September 16, 2010

Video Review: Creature

Humor me while I try something new with a video review of this early little picture from director William Malone.

August 18, 2010

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love

1958 film
directed by Mario Bonnard
written by Alberto Manca, Mario Bonnard, Sergio Leone, Mario di Nardo, Ugo Moretti

I was only able to find a crappy VHS print with so-so subtitles, so let me see if I've got this right.... The unseen Emperor Nero wants to build a new canal in Corinth, so he outsources the job to an equally erratic regent named Antigono (Ivo Garrani), who decides the best way to do the job is to evacuate and burn down a stretch of farmlands. His soldiers pull the people out of their rightful homes and "compensate" them with some loose change, all the while raising their taxes and enslaving anyone who complains. Some things happen and it all leads to a famine and plague which cuts through the class divisions, all of which is blamed on the token targets of Roman persecution: the Christians. In other words, it's a token B knockoff of previous successes like FABIOLA and QUO VADIS, with your star-crossed romance, depraved dictator, soldiers up and down the streets, big crowds, and Christians being burned on stakes that the poorly aligned trick shots fully reveal are actually about 10 feet behind the flaming pyres.

What sets this apart is that it's largely told through the point of view of two women. Lerna (Isabelle Corey), the daughter of a priest, is captured and enslaved when her town of uprooted farmers launches a brutally suppressed riot. While in the slave quarters, she befriends the striking Diala (Irene Tunc), a daughter of lavish wealth who was sold into slavery when her father was screwed out of everything he owned. As time goes by and circumstances change, they stick together. Lerna stays quiet and hidden, dividing time between her daily duties and evening trips to the hidden caves where her people hold their ceremonies. Diala, the ultimate femme fatale, uses her beauty, shrewd intelligence, and a seductive dance (check out the obvious ballet double when they cut to the wide shots) to charm her way up the political food chain, becoming the favorite of one slave master after another, and then the concubine and eventual second wife of Antigono himself. Even then, Lerna is by her side as her most trusted servant.

Ah, but where would we be without conflict as the inevitable man comes between them. Demetrio (Anthony Steffen) is a master sculptor prized by both the people and their rulers. Commissioned to make a sculpture of the primary local goddess, Aphrodite, Demetrio finds his model in the form of Diala. But even as his skilled hands shape the luscious curves of her body in stone, he finds his attention drawn elsewhere for the face ... to the innocent and soulful gaze of Lerna. Diala is spurned, Lerna faces a choice, Demetrio begins the process of conversion, Antigono doesn't like any of this, yada yada. You can see where it goes from here.

This is not a bad movie, but nor is it a good one. The story is cliched up the wazoo, but decently executed with bonus points for a bit of a different approach. And there's solid moments in there, like Lerna's father being pelted with stones by the people he's trying to save from a massacre of their own making, or the reveal of the divide within Demetrio's sculpture, or the quiet way the plague works up the food chain, or the rise and fall of Nero taking place entirely off screen as we see how it affected peripheral territories, or the great character of Tomoro (John Kitzmiller), a warrior slave who gradually becomes a big brother of sorts to both women, leaving him with a tough choice by the time the climax rolls around.

But it's just so "been there, done that". FABIOLA hit theaters in 1949, and this was only one of countless toga epics which followed, and there's nothing there to set it apart. The story? As I said, the approach is interesting, but it constantly drops into the same old beats. The acting? There wasn't a bad performance in the flick, but nothing jumped off the screen. I've never seen any of these actors before and I can't say any of them were memorable enough that I'd recognize them a second time around. The direction? Basic workman style, with flat shots and tired staging. Visuals? The stock studio costumes and sets are as impressive as ever, as are a few quick crowds, but it's just so lifelessly filmed. The music? Rousing at the right time and romantic when needed, but forgettable.

I think that's the best word right there: forgettable. Though the writing has a decent flourish now and then, this is nothing more than a B effort to capitalize on the toga fever that was sweeping the A marquees. In the end, everything in this film has been done better elsewhere and not a single element rises above the average. No need to bother.


(internet movie database)

August 13, 2010

Helen of Troy

1956 film
directed by Robert Wise
written by N. Richard Nash, John Twist, Hugh Gray
based on the poem THE ILIAD by Homer

Let me start off by saying that I hate THE ILIAD. Culturally and historically, it's a work of major importance and I totally get that, but reading it made my brain hurt. There's no consistent narrative, the characters are all over the place, scenes of great power and scope are intercut with sequences of ridiculous actions and motivations, and let's not get started on the gods constantly swooping in and out of things (and I'd also mention that it has no beginning or end, but that's not its fault as it's the only surviving volume of a larger saga). I know, I know, it's an ancient work and shouldn't be held to modern standards, but its sister tale, THE ODYSSEY, is a rich and flowing story with solid structure and genuine character development, and not only fits those modern standards, but holds up as a better example of them than many a modern book.

That said, there is a fantastic story in there. While discussing peace in neighboring lands, Prince Paris of Troy (dashing Jacques Sernas) meets and instantly falls for the beautiful Helen (Rossana Podesta, whose striking face fits the bill). Though she initially resists her growing attraction, Helen ends up taking off with Paris for his homeland, which her husband, King Menelaus of Sparta (the quietly fierce Niall MacGinnis), really doesn't appreciate. Rounding up allied kings and "the greatest army ever known", he sets out to tear down the impenetrable walls of Troy.

This is a bit of a loose adaptation, with important figures like Hector (stony Harry Andrews), Achilles (lean yet shockingly formidable Stanley Baker), and Agamemnon (quietly scheming Robert Douglas) pushed into supporting roles so that Paris, Helen, and Menelaus can have the spotlight, a choice which I found to be both bold and refreshing. All the important stuff is there - Hector is the heir apparent, Achilles all cock and ego (great moment where he just stands there without flinching as arrows bounce off his armor), Agamemnon milking the humiliation of his brother Menelaus as an excuse to launch a raid on the richest kingdom in the lands - we just don't linger on any of it; and as these parts have been so richly explored in other adaptations, nothing feels lost. There are some additions to the story that are odd, like a new, third Prince of Troy, the war-hungry Polydorus (Robert Brown, acting as forgettable as his character), who serves absolutely no purpose before dying at the midpoint. More successful is the expanded first act in which Paris is swept off his boat and sneaks around Sparta as introductions are made, motives explored, and plans set in motion. Because of this, the Trojan War itself doesn't kick in until around the half-way point, but the scale and toll of the battle is captured so well that it works just fine. After all, this isn't the story of the war, but the doomed romance that made such a conflict inevitable.

I don't think this would work nearly as well in the hands of anyone but Robert Wise. As an editor, the man is a master of pace, using moments to build scenes and scenes to build a story, and knows just when to push past and when to draw out. He has incredible control as every moment of this films hits in precisely the right way. Take, for instance, our first sight of the attacking fleet. It's night. The people of Troy line the waterfront balconies of their city. Paris and Helen are called up to stand alongside the concerned and angry King Priam (the always dependable Sir Cedric Hardwicke). They look out on the sea as the torches of a thousand ships fill the horizon. We cut out to those very ships as drums beat out a rhythm for the oarsmen, and Achilles, Agamemnon, and Ulysses (the precise and witty Torin Thatcher) gaze hungrily at their approaching target. We cut back to the balcony. Priam turns and casts a cold glare at Helen. "The face that launched a thousand ships."

It speaks not only to the skill of Wise, but the group of seasoned screenwriters that such a line can be pulled off. While there are a few moments that feel a little forced, like the opening storm that strands Paris or a huge drunken party at the feet of that fateful wooden horse (the creation of which they execute very well, by the way; not many adaptations do), I was surprised at the sharpness of the writing, particularly the central romance. These are two people who can't not love one another, even as reason tells them that everything they know would be better off if they just stayed apart. Every arrow that strikes home, every body that takes a sword, every pyre that clouds the sky is a constant reminder of the consequences of their romance, and yet they get to a point where it's no longer possible to turn away. This is a very, very hard relationship to pull off without it feeling like total fluff (QUO VADIS), but the attraction is immediate (not just physically, but intellectually; something often missed), the chemistry undeniable, and the situations naturally evolving to that point of no return. And a lot of credit is due to the Italian actors Sernas and Podesta. Far from mere pretty faces in empty parts, they fully become these complex characters trapped on a road to tragedy. And points to whoever did the dubbing of their dialogue. It was flawless.

