About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 9: "The Decameron" (1971)

     Following Porcile and Medea (both from 1969), which were a bit uninspired, Pier Paolo Pasolini's ninth feature film is a real return to form: The Decameron (1971).  Taking on a very loose vignette structure, The Decameron is on a massive scale as it depicts the sprawling world of Renaissance-era Italy which its characters inhabit.  Compared to Pasolini's previous work, The Decameron is far more light and jovial as it celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, blasphemy, and combinations of both all at once.  
     There are two core narratives that serve as a bridge that crosses all of the stories featured within Pasolini's adaptation of The Decameron.  The first (which goes from the opening of the film to about the half way point) follows a sinful thief named Ciappelleto (Franco Citti) who is given the task of leaving town to engage in some shady activity where he isn't yet known.  Between each scene of this thread of the story, a different vignette is depicted.  
     The first stand-alone vignette (starring the incredibly charming Ninetto Davoli) is a brilliant slice of comedy.  Davoli portrays a wealthy young man named Andreuccio, and he carries himself with caricatured pomposity – which is highly sexualized by the chaps that he is wearing which accentuate the bulge of his crotch (one of the many beautiful costumes designed by Danilo Donati).  From afar, Andreuccio catches the attention of a beautiful young woman who send one of her servants to retrieve him.  When he arrives at her home, she pretends to be his long-lost sister and invites him to stay at her home that night.  When he visits the restroom, the floorboards (which were cut down the center in an earlier scene) fall out from under Andreuccio's feet so he falls into the sewage below.  Now, Andreuccio is locked out of his "sister's" home and all of his money is being stolen.  This could be a tragedy, but Pasolini manages to keep the tone light so that when Andreuccio is given the chance to earn all of his money back (and more), he is both a character that can be sympathized with as we watch in anticipation to see if his situation can get any worse.  
     The second primary story that helps give the film a sense of direction begins around the halfway mark of the film and continues until the very end.  An artist (portrayed by the director of this film, Pier Paolo Pasolini) who studied under Renaissance painter Cimabue's apprentice, Giotto, has been commissioned to paint a triptych mural on the inner wall of a cathedral.  Giotto's apprentice is now revered as one of the greatest artists in the land, and though he is welcomed by the church officials, he is not necessarily understood.  
     Naturally, much can be drawn from the parallel between the character that Pier Paolo Pasolini is portraying and the film that he is actually making, The Decameron.  On the surface alone, Pasolini is starring in the film as a man who has studied under Giotto, so Pasolini is essentially positioning himself as a student of the great artists that came before him.  Looking to the form of the painting that Giotto's apprentice is making is the next point of comparison as the mural is a triptych, in the same way that Pasolini's film The Decameron is a collection of multiple stories.  Throughout the film, we observe Giotto's apprentice work with his assistants as he directs them – guiding them in his vision as a contemporary film director does on a film set.  At one point, Giotto's apprentice even holds his fingers up to his eyes making the shape of a frame as a film director may do on set to pre-visualize a composition.  These self-reflexive moments contribute to the flavor of The Decameron as we are invited to see the inner-workings of an artist's mind.  
     Masterfully realized, The Decameron is a captivating collection of stories that range in various degrees of perversion.  Though it could be seen as merely a great film for comedic storytelling, it also offers a remarkable commentary on the passion of an artist, and the ways in which the artistic process reflects reality.  Conclusions are not always necessary, and often the imagined conclusions are better than anything that could ever actually happen.

My rating: 5/5

Friday, October 30, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 8: "Medea" (1969)

