Tuesday 17 August 2021

Lockdown Life - Janice Tong looks for signs of life from Italy - A QUIET LIFE (Claudio Cupellini, 2010), LUCIA'S GRACE (Gianni Zanasi, 2018), PASOLINI (Abel Ferrara, 2014) and A ROOM WITH A VIEW (James Ivory, 1985)

Toni Servillo, A Quiet Life

Lockdown life in Sydney has made the days of the week lose all meaning. I’ve worked long hours during this time and the only salvation at the end of the day are my books and of course, films and a couple of well-chosen TV series. Of the latter two, I’ve taken to watching quite a few Italian films as well as television shows and found them delightfully sentimental without the soap. The set design, narrative, direction and acting are, in fact, impeccable. Whilst I won’t be reviewing the TV shows here, but if you’re looking for a good detective series that is story-driven, one that is not running on adrenalin alone and certainly not filling your screen with blood and gore then I would highly recommend you take a look at one of these: Rocco Schiavone: Ice Cold Murders on Stan, Maltese: The Mafia Detective (Foxtel); and Masantonio on SBS on Demand.

The name Toni Servillo needs no introduction even to those who have only a passing interest in Italian cinema. I first saw this brilliant Neapolitan actor in Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty (2013) and more recently I’ve had the pleasure to see his incredible performance in Il Divo (2010) playing the politician Giulio Andreotti. In that film, Servillo’s face was transformed to such an extent that it was an immobile mask, putty-like and unyielding, a shield where nothing can get through nor escape. Deep is the corrupted state of affairs, so much so that it has penetrated the soul of a man, and a nation state. But I like Servillo best when he is playing more sensitive and thoughtful character roles,  the detective in The Girl in the Fog (2017), recently shown on SBS on demand, and similar by name, but totally unrelated, The Girl by the Lake (2007) also on SBS a few years ago. 


Here, in Una vita tranquilla, Servillo is Rosario Russo, a skilled chef who is running a small restaurant-hotel in the German countryside. And he is indeed leading a quiet life, but for the way that Italians gesticulate so passionately, (and this element is not lost in this sleepy Alpine-like town. Russo does a fine job of arguing just so in the kitchen with his Venetian chef, Claudio), all seemed to be well with his little family; a young son, he is well respected in the community, the restaurant is shared in partnership with his German wife, Renate, played by the wonderful Juliane Köhler, whom I’ve not seen since Downfall (2004). The multilingual nature of this bonded family unit lends an air of both sophistication and familiarity at the same time.


Juliane Köhler, Toni Servillo, A Quiet Life

But all is not well when two young ruffians show up, Edoardo (Francesco Di Leva) and Diego (Marco D'Amore). You can immediately see that there’s a shared history between Rosario and Diego, and more than that, their roots lie deeper than that of family, but in Rosario’s hidden past. The two young men turn out to be Camorra hitmen who have come under orders to clean up. The mood in the film changes; although still quiet, danger now permeates its mise-en-scène. We know well in advance that it will not end well. Diego’s naivety almost matches that of Rosario’s young son; it seems that the bloodline of an assassin has not bonded his family in a calculable way and Rosario’s sacrifice is far greater than the escape from his past life. Claudio Cupellini’s direction gives this film a slow burn and Filippo Gravina’s script is precise. It reveals Rosario’s nature to us in a single scene, with him systematically tapping copper nails in a ring around clusters of Alpine trees; in order to kill them.


I first caught the luminous Alba Rohrwacher in Luca Guadagnino’s gorgeous and memorable film I Am Love (2009) at the Sydney Film Festival, reviewed here. Since then, she has appeared in no less than 40 films, but sadly, I’ve only managed to see a handful of them; including Perfect Strangers (2016) with the wonderful Marco Giallini who plays Rocco in the film (just like his alter-ego Rocco Schiavone in one of the Italian TV series recommended in this post). She was also in Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael's Ghosts(2017) at the French Film Festival and more recently at this year’s French Film Festival she was in Chloe Mazlo’s Sous le ciel d'Alice (2019) reviewed here. I also saw her in her sister Alice Rohrwacher’s film Happy as Lazzaro (2018) currently available on SBS on Demand.

