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Beed-o baad (2000)
Wind, willow, glass, boy.
"Willow and Wind" is an appealing little Iranian film about the painful adventure of a young boy laden with the task of replacing the broken window of his school classroom. It doesn't sound like much, but it is in fact very engrossing. The boy, played by Hadi Alipour, treks over the rural countryside to a glazier who makes the replacement-pane to the dimensions he specifies. The last half-hour of the movie is the best, showing the lad walking in the windy weather, across stream and dale, to bring the pane back to his school where he will attempt to install it. While the boy is en route, the viewer is on edge wondering whether the kid will break the glass or decapitate himself. Neither happens, en route, that is. The heartbreak occurs at the very end, through a bit of carelessness of the boy's own. This last segment is almost wordless, a kind of visual poem of epic struggle on a smallish scale, and it is truly marvelous. The first part of the movie, while good, does not have that same urgency. The scene with the boy and the glass-dealer, for example, goes on way too long. I was at a disadvantage in watching this film, since it was not subtitled in English. I first saw a Chinese-dubbed copy, then the original Farsi version and had a hard time understanding much of the narrative, though the overall plot situation is quite evident. In the final almost wordless half-hour it becomes rather easy to follow. The film, directed by Mohammad-Ali Talebi, was scripted by the great Abbas Kiarostami, whose other children-themed films are also splendid and beautiful. I think particularly of "Where is the Friend's House," with a difficult-quest-story that rather parallels the one in this movie. While probably intended primarily for young folks, this is a work that adults can also truly appreciate. If you can find it, watch it! It's a gem.
Cavalleria rusticana (1955)
The revenge of Alfio
There have been numerous versions of the Giovanni Verga story and play as well as the Pietro Mascagni opera based on the work. This film is an amalgam of the opera and a straight dramatic version, with acceptable results. The well-known plot of Sicilian love, jealousy and revenge is directed here by Carmine Gallone, who specialized in, among other things, the transferring of operatic texts to the screen and films about classical composers. Turiddu (Ettore Manni) has returned from military service, gotten his fiancée Santuzza pregnant, abandons her for Lola, the wife of the town's cart-driver and wine-hauler. Alfio challenges him to a duel and kills him
to the horror of the townspeople. Swedish actress May Britt as the wronged Santuzza looks angelic; Tunisian-born actress Kerima is excellent as the slatternly object of Turiddu's passion (that same year she was the 'she-wolf' in Lattuada's "La lupa.") But the strongest impression is made by Anthony Quinn as the avenging Alfio, suggesting in this early role some of the qualities that would make him famous in his later performance as Zorba the Greek. He is dubbed in Italian, as he would be in Fellini's "La strada." The film itself has been almost impossible to see , but can be glimpsed in its entirety on YouTube. Unfortunately the movie , which was shot in Ferraniacolor (and 3-D!) , now seems to exist only in black-and-white copies. In fact when it played the U.S. in 1963 as "Fatal Desire," dubbed in English, it was shown in black-and-white prints only. The ad read "There is a special kind of payment for 'borrowing' another man's wife." I remember a local drive-in program, with this at the bottom of a double bill with Elsa Martinelli in "Rice Girl", another Italian film, as the main feature. I'd love to see "Cavalleria Rusticana" restored and made available in better copies, but I'd like to see a lot of impossible things.
La porta del cielo (1945)
A semi-lost masterpiece
Vittorio De Sica's "La porta del cielo" ("Gate of Heaven") was made during the last part of the Nazi occupation of Rome and was not released until after the liberation and then only minimally and pretty much shelved. De Sica took on the project as a delaying tactic so as not to be forced to join the Italian cinema industry in its forced move northward after the Badoglio government signed the armistice with the Allies and Italy was thrust into a fratricidal civil war. De Sica told the urging Nazis that he had taken on a film project for the Vatican and worked on the movie, slowly, hoping the war would end while he filmed.
The movie was financed by the Centro Cattolico Cinematografico and much of it was shot inside the extra-territorial basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, with the interior doubling as the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. The story follows a group of pilgrims, each with personal health issues and other problems, hoping to find a cure or solution in the church at Loreto, Italy's version of the shrine of Lourdes in France. Much of it takes place on a special train ("treno bianco" or "white train") transporting these pilgrims to the shrine from the south of Italy and making stops in other cities along the way to pick up additional participants.
