Trial on the Road (Proverka na dorogakh, USSR 1971/1985)

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The distant figure of Lazarev in German battledress stops a motorcycle and sidecar in an ambush.

The Leeds International Film Festival excelled itself with this tribute to director Aleksai German who died earlier this year aged 74. I didn’t do any research before the screening and I was completely blown away by some of the scenes as well as intrigued by the overall ideological discourse of this anti-war film set during the bitter fighting in the Western Soviet Empire in the winter of 1942/3. It was only after the screening that I realised that I did know about German (or Gherman/Guerman to distinguish the hard ‘G’). I’m fairly sure that I saw My Friend Ivan Lapshin in 1987 but I remember little about it except that I liked it very much. (The film is now regarded as one of the greatest Russian films.)

German was viewed with suspicion by the Soviet censors and it wasn’t until perestroĭka under Gorbachev that his films began to be seen in Russia or in the West. Trial on the Road was completed in 1971 but not released until 1985 (the date on the 35mm film print screened at the Hyde Park Cinema). The film is based on a story by German’s father Yuri, a legendary writer who wrote films for the director Grigori Kozintsev and acted as a war correspondent during 1940-5. He also wrote short stories and novels, one of which, Operation Happy New Year, became the basis of Trials on the Road. When the younger German began to show an interest in cinema he worked first under his father’s old colleague Kozintsev in the late 1950s. Find out much more about Aleksai German’s films from this interesting blog.

Trial on the Road (there are other English translations such as Checkpoint etc.) is a film about The Great Patriotic War and therefore in the 1970s expected to show the heroism of the Red Army. There is heroism in the film, but it’s complicated and there is realism and humanism to the fore. The ‘Eastern Front’ was the major theatre of the Second World War in Europe (or ‘Eurasia’). Many of the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states opted to or were forced to fight for the Nazis or the Red Army as they were occupied by one then the other. Others simply became refugees. Many must have changed sides to stay alive. It wasn’t clear to me where exactly this film was set but there are references to Estonia and to the railway line to Pskov – a town in Western Russia close to the borders with Estonia and Latvia.

Lazarev is a former Red Army soldier who defected to the Germans but now wants to change sides again and fight for the partisans behind the German lines. He surrenders to a group of partisans who might just be expected to shoot him as a traitor. (And this has been argued as one of the reasons that the film was not released under Brezhnev – it was seen as counter to the conduct of the war.) Instead the militia leader (or ‘Senior Citizen Lieutenant’ as the subtitles put it) Lokotkov decides that Lazarev could be useful in an audacious plan to steal a food train. Lokotkov also demonstrates a basic humanity. The ‘trial’ of the title refers to the various struggles within the partisan group over Lazarev and the plans for the train. Lazarev proves himself in an attack which captures a German military car. In doing so one of the other partisans is killed and the Red Army Major attached to the partisans tries to blame Lazarev for the death. But Lokotkov (the leading character in the film) gets his way and the plans are brought to fruition. The actor playing Lazarev, Vladimir Zamansky, is said to have been cast because he was not a celebrated actor or a recognisable face. He struck me as an enigmatic but attractive figure, often silent but with a face that could light up – the only flaw in the casting for me was the notion that he had been a taxi driver before the war (I probably have the wrong view of taxi drivers). The main point is that although he does perform ‘heroically’ in redeeming his earlier conduct in going over to the enemy, he can’t be the official ‘hero’ required by the censorship authorities under Brezhnev.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

Realism and humanism in war: Lokotkov the wise and thoughtful partisan leader stands up from bathing his feet to argue against the Red Army officer.

This is warfare of the most brutal kind carried out in an almost post-apocalyptic wasteland of snow-covered plains, ramshackle villages and sparse woods. German shot the film in black and white with three different cinematographers used for his complex tracking shots across the terrain. Two of the set piece scenes are among the best I’ve ever seen. In one German soldiers appear as wraiths out of the fog overwhelming a Russian lookout. I know that’s been done before but the handling of the scene is terrific. I won’t spoil the second example which was just stunning. The ending of the film celebrates the advance of the Red Army into Germany, but again the director avoids the triumphal and the super-heroism decreed by Soviet socialist realism. Instead he hones in on comradeship and a meeting of the principals from the food train hijack.

This is a must see. I discovered that a free download at reasonable quality is on the Internet Archive website (with links to an English subtitle file. None of German’s films is easily available on DVD outside Russia yet his high status as a filmmaker is not in doubt. If anyone else is brave enough to screen this in a cinema near you, drop everything and go.

Metro Manila (Philippines/UK 2013)

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, jake, Robin Foster

(From left) Andy Willis, Sean Ellis, Jake Macapagal, Robin Foster

Cinema 2 in Cornerhouse Manchester was the intimate venue for a preview of Metro Manila with support from BAFTA North. The screening attracted an enthusiastic audience including members of the local Filipino community and afterwards Andy Willis, Reader in Film Studies at Salford University, hosted a Q&A with writer-director Sean Ellis, lead actor Jake Macapagal and music composer Robin Foster.

