Wednesday 6 July 2016

Sydney Film Festival (24) - Max Berghouse reviews SUBURRA & FRANCOFONIA

Suburra (Stefano Sollima, Italy, 2015)
There is an imaginary country which I have called "Cinema Italy". It is purely imaginary. It is a place where the Vatican is at the intersection of, or the instigator of or the beneficiary of, corruption. It is where all politicians are venal and are only in politics for themselves or the relevant mafia dons who have put them in their position. It is where guns are freely trafficked. I don't mean neat and tidy Berettas which fit easily into one's pocket or Glocks, largely plastic and used by police forces around the world. I mean huge nickel plated American-style semiautomatics, which, when used to devastating effect, normally occurs when no one interferes and the police are never present.

Come to think of it, it is suspiciously close to the real Italy! This film, coming as it did towards the end of my sojourn at the Sydney Film Festival, where lassitude, fatigue and hunger were undermining my determination to see more films, was a real tonic. I enjoyed every moment of it and it was only towards the end and subsequently that I realised it was altogether too "slight" intellectually and emotionally to be a worthy inclusion in the film Festival.

The plot concerns one such venal politician, Filippo (with his own secrets to keep covered up and thus an easy mark for the mafia) acting as legislative front for various mafia families who wish to remake Ostia, the seaport of Rome into a Las Vegas style centre of gambling, prostitution, et cetera et cetera et cetera..... Anyone who has seen Ostia would realise that practically anything in the way of redevelopment would be beneficial.

That said it takes nimble work to keep all the mafia families more or less in line as it does to keep Filippo in line. These mafiosi are very professional. Deaths mount and much blood is spilled. One has no attachment to anyone: it must be a bit like being a spectator at ancient Roman games, being overwhelmingly indifferent as to which gladiator gets it in the neck and which survives. But that is probably the point. The only moral judgement, and I think this is very tentative, is a seemingly adverse view of an up-and-coming mafia family consisting in a most incredibly vulgar clan of Gypsy gangsters. I had a passing vision as I watched that "if you can't blame the Jews, blame the Gypsies!". And then at the very end the very down to earth mafioso "facilitator" of the investment in Ostia by the mafia families, and also the principle punisher of those who step out of line, comes home to his elderly mother (he appears to be unattached to any female) with a little offering "for Mum" – a kosher cake. So there it is – the Jews get it in the neck at the end.

All the above would seem to indicate that I had a very negative view of the film. I didn't. For what it was, it was superb. It was like a comic book come to life. I thought this particularly in one scene where a drug addicted girl who had seen her gangster boyfriend killed, revenged herself and him by taking out the facilitator gangster. She used said nickel plated semiautomatic revolver, so large, it looked as if she would not be able to carry it and so noisy that it would have raised the dead, or at least someone in the local constabulary – even though it was raining at the time.

The director, Stefano Sollima is partly known for work in television with gangsters being the theme. "Gomorrah" is probably the best-known. He is the son of Sergio Sollima a much esteemed cult director who although very prolific is best remembered for his three spaghetti westerns. Although exceptionally professional and skilled, his reputation is really as a second stringer whose work is invariably compared adversely to someone else in the industry. As to spaghetti westerns, not his only area of professional expertise, he is adversely compared to Sergio Leone. I think much the same can be said for the son: extremely technically proficient, but without a particularly noticeable individual vision.

The film is apparently a prequel to a proposed television series produced by Netflix. I don't have this download service but I can say I would get it just to see a series based upon this film and its characters.

Francofonia (Alexandar Sokurov, France, 2016)
I am certainly not going to insist that all films must follow a linear pattern although nearly all classic films do, based as they probably are on 19th-century novels and made by producers who were born in the Victorian period. That said, at a bare minimum I would hope that a film would be able to show, even if it required effort on the part of the viewer, the director' s real view on the subject matter. Vagueness and uncertainty are too often excused when what in fact is to be seen is simply bad workmanship.

So it is with some trepidation that I write this review on Francofonia, by the highly regarded Russian director Alexander Sokurov. I'm sure this review will be the first and only anywhere that reviews the film without further reference to the director’s previous film Russian Ark  (Russia, 20??). I just note that confusion about the film, at least to me, starts in the very title, a made up word it bears some similarity to Francophone (a speaker of French) and Francophile (a lover of French).

Determined as I am to try and find some certainty in the film, it seems to me that it is an essay on the nature of beauty, its importance, particularly in regard to painting and the relevance of one of the largest palaces of art, the Louvre in Paris.

One part of the film is the director trying to maintain telephone contact with a sea captain of a container cargo ship, who was at sea and struggling with heavy weather. His cargo are works of art and there is every chance that they will be lost. I presume, although this may be completely incorrect, that the footage of the ship is stock footage but it is very good although its emphasis on long-distance shots is in substantial contrast to other parts of the film. To the extent that the director' s aim is to demonstrate the permanent relevance of art, I think he succeeds because my feeling was a sense of fear at the loss of artworks within the ship, but I was substantially unconcerned with the human cargo. Art is permanent, but life is transient. Incidentally there is one superb shot of the cargo ship with a number of containers which had been lashed to the deck, coming adrift and hanging perilously over the side of the ship.

A further aspect of the film is the nature of the treasure trove within the Louvre itself, probably the largest repository of art in the Western world. There is much study of the paintings, almost as if this were an art class. It is very beautifully and tastefully executed but is scarcely dramatic. In viewing corridor after corridor we are met by Napoleon Bonaparte in full military uniform, played to no particular purpose, as comic. Often he passes by a painting and says to it "Cest moi”. I don't think this is meant literally, some reviewers indicating that it's a sign of madness, rather it is a statement that through him the collection was enormously augmented and that this augmentation was substantially booty from his campaigns. So on reflection, the desire of the Germans in the Second World War to loot as much of the collections as possible, is understandable, if not laudable. Also there is the impression that simply to be found in the Louvre is to constitute a painting or sculpture as a work of art.

Along with Napoleon we meet "Marianne", the symbol of France whose only words are "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" which I think is meant to indicate that the museum is now the property of "the people" rather than the autocracy, although I have to say I'm trying to give this the most positive spin I can.

Lastly, and this is the section which I found most personally intriguing, is the relationship between the French civil servant head of all the galleries in France M. Jaujard and the Inspector of art for the German occupying forces in World War II, Count Franziscus Wolff-Metternich. The former gives the physical impression of a state underling of not much power – he is quite poorly dressed – and I don't know if this be deliberate. The Count however looks positively stunning in his Wehrmacht uniform. But of course, everyone makes that comment about German uniforms! Apparently the two worked together to ensure that Germany was not able to take back to Germany, as many of the treasures as they wanted. As hostilities commenced, vast numbers of paintings were removed from the museum and placed out of the way in chateaux. I found this section very interesting and indeed would like to have seen more of it which must prove that the personal and intimate are more interesting than the public and the grand. It is a very intriguing story of shared cultural values despite the onset of the vicious war. The director brings to our attention subsequent life histories of both men although for the life of me, I can't see why.

I enjoyed watching this film just as I enjoyed its being over. I'm reminded of the quip of Tallulah Bankhead "There's less in this than meets the eye" said, apparently, on watching a play by Maeterlinck.

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