I was really, really impressed with this film. I shouldn't have doubted Wise, but this can be tricky material to pull off. Yet as I think not only of the authentic romance and the honesty of its crushing consequences, but of the spectacularly detailed sets and costumes and the talented cast and the vibrant score and that army of thousands of fully dressed extras with swords and armor and catapults and even four actual on-location battle towers, I'm blown away by just how well he did.

However, about those fake beards....


(internet movie database)

August 7, 2010

Quo Vadis

1951 film
directed by Mervyn LeRoy
written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, John Lee Mahin, Hugh Gray
based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1895 novel)
(my review of the 1948 screenplay)

It started with a book. An absolutely fantastic book full of riches and complexity and thought. It became a screenplay. A good, solid, worthy adaptation. Now, it's a film. An entertaining yet ultimately disappointing example of a typical Hollywood Spectacle.

The central point of the story, as is Hollywood tradition, is the epic romance. Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) is a Roman Centurion, proud of the conquests he's achieved for his emperor. Lygia (Deborah Kerr) is a foreign princess, captured as a young child, adopted and educated in a quiet country estate. She's a Christian, he is not. She promotes peace and compassion, he bloodshed and fear tactics. While I'm glad they kept the novel's central conceit of Vinicius starting out as an antagonist of sorts, only gradually coming to love the inner Lygia after a period of lusting over and trying to capture her body, so much of the philosophical conflict of the book is lost that it now has all the depth of a Fabio romance painting.

And why does Lygia love Vinicius? Honestly, why? In the book, she saw good within and had to constantly search and dig in order to bring it to the forefront. Here, no good is present in his predatory behavior and talk of bloody victory; she just likes him because he's handsome. She wants to save him, cure him of the cancerous decadence of Nero's Rome, that much I understand, but without the sliver of good for her to dig for, I don't understand the draw?

The two leads don't help matters. At all. Though he sucks in the gut and throws a spring in his step, Taylor is a little long in the tooth to play Vinicious, who's ego and impulsiveness were written for a man in the youthful stretch of his 20s. His "manly" posturing and barking delivery only punctuate his miscasting. Kerr is bizarre and all over the place as Lygia. An incomparable beauty, she certainly looks the part, but her constantly staring eyes have all the depth of a porcelain doll, and when she opens her mouth, this odd fluttery, breathy delivery constantly leaves me in confusion.

In fact, the acting overall is largely either forgettable or completely off, which is a shame given the promising roles. Pompaea is the wife of Nero, the true poison behind his increasingly lethal fangs, but Patricia Laffan tries too hard to be sexy while her eyes are scrunched up in a way that makes it seem like she just caught whiff of a fart. Eunice is a slave girl infatuated with her master, who chips at his heart to the point where he loves her as an equal, but Marina Berti plays her like a teen groupie who just snagged a back stage pass. Tigellinus is the leader of the Praetorian Guard, the brutal hand of Nero who constantly pushes the emperor to punish the populace into submission, but Ralph Truman is so flat and forgettable that he never once backs up the threat of his actions.

The worst is Finley Currie as the Apostle Peter. Not only has the script gone through a few more changes since the draft I reviewed, adding some ridiculous heavy-handed miracles to what should be grounded and real events, but Currie takes what was a genuinely inspirational and towering figure on the page and brings him to life with all the dignity and grace of a department store Santa Claus. It's ridiculous.

And I think this speaks to the broader problem that is director LeRoy. I haven't seen many of his films and can't talk for his broader career, but the direction here is little more than hack work. I know it's an old movie, but it's practically drowned to death in a style that, while clean, never rises above the quality of a workman. In what's come to be termed "tv directing" he sticks to the basic formula of "master shot, medium shot, medium shot, closeup (don't forget the soft focus lens), medium shot, dissolve". It's clean and keeps everything moving at a steady pace, but it's boring and does nothing to liven up the material. What I read in the script slowly draws you into huge sequences as the emotions of crowds gradually boil to an epic moment. Here, he just lines everybody up, shoots a reel, and moves on to whatever's next. And it's not just the script. The stunningly massive sets and intricate costumes scream for the attention they deserve, but LeRoy's camera hovers over them like a slideshow from grandpa's vacation. Miklos Rozsa's sweeping score is packed full of emotion and the clash of beliefs, but is brushed away like a buzzing gnat by the flatness of what it's there to support.

But that's not to say it's a bad movie. It's painfully mediocre, but it moves along at a steady pace, sports some great design work, and still tells a thrilling tale. And there are some good moments in there. The springiness of Taylor's performance many not work for the character, but he's great when he gets to kick into some action. The model work used for the burning of Rome, while obvious, is really well used as the camera lingers over unimaginable devastation. The punishment in the Arena of the unjustly accused accused Christians is powerful and surprisingly brutal, especially as they unite in song before gradually giving way to screams on burning crucifixes. And the climactic battle between Lygia's giant bodyguard Ursus (charmingly played by heavy-weight boxer Buddy Baer) and a frothing bull is marvelously executed.

And there's two performances that rise above the others. Leo Genn as Petronius and Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero himself. The two are eternally bound to one another, yet represent diametric opposites of the iconic Roman male: both enjoy wealth and luxury, but Petronius is civilized and intelligent, approaching situations with wit and grace, whereas Nero is pompous and decadent, manically searching for new amusements. One comes to appreciate the citizens of his homeland, the other loathes them from the start. Furthering the divide, Genn is absolute subtlety as the charming Petronius, always watching, always listening for the right place to slip in, while Ustinov is a volcano jolting from lazy flows to gushing explosions. It's impossible to take your eyes off either one when they're on screen, which makes the frequent scenes they share delightfully tricky to soak in.

In the end, it's not a bad movie, just a letdown. A few years earlier, the draft of the screenplay that I read was to be directed by John Huston with Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles. With the best two features of the final incarnation, Genn and Ustinov, also being the result of Huston's casting, one can only image the film that would have resulted. It might not have had as much spectacle, but I'm sure it would have been smarter. As it is, what we're left with is typical Hollywood.


(internet movie database)

August 1, 2010

Quo Vadis

1948 screenplay
written by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien, John Lee Mahin
based on the novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1895 novel)
(my review of the 1951 film)

QUO VADIS is a rare book that I consider to be perfect. It creates a rich, complex world filled with rich, complex characters, tells a sweeping, challenging, genuinely moving story, and makes every little detail in the intricate web essential without anything feeling forced or artificial. A perfect book. Now comes the challenge of adapting it to film.

There's obvious places to start in the conversion process. You've got your two huge setpieces in the burning of Rome and the punishment of the innocently charged Christians in the Arena. You've got a snarling, prancing, smirking villain in Nero. You've got a starcrossed romance between Roman centurion Marcus Vinicius and captured foreign princess Lygia. All big, epic, crowd-pleasing stuff. But this script didn't stop with them. Petronius, the uncle of Marcus and right hand to Nero who wages a cold war against his rival advisers as schemes build in troubling directions. Ursus, the massive warrior who dedicates himself to the life and teachings of Lygia. Eunice, the infatuated servant and lover of Petronius. Pompaea, the wife of Nero who's not only jealous of his extramarital conquests, but the loves of others she desires. Acte, the first love of Nero when he was young and good, who was pushed away as youth left both behind. The Apostles Peter and Paul, struggling to hold together a flock as it's being eradicated before their eyes, and conflicted on whether or not to leave and start anew. Rome itself which casts an uneasy eye on decadence that it nonetheless has grown comfortable with.

All of these elements are there, and more. And, surprise surprise, it hasn't been dumbed down. These three writers (I'm not sure who specifically did what) somehow managed to compress a 500+ page novel into a 152 page screenplay without losing much of that intricate web.