     Yesterday (October 29th) was the eighth day of "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema", so Pier Paolo Pasolini's eighth feature film, Medea (1969), was the film for the night.  Going into this, I knew that it was an adaptation of Euripides' Medea (in the same way that Pasolini's 1967 film Oedipus Rex was an adaptation of Sophocles' story), so I anticipated that Medea would have a similar form.  Having already watched seven of Pasolini's films back to back, I should've known better than to think that Pasolini would repeat himself.  Even though I suggested that Pasolini's Porcile (1969) felt like a companion piece to Teorema (1968), Porcile is in no ways a repeat of what he had done before.  Unlike Oedipus Rex, Pasolini's Medea is less concerned with plot than it is capturing reality.
     "There is nothing natural in nature," says the centaur to Jason (Giuseppe Gentile).  Moments later, the centaur continues with, "Only those who are mythical are realistic, and only those who are realistic are mythical."  This is, perhaps, the thesis of Pasolini's adaptation of Medea.  Unlike Oedipus Rex, which realistically portrayed its source material with a poetic sensibility, Medea realistically abandons plot to focus on detail.  Almost like watching a documentary on ancient rituals, Pasolini's cinéma vérité approach to the story of Medea is more concerned with duration and reality.  Three years before Werner Herzog made Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), Medea indulges in its scenery with a handheld aesthetic, emphasizes the people in the society around the protagonists, and has Pasolini's standard high production value.
     However, unlike Herzog's work, Pasolini's Medea feels incomplete.  Filled with long stretches without dialogue, jumps in time, and an undefined emotional arc for its protagonists, the film suffers regardless of its unique approach to Euripides' story.  Even then, when Pasolini makes a film that is an adaptation of a pre-existing piece of literature, he owes nothing to the original source material.  One could read the Bible along with Pasolini's 1964 adaptation of the Biblical book of Matthew (The Gospel According To St. Matthew), but the authorship of the film adaptation is in Pasolini's hands regardless of how faithful he chooses to remain to the source.
     Medea had the potential to be something extraordinary, but instead it comes across as lacking substance.  There are plenty of formal and technical elements of Medea that are filmically interesting, but they are at the service of a poorly executed film.  One of the most striking elements of this film is Pasolini's use of Tibetan monk music as a soundtrack for the violent rituals performed by Medea's constituents, but that's not enough to save the film... in fact, it raises more questions.

My rating: 2.5/5

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 7: "Porcile" (1969)

     It has now been one week since I started my twelve-day exploration of Pasolini's work, and though his seventh feature film is not among his best, it is still a well-crafted and challenging film.  His 1969 film Porcile ("Pigsty") works as a solid companion piece to his previous film, Teorema (1968).  Like Teorema, Porcile boasts an international cast with Godard-regulars, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky; Buñuel-regular, Pierre Clémenti; Italian director, Marco Ferreri; and Pasolini's frequent leading man, Franco Citti.  Where Porcile doesn't excel is in its structure as two stories are told at once.  Admittedly, neither story is particularly strong alone, but the visual direction of the first portion is superb, and the casting of the second is brilliant.
     Porcile begins with two tablets being read aloud by Herr Klotz (Alberto Lionello) – the first (concerning cannibalism) seemingly pertains to one thread of Porcile's narrative, and the second (concerning the state of Germany after the defeat of the Third Reich) to the other.  Though there are two stories taking place at once, either story has enough parallels with the other for this bleak film to remain cohesive.  In Pierre Clémenti's half of the film, Clémenti and Franco Citti are cannibals in the 1500s who are hunting for people and other signs of life to be consumed.  When a potential victim of Clémenti and Citti's cannibalistic ways escapes, the hunters become the hunted when the man informs the authorities in the nearby kingdom.  In Jean-Pierre Léaud's portion of the film, Léaud is at odds with his identity as a member of the bourgeoisie.  His father, Herr Klotz, is an industrialist who misses the glory days of Germany – contributing to this is his appearance, as he sports a Hitler mustache and is crippled (certainly a metaphor for the state of post-war Germany).  When Léaud's fiancé (Anne Wiazemsky) asks him what he'll be doing while she's away in Berlin "to piss on the Berlin Wall", he refuses to answer.  Their romantic relationship is severed in this moment, and when Wiazemsky returns from her trip, Léaud is bedridden, In the same way that Wiazemsky's character in Teorema becomes bedridden when her family's guest leaves.  By electing not to accept the truth about himself and give in to his own carnal desires, he has made himself sick. 
     Essentially a plot-driven unofficial sequel to Teorema, Pasolini expands on his thoughts of the bourgeoisie, but he also begins to plant the seeds for what would become his final film, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975).  Clémenti's section of the film takes place near an active volcano (the same Volcano from the end of Teorema), and the costume and period detail is excellent as always.  The violence set against the natural violence of the volcano is not only dramatically interesting, but it's a reflection of the theme of the film.  A volcano is inhospitable to life, in the same way that the behaviors exhibited by all of Porcile's central characters are in opposition to sympathy and humanity.  
     When Léaud's character becomes ill, his father, Herr Kotz, becomes the central figure of that narrative arc.  iI a disturbing, yet highly humorous story, Hans Günther (Marco Ferreri) relays a story to his boss, Herr Kotz, about the shortage of Jewish skulls prior to the Holocaust.  Laughing and celebrating in the conquests of the Nazis, Herr Kotz plays the harp to joyfully accent Günther's detailed description of how they gassed the Jews in the concentration camps.  This style of comedy, deranged and fully aware of its own vulgarity, is at the heart of Pasolini's Salò.  Herr Kotz and Hans Günther are caricatures of evil, and yet they're also a depiction of an actual mindset that may still exist.  Similarly, in 1978, Rainer Werner Fassbinder has a similar scene in his film In A Year With 13 Moons in which a group of former Nazis engage in a musical number to determine if someone was actually involved with Bergen-Belsen or not.  
     Where Teorema feels like a synthesis of previous ideas coming together to form a piece of innovative cinema, Porcile feels like an in-between point.  It stands best as a mean-spirited alter-ego to Teorema than it does on its own.  Even then, it's still an effective film that should be seen with Teorema to achieve its full effect.