The narrative includes several flashbacks into the lives of the people on the train. Among the pilgrims is a young concert pianist, played by Roldano Lupi, who has lost the use of his left hand, and who hopes for a miracle, despite his not being a believer. There are two workers, Carlo Ninchi and Massimo Girotti, one of whom is blinded in a factory accident that turns out to be caused by his friend. The blind man wants to regain his sight; the other seeks forgiveness for his act of malice. There is a handicapped boy in a wheelchair accompanied by his sister, played by Maria Mercader. Mercader was De Sica's wife/mistress and it was she who had arranged for the project to take place. There is an old woman, a governess in the service of a wealthy family, who wants to seek peace for the warring family members. There are many wonderful sequences, and the screenplay, written in part by De Sica's great collaborator Cesare Zavattini, adds a good deal of humanity to the movie and a realism not characteristic of much Italian cinema of the time. In a way this was a precursor of neorealism as much as Visconti's "Ossessione", and De Sica's own "I bambini ci guardano."
For De Sica himself this was one of his favorite movies and he always regretted that circumstances had caused it never to reach a public in the period after it was made. For the longest time De Sica's son Christian owned what was the only know copy of the movie, a 16mm print that she showed to people from time to time, including the writer Nino Lo Bello, who published on article on it in 1981 after a private viewing. In 1991 The film was shown, based on newly discovered archival-quality 35mm materials, as part of a De Sica retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That was where I first saw it. DVD copies of the movie can, as of now, only be found in private collections and derive from a RAI-TRE television showing.
Il mare (1963)
"Il mare" re-visited
The program booklet for the 1963 New York Film Festival (first one ever) shows that "Il mare" was scheduled for one screening on September 17 at 6:30. The blurb made reference to the Venice Film Festival showing where the movie had been "greeted by one of those sessions of prolonged booing, hissing, and cat-calls that, at festivals, generally herald a masterpiece." Later the film received non-theatrical distribution in 16mm by Audio Brandon Films. I do not believe it was shown commercially anywhere in the U.S., though it may have had minor runs and was shown by film societies on college campuses and elsewhere before the prints were withdrawn from distribution. I first saw it in Providence in April 1980 when the local Italian American Cultural Society sponsored one showing at the Cable Car Cinema.
I recently saw it again on an unsubtitled DVD from a private source. What I remembered of the film, its stark atmosphere and the special beauty of off-season Capri, superbly photographed, still held true for me. Also holding true was the stunning pretentiousness and Antoniennui (to borrow Andrew Sarris' clever coinage)of the whole piece, like a directorial wet-dream inspired by the island sequences of "L'Avventura." It has fine photogenic actors speaking some impossible dialog. It is a synthesis and time-capsule and reductio-ad-absurdum of early 1960s art house cinema, beautiful yet unbearable, requiring multiple cups of the free espresso the art cinemas of that epoch used to supply their patrons to kick-start them back into the world of the living.
La morte civile (1942)
Stark emotions in a stark drama
"La morte civile" was based on a popular melodrama by Paolo Giacometti and has been filmed several times. It is the story of a woman, Rosalia, who marries a failed painter, Corrado, despite the opposition of her family to the marriage. They have a little daughter, Ada. A violent argument between the woman's brother and her husband provokes Corrado into killing his brother-in-law. He is tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Some grim sequences delineate this incarceration. Meanwhile a doctor who has lost his wife and little daughter comes to Rosalia's aid, assuming the role of the child's father while Rosalia is hired as the little girl's governess. The child is now called Emma after the daughter that Palmieri lost. Rosalia is in fact her mother. The girl believes this fiction as the next few years pass. Later Corrado escapes from prison and returns in an attempt to restart his life with his wife and daughter, but he comes to see this cannot be. He asks Rosalia to have little Emma call him "father" before he goes away forever. The "forever" turns out to be a brief one as Corrado dies in a fall, probably a suicide. But, as the title implies, he has already died a "civil death" in his imprisonment and separation from family and society. The film is very well acted by Dina Sassoli as Rosalia, Carlo Ninchi as Corrado, and Renato Cialente as the benevolent Doctor Palmieri. The stark atmosphere of the Gargano peninsula in Puglia gives force to the stark emotions of the drama which contains, like a somber and tragic opera, absolutely no humor or levity. A particularly good scene has a procession of townsfolk to a religious shrine. It has a surge of emotion that is similar to the one in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," and it is taking place as Corrado makes his re-appearance from the dead. The last half-hour of the film is particularly strong and moving. Director Ferdinando M. Poggioli was one of the finer craftsmen of the Fascist era, though this film has descended into virtual oblivion. It deserves to be better known.