Take, for instance, the character of Marcus. The initial draw between him and Lygia isn't so much love at first sight as it is lust. He sees her bathing at a spring and goes total horndog, and the only thing keeping him from forcing himself on the woman that night is the looming Ursus at her door. He continues with the playboy routine as he tries to take her again at a party, then goes so far as to concoct an arrangement where Nero will personally have the foreign hostage swapped from her current household to Marcus's. This is not an innocent man and his intentions are not pure. He wants to rape the woman and make her his pretty love puppy. And when her Christian brethren help her to escape before the transfer is made, he tracks her down and even brings along a full-on gladiator to challenge Ursus.

This was a ballsy way to set up a romantic lead in the book, and I'm stunned it made it to the page in a Hollywood adaptation. Now, as with the book, Marcus does eventually experience a conflict of conscience when things go wrong and he finds himself at Lygia's mercy, but it's still very uncommon to have a lead protagonist play out so villainous for the first third or so of the script. And I love it. I absolutely love it.

The romance is a bit typical, but there's nothing wrong with that as it's nicely executed. Marcus comes to know Lygia and genuinely falls for her as a person. For her part, some of the snips have resulted in her hesitancy having more to do with him not being a Christian than her shame at her own initial lust, but it still largely works, and she comes off very intelligent and graceful.

But all this isn't to say the script is totally without alterations, some of which make a lot of sense. The most notable is the cutting of Chilo, an aged swindler who helps Marcus infiltrate the underground Christian sect while the man is still searching for Lygia. That's the extent of his involvement here, but he was a huge character in the book, constantly reappearing and driving new twists in the stories as he couldn't resist any type of involvement that promised profit, even as he started to question the brutal consequences of his actions. He was a magnificent, absolutely unforgettable character, and it hurts to see him reduced to little more than a cameo, but I understand the decision. He doesn't drive the story. It's as easy as that.

There are, however, a few choices I do take issue with. The first is the portrayal of Nero. In the book, he's a pompous yet ineffectual leader who never intended to burn down Rome, but made a lot of bad choices in the event's wake which led him to depths of paranoia and aggression. In other words, he becomes mad, but doesn't start there. The Nero we have here is a totally wicked loon who does want to burn the city so he can replace it with a new capital dedicated in his name. While he's still a very well written madman, a lot of the ambiguity of the character is lost. The Nero of the book made bad choices, but you could understand why he was making them. The Nero of the script is glee and anarchy and ego. It's an impressive villain, but a lesser one.

Another is the glorification of the Christians. Here, we have the typical speeches about how the holy and peaceful and benevolent Church will triumph, but it's lacking the balanced arguments of the pragmatic and fair Petronius, who spent an entire chapter in the book discussing things with the Apostle Peter before casually dismissing the teachings as "Not for me." Now, granted, the holy flights of fancy still don't hit too high, but there is a notable shift there as faith declared from states of emotional extremes are no longer countered by calm rationalization. And they also cut the character of Crispus, a fire & brimstone preacher who's damning sermons acknowledged the darker places future incarnations of the Church will go. I don't say I want him back in the picture because my personal atheism desires a smear campaign, but because I miss the moments where the Apostles Peter and Paul took him on. It's a very honest look at how even tight religious communities can find fractures and how even the worshiped original founders can't fully control what their teachings will become in someone else's hands when they're no longer around.

Granted, a lot of these issues can be attributed to the abridgment of the material for screen, but it doesn't make me miss them less. I think this is a case where I'll just let them slide and appreciate the impressive amount of what they got right. And, man, they got a lot right. There's even great little flourishes they added, like a scene where Nero first appears for a speech and we cut around the crowd as people slip sharp insults about the emperor to one another between shouts of "Hail!", or the masterfully staged atrocities in the Arena which are vividly set up, then cut away at the moment of violence, making it all the more striking.

It really is a fantastic script, and, while I have a few nitpicks here and there, it's most certainly worthy of the book. The world is captured, the characters brought to life, the pace driven smooth and steady, the opening and ending coming right as they're needed. Great stuff.


July 22, 2010

Quo Vadis

1895 novel
written by Henryk Sienkiewicz

(my review of the 1948 screenplay)
(my review of the 1951 film)

There's an old belief that just because something came first, it's automatically better. While there are many instances where such a thing is true, I very much argue against it being an absolute. Take, for instance, FABIOLA. Written in 1854 by Cardinal Wiseman, it's a historical novel about the persecution of Christians written for the repressed Catholic minority in England. While it was a very popular book in its day and translated volumes were published all over the world, the book is, to put it simply, a piece of shit. I won't go into details as to why, because that review already exists.

QUO VADIS, from Polish author Sienkiewicz - already noted for his deep, sprawling historical novels - is not exactly a remake or a rewrite, but it does cover much of the same material. A wealthy Roman patron, the decorated soldier Marcus Vinitius, falls for a beautiful Christian girl, Ligia, the "hostage" daughter of a foreign king. Though his initial pursuits are purely the lust of his loins, Vinitius is gradually drawn to the thoughtful compassion of Ligia and her people, and his gradual conversion to the faith parallels a rising movement in Rome to wipe the Christians out. Which, of course, climaxes in the bloody arena. So, while not a direct remake, it is very much the same story. Albeit told in a very non-shitty way.

Though I'm not a believer myself, I don't have a problem with stories of conversion as long as they're a) consistent, b) honest, and c) totally character driven. This one scores on all counts. It's not so much the power of Christ that compels Vinitius as it is witnessing how much better things work when you ask for help rather than order a demand, something he comes to slowly as he gradually befriends the very slaves he used to flog and beat and occasionally kill. It's a story about redemption, about rediscovery, about a growing distaste with the increasingly depraved society that he once found comfort and distraction in. And even in the end, when he is praising the power of the Lord, the book doesn't hesitate to imply that the extreme events of climactic bloodshed are responsible for the extremity of his new found emotions.

Because what is faith if not an extreme, a conviction in the face of either lacking evidence or proof to the contrary. In the book, Christianity begins with the "lower classes", the slaves and the impoverished, then spreads up to the tailors and the dealers and the soldiers, until it eventually breaks through to those who were once the oppressors. But it begins as a gentle belief mostly anchored with compassion and sacrifice, only reaching the high ecstasy of visions and hallelujahs as innocents are rounded up, starved in disease-filled prisons, then set upon by beasts before a cheering populace that is itself going through an extreme emotional experience: the demand of blood in return for the buildings burnt and the lives lost.

Which brings us to Caesar Nero, the man known to history for playing a lute as Rome burned around him. He so easily could have been a sneering snob of a baddie but, while definitely rotten, there are many more layers to this man than I expected. Sienkiewicz paints him as a spoiled manchild who only ever wanted to write poetry and sing, but he found himself with responsibilities he loathes and power he just can't bring himself to give up. Parades and parties of every sort of perverse delight ride in his wake, growing more bizarre each month as his boredom sets in. But then there's the fire. In a brilliant move, this interpretation of Nero never ordered the city to be burnt, merely joked about it as a means to find inspiration for a poem, yet one of his followers jumped to a wrong conclusion and many lives were lost as a result. And then Sienkiewicz takes it a step further as the classic image is spun into Nero playing before the flames because the people had always clapped at his work, so why shouldn't it cheer up their spirits? As you might expect, it all backfires and the Christians becomes easy scapegoats for a populace on the verge of revolution.

What I'm trying to point out in this ramble is that Sienkiewicz refuses to paint Nero as an easy monster. He starts as a repugnant fool, yes, but it's only through his choices and the increasing blood on his hands that he starts down a very destructive path of no return. And that's what makes this book great: the choices. The fire and the arena are two very real things, yet Sienkiewicz masterfully reverse engineers his tale so that it all comes out of the very natural and understandable choices and conflicts forged by characters both historical and fictional.