My rating: 3.5/5

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 6: "Teorema" (1968)

     Last night, I completed the first half of Pier Paolo Pasolini's feature film work with his sixth feature, Teorema (1968).  Of all the films Pasolini has made up to this point in his twelve-film career, Teorema is perhaps the most elusive.  Teorema's meaning and purpose does not announce itself, and neither does its plot.  
     The film starts with questions being asked of a factory worker who has just been given control of the factory by his boss.  16mm cameras in the hands of reporters film the factory worker's responses as concerns of the growing bourgeoisie are expressed.  From there, we are introduced to the boss of the factory, Paolo (Massimo Girotti), and his family.  Everyone is struggling to remain happy.  The maid (Laura Betti) tries to kill herself with the gas nozzle from the stove, the daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) is fearful of returning to her previous psychological state, the son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) is ashamed of his true self, the wife to the factory boss (Silvana Mangano) is sexually frustrated, and the factory boss himself is suffering from physical ailments.  To comfort everyone is a savior, of sorts, portrayed by Terence Stamp.  He is a guest in their home, and his gift to everyone is love and affection – as the answer to all of these frustrations is sexual relief.  When he is summoned to leave, his absence leaves the family in a position where they must learn to live without his care and company.  Some members of the household fail to cope without him, but others manage to go through an internal transformation.
     Terence Stamp's exit from the film allows for Teorema to become a loose metaphor for artistic concepts in cinema.  In painting and other fine arts, negative space is the area in a work that is not the subject of the piece.  Narratively, Teorema is a film comprised of negative space.  Throughout the film, Pasolini gives us the start of an emotional or physical event, and then cuts away from the action to move onto the next person or place.  What Pasolini chooses to show is what other directors would prefer to cut out of the film.  Similarly, what Pasolini does not show would generally be the only scenes shown in another film.  Every sexual encounter in Teorema is cut short, and it must be assumed that any scene that could give a specific explanation for the nature of Terence Stamp's character has been excluded as well.  Though there are many questions, the film remains consistently interesting.  Negative space in Pasolini's film involves characters gong places together, but cutting away before they get to their destination – it's a film about transition.  Even on a visual level, the gaze of the camera is often high, giving an emphasis on the "headroom" of a composition – the negative space.  The sky, trees, and the mansion of a home that the factory boss and his family live in are just as important (in most cases, even more important on a visual level) than the characters in the frame.  
     Though the plot is not a concern in Teorema, the emphasis on inaction places the interiors of its characters at the forefront.  Plot is generally an external factor that moves a story along.  When there is no formal plot provided (other than the exit of a beautiful house guest), the audience becomes an observer of life.  The exteriors of the actors (body language, expression, etc) become our guide to the interior worlds that are are in a state of change and conflict.  Ennio Morricone's jazz soundtrack accents the internal nature of Teorema, as well as the abstract approach to narrative that Pasolini is implementing.  
     As Pasolini experiments with the parameters of narrative, the content of the film reflects his artistic search.  The son of the factory boss is a young artist who has Roy Lichtenstein-esque comic book prints on his wall, and a book compiling the work of Francis Bacon.  When Stamp's character leaves, the young man must try to find his voice as an artist.  He urinates on a canvas, splashes paint, plays with shadow, and finds what he is looking for.  This is a film that depicts life as art – the performative quality of finding one's self.  
     Through these artistic concepts, Pasolini's growth as an artist in the cinema is apparent.  In his previous film, Oedipus Rex, the prologue and epilogue had a similar structure to the approach to narrative used in Teorema.  Even before that, the passages of time in Mamma Roma and during the teachings of Christ in The Gospel According To St. Matthew demonstrate that this approach to plot and time has been within Pasolini's reach all along.  Teorema is a culmination of that approach to time that Pasolini had given us glimpses of before, and he doesn't falter in his delivery of that vision.

My rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 5: "Oedipus Rex" (1967)

     Pier Paolo Pasolini's first color film is an adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.  At the forefront of the conflict in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex (1967) (aka "Edipo Re") is a concern with fate and destiny – a subject that is already found within Pasolini's earlier films.  Accattone is destined to live the life of a pimp in Accattone (1961), Mamma Roma will always be a prostitute in Mamma Roma (1962), Jesus has to die for the sins of man in The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), and all things are destined to come to an end in The Hawks and The Sparrows (1966).  
     Rather than approaching Oedipus Rex as a literal adaptation, as Pasolini did with The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), Pasolini imbues his film with his own poetic sensibilities.  Starting with the birth of a baby in the early 1900s, this baby is nurtured and cared for by his young and beautiful mother (Silvana Mangano).  The life that she has outside of the child is a source of frustration for the baby though.  Whether he's left on a blanket in the park while his mother spends time with other women, or is left at home alone while she spends time with her husband, the baby is jealous.  That jealousy goes the other way as well though as the husband feels that his son is taking away from some of the love that he once received from his wife.    As the husband grabs his infant son's ankles, we cut to the deserts of Morocco over two thousand years ago.  An infant is tied by his feet and hands to a pole that is being carried by a man – an image comparable to the preceding image of the father grabbing his son by the ankles.  Eventually, the man stops and leaves the baby on the ground, hands still tied, to die.  A local shepherd witnesses this and can hear the baby crying, so he goes to retrieve the child and brings the baby to the king of Corinth.  The King and Queen of Corinth adopt the baby, naming him Oedipus, and raise him as if he was their own.  Nearly two decades later, Oedipus (Franco Citti) is now a man, and he remains oblivious of his adoption.  When he visits a priest at Apollo's shrine in Delphi to discover the meaning of a dream he had, Oedipus is told that it is his fate to kill his father and make love with his mother.  At first, Oedipus believes this is a joke, but then he realizes that the priest has not said this in jest.  Ashamed and fearful that he will return home and do as the priest said, Oedipus wanders the desert in a journey filled with violence and sex that will lead him to fulfilling the priest's prophecy.
     Even though Oedipus Rex is a period piece, Franco Citti doesn't let it get in the way of his performance as Oedipus.  Transitioning from boyish charm to terrified disbelief, Citti does more than carry the film – he humanizes the larger than life story.  Even when he's fighting the guards that protect the King of Thebes' carriage, Citti manages to make his physical struggle to outrun the soldiers and then turn back to kill each one of them believable.  On the other end of the spectrum is Silvana Mangano who expresses a great deal through subtlety.  In both her portrayal of the mother in the 1900s and the Queen of Thebes.  On a casting level alone, Pasolini's decision to have her play two roles expresses the characters' thematic connection.  If the jump back two thousand years wasn't enough, Mangano's dual roles adds to some of the more toned-down surreal qualities in Pasolini's Oedipus Rex.
     Three years prior to this film, Michelangelo Antonioni made his color directorial debut, Red Desert (1964), and the next year Fellini made his, Juliet of The Spirits (1965).  Antonioni, a director known for the cinematography in his films, uses shades of grey with occasional pops of color (like Monica Vitti's red hair) to great effect.  Fellini was well-established as a showman, so the addition of color was a natural compliment to his theatrical tendencies.  On the other hand, color for Pasolini allows for him to show the truth about people and places.  Shot in rich Technicolor by Giuseppe Ruzzolini, the use of color in Oedipus Rex allows for the costumes by Danilo Donati and production design by Luigi Scaccionoce to really stand out against the barren landscape that the bulk of the film takes place around.  Their costumes and set design is unique, but Pasolini's camera treats them as a part of the environment – nothing more, nothing less.  Handheld cinematography is prevalent throughout the course if the film.  In The Gospel According To St. Matthew, there were some handheld moments, but nothing on this level.  With Oedipus Rex being a period piece shot in color, the handheld camerawork takes away from the cinematic qualities associated with films that would generally be classified as sword and sandal epics.  By undermining the conventional form of such films, he is able to remain true to his own stylistic sensibilities
     Beyond the cinematography, the soundscapes in the film are grounded in reality as well.  During the opening credits, the sound of cicadas screeching on a hot summer day is the only thing heard.  For most of the prologue of the film set in the 1900s, there's no dialogue.  Again, as Oedipus wanders the desert on his own, there's little-to-no dialogue.  This film could've been fairly quiet, with a realistic sound design to compliment the handheld aesthetic of portions of the film.  However, Pasolini utilizes a vibrant soundtrack that emphasizes the atmosphere and emotions of the characters while they struggle with their own interior battles.  Perhaps the most striking piece of music in Oedipus Rex is from another film: Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (1957).  The low beating of the drums and the haunting airy tone of the flute accent the moment that Oedipus discovers his fate from the priest at Apollo's shrine.  
     Oedipus Rex is an enigmatic film that defies the source material by jumping through time.  All at once, Pasolini's adaptation is filled with theatricality, realism, and surrealism.  Ambiguity in the prologue and epilogue negate any of the constraints to the source material that Pasolini (or the viewers) feel.  Pasolini is not bound to the story, or to time for that matter.  Of course Pasolini is able to bring out the realism in his adaptation, but his poetic approach to that realism is what makes his film of Oedipus Rex a remarkable film.  Repetition, metaphor, allusion, and simile are all actively being used in a visual and aural sense, making Pasolini's film a fresh and original take on a classic tragedy.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Monday, October 26, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 4: "The Hawks and The Sparrows" (1966).

