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.