The script for Metro Manila was written by Sean Ellis and Frank E. Flowers in English and then translated into Tagalog more or less as it was shot. The story was developed from an incident witnessed by Ellis during his first visit to Manila. The cast was recruited locally, led by Jake Macapagal, a local theatre actor. Sean Ellis, who has a background first as a photographer and then as an award-winning shorts director (this is his third feature), shot the film himself. Its first appearance was at Sundance in January 2013 where it won the Audience Award. Since then it has played in France and Belgium. It opens in the UK on September 20th and then has a wide release in the Philippines in October. Sean Ellis suggested that his film “slides from world cinema into a genre thriller”. I was troubled by this statement as ‘world cinema’ still seems like a spurious term – more on this below.

The story is universal and Ellis agreed with an audience comment that it could have been set anywhere. The treatment however places it firmly in Manila. Oscar and Mai and their two small children are forced to leave rural Philippines when the price they receive for the rice they have grown drops dramatically. They travel to the capital in the hope of finding work and they are ripped off like every ‘country’ couple who don’t have friends or family to help them. Mai is forced to take a job in a sleazy bar and Oscar eventually finds employment as a security guard when a recruiter realises that this applicant has served time on military service. Everything seems to be going well at this point – but perhaps too well? Against his will, Oscar finds himself in a dangerous situation with little room for manoeuvre. The final third of the film leads us into familiar crime thriller territory, but there is a further plot twist which returns attention to the social question about rural poverty and the terrors of the big city.

I should say straightaway that the film, as a production, is a remarkable achievement. Language was clearly a key issue. Ellis doesn’t speak Tagalog and the kind of language used in commercial Filipino film and television did not seem appropriate (it’s a conventional language used for popular film and television melodramas). Jake Macapagal explained that the cast tried to use the street language of Manila as seemed appropriate in translating the script. I found this fascinating as Ellis explained that the film was edited for the subtitling – in other words, shots would be chosen with start and end points in the edit, not for the flow of the scene, but because of the time needed to screen the subtitles. Of course, for a predominantly English audience the film looked fine. The Filipino audience members said that they could follow both dialogue and titles. The camerawork, performance and music all worked well and the story is gripping all the way through. My only hesitancy was over the narrative resolution (which I won’t spoil). I find the concept of ‘world cinema’ to ‘crime thriller’ problematic. It’s ‘world cinema’ I don’t like and what it implies (a film intended to be seen mainly in international festivals and art cinemas). I would prefer the film to have a consistent style and it was the case that as the thriller narrative developed we lost some of the sense of ‘experiencing’ the city that came over so strongly in the opening scenes.

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for

Oscar (in the background) works as back-up for Ong (John Arcilla)

The response to Metro Manila so far has, not surprisingly, made comparisons with the other two titles involving young British directors making independent features outside the UK in challenging locations. Gareth Evans’ Indonesian-set The Raid (2011) and Gareth Edwards’ Mexico-set Monsters (2010) are both more clearly identifiable as genre pictures. I haven’t seen The Raid but the reports I have read suggest that it is possibly more ‘rooted’ in Indonesian popular culture than Monsters with its American couple in Mexico. It’s sad that Rebelle (War Witch, Canada 2011) another film by a Western/’Northern’ filmmaker, this time set in Africa, hasn’t been released in the UK. Watching it in the same Cornerhouse screen last year as part of the ‘French Connection’ season, it struck me as completely successful and arguably melding what Ellis refers to as ‘world cinema’ and the thriller. I guess the central question about Metro Manila is whether the thriller elements interfere in any way with the sense of authenticity that the realist street approach achieves in the first third of the film.

I confess to relatively little knowledge of Filipino culture and I wish I knew more. In particular, I wish I knew more about the ‘creolisation’ of local culture following Spanish colonialism and then American economic colonialism. In the opening scenes of Metro Manila (see the trailer below) the rice paddies farmed by Oscar and Mia are located in a landscape that reminded me of scenes from Latin-American films – an effect reinforced by the gaudily decorated truck that took them to Manila. In the Q&A we learned that the ‘street version’ of Tagalog includes both Spanish and English words and the film includes several important references to Catholicism that I’d like to know more about in its Filipino setting.

I’ve suggested a couple of possible reservations about the film but I want to recommend the film strongly. I plan to watch it again soon and I’ll be paying more attention to the camerawork and to the narrative structure – I realised during the final sequences that the structure is quite complex with a voiceover and flashbacks that I didn’t fully work out.

Thanks to Rachel Hayward, Andy Willis and his guests and all the Cornerhouse staff who put on this excellent session.

Here’s the French trailer (there isn’t any dialogue in it) which represents the film well:

Thérèse Desqueyroux (France 2012)

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Therese and Bernard in the forest.

Claude Miller died soon after completing this his 15th feature film. It was a distinguished career which included a period when he was production manager for first Jean-Luc Godard and then, for some time, François Truffaut. (See this obituary for more background.) Two films from him as writer-director that I remember enjoying are Un secret (2007) and Betty Fisher and Other Stories (2001). The first of these drew on Miller’s own background, born into a non-religious Jewish family, and the second was an adaptation of a Ruth Rendell novel with Sandrine Kiberlaine as the central female character under pressure. Both the anti-semitism of French society in the twentieth century and the pressure on a young woman feature in Thérèse Desqueyroux, an adaptation of a 1927 novel by François Mauriac, previously adapted for a film by Georges Franju in 1962. Mauriac is a canonical figure in French literature and won the Nobel prize in 1952. His granddaughter Anne Wiazemsky was an actor in the 1960s and 1970s and later a novelist. She married Jean-Luc Godard and appeared in several of his films.

