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.
The stewards mime to ‘I’m So Excited’
When a subtitled film gets a wide release, I’m always torn between elation that it is going to be more widely seen and a terrible fear that there will just be two of us in the multiplex screen. The other possibility is that people will see it and loathe it. I wondered if this might be happening with Pedro Almodóvar‘s new film. It was a strange experience watching it in Hebden Bridge Picture House where it seemed to go down very well (Hebden is a very interesting and diverse community) and then to head home to discover that on IMDb it had a 5.7 rating and several damning reviews. Checking the box office figures, it has actually done OK business with £750,000 in the UK after three weeks – down on Almodóvar’s recent titles but a good result for a subtitled film. I can only assume that the poor IMDb response (mirrored on Rotten Tomatoes) is some kind of conservative backlash.
The film’s English language title refers to the Pointer Sisters’ song from 1982 which for me marked the high spot of the film. The Spanish title may be untranslatable but means something like ‘In-flight lovers’. At least this makes more sense than the using the song title. I felt that the film was a familiar camp, transgressive farce that contains some satirical elements but which was fundamentally humanist and actually quite sweet. Reading the coverage in Sight and Sound (May 2013), including a short piece by Almodóvar himself, I think that there is a general agreement about the comedy but some variance over whether the effect is satirical, melancholic or ‘light’.
The plot involves a passenger aircraft with malfunctioning landing gear that must circle losing fuel until a suitable runway can be prepared for a crash landing. In the meantime the crew attempt to divert the business class passengers with booze, drugs and a song. The economy class passengers have all been drugged/tranquilised so that they sleep through the proceedings.
Most commentators see the film as a throwback to the early Almodóvar of the 1980s and there is certainly something reminiscent of his 1987 hit Women On The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown which in the UK at least was a breakthrough film. However, I do wonder if some of those critics who attack the new fim so savagely have actually seen any of the director’s earlier 1980s work (let alone his 1970s 8mm output). Almodóvar’s current status derives mostly from the success of his mainstream melodramas/thrillers in a sequence that began with Live Flesh in 1997 and which includes the Oscar-winning All About My Mother (1999). It is the audiences that discovered the director through these films that is probably ‘shocked’ by the new film.
I think that the key to enjoying the film is to take it at face value as a farce, to try not to compare it with any recollections of the earlier work and certainly not to worry about any kind of ‘social realist’ commentary. Some audiences seem to have real problems with questions of sexism and other forms of moral judgement. That way madness lies in an Almodóvar film! After the screening – and perhaps after a second screening – it might be possible to analyse what the director is suggesting through satire. Spain is clearly in a mess with a banking crisis, an economy in meltdown and dangerously high levels of unemployment. The aircraft is circling above Central Spain without a landing strip ready to receive it safely when it crashes. The ordinary people are unaware of what is happening and their leaders/the rich don’t know what to do and are trying to run away to Mexico instead. Of course one of them is a banker and one of his failed schemes involves an airport that has been built but never used . . . The others have personal stories that can be exposed and possibly brought to some form of conclusion through healthy doses of sex, drugs and music. Almodóvar cites Hollywood screwball comedies as his inspiration, adds a touch of Busby Berkeley and pays hommage to Luis García Berlanga. Berlanga was one of the great Spanish directors of the 1950s and 1960s, creating satirical works that evaded Franco’s censors. I have fond memories of his satire on Francoist attempts to woo the Americans in Welcome Mr. Marshall! (¡Bienvenido Mister Marshall!) made in partnership with Juan Antonio Bardem in 1952. In a tiny cameo at the beginning of the film, Almodóvar’s two biggest stars launch the film narrative in an unexpected way and then severalof the main players in the farce turn out to be familiar Almodóvar actors Cecilia Roth (All About My Mother), Lola Dueñas (Talk to Her etc.), Javier Cámara (Talk to Her, Bad Education) etc. – I’m sure there are plenty more in what is a ‘family affair’.
