Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Current Cinema and Premiering at the Mardi Gras Film Festival - Rod Bishop highly recommends ALL OF US STRANGERS (Andrew Haigh, UK, 2023)


Paul Mescal, Andrew Scott, All of Us Strangers

Andrew Haigh’s latest – and his best – reaches our screens drowning in a welter of glowing, admiring reviews. Beguiling to begin with, it slow-burns its way to an incandescent conclusion. 

For those who regard themselves as supporting gay relationships, and bask in a warm inner glow while voting for same sex marriage, yet still struggle to understand the hostility some gays have to their portrayal in the cinema, Haigh’s two overtly queer films Weekend and All of Us Strangers make good antidotes.

The fiercer of the two, Weekend rages at the normalcy of heterosexual culture and its pervasive, unconscious way of marginalizing those with different sexual orientations. All of Us Strangers is far quieter, more subtle – it includes, for instance, painful, almost whispered agonies over families who claim acceptance of their gay son but at Christmas, still hurtfully centre all their attentions on his heterosexual siblings and their children. Leaving him, if not outside, then effectively always stranded on the periphery. 

Andrew Haigh

Adam (Andrew Scott) is traumatized by bullying at high school and, at the age of twelve, by the deaths of his parents in a car accident. He lives, virtually alone, in a huge block of new apartments in London, writing screenplays for film and television. He tentatively starts a relationship with the only other resident, Harry (Paul Mescal) - also gay and also intensely lonely.

Adam takes a train to visit his old family home and finds his parents alive, but still at the ages of their deaths, and therefore much younger than he is. It’s a brilliant magical realist device for unravelling the complexities of their relationships. Mum (Claire Foy), for instance, has only just heard about the gay plague, and is clearly disturbed by her son’s now declared gay status. His father (Jamie Bell) is more accepting, but still unable to reconcile his aloof, remote, emotionless fathering and the lasting impact it’s had on his son.  

Shot on 35mm, Haigh’s hypnotic and, at times, hallucinatory direction, is complemented by flawless performances from the cast. The mundane locations are transformed by the metaphysics and the wrenching emotions and Haigh effortlessly casts a spell over his heart-breaking story.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, the 80s transgressive band from Liverpool, makes a welcome revival, particularly The Power of Love (“I’ll protect you from the hooded claw, Keep the vampires from your door…The power of love, A force from above, Cleaning my soul, Flame on, burn desire, Love with tongues of fire, Purge the soul, Make love your goal.”)


All of us Strangers has its premiere in Sydney at the forthcoming Mardi Gras Film Festival. For information regarding session times and bookings CLICK HERE

Tuesday 30 January 2024

At Antenna Documentary Film Festival - Margot Nash presents the Sydney premiere of UNDERCURRENTS: MEDITATIONS ON POWER

The Blood of Empire, Undercurrents

Margot Nash writes:

Dear Friends

I am thrilled to let you know that my new film, Undercurrents: meditations on power now has a Sydney screening.


It will screen in the Antenna Documentary Film festival in the Australian Shorts Competition, Session 1 on Sat 10 Feb at Dendy Newtown at 11:30am. See: 


See the leaflet below. Check my web site for updates


Hope to see you there.


Best wishes,



She thought about power, Undercurrents


Sunday 28 January 2024

CINEMA REBORN 2024 - JANUARY NEWS, A SNEAK PEEK + Other festival classic restorations in February

A belated happy new year to all of Cinema Reborn’s supporters, friends, contributors and sponsors. Just a quick note to remind you of our dates for 2024.


We go on at the Randwick Ritz on Wednesday 1 May through to Tuesday 7 May. We ALSO go on, for the very first time, in Melbourne at the Hawthorn Lido from 9-15 May. Final confirmations still to be received but we are aiming at 17 programs of wonderful new 4K restorations from five continents. Many of the titles will have both daytime and evening screenings in both cities. The full program will be released around March 15 and bookings for both cities will open then.  