Alba Rohrwacher, Lucia's Grace

Let me say how much I enjoyed this film. Lucia’s Grace is one of those small films that leave you thinking feeling good long afterwards. As a professional surveyor and single mother, Lucia’s life came to crossroads when a woman, we realise almost immediately that she is the Madonna, appears to her when out surveying a field. Lucia was hired by a local businessman who wanted to build a showy function centre in the middle of a pristine Tuscan-like golden field; called inappropriately (and uglily), The Wave - this proves to be ironic later on. Lucia was asked to survey the land with her assistant Fabio (Daniele De Angelis) but was later asked to accept the old dodgy surveyor map rather than to provide her own professional opinion.


Director Zanasi cleverly understates the visions and make them grounded and believable as a parable of sorts, and cinematographer Vladan Radovic saturates the film in a golden hue that adds to this modern day fable. There are so many beautiful moments about family, Lucia’s teenage daughter who looks just like a version of herself; love and investing in things that have meaning. Branded as a comedy by its distributors, (yes, there are lots of comedic moments) I see it more to be a finely narrated film that sets out to ask fundamental questions about the human condition; about belief and self-worth. Do you have faith in your own convictions and belief in your own skills and abilities. And then how to use those abilities and gained knowledge to navigate authentically in the real world. 

Willem Dafoe, Pasolini

Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is a wonderful retelling of the last days of this great director’s life. Willem Dafoe must be one of the luckiest actors alive to be able to embody, in a single lifetime, the spirit of Van Gogh, Jesus and now Pasolini. 


Perhaps the most sombre and least crazed of Ferrara’s work. wth some of the film’s dialogue drawn directly from the writings of Pasolini, and hence, thoughtful and full of poesis. I wrote extensively on Pasolini’s film Teorema (1968) years ago when I was doing my degree in Film Studies and one of my very treasured possessions is Pasolini’s novel of the same name. Love or hate his work, once read or seen, it is difficult for his writings or films to leave you. 


I was happy to see an aging Ninetto Davoli, one of Pasolini’s most beloved actors, and his one-time lover and longtime companion in the film. However, it was Pasolini’s final meeting with his destiny that really hit me hard. There was no new ending that can be ascribed; unlike that given to Sharon Tate in Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). This auteur, poet and intellectual was simply killed in what was more or less a chance encounter. His novel The Divine Mimesis, published posthumously (it was already in the hands of his publishers before his death) is a must-read for those interested in this director.


When I think of the romance of Italy, I also think of A Room with a View; yes, that is quite quaint of me, but this is a film from my childhood that I have deep nostalgia for, as I do with other Merchant Ivory co-productions, such as Maurice (1987), Howard’s End (1993) and The Remains of the Day (1994) but to name a few. I’ve always enjoyed these productions, as my love for the reserved natures of the characters in these films, is one of the shared joys of being a Sino-British child.


Julian Sands, Helene Bonham Carter,
Maggie Smith. A Room With A View

I’ve not seen A Room with a View since I first saw it on the big screen, so I decided to read the book as well as watch the film in tandem. How is this achieved you ask… well, in stages if you must know. I would race ahead and read some chapters before watching the film (broken into 3 or 4 long segments), the book on the other hand, is a slim volume. The effect is quite peculiar, but interesting, as the film does not follow the E. M. Forster’s novel exactly, and I reveled in these slight differences. 


I hadn’t realised how marvellous Helena Bonham Carter was as Lucy Honeychurch, she was only 19 years of age at the time and this was her first feature film. Both Julian Sands (as George Emerson) and Daniel Day Lewis(as Cecil Vyse) were ten years older than her at the time, and again, their performances though completely absorbing (you can already see the craft in Daniel Day Lewis’ as a bold character actor) just makes Helena’s Lucy shine all the more. The stellar cast with Dame Maggie Smith,Denholm ElliottSimon CallowDame Judi Dench andRupert Graves, with incredible vistas of Rome, beautiful costumes, the whimsical hairdos and the English countryside, as well as the easy-to-like narrative charms you throughout. But of course, in the heart of this story, hearts turn despite all the decorum that surrounds it.


The epiphany that occurs to both George and Lucy is via an act of transgression; and what better than place for this to happen, then in the holy city of Rome? If you don’t know the story, then, pray, read the book, or see the film; better still, do both, as I did.


A Quiet Life  on SBS on Demand. Lucia’s Grace on Stan. Pasolini on Mubi

A Room with a View from J+N’s private collection. 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.