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10 reviews in total 
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5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Colorful melodrama, buttressed by fine production values, 30 September 2005

"Romanza Final" (note that "romanza" means "song") is a movie for those who like opera or movies about opera; it is especially directed to fans of José Carreras, and possibly to people interested in Spanish culture. Were it not for this movie, we probably never would have heard of Julián Gayarre, since he lived from 1844-1890 before the advent of the phonograph. He belongs to two traditions, one glorious, one tragic.

He was, first of all, one of an impressive number of Spanish-speaking singers who have, over the last century or more, enriched the world of opera. They are too numerous to mention, but names like Conchita Supervia, Victoria de los Angeles, Alfredo Kraus and Placido Domingo come to mind. He was also one of so many prodigiously talented performers of classical music who die young, often suddenly, leaving behind a shocked world, but spared the agony of old age and public indifference. Performers such as Caruso, Mario Lanza, Fritz Wunderlich, and Claudia Muzio departed while still at the height of their powers.

We are told that the scenario is part fact, part fictionalization and we are not entirely sure how to separate the two. The stages of his career are true to life, but what about his great love Alicia? Did she exist, is she entirely fiction or a conflation of several different women? The real question is "What is actually known about Julián Gayarre? Clearly, not enough.

The script itself follows an all too predictable course - an unusually gifted young singer, poor but industrious is accidentally discovered, leaves his child-hood sweetheart to pursue his career, re-unites with her after she is married and struggles with the demands of his job and the back-street affair. Alicia must lie to her suspicious husband who eventually confronts her and issues an ultimatum.

Several things prevent this film from sinking entirely in the soap bubbles - the color photography, the images of Spain, the aristocratic bearing of the performers and above all the great arias that pour forth from José Carreras who was here at the height of his vocal beauty. Soon after this movie was made (1986) he was felled by the illness that almost cost him his life. Today he must feel a special affinity for Gayarre who was not so fortunate. Carreras acquits himself well, saying his lines a bit mechanically but honestly and without trying to plummet depths that are not there.

He is partnered by Sydne Rome, a beguiling actress of doll-like beauty who, unlike her leading man, emotes to the maximum. Ms. Rome is well known in Europe where she has made something of a name for herself in European movies of the racier variety. Here, fully clothed, she becomes a major factor in keeping the film afloat. Her looks and his voice combine to infuse aesthetics and emotion (or is it schmaltz?) into the simple story.

All the actors speak Spanish except, I believe, Ms. Rome who appears to have been dubbed. There is a cameo from Monserrat Caballé, another magnificent Spanish soprano in the great tradition. Some new musical material was created for this film, including the somewhat over-blown "Vive".

The movie's shortcomings become less noticeable by the time it reaches its conclusion with striking images of a splendid monastery and the glorious orchestral sounds of zarzuela in the background.

14 out of 16 people found the following review useful:
Endearing and heartfelt, but over-romanticized, 25 September 2005

If you agonized through "Amadeus", cringing at the depiction of a giggling buffoon and his featherbrained Constanze, shuddering at the underlying premise that God gave the gift to the wrong man for reasons we just can't understand, then this film may provide you with a pleasant antidote. Filmed in 1955, probably in anticipation of the bicentenary of his birth, it gives a totally different view of the composer, and recreates the last year of his life on a more intimate anti-blockbuster scale. But though it is an engaging effort with many fine points, it doesn't succeed in redeeming Mozart from the fictions of Milos Forman's travesty, because it is itself a fictionalization that distorts in its own way the character of the composer.

The last year of Mozart's life was a living hell since he was physically very ill and financially in difficulty. The necessity to keep composing was all the more tortuous because of his suffering. The symptoms he had - pain, vomiting, fever, chills, swollen hands and feet, seem to point to kidney disease. He was taking large quantities of various drugs and medicines, no doubt compounding the ailment. He knew death was inevitable and his wife was terrified.

This script by Karl Hartl depicts a fun-loving girl-chaser who dashes through the fields in pursuit of his mistress, climbs trees with her, cheating on Constanze with the certainty that she will forgive him. The girl in question is Nannina (Annie) Gottlieb who created the role of Pamina. In this version it is she, not Constanze, who becomes distraught over Mozart's illness. In the two biographies I consulted no mention is made of this exuberant love affair. It may be true, it may have happened earlier in his life or it may be Hartl's attempt to provide Mozart with a soul-sister, since the name Gottlieb is the German equivalent of Amadeus meaning "loved by God". The effect is to diminish the tragic end of his life and to shunt Constanze to the sidelines.

