens’ role?
Women as the key to truth? Women as a path to immediacy?
Are women, according to Antonioni ,the way back to nature, a door to the right path? Looking at the way he gives voice to them in La notte it seems a possible interpretation. And one could again quote Antonioni, who claims the female sensibility to be a “much more precise filter than anyone else´s, and because the man, in the area of feelings is almost always incapable of understanding reality, since he tried to dominate.” (Dictionary of films, Georges Sadoul, 250).

It´s a point of view that cannot bear up against a postmodern feminism, but that is performed cinematically so brillantly and intelligent that you are tempted to excuse this point of view.