So, enjoy first and think about it afterwards!
Iulica (Gabriel Spahiu) as the engineer in the coat on the factory floor with two of the machinists who he is persuading to do a little personal job for him.
For some obscure reason I seem to have missed all the major films of the Romanian New Wave, so I was pleased to get the opportunity to see this film. As far as I can make out, it isn’t typical and in fact seems to be a conscious attempt to create a contemporary version of the pre-1989 satires of East European communist states.
The plot (based around a real incident) follows a day in the life of a middle manager, a ‘comrade engineer’ in a Romanian factory. The date is precise and important: May 8th 1986, the day after Steaua Bucharest beat Barcelona in the European Cup. Our hero Iulica has videorecorded the match (in which the Steaua goalie made four saves in the penalty shootout) and hopes to show it for his boss at the factory and other colleagues after the ‘festivities’ for the 65th anniversary of the Romanian Communist Party. (The videorecorder itself being a rare and desirable object.) Iulica has a role in the festivities as well – as the producer of two films made in the factory, one a ‘health and safety’ documentary and the other an ‘artistic’ film, again about health and safety, which provides the overall title of Adalbert’s Dream. Things don’t go quite as planned.
I enjoyed the film which I thought came to life once we reached the factory and met Iulica’s boorish but entertaining boss. After a while, I realised that the tone of the film was familiar, combining elements from the Czech New Wave films of the 1960s such as Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball (Czechoslovakia 1967) and also Dusan Makaveyev’s wonderful and surreal Switchboard Operator (Yugoslavia 1967). Gabriel Achim, director of Adalbert’s Dream, captures the absurdity of social relations in these particular communist societies. He does this both in the interactions of characters and in his decisions about formats. The film was shot on various video formats including S-VHS and Beta SP in Academy ratio to match the propaganda and health and safety films of the period.
I confess to a certain nostalgia in watching a film set in a factory with lathes, men with oily rags and overalls, smartly-dressed women from the office etc. By 1986 in the UK factories on this scale were disappearing – and with them aspects of working-class culture. Some of what was lost won’t be missed, including the sexism and the drudgery of some work patterns. But what the factories did provide was employment and a sense of community and belonging. The best factory systems also provided a social and cultural life for the workers and this is something that is important to recognise when watching Achim’s satire. All of those possible pluses are there but they aren’t allowed to be fulfilled because of the underlying problems associated with Romanian communism. Everything is focused on pleasing the political bosses, but because everyone’s individual desires (and beliefs) are very different – and because the system is ‘broken’ in terms of the quality of goods and services it produces – the sucking up to the party boss is doomed to failure. Achim brilliantly crystallises this analysis in his use of the Health and Safety Film, examples of which, with their bureaucratic pedantry, crop up throughout the film. I won’t spoil the film by listing all the ways in which the issue is presented – but Achim is able to end the film with a very striking sequence. I should say that several scenes are also very funny.
I’m not sure how the film will fare in the Bradford competition or how it will be read by younger audiences, but once I’d properly tuned in to the film I realised that it works very well.
A brief trailer:
Two of the supporting cast in 'Surviving Life'
What better way to escape the madness of consumer Christmas than watching a Jan Svankmajer film? This is the potential treat for lucky filmgoers in a handful of UK cities over the next few weeks. See this distributor website for a list of cinemas showing the film. I’m usually a fan of Verve Pictures but they don’t seem to have done a great deal to promote their acquisition, despite Svankmajer’s status amongst fans of animation and surrealism.
First shown at Venice in 2010, this is only the second feature-length film from the director since Little Otik in 2000. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of his work but I’ve seen some of his earlier short films and Sílení from 2005 (a live action horror/melodrama drawing on both Edgar Allen Poe and the Marquis de Sade) and therefore I had some idea of what to expect. The film begins with a prologue delivered to camera by the director himself in which he explains that his team were going to make a ‘real film’ but they had such a small budget that they decided to use only a studio set and photographic cut-outs of the actors which could then be animated. This is quite a witty opening but I was baffled as to why Svankmajer’s presentation was overlayed by an actor reading out an English translation (with the Czech original mixed down but still audible). I hate this practice and fortunately the film itself was subtitled.
