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La ragazza con la pistola (1968)
Colourful comedy with a surreal edge, and Monica Vitti!
There's a wonderful surreal character to Mario Monicelli's comedy La Ragazza con la Pistola (The Girl with a Gun), particularly in his fanciful depiction of the strict moral codes of life in a little Sicilian village which exiles a young woman for spending a night with a man. The remainder of the film as Assunta travels across Scotland and England in an effort to track down the terrified Vincenzo with a pistol in her handbag to restore her lost honour, is somewhat episodic and variable, but retains its colourful character and comic touch. Principally however, it's only able to remain as engaging as it does thanks to the irresistible presence of Monica Vitti.
The spectacular opening scenes are actually filmed not in Sicily, but Polignano in Puglia, the geometric structures of its white buildings perched on a crumbling rocky cliff face that seems to be on the verge of toppling into the sea. It does give the surrealism of life in the village an almost Kafkaesque edge that the director exploits marvellously. Despite strict segregation of the sexes and a tight guard, Assunta is abducted by men from Vincenzo's all-male dancing school. Assunat believes that Vincenzo has been watching her through her window, but Vincenzo tells them they got the wrong girl, that he was more interested in Assunta's larger-sized cousin Concetta. "Could be worse", Vincenzo reckons however, and doesn't see any reason why he should let the operation go to waste.
Vincenzo however gets more than he bargained for, as Assunta seems a little more experienced and not as retiring as he might have liked. Knowing that the potential consequence of spending the night with Assunta is marriage, Vincenzo packs his bags and flees the country. Assunta, abandoned, is greeted with wails and laments from the entire village, who come out in numbers to bemoan her lost honour. She is cast out from the town, but not without a pistol in her bag and an address in Scotland where Vincenzo might be found. The strict codes of Sicilian honour demand nothing less.
Vincenzo soon gets wind of Assunta being on his tail, and skips out of the Capri Italian restaurant in Edinburgh fairly quickly and flees across the length of England. Assunta, an avenging angel dressed in black - particularly fetching in sunglasses and black plastic Mac - is however never far behind, always on his tail. Along the way, Assunta meets various men who fall in love with her and experiences all the colour of England in the swinging sixties as well as the industrial greyness of Sheffield, and even ends up on an anti-Vietnam protest in London. La Ragazza con la Pistola eventually runs out of steam in Brighton, but there are plenty of moments of comedy and glamour along the way.
Mio fratello è figlio unico (2007)
Family passions and political turmoil
Like the ground-breaking Best of Youth, My Brother is an Only Child (Mio fratello è figlio unico) covers a key period of political turmoil in Italian history seen in a relatable context from the perspective of an ordinary family. Daniele Luchetti enlists the screenwriters of the earlier successful TV mini-series Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli and manages to bring the same sense of passion and urgency to Antonio Pennacchio's original novel and the autobiographical elements that inspired it.
My Brother is an Only Child covers a more condensed period of political turmoil from 1962 to 1977 that had an intense impact on a generation not only in Italy, but in many parts of Europe and the USA. There's something about the Italian experience however that manages to bring the swirl of forces at work into even greater focus, particularly in the way that they impact on the Benassi family, living significantly in the recently built town of Latina, founded by Mussolini in the fascist style. Developed entirely in eight weeks, the cracks however are now beginning to show.
The times they are a-changing and the former adherence to authority - mainly religious in the Benassi family - is being challenged by their two sons Accio and Manrico. The older brother Manrico has already developed left-wing revolutionary tendencies, and it doesn't take more than a revealing photo of actress Marisa Allasio to cause a crisis of faith in his younger brother Accio who has gone into a seminary in 1962. Accio however also has a crisis of faith in the Communism following the Cuban missile crisis, and turns instead to Fascism, recognising or believing that the ideals and achievements of Il Duce weren't all bad.
That's quite an ideological split in the Benassi family and it's compounded by the fact that they are quite a bunch of headstrong hotheads. Particularly the young Accio, who is still thrashing around for something to believe in, leading him down some very dark alleys, but Manrico also takes his activism to extremes. As dissatisfaction spills over onto the streets in the late sixties in mob violence, this results in some pronounced family tensions, but there are also romantic complications that reflect the film's treatment of the theme of loss of innocence.
Daniele Luchetti's pacy direction holds the wide dynamic of the film together well, getting right to the heart of the Italian passions and its fervour for life. Avoiding any kind of artificial 60s/70s period recreation (of the kind seen for example in Bertolucci's The Dreamers), and eliciting engaging performances from a young cast, My Brother is an Only Child has a wonderful naturalistic freshness and immediacy that speaks about love and youth, about ideals and disillusionment that speaks about life rather than making any political points specific only to Italy.
Il giovane favoloso (2014)
Fascinating and beautifully made historical drama
Mario Martone's biographical film about the early 19th century poet, philosopher and philologist Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is handsomely shot with lovely period detail and good performances based around an intriguing central character. Highly regarded as a major literary figure in Italy, Leopardi is however not as well-known elsewhere and if you're not familiar with the philosopher, Il Giovane Favoloso doesn't give you much more than a broad sense of the nature of his ideas and his writing and little sense of the scale or importance of his achievements. It does however give a compelling portrait of the man.