I haven’t read the novel or seen the earlier adaptation (in which Emanuelle Riva takes the central role) so I’m not able to make comparisons, but I would certainly be interested in seeing the Franju film. The lead in Miller’s film is taken by Audrey Tautou and that was one of the attractions for me. It was interesting to see Ms Tautou in a role that challenges audience assumptions about her star persona (cf her role in Delicacy (2011). The story is set in a very distinctive location – the Landes pine forests of Aquitaine, south-west of Bordeaux – in the 1920s. Thérèse is introduced as a teenager playing idyllic games with her friend Anne. Both girls come from local families which own large acreages of the forest, making a good income from wood and resin collection. But whereas Thérèse is the daughter of a radical and thinks for herself, Anne is more conventional – though her obvious enjoyment of hunting might be read in different ways. The surprise is that six or seven years later Thérèse agrees to marry Anne’s brother Bernard – like his sister highly conventional in his attitudes towards love, marriage, family and status. The mystery is why Thérèse allows herself to fall into this trap and her first test is how she will respond when her sister-in-law has a romantic affair with the handsome son of another local family. Bernard decrees that the affair is unsuitable and that the family’s good name is being besmirched. The young man clearly has Jewish blood – Thérèse refers to his family as ‘Portuguese’.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

Thérèse shells almonds in the dark house – her calm in contrast with the rising sense of disturbance in the household.

The National Media Museum programme guide described the film as a costume melodrama which led to certain expectations and I want to explore what ‘melodrama’ might mean in these circumstances. Thérèse as the central character is certainly a potential melodrama figure – in particular as the woman ‘in peril’ in the suffocating embrace of Bernard’s family. I think that there is a case for relating this to the ‘woman’s film’ scenario. On the other hand, there is no female best friend to confide in (the relationship with Anne changes) or much of a possibility of a ‘positive’ romance to pursue. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for scenes of ‘suffering’ as an intelligent and curious woman is expected to ‘behave responsibly’. Melodramas are usually concerned with emotions that are repressed or suppressed – and which then ‘return’ or are ‘released’ through an excess of music, colour, cinematography, mise en scène etc. In this case, there is a certain austerity about the mise en scène and the music, although often there, seemed unobtrusive (mostly classical piano pieces) to me. However, the dark house in the forest is clearly Gothic and when Thérèse meets Anne’s lover it is, of course, by the sea. The internal/external world is also represented through a series of sequences which might represent Thérèse’s thoughts, dreams or nightmares.

I won’t spoil the narrative but I will reveal that the resolution is not perhaps what we might expect after Therese is driven to fairly desperate measures and if you have seen the marvellous earlier film with Audrey Tautou, À la folie . . . pas du tout (2002), you might see a resemblance in the final shots of the two films. The hint of Hitchcock is also shared by the two films. I suppose I’m suggesting here that there is an element of film noir in this melodrama. I was intrigued to discover that Claude Miller decided not to follow the flashback structure of the book but instead to tell the story in a linear narrative – which actually makes the story more mysterious (and alters the portrayal of the husband).

When I came out of the film I wasn’t sure if I had ‘enjoyed’ it, but I’ve been thinking about it since and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is a form of melodrama and that Claude Miller demonstrated great skill in his last film. All the performances are good and Ms Tautou has successfully extended her range. As Bernard, Gilles Lelouche also acts against his established character type (he usually plays comedic roles) and he also succeeds. I’m not sure that the film got the promotional push it needed on its UK release so you might struggle to find it but during a summer of tedious blockbusters this is an intelligent gem and I hope that I’ve intrigued you enough to want to see it.

The film’s Press Book is here (in French and in English).

Here is the Australian trailer (it reveals something about the plot that I have largely concealed):

Rossellini #1: An Introduction to Roberto Rossellini (1906-1977)

Ingrid Bergman with Roberto Rossellini during the filming of Europa ’51. Rome, 1951 (AP Photo / Walter Attenni) from http://www.ilpost.it/2013/02/01/foto-darchivio-12/italy-rome-roberto-rossellini-and-ingrid-bergman/

The British Film Institute has just released a digital restored print of Roberto Rossellini’s important film Viaggio in Italia (Italy 1953). I’m preparing an introduction to the film and I realised that there is nothing on the blog directly about Rossellini, one of the most important directors in the history of global film. I’ve dug out some notes that I compiled for an earlier event in 2006 at the time of Rossellini’s centenary and I’ve updated them slightly.

