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.