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.


Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Michelangelo Antonioni's La Notte

At first I thought La notte was so boring. There was nothing going on, both characters seemed lifeless. Their world was depressing, with their best friend on his deathbed. It was hard to see the importance of the story and why it was being told. But, as the story progressed the passiveness of the beginning sets up the mood of the entire story. It’s difficult when a story doesn’t necessarily pull its viewer in within the first 10 minutes, but La Notte was set up this way for a reason. The reason was to get the characters on their journey, to realize this life is not working for them.

The shots at the beginning credits slowly descend the viewer into the world of Lidia and Giovanni. The shots move with ease down a modern-skyscraper building side. Images of the surrounding city are reflected on the building’s glass. Before the characters are shown, the pace and location of the film is established. There also seems to be an analogy relating the beginning to the whole relationship between Giovanni and Lidia. Like the beginning shots, their relationship will slowly go down and this story will reveal the end, the last stop of the descent.

From the first scene with Lidia and Giovanni it’s hard to tell much about their relationship. They come to visit a mutual friend, Tommaso, but each has their own quirk. Lidia lets Tommaso hold and kiss her hand for more then the appropriate amount of time. Giovanni allows himself to be seduced by the nymphomaniac when waiting for the elevator. It’s almost like a political relationship, they are together just so other people can see them together. There is nothing between them, no feeling, no happiness, and no love. The viewer is shown this right off the bat, but it takes Lidia the majority of the film to finally realize that the love is lost.

Throughout the story Lidia and Giovanni experience connections and disconnections. The connections and disconnections are more in the visual sense. Each follows their own path, but the two meet up to reconcile here and there. This series of separations starts off with the pair leaving the hospital at different times. They continue to do this throughout the film. They come together for moments, while not truly connecting, and then continue on their separate ways. It’s like visualizing a DNA strand, it crosses paths, but only for a moment, and each side is completely different.

Lidia and Giovanni just flow through their side of the strand. There is only one point where Lidia wants to break free from the flow, and it happens when everyone is jumping in the pool. Lidia is about to jump in but is stopped in her steps. I think it was Lidia’s one chance to break free from the mundane life she has been living. Giovanni also wants to leave his mundane life. He tries to seduce Valentina throughout the party. Like Lidia, Giovanni is unable to escape.

Ideas of a modern society are conveyed in many ways throughout the film. The first half of the movie takes place in modern Italy. Every shot through a window shows large buildings of the city. Giovanni claims that they don’t get out much except to drive around. The sounds of helicopters, jets, and cars can be heard quite vividly too. When Lidia goes on her walk, she leaves the modern parts of town, to come upon a ravaged, aging world. The buildings are crumbling, a child is left in terror, and guys fight for no apparent reason. It’s as if the modern is taking over, and anything left behind will be forgotten. Giovanni comes and takes Lidia away, which leads the story into the second half.

For many, the second half shows the darkness, or the night, of a certain life. Numerous problematic citations overlap throughout La Notte. Tommaso’s life comes to an end, Lidia and Giovanni’s relationship comes to and end, the old world of Italy is ending, Giovanni believes his ability to write is coming to and end, and Mr. Gherardini is worried that his relationship with his workers is coming to an end. All these endings happen within the darkness of Mr. Gherardini’s modern home. Though Lidia and Giovanni’s end is at the heart of the story, Antonioni shows the night slowly falling on so many, and with a new day, change must come.

Syd Field-Michelangelo Antonioni & La Notte

Lawrence Russell

Senses of Cinema-James Brown

Gene Siskel Film Center

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Renegotiating Betrayal and Trust in Le Fate Ignoranti

Le Fate Ignoranti a 2001 Italian film about a woman, a man, and the man they both love. The story pushes forward the idea that no one chooses who they fall in love with and the ability to enjoy life is the most precious experience we are offered. Although, beautifully set, the beginning of the film does play like a soap opera plot. As a result of Massimo’s (played by Andrea Renzi) untimely death, Antonia (Margherita Buy) realizes that through half of her marriage her husband has had a lover (Stefano Accorsi). In an attempt to reconcile Massimo’s death and adultery Antonia becomes friends with her late husband’s lover Michele.

The opening sequences of the film take us through Antonia and Massimo’s life together. She is a doctor who works in a small clinic, while Massimo works as a businessman. They live in a beautiful home in the suburbs of Rome, where they share everything and everyone has their place. The maid seems to forget this on occasion, and as a result, early in the film we see she and Antonia have an argument.