Introduction: Rossellini and the ‘problem’ of Fascism and ‘neo-realism’

Any presentation of the work of Roberto Rossellini has to deal with a central issue in fi lm studies and more generally in cultural history. In most popular histories of the cinema, Rossellini is associated with the influential film movement known as ‘Italian neo-realism’. In particular, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City), produced in 1945 has been hailed as the first ‘neo-realist’ film. That position was later challenged by scholars who made claims for Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession) made in 1943. But by the 1970s and the development of film studies, scholars began to re-assess their ideas about Italian cinema and to recognise that the roots of neo-realism were to be found in the early 1930s cinema of Jean Renoir in France and in the Fascist Cinema of Italy in the late 1930s. But the re-appraisal of Italian Cinema faced two problems. On a pragmatic level, most of the Italian films of the later Fascist period are difficult to see (certainly in the UK and US). Secondly, what Hay (1987) refers to as the “almost sacred trinity” of neo-realist ‘auteurs’, Rossellini, Visconti and Vittorio de Sica, had all been involved in the Fascist industry and it was difficult for them personally and for their supporters to re-assess their relationships with the Fascist state of the 1930s. De Sica did cover this period in his 1970 film The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and Federico Fellini (a boy in the 1930s) famously gave his view of the period in Amarcord (1973). But Rossellini, who became part of the Fascist film industry in 1936 did not look back to the period. Indeed, one feature of the late 1940s discussion of neorealism’ was the rejection of Fascist cinema as ‘worthless’.

Fascist Italy and the cinema

Roberto Rossellini was the son of a successful architect in Rome and he was 19 when Benito Mussolini assumed full dictatorial powers over Italy in 1925. On 27 April 1937, Mussolini inaugurated the new film studios of Cinecittà in Rome and the establishment of Centro Sperimentale – an élite film school. Both these innovations survived the Second World War and became part of a successful postwar Italian Cinema. Rossellini stumbled into the industry when he needed to earn money – having spent his family’s money on a playboy lifestyle. He counted as friends at this time not only Mussolini’s son Vittorio, but also future leading figures in the Italian Communist party. Through his connections he was able to get work as a sound technician, an editor and eventually as a scriptwriter. The three films Rossellini made during the war, La Nave Bianca (about a hospital ship), Un pilota returna (a pilot escapes from a prison camp) and L’Uomo della croce (an army chaplain on the Russian front) are all ‘propaganda films’ presenting heroic images of individuals in wartime. To some extent, they sound like British propaganda films of the time. Guarner (1970: 11) suggests that:

“. . . if they are considered apart from their set purpose as films, they reveal a personality distinct from other Italian films of the time . . . they do show sufficient respect for reality, care for objective mise en scène and perceptiveness over detail to raise them above the other Fascist films of the period.”

Guarner was writing at the height of the ‘authorship’ phase of film studies and he possibly overemphasises the ‘personal’ approach of Rossellini. What is more likely is that Rossellini learned from other filmmakers who had also developed some ‘realist’ techniques.

Rossellini and ‘neo-realism’

The roots of neo-realism are now seen to be in the 1930s, but there is no doubt that, in 1945, Rossellini’s film Roma città aperta caused a sensation in cinemas not only in Italy but also in the US and the UK, where it arrived in 1947. Film Review in the UK, a popular film annual, greeted the film with the following tribute:

. . . one of the most completely damning , moving and altogether inspiring anti-Nazi films ever made . . . tremendously effective both as entertainment; by turns exciting, amusing and terrifying . . . varyingly photographed, technically inferior [Open City] was always beautifully acted. Direction was assured, witty and full of brilliance; inspired to the extent of giving those sudden, human, familiar little touches to a movie which makes it suddenly, breathlessly alive.

This is a very fair and perceptive review. Rossellini and his collaborators made the best of what equipment and filmstock they could fi nd in the ruins of Rome and mixed it with melodrama, comedy and action. The film has since become mythologised as ‘realist’, but it was the more considered Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1947) that more clearly fitted the developing neo-realist ideal. All three films include location shooting and use of non-actors in many roles, but they also required studio shooting and they made use of the highly emotional music provided by Rossellini’s younger brother, Renzo.The failure of Germany Year Zero, a very bleak and emotionally shattering film, saw the end of one kind of realist filmmaking for Rossellini – ironically before Rome, Open City had been fully distributed. Rossellini went on to be a great innovator, but also a good interviewee about his methodology. The following quote is a useful guide to Rossellini’s cinema and to neo-realism more generally:

The subject of the neo-realism film is the world; not story or narrative. It contains no preconceived thesis, because ideas are born in the fi lm from the subject. It has no affinity with the superfluous and the merely spectacular, which it refuses, but is attracted to the concrete. . . It refuses recipes and formulas. . . neo-realism poses problems for us and for itself in an attempt to make people think. (Roberto Rossellini in Retrospettive, April 1953, reprinted in Overby (1978))

This argues for cinematic realism as a progressive aesthetic opposed to ‘entertainment cinema’ and in favour of ‘education’. (Rossellini was taken up by Marxist critics in the 1970s, but he remained a Catholic humanist intellectual throughout his life). One of the central features of Rossellini’s camerawork in his ‘neo-realist trilogy’ is the combination of the ‘long shot’ and the ‘long take’. The long shot is the ideal framing device to show crowds and the movements of soldiers in battle. Its use in Hollywood tends to be restricted to establishing shots and genres like the western where ‘figures in a landscape’ are important. Usually, however, stories are told in mid-shot and medium close-up with attention paid to individual characters. Long shots are also difficult to organise on studio sets, where framing is often required to disguise the fact that a set is just a collection of ‘flat’ walls without a ceiling. Allied to the long shot is the use of deep-focus which allows the filmmaker to compose a shot in-depth with objects in the foreground and the background, both in sharp focus. Different actions can take place within the frame and the audience can select to look at the foreground or background. Deep-focus works well on location and like the long shot was common in silent cinema before bulky sound equipment began to restrict camerawork.