Preludio d'amore (1947)
A worthy film, unseen for over half a century
World War II has ended. After four years Davide (Vittorio Gassman in his first movie, dubbed by another Italian voice, and with hair weirdly dyed blond!) has returned home to Camogli near Genoa hoping to resume his relationship with Anna (Marina Berti). In the meantime she has shown an interest in shady black-marketeer Rocco (Massimo Girotti), taking him away from his former girlfriend Alida (Maria Michi), prodding the poor girl to suicide and inspiring a backlash against Anna by the relatives of Alida. Ultimately Davide and Anna are reconciled, and a happy life together in Camogli will result.
This four-pronged melodrama of love and jealousy is played against an expertly-etched natural background of Camogli and environs, including Genoa. Much of it, stunningly photographed by the legendary Piero Portalupi, seems as much a documentary with dramatic overtones as a drama with documentary flourishes.
With its striking stylistic amalgam of neo-realism, regional documentary, Carné-like poetic realism, and Italianate filmnoir à la Lattuada in that director's "Without Pity", the movie creates a certain fascination. It was directed by noted documentary film-maker Giovanni Paolucci and is considered his best work. It was co-written and produced by Leopoldo Trieste, who would be remembered for many films he performed in, but especially as the worried husband in Fellini's "The White Sheik."
There was a good deal of fascination and interest aroused by "Preludio d'amore" when it was unearthed in late 2011 for a single showing in Camogli, where it had been filmed, after having gone unseen in Italy since its initial release over sixty years earlier. In the U.S. it is equally as rare. From the early 1950s to the early 1960s it played sporadic engagements at exploitation houses and drive-ins all over the country, especially in 1958 and 1959, paired with the Rossellini-Pagliero film "Woman" ("Desiderio"). "Preludio d'amore" was re-titled "Shamed" in the U.S., and the program of Rossellini's "Woman" and "Shamed" wended its way through secondary venues noted for risqué billings as well as urban art houses of lesser repute. The films actually deserved better, but the inappropriate promotion of "Woman"/"Desiderio" to capitalize on the Rossellini-Bergman scandal inhibited much general serious consideration or critiques. The thrashing "Shamed" received from the New York Times critic precluded any programming in houses where audiences might appreciate this amazing little postwar gem.
I remember this double bill playing on 42nd Street in Manhattan in late May 1964 at the Apollo Theatre with the marquee blazing "Rossellini's 'Woman' and 'Shamed'. " As far as I know that was the last that was seen or heard of "Preludio" in America, though "Desiderio" has been shown in archival Rossellini retrospectives. Maybe in an overdue Gassman retrospective this first screen appearance of his will see the light of day once more.
Piccoli naufraghi (1939)
The camaraderie of shipwrecked youngsters from fascist Italy
A group of thirteen boys, tired of the day-to-day boredom and doldrums of life in the classroom and other restrictions on their freedom, conspire to stow away on a merchant vessel bound for Ethiopia, the new Italian colony in Mussolini's fascist empire, in search of liberating adventure. There is a shipwreck, and the boys, stranded on an uninhabited small island, set up a colony of their own, while awaiting the chance to leave. In time another ship arrives at the island; on board are a group of pirates intent on selling arms to the Abyssinian "rebels". In a burst of proud Italianate heroism, and exemplifying fascist-youth ideals, the lads take control of things and commandeer the vessel to return to to Italy. The cast includes Riccardo Freda as a benevolent and inspirational teacher. He would later become a director of some renown. Giovanni Grasso plays the captain of the merchant vessel. The boys themselves are a pleasant lot, though their characters are barely fleshed out in any clear way. While there is certainly an intended subtext here of fascist "manhood", imperial adventure, the film remains most likable as a simple boyish adventure with "Lord of the Flies" overtones. The Italian title of this film was changed to "Piccoli Avventurieri" (Little Adventurers) from the original "Piccoli naufraghi" (Shipwrecked Boys) for its ethnic language-house release in the U.S. A copy of this rare title can be viewed at the Library of Congress Film Study Center in Culpeper, Virginia. It was one of the titles in the "captured film collection" at the start of World War II.