     With a stylistic and tonal departure from his first three films, Pier Paolo Pasolini's fourth feature film, The Hawks and The Sparrows (1966), was a pleasant surprise for the fourth day of my twelve-day Pasolini marathon.  Unlike the first three Pasolini films (or most of the others), this film is a light-hearted (yet thoughtful) comedy that blends slapstick with surrealism.  The Hawks and The Sparrows is almost a precursor of sorts to the kind of work that Luis Buñuel was about to start doing while in France, while it is clearly aware of the cinema that came before it as well.  "I think the new element is that I tried to make it more cinema," starts Pier Paolo Pasolini in his interview with Oswald Stack.  "There are almost no references to the figurative arts, and many more explicit references to other films."
     From the first second of of The Hawks and The Sparrows, it is clear that this is not an ordinary Pasolini film.  Wispy clouds pass in front of the moon, and the opening credits immediately begin over that image.  The music (composed by Ennio Morricone) is upbeat, almost like the music during the opening credits of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Eclisse (1962), but then a voice starts singing the credits.  These aren't ordinary credits either as commentary about each member of the cast and crew is sung along with their name: "Producer risking his position: Alfredo Bini" and "Director risking his reputation: Pier Paolo Pasolini" are just a few.  The film is a road movie without a car as a father (Toto) and son (Ninetto Davoli) walk along empty stretches of highway alone.  As in a traditional road movie, they encounter strange people and places during their journey.  One of their first stops is at a bar across from a bus stop with a group of handsome young men dancing in-synch with one another, which is highly reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard's Bande à part (1964).  When the bus passes the bus stop without stopping, the father and son continue their journey on foot.  Suddenly, they hear a voice calling for them and find that the source of that voice is a leftist intellectual raven.  The bird tags along with the father and son, and tells them a story of two monks who were sent out by Saint Francis to convert the hawks and the sparrows to Christianity.  In this story, Toto and Davoli play the two monks and attempt to teach birds about the love of Jesus Christ.  It's all at once absurd, but completely engrossing.
     One of the most delightful aspects of this film is that anything can happen at any moment.  People can break out into song and dance, characters can get thrown through the air like a rag doll, animals can speak, and yet none of it feels out of place.  Pasolini has created a film where the rules of reality do not apply, and he creates this world through filmic techniques.  By shooting film at slower frame rates, characters can look like they're running twice the normal speed; by dubbing in the sounds of birds, Toto can suddenly speak like a hawk; and by using subtitles a visual device, we can understand what birds are saying to one another.  
     Three years after the release of The Hawks and The Sparrows, Luis Buñuel made a road movie entitled The Milky Way (1969) which is quite similar to Pasolini's film.  In Buñuel's film, two travelers are going along The Milky Way (the Way of St. James) as part of a Catholic pilgrimage, and along the way they see a myriad of atrocities committed by Christians throughout time.  Though the conclusions of both The Hawks and The Sparrows and The Milky Way are not identical, they both involve the two men being seduced by a beautiful young woman.  Beyond The Milky Way, the final shot of The Hawks and The Sparrows is reminiscent of the final shot of Buñuel's masterpiece, The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie (1972).  It could just be coincidence (particularly in the case of The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie), but Pasolini tapped into a style that feels well-ahead of its time with Lynchian humor more than a decade before Eraserhead (1977).

My rating: 4/5

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 3: "The Gospel According To St. Matthew" (1964)

    For the third day of "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema", I had the pleasure of revisiting Pier Paolo Pasolini's third feature film, The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964).  Standing next to Pasolini's first two feature films, The Gospel is on a considerably larger scale as Pasolini adapts the book of Matthew into a film that follows the scriptures with an unmatched level of exactitude.  Though it may seem like a departure from Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962) on the surface, The Gospel is in fact a natural follow up to both films.  
    Accattone and Mamma Roma both follow the lives of pimps and prostitutes in the then-contemporary world, and the one man who would've loved them and invited them into his kingdom is Jesus.  It's plain and simple, but throughout The Gospel According To St. Matthew, Jesus heals the sick, condemns the wealthy, celebrates children, and places the lives of those who were deemed to be degenerates as valued citizens.  Jesus is a man inciting a revolution against corruption and hatred, with the core of his message being love.  
     Pasolini's cinema places Pasolini himself in a Christ-like position as he chooses to elevate the concerns and struggles of the poor and sinful.  In the same way that Jesus became a martyr for his cause, so did Pasolini when he was murdered because of the nature of his art.  Sure, Pasolini could not have known that he was going to be killed (unlike the Christ, who knew that he was fulfilling prophesy), but this film takes on a prophetic quality in Pasolini's life as it makes his honest sincerity toward the people he chose to make films about apparent within the context of a film that tells of a man who died for treating those very people as equals.  Though Pasolini did not rise again on the third day, his art still lives on.