A long take is any shot lasting longer than about 20 seconds (the Hollywood average throughout the studio period is about 12 seconds). For the filmmaker, the long take poses problems because all the actions must be carefully worked out in advance. Long shots and staging in-depth help because they give greater possibilities of movement in the frame. Alternatively, moving the camera by panning or tracking allows greater freedom. The panning and tracking camera, shooting in long takes, is a feature of Rossellini’s films at various times, especially in the more action-orientated episodes of Paisà.

Rossellini’s fi lms tend to focus on stories about ‘ordinary people’ in situations which are in one sense ‘ordinary’ – except that in Italy in the late 1940s ‘ordinary life’ was often quite ‘extraordinary’. Here is a useful quote from another spokesman for neo-realism, scriptwriter Cesare Zavattini describing the starting point for a typical neo-realist film:

“A woman goes into a shop to buy a pair of shoes. The shoes cost 7,000 lire. The woman tries to bargain. The scene lasts perhaps two minutes, but I must make a two-hour film. What do I do? I analyse the fact in all its constituent elements, in its ‘before’, in its ‘after’, in its contemporaneity. The fact creates its own fiction . . .” (See Williams (ed) 1980: 29-30)

Zavattini can ask himself, “Why does the woman want the shoes?”, “What else will she not spend the money on if she does buy the shoes?”, “How important is the sale to the shopkeeper – does he know the woman?” etc. In Rossellini’s terms the narrative comes from ‘the world’, from the ‘reality’ of an everyday experience.

Rossellini and Bergman

In 1948, Rossellini received a telegram from Ingrid Bergman offering to work for him for next to nothing, so impressed was she with his neo-realist films. Rossellini didn’t know that Bergman was at the height of her popularity in Hollywood, but he saw the possibility of Hollywood money and invited her over to Italy. They started a passionate affair and she starred for him in Stromboli (Italy 1950). Stromboli saw Rossellini shifting his approach in two significant ways. The story involves a Lithuanian woman who in the aftermath of war finds herself in a displaced persons camp in Italy. Karin (Bergman) chooses marriage as her passport out of the camp and finds a Sicilian fi sherman on his way home from a prison camp in South Africa. With Hollywood money, Rossellini made the most of the landscape of the volcanic island of Stromboli. He also continued a policy of using several local people in acting roles, but this time placed amongst them one of the biggest fi lm stars in the world. Suddenly the film becomes almost a documentary on Bergman as a sophisticated woman attempting to act with an amateur cast – just as the character, Karin, finds herself stuck on a ‘primitive’ island from which she feels she must escape. The Hollywood studio, RKO cut the film by nearly 20 minutes and it flopped badly in an English language version in America. Now the film, at its original length is considered by many critics to be a masterpiece. Audiences are likely to dismiss the film or to be overwhelmed by it. Partly this is a function of the completely ‘open ending’ when it is not clear what Karin will do about ending or maintaining her marriage.

Eventually, Rossellini and Bergman were divorced from their previous partners and they married. Rossellini proved a jealous husband/director and would not allow Bergman to work for anyone else. In 1953 he cast her in a fi lm often cited as having a major influence on the French New Wave in the late 1950s, Viaggio in Italia. This film continued the idea of using the predicament of the actor as a feature of the narrative. Bergman plays the wife of an English ‘gentleman’ who inherits a house in Italy. The couple have a ‘difficult’ marriage and they think that a holiday to complement their trip to Naples to sell the house might improve their relationship. George Sanders plays the husband and he found working for Rossellini very difficult, not least because Rossellini and his scriptwriter constantly changed the script the night before a day’s shooting so that Sanders and Bergman were unaware of what might happen. In one famous scene, the couple are sent to the ruins of Pompeii where Rossellini knew that a startling archeological find was to be revealed. Their consternation became part of the plot. On this film Rossellini proved that, as long as you have a clear overall plan, you could make it up as you go along – something Jean-Luc Godard has never forgotten.

‘The cinema is dead’

Rossellini and Bergman split up in 1957 and in 1961, Rossellini declared cinema dead and launched into a television career. From now on he eschewed conventional narratives and sought to make ‘historical films’ with a strong educational purpose. There were clear links to his earlier films in that he concentrated on his characters as ‘people’ first and important historical figures second. He concentrated on detailed research into the clothes, furnishings and everyday rituals of the central characters who were played by non-actors, or at least non-stars. The details were accurate but the sets were not lavish and the camerawork was as simple as possible.

Rossellini wanted an unobtrusive camera that could record the action without unnecessary cuts or dramatic close-ups. To this end he invented a remote control zoom device that enabled him to easily change the focal length as the camera moved just enough to capture the whole scene and the movements of the characters in a restricted area. The most acclaimed of these films, made for French television, recorded The Rise to Power of Louis IV (France/Italy 1966). Others focused on Socrates, Blaise Pascal and Cosimo de Medici. In 1976 he produced a life of Jesus and when he died in 1977 he was said to be working on a film about Karl Marx.