Which brings us to Petronius, probably the most fascinatingly real character in the book. The uncle of Vinitius, he's an upper-class posh who wants nothing more in life than some good poetry, a thrilling party, and some lovin' from his dedicated slave-girl. This is a man who, while turned off when wealth leads to wild excess and deviance, still clings to money and beauty, and after a conversation with no less than the Apostle Peter about the teachings of the religion, casually declares "It's not for me." In most stories, he'd be the slime, the weasel, the one still so far stuck in the old way that he ultimately turns against the new. Not so with Petronius. He's a hero, a defender, a person who genuinely cares and fights for his beloved nephew, and even when he does slink into the ways of luxury, the book never judges him. Hell, when Vinitius writes a letter in the last few chapters that expresses feeling of extreme passion and faith, it's immediately followed by a casually smirking response from Petronius that reins a lot of that in. In a sense, being a man who finds things to appreciate in both worlds, he's given the final word on the broader philosophical points by Sienkiewicz.

It's not about conversion, it's about open compassion. It's not about crushing the pagans, it's about reining in excess before it gets out of hand. It's not about your god versus my god, it's about petty politics or disagreements that stem from deeper issues. It's not about making oneself a martyr, it's about having no option left, so you go out with dignity.

This is a very real, very human, very honest book that isn't so much about politics or religion as it is the deeper emotions that drive them as separate lives weave or crash. Which is all the more heartbreaking in the final third as the gruesome arena comes into play, and the people being raped and butchered and eaten and humiliated hit the reader deep down because, instead of empty bodies tossed around for some shocks and giggles, these are real people we have come to know, real individuals being destroyed simply because they were easy targets. I could understand the emotions at play and the actions they led to because I had no choice but to share them. Sienkiewicz pulled me in that deep. Which is about the best compliment I can think of to give.


May 28, 2010

Il Trovatore

1949 film
directed by Carmine Gallone
based on the play by Antonio Garcia Gutierrez
and the opera by Giuseppe Verdi, Salvadore Commarano, Leone Emanuele Bardare

Carmine Gallone was starting to become a bit old-fashioned as a filmmaker in the time immediately following WWII, but he wasn't a pioneer of early Italian cinema for nothing ... as this film kinda sorta shows. His first work of this era wasn't so much an adaptation of Verdi's RIGOLETTO as it was a filmed staging which brought the cameras into the opera house and captured the actual actors, costumes, sets, even the orchestra. It was well done, but looked like what it was: a cheap way to put a big story on the screen in a time when all the film studios had been bombed to rubble. While the film of this review, made just three years later, starts in much the same way - an opening shot of the orchestra warming up with an overture beneath the credits, then holding on the stage as the curtains open - it quickly shows just how rapidly the industry rebuilt itself. Taking the actors out to actual castles among lush, rolling fields, we get a true sense of scope as 15th century armies who were only heard about on the stage are shown in full combat, and two lovers pull into an embrace beneath a bright sky filled with vibrant clouds.

And yet, in Gallone fashion, it doesn't always work. Up front, we're given a prologue that gathers up backstory spread throughout the first half of the opera and lets us clearly see what would otherwise be described. It all looks marvelous as huge crowds gather for the burning of a witch or a four-way joust between fully armored knights on horseback, but it messes with the structure of the work. Character introductions aren't as strong because they come before they should. Context is dropped because we don't have the element of hindsight. Worst of all, the songs in which they were described have been completely cut and replaced with a narrator and scripted dialogue for the actors which, while not badly executed, does feel jarring in what's supposed to be an opera. And it's not like Gallone didn't know he could just flashback to these things as they play under the songs, because he does use that trick to great effect at a few key points later on. That said, though, it's not unwatchable by any means. Just a bit disappointing.

And then there's the story. I agree that it's a classic opera and is filled with many unforgettable pieces of music, but it's hardly a masterpiece as an over-convoluted back story drops into the hands of lunkheaded personalities. You've got your two rivals, Count di Luna (Enzo Mascherini) and troubadour knight Manrico (Gino Sinimberghi), opposing leaders in the armies of feuding princes in 15th century Spain, and you've got the glamorous cipher of a love interest, Leonora (Vittorina Colonello), who fires the lust in both their loins. There could be a decent, if not exactly original, tale here as their struggle for her affections reflect and are reflected by the clashing of their armies, but that all takes a backstage to the convoluted history. A long time ago, you see, The Count's father had ordered the execution of a gypsy woman. In return, this woman's daughter (Gianna Pederzini) kidnapped the Count's brother, killed her own son (a completely ridiculous twist), and raised the young hostage into Manrico, the troubadour knight. So, yes, it's a battle between brothers, a twist revealed to all in the end just as everybody but the Count dies in the wake of big songs. Why don't I like it? One reason is that Verdi's idea of having his characters express their feelings is for them to latch onto key phrases that they simultaneously bark over and over and over again, just like a 5-year-old in a toy store, until they're either dragged off the screen or told what they wanted to hear. Another is the ending, which is so blatantly, ridiculously tragic that it feels like the writers (I haven't read the original play) came up with the most depressing finale they could conceive, then just worked backwards from there.

But Gallone and his cast and crew do a decent job with what they're given. Despite the structural problems mentioned above, and being a little behind the ways in his shooting and editing style (feels more like a movie from the 30s), Gallone does stage things quite well. Leonora getting dressed for a wedding as Manrico and his troops race on horseback to stop her. Manrico's foster-mother checking beneath the helmets of slain soldiers on a battlefield as she searches for her son. A woman hiding in the shadows of a dungeon as a passing line of white monks slowly pray for the souls of those to be executed the next morning. It's all very nicely done, and ably supported by a cast of genuine opera singers who give dynamic and charismatic performances that perfectly fit the screen without being too over the top, even as they're bellowing their hearts out. And the best is Mascherini as Count di Luna. In what could have been a sneering villain, he makes his character what the man is: the genuine tragic lead of the story. He tries his best to serve his forces and his Prince, and all he truly longs for is the hand of Leonora, but he keeps suffering and loosing due to the interference of everyone else. The choices of his father and prince. The vengeance of the gypsy's daughter. The appearance of Manrico. The strayed attentions of Leonora. The whole world is working against him, and when he fights back, he loses even more.

So, no, it's most certainly not a bad movie. I have problems with the story and some of the execution, but it's still very watchable, even rousing at times. However, as the only version available is a VHS without subtitles, I'm not sure who to recommend it for. Not many film historians would be interested due to it being a minor release that was already dated in comparison to other contemporary works. Casual film goers might be lost without a translation and, hey, not everybody likes opera. Even those who do have a taste for Verdi may be put off by the way several of his songs have either been trimmed or fully removed. It's a tough sell all around.

(wikipedia for opera)
(internet movie database)

May 12, 2010


1949 film
directed by Alessandro Blasetti
based on the novel by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman
written by Alessandro Blasetti, Mario Chiari, Diego Fabbri, Jean-Georges Auriol, Antonio Pietrangeli, Cesare Zavattini, Emilio Cecchi, Vitaliano Brancati, Corrado Pavolini, Lionello De Felice, Alberto Vecchietti, Umberto Barbaro, Suso Checchi d'Amico, Renato Castellani

(my review of the 1854 novel, from which this is based)


Things have changed in Rome under the rule of Constantine. Laws have already been put in place outlawing the persecution of any foreign religions and word is starting to spread that the emperor is now considering a personal conversion to Christianity and will outlaw slavery itself. Some see this as the light of a new day, or as empty politics, or as something that won't have much of a profound effect at all, but many feel it's a genuine threat. Why change things? Why stir the pot? Why was the way of their fathers' day so bad?

In the middle of these events are two men. One is Senator Fabius, a wealthy patron who embraces his Christian servants and proudly dreams of a future of liberty and peace. The other is Fulvius, a prelate left in charge during an extended (and unexplained) foreign trip on Constantine's part. He wants things to stay as they were and feels the best way to change the emperor's mind is to lead a public uprising against the blooming religion. So he hatches a plan ...

Before you know it, Fabius is struck dead and Christians are not only blamed for that crime, but for further profaning the gods of Rome by using a statue as a weapon. Charges rise on both sides, and it all builds to a mass persecution culminating in the bloody arena.



This was one of, if not the, first big studio period epics made in Italy following the devastation of the war and, thanks to joint funding (and a handful of headlining stars) from France and a director already famous for epics made under Mussolini's reign, they came out of the gate hard and strong. The open air studio lots and richly textured costumes are fantastic and lively, far more so than they'd be over the years as hundreds of cheaper knockoffs would reuse them. From Fabius's gallant party, to the public streets, to a horrific arena draped with dozens of dead or dying people, everything feels both theatrical and real, as though it truly had been lived in since ancient times.