Salieri is a minor figure; there are just hints of animosity between the two men when Mozart's face darkens at the mention of his name. No mention either of "La Clemenza di Tito" the opera that had just failed in Prague, thus placing even more pressure on Mozart to succeed the next (and last) time, with "The Magic Flute". Freemasonry is not alluded to except through excerpts from the opera, nor is there any analysis of the symbolic shift from heresy to the deepest ritual of the Catholic Church - the Requiem Mass. But the mysterious stranger who commissions the Requiem cannot be avoided since he is the messenger of doom.

If what emerges is a buoyant, appealing tale of young man whose precociousness was rooted in a deep creative matrix, it is thanks to the radiant performance of Oskar Werner. His elegant, sensitive portrayal disarms and charms us to the point where we forget the distortions. We see in his portrayal the hunger for life, the need for love and approval, the disgust at compromise, the rebelliousness, the playfulness, the terror and acceptance of death. And all within the severe limitations of this so-called "historical" scenario.

The other players are excellent, in particular Erich Kunz as Emmanuel Shikaneder/Papageno. His clever, humorous, impatient pragmatism is a perfect complement to the unpredictable ways of creativity. The women are intelligently portrayed. The music is heavenly.

Unfortunately, this video is dubbed. I was not able to find a sub-titled version. I cannot say with certainty that Oskar Werner dubbed himself.

We are on the eve of the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. Vienna, I believe, is already celebrating. Let's hope that any books, films or dramatizations that emerge from the festivities reflect the man in all his complexity. Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it's a lot more interesting. It might be best to just read his letters and listen to his music.

16 out of 18 people found the following review useful:
The priest and the poor - a symbiotic relationship?, 21 September 2005

Before the welfare state there was private charity. Often springing from the ranks of the Christian church, private individuals founded hospitals, hospices, orphanages, and attempted in general to alleviate the misery of the impoverished. Seventeenth century France saw the apogee of the French monarchy, of French power and culture. The monarchy itself sometimes created hospices for the poor. One such was the hospice of Salpétrière founded to help women in trouble or without means. Today it is the hospital that made headlines for a while, since Princess Diana died there.

This film is the story of one man's private endeavor to alleviate suffering. He must be distinguished from today's bleeding heart types in that Vincent de Paul gave up the totality of his possessions to actually go live among the poor. Interesting questions are raised about the psychological underpinnings of poverty itself and the nature of a man willing to renounce comfort to dwell amidst filth, germs and other indignities. He himself acknowledges with some alarm that he is as dependent on the poor as they on him.

He learns that the poor are violent, petty, selfish and arrogant, demanding more than they give in return. But he also finds people willing to improve their lot and to assist him in his Herculean efforts. He is shocked at the conditions in which they live, shocked even more at their resistance to improvement. But Christian charity is a burden that requires one to redouble one's efforts by giving love unrelentingly to those who unrelentingly shun personal responsibility and who hate the one toiling on their behalf. Still, even Vincent de Paul would not continue with such exertions did he not perceive that he was making progress.

The depiction of his wealthy female benefactors is fascinating because they are well-intentioned women willing to do good works, but unable to go beyond a certain limit of generosity. They are painfully honest about the repugnance they feel at the sight of an illegitimate baby.

Few of us could do what Vincent did, living like one obsessed. Likewise, few actors could match the electrifying performance of Pierre Fresnay, whose charisma seems to be divinely inspired. He was one of several great French actors of the classical theater who left an enduring legacy on film. Sir Alec Guinness said Fresnay was his favorite actor.

All in all, a classic with unforgettable performances and haunting black and white photography.

Gaby (1956)
11 out of 15 people found the following review useful:
Inadequate successor, 4 September 2005

This film is a re-make of "Waterloo Bridge" which I saw many years ago. It was an atmospheric love story with sterling performances from Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. The original play was by Robert E. Sherwood, also known for "The Petrified Forest".