In the broader sense of the nature of Leopardi's poems and philosophy however, you certainly get the impression that it's deeply pessimistic, pondering the nature of living, love and death with a wistful melancholic tone, if not even rather grim and bleak in its outlook. Although Leopardi denies it in the film, some part of that outlook must derive from or be in reaction to his upbringing and the ill health he suffered all of his life. Il Giovane Favoloso shows the strict upbringing endured by Giacomo and his sister under their father in the reactionary environment of Reconati in the Papal States, where ideas of liberty and progressiveness that were being explored in the rest of Italy were not encouraged.
In such a restrictive environment, denied any contact with unwelcome outside influences and even the possibility of any close personal or romantic relationships - although Giacomo's self-conscious of his own physical shortcomings don't make such matters any easier - it's no wonder that Giacomo's youthful writings and poems, expressed in his 'Small Moral Works' display such a negative view of the world and the nature of mankind. Even when he finally breaks away from his father's influence, inspired by Pietro Giordani and striking up a friendship with Antonio Ranieri, Leopardi's unconventional views may be widely admired, but prove to be far too bleak and despondent for academic circles seeking to promote a more optimistic view that contributes to the betterment of mankind.
Travelling to Florence, and then to Rome and eventually Naples certainly broadens Leopardi's views, but the world for him still remains a hostile place full of anguish. Even falling in love only causes him more pain, his failing health and increasing deformity ruling out any possibility of a romantic attachment. Martone brilliantly captures a sense of Leopardi's Romantic inclinations as well as his darker perspective in a few brief fantasy-like dream scenes, and particularly has a real feel for his own home town of Naples, full of life, death misery and fervour, but stricken by cholera during this period. It's near the slopes of Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii, shortly before the poet's death, that the director captures best this sense of life and works coming together in Leopardi's concluding meditation on the destiny of man in 'La ginestra'.
Youth drama, prison drama, romance
Like Daphne, the young teenage girl in trouble in Fiore, Claudio Giovannesi's film could go in one of two directions. It could be a raw and hard-hitting drama about the problems faced by youths left with no direction, or it could take a more positive spin and show that there is always a chance and hope of redemption. Somehow, quite pleasantly and surprisingly, Giovannesi manages to take the second option by way of the first without giving away any of the essence or purpose of the film to an unrealistic outcome.
Daphne (Daphne Scoccia) has been left to fend for herself on the streets of Milan resorting to theft and petty crime to earn money, but eventually she gets caught stealing phones and has to spend some time in a prison for young offenders. We discover that Daphne has been in such institutions before and that her father has had problems of his own with the law. As he is trying to get back on his feet with a new family, he's not in a position to help Daphne get early probationary release, so Daphne has no option to make the best of it. An MP3 player makes life a little more bearable.
So too does an unlikely romance that Daphne strikes up with Josh (Josciua Algeri), a boy in the male wing of the prison who she first meets in the infirmary. Inevitably, in such a place, the romance is quite unconventional and Josh and Daphne have to resort to passing messages and sharing furtive looks through bars and rails. But finding something, finding someone, finding hope to cling onto is what is most important, and Daphne is determined to find a way, even if that means finding a way out of the prison.
Fiore is about youth and youthful passions. Daphne is not bad, she's just been neglected, left without direction and guidance on how to control those passions. It's so much more difficult to manage them within the rules, restrictions and sometimes cruel whims of prison officers, but it's important that those energies are channelled towards something positive. That's exactly what Claudio Giovannesi does in Fiore. He doesn't pretend that it's going to be plain sailing and doesn't ignore the reality of the difficulties faced by young people like Daphne and Josh, but he and Daphne Scoccia manage to tap into the true heart of the film's teenage tearaway and let that inner impulse for hope drive the film to a more optimistic - but by no means ideal - conclusion.
Non essere cattivo (2015)
Gritty crime drama falls short of the mark
With films like Gomorra charting the impact of organised crime in Italy on a much wider scale and on its way to becoming a globalised industry, it's difficult to understand the rationale and impetus that would bring Claudio Caligari to look back to the less glamourised reality of drugs and crime on ordinary people in the outlying suburbs of Rome twenty years ago. Set in Ostia in 1995, Non essere cattivo (Don't be Bad) seems intent to return almost nostalgically to the townships of Pasolini's Accatone and Mamma Roma, and assess the impact drugs and crime have had on the inhabitants of these districts, with a more updated Mean Streets feel. If the intentions are good, the execution sadly falls somewhat short of the mark.
Non essere cattivo charts the attempts of two life-long friends, Vittorio and Cesare, to live with or find a way out of the lifestyle they have been caught up in. They can only be described as petty thugs, dealing drugs, getting into fights with rivals, asserting their authority as the top dogs in their neighbourhood. Fond of having a good time, the two young men occasionally partake of the drugs they are selling, but after one particularly bad drug experience, Vittorio decides that he has had enough. Having met Linda, he decides it's time to get off the streets and settle down in a regular job. He tries to convince Cesare to do the same by trying to get him a job on his building site, but with a sick niece at home, Cesare needs to earn more money and more quickly and finds that the lure of his old life keeps calling him back.
The story of Vittorio and Cesare is a rather conventional one of a life of crime on the streets, and the attempts of both men to rise above their circumstances and make something better of their lives before it destroys them. There's not really any greater drive than that, so in order for the film to maintain interest you need to relate to or sympathise with Vittorio and Cesare to some extent, but the characters are rather one-dimensional. The supporting and female characters are not particularly well-defined either, mainly silent and ineffectual in their attempts to influence the men, although there are flashes of personality now and again.