Francesco d'Assisi (1966)
The humble and beautiful man from Assisi
One of the least-known and best of the films about the life and work of Francis of Assisi is this first feature film made by Liliana Cavani and coincidentally the first feature film drama made for the Italian network RAI. It is a true wonder. Rarely has a filmmaker captured the true simplicity of the man, the privileged son of a wealthy Assisi cloth-maker who rebels against his father and against all manifestations of external luxury and wealth. His rebellion is not a prideful one but done as a means to follow more closely the teachings of Jesus any display of pomposity and might obliterated. As a soldier he experiences the horror of war and bloodshed and it fills him with revulsion. The scene where he publicly removes his clothes in a symbolic act of renunciation is beautifully done The young rebel is played here by Lou Castel, fresh from his performance in Marco Bellocchio's landmark "Fists in the Pocket." His founding of the new order of Friars Minor, conceded by Pope Innocent III, is shown here in a very moving scene, with his followers doing all the discussion with the pope while Francis hovers in the background like a timid child. Apart from the fact that the hero of Bellocchio's film was amoral and depraved and even insane, the two roles closely resemble each other in the extremeness of the two character's world views, one nihilistic, the other mystic. Bellocchio himself has a small role as Pietro, who pleads with Francis later for some modifications to the stringent rule of poverty and simplicity that his friend insists upon. In illness Francis he leaves his place to Pietro, he retires into a solitary life in Assisi and dictates to one of his followers the new rule for the order, reflected almost entirely by a reading of the gospels. In the end, as death approaches, he has a simple meal with his followers, including a favorite child who winningly repeats the final words of Francis' sentences. Soon after, he is buried naked in the earth. There have been many films about Saint Francis. This is my absolute favorite one. For me it is high praise given that I am a great admirer of Rossellini's masterful "Francesco, giullare di Dio." It is also Liliana Cavani's best film, before she went off into a number of unseemly and kinky creations that rarely appealed to me. Nor is her later remake of the Francis story, called simply "Francesco," and starring Mickey Rourke, of the same high caliber as this picture. See "Francesco d'Assisi" it if you can. It is tragic that this masterpiece is not more widely shown.
It's Not Just You, Murray! (1964)
Memory of an Italian mother and a plate of pasta at Brown University
I first saw this early film by Martin Scorsese at an intercollegiate student film festival at Brown University in Providence on April 16, 1965. I was not a Brown student but I used to attend film showings there, of which there were many, and they formed the nucleus of my education as a film buff. I saw a few other movies in that festival held at Alumnae Hall, but "It's Not Just You, Murray" was the one that caught my attention at the time, because of is brash and entertaining qualities. I remember in particular the amusing image of the Italian mamma coming in with a big plate of pasta, eager to feed her boy. Later I would find out that this mamma was actually played by Scorsese's own mother Catherine, whom we would see later in the documentary "Italianamerican", about both the directors parents, as well as in other cameo roles, including one in "Goodfellas," where her character is kind of an extension of the earlier role in "Murray." The movie got a top award at that Brown festival, not surprising. I filed away a memory of it, taking care to note the director's name. I suspected he would be going places. Later when "Boxcar Bertha" opened in Providence at the Strand Theatre, I went to see it on the basis of the name Scorsese and I was not disappointed, and of course greater films were yet to come in his remarkable career.
Adventures of a two-lira Don Giovanni
"Rubacuori" was one of the first Italian sound films and also one of the first to be shown in America where it played at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York, unsubtitled, intended for the local Italian-speaking population. The movie features the splendid Armando Falconi as our fastidious banker hero Giovanni, who acts the role of petty martinet with the office girls and is a self-styled lady-killer or "rubacuori" elsewhere. Though married (to Tina Lattanzi) , he has constantly roving eyes as he comes into contact with any female who crosses his path or whose path he goes out of his way to cross because he cannot help himself and any pair of shapely female legs changes the direction of his walk. He gives the excuse of nocturnal business meetings to his wife when in fact he is on the prowl at a local cabaret. One night the lights go out and a jewel is stolen from the Dietrich-like singer played by Mary Kid. (She sings the title song "Rubacuori.") Much of the contrived plot from that point on involves that jewel winding up accidentally in our Don Giovanni's hands, implicating him even further in some amorous peccadillos as he attempts to return it to the singer, and creating a concatenation of mishaps. It's all nonsensical contrived fluff, of course, but still quite enjoyable, mostly due to the on-target performance of the great Italian screen actor Armando Falconi. For an early sound film, the visual style is quite inventive and the movie is never stage-bound and even recollects at moments some of the German films made during the previous decade. And for me the presence of character actress Ada Dondini as Giovanni's mamma, is another plus in this pleasant escapade.