Monday, September 24, 2007

Beautiful, Introspective, Emtionally Jarring: "Le chiavi di casa" ("The Keys of the House")

Beautiful, introspective, yet emotionally jarring – all words that can describe Gianni Amelio’s film “Le chiavi di casa.” This challenging yet heart-warming film invites audiences to relate to the difficulties of having a disabled child from both the perspective of the disabled child and that of the parents who raise him. The plot depicts a story of a young boy, Paolo , who meets his father, Gianni, for the first time when he is 15 years old. The twist, however, is that Paolo is physically disabled and seemingly autistic yet at the opening of the film the audience has no idea why the father has waited 15 years to meet his son. The film is an emotional journey that truly lets the audience feel the pain and anxiety parents can face when their children are born with disabilities. The film, containing many interesting situations and symbolism, most interestingly portrays the themes of the quest for “normalcy” and the difficulties of raising a disabled child through the view point of each character.

What is considered to be “normal” in life is almost always subjective; however, in this film we see the father, Gianni, struggle with the desire for a normal relationship with his 15 year old son. When the father first meets Paolo he acts awkward (as if meeting your son for the first time would not have been awkward enough, he has to also deal with a disability that he does not seem to be familiar with). Paolo, comfortable in his “self,” is relaxed as can be and perfectly content to play his game boy; retreating into his own world. The father seems so eager to get to know his son that the audience may at first have difficulty imagining why such a nice man has waited so long to reunite with him. This, in turn, generates great interest in the beginning of the film, leaving the audience anticipating the development of this question. The rest of the film is spent unraveling their unusual father son relationship as Gianni is forced to cope with his son’s difficult situation and make attempts to “make it better.”

Givovanni’s perception of “make it better” is an attempt to “make his son normal” or without a disability. He constantly rejects the notion that his son is not going to be able to lead a normal life. Some pertinent examples of this are when he decides to cease Paolo’s treatment at the hospital and whisk him away to Norway to meet his pen pal “girlfriend” Kristine. On the way to meet her, Gianni throws Paolo’s walking cane over the side of the boat, as if by doing so he can discard the disability. Moreover, Paolo almost fuels his father’s denial throughout the film when he gives glimmers of normal teenage boy behavior. On the boat to Norway, for example, he worries about what clothes he should wear to impress Kristine. His flirtation with “normal” behavior is always short lived, however, when he inevitably reverts to his behavioral difficulties as a result of his autism.

The father’s dream of a “child that could have been” is crushed in the final scene of the film. They are driving together after a very touching scene where Paolo agrees to come live with his father and his new family (again, the father attempting to provide Paolo with a “normal life”). Paolo begins to misbehave in the car, constantly honking the horn and pulling the wheel. Gianni is shaken into reality and grasps to understand why Paolo cannot just “behave normally.” In his frustration Gianni pulls over and leaves the car in tears. Paolo reverts back to his “comfort behavior” of repeating his address and phone number. It is in that moment that Gianni concedes and accepts Paolo for who he is (and how he always will be). Gianni hugs Paolo, who is desperately trying to comfort his father, and says he is alright as the camera fades to black.

Through the difficulty of the father-son relationship the audience truly gets a feeling of anguish felt by a parent who has a child with a disability such as autism. Many people may not realize it is more strenuous on the parent than it is for the “less than perfect” child. Gianni’s struggle is magnified as he is constantly contrasted with Nadine’s mother who is seemingly calm in the face of the day to day difficulties with her daughter. However, Nadine’s mother’s tranquility comes shockingly to a head at the train station talking to Gianni. In this scene, one of the most powerful moments in the film, Nadine’s mother is staring at nothing in the train station, on the verge of tears, after having spoken with Gianni of the difficulty of taking care of her daughter. She summarizes this sentiment in a simple line when she describes how sometimes her daughter just stares at her in desperation and she thinks “perché non muere?” or “why doesn’t she just die?” It is in this moment that the film truly captures the essence of the struggle that parents face of caring for a child with a disability. The scene empathetically allows the audience to feel the parents’ struggles. There is often a grieving period for the parents who must reconcile their notion of the “child they dreamed they would have” with the child they have in actuality. We get a contrasting perspective from the children in the film, however, who show the audience they are almost unaware of their situation. Children such as Paolo tend to be carefree and innocent due to their unawareness of their disability.