And the direction. Wow. Though his career was somewhat marred by his propagandist efforts, Blasetti is a genuinely gifted filmmaker who creates lyrical, flowing scenes. Take, for instance, the introduction of Fabiola, the title character and daughter of Fabius who I'll explore in a moment. First glimpsed while sleeping freely on a beach, almost like a gift the heavens just birthed to us, Fabiola (played by the instantly captivating Michèle Morgan), is next seen in a garden, standing so perfectly amongst statues that it's not until she moves that we know she's not one of them.

And he sure doesn't skimp on the action. As I've mentioned, the big climax in the arena is an absolute carnival of carnage. People nailed to beams, burned or flayed alive, screaming as packs of lions set in. It's brutal, it's shocking, it's perfectly photographed, but what's most important is that it's meaningful. This isn't violence that's supposed to make us smile in glee as we hand over our bucks for a ticket to exploitation, it's something that genuinely makes us cringe, makes us question in anger how it's come to this, makes us wince for the people we've come to know over the last hour. And as heroes take up the weapons of gladiators for a final fight, the well-choreographed struggle feels like a real last proud act of desperation instead of the trope it would become.

As I've stated on this site before, I'm not a fan of Cardinal Wiseman's original novel, which I found to be naive, generalistic, and just plain stupid in its views. Here, Blasetti and his squadron of writers, among whom were the top talents of the time, really made the material sing. While it does establish many Swords & Sandals tropes and it veers even farther from the historical record than Wiseman's misinterpretation, it makes for an altogether stronger story. Here, it's not a world where all Christians are good and all Pagans are bad, it's all about genuine humans and politics and resources and the personal threat one feels when they're told what they believe is wrong.

Let's look at a pair of characters that make things more ambiguous. In the book, Fulvius was a loving father, but his drunken partying and Pagan ways made him lazy and thoughtless. Here (ably played by Michel Simon), he still throws back many a drink and stages one hell of a party, but his robust speeches against greed and tyranny are in interesting, colorful, real contrast against his own appearance as a well-fed man lounging on a throne with a rich little dog in his arms. Another is Sira, played by Elisa Cegani. While the Fabiola of the books had two opposing servants, one a kind and penitent Christian, the other a backstabbing occultist, here they're masterfully combined into a single individual. Sira starts as a soothsaying Egyptian who casts bad fortunes and accusations at people she simply doesn't like, but she later starts doubting herself when she's confronted by the genuine innocents her words have condemned. Though she largely disappears in the second half, it's a great setup and fully represents the more complex and mature take these people have on the material.

Which then brings us to Fabiola. As in the book, she starts out a bit of a rich snob who eventually comes to understand and care for the repressed minority. The interesting change is that she no longer converts just to be closer to a Christ she suddenly believes in. No, it's more that her youthful naivete is crushed by her father's death and she finds herself questioning the intentions of the people she thought were her father's friends, especially when they start using his murder as a symbol for ideas the man would valiantly oppose in life.

Even then, the characters who do fully represent the opposing dynamics of the book are really nicely handled. Sebastian (the handsome but largely forgettable Massimo Girotti) is a public leader in the army and a private leader in the church, who eventually martyrs himself when ordered to persecute his own people. There, he was a largely empty character painted with such glory that he became ridiculous, but here he's been trimmed down to a supporting role, showing up just enough to make an initial presence, then going out in a genuinely moving and inspiring way that has less to do with accepting Christ as it does promoting peace and liberty.

On the other side is Fulvius, the conniving prelate left in charge of an Empire he's increasingly at odds with. We know he'll eventually suffer upon Contantine's return, but one can relate to his desire to manipulate, to work back the kingdom he now finds himself at the reins of. As played by the deliciously severe Louis Salou, what could have been a typical sneering villain is instead a man who sees the catastrophic effects such sweeping changes will have on an empire he's entirely comfortable with.

However ...

The biggest problem with the film is that they felt the need to invent a completely new character and actually make him the lead. A gladiator sent to Rome on a secret mission from Constantine (we never really find out for what), the oddly named Rual initially hides his Christianity in an attempt to get ingrained amongst Fulvius's posse. But that plot thread never really goes anywhere, so he eventually rises up as a lunkheaded leader of the Christians following Sebastian's demise. Dropping an everyman into events isn't a bad idea, but he's just so poorly glued in here and pushes all the major players back into secondary positions. Much of this plot could easily have been reworked to headline Sebastian and Fabiola without compromising their historical traditions.

And Henri Vidal's performance doesn't help. He's certainly got an impressive physique and charismatic leading man looks, but he just won't stop moving. Approaching the character of Rual as a hyperactive spaz, he's constantly flexing and bounding his way through what should be thoughtful scenes, and even kisses with the rapid smack of a woodpecker.

Probably the biggest strike against the movie, and it's genuine, is that the only version available is an English dub that's been cut by over an hour. I actually found the dub itself (written by Marc Connelly, Fred Pressberger, and Forrest Izard) to be of a much higher quality than many of the era, but hacking an entire hour out of a film is never a benefit. They struggle so hard to cover the gaps with sporadic narration, but it's not only delivered by a voice that should be accompanied by a "gee whiz" kid named Timmy who asks obvious questions, but there's a lot of obvious gaps it never even tries to cover as characters like Sira just totally drop out of the narrative or Rual goes from imprisoned to free to imprisoned to free.


The lead is a stapled-on lunkhead and the only available cut has lost an hour, but it's a rousing and watchable predecessor to the Swords & Sandals movement that's still much more thoughtful, intelligent, and just plain well made than a good majority of what followed.

(internet movie database)

April 22, 2010

Fabiola, or, The Church of the Catacombs

1854 novel
written by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman

(my review of the 1949 film adaptation)

Propaganda novels are always tricky to review. Written to boost up the morale of an already faithful legion, they have a hard time clicking with those outside the chosen flock, sometimes even becoming loathed objects of scorn that end up doing their cause much more damage than intended. Take this book for example. In the London of the mid 1800's, Catholicism was still looked upon with much scorn and ridicule by the Protestant majority, having only become a fully legalized religious practice within decades of this novel's publication. Cardinal Wiseman thus felt the best way to boost up his minority flock, to give them hope and redemption in their suffering, was too pen a book which equated their experience with that of the early Christians in Rome. This is for them. This is their book.

I'm an atheist. This book is not meant for me.

That's not to say that this piece of literature wouldn't be perfectly at home on the shelves of a True Believer. I, not being one, kept butting heads with its philosophies. But this isn't really meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I'll try not to go there.

So lets look at it as a propaganda piece. At its heart, there's an intriguing tale about a young religion being brutally hunted by the broader populace, practicing secret masses in catacombs filled with their fallen comrades and swelling with pride before roaring beasts or an executioner's blade in the arena. There is a good story there, a good thriller about persecution and fighting for what you believe in. But there's no fight. Every time someone announces their religion, they just calmly let themselves be led off to death. Why? Martyrdom. Instead of organizing and arming and fighting for themselves, their families, and their beliefs, they are not only happy, they're fucking thrilled at the prospect of being caught just so they can suffer and die and be one with Jesus. To some, this is admirable. To me, it's a representation of the problems inherent in a belief that the afterlife is better than the one we have here: it makes people eager to die. Suicide is, of course, fully frowned up, but the way these people willingly let their secrets slip out of the closet is largely tantamount to the same thing.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

Let's look at the characters. As with any propaganda piece, we have the "thems" - all the vile, shifty-eyed, pagan worshippers who kill off the Christians because they feel impotent and jealous in the face of abject faith - and then there's the "usses" - the True Believers, who are all clean and beautiful and work in a blessed union to further conversions to the faith (conversions likely necessary to sustain the church because everyone aspires to die a virgin). We know from historical record that this was a turbulent time where Christians most certainly did not all agree on how best to follow and spread the message, so them being painted as a perfectly harmonious group, free of any doubt or animosity, is complete bullshit. No, it's the typical old "we're good, they're bad" philosophy. And even when Wiseman sets up an interesting character, he tends to bungle it in the execution.