Through Antonia’s friendship with Michele (her late husband’s boyfriend) we are able to see exactly how Massimo is able to love both people, maintaining a comfortable deceitful relationship with one, and a hidden though more honest relationship with another. Antonia is excellent at maintaining silence and an air of perfection around everyone in her circle, she begins her life by taking the most obvious steps toward leading a "succesful" life, these are not neccesarily the steps that lead to a fulfilling life. As Michele’s group of friends begins to embrace her, Antonia's cloud of quiet perfection lifts from her life, she is able to see the complications involved in choosing a life that is not predicated by only partaking in the activities that are deemed acceptable by mass society. Antonia grows in understanding of herself, and others by sharing in their joys and pains.

The character of Antonia’s mother Veronica (played by Erica Blanc) is a wonderful key to understanding how Antonia and Michele could have a relationship that would develop. Veronica gives sympathy to her daughter but explains the trials of being kept a secret by someone who matters to you. Veronica is able to show Antonia that Michele also suffered in his relationship with Massimo.

Michele’s neighbor Serra (played by Serra Yilmaz) is a symbol of the dichotomy Oztepek is trying to convey in this film. Serra is the embodiment of the understanding that fulfillment for a relationship needs both truth and love in order to be in balance.

The use of color to symbolize repression is a wonderful tool throughout the film. As the film opens we see Antonia in her world of muted colors and neutrals, Michele on the other hand has a Crayola box of colors in his reach. As Michele and Antonia grow closer Antonia’s color palette grows. Initially there are overwhelming greens that coincide with her grief. The true reds emerge with her understanding of Massimo and Michele and the navy of affection permeates through both characters as they get closer and closer to one another.

I believe through Le Fate Ignoranti, Ozpetek was trying to create a space of familiarity in which middle/ upper class Italians could feel comfortable. Through Antonia’s eyes the viewer has the experience of being part of a comfortable and safe majority. By using Antonia who is described as being “uninterested in life” as a conduit into another part of Italian life you see Michele and Massimo’s friends the way I believe Ozpetek thinks most Italians see queer life. Antonia however faces her friendship with Michele the same way she experiences the art gallery at the beginning of the film. She looks around admiring some pieces and moving closer to others, but at the end of the day nothing is taken with her except her recollection of the event.

The film does have quite a few disjointing characteristics. For instance the bizarre one-dimensional maid who comes across as a confusing add on. The randomly ethnic maid who listens to no one and has perpetually over the top emotions and a slight tinge of nosiness is a frustrating representation of classism and racism on screen. The relationship she has with Antonia is never clarified, but there is a brief reference to an aunt who never appears.
The many companions in Michele’s crew are incredibly overwhelming and once again the majority of them have the characteristics of cardboard cutouts. The main purpose of the film on the surface seems to be to remove stereotypes attached to people lifestyles and love.

Unfortunately by including so many characters with no explanation for their presence or their motivations stereotypes pervade through the movie. There is the Character of Emir Serra’s brother who presents himself as the tall dark handsome foreigner come to take Antonia away from her life of predictability. The pudgy party kid who is only interested in guys and parties and the older gay man that has no issue with bringing a stranger to lunch with friends because he’s cute are two examples of Ozpetek’s excess, in poor explanation of representation. The worst of all was the conversion scene. Michele has had the same boyfriend for seven years. Suddenly he’s going to fall in love with his boyfriend’s jilted wife? Does that not play into the “he just hasn’t met the right woman” line?

For the most part the film was entertaining but having to stick with a main character that is such a leech does take some of the sweetness from the film. Also Ozpetek’s insistence that Michele and his friends would put up with a woman who denies their presence is disappointing. Antonia’s ability to be friends with Michele, but never want to admit that he is a part of her world, as well as the hiding of her pregnancy from her “friends” does make an Antonia a less than sympathetic character.

A profile for Le Fate Ignoranti at IMDb

A Review of Le Fate Ignoranti in English from Bright Lights

A Review of Le Fate Ignoranti in English at Guardian Unlimited

A Review of Le Fate Ignoranti in English at Time Out New York

A Review of Le Fate Ignoranti in Italian at reVision Cinema

A Review of Le Fate Ignoranti in Italian by Cine File

A Synopsis of Le Fate Ignoranti in Italian from Wikipedia