In the meantime, above and below are a couple of photos of directors whose work will screen at Cinema Reborn in May..... And, although  many of you who have attended recent sessions at the Ritz will have seen a trailer produced by our great supporter Ben Cho drawing attention to one of the real sparklers of the program but if you haven't and your curiosity is whetted you can find it If You Click Here


Cinema Reborn’s work over the years has long been sustained by the generosity of our donors who help us make up the shortfall between our income and the costs of obtaining and screening our program. Distributors and producers who have paid for expensive restorations cant be expected to give their work away. Some place extremely high values on their work and that’s a burden we’ve been able to meet over the years with the help of many friends. All donors are acknowledged in our catalogue and those making substantial gifts are recognised as having supported particular titles in the program. If you would like to know more just reply to the email address or you can straight to the Cinema Reborn 2024  page on the website of the Australian Cultural Fund and make a tax deductible donation. All donations great and small are very welcome. The Australian Cultural Fund page can be found If You Click Here



On Saturday February 24 at 4.30 pm at the Event Cinema in George Street, the Mardi Gras Film Festival is presenting a major restoration this year of Marek Kanievska’s ANOTHER COUNTRY. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, this groundbreaking gay classic features star-making (and swoon-worthy) performances from Rupert Everett, Colin Firth and Cary Elwes. Based on Julian Mitchell’s acclaimed play and inspired by true events, Another Country explores the impact 1930s British boarding school life had on Guy Bennett (Everett), and his later decision to become a Soviet spy. After falling madly in love with a fellow student (Elwes), Guy must decide between asserting his sexual identity or conforming with the school’s oppressive student hierarchy. With its thought-provoking screenplay and sublime performances, the film unforgettably captures the dreamy idealism of youth and first love. BOOKINGS If You Click Here

The Europa Europa Film Festival
 is a major annual survey of the best of modern European Cinema. This year it will also feature two superb restorations - Bernardo Bertolucci’s THE CONFORMIST and Jean-Luc Godard’s LE MEPRIS among several dozen selections. The festival takes place from 15 February to 11 March and screens in Sydney at the Randwick Ritz and in Melbourne at the Elsternwick Classic and the Hawthorn Lido. Full program details and links to session times and bookings can be found If You Click Here

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 - Bruce Hodsdon continues his remarkable series of essays - 6 (22) - Italy Part 5 Post-neorealism (ii): Fellini, Olmi

Editor's Note: This is the 28th essay in Bruce Hodsdon's series chronicling what he has called International Art Cinema. The series started in March 2022 and at the foot of this entry on Italian masters Fellini and Olmi  there are links to the previous 21 posts. The series will continue throughout 2024.

Federico Fellini

Fellini biographer John Baxter makes clear that there was certainly no love lost between Federico and Luchino Visconti. “It is hard to think of two men with less in common than Fellini and Visconti 
[…] For all his success Fellini never earned the respect Visconti accepted as his right. Although always courteous, even deferential to Visconti in public, in private Fellini was scornful (57-8). Roberto Rossellini’s background could also not have been more different but “he was the first man Fellini fell in love with. The relationship wasn’t physical but the attachment was passionate… Rossellini’s charm and glamour swept the naive Frederico into his circle. ‘Rossellini was the father he never had’ says one friend of the time. (69-70)” 

Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini

For Federico Fellini (1920-93) Italian neo-realism entailed a commitment primarily to artistic honesty rather than to a particular style or content” (Bondanella 229). Fellini saw La Dolce Vita as a “development rather than a closing’’ of neo-realism which he identified with Rossellini.

Fellini moved permanently from his home town to Rome in 1939 where he enrolled in the University of Rome although there is no record that he ever attended classes. As a freelance journalist he had the flair of a natural “for maximising the profit from a good idea” (Baxter 49). He supplemented his income from journalism by selling caricatures for publication. Working as a writer for radio gave him the experience in writing dialogue. He persuaded the owner-editor of a magazine to let him write about film and theatre stars. It was a small step from interviewing stars to thinking about a career in film. He found plenty of work as a film journalist and increasingly as a gag writer for movies achieving his first writing credit in 1943 for a film starring Anna Magnani. “His script work made him new and influential friends” including Benito Mussolini’s film-struck son Vittorio. Like every young Italian male Fellini became preoccupied with evading the draft (ibid). 

Fellini’s first contact was an approach by Rossellini about co-writing a scenario with Sergio Amedei for a tragi-comedy based on the life of a priest executed by the Nazis, the embryo of Rome Open City. Fellini’s final contribution to Open City is visible in only one scene - the priest’s encounter with a nude statue (ibid). It was working with Rossellini on Paisà and The Miracle that Fellini first experienced the exhilaration of filmmaking.