The insight of “Le chiavi di casa” is truly inspiring and touching with themes depicted throughout the film that allow the audience to become close to the characters and their difficulties. The film is moving regardless if the audience takes it at face value as a dramatic story of a father and son reuniting or if they read deeper into the subtleties of the symbolism and artistic depth that Amelio so adeptly provides regarding raising a child with autism. Bravo to the director for boldly showing the realistic, yet difficult challenges of this unique father-son relationship.

>More information from IMDB
>Movie Reviews (Italian and English)
>Movie Trailer

Friday, September 14, 2007

Accattone and J.S. Bach

The key to reading Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first feature film, Accattone (1961), is C minor.

Okay, C minor may be exaggeratedly specific, but there is no denying that one of the most beautiful and perplexing elements of the film is the recurrent sound of the final chorus of J.S. Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion (in Baroque C minor) that accompanies desolate images of the impoverished Roman suburbs.

The rich liturgical soundtrack initially stands o
ut because it doesn’t make sense. Thematically, the choice of a conspicuously religious soundtrack for a social and physical landscape that could easily be described as “godless” seems strange, at the very least. Bach’s liturgical celebration of the passion of the Christ serves as an acoustic backdrop for the story of a pimp (Accattone, played by Franco Citti) whose sole source of income, Maddalena (Silvana Corsini), gets locked up. In order to scrape by, Accattone gradually pawns his gold, hustles his friends, and steals from his young son. This final ignoble act is a means to raise revenue to outfit the young Stella, who is to be the next to sell herself on the streets. Practically the entire cast of the filmic universe—from Accattone’s abandoned wife to the police officers who arrest him to the petty thieves at the local bar—exists in a morally ambiguous space in which few seem innocent, but fewer still are condemned for their shiftless, profiteering lifestyles. In fact many other elements of the film also root it in a Christological context: a citation from Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio follows the opening titles, and immediately after, a long shot of twelve seated men sitting around tables at the local bar invokes representations of the Last Supper. Frequent backlit close-ups of Accattone and his friends, their faces framed in empty, bright skies, recall frescoes by Giotto. References to Dante are also recurrent, and sometimes the poet is even cited in Roman dialect. As critics have often noted, religious iconography helps elevate the story of the ill-fated pimp to mythic proportions. Accattone’s story thus transcends the individual calamity of a neorealist protagonist and becomes a symbol of the collective tragedy of existence of the 1960s subproletariat.

In the midst of all of these references, however, Bach stands out as exceptionally peculiar
, aesthetically speaking. The sumptuous Baroque sounds signify order, harmony, deliberateness, and in Pasolini’s film must square off against social disorder, dissonance, chaos. And yet one particular chorus from the St. Matthew Passion recurs, recurs, recurs: it swells in the background when Accattone rolls in a dusty street fight; it is present when thugs from Naples beat Maddalena and abandon her on a hillside; it rises in the final moments of the film, when Accattone, attempting to escape the police, wrecks a motorcycle and lies helpless in the street. The music is part of Pasolini’s artistic strategy of contradictions, echoed visually in the contrast between the darkness of the deserted street corner on which the women prostitute themselves and the almost blinding light of the streets on which Accattone and his friends while away their days.

The final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion does not simply play, however; it loops. On several occasions, the soundtrack cuts from the center of “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We Lay Ourselves with Weeping”) back to the beginning, returning to the grave opening chords (played by a double orchestra for a double choir) only to begin again. It thus forms a musical ritual in the film, a ritual that in its very circularity resists the concept of resolution. Returning to the beginning of the final chorus of Christ’s passion, however, is only returning to the beginning of an ending, an ending which, in a world that seems to be forsaken, is inevitably tragic.

And in Pasolini’s world, in fact, there is no resolution, no consolation, no middle ground. There is only repetition: the repetition of injustice. The soundtrack reminds us that Accattone’s
personal tragedy is also destined to loop, to continue on its catastrophic ritual course and to encompass countless other “scroungers” like himself.

That Pasolini can render so bleak a message so beautiful makes his film our cross to bear.

Further reading on the Web:

➢ An article on
Accattone in Senses of Cinema.
Reviews of
Accattone on
➢ Excellent articles, in Italian, on Pasolini and Bach.