The film overall is a mix of live action and stop-frame cut-out animation. The central character is Evzen, a middle-aged man, married for 25 years but without children and working in a boring office job. Evzen dreams – but not enough. He wants to have more dreams and to understand them. Inevitably he is sent to a psychoanalyst who attempts to explore his unconscious. These are some of the funniest scenes in the film with framed photographic portraits of Freud and Jung looking down from the psycho-analyst’s walls an reacting to what is happening. I won’t spoil the narrative by outlining what is in the dreams but if you know any Freudian or Jungian theories about dreams you’ll probably guess the kinds of characters, symbols and stories that emerge.
Václav Helsus is Evzen, the dreamer who spends much of his time in his pyjamas
The pleasures of the film for fans are likely to be in the exploration of the technique and the use of colour in particular (lots of vivid reds). It isn’t such a startling form of animation as that in the earlier stop motion shorts, though there are glimpses of the earlier style, especially in the eating scenes and the glee with which squidgy watermelons explode etc. For British fans there will be reminders of similar techniques used (by Terry Gilliam) in sketches in Monty Python and, more disturbingly, The Goodies (disturbing for the more cerebral perhaps because The Goodies was supposed to be ‘light entertainment’). This familiarity with the technique perhaps made the film less frightening and terrifying for me (compared to the earlier films). I’m happy to sit back and enjoy this kind of surrealism as comedy (Svankmayer calls it a ‘psycho-analytic comedy’) but I like to try to find some form of satitirical edge in the film. My knowledge of Czech culture is limited but this film fitted in with what I know – it felt ‘East European’ whatever that might mean. As well as the obvious discourse about sexuality and alienation for the middle-aged trapped in boring lives there are nostalgic references to food and music as well as metaphors about consumerism and the dangers of capitalist monetary policies – so something we can all relate to!
My Christmas message is to suggest that you choose Svankmayer over David Fincher or Tom Cruise. It’ll be more fun and better for you. Here’s the Czech trailer (no English subs but the techniques speak for themselves):
Japanese poster with Naka Riisa as Mitsuko and Nakamura Aoi as Yuichi
The Leeds Film Festival Programme tells us that writer-director Ishii Yuya is a ‘Leeds favourite’. I assume that this is a reference to the young man’s (he’s still only 27/28) previous film Sawako Decides that seems to have been very successful on the international festival circuit. In fact he has produced some eight features in six years since graduating from film school in Osaka. Mitsuko Delivers has so far been seen at Vancouver, Busan, London and Tokyo – picking up high praise from Tony Rayns and slightly bemused and fairly negative reactions from Variety and Hollywood Reporter.
I enjoyed the film very much and the fairly healthy audience at the Hyde Park seemed to be laughing along with it. I’m struggling to pin down a classification but it’s possibly a ‘comedy melodrama’? Mitsuko is coming to the end of her pregnancy. She seems unconcerned about the birth, even though her gynaecologist tells her that her pregnancy has never ‘stabilised’. In fact she isn’t phased by anything, including the fact that the father of her baby, an American GI, took her to California and then dumped her. (All she can remember about him is that he’s ” kinda big and black”. Now she is back in Tokyo, penniless and accepting eviction from her flat. Her philosophy is to find her cloud in the sky and follow it as the wind moves it. In this case it takes her back to a poor street in a forgotten area of Tokyo where she lived as a child for a period 15 years ago. A sepia-toned flashback then reveals how things were and who the significant people in her life were. The melodrama plot now brings them all back into play in the same street in the present so that Mitsuko can ‘solve’ their problems in the few days before the baby is due.
