Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Bitter Rice – 9 April 2016

Two years?? How did this happen? True, we’d slacked off after the first forty or so flicks, but we never intended the cultural drought to last this long. Back on the horse, everyone!

I’d initially thought to resume the series by concluding the Antonioni trilogy with L’eclisse, and this will certainly figure in some future IFS Saturday night screening, but the flick’s a little, ah, arid for our reboot, and besides, a great many neorealist classics have become available since we first drew up the Società prospectus, so we're going to do some backing up to the forties and fifties before we come back to the hip and happening Italy of the Kennedy era. 

Accordingly...Bitter Rice. And cowabunga!—this 1949 production has it all, combining elements of neorealism, melodrama, sexploitation, film noir and female comradeship, and works in as well a heist plot and a Marxist tract. Oh, wait, there are musical numbers as well! Plus: rape, mud wrestling, and enraged rustics wielding torches and pitchforks. Doris Dowling as Francesca, a gun moll on the run with some hot rocks on her person, hides out among the migrant workforce off to harvest the rice crop in Italy’s northwest, and Silvana Mangano, in her first major film role, is her high-spirited fellow toiler in the paddies. Former soccer player and sportswriter Raf Vallone plays a sympathetic army sergeant who befriends the two women and Vittorio Gassman is the villainous Walter, a petty criminal seeking to branch out to harvest hijacking. An early voiceover informs us that work in the rice fields requires the “quickness and delicacy of a woman’s hands” (translation: men won’t work for such meagre wages), and indeed the only males in the operation are overseers and labor brokers, so we get many shots of hundreds of women clad in very short shorts, sloshing around the crop, or changing in the dorms: there’s a pretty fair amount of proletarian pulchritude on parade. Some early intramural tensions among the workforce, fueled in part by an antipathy that develops between Francesca and Silvana, resolves itself following a brief episode of the aforementioned mud wrestling.

These postwar films stand in fascinating contrast to the sensibilities of the later Italian cinema of which La dolce vita remains emblematic. The Italy of Bitter Rice is still a poor agrarian society. The idle, glamorous rich are thin on the ground here, nor is there much in the way of Antonioniesque ennui to be had. Of course, it might be revealing to double-bill Bitter Rice with, say, L’Avventura to throw the latter’s “first-world problems” into starker relief, but I know that our largely middle-aged audience does not dispose of that kind of stamina.

I've slotted this one in for Saturday, 9 April. Doors open at 6:00 pm, and there will be, as always, enough to eat. We try to start the film rolling by 7:30. RSVPs are very useful (invitees will have received this message via email). We hope to see you after all this time.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

La Notte – 25 January 2014

A new year! It’s now almost nine years since the first “Italian Film Night” back on Friday 21 January in 2005. We presented Satyricon back then, and have since moved from the first century AD to the twentieth. Our last screening, in August, was L’Avventura. A member of our mailing list has told me that she was just about to attend for the first time until my précis of that film persuaded her that the experience would be unendurable. That was certainly not the impression I’d intended to convey. I bring this up because we’re beginning 2014 with La Notte, the second installment of Antonioni’s “Quartet of Alienation,” which I have taken the precaution of pre-screening, and I’m here to tell the mailing list that I like it at least as much as L'Avventura, which I liked very well indeed. Passive, craggily handsome novelist Marcello Mastroianni is here married to conflicted, oddly puffy Jeanne Moreau. The couple move through the streets of 1960 Milan, with old and new architecture starkly counterposed beginning with the brief, magnificent first shot. There’s not much of a story here (some critics have suggested that the architecture is properly the subject and the human figures the incidental backdrop—I mention this conclusion without endorsing it), but as always, Antonioni’s eye delivers the goods: how many directors today possess anything like his infallible instinct? Not many, I suspect, and the exact figure is likely closer to that roundest of numbers than we’d prefer. This was a man who could have adapted the Poughkeepsie phone directory to the screen and made it visually memorable. Incidentally, the first scene takes place in a hospital, and if the level of medical attention depicted therein is typical of Italian healthcare circa 1960, then we need to bend our national energies toward the goal of matching those indices, boy-howdy! The next time I’m perishing of a wasting disease, that’s the kind of hospital TLC I want.