I Vitelloni

I vitelloni (1953) is a portrait based on memories of his hometown group in his birthplace, the provincial town of Rimini. His early films form “a trilogy of character” with Luci dei varietà/ Variety Lights, co-directed with Alberto Lattuada (1950 ), and Lo sceicco bianco/ The White Sheik (1951) “devoted to the clash of illusion and convention, social mask and authentic personality” (Bondanella 130). In his breakthrough international art house success starring his wife Giulietta Masina, La Strada (1954), Fellini here and in his two following films Il bidone/The Swindle (1955) and Le notte di Cabiria/The Nights of Cabiria (1956), moves “beyond his concerns with characters to a new dimension, one motivated by a personal vision and particular Fellinian mythology [exploiting] the already existing mythology of Christianity ” -  a trilogy on the theme of “spiritual poverty and inquiry into the nature of growth and salvation […]  outside a proper Catholic context” (ibid)

Fellini came to realise, as the years passed, that the script from his story “Moraldo in the City” was no longer viable because Rome was no longer the city he knew when he first arrived there” (Liehm 174).  La Dolce Vita (1959) was born from the nights he spent in Via Veneto in the company of a crowd he was never attracted to: the paparazzi congregated to make and take scandalous photos to sell to the yellow press. Out of it Fellini created an episodic fresco on the widescreen held together by two picaresque ‘heroes’, a journalist (Marcello Mastroianni) and his photographer. “Fellini danced his way through the hell and purgatory of modern life wearing a sardonic grin sometimes compared to that of Dante in the ‘Divine Comedy’ “(Liehm 221).

La Dolce Vita

He creates an idiosyncratic world of images and dream fantasies abandoning traditional cinematic realism. His obsession was already with the problems of the artist with its mix of modernity, recollection and reflexivity. 

Otto e mezzo/ 8 1/2 (1963) is the representative film. “In all its essentials, the film’s action grew out of Fellini’s life” (Baxter 180). A successful filmmaker is with his entourage in a remote spa to complete the script for his new film. Far from relaxing, Guido is racked by dreams in which “the vision of childhood is spacious and welcoming.” Baxter relates that Fellini’s  discovery of the work of Gustav Jung in the late 50s “made the process of refining his ideas for a new film even more tortuous” while encouraging him to further abandon realism. He had a confused desire to make a film about a day in a man’s life. “Convinced by his reading of Jung that he need no longer apologise for his imagination, Fellini intended to celebrate it in a film dedicated to the concept of the director as creator” (ibid 172). A film “entirely based on his own personality” was assembled into parades and processions marching to Nino Rota's obsessive music broadening its appeal to again attract the more general ‘La Dolce Vita audience’. 

8 1/2

At the same time, 8 1/2  has a special place “for the remarkable influence it had on the development of modern cinema.” While Kovács sees Last Year at Marienbad (1961) as marking “the closure of the romantic period, 8 1/2  represented the new consolidated status of modern cinema” (316). He also sees it as “the first film to focus entirely on the modern conception of ‘authorship' in the cinema. In Kovacs’ view, Fellini’s film emerged “at a crucial time in the context of the cultural debates over art and modern culture, “engaging with Ingmar Bergman’s doubts about the capability of cinema to express deep philosophical concerns about human existence that Bergman first personified in the characters in his 1949 film Fangelser/ Prison (1948) (ibid).

With Satyricon (1969), Kovács notes that, like Pasolini, Fellini “feels free not to reconstruct Petronius’s fragmentary “original” self-contained world of antiquity in ancient Rome but to construct his own visual and narrative mythology outside of time. From fragments originating from here and there, from antiquity, from modernity, history of art, and from his fantasy Fellini makes “an everlasting metaphysical structure of decadence salient in the midst of this pile of cultural debris and mythical fragments” (187), creating “a mythos, not merely a plot”  (Bernard Dick quote in Kovács).  Kovacs identifies this “mythical ornamentalism” is for Fellini, “a way of conceptualising, in an allegorical way, the actual reality around him,” an alternative to modern minimalism. This is something, as Kovács points out, that Tarkovsky also “takes up most seriously” (ibid).