If there is a film Non essere cattivo bears a closer relationship to it's not Gomorra, Attacone or Mean Streets, but Trainspotting. By comparison however, Caligari's direction is lacking edge and personality. Rather statically filmed, it lacks dramatic drive, style or dynamism, relying on some pumping 90s' house and dance music to enliven the pace now and again. If it's going for a relatively smaller scale and unglamourised reality however those ambitions are hindered by the conventional narrative trajectory of the film that doesn't permit any kind of gritty realism. It's fairly obvious where the respective choices of lifestyle are going to lead Vittorio and Cesare, and it's only really when you get to the end of the film that you'll perhaps find yourself moved to some extent by the grim inevitability of it all.
Latin Lover (2015)
Light entertaining tribute to golden age Italian cinema
Cristina Comencini's Latin Lover is a light entertaining comedy that is part family drama and at the same time a loving tribute to the golden period of Italian cinema. For all its affectionate tribute to classic Italian cinema, there is one aspect in which Commencini's film differs, and that's in its development of a stronger female focus. The period and the industry that have created these diverse group of women was one very much ruled by men, and Latin Lover seeks to redress the balance a little.
It's an intimate and yet extended family that come together in a reunion, an international family even, because it's the family of the legendary Italian actor Saverio Crispo. Saverio made his name (and spread his love) not just in Italian cinema but across the world; in France, in Spain, in Sweden and (according to the DNA tests carried out) in America also it seems. On the tenth anniversary of his death, the Southern town of Saverio's birthplace are holding a commemoration event with a conference and dedication to the great actor, and this international family are all back together again.
His two wives have come (Virna Lisi and Marisa Paredes) and the four daughters that he fathered, Susanna (Italy), Stephanie (France), Segunda (Spain) and Solveig (Sweden). Shelly, the illegitimate American DNA daughter, is also due to arrive, but hasn't yet turned up. It's probably as well, as the two official Italian and Spanish wives aren't particularly complimentary about her mother, calling her the 'puttana Americana'. There's also another Latin Lover on the prowl, Alfonso, the husband of Segunda, who makes moves now on Solveig, the youngest Swedish daughter. But with other guests and journalists around, there are rumours circulating about other scandals involving Saverio's romantic activities.
There are some clever sequences in Latin Lover of Saverio (Francesco Scianna) playing roles in all the genres of classic Italian cinema that remind you of the vitality and the glamour of the golden age, but among all the comedy, family drama (of the big extended Italian variety) and affectionate nods to the great matinee idols like Marcello Mastroianni, Comencini's film principally serves to display the talents of a new generation of (international) female actors, with great performances from the likes of Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Candela Peña. The presence of Virna Lisa, who died just before the theatrical release of the film, adds to the film's nostalgic allure and its message about coming to terms with the past but learning to live with who we are now.
L'uomo che verrà (2009)
Powerful true-life war drama
It's a bit of a challenge to take on and get across the full impact of the Marzabotto massacre, the worst war-time atrocity committed in Italy during WWII, and director Giorgio Diritti takes a bit of a risk in L'uomo che verrà (The Man who will Come) by viewing events from the perspective of an 8 year old girl. The approach however neither shies away from the very real horror of the events of September 1944 nor sentimentalises them, but presents the story in a shockingly realistic and matter-of-fact way.
Life in the Monte Sole region of Italy, in the mountains south of Bologna, is difficult enough for the inhabitants of the small farming community in the winter of 1943. The work is hard, the people live in poverty and are put under further strain by the taxes and regulations of the fascist government. The pact between Mussolini and Hitler however has just broken down and the German troops who patrol the region have suddenly become a more threatening presence.
For the first half of the film we only get a sense of this from the perspective of Martina, an 8 year old girl. Unaware of what is really going on, her view is one of an innocent gradually coming to an awareness of the nature of the world. No longer speaking since the death of her baby brother, Martina is a silent witness to the world around her, to the struggle to survive. Most of her experiences are typical of childhood; she's bullied at school, is gradually becoming aware of what goes on between men and women, and is looking forward to her mother giving birth to a new baby.
On the other hand, Martina also experiences horrors no child should ever be expected to witness. She sees German troops ambushed and prisoners being executed in the woods, hears the bombardment of Bologna, and experiences first-hand the events of the 28th and 29th September 1944 when she is rounded up with the other villagers by a Waffen SS unit. Accused of sheltering the Partisan units hiding out in the woods who have been attacking their patrols, the SS brutally execute around 770 citizens of Marzabotto; men, women and children alike.
This horrifying true-life event is filmed by director Giorgio Diritti without sentimentality and without exaggeration and it's all the more shocking for it. Despite the necessity of having to create a fictional family and present a child-like narrative viewpoint as a way to navigate through the events, L'uomo che verrà nonetheless is unmanipulative and has an authentic feel for the period, the poverty and the hardship experienced, sparing the viewer little of the horror of what really happened in the region in 1944. L'uomo che verrà won the Best Film award in Italy's 2010 David di Donatello awards.
Lies, loneliness and murder
"Humans are lonely by nature" says one of the unappealing characters in Kazuya Shirashi's Birds Without Names, and essentially it's a struggle against loneliness that defines most of the characters in the film, and indeed it probably accounts for what makes them unappealing as well. Taking on a murder-mystery aspect, the film then becomes a question of how far each of the characters are willing to go to survive or fight against their own nature and the loneliness that lies at the heart of it.