We’ll screen the thing on Saturday, 25 January, opening the doors at 6:00 as usual. As the regulars know, we present a groaning board of “small plates,” including vegetarian options, that constitute in aggregate a full meal. Timely RSVPs are always appreciated.

Above: Typical Milanese hospital room (for one) of half a century ago. Note champagne, crystal goblets, photogenic nurse. No styrofoam in evidence.

Friday, August 9, 2013

L’Avventura, 17 August 2013

I went back and forth on this one, amici, and could have gone with Fellini's 8 1/2 (which we will screen anon), but finally decided on L'Avventura, which I've been brandishing over the series since it was first announced almost—gasp!—nine years ago. For those of you unfamiliar with the film, I won't load you up with expectations except for these broad ones.

1. The idle, beautiful, Italian rich are seen being good-looking, spending money, and putting forth little effort unrelated to the gratification of their whims and desires.

2. There is a mystery. This is not entirely tidied up by the end of the film.

3. It's long: Two hours and twenty-three minutes. This means we want to start it rolling by 7:30 so that, with the inevitable intermission for the benefit of the thimble-bladdered demographic, we can finish it by 10:30. Accordingly, if you want to get in the usual ration of noshing and witty banter, you'll want to time your arrival close to 6:00.

4. It has been said of this film that you could print an enlargement of any randomly chosen frame and hang it on your wall to the visible benefit of the room.

5. It has also been said of the film that it is excruciatingly boring.

5a. At its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, several audience members were discovered afterward to have perished in their seats of ennui. Other, more robust viewers made loud demonstrations of disapprobation, including storming the projection booth, beating the projectionist, burning the first two reels and kicking director Michelangelo Antonioni's dog.

5b. OK, I made most of that up. Still, the initial response was really, really unfriendly. A number of influential critics and filmmakers subsequently circulated a petition expressing their warm admiration for both L'Avventura and its director.

The Società Italiana del cinematografo del punto di Adams (so rendered by an early online translation routine) meets at increasingly irregular intervals at 2662 Harrison Street in Oakland's someday to be fashionable Adams Point neighborhood. Public transit is reasonably convenient; parking availability is best described as "latent." Old hands will know that Rand assembles (if he says so himself) a lavish spread of hors d’oeuvres and finger foods equivalent in aggregate to a proper meal, and always makes at least token accommodation for them as don't devour our furred, feathered, finned or fluked friends. To this end he is always abjectly grateful when attendees tender their timely RSVPs (negative RSVPs may be omitted without violence to conscience, although they are equally appreciated), particularly when notice is given that a friend or S.O. will be coming along. This way lies intelligent portion control, and satisfaction for all.

The illustration has been appropriated from Edinburgh-based illustrator and designer Caroline Halliwell without prior permission, but with all due thanks and the hope that she will forgive its use for so narrow a social application.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Recap: Adua e le compagne

Whew! We’ve accumulated a few cobwebs here. Let’s blow ’em off and resume, shall we?

Winter was prolonged and chilly and chockfull of distractions, including some high diplomacy attendant upon the relocation of an Aged P, so between those exertions and my own seasonal torpor—how I loathe those long nights!—we couldn’t summon up the energy to resume our programme until this month. After toying with Fellini’s 8 1/2, I elected instead to show Adua and Her Friends, directed by Antonio Pietrangeli, whose La Visita was so well-received last September. Only five of our regulars could make it, but first-timers Barton and Faye (who heroically stayed for the end notwithstanding a 4:00 a.m. shift at work) brought us up to nine in attendance, which made for mainly reasonable sightlines downstairs.