Last year, I wrote a piece concerning the nature of Pasolini's adaptation of the book of Matthew which can be found here:  http://filmreviewrealm.blogspot.com/2014/04/a-faithful-adaptation-pasolinis-gospel.html

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 2: "Mamma Roma" (1962)

     Continuing the twelve-day Pier Paolo Pasolini exploration on October 23rd, Pasolini's second feature film, Mamma Roma (1962), was the target for the day.  Just over two years ago, I saw Mamma Roma for the first time, and I was impressed by the pace and direction of the film, but it couldn't compare to Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which I had seen a few months before.  One of my core motivations for making this twelve-day journey through Pasolini's work was to allow myself a chance to see and experience a progression in theme and style from the beginning of his directorial career to the end.  Having seen Pasolini's debut film, Accattone (1961), the night before, I was able to better appreciate Mamma Roma for what it is: a film about people who can't escape their past.  Compared to Accattone, Mamma Roma is much less messy and confrontational, but it still has its own degrees of filth and depravity (my favorite being a fly that enters the opening credits and walks over one of the title cards).
     At the heart of Mamma Roma is its titular figure, a former-prostitute (Anna Magnani) who has earned her freedom after sixteen years of being pimped by Carmine (Franco Citti).  Now that Mamma Roma is no longer obligated to walk the streets, she hopes to become a real mother to her teenage son, Ettore (Ettore Garofolo).  Though they hardly know one another, Mamma Roma immediately takes on the role of protective mother – encouraging Ettore to make friends who go to class and study hard, and even planning to move to a nice part of Rome so that Ettore will have everything he needs to become an exceptional young man.  Though this is all feasible for them, the first obstruction to this dream-life that Mamma Roma is hoping to transform into a reality is her past.  Carmine's arrival at her apartment (only days after she was freed from his control), sends her back to the streets for ten more days so that she obtain enough money to get rid of Carmine forever.  During all of this, Ettore is oblivious to his mom's history as a prostitute, and she hopes to keep it that way.  
     One of the most brilliant aspects of Mamma Roma is the way in which time passes.  Pasolini plays with both narrative form and filmic devices to emphasize emotion.  During Carmine's wedding in the opening scene of the film, everyone is seated at a long table with the bride and groom in the center (a composition that alludes to Leonardo da Vinci's painting The Last Supper).  As time passes, Pasolini holds the wide shot composition and dissolves to the exact same composition to suggest that several minutes have passed by.  In this wedding scene, Pasolini's first use of slow-motion is observed as well when Mamma Roma picks up a little boy and spins him around in her arms.  This moment of slow-motion highlights Mamma Roma's maternal nature, but it's from Carmine's point of view after he says, "I bless you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  One pimp dies, and another is born."  One of the most significant jumps in time is when Mamma Roma is challenged by Carmine to return to prostitution for ten days, and Pasolini chooses to only show us her glorious return home on the tenth night.  The camera tracks with her in a five minute uninterrupted take as she shouts and laughs with anyone who will listen.  
     Visually, Mamma Roma is a film that feels more "cinematic" in comparison to Accattone.  Shot in widescreen, incorporating slow-motion, and using tracking and POV shots to great effect, Mamma Roma is a different kind of film than Accattone – regardless of their comparable outcomes.  Set around the same rugged landscapes that Accattone roams, the film Mamma Roma is just as much about Mamma Roma as it is about her son, Ettore.  Ettore, like Accattone, cannot escape the pressure to break the rules (even though he has a mother who will give and do anything for him).  Perhaps much of Ettore's struggle is rooted in his mother's walk though.  She can talk the talk of being a good mother, but she doesn't always walk the walk.  Arranging for Ettore to have a night with one of her beautiful prostitute friends so that he'll stop sleeping with a girl that she doesn't approve of is all at once shocking, but totally comedic.  She is a masterful manipulator, and her own nature to break the rules allows for her to bend the rules in her favor.  This narrative divide between Ettore and Mamma Roma is one of the more problematic aspects of the film as it begins to lose a sense of direction.  Much like Accattone, it's exciting to know that anything can happen, but much of Accattone's strength comes from its more narrow focus on a singular character's struggle.
     Like Barbara Stanwyck in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), or more recently, Anne Dorval in Xavier Dolan's Mommy (2014), Mamma Roma is a flawed mother who does everything in her power to be the best example for her growing son, but she struggles.  Much of the blame can't be put on Mamma Roma, as her son was going to act out anyway, but she takes the blame as a good mother should.  