Towako is trapped in a dead-end relationship living with Jinji. She describes Jinji to her sister as "filthy, vulgar, mean, drab, weak, timid and uncouth" and you couldn't disagree with that assessment. On the other hand, Jinji, a construction worker who is 15 years her senior, protects and cares for her, cooking, giving her money, doing everything to try to make her happy. Towako is more than a little bitter and unpleasant herself. Nasty and abusive, she still looks back on what she saw as a more idyllic relationship with Kurosaki, even though it soon becomes apparent that there was an ugly side to that relationship as well. When Towako discovers that Kurosaki has been reported missing for five years and starts to notice Jinji following her as she embarks on a new relationship with watch salesman Mizushima, she starts to have suspicions about just how far Jinji might go to keep her for himself.
There is a thriller aspect to Birds Without Names then, but the truth about what happened to Kurosaki is just another way that is more or less equivalent to Towako coming to terms with the reality of her own nature, with her loneliness, and with how she lets that affect her relationships. While that might sound simple enough, Birds Without Names takes into consideration that this characteristic is not solely the condition of Towako, but also Jinji and even Mizushima, and the combined force and desperation of each of those conflicting needs creates a more complex matrix of emotions.
The film's darker exploration of loneliness, jealousy and abusiveness in relationships could potentially make this unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing, but there are two outstanding performances from Yu Aoi and Sadao Abe that fully support the director's aim to not just depict such characteristics in unflinching detail, or indeed to solve a murder-mystery, but to explore the very real and imperfect human drives that lie behind such actions.
In the shadow of Sirk
Despite some recent interest in his works in the west, Mikio Naruse has still largely remained in the shadow of his contemporary Yasujiro Ozu, a comparison that has hasn't served Naruse well. Despite some superficial genre similarities however, a wider look at Naruse's work - few of the director's 89 films have been seen outside Japan - shows that the comparison really isn't even merited. Shot in Tohoscope and in colour, Naruse's gorgeous melodrama Scattered Clouds is closer to Douglas Sirk than Ozu, but it's also possible to consider the film's style and subject matter as being influential on other Asian filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai (In the Mood For Love) and the Korean master of romantic melodrama Hur Jin-Ho (April Snow). The pace is more sedate, but considering the nature of the encounter here, the passions are necessarily of the slow-burn kind.
It takes that long for Yumiko's feelings to change towards the man who was responsible for her husband's death in a car accident. Shiro, a driver for an escort/entertainments company, has been cleared of any wrongdoing, but can't help but feel a sense of guilt for what has happened, particularly when Yumiko is subsequently disinherited from her husband's family protection. It's this sense of guilt on both sides, for different reasons that draws the couple together, and at the same time proves to be an impossible impediment to the love that they eventually feel for each other.
Strikingly shot, delicately understated, with the occasional abstract poetic cutaway to sustain mood and tension, the pacing and balancing of emotions is masterful as the film builds towards a quietly devastating conclusion.
Momo e no tegami (2011)
Folklore and fantasy
Anyone who has watched any anime features knows that they are able to serve a very different function from live action films. What films like Spirited Away, Wolf Children or Colorful are able to do that traditional live-action can't do quite as well, is find a way of integrating folklore and fantasy elements into the lives of its young protagonists in a way that helps them describe their distinct view of the world and the problems they face growing up in it.
In A Letter To Momo, a young girl Momo and her mother have sold up their apartment in Tokyo and gone to live near some relatives on Shio Island. Momo's father has just died in a boating accident, and an unfinished letter that opens only with 'Dear Momo...' doesn't bring about the kind of closure the young girl needs. Three drops of rain from the sky however accompany Momo to the island, where they take the form of ghostly goblins from an old picture-book.
Even though the creatures can only be seen by Momo, the trick with anime films of this kind is that the viewer needs to be drawn into Momo's view of the world, not seeing the line between fantasy and reality, letting the message that lies behind it weave a magic spell without being overstated. That of course if the cinematic art of illusion and A Letter To Momo does this particularly well, creating good interaction between the characters, exploring the opportunities for visual effects, and building it all up to towards an epic conclusion that gets message across sensitively, without preaching or speaking down to a younger audience.
Movies as cultural exchange
It might seem like a simple little romantic movie, but Naoto Kumazawa's Jinx!!! manages to be touching despite its manipulative and sentimental premise. Arriving in a Japanese school as an exchange student from Korea, Ji-ho (played by K-pop group T-ARA idol Hyomin) strikes up a friendship with her Japanese friend Kaede. Using her love of films she attempts to help her friend and a boy she has long admired overcome their shyness and declare their love for each other by acting out classic scenes from Love Actually, The Notebook, Edward Scissorhands and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
It's hardly a serious examination of cultural differences, not even within the narrow field of romance. but this lovely little film will convince you about the power of movies, the creation of illusions, and their ability to transform one's view of the world. Jinx!!! doesn't rely entirely on western cinema to achieve second-hand effects either. Ji-ho's own tragic-romantic love-story is meaningfully and skillfully integrated into the narrative, and has a beautiful romantic allure of its own.