Wider concerns are also at times admitted by Fellini such as those of women in a repressive society (Juliet of the Spirits 1965) which Fellini acknowledged  was “inspired by Giulietta and based on her.” He wanted her to play a character different from Gelsomina (in La Strada) and Cabiria. In Amacord (1974) it was the freedom of the individual in an era of social and political conformity.  

Mira Liehm describes Roma (1972) as “a stream of apparitions from Fellini's life” (298).  He was “the author of an oeuvre that holds together as a unit… The modes and times changed as he changed […] as society and the world changed, but his films continued and developed the same essential themes and ideas.” (Morando Morandini essay 587 Nowell-Smith “World Cinema’ ed.)

“Fellini, Fellini, what have you done with your youth? He is almost the only one who can answer without telling a lie: ’I’ve told everything about it.’ ”  - Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, foreword, ‘Amarcord’


Ermanno Olmi

The national heritage of socially committed neo-realism exemplified by the early films of De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti, was the starting point for a style of naturalism or ‘post neo-realism’ for a modern generation of directors in the early 60s such as Pasolini, Bertolucci, Rosi and Ermanno Olmi (1931 - 2018).  Formal characteristics of post-neo-realism include a greater focus on individual personality and psychological factors which frequently meant the casting of professional actors. Another important difference from early neo-realism is the selective use of modern narrative techniques such as parallel narratives and memory flashbacks initially by Bertolucci and Olmi. The more complex formal objective/subjective interplay in post neo-realism had a substantial impact on the Czech new wave and other filmmakers in Eastern Europe struggling to free themselves from the dictates of socialist realism. Although the tone of his work is different, Milos Forman acknowledged Olmi’s influence in formally freeing his approach to narrative.

The Tree of Wooden Clogs

Olmi was a devout Catholic brought up in a peasant family in Bergamo, Lombardy where he filmed his masterpiece, The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), a faithful portrayal of peasant life in the late 19th century, a “remembrance of things past” based on his grandmother’s recollections. Beginning as a documentary filmmaker Olmi subsequently moved into what was to be a sustained career, completing 20 feature films, 1959-2007, inventively over a wider generic range than for which he has generally been credited. He chose to remain based in the north rather than moving to the centre of the film industry in Rome, preferring to work in low budget artisanal mode. As writer-director and in most cases also as cinematographer and editor, he achieved a “refined clarity” on wide-ranging projects of his own choosing unified by his underlying sense of the sacred which has been compared to that of Rossellini.

From his first feature film starting more in the manner of De Sica and Zavattini, his commitment was to chronicle his characters’ lives in apparent observational style replacing the art cinema’s subjective alienation thematic with the need for a sense of belonging for his characters. The de-dramatised lives of ordinary men and women played by non-professional actors was filmed and edited in a mix of deeper focus images in longer takes using the zoom lens rather than camera movement and closer shots of faces only in important psychological moments. 

Il Posto

Olmi’s first feature, the aptly titled Time Stood Still (1959) which began as a documentary, is about the cementing of a relationship between an older and younger man working otherwise alone together in manning a hydro-electric dam in the Italian Alps. For his second and third features, Il Posto/The Job (1961) - originally probably ironically titled The Sound of Trumpets - and I fidanzati /The Fiancées (1963), Nowell- Smith’s descriptors of “laid back rhythm and innocently conservative political stance” as marks of Olmi’s approach (155 Making Waves), also seem apt.  Sitney claims Olmi as embodying ‘the opening to the left’ which characterised both religious and parliamentary politics in Italy from the early sixties. Olmi’s ambition, however, was to challenge, in his own way, the hegemony of the left in the Italian cinema with The Tree of Wooden Clogs as “an explicit response” to Bertolucci’s leftist interpretation of Italian history in 1900 released in 1976 (ibid ).  

I Fidanzati

Apparent in Il posto is “Olmi’s genius […] for expressively employing the simple and seemingly meaningless gestures, glances, and actions gathered from the daily routine of his rather insignificant characters” (Bondanella 174). Olmi made more than 40 short industrial films, 1952-9, from which he formed an insider’s perspective. From his first feature Sitney finds in Olmi an unlikely link in the displaying of cinematic originality comparable to that of Pasolini. Olmi concentrates on how the new conditions of Industrial labour in the years of the so-called Italian economic miracle of the late 50s and 60s “took hold of the lives of workers” (184). The general soul-destroying tedium and accompanying depression in the bureaucratic work environment is softened by Olmi’s sense of humour often in play in his films, together with the feeling for his characters’ predicaments. In I fidanzanti/ The Fiancés (1963) about a young couple who are unable to marry because of the enforced poverty of ill-paid jobs, Bondanella and Sitney both note that Olmi sought to replace the typically simple plot structure of the neo-realist model with a more modernist, abstract perspective in a montage-based free mixing of events out of their chronological order also deploying psychologically based memory triggers evoking loneliness in a looser plot structure. 

Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti

6(18 - Italy and Roberto Rossellini - Part One

6(19) - Rossellini, INDIA and the new Historical realism

6(20) - Rossellini in Australia

6 (21) - Italy - Michelangelo Antonioni

Saturday 27 January 2024

Streaming on SBS On-Demand (+ Stan, Amazon Prime and others)- Barrie Pattison re-acquaints himself with David Cronenberg CRIMES OF THE FUTURE (Canada/France/UK/Greece, 2022)

SBS doing a double of David Cronenberg’s
 Crimes of the Future and Spider has directed my attention to him one more time.

I can’t help remembering how much more satisfying it was to hunt down his entry level trash horror movies in Drive-Ins and Fantasy Festivals - Rabid, Shivers & The Brood. That was before his re-make of The Fly became the first big exclamation point in shocker film after the Seigel Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Cronenberg was more fun, cheap and nasty than as a bridge between exploitation and art film.

He seems to like the “Crimes of the Future” title, having used it on one of his plotless early black & white silent underground movies. Here he’s given it significance deploying black actor Welket Bungué as a policeman tasked with such matters in a vaguely futurist era where pain has all but disappeared and Accelerated Evolution Syndrome is all the go.

Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux

We kick off with the idyllic scene of mother Lihi Kornowski calling her pre-teener playing on the beach, shortly before he starts eating the waste bin and she smothers him. One of the things the new film has going for it is that all this graphic material connects up by the time we get to the end.

Next up we get to Viggo Mortenson as a performance artist whose act is generating organs which his ex, trauma surgeon Léa Seydoux, (getting to be our current favourite naked French lady – a wide range of choice) removes for an audience of cocktail sipping socialites. Surgery is sexy we learn. This brings him to the National Organ Registry, whose director Don McKellar's assistant is mousey Kristin Stewart, who gets a scene pursuing off-put Viggo round the office – the least convincing thing in the film. She seems to have been recruited to add a celebrity name to the credits.

It all turns out to be part of a vast evolutionary conspiracy. The plot – if you can figure it out – is of course less significant than the constituent elements, many of which we’ve encountered in the director’s previous movies – Jeff Goldblum’s external digestions from The Fly, the road accidents of Crash or the graphic surgeries from the particularly yukky Dead Ringers. All of this takes place in bleak, striking locations – beached ships, deserted streets and run down industrial sites relatable to the Greek funding sources. Throw in the sinister sculpture “digestion chair”, Mortenson’s womb-like bed or the sarcophagus operating table. Did I mention execution by twin electric drills in the cranium after the illicit autopsy that Scott Speedman has been promoting?

There’s no doubt about the proficiency of the makers. Douglas Koch’s camerawork and Carol Spier‘s design hold attention. Howard Shore’s music cues us in on the required response. The superior cast bring a straight faced gravitas, which gives events a necessary conviction.

Question remains is all this A-list talent actually doing anything we should worry about.  Tell you the truth, I can’t decide. The schlock films, of which Crimes of The Future certainly is not, were fun,. The Fly and Existenz convinced as having substance. I didn’t like this one enough to want to probe it for that.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

The Current Cinema and Streaming on Netflix - Tom Ryan takes issue with David Hare about MAESTRO (Bradley Cooper, USA, 2023)


Bradley Cooper as Leonard Bernstein

The problem when one looks at a film only through the lens of a particular political viewpoint is that wider understandings will get lost in the process. I’m referring here in particular to David Hare’s commentary on Maestro (2023) in which director Bradley Cooper stars as Leonard Bernstein opposite Carey Mulligan’s Felicia Montealegre Cohn Bernstein. It ran last month in Film Alert (see here)


For Hare, the film, directed by Cooper and written by him and Josh Singer (The Fifth EstateSpotlightThe Post and First Man), fails because “the screenplay has simply de-gayed Bernstein as both man and history” and because of “a profoundly underwritten part for Carey Mulligan playing Felicia, whose own very substantial life as an activist is barely hinted at in the picture”. He suggests that the former might have occurred out of sensitivity to the Bernsteins’ three (now-middle-aged) children, and can find no other possible explanation for what he sees as the real-life Bernstein’s “bowdlerisation” in the film.  