This re-make fails on several counts. First of all there is almost no atmosphere. There is beautiful saturated color and cinemascope, neither of which add anything specific to the story. Furthermore, the sets in many scenes, especially at the end in the bombing, are so obviously fake you can almost imagine stagehands picking up the pieces for the next performance.

Second, no matter how hard she tries, Leslie Caron is not convincing as a prostitute. As a dancer, yes. When she abandons dance for prostitution we do not see a transition. She gives as a reason for her actions remorse over sending Greg away before their love was consummated. Now that he is dead, she wants to give others what she deprived him of. A rather shaky rationalization.

Third, no matter how hard he tries John Kerr is incapable of playing a grown-up. He is forever the boyish young man, awkward in speech and movement.

The film does not have a smooth trajectory. The individual scenes seem to be patched together.

The ending, likewise, is not convincing. He forgives her as if all she had done was to ruin the soufflé. They seem like two kids in love playing around with adult games.

The fault for all of this lies in the general concept of this particular re-make, which the producers obviously felt had to be more sugar-coated for the audience of the mid-fifties, unwilling, no doubt, to accept Leslie Caron as a bad girl. But in the end, nothing is gained by this strategy.

However, there is still some charm - almost unavoidable when Leslie Caron is the star - and some moments that show the promise of what might have been a very good movie.

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
An unusual concept, lacking firm direction, 3 September 2005

Are you interested in mime or ballet? Do you have a fondness for folklore or tales of the supernatural? Are you moved by the musical compositions of Ralph Vaughan Williams? If the answer to any of these is "yes", you may find some pleasure in this unusual film.

I first heard of "Willamstowne" from Classic Arts Showcase on PBS and purchased the video from a website devoted entirely to this film.

It is basically a silent movie, with just a few lines of dialogue, about Sarah, a vibrant village girl who is killed in an accident, causing endless grief to her family and friends. But she returns from the dead, so strong is her need to be with her loved ones. One of the best scenes is at the beginning as she smells once again the sweet air of the earth, and reacquaints herself with the beauty of nature.

She walks among the villagers remembering her life. They sense her presence, especially her parents and husband. We see her remembering with pain the place where she was killed. She watches her daughter grow up without her. She is constantly thwarted in her attempts to re-connect to the living.

Eventually Sarah is forced to realize that the passage between the two dimensions of life and death runs one way. She must accept her own death and allow others to live in peace.

Sarah is played by the beautiful Deni Delory who moves like a dancer though she never actually dances. It is only through her sheer presence that the film achieves any level of conviction. Without her there would be little to admire, for the other actors range from the unbearable to the intolerable. This is especially true of Richard Horian who plays her husband. It is to Horian's discredit that he cast himself in this role that cries out for a powerful male presence. He comes across as an unappealing laborer devoid of personality. One can only wonder why she would return from the grave for him.

Some scenes are uncomfortably sentimental, some are silly, such as the young boy who caresses a grotesque female figurine from the stem of a ship. The presumed erotic effect escaped me completely. I found myself cringing.

But the real raison d'être of this movie is the lush music of Vaughan Williams whose "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis" runs throughout the entire film giving it a sweep and a purpose it would not otherwise have. It is said that producer Horian was so enamored of the piece that he felt impelled to weave a tale around it.

Not everyone will like "Williamstowne". A thin plot, unfortunate casting and clunky amateurish moments take their toll. Notwithstanding all that, the concept of setting a wordless tale to great music has merit, but a much stronger hand is needed than one finds here.

Topaze (1933/II)
4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Live and learn, 31 August 2005

One remarkable thing about Louis Jouvet's stunning performance is the subtlety with which he conveys the transformation. Topaze does not go from country bumpkin to worldly-wise con artist. This would be too simple and implausible. Rather every gesture, every nuance seem to suggest an intelligent man, playing by the rules, who has no clout whatsoever, being suddenly empowered through humiliation. He was made a fool of, and so the inner man no longer has any reason to lack courage and self-confidence. It is a baptism of fire. He not only learns but he sizes up his manipulators and makes fools of them.

Louis Jouvet did not achieve this level of interpretation without relentless, near- fanatical devotion to his craft. A kind of control freak he agonized constantly over his stage productions, for, in fact, he was given the stewardship of several theaters in the days before commercial theater and television. Thus, he set a standard almost impossible to duplicate.