Seiten no hekireki (2014)
Under no illusions
Illusions take many forms in Gekidan Hitori's Bolt From the Blue. Right from the start, we're shown a series of sleight of hand tricks but the magician performing the tricks isn't an illusionist, he's a bar attendant. Haruo seems to have given up on any desire to be a successful stage magician, disillusioned with the direction his life has taken. When he goes to pick up the belongings of his estranged father who has just died in somewhat in far from pleasant circumstances, the reality of just who his parents were and what really happened in the past hits him like a ... well, like a bolt from the blue when Haruo is flung back to 1973.
The time-travel science is a bit dodgy as Bolt from the Blue is not an exercise in nostalgia, as it often is in Japanese reflections on the past, nor despite appearances is it an attempt to look back at an idealised past and question where it all went wrong. Gekidan Hitori's film - adapted from his own novel - might seem to use the illusion of cinema to force an fantasy of the possibility of second chances, but in a film about illusionists, appearances can inevitably be deceptive...
Hansamu sûtsu (2008)
The ugly reality
Every day Takuro has to live with the ugly reality of who he is. Underneath we're sure he's a lovely man, but the surface appearance and behaviours aren't exactly attractive. Running a cheap diner out Osaka direction, you'd have to admit that he's a bit of a loser; overweight, with disgusting habits, a thick provincial accent and he's not much to look at either. Basically, he's ugly.
No one, least of Takuro, or the hundreds of women who have shunned and fled from his advances would dispute that. A pretty new waitress, Hiroko, can see beneath the thick surface, but even she is disappointed when Takuro declares his love for her. How can he show them all the real Takuro? Fortunately, there's an experimental new suit not yet on the market - the Handsome Suit - and Takuro's appearance makes him the ideal candidate to try it out. Just keep it away from hot water!
Tsutomu Hanabusa's The Handsome Suit has much of the highly-stylised and ultra colourful manga/anime visual language of Tetsuya Nakashima (Kamikaze Girls), but director Tsutomu Hanabusa never lets the cartoonish special effects overpower the sincerity of the message, or the brilliance of the comedy. The message, of course, is an obvious one - we've all seen Shrek - but it sometimes what's important is how you get it across.
Kawachi Karumen (1966)
Classic lurid early Seijun Suzuki
Exploitation of traditional cinematic narrative devices - or just plain exploitation - is a field where veteran director Seijun Sukuki excels, and in Carmen from Kawachi he applies his unique stylisations wonderfully to the idealisation of the big city/country divide so popular in Japanese cinema. Having been taken advantage of back home (gang raped) and having seen her mother prostitute herself to a wealthy local businessman, Tsuyuko has no option but to sell herself as well, but chooses to do it on her own terms, leaving life on the mountain to work as a hostess in a night club in Osaka.
Although we get a wonderful Japanese swinging 60s' rendition of the Habanera at Club Dada, Tsuyuko 's life as a cabaret dancer is more Lulu than Carmen, hooking up with a love-struck client, a lesbian fashion designer, an artist, an old flame from home and then a rich man, but Suzuki at least spares her the traditional tragic fate of opera's fallen women. Shot in black-and-white widescreen with some highly stylised sequences and a New Wave sensibility, Carmen from Kawachi's is as lurid and colourful as any of Seijun Suzuki's later work.
Learning to love nature
The between city and country life is one that is recognisable and popular not just in Japanese cinema but probably the world over, and it's always good material for a comedy. In Shinobu Yaguchi's Wood Job! a soft city boy finds himself out in the sticks with a lot of country hicks and is forced to endure much embarrassment and raise much hilarity as he learns to toughen up and get in touch with the real world. You can't go wrong with that for comedy, and Wood Job! certainly makes the most of this situation.
Having failed his university entrance exams and subsequently been dumped by his girlfriend, Yuki Hirano settles for enrolling at "Green Camp", lured by the image of an attractive girl on the cover of a brochure. Little does he realise that not only does being a Trainee Forester involve a lot of hard work in places infected with snakes, bugs and leeches, but you can't even get a mobile phone signal way out there in the middle of nowhere. The people out here talk kind of funny too.
Wood Job! doesn't miss a trick as far as fish-out-of-water comedy goes, but it's slickly made and often laugh out loud funny, and yes, 'wood' has similar connotations in Japan it seems. The romantic situations however are a little limp, no matter how big the tree used at the village festival, but the real love encounter here is the one Hirano and the audience enjoy with the beautiful heartland of Japan itself.
Chi to hone (2004)
Once upon a time in Japan
Blood and Bone might as well be called 'Once Upon A Time In Japan' for the strong resemblance it bears to Sergio Leone's epic account of the immigrant experience in post-war America. The immigrants in Yoichi Sai's unrelentingly violent film are Korean, displaced there after the Japanese occupation, the country and any national identity further destabilised after Japan's defeat in the war. Arriving in Osaka in 1923, Kim Shunpei is determined to make a better life for himself, and when he returns from the war sets up a fish-cake factory, expanding later into the loan shark business. His explosively violent temperament however means that he leaves behind him a trail of death and destruction that doesn't even spare his family.
Well-known for violence in his own gangster movies, 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano takes brutality to monstrous proportions in a performance of remarkable and terrifying intensity, but you could tire very quickly of him punching women in a yet another appalling rampage. In some ways however Kitano is just too big a personality, even for such an epic film, overshadowing any finer points it might have made about the Korean-Japanese experience.