Take Sebastian, the classic hero type. He's a soldier, a high-ranking officer and trusted advisor of Co-Emperor Maximian, and secretly supports and organizes the functions of his hidden faith. Now, here, there could have been a fascinating study of a man hiding himself in plain sight, but they never make it hard, they never show him struggling to keep things hidden or even, really, show him saving the flock in any way except when he converts some prisoners through a completely random healing through the laying on of hands. Why? Because he wants to be martyred. Of course.

Much more successful is Torquatus. Though his bumbling is written off as him being new to the flock and not fully educated, here is the one man experiencing a crisis of faith. He has his beliefs, he feels saved, but then he gets drunk and gambles and finds himself indebted to people who want to use his information to wipe out a branch of the church. This is a memorable character, someone for whom it's not so much God that plays on his conscience, but the consequences of his own actions. It culminates in a truly gripping sequence where, getting separated from everyone during a raid he helped instigate, he finds himself lost in the catacombs, with neither food nor water and a rapidly dwindling source of light. Now, does Wiseman let this be the typical death one suffers to pay for their mistakes, as is so often the case in fiction? No, he gives us the one scene I'd accept would lead to his renewed conversion. Torquatus comes across a small funeral party laying to rest a woman killed in the raid. That right there, making him see the blood on his hands, brings about a change in the man and shows that the Cardinal was capable of penning a good morality tale.

But then there's Fulvius. Again, there's an interesting setup. On the surface, he's a comfortable, easy-going if pompous member of the higher society, but he secretly earns his fortune by hunting down Christians, turning them over to authorities and being rewarded with a chunk of their estate. Over the course of things, he falls in love with a young woman, the beautiful Agnes (she's twelve!), only to discover that she's deeply involved in the Christian movement. She's part of something he hates, and repeatedly rejects him in favor of that very something he hates, which makes for great motivation as our embittered antagonist triggers some massive destruction. Hell, there's a scene where he confronts the title character (we'll get to Fabiola in a minute), that is genuinely tense as his anger builds and builds to a point where we know somebody is about to wind up dead ... but then Wiseman pulls a hidden family connection completely out of left field, leading to convolutions upon convolutions, and it all unravels. But more on that is coming.

So. Fabiola. She's the title character (duh) and, if you strip all of the social aspects away, this is largely the story of her conversion. It's not this arc I have a problem with (does make for a good story), it's some of the philosophies behind it. As the story starts, she is described as a philosopher, somebody who reads and experiences a broad range of thought and learning. This is something I find admirable, but not Wiseman. No, all philosophers of that time are written off as heathens and such concepts like looking at something before passing judgment on it are seen as the very trouble that caused the pagans to become such brutes. They're over-exposed and skeptical, they require more than just "honestly spoken" words and some faith before they believe in something, and this makes them bad, bad people. And how does Wiseman counter this philosophy, through the mouth of the True Believing slave Miriam? By pointing out to Fabiola that there are gaps in knowledge, questions that can't be answered. Surely these must be proof of the existence of the divine. And, of course, Fabiola just buys it. Bullshit.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

But why Fabiola? In the beginning, she's shown in a fury, slashing her servants with a razor. She is every bit the pompous Roman that Wiseman paints as pagan persecutors. And, yet, she has a nagging doubt in the back of her mind, something nobody else among her status experiences. It's this nagging voice that makes her special and leads her down the road to conversion. And where does this voice come from? Her late Christian mother, of course. You see, while they were primarily raised by pagan father figures, and do often share in such "heathenous frivolity", both Fabiola and Fulvius had Christian mothers whom they lost early in life. Why is this important? Well, because in Wiseman's world, nobody can have any regret or compassion or goodness of character unless they already have a little Christian in them to begin with. Because we all know that to be Christian is to be above sins like genocide or torture or raping little boys. Only they can be good, and everyone else is the enemy.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't go there.

I will give Wiseman this, he's not a bad writer. In fact, his flowing, whispering text is quite accessible and does a wonderful job of painting the image of daily Roman life. Hell, I almost wish this were approached as a work of non-fiction as opposed to a novel, because he goes off on these wonderful little tangents describing the architecture, the make of the city, the customs of rituals, generic terminology and slang of the time, all while citing what were then cutting-edge archaeological discoveries. It really is some fascinating stuff, but, as with many a History Channel documentary, in comes the dramatized reenactment, and it's full of lousy stagings of unbelievable characterizations that spout off nonsensically with flowery dialogue that would make a supermarket romance novel roll its eyes.

And, once again, that reliance upon history is highly selective. It ignores the divide between Christian sects at the time. It ignores the atrocities Christianity wishes it didn't represent. It ignores the fact that Constantine wasn't a great divine ruler. It ignores that Mary Magdalen wasn't a whore. It compares Africans to the animals of their country as they concoct nefarious voodoo potions. It flat out states that Jews are the enemies of Christ.

But this isn't meant to be an attack on Wiseman's beliefs, so I won't ...

... Oh, wait, I did.


April 9, 2010

Bicycle Thieves

1948 film
directed by Vittorio De Sica
written by Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri
based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini

(my review of the 1946 novel from which this is based)

Right from the start, De Sica proves himself a clever filmmaker. The title tells us that thieves will steal a bicycle, so he teases us, building anticipation as one moment follows another where our lead character, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), is forced to leave his bike unattended while his attention is drawn or he's called aside for a minute. Every time he does, our eyes are on the vulnerable vehicle, until the actual act itself, where we see the thieves coming as they lay a trap and spring. It's marvelous, masterful filmmaking on display.

And unlike the book, we care about the bicycle's fate. There, it was one of several owned by a prissy playboy intellectual who cut everything around him down with cynicism. Here, Antonio is a married father of two who finally scores an all-too-rare job in the economic depression that is post-WWII Italy, and the bicycle is a necessary requirement of his job: going from corner to corner, pasting new posters over layers of old ones. He's a genuinely honest, genuinely good fellow, so we feel his anger, we feel his desperation, we feel the gears of right and wrong start grinding against one another when, at a point near the end, he notices a bicycle left unattended on an empty street and starts the inner debate.

But the film doesn't end there with improvements upon the literature. While the book was a wasteland of lies and greed, there is genuine hope here. People gather at churches and help feed, clothe, and shave one another. Antonio's wife (piercing Lianella Carell) doesn't give a second thought before bundling up the linens to pay off a family debt. His friends (led by Gino Saltamerenda) give up part of their working day to fruitlessly search amongst thousands of bikes and parts in the black market. And his young son (the simultaneously innocent and mature Enzo Staiola) constantly tags by his father's side; even when the two have a squabble and put a visible distance between themselves, young Bruno still keeps pace with his father, offering a held hand when needed. But, alas, hope never overcomes all, and there is a proper air of genuine crushing reality that always lingers before it pushes itself to the stage. And the director once again shows his skill when things that seem like obvious movie setups (the friends will keep looking, the boy points out a distinct dent in the frame) never get the chance to pay off, not because they're forgotten, but because reality just doesn't work that way.

This film is rightfully held up as a fine example of the neorealist movement that spread across Europe after the studios suffered greatly from the war and depression that followed. As with others of the style, it deals with quiet, human stories, filmed cheaply on location with casts primarily consisting of amateurs. The lead himself, Maggiorani, was a factory worker who stumbled into the film business when this production cost him his job. He perfectly fits the image of the everyday man of this era, with a gaunt, underfed frame, the strong hands of a laborer, and eyes that are intelligent and hopeful, yet shaded with bouts of desperation.

And it's all put together beautifully by actor-turned-director De Sica. He knows how to build a scene, fill it with distinct people, and fluidly work the camera and editing to tell it to near perfection. Just look at the moment where Antonio finally confronts the thief, who leads his pursuer to the steps of his own home where his neighbors slowly swarm around the accuser, shouting that they know the criminal is a good boy, and how dare Antonio say such slanderous things, and he should listen to the mother shouting from the upstairs window that her child's record is clean. De Sica keeps us right near the eye level of Antonio as all avenues of escape and victory are shut tight and the situation goes from annoying to overwhelming to frightening.