Adua, made in 1960, did not disappoint. The 1959 “Merlin” law closed the brothels across Italy, forcing the staff variously into other lines of work, into clandestine establishments, or onto the streets. The four principals of Adua e le compagne choose door #1, pooling their savings to open a restaurant on the outskirts of Rome. Regrettably, they fail the “moral standards” requirements established by the Benito Business Bureau, and their permit application is refused. A prosperous physician agrees to front for them in exchange for a million lira per month, to be paid by plying their former profession in the upstairs rooms. The arrangement concludes to no one’s satisfaction, and the plucky prostitutes having once spoken truth to power do not in the event prevail (truth and 350 lira will get you a cup of cappuccino, it turns out). A young Marcello Mastroianni, who rocketed to international stardom with La Dolce Vita, released the same year, figures in an ancillary part as a hustling auto broker who wins, and predictably betrays, Adua’s heart.

In all, very credibly written, acted, and of course photographed (see the frame grab above). What is it about European cinematography of this period, and why was so much of the American product so signally lacking in this crucial aspect?

Speaking of cinematography, I’m inclined to think I will go for 8 1/2 next up—opinions are divided as to whether it’s a work of genius or of flatulent self-indulgence, but everyone appears to agree that it’s gorgeous—and after that we’ll begin to scale Antonioni’s so-called “Trilogy of Alienation” this summer. It has been said of the Trilogy (L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse) that any given frame could be printed and hung on the wall. When the non-visual elements of these films are discussed, words like “numbing,” “desolation,” “ennui” and “emptiness” appear with disconcerting frequency. Indeed, when L’Avventura was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 1960, it was met with jeers and loathing, and the young Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini, until that time an influential editor and critic at Cahiers du Cinéma, was moved to quit France, reject La Nouvelle Vague and take up the study of Islamic theology, with results that are now well-known.

Just a heads-up: we’ll be watching some chewy stuff this summer. Dates and times to follow via the usual mailing list.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

“Before the Revolution” – Saturday 11/19

We’re hosting one of our, alas, decreasingly frequent Italian Film Nights on Saturday November 19, just before everyone slides into the year-end holiday chute. Cued up is Bertolucci's second feature (we showed his very capably done debut La commare secca a few years ago, but that was a work for hire), Prima della rivoluzione, better known in this country as Before the Revolution. It’s a young man’s film—he turned 23 just a couple of months before its release—and I think perhaps its hero’s conflicts might not resonate with Those of Us of a Certain Age quite the way they would have forty years ago, but it’s also deeply felt and very personal, and of course beautifully photographed.

Gerald Peary wrote a brief review of the film for the Boston Phoenix in 1999, from which I swipe this lengthy excerpt:

The protagonist, Fabrizio (furrow-browed Francisco Barilli), is, like the youthful filmmaker, girl-and-movie crazy, and Marx-and-Freud obsessed, a tie-and-coat high bourgeoisie trying to be a renegade and relate to the historic struggles of the masses. He lives in the dull city of Parma (where Bertolucci was born), has a torrid affair with Gina (Adriana Asti), his attractive young aunt from hip Milan, while he is drawn to the conventional, church-going, pretty younger thing, Clelia (Cristina Pariset).

Though Farbizio orders a suicide-prone friend to a screening of Hawks’s Red River, and though Farbizio takes a quick break to see Godard’s A Woman is a Woman, mostly he is too stressed and distracted by love and political concerns to benefit from filmgoing. So Bertolucci provides him with a hilarious cinephile friend, who spends his whole sentient life at the altar of movies (he sees them twice in a row). Afterward, he smokes and philosophizes about them. “I remember the 360 degree dolly shot of Nicholas Ray, I swear, one of the highest moral facts in the history of cinema,” this friend says, and, “Remember, one can’t live without Rossellini!”

Bertolucci, the film geek, is all over his shooting, as Before the Revolution is a perpetual homage to his cinema masters, old and new. Gina, alienated in fashionable clothes and photographed against architecture, comes from Antonioni, Gina in a telephone monologue from Rossellini, Gina framed formally with bare legs from Godard, Gina making faces in granny glasses from Truffaut. (It’s interesting to see Bertolucci in 1963 quoting A Woman is a Woman and Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, both of 1961, as if they are already canonic texts.)