My rating: 4/5

Friday, October 23, 2015

Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema - Day 1: "Accattone" (1961)

     Yesterday (October 22, 2015) was the first day of my twelve-day exploration of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's work as we approach the fortieth anniversary of his death on November 2, 1975.  Starting with his directorial debut, Accattone (1961), it is clear that Pasolini entered the cinema with a fully developed understanding of what kind of people he was going to tell stories about and how he was going to approach those stories.
     From the stark opening credits set to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion (a subject that Pasolini would eventually visit), it is evident that this film is a tragedy.  Accattone chronicles the final days of Vittorio (Franco Citti), a man who goes by the name Accattone so that he can feel like he's different.  "There are many Vittorios, but there's only one Accattone," he declares with pride.  In reality, Accattone is a man who has his girlfriend do all the work while he takes the reward: he's a pimp.  Every night, Accattone's girlfriend walks the streets to earn money for them and the single mother that Accattone took into their home.  Though his heart is often in the right place, he lives outside of his means, and when his girlfriend is sent to jail for misidentifying the group of men who beat her and left her for dead, Accattone begins to struggle.  Stubbornly, he refuses to work, choosing instead to sell his gold chains and bracelets to sustain himself.  One of the members of Accattone's circle of friends is a prophetic figure who Pasolini uses to great effect to convey to the audience the direction that the film is about to take.  "Hear what the prophet says," he begins.  "Today you sell the ring, tomorrow the chain, in seven days the watch, and in seventy-seven days you won't have even your eyes to weep with."  The screen fades to black, and life continues – as does suffering.  
     Accattone, above all, is a film driven by authenticity.  The locations used in the film lend a level of realism that could never be created in a studio.  Trash blows through the wind, dust covers everything it touches, and rubble lines the outskirts of town – the remains of a post-war society.  Though Accattone knows this place as home, it has been largely neglected.  Rugged landscapes with overgrown grass populate this film more naturally than the people who struggle to survive in it, and yet it's a real place.
     Beyond locations, Franco Citti's performance is so raw and intense, that as he violently resists captivity by the police, or rolls around in the dirt fighting his wife's new boyfriend, or simply walks down the street with a look of defeat, it feels real.  Citti brings Accattone to life, and both his joy and suffering are completely palpable.  In Accattone, those who aren't struggling in life, are not making an honest living (even then, in Pasolini's world, everyone has suffered).  When honest work is depicted, it's difficult and strenuous – the exact reason that Accattone doesn't want to work.  Though Pasolini chooses to focus more on pimping and stealing throughout Accattone, that's merely because that is the profession of his characters and his protagonist's core desire.  The use of Bach's BWV 244 elevates the plight of these characters and makes their place in a real-world tragedy more apparent while avoiding cliché with ease.  
     Near the end of the film, Accattone has a nightmare where he sees his own funeral and is no longer a unique individual named "Accattone", but is instead just known as "Vittorio" by all of his friends.  Pasolini never shows Accattone wake up from this nightmare, but the tragic conclusion of the film that follows this nightmare is definitely not just a dream.  Accattone's reality has become an actual nightmare as he struggles to stay true to himself.  
     Accattone masterfully depicts suffering and poverty without sentimentality – rather, the tragic elements are depicted as artful realism.  Yes, Pasolini's film is a work of fiction, but it comes from an authentic place and culture that the audience knows will continue to exist even after the film ends.  Pasolini gives us a rich and complex world where people know one another and emotions change on a moment-to-moment basis.  Anything can happen in Accattone, and that's part of the film's beauty.

My rating: 5/5

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Event: "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema"

     On the 2nd of November in 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered before the premiere of his film Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (his final film).  During his life, Pasolini made 12 feature films (excluding documentaries, short films, and his contributions to omnibus films), and his impact upon cinema is still felt forty years later.  Starting on October 22nd, I will be watching one film by Pier Paolo Pasolini every night until November 2nd (the 40th anniversary of Pasolini becoming a martyr for cinema) in an event that I'm calling "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema".  
     Through this event, I am hoping to gain a greater understanding of Pasolini's work, its context within the history of cinema, and will be celebrating the life of a great artist whose work is still relevant and challenging today.  Further, I encourage others to embark upon this journey through Pasolini's films as well.  
     Here is a poster that I created outlining the mission and schedule for "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema":

"Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema"