Conclusion

These notes refer to only a selection of Rossellini’s film credits from a career spanning forty years. By necessity, they are limited to the films that have received public distribution in the UK. Apart from Rome Open City, Rossellini’s films have not been major box office successes – they have been more discussed by critics and other filmmakers than by popular audiences. Yet Rossellini’s films and his ideas about films have been very influential, both on filmmakers outside the US entertainment system attempting to apply neo-realist ideas and to modernist filmmakers like those of the French New Wave, as well as his early collaborators such as Federico Fellini and younger Italian directors such as the Taviani Brothers. Since his centenary in 2006 one or two more titles have become accessible with English subtitles in the US and as imports from Italy. I hope to watch some of these and write about them on the blog.

Roy Stafford, 20/5/06

References and further reading

Peter Bondanella (1993) The Films of Roberto Rossellini, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jose Luis Guarner (1970) Roberto Rossellini, London: Studio Vista

James Hay (1987) Popular Film Culture in Fascist Italy, Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press

David Overby (ed) (1978) Springtime in Italy: a Reader on Neo-Realism, London: Talisman

Pierre Sorlin (1996) Italian National Cinema, London: Routledge

Christopher Williams (ed) (1980) Realism in the Cinema, London: Routledge Kegan Paul

Robin Wood (1980) ‘Roberto Rossellini’ in Richard Roud (ed) Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, London: Martin Secker & Warburg

The best starting place for a websearch on is via Senses of Cinema

BIFF 2013 #21: European Features Competition

Maria Dragas, star of 'Kill Me' speaking after receiving the European Features award on behalf of Emily Latef – watched by Tom Vincent and Neil Young, Festival Directors.

Maria Dragus, star of ‘Kill Me’ speaking after receiving the European Features award on behalf of Emily Latef – watched by Tom Vincent and Neil Young, Festival Directors.

BIFF19logoLast year’s inaugural European Features Competition featured six films by debutant directors. This year there were another three first-timers plus three established filmmakers. Again the six films have not achieved UK distribution and Festival Director Tom Vincent told us at the award ceremony that this was the chief aim of the prize – to highlight films that UK distributors had missed and should perhaps reconsider. The festival brochure doesn’t tell us what the judging criteria are – which strikes me as problematic. There were three jurors: Stephanie Bunbury is a film journalist from Australia, Hannah McGill is well-known in the UK as one-time director of the Edinburg International Film Festival and is now a critic and film journalist and Martijn Maria Smits is a writer-director from the Netherlands.

As far as I’m aware, the three judges saw all six films at the beginning of the festival and none of them were present at the announcement on Sunday evening. It seems to me that operating in this way, the judges will not have had any sense of how audiences reacted to the films. I wonder therefore if they will have judged the films on the basis of their appeal as ‘festival films’. By this I mean a film that appeals directly to festival professionals and audiences who seek out festivals rather than to a mainstream or arthouse audience. People generally watch films differently in festivals I think.

I thought before the official announcement that the judges may well choose Kill Me directed by Emily Atef. This was the only one of the six entries that I hadn’t blogged on – for the simple reason that I had missed the opening 15-20 minutes and I didn’t want to comment without seeing the whole film. Emily Atef has won several festival prizes for her work and I thought her film would appeal most to the judges. My guess proved correct and though the director wasn’t present, the young star of the film Maria Dragus had flown into Bradford specially. She was clearly delighted that the film won the prize. I had planned to watch the opening of the film so I stayed on for the screening – knowing I would have to leave after about 30 minutes for a meeting. Unfortunately, I was sat directly in front of Ms Dragus so I hope she wasn’t offended when I sneaked out. Now I’ve seen the whole film I will write it up, but if you are wondering, it offers the unlikely pairing of a teenage girl on a farm in Germany who runs off with an escaped prisoner. The odd couple has an uneasy relationship which is explored in a form of ‘road movie’.

Apart from Kill Me, there was a ‘special mention’ of A Night Too Young and its director Olmo Omerzu was present. The young boy’s face in that film with its young/old appearance will stay with me for some time and I certainly support the judges in singling out a film and a filmmaker that both deserve more attention. All six films in the competition were worth consideration for wider distribution and it was a strong field. The award this year was sponsored by ‘Bradford First UNESCO City of Film’ and its director David Wilson presented it to Maria Dragus. I think the ideas behind the award are very good and it is something that BIFF could build on, but to actually convince a distributor to take up any of these films in the UK is going to require more – perhaps several festivals could combine to give European films more focus. The New British Cinema Quarterly scheme sees a package of British films getting a limited release. How about a New European Cinema Quarterly? Britain is the toughest market in Europe for ‘European’ films so anything might help. But for now, let’s celebrate the European Features Award. Kill Me review to follow.

Trance (UK 2013)

A good example of the kind of images created by Anthony Dod Mantle with reflective glass – entrapment by mise en scène.

A good example of the kind of images created by Anthony Dod Mantle with reflective glass – entrapment by mise en scène.