Here, he is supported on all sides by the greats of French theater and cinema - Edwige Feuillère, who plays Suzy Courtois, left behind roles of this type to go on to become one of France's most versatile and honored actresses, often portraying noble women.

It's hard to imagine a better Castel-Benac. Pauley has the shape of an inverted pear and in French "poire" (pear) also refers to a dupe!

All in all a fine example of French comic theater, thankfully preserved on screen.

11 out of 21 people found the following review useful:
The art of emotional detachment, 11 August 2005

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I have read with interest the reviews of this movie and am indebted to their authors for the unusual perspectives and personal insights that they expressed. I agree with most that this is a finely crafted work, beautifully photographed, extremely evocative of the era and never dull. Catherine Deneuve is breathtaking, Depardieu has boyish charm and Heinz Bennent is a revelation.

All of that is not sufficient to make a great movie, even though many of the images are memorable. The problem is that the film does not deliver what it promises. Having built up slowly in tenseness, having exposed the deadly problem of collaboration with the Nazis, having stimulated the viewer's concern over the fate of the Steiner couple, the director then chooses to turn the whole thing on its head and give us a surprise ending of sorts that (for me anyway) was highly unsatisfactory. This surprise is actually triple, since each of the three protagonists does something unexpected and out of character, or at least at variance with the way we have been led to perceive the character.

Lucas cannot accept capitulating to the enemy, nor can he envisage the loss of his theater, but he seems to accept with masochistic resignation, if not downright generosity, the adultery committed by his wife.

Marion is depicted as a woman sincerely concerned with her husband's well- being and assiduously protective of him. Even if she feels an illicit attraction, there is no reason for yielding as she does to temptation. This cheapens her character beyond redemption. Couples separated during the war frequently sought consolation, but Marion and Lucas are together.

Bernard is apparently bi-polar. He collaborates (though we don't know why), then does an about-face and joins the Resistance! We don't know why he does that either. Is the grass greener on the side of patriotism?

To reward his inconstant wife and her unreliable leading man Lucas displays magnanimity beyond the call of duty by writing a play about the affair. In the final scene triumphant Marion gets BOTH men and a hit play to boot. People of Jewish faith may regard this as a slight, since the Jewish director becomes the servant of his own wife and her once pro-Nazi boyfriend. I'm sure the director did not mean it this way, but frankly, I don't know what he meant, except that adultery has no dire consequences; in any case a hit play is the best revenge.

Are we supposed to understand this to be a comment on art imitating life or on theater as catharsis or on human beings coping with unbearable adversity? It would be fair to say that it is all that. Most of all it's about the show going on at all costs. The characters in this film are all subservient to the Greater Good, namely Theater.

But the film lacks a moral core because the director cannot bring himself to moralize. So he resorts to showing people not as flawed, but as detached from scruples and lacking in any self-judgment that would result in guilt feelings. This contrasts strikingly with the films of Eric Rohmer in which the characters all experience an inner struggle and a constant need to analyze their own actions.

One could say that the absence of an inner struggle is the salient feature of the film, resulting in a final product that is visually stunning but so detached emotionally that its message, such as it is, is inconsequential.

4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Truffaut's child-world, 31 July 2005

*** This review may contain spoilers ***


Only François Truffaut could transmogrify a series of banal, almost humdrum, scenes from the lives of children in a small French town into an experience that gains in enjoyableness with each viewing.

He is a master of the ordinary, the quotidian, using everyday events to piece together a patchwork of commentary, reprimands, warnings and frustrations in such a way as to hold our interest and stimulate discussion.

There is, however, little that is original in this movie. He does not so much break ground as get things off his chest. It is autobiographical in the sense that Truffaut was traumatized by his unhappy childhood and so idealizes children, attributing to them a likableness and an incongruous maturity that they may not have in real life. I do not mean to denigrate children, but from the first scene to the last, the viewer is being lectured on how to raise children.

There are three instances of parental neglect. Two of them - where kids are left alone in the house - are treated lightheartedly. I presume this is because he did not want his film to be a tragedy and so opted for happy resolutions.

Mr. Richet and Miss Petit say the most commonplace things, both in the classroom and to one another. When they discuss exhibitionism, Truffaut turns a dreadful classroom problem into something easily solved through the magic of an understanding and wise teacher. Would that it were that simple!