Accattone: 10/22
Mamma Roma: 10/23
The Gospel According To St. Matthew: 10/24
The Hawks and The Sparrows: 10/25
Oedipus Rex: 10/26
Teorema: 10/27
Porcile: 10/28
Medea: 10/29
The Decameron: 10/30
The Canterbury Tales: 10/31
Arabian Nights: 11/1
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom: 11/2

Monday, October 5, 2015

Film Review: Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario" (2015) 3/5

     Sicario, on the surface, is about an FBI operative named Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) who is assigned to work with the Department of Defense to aid in finding the cartel leader responsible for a series of atrocities along the border.  However, Sicario is a film all about what's under the surface – or at least it wants to be.  People are never who they claim they are, places have dual functions, and morality is less a reality than it is a fantasy.  All of those elements are staples of the political crime/thriller genre, and yet in the context of this film they feel like paper-thin genre constructs that are forced into the film rather than catered to the script.  
     Using a fictional premise to examine a very real problem with cartels and the ways in which cartels are dealt with along the United States' border with Mexico, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan manage to create some tense moments but struggle to maintain that tension over the course of the whole film.  Opening in Arizona, Kate Macer and an FBI SWAT team raid a home in a hostage rescue mission.  When they arrive, everything goes as planned but there are no hostages to be found.  It's just an empty house.  However, upon further inspection of a wall that took a hit from a shotgun, there's something wrapped in plastic in the wall that has been exposed.  The natural first impression is that they've uncovered a hidden drug stash, but when the wall is pulled back by Macer and her partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya), it is revealed that cadavers wrapped in plastic are inside the walls of this home.  This is one of the first examples of something being more than what meets the eye.  Upon returning back to headquarters, Kate Macer is assigned to join the cocky and ever-charming Department of Defense adviser Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to investigate the cartel's actions in El Paso.  A cloud of impenetrable secrecy hovers over this assignment, and it is not until Macer boards the plane to El Paso that she discovers from Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) that they'll be crossing the Mexican border.  At this moment, she begins to realize that she is stepping into a situation that goes far deeper than she initially anticipated.
     Depicted in arial shots looking down at the Texas terrain, her flight to El Paso gains a scenic quality as the landscape and scale of the territory that the bulk of the film takes place around is put on display.  Once in El Paso, the plan to transport a cartel leader (who is being held captive in Juarez, Mexico) over the border to be interrogated is hashed out.  There's a hesitation on Kate Macer's part to be involved with this assignment, but she complies with her orders and joins Alejandro and Matt in an SUV caravan.  Similar to the arial shots of traffic in Tokyo in Gaspar Noé's Enter The Void (2009), we return to an arial shot that provides a God-like view of a caravan of black SUVs as they glide through the US border checkpoints en route to Juarez.  In Sicario, crossing the border into Mexico is established as the easiest part of this mission – coming back alive is the hard part.  As a result of seeing the SUVs enter Mexico from above, it truly does look simple.  From several hundred feet in the air, there is no conflict.  Unfortunately, these arial shots become a visual motif as the film progresses, and many of them are so patient that the film loses its sense of rhythm even as the stakes begin to inch higher.  The distance from the events below in later scenes is a disservice to any suspense that could've been created or maintained.  
     Beyond technicalities, the greatest weakness in this film is its character development.  Unlike the mission and the motives of Matt and Alejandro, which remains a marginal mystery through much of the film, the characters remain predictable and unchanged by the end.  It may be closer to reality that no one goes through a dramatic metamorphosis, but the source of much of the character development issues is that there is too much of an emphasis given to inconsequential characters.  Almost taking on the structure of Steven Soderbergh's Traffic (2000) at times, by the end of the film the only reason Kate Macer remains the protagonist is because it was through her experience that we've seen this story at all.  Alejandro, Kate, Reggie, and Matt all fight for screen time and we hardly get to meet any of them.  Backstory, as told through exposition, becomes our only attachment to these shells of people.  Perhaps the most troubling thread of this film's narrative is a failed attempt to make the audience feel sympathy for a police officer who is also fighting for screen time with our four central characters.  It's established that he has a wife and a son, but it's all a distraction to the plot that ends up slowing things down. Had his time on screen been redistributed to Kate or Alejandro, perhaps we could feel real sympathy for either of them by the film's conclusion.
     In theory, Sicario has a lot of potential to be a suspenseful film with internal and external conflict that is palpable, but much of that is never fully realized.  At times the film gets lost in shots of the Sun setting, knives drawn against the night sky, or arial shots of Mexico – a likely attempt to create an atmosphere of dread that is attached to a geographic location.  What if that atmosphere had been directed toward the characters that the film is about (or the violence enacted by and against those characters)?  Sure, Sicario is not perfect, but when it's working, it's truly exciting and involving – but that's not often enough.

My rating: 3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3397884/