Danny Boyle has been all across the UK media for the last few weeks. I came out of a screening of Trance and found myself in the car listening to a long interview with him on the Radio 4 Film Programme. I’m not sure that this exposure is necessarily good for him – the best thing he’s done recently was to quietly refuse a knighthood. He’s a nice guy and a great filmmaker but now that he is a national treasure, expectations of his work have sky-rocketed. I get the impression that Trance is deliberately dark and nasty – he  has called it the ‘evil cousin’ of his Olympics show. Perhaps it was the right film to make to escape from the gushing praise and to reclaim some ‘edge’ in his filmmaking.

Francine Stock’s interview did tease out some of the elements of Trance which I think can be ‘triangulated’ in a number of ways. On one level, as Boyle suggested, it is a return (with John Hodge) to the three-hander about greed that was his first cinema feature Shallow Grave in 1994 – but now the characters are that much older and a good deal nastier. The setting for the narrative is initially the art world and the two men/one woman situation. In fact there are many elements in common with the Jo Nesbo adaptation Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film has more humour and is essentially an action thriller. The other well-known art theft scenario that comes to mind is a two-hander and a ‘romance-thriller’, The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 and 1999). Trance is much darker, drawing heavily on film noir – Boyle repeatedly called it noir/noirish in the interview. He also said, and this is key I feel, that the stolen object is purely symbolic – it represents something valuable that has been lost, but finding it is about power rather than just money. So what we get is a game about being in control and achieving the power when there are two other competitors. Who do you side with and who do you attempt to push out of the ring first? (The painting is a Goya used in several ways in the plot.)

I suspect that many of us are going to be racking our brains as to which noirs the film reminds us of. I can see that there are some resemblances to Out of the Past (Build My Gallows High, 1947), another three-hander, but in tone Trance is more like the later 1950s noirs from the real hard-boiled guys like Robert Aldrich with Kiss Me Deadly or Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (both 1955). Having said that, I’m not sure that the script is able to maintain the same tone throughout and at times it seemed to become more playful. The noir milieu depends on mise en scène, editing, sound and having good performances. Boyle is very keen on the importance of sound and I did notice it in the film, not just the music score which is interesting, but more so the sound effects and the voices. Boyle picked out sound as being important in an immersive sense – making us feel that we are trapped inside the head of a character experiencing hypnosis. However, effective though this is in the film, it’s the camerawork that really confirms a sense of ‘disturbance’ and claustrophobia. The hypnotist lives in one of those old Georgian terraces with a lift that has cage-like metal grille doors, perfect for shooting through (camera and guns) and other scenes take place in clubs, warehouses and bedrooms with glass walls, mirrors and concealed lighting. I thought that the camerawork was very good, but I did have doubts about the digital image which in a couple of shots didn’t have the deep blacks and clarity in low light levels that I expect from noirs.

The crime gang led by Vincent Cassel.

The crime gang led by Vincent Cassel.

The film is very much a three-hander. Even though there are important secondary roles, it is James McAvoy, Vincent Cassel and Rosario Dawson who must carry the film. I’m not sure why but I have problems with McAvoy as a lead in this kind of film. The problems are probably with me rather than him as he seems popular as an action hero, but there it is. I can’t explain it and in theory he is well cast – but he just doesn’t do it for me. Cassel on the other hand rarely puts a foot wrong in anything he does and he has the presence for a film like this. Rosario Dawson is terrific. I haven’t seen any of the Hollywood blockbusters she’s been in but I realised later that she was in two Spike Lee joints (He Got Game and 25th Hour). She has the definite strength and screen presence to stand up against Cassel. With these three leads and the rest of the criminal gang, Boyle has a ‘cosmopolitan cast’ for a film which he tells us could be set anywhere. There’s some truth in that but in a couple of scenes I thought “this can only be in London”. I’ve seen some reviews that mention Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as another ‘alternative view’ of London’s criminal mileux, but apart from Vincent Cassel, I didn’t see any other similarities – the one thing Trance clearly isn’t is a film set in a specific cultural context.

I’m not sure whether the film will be successful. It’s quite a talky film with relatively few action sequences. The narrative inevitably twists upon itself because of the hypnosis sequences and I’m not sure that the multiplex audience or Danny Boyle’s hardcore fans are that taken with this kind of noir. I would need to see it a second time to begin to analyse how well the script stands up – at the moment it seems like the weakest element of the film. But having said that, new ideas keep popping up –  none of the three principal characters have much in the way of backstories and I’m not sure what that means. The film is being seen by several reviewers as ‘style over substance’ but I think there is more to it than that. On the other hand, audiences who go looking for Inception or something similar will be disappointed. Anyone who says that the plot doesn’t make sense ought perhaps to remember that even Raymond Chandler couldn’t explain the plot holes in The Big Sleepnoirs are meant to be like dreams (or nightmares).

Two final points – it was good to see Tuppence Middleton getting a major film credit to follow her BBC appearance in The Lady Vanishes. I’d love to know how much Apple contributed to a film which is probably the most effective ad for a ‘gadget’ I’ve seen so far.

Hitchcock (US 2012)

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlet Johannsen (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

Anthony Hopkins as Hitchcock and Helen Mirren as Alma Reville welcome Scarlett Johannson (as Janet Leigh) to the cast of Psycho.