Bertolucci’s other source: Stendhal’s early 19th century novel, The Charterhouse of Parma. Thank you, Bernardo, for affording me an excuse to spend several long plane rides reading Stendhal's fabulous 500-page Machiavellian melodrama about the post-Napoleon political maneuverings in the city of Parma. What does it have to do with Before the Revolution? The names of the three main characters are the same—Fabrizio, Gina, and Clelia—and, in each case, Farbizio bypasses the love of his flashy aunt for that of a pious, straightlaced younger girl. And there’s stifling Parma, and there’s a common setting for high drama of the opera.

But the contrasts are far more telling. Gina of the book is the most conniving belle at court, almost as obsessed by power and riches as she is by conquering Fabrizio. Gina of the movie is a little lost rich girl, panicked and neurotic, a walking nervous breakdown with no aspirations except getting men to love her. (At times, she is a drag, and her multi-moods are the most tiresome part of the movie.) Fabrizio of the book is a soldier (he fights at Waterloo), an adventurer, a nobleman, an autocrat, a political opportunist with little worry of conscience. Bertolucci's Fabrizio is a person of acute self-consciousness, pained by his political ineffectuality (that of the bourgeois class) and agonized that the promised Marxist paradise will never come.

“It’s always before the revolution,’ he says, on a May day in Parma of unfurled red flags, practically bawling.

I might mention that the damn film has never been released on DVD in the United States (Criterion Collection? Hell-o-o-o?) and that for years it was represented in my collection with a tape-to-optical dub unsuited for social viewing. I have finally broken down and acquired the British DVD edition, which by means of some technical jiggery-pokery is playable on the equipment here. Alas, though, there will be no archival copy made available in the traditional drawing, since it would require a region-free DVD player with PAL-to-NTSC conversion circuitry. We’ll offer a nice copy of La commare secca instead.

The accustomed drill is in place. 2662 Harrison Street in Oakland’s potentially trendy Adams Point district, where the Food is Whole and the parking dire. We fling the doors open at 6:00—barely light by then this time of year, grumble, grumble—and serve a collection of appetizers and finger food equivalent to a proper meal (yes, there will be deviled eggs). The film is almost two hours long, so I’d like to cue it up by about 7:30.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Further to Mafioso

L-R: Don, Sharon, Barry, Rebecca, Nona, Lina, Gail, Rand, Rose, Art. Not pictured: Photographer R.I. Williams

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Mafioso recap: 8/27/11

On Saturday last we resuscitated “Italian Film Night,” a tradition begun here almost seven years ago, and which we contrived to maintain very nearly monthly for its first three years (January 2005 to December 2007; thirty-three film nights), falling off slightly in 2008 (just eight), steeply on 2009 (three, I think) and off the cliff thereafter, with two in 2010 and just one so far this year. There were extenuating circumstances, but that’s a long and not very interesting story.

Still: a decent turnout of the Usual Suspects assembled at the Crumbling Manse for our screening of Alberto Lattuada’s 1962 dark comedy Mafioso, and no one departed disappointed. The theme was familiar from previous features, involving as it did the cultural tension between Italy’s forward-looking northern provinces and the hidebound, suspicious, conservative south—in this instance Sicily, vividly exhibited on film by means of the menagerie of rural grotesques with which Italian cinema has previously acquainted us. This comedy of clashing manners takes a sudden dark turn when our pompous protagonist, who had thought to show off his roots to his highly assimilated northern family, finds himself shipped (actually airfreighted) to New York as a reluctant assassin on behalf of his criminal cousins.

September looks crowded, but we have high old hopes for another Film Night in October.

Above: Assimilated Sicilian transplant Nino, accustomed to Milanese ways, gets a taste of life back in the Old Country. He has no idea...