This truly is a masterpiece. Now, yes, there are a few tiny arguments one could make about convenient plot points that casually drop out of the sky (Antonio randomly stumbles across the thief not once, but twice), and there is the occasional moment where the actors betray their amateur origins, but I don't care, and I'm sure most would agree. It's a marvelous work, deep and personal, yet broadly accessible and appealing.


(internet movie database)

April 3, 2010

Bicycle Thieves

1946 novel
written by Luigi Bartolini

(my review of the 1948 film adaptation)


World War II still rages in Italy. The fascists are cornered in the north as a line of Allied troops steadily presses through, leaving in their wake a free Italy. Free in the sense of anarchy as the same corrupt politicians turn on their overlords with the hopes of staying in power, an over-tasked police force takes bribes and turn blind eyes so as to not be swallowed up in mobs that favor the criminals, and thievery becomes such a way of life that anyone who finds his property stolen is derided for not knowing well enough to hold onto it better.

This is the world shown to us through our unnamed narrator (likely the author himself), an educated and eloquent man struggling to chip an honest living through articles and etchings. In this dark world where little things cost a fortune, his most treasured possession is his bicycle, which not only allows him to spread his freelance work to a broader range of publications, but covers the distance to the countryside which he escapes to each day just to clear his soul.

On the first page of the book, this bicycle is stolen, and our narrator plunges into the underworld he loathes with the hopes of recovering it.



Told in a chapterless, stream-of-conscious prose filled with digressions and sudden flashbacks, this very much feels like what it likely is: the author's own journals edited into something resembling a narrative. There's a personal intimacy this brings to the material as he questions things sweeping and profound - his view of Italy's historical connection with thievery; political systems that left the man in exile for years - and offers little details like the types of friends he looks for, why he hates movies, and why he thinks Italian women have ugly butts. It is a ramble of sort, but a very polished and thoughtful one that takes us deep into a man who loathes a society he can't escape from, and thus does his best to work around it.

And then there's the city itself, with its grimy, bombed-out alleys, peddlers living a symbiotic relationship with thieves who steal back what's sold, topless whores hanging out the windows of brothels the Allied occupation officially stamped out, and foreign soldiers that everyone buddies up to because only they can afford a round of the best drinks. This is a world where everybody steals, whether it's through physical theft, the hiking up of prices, the refusal to do anything without a cut, or the taking advantage of people for whom the label "friend" never really fits. And as everyone gets used to crime, so must people grow accustomed to looking out for themselves and their belongings. And woe on anybody who tries to publicly enforce the laws, for any accusation of "Thief!" brings out mobs that are likely to turn on the victim.

However ...

The big problem is the narrator. An honest man buried amidst deception makes for a good story, but we only know he's honest through his own admission. He makes a big show of how he always tries to help or knows just the right thing to say to diffuse a situation, but a lot of it feels like glorified bunk on Bartolini's part, as though he's defending himself with the same high-minded pride as the thieves.

And it's this perfect knowledge, the way he can disguise himself, pick locks, or work various connections, that takes a lot of the drama out of things. He almost comes off as a hard-boiled American detective hero at times, perfectly maintaining control as he takes on a gang of punks, works through a police station, or strikes up a deal with some prostitutes. This makes the odds all the less daunting, and thus all the less dramatic. Especially when we not only learn he has a second bicycle ready and waiting at home, but when he purchases yet another only 30 pages in. So what's the point?

Which brings us to his utter hypocrisy. He's got another bike, and goes out of his way to buy a new one, yet absolutely must track down the stolen model. He holds up his purity and degrades and denounces the vile society around him, but knows all of its inner workings to the point where he can perfectly blend in. He complains about not getting enough work done or longs for time to escape to the countryside, but fills his schedule with an admittedly meaningless quest to find a needle in a haystack. He goes on about how terrible and completely beneath him the local women are, all the while bedding models and neighbors and a man's handicapped wife. All of this would make for an interesting portrait, but it must be deciphered through his own biased voice. There's no irony, no moral, no lesson, just a bitter man rambling on without catching how many times he contradicts himself.

And ramble ramble ramble. There's a lot of interesting stuff about clouded morals and political breakdown, but a lot of it does get long-winded and repetitive, as numerous situations play out to the same conclusions. And then there's stuff like the last few pages suddenly putting a huge focus on the narrator's daughter whom we'd never heard about up till then, nor do we really know where she is or when he last saw her. The whole search for the bicycle just kind of fizzles out as she comes in and becomes a new symbol for hope and escape, yet it's so out-of-left-field that it feels hollow.


Frustrating and long-winded at times, this is nonetheless a fascinating, thoughtful, and piercing look at a country hopelessly trying to find its identity after a total and crushing defeat.


March 24, 2010


1946 film
directed by Carmine Gallone
based on the play THE KING'S FOOL by Victor Hugo
and the opera by Giuseppe Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave

(1832 play - THE KING'S FOOL)

In his attempt to adapt Hugo's play to the Italian opera, Verdi came to discover just how unpopular a title it was amongst ruling parties. Nobody wanted to stage something where the king was an immoral, womanizing villain who led people down dark paths of sex and murder, so a back and forth began with censors that eventually allowed the production to be made. Albeit, with changes. The ruling monarch would now be a Duke, and his aged jester - whose daughter's innocence would be robbed in a malicious prank aimed at the prankster - would be called Rigoletto.

Being a complete layman when it comes to opera, I can't fairly get into details about singing ranges or song compositions, other than to say it was all nice and melodic and perfectly enhanced the story while driving it ever forward. However, I feel I can say a few things about the adaptation.

One of the main censorship issues is the stripping of much of the play's frank sexuality. Gone is the Duke sweeping from woman to woman during an opening ball. Gone is the open acknowledgement that he'd gone well beyond initial flirts with the wives and daughters of his angry court. Gone even is a clarification of a major shock in the middle that's meant to drive us through the dark second half. With it missing, much of where the tale goes feels nonsensical and extreme as bloody vengeance is sought for an act that either now didn't happen, or didn't go as far as it originally did. Once again, it's not clarified.

And in pulling up small moments to make into show numbers, some of the broader sweeps of the story are compressed in a way that make the play's genuine flaws more obvious, but without the great words of Hugo to gently push over them. An exiled old man who delivers a thematic curse? He was unnecessary there and is purely stapled on here. An assassin that plays a major part later on but is introduced rather haphazardly? The way he now just walks up to people and says "Got anyone you need me to kill?" is reckless nonsense that has me wondering what he's still doing on the street. A brutal, unforgettable sacrifice? Questionable there, rings totally hollow here. An ambiguously open finale? Feels entirely like the leadup to a non-existent final act.

But this isn't to say it's bad. A lot of the good stuff from the play is still great here, but what didn't work works even less, and some changes render the entire piece somewhat meaningless.

That's the opera, though, so let's move on to the broader film. Gallone, a famous director in the early years of Italian cinema, must have been a Verdi fan because he not only adapted several of the composer's works to the big screen, but even did a biopic of the man himself. Since many films back then were largely comparable to plays in their staging and design, it makes sense that he simply uses the actors, costumes, sets, and the very stage of the opera itself to make the movie, just ditching the audience and bringing his camera up with the actors. It works beautifully, the quiet yet precise cinematography showing off the huge, multi-tiered sets, which hold dozens of actors, each clad in meticulously textured and detailed outfits, all against lush, deep, partially animated backdrops.

The problem is the acting. As they pour forth from their talented diaphragms, most of the performers just stiffly drift from one pose to another with fixed expressions and little in the way of actual acting. I'm sure it sells just fine on a stage when seen from a distance, but this is the cinema, and once you put those people in medium-shots and close-ups, it feels hollow and forced. Even the able performers Mario Filippeschi, as the charming yet dastardly duke, and Marcella Govoni, as the jester's tragically innocent daughter, while they do slip some subtle flourishes in, painfully lack charisma when the camera nestles in tight.