Mugiko san to (2013)
A sweet, engaging and warmly humorous film
The spirit of Ozu inevitably comes up in Japanese family dramas, and there is a similar gentleness of pace and love of character expressed in the generational conflict of Keisuke Yoshida's My Little Sweet Pea. There is something more about the film however, about the individual circumstances of each of the characters that is itself uniquely and entertainingly Japanese. Mugiko, for example, is an anime fan who dreams of becoming a voice-over actor in a country where such a career can be a valid aspiration. If there is a similar character to Mugiko's brother earning a living working in a pachinko parlour and her mother working as a cleaner in a 'love hotel', deep down their aspirations and realities are universal. As are the family matters that lie at the heart of the film when Mugiko takes a journey to a remote country village (another very familiar device seen in many Japanese movies), to get back in touch with human feelings and discover the mother she never really knew. Using the same actress, Maki Horikita, for daughter and the flashbacks of her younger mother might seem an obvious device, but it does actually help to define the bond between them, revealing character, personality and life in what is a sweet, engaging and warmly humorous film.
Some people's realities
There are a few convenient encounters in Mipo O's The Light Shines Only There, but moored to a stark realism, an unconventional narrative approach and characterisation that is far from typical, it just has a way of making those narrative twists even more unsettling. Set in Hakodate in the remote north island of Hokkaido, Tatsuo has turned to heavy drinking and gambling as a means of blocking out a terrible event in his previous employment as a quarry miner. An encounter with the sister of Takuji, a guy he meets in a pachinko parlour, could however save Tatsuo from oblivion. Chinatsu's family affairs, her job at a squid factory, her love life and her ways of earning some extra money are hardly ideal, but such is In Tatsuo's position that you suspect he would willingly sacrifice illusions for some semblance of normality. Some people's realities however might be too hard for anyone to live with. If there are some characteristics that remind one of a Kinji Fukasaku wild youth movie, with even a slight gangster spin towards the conclusion, Mipo O's film applies real people to dramatic situations and shows the often brutal nature of life in the remotest regions of Japan.
Cosa voglio di più (2010)
Strangely banal and uneventful
Cosa voglio di più, English title 'Come Undone', is essentially the story of an affair. It provides little context or psychological examination of its characters, makes no moral judgement and offers little in the way of justification for their actions. The Italian title (translated literally as 'What more do I want') gives more emphasis to the idea of the film literally being about just wanting something more.
There doesn't seem to be any particularly deep want in Anna. Her sister might have just had a baby, but she doesn't really seem to be ready to have one with husband/boyfriend, Alessio. The relationship between them is easy-going and stable, even if there is no real passion there. He's a handyman, watches the pennies carefully; she works in administration for an insurance company. If their love life is unexciting, there's no conflict there either, certainly nothing that suggests that she's ready for an affair.
There's no doubt however that she is interested in Domenico/Mimmo, a cater who turns up for one of their work functions. Anna suggests coffee, they finally manage a meeting, and eventually end up at a motel for sex. It soon becomes a regular affair, but finding the time to be together is increasingly difficult. Mimmo has a wife and two children and has to steal an hour or two while he is supposed to be at the pool swimming. Anna, plays the old working late at the office line. There's only so long before suspicions are aroused in their partners, but Anna is impatient.
All Cosa voglio di più seems to be saying is that we all need a little bit of excitement outside the mundane practicalities of life. For all the passions that are raised, it's curiously detached, lacking the more gentle charm of a similar theme in Soldini's Bread and Tulips. For most films it would be the passionate affair and the exploration of deep emotional needs that would be the focus of the story, but Soldini intentionally seems to give more attention to the little banalities that have to be taken into consideration, taking time over Anna looking through brands of facewipes while she takes a call from Mimmo, or Mimmo mentally balancing the cost of paying for a motel room against the urgent needs of his children. It's refreshingly more honest about the realities of affairs, but that perhaps doesn't make for the most exciting drama.
Unpleasant characters in overworked drama
Nadine is in Paris auditioning for a modelling agency. Unimpressed with the proceedings she goes out for a smoke and meets Fausto, an Italian waiter at the restaurant where the auditions are being held. Fausto invites her to see the most expensive room in the hotel, believing its current occupant to be out of town. When the guest returns and threatens to report the intrusion, Nadine steps in to protect the waiter from losing his job on her account and is manhandled by the man. Fausto beats him to a pulp, is apprehended and ends up in prison.
For two years in La Santé he writes to Nadine, who has promised she won't forget him, but Nadine doesn't respond or visit. On his release Nadine comes to meet him. In the intervening years she has become a successful model, learned some Italian and is based in Milan. The reunion doesn't go well. It all gets a bit violent and emotional.
A bit emotional (with the violence implied) kind of sums up the tone of Alaska, directed by Claudio Cupellini, who has also worked on the Gomorrah TV series. Fausto is a hothead, but Nadine sticks by him and fights with him constantly. She has plenty of reason to be upset as Fausto, finding it hard to find steady work in Milan, takes the money she has earned modelling to invest it in a business venture with a friend, a night-club called Alaska.
There's a strange kind of symmetry to the film, and it seems like trying to adhere to this structure ends up pushing the film into ever more desperate ways to maintain its balance. Nadine's employment is taken away also in a car accident that occurs during one of their explosive fights. Nadine, like Fausto, finds rehabilitation difficult after her accident, and likewise makes some poor career choices that result in the absurd twist of her also ending up in prison. Will Fausto support her through this in the way that she failed to do?