I was quite surprised by how much I enjoyed Hitchcock. It isn’t any kind of rigorous analysis of the man or of filmmaking as a process and it has one major miscalculation in the script from my perspective. But for what it is – essentially a romantic comedy drama (definitely a Hitchcock category) about a long-married couple – I think it works very well and I laughed many times as well as once feeling quite emotional. In other words, my reactions were rather different to those I experienced with The Girl.

Hitchcock is based on the book by Stephen Rebello, Alfred Hitchcock and the making of Psycho. The book was published in 1990 and it has taken 12 years to get to the screen. The film focuses on the marriage of ‘Hitch’ and Alma Reville and his struggle to make the film that he wanted to make for his own artistic reasons – but which eventually turned out to be his biggest money-spinner. Scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin sticks fairly close to what I assume is the material from the book except for two inventions. The first is a recurring nightmare that Hitchcock has about Ed Gein, the serial killer who was the real life model for Robert Bloch’s story of Psycho. There was too much of this for me and I think the idea of Gein ‘haunting’ Hitchcock could have been done differently and certainly more economically. Secondly, McLaughlin invents a close writing relationship between Alma and the screenwriter Whitfield Cook. Cook did indeed have a relationship with the Hitchcocks and in the 1940s he wrote an unsuccessful Broadway play in which Patricia Hitchcock featured as a teenager. In 1949-50 he worked at various times with Alma on the scripts for Stage Fright (1950) and Strangers on a Train (1951). These are the last two mentions he gets in Donald Spoto’s The Dark Side of Genius. I don’t think it really matters that McLaughlin resurrected Cook as a ‘player’ in 1959. I take it that Alma was having one of what I suspect were many little spats with Hitch and that Cook is offered here as a diversion for her before she gets back on board with Psycho.

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

Alma Reville and Alfred Hitchcock at home in what looks like the 1960s. (image from: http://acertaincinema.com/media-tags/alma-reville/)

My feeling is that the film was very well cast. Scarlett Johansson and Jessica Biel as respectively Janet Leigh and Vera Miles are very good. All the other supports are good too especially Toni Collette as Hitchcock’s PA and James D’Arcy as Anthony Perkins. Hopkins, for me, ‘inhabits’ Hitch more successfully than Toby Jones – but then the script is more friendly than in The Girl. It requires Hopkins to be more playful and he enjoys himself. The crunch for most audiences will come with Helen Mirren’s performance as Alma. Clearly, she is too tall and too glamorous. I’m not intending to  be mean to Alma, but in 1960 women over 60 rarely looked as svelte as Ms Mirren. Several people have echoed the line about Mirren suddenly becoming (her best-known character) Jane Tennison from Prime Suspect whenever she has to act decisively. I can see this, but I have to be honest and say that it didn’t occur to me at the time. I accepted that she was Alma and I’m pleased that she was seen to contribute so much to the production of Psycho. Everything I’ve read suggests that Alma was a very bright woman who knew the industry well. I was pleased to hear the dialogue line when she reminds someone that when Hitchcock started working in the industry, he was her junior. I was able to forget that Mirren didn’t look like Alma and I enjoyed her verbal exchanges with Hopkins.

The real problem is not with the film but with the distribution and promotion and the audience expectations. In the US this was a ‘small film’ with a budget of $15.7 million (I’m using this Hollywood Reporter article for background). It was given a limited platform release in November 2012, presumably to have a stab at Oscar nominations. It only managed one technical nomination but Mirren and Hopkins got acting noms from several other awards panels. In the UK, however, it got a full ‘saturation’ release to all multiplexes – a big mistake in my view since I think this is a conventional genre film skewed towards older audiences who will probably be entertained much as they have been by other titles with similar ingredients. I was more entertained by this than by The King’s Speech or The Exotic Marigold Hotel. Hitchcock has got little to offer to audiences under 35 and many of the references in the parts dealing with Paramount in 1960 will mean nothing. Does anybody under 50 remember much about Jerry Lewis now?

The major problem that the producers had, according to the Hollywood Reporter article, is that they couldn’t use any material from Psycho itself because Universal, who own the rights (Psycho went to Universal when Hitchcock joined Lew Wasserman in buying a stake in the studio following MCA’s purchase) refused to have any dealings with the Hitchcock production. This was because Patricia Hitchcock, who still controls the Hitchcock estate, didn’t want to support a film about her parents. Universal still have an interest in some of Hitchcock’s best-known films and didn’t want to offend his daughter. All Hitchcock’s TV shows had been made for Revue Studios, owned by MCA and subsequently part of Universal. All of this means that Hitchcock is ‘light’ on many aspects of the filmmaking process in those Revue Studios where Psycho was shot. Consequently, the film will probably disappoint hardcore fans. But if you just want to watch something entertaining, I think the film is fine. I should mention the director Sacha Gervasi, a Brit previously known for directing the heavy metal doc Anvil: The Story of Anvil (Canada 2008). I thought he supported his actors well and the film looks good in what Jeff Cronenweth has referred to as a bright Technicolor look created by shooting on a ‘RED Epic’ digital camera.