Ignoring the fact that the entire soundtrack of the film is made up of meticulously selected Bernstein compositions, he also goes on to decry the film’s overlooking of “arguably the most important American stage musical of the twentieth century, West Side Story”, which, as he puts it, was created “in toto by four gay men, two of them (then) closeted - Lenny and [Jerome] Robbins – and two “out” – [Stephen] Sondheim and [Arthur] Laurents”. 


Carey Mulligan as Felicia, Bradley Cooper as Lenny

Along similar lines, he can find no rationale for what he regards as the film’s limited depiction of Felicia either, in particular its omission of “the famous Black Panther party hosted at [the Bernsteins’] Dakota apartment during the Panthers' FBI seek-and-destroy phase”. She and it are written about at length in Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, published in 1970.


Hare might also have gone on to discuss her broader work on behalf of civil liberties in the US, her anti-war activity during the 1960s, and her efforts in Chile on behalf of Amnesty during the 1970s (which all occurred during time-span that Maestro covers). Not to forget her extensive career as an actor on Broadway and television, her time living with fellow actor Richard Hart, who died in 1951, as well as her life as a mother to three children.


However, that the film doesn’t deal in any substantial detail with her social activism is enough to lead Hare to deduce that the Felicia is “an obviously underwritten part”. For him, she’s little more than a supporting player, only there to help us better understand her male counterpart. He never says it directly, but the general implication of his reading is clear. Not only is there an insidious strand of homophobia running through Maestro, but it also exhibits a misogynist streak.

There is a certain logic to this kind of reading of the film’s details. None of Hare’s observations about what’s missing from the film are incorrect. What’s absent from his commentary, though, is any appreciation of how Maestro goes about depicting what’s actually there and how that might impinge upon the conclusions he’s drawn about what’s not. Or any grasp of how the film is working allusively, hinting at aspects of the characters and their lives via nuance and subtle implication rather than direct depiction. 


Like Cooper’s earlier A Star Is Born (2018), Maestro is a story about a relationship: the excitement of a courtship; a marriage that begins with hopes for the couple’s future together and then goes into decline (in both cases, largely because of the male’s failure to fully see his partner’s needs on any but his own terms); and a death that draws the partnership to a close but leaves a host of issues unresolved. And like A Star Is BornMaestro is about performers who live a large part of their lives in the public eye.


That’s where Bernstein – or Lenny as he’s known throughout the film – is in the opening sequence. As the camera slowly tracks forward in medium wide-shot, he’s seated at a piano playing a piano transcription of the Postlude to the first act of his 1983 opera, A Quiet Place. At first glance, it looks like an intimate scene, Lenny alone with his music. But a closer look reveals, to the far left of the frame, a man wielding a camera and an interviewer holding a microphone. 


So what we’re watching is Lenny’s performance, which continues with his responses to the questions put to him after he’s finished playing. There’s no particular reason not to believe what he says, but his words are for the benefit of the interview and, by implication, for his public. Puffing away on one of the cigarettes that accompany him everywhere he goes, an embodiment of his nervous energy, he confesses that he misses his wife terribly, but that she’s still with him: as he looks out the window and sees her in the garden going about her business there, and as the maid tells him that she sees Felicia watching as she sorts out the washing. The rest of the film is concerned to explain why she haunts him like this, why she’s so central to his sense of who he is. 


Mahler’s Resurrection symphony at Ely Cathedral 

Time and again, Maestro pivots on what Felicia sees when she watches Lenny. Often sequences end with the camera revealing that she’s been an offscreen witness in the wings, sometimes literally but always metaphorically, and making her response central to it. Her excitement at the exhilarating performance of Mahler’s Resurrection symphony at Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire confirms his sense of achievement. For him. 


