Daily Archives: September 24, 2013

Exhibitors abandon films not in English?

I thought about going to see a film in Leeds later this week. I generally prefer British independents or subtitled films but I like to have a choice. When I looked through the cinema listings for Leeds I discovered that every single film on offer was in English – and virtually every one was a mainstream American or British film. Leeds is a major city. It has suffered from the lack of a specialised cinema such as those that once formed part of the BFI’s Regional Film Theatre network. The council still own the 1914 Hyde Park Cinema which often has excellent programmes (as attested by many of Keith’s posts) but with only a single screen it is sometimes dominated, as in this week, by a film like Rush. The Vue in the city centre usually has something different on offer such as a British independent or a Hindi film, but not this week.

Leeds has been promised an art cinema/specialised cinema for some time and at one point it looked as though a City Screen might open but it didn’t. Then earlier this year Everyman opened a three screen cinema in the new Trinity shopping centre. As expected, it is an expensive cinema (i.e. for the region at £11) but we did expect it to show some decent specialised films. The offer today is Diana, Rush, Insidious 2 and About Time. What a joke! The original Everyman in Hampstead was where I first saw most of the 1960s canon of art cinema. I weep when I think of what the name means now – stuffing your face with pizza watching Hollywood.

So with a population of 800,000 and something like 43 or more cinema seats, Leeds can’t offer a film in any other language than English tonight. The nearest sanity is in Bradford (The Great Beauty, Wadjda at the National Media Museum and several Hindi titles at Cineworld or the Odeon) or Sheffield for the Showroom. I read a comment somewhere in the last few weeks suggesting that subtitles are ‘difficult’ with the implication that cinemas find it hard to programme foreign language films. With this kind of attitude I seriously fear for the diversity of cinema in the UK.  No doubt we will return to this topic.

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza, Italy-France 2013)

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

Galatea Ranzi and Toni Servillo © DCM Filmverleih

During the first half of this film (that I knew had been a Cannes success earlier this year) I did wonder what I was going to get out of it – apart from a terrific soundtrack, production design and camerawork. At the end I was genuinely surprised that 140 minutes had passed. As I began to read about it I realised that I had taken in much more than I had been conscious of at the time. This is certainly highly intelligent and literate cinema focusing on a world I’ve never experienced, though as I’m roughly the same age as the central character I can understand his reactions to events whether they are dramatic, mundane or surreal. I’m still not sure whether I ‘enjoyed’ the film, but I was certainly engrossed by it.

This is the fifth film written and directed by the Neapolitan Paulo Sorrentino since 2001’s One Man Up. The two most successful and best known in the UK are The Consequences of Love (2004) and Il Divo (2008). The central character Jep Gambardella is played by Sorrentino regular Toni Servillo. Jep is a flâneur, a journalist who once wrote an acclaimed novel as a young man but who is now at 65 primarily a socialite who knows all the leading figures of Rome’s high society. As many commentators have suggested, The Great Beauty appears at first glance to draw on Fellini’s La dolce vita from 1960, especially given its mixture of parties and social events attended by the glitterati and religious leaders of Rome and located in beautiful gardens, palaces etc (as well as Jep’s own apartment by the Coliseum). But in the earlier film Marcello Mastroianni is a journalist in his thirties and Rome is a rejuvenated city enjoying the economic boom in post-war Italy. By contrast, Jep is 65 and his Rome appears defeated (if still beautiful, at least in its classical buildings). The Great Beauty is a film about death and regret – but it does end on a note that is both melancholy and potentially positive.

The Great Beauty is so stylish with its impeccable CinemaScope compositions and crane shots and its almost operatic use of music and staging that its layered narrative and snappy dialogue are easily lost in an aesthetic swoon. There is a distinct sense of loss and waste – quite literally in the characters who disappear. The film is so stuffed with literary references that without a great deal of background it isn’t possible to read the narrative fully. The film begins with what I think are the opening lines of Journey to the End of Night (1932) by Céline – a novel I don’t know and had to look up. Jep constantly refers to Flaubert and the concept of nothingness. As far as I can work out this nothingness is a condition both of his own life and of Rome itself. I recommend the article by Pasquale Iannone in Sight & Sound, October 2013 as helpful in trying to make sense of the film. Like Iannone, I was struck by several scenes which seemed indebted to Buñuel. Iannone refers to the animals in surreal settings but I also thought of the haute bourgeoisie ‘trapped’ in social situations at dinner, at parties etc. In the press notes Sorrentino discusses his collaboration with screenwriter Umberto Contarello and how he views Rome still as a superior kind of tourist attraction, even though he has made it his home. This idea is enunciated in Jep’s voiceover. Rome is indeed a city ‘eternal’ in its attractions and mysteries, seductive yet ’empty’. Sorrentino tells us that the film is in effect a paean to classical Italian cinema, its directors, stars and films. I don’t think I know that cinema well enough to comment but I did think, during the latter stages of the film, about an Italian director who was actually born in Rome (unlike Sorrentino or Fellini and Pasolini, both discussed by Sorrentino). Oddly, Roberto Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma (Italy 1960), although a completely different kind of film, does share some ingredients including the fading aristocracy and the power plays of the church.

I can appreciate that The Great Beauty would probably repay a second or even a third viewing. It also features a soundtrack that deserves further attention. The film seems to be doing reasonable business in the UK (nearly £500,000 after ten days). Perhaps the stir at Cannes in May has helped. Given the splendour of its sound and images I suspect that the Blu-ray may do well.