Likewise, the initiation of children into the chaotic world of eroticism and rivalries is depicted as being relatively easy to accomplish. These scenes of children trying to be adults in love were the least successful, in my opinion, because they were too obviously a contrivance.

The breast-feeding scene, despite its delicacy, cannot escape the inevitable trap of being both cloying and didactic. We can almost hear him pleading with us to recognize the beauty of motherhood. Again, I must emphasize that I do not disagree with him, But I was aware of being preached at.

Mr. Richet's soapbox speech - the film's culminating scene - reveals to us the director's inner motivations. Instead of stressing the need for firmness, discipline or realistic goals in the raising of children, he delivers a hackneyed cliché from the school of progressive pedagogy - that children should have their own political representation! Then, they could enjoy so many benefits, such as exemption from punctuality. One can only assume Truffaut was never called upon to resolve the contradiction inherent in this movie - that children should be cared for and loved on the one hand, and at the same time given whatever they desire. He has allowed his own personal suffering and resentments to cloud his judgment.

Despite these reservations, the film has great class and elegance. The actors (or non-actors) are wonderful.

There is perhaps one comment made by Mr. Richet that merits special attention. He notes the emotional regression suffered by boys who are switched from a boys' school to a mixed environment. At one time it was normal to separate the sexes. This was done not out of prejudice, but out of the realization that many problems can be avoided this way.

Finally, this intimate glimpse of rural France of 30 years ago stirs up much nostalgia, since the troubling and possibly unsolvable social problems of today make the capers of the kids in this film seem like...well, small change.

28 out of 31 people found the following review useful:
Still crazy after all these years, 20 July 2005

I just bought this video from a reputable company. I was quite surprised to see that it was available - it has been out of circulation for years. One person told me long ago that it had never been put on video. That person was obviously misinformed.

The video itself is not in the best condition. The film is in black and white and there are several moments of white glare, followed by excessive darkness. There are some breaks and pops, just like my old LP's.

These visual defects, strangely enough, added to my enjoyment, for they gave the movie a vintage quality. Indeed, one has the feeling that this movie could have been made in the 1930's or 1940's.

This film is a direct descendant of earlier screwball comedies and screwball mysteries such as the Thin Man. Kim Novak looks at times like Jean Harlow and the scenes of London are a wistful reminder of how very British the city once was.

The clever plot revolves around the question of Mrs. Hardwicke played by Kim Novak. Is she or is she not guilty of murder? Briefly Bill Gridley wrestles with himself over this issue, but his attraction to her gets the upper hand. Hey, what's one dead husband when you're in love?

An unexpected event leads to a zany trial and last but not least to a madcap chase straight out of a Buster Keaton comedy. Lovely Kim really has trouble keeping her hat on as she tears through the fields in pursuit of poor Estelle Winwood.

I found Jack Lemmon in top form, contrary to one commentary posted here. He is completely natural, without the slightest hint of effort. But he usually is this way.

Casting Fred Astaire was a stroke of genius - his presence adds even more vintage, and I mean vintage in the most complimentary sense. He is a real asset and I wish he had just danced a little.

All in all, great fun.

11 out of 12 people found the following review useful:
A sweet piece of nostalgia, 15 July 2005

This film is highly recommended for those people who have an appreciation of an elusive quality called charm. Charm is in short supply in today's cinema be it French, American or other. Charm is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it. The daydreams of a young composer may seem like a frivolous topic, but an actor of the caliber of Gérard Philipe make it all seem so worthwhile. The essence of the story, for me anyway, is the collision between dream and reality - our hero is constantly reminded of how ordinary life is, how unsatisfying compared to his luscious fantasies. He is constantly brought crashing down to earth. But these scenes are precisely the funniest ones. I recall especially the scene in the classroom where the kids mock him to death - how humiliating, but still it's hilarious.

Gérard Philipe said that the director René Clair left nothing to chance. Every tiny detail, every nuance was carefully thought out in advance. The greatest problem for René Clair was that of rhythm. Apparently they were always trying to shorten certain scenes by a few seconds in order to heighten the comic effect.

One of the greatest of all directors and an actor of unquestioned skill, conscientiousness and charm collaborate on an effort that reminds us of what French culture used to be. It may seem dated or even corny to some, but I hope that for others it serves as an image of cultural values that will not be seen again.