Lenny needs her to be there, even if he’s not always happy about what she sees. When (two shots below) she stumbles across him openly flirting with handsome, young Tommy Cothran (Gideon Glick) at a party at their apartment, his discomfort is a product of how she’s responded. When he later invites Tommy to join the family on a holiday, he tries, unsuccessfully, to make her see it as a perfectly natural thing to do. He needs her approval to feel comfortable with himself.

What the characters see when they look at each other is central to both Maestro and A Star Is Born. From beginning to end, the latter film has either country singer Jackson (Cooper) watching Ally (Lady Gaga) perform, or her watching him. What they see when they’re looking is a key to what they’re feeling and who they are, the effect as illuminating as it is essentially mysterious. 


Part of what the two films invite us to consider is how far it’s possible to distinguish between who characters “really” are and when they’re putting on a show. Whether it’s for an audience of hundreds, for guests at a party, or for a loved one? And in both films, the central relationships occupy a realm of riveting uncertainty.


In the way Maestro is written, shot (exquisitely by cinematographer Mathew Libatique, who also collaborated with Cooper on A Star Is Born) and edited (by Michelle Tesoro), it reminds us time after time that it’s impossible to ever see its characters in any complete way. There are times when we see them clearly, but the film also spends much of its 129-minute running time withholding information, its visual style a reminder that we can only ever hope to gain a glimpse of what it is that makes these characters tick. 


The first meeting between Lenny and Felicia illustrates the point. Their introduction takes place at the Claudio Arrau party near the beginning of the black-and-white flashback which grows out of the aforementioned opening scene. Adolph Green (Nick Blaemire) and Betty Comden (Mallory Portnoy) have just done a knockout performance of “(I Get) Carried Away” for the gathered guests (a Bernstein composition for which they’ve written the lyrics, the song appears in On the Town, which draws freely on Jerome Robbins’ 1944 ballet, Fancy Free). 


After a brief exchange of playful pleasantries, Lenny hurries Felicia away to a private space by a window. What follows is filmed in semi-darkness in a single-take two-shot. The only light source a streetlamp outside in the street, and the sequence wouldn’t look out of place in a film noir. Both are readily identifiable, but they’re also enveloped by shadow. 


The obstruction of our view of them is a recurring motif in the film. Sometimes, the camera’s direct line of vision is blocked, as in later party scenes when we’re forced to look past figures in the foreground, dancing or gesticulating mid-conversation, to catch sight of them. At other times, we’re only able to catch them in passing, framed by doorways. 



Elsewhere, it’s also often difficult to make them out, their surroundings serving as a kind of camouflage. In a park scene soon after they’ve met, they’re sitting back-to-back on the grass in a wide shot, but such is the spread of the shadows from the surrounding trees that one has to strain to see them. It’s only after the camera slowly moves closer that we can. 


Later on, after their family gathers at their holiday house at Martha’s Vineyard, Lenny and Felicia are taking a private moment to talk about Tommy’s presence there. The scene begins with a wide shot of a garden setting with an outdoor eating area deep into the frame. It looks like a conventional establishing shot, the kind that’s conventionally followed by close-ups of the conversing couple. We can hear Lenny’s prevarications clearly, but the camera doesn’t take us any closer to them, the establishing shot becomes a long-take, and one has to look very hard to even see them – figures barely recognisable from afar – at a table beyond the greenery in the foreground.


Even close-ups of the characters evoke uncertainty. They’re often extended in such a way that it seems as if we’re being told to look long and hard at the faces we’re seeing. That a straightforward glance isn’t enough to make sense of what’s going on behind them. The glide of the camera towards them might bring us spatially closer to them, but it’s as if we’re constantly being reminded that seeing these characters for who they are is going to be a struggle. 


There are hints of this view of characters and their circumstances in A Star Is Born, which, in its cryptic, elliptical way, allows us snippets of information, but keeps its distance from any definitive conclusions about the interactions being scrutinised. But it’s more fully elaborated here, immersed in how the film has been shot and in the assured way in which sequences are allowed to run their course… and then continue for just a beat or two longer than expected.

I make no claim that this kind of approach to making sense of Maestro is in any way comprehensive. Hopefully, however, it rescues the film from the notion that it is somehow flawed or culpable for not dealing extensively with Bernstein’s affairs or with Felicia’s life apart from her husband. As the title suggests, it’s not about either of those things, nor is there any requirement that it should be.