It's all very dramatic. And it's largely a very unpleasant film, its script riddled with profanities, about two people that you can't really ever sympathise with. It's hard to even recognise what kind of attraction they could have for each other, as they never really seem to hit it off and neither of them have any great qualities that would endear them to the viewer either. You can't help feeling that they get what they deserve really, which probably wasn't the intention of the filmmaker.
To put it unkindly, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is like a feature version of The Undatables. It's based around a boy and a girl who are drawn together through their common status of socially awkward outsiders, but who are so messed up that their encounters are painful and the chances of them actually ever getting together seem very slim.
Mattea is super-intelligent but moody, withdrawn and uncommunicative with his parents and friends. As a young boy he was close to his mentally disabled sister Michela and looked after her, calming her during her 'episodes' As a young man, Michela is no longer there, and there is clearly an experience in their childhood to be revealed that that has marked Mattea and left their mark on him in the form of self-harming.
Alice also has visible scars. She walks with a limp and is bullied by the other girls, who call her a gimp. One of the girls, Viola, becomes her friend however and encourages her to pursue her attraction to the sullen Mattea by inviting him to a party. Her family life however has also been troubled, with a pushy father and an unstable mother. Neither Mattea nor Alice fit in with the world around them and suffer at the hands and from the taunts of others, but it's nothing to the suffering and the pain that they inflict upon themselves over incidents in their childhood.
In terms of storyline it's as straightforward as that, but the structure of the film split into different time zones for both Mattea and Alice does complicate matters. Or not so much complicate as attempt to create a non-linear impression of a fractured mindset. It's a fractured past however that nonetheless shares echoes and correspondences between them, between past and present, between two people each trapped in their own worlds and in their pasts.
There are moments when you feel that some kind of escape or redemption might be within their grasp, where they might make a connection that could help them to face up to the past and escape from what the might become, but the traps of the mind keep preventing them from getting past the past. There are moments of melodrama and intensity, but good performances from Alba Rohrwacher and Luca Marinelli give a human face to the weight of torment that some people have to endure all their lives.
Noi e la Giulia (2015)
Classic old-style Italian comedy
Noi e la Giulia is first and foremost a comedy film, one that harks back to a rather more innocent age of Italian comedy, but it also has something to say about the present day, the kind of lives we lead and the difficulties those of an in-between age face.
Four men around the age of forty have looked at their lives and decided that they are pretty much failures. When his father dies, Diego - an unambitious and timid car salesman feels that he has been a disappointment to the old man, and decides to finally follow through on his long term ambition to buy some property in the country for a business venture. Two other men however have reached the same conclusion and have arrived to look at the property at the same time; Fausto (director Eduardo Leo), a fascist-leaning shopping channel watch salesman with mounting debts; and Claudio, who has run his family grocery business into the ground and lost his wife in the process.
The asking price for the farmhouse comes in far above their budget and it also needs a lot of work, so they agree to go into a joint venture, splitting the business three ways in the hope of establishing a hotel/restaurant getaway in the country. They are still not well equipped for the challenges they face in getting this venture off the ground however until Sergio turns up. His disappointment in life is the failure of Communism, but as he is owed money by Fausto, he demands a share in the business instead. He also proves to be a handy man in another way, when a camorrista turns up and demands protection money even before they are ready for their first customers.
Locking Vito up in the cellar until they can make a profit and sell-up doesn't seem to be the greatest idea ever, particularly when other mafia come looking for him, making further demands for money. Their method of hiding Vito's car - the Giulia of the title - by burying it in a hole that was dug for the pool, also proves to be a bit of a mistake as the car's dodgy stereo occasionally blares out pieces of classical music from underground. This however becomes something of a tourist attraction, a natural curiousity with a supernatural story attached to it that eventually draws in the clients.
It's very much a character comedy with standard types of losers making good, and the film is at least well rounded in that respect, with not only the four main men but Vito, the mobsters, Elisa their cleaner, and Abu a Ghanan immigrant, each with their own issues to resolve and all contributing to the colourful comic situations. The comedy of fools running up against the camorra makes it sound like I Soliti Ignoti meets Gomorrah, but it's a lot more light-hearted and innocent than that - more like Smetto Quando Voglio meets The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Actor/director Eduardo Leo handles the tone well, the comedy inoffensive, a little bit silly, but often quite amusing.
A childhood in the time of the Mafia
Directed by and starring TV personality Pierfrancesco Diliberto (Pif), the mix of comedy, childhood reminiscence and documentary reconstruction of Mafia killings in Palermo during the 1970s seems like an unusual mix, but The Mafia Kills Only In Summer would go on to win several film awards and be developed subsequently into a TV series.
There are two halves to the film, the first half dealing with the early childhood of Arturo (Alex Bisconti), his love for a new girl Flora, and his growing awareness as a child of the influence that the Mafia have over the everyday lives of the citizens of Palermo in Sicily. The second half, stars the director Pif as Arturo, now a grown man aspiring to be a journalist, still dreaming of his true love Flora as she reappears in his life, and with the events that would eventually lead to the decline of the Mafia's stranglehold over the city.