Tony Rayns suggests that the film could be “a lacerating satire of the pickled nostalgia and homey working-class stereotypes of Shochiku’s old Tora-san series, but Ishii gives it a brio and originality which transcend satire”. I haven’t seen any of the mammoth series of Tor-san films, but I did recognise all the types from comedies and social dramas over many years of Japanese Cinema, coming right up to date with the unemployed salary-man who can’t tell his wife that he’s lost his job (e.g. in Tokyo Sonata). The film works for me because of the confident handling of both the younger and older actors whose different performance styles are blended her and then further stylised. The exaggerating playing then gets a couple of boosts in the film’s climax with some absurdist touches. I’m not sure what Rayns means by his “transcends satire” comment. I think that the narrative does make you think about a nostalgia for the kind of humanist dramas we used to see and how much better the world would be with a bit more sense of looking after each other. As the agent for all of this, Mitsuko is an interesting character – both annoying and endearing at the same time. As her childhood sweetheart Yoichi says following her re-appearance in his life and her attempts to revive his moribund local restaurant, “We have lots more customers now – but the profits haven’t gone up”. Mitsuko cajoles customers in and then offers them food “on the house”.
He makes you think and he makes you laugh – as long as you approach his film in the right frame of mind. Ishii Yuya looks like a real talent to watch.
Kalyan Singh (Raghubir Yadav) and his goat Laila
There were several new Indian films in the festival, but most were on at times that were inconvenient for me. Virgin Goat turned out to be quite distinctive. Essentially a form of ‘parallel film’ it isn’t what one might expect from that label, nor from its other institutional classification as a ‘festival film’ (with funding from a host of the usual suspects from Europe and North America). Instead it qualifies as an outrageous satire on Indian society, ranging across politics and identity.
The title refers to a slight but very attractive black goat called Laila who, according to her owner Kalyan Singh, is the last in line of a flock which has been owned by his family for 500 years. Unfortunately she has yet to conceive and Kalyan is prepared to try anything to make it happen. Convinced that the local vet has finally got Laila into heat he sets off with her to find the local stud billy-goat. We learn that his desperation arises from what he feels is persecution by the state and his own family. The government have seized his lands and forced him to sell his live stock. His son is a layabout, his wife chastises him and all his wealth has gone on his daughter’s dowry. His daughter returning home from the failed marriage seems like the last straw. When Kalyan attempts to walk the several miles with Laila to find the billy-goat he finds his way blocked by the arrival in the area of a political leader. At this stage the director Murali Nair starts to ramp up the surrealism of Kalyan’s experience. Laila is taken from him and she becomes the model for the symbol of a new political party with disturbing fascist connotations – a black goat on a white circle against a red background (reminiscent of Nazi symbols, but I’m not sure if this has other specific meanings in an Indian context). Can Kalyan rescue her and still mate her before her fertile period ends?
The political rally with Laila now a political symbol.
I did enjoy the film and parts are very funny. Unfortunately it was projected from DigiBeta tape and the visual quality was poor. This was a shame because it undermined to some extent the investment I had in the opening sequences (which suggested a conventional ‘social film’) and the subsequent twist towards surrealism. The film is heavily dependent on the performance by Raghubir Yadav who is a well-known and highly respected actor in both parallel and mainstream popular cinema. Because he is a believable figure who we can identify with, the surrealist sequences become more powerful in sharpening the satire. I was reminded of some recent Indian novels and also some aspects of African Cinema such as Sembène Ousmane’s Xala (1974) with its similar satire on politicians.
Murali Nair (born 1965) is originally from Kerala and he had an early success with his Malayalam art/parallel films, winning the Caméra d’or at Cannes for his first feature, Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death, 1999). At that point he had formed his own production company Flying Elephant Films with his wife Preeya and was supporting the company through his work in UK television. Virgin Goat was made in and around Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, which is his current production base. He has had several Cannes screenings and developed a profile on the festival circuit, but some of his films have found it difficult to get releases in India. Virgin Goat has a Hindi language soundtrack which should make it an easier sell in India.