The exception, however, is Tito Gobbi in the title role of Rigoletto the jester, who proves why he's a legend of the Italian stage. Even as he sinks into the necessary portrait poses, he's constantly moving, with an expressive face that's simultaneously subtle and broad, and dancing hands that search out business with his clothes or props or the arms of another actor. He truly lights up the screen, and when he laughs or cries, your emotions are right there with him.

It's an interesting film, one that should appeal to fans of opera, but I don't know that it would much interest anyone else, particularly with the story now lacking the ferocity of the punches Hugo gave it.

(clip of the famous song "La donna e mobile (How Fickle Women Are)")

(internet movie database)

March 23, 2010

Sanshiro Sugata 2

1945 film
written & directed by Akira Kurosawa
created by Tsuneo Tomita


The last thing I expected to comes across in an early Kurosawa flick, particularly one still made during the War Years, was an American speaking English. But that's the very sight we open on as a U.S. Navy man (judging by the accent, though, not an American actor by birth) hassles a cab driver until he finds himself face to face with the master of Judo himself, Sanshiro Sugata. Ah, but it doesn't stop there. No, we go all the way to the American embassy itself where a boxer named William "The Killer" Lister takes on local Japanese fighters in what are billed "friendly relations" bouts, but are really just us yanks cheering on a fighting style without dignity and discipline. Or so says the propaganda film.

Which, to be honest, comes off a lot more genuinely amusing than insulting. When you consider the stooped, slant-eyed, buck-toothed gremlins we portrayed the Japanese people as in our wartime propaganda, seeing a not-far-off-the-mark image of us as barking sports nuts who occasionally stumble head first into pure buffoonery doesn't phase me one bit. And when Sanshiro eventually steps into the ring against The Killer (you just knew the plot was going there) I had no problem with finding myself cheering for the art of Judo to prevail over that of padded fisticuffs.

But that's not what this film is really about. The first movie, while still full of unconventional flourishes on Kurosawa's part, told a very conventional story about an undisciplined youth who becomes a respectful martial artist, defeating the sneering villain and getting the beautiful girl along the way. Here, we also hit many of the same marks martial arts movie fans have come to appreciate in sequels as the hero struggles to come to terms with his new-found fame while dealing with the younger brothers of the defeated sneering villain, who are out for full-on revenge. Oh, and he avoids his wife and sulks a lot because he blames himself for the death of her father.

But this is Kurosawa, so, even at this very early point in his career, he found ways to make something conventional feel fresh. Sanshiro, you see, has given Judo such a public boost that the other dojos, many of whom are fully respectable, have lost so many students that their masters have had to resort to paid fights in order to cover the bills. Sanshiro taking on Americans to boost Japanese pride is one thing, but how does a master fighter combat the unintended fruits of his victories? While the film never does give this a satisfactory answer, it is a fascinating question. And Kurosawa laces the film with other great flourishes, the best being a student walking in and bowing before his masters, shown repeatedly in a montage as he goes from a rambunctious youth to an experienced, confident man.

I was a little tough on Susumu Fujita in my review of the first flick, being off put by Sanshiro's occasional lunkheaded simplicity, but they really sold it to me this time around. This is a man who no longer takes pleasure in the defeat of his enemies, but will nurture them by their bed of recovery, even as they stare daggers in return. Or who laughs when some friends trick him with a throw because it's been so long since he hit the floor that he finds it refreshing. There's times where the character is almost too pure of heart and every mistake is justified as a necessary step on his chosen path, but, hey, it's a propaganda flick. At least it's not executed with as heavy a hand as it could have been.

But then there's the villains. Tesshin Higaki is the sneering double of his brother from the first film (both are actually played by Ryunosuke Tsukigata), always tensed and ready to pounce, though failing to show any actual fighting skill. Trailing by his side is the younger Genzakuro (Akitake Kono), whose grief and epilepsy have left him a shaggy-headed wacko. As with the first, there's a lot of promise built around the eventual confrontation, but when it comes on a snow-capped peak - in the midst of a Kurosawa storm, of course - I can, without a doubt, say it's the lousiest, most disappointing fight sequence ever put to film. I know, I know, this is before the fighting genre would be refined over the next few decades, but it's a glaring flaw, particularly in the wake of the two great fights held in the American boxing ring.

But, overall, this film is an improvement on the original, what with tighter shooting and editing, a smoother handle on the lead, and stronger world-building of the era. If you can get through the propagandist elements and predictable plotting, and can track an elusive copy down that doesn't come in an expensive box set, then check it out. It's an early display of the master filmmaker Kurosawa would become.

(internet movie database)

March 16, 2010

The King's Fool

1832 play
written by Victor Hugo

(1946 film - RIGOLETTO)

Early in his career, just one year after publishing THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE-DAME, Victor Hugo wrote a play that was banned after a single performance. His ensuing lawsuit against the government - who claimed it was a thinly veiled parody of the current king - made him a beloved and revered symbol of freedom amongst the people.

The play itself opens with King Francis I of France, a devastatingly charming playboy who dances from one woman to another, regardless of class or marriage, leaving them all with feelings of satisfaction and devotion. This doesn't sit so well with the men of his court, many of whom have seen their own wives and mistresses swept up by the King's empty promises of eternal love. There's not much they can do without upsetting the entire political system, however, so they set their sights on the King's right-hand-man: his jester, Triboulet.

Though Triboulet sulks each night at all the taunts and jeers his job and King require him to hurl - regardless of the fact that it's aimed at people who would and do insult him merely for being an ugly hunchback - his public facade of crushing jokes has made him a constant thorn in a lot of the courtiers' sides. When they learn he's been sneaking into a quiet part of town to visit a young lady, they all devise a plot to introduce his mistress to the King so the joker will suffer the same humiliation as them.

But what they don't know is that the young lady, Blanche, isn't his mistress. She's his daughter. And she's a pure, innocent young woman who wants nothing more that to know who her father is and what he does and why he keeps her locked away. She, you see, is the one light of his life, and he wants to shelter her from the awful humiliation, corruption, and scandal he witnesses and takes part in on a daily basis.

For the first half of the play, it's a wild, satirical romp as the king drifts through a swirl of women at a party, all the courtiers bluster about with impotent anger at the handsome man stealing the brides from between their fat legs, and a kidnapping plot barely falls into place as Triboulet himself is tricked into unknowingly participating in his daughter's abduction. It really is quite funny and lively, culminating with the King's cheesy serenade once he finds himself face-to-face with the young Blanche.

But then, with a cry, the slam of a door, and a key in the smiling King's hand, the tone takes a dark turn. It's not easy to go from screwball to tragedy, but Hugo masterfully pulls it off with an increasingly tense sequence as the courtiers carry on with a joke they don't realize has lost its humor and Triboulet's snarky wit turns to desperate pleas, all while an unseen crime takes place in the next room.

It's devastating, gripping writing, but a lot of the plotting starts collapsing in upon itself. There's a lingering old man, the exiled father of a violated woman, who serves no purpose to the story than to needlessly foreshadow Triboulet's journey and make a cyclical point. There's a sibling pair of gypsy assassins (she seduces, he kills) who are clumsily introduced at random because they'll need to be called upon at a later time. And the ending. I just don't buy the ending. It not only lacks a true confrontation and makes an odd thematic digression, but it features a brutal twist that is nonsensically justified by the idea that every woman the King beds, even when presented with proof that his affections are false, still loves him so much that they'll either give their own lives or aim their vengeance at random strangers, sacrifices the King neither knows of nor cares to.

But I still liked the script. No matter how nonsensical the justification for the plot twists became, they were still pretty damn good twists, and the characters were so well written and defined that I felt every ounce of their betrayal and suffering. And Hugo is so great at painting unforgettable moments. A servant repeatedly reaching to the king for payment as she puts in numerous good words for him to a chick he's trying to bed. Triboulet holding his daughter close, comforting her, both lit only by the flashes of a raging storm. The two assassins sitting in a quiet living room, her sewing, him cleaning a belt, as they patiently wait for their intended victim to fall asleep upstairs.

This is the first piece of writing from Hugo I've ever read, so I don't know how representative it is of his broader body of work. But if half that stuff is this good, then it's no wonder he's a legend.