Both parts of the film have their own attractions. The first half has some moments of childhood whimsy and comic overplaying, a bit like the cinema fixation of Cinema Paradiso, only for Arturo the fascination is an unusually strange devotion to the Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti. The second half mixes romantic comedy with Arturo and Flora's involvement in politics and journalism, which presents some unlikely contrasts alongside the increase in violence and assassination by mafiosi under pressure from the authorities.
In the end it's those connections to what is happening in the real-world that succeed and validate the films approach. It not only gives a real sense of what it means to have grown up in Sicily during those times, the strangeness of the times contributing to a strange view of the world for a young child, but it also manages to pay tribute to those who fought against the Mafia and paid for it with their lives. The style might seem incongruous and exaggerated, but it seems a genuine response to the times and the people who lived through them, and - just as importantly - it has an easy approach that ensures that its message is able to reach out to a wide mainstream audience.
Hungry Hearts (2014)
Patchy but interesting
The subject of Hungry Hearts is an original and challenging one, and certainly not the usual kind of drama involving a couple that you might expect. Saverio Costanzo, the director of The Solitude of Prime numbers, clearly doesn't do the common subject matter in his films, even when working in America.
Even the manner in which Jude and Mina meet is far from common, and it's clearly not the most romantic of situations. Both are trapped within the small restroom of a Chinese restaurant in New York, where Jude has embarrassingly had a bad case of the runs. The two of them are not only unable to open the door but they can't even open a window for fresh air. Nonetheless, they become a couple, Mina gets pregnant and they get married. Jude is American and Mina is Italian, but their differences go deeper than that, and it's the birth of their child that brings them starkly to the surface.
Even before the baby is born, Mina is concerned about her pregnancy, not eating much and having nightmares. She consults a fortune-teller, develops strange ideas about the child and is determined to have a natural birth, involving hospitals and doctors as little as possible. When the baby is born, she becomes over-protective, refusing to let the baby breath the filthy air of NY city and unwilling even to let the baby take antibiotics for an infection. Adam and the doctor are concerned that the baby appears malnourished and isn't developing. Thereafter, a struggle develops between Jude and Mina to ensure that the baby doesn't come to any harm.
It's not a bitter struggle but a cautious one, where even the authorities are unwilling to intervene on such a sensitive issue. This is where Costanzo show his ability not to provide standard dramatic points or stray into melodrama, but rather explore the situation in a more balanced way in line with the nature of the main characters. It's not perfect however. The storytelling feels a little schematic (with Mina's premonitory nightmare and its realisation being just a little too neat), but it also feels patchy with a semi-improvised, handheld, indie, almost Dogme-like quality. Some high angle fish-eye views feel a little gratuitous as a means of presenting Mina 'distorted' perspective on reality. The performances are also variable, Driver not entirely convincing, Rohrwacher's English often difficult to make out.
On the other hand the emotional charge of the reality of the situation still comes across effectively without having to rely on glossy cinematography or a melodramatic score, and you really get a sense of the seriousness of what is at stake. Presenting a balanced view of an unbalanced situation is tricky, but Alba Rohrwacher also makes Mina more sympathetic than you might expect, the young woman tortured in her own mind rather than just being deluded and dangerous. It's typically well-played by Rohrwacher with intense interiority.
Smetto quando voglio (2014)
Breaking Bad Italian style
The Italian equivalent of Breaking Bad is not surprisingly somewhat more light-hearted and funny, the film's popular success seeing it nominated for 10 David Di Donatello awards. Smetto Quando Voglio (I Can Quit Anytime I Want) stars Edoardo Leo as Pietro, a professor of molecular biology who is finding that his work is not really being valued at the college he teaches. He has a terrific new research thesis, potentially Nobel prize winning material, but no-one even understands it, much less respects his work.
More importantly, as far as his wife is concerned, all his research doesn't pay the mounting bills, so Pietro hasn't the heart to tell her that he is in danger of losing his job. Even the private tutoring isn't paying, his students preferring to spend huge amounts of money on recreational drugs; expensive drugs that are cheap to make. Bing! Cheap and easy to make for a professor in molecular biology, particularly one who has just developed a new theoretical program that can be tweaked to be a psychotropic substance that isn't on the list of illegal substances because it doesn't exist yet.
Gathering the best minds of academia behind it - all former colleagues of Pietro who have been left struggling in badly paid manual labour jobs - not only is it going to be the best drug ever, it's going to be the best organised operation ever. As long as they can keep from attracting the attentions of the local mafia, as long as Pietro's wife doesn't find out what he is doing and as long as all the money and hookers that come as part of the package don't impinge on the success of their operation. Obviously that's exactly what happens, but luckily they can give it up anytime they want...
Smetto Quando Voglio succeeds partly because it has a basis in the reality that reflects the problems of funding and the value given to the academic professions, and the difficulty it has competing when students have other 'outside interests', but it mainly works because it is quite funny. It's largely a situational comedy, the main joke being the idea of a bunch of eggheads including an archaeologist, a cultural anthropologist, an economist and a molecular biologist, having to apply their learning to being petrol pump attendants or a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen, and then becoming drug kingpins who rob pharmacies with guns from the Napoleonic wars.
The humour is light-hearted then, and there's nothing too flash about the script or the direction, although the high-saturation luminous colour scheme does give the film a nice contemporary feel that just makes the drug-running professors look even more out of place in the criminal underworld. It's the performances that keep it running, headed up by Edoardo Leo, who would go on to direct his own version of an unlikely team setting themselves up in business against the mob in Noi e la Giulia in 2015.