Tag Archives: italian cinema

The Dolce Life

The best view of the red carpet, I realized, was from above.

Browsing the bleachers a full hour before even the press arrived for The Rome Film Festival’s world premiere restoration of La Dolce Vita, I decided, finally, on a front row seat next to a shrunken woman of about seventy. Surrounded by blankets and snacks and cigarettes, she looked like she had been waiting all day. “No Scorsese?” she asked as I sat down beside her. (Scorsese was scheduled to introduce the film.) I told her it was still early. He’d be here. Disgusted, she threw up her hands. “No Scorsese, no cinema!” I’m not quite sure I agree, but it’s hard to disagree.

Fifty years after La Dolce Vita’s original release, the film has been restored from its original widescreen negative for the clean up of a lifetime. The premiere, which was itself a thing out of Fellini – from Nino Rota on the loudspeakers to the paparazzi on the floor – saw an avalanche of beautiful stars that all looked liked twins, save for one. Early in the parade, before things got too frenzied, a black car stopped as close to the carpet as it possibly could, a policeman flew to the door, opened it (slowly), reached in, and out came a cane, a foot, and then the rest of Anita Ekberg. The place went nuts.

As the new stars began to appear, with their smiles and waves and tastefully torn clothing, the mighty Ekberg limped wryly toward the press line, accentuating every labored step with a grande sigh. She had a lot of carpet to walk, and watching her fight it, prodding it with her cane and laughing all the while was a thrill even the most immaculately restored La Dolce Vita would not likely upstage. Moreover, Ekberg was the only woman on the red carpet with a purse slung over her shoulder, as if she had just came from lunch. How could you not love that?

I moved inside the theater to watch the rest of the arrivals on the big screen, in close up. There I rediscovered Ekberg’s entire face. Tickled, I found her jack-o-lantern smile, enormous eyes, and high-pointed eyebrows told of a darker, wittier person than I remembered from the movies. But I have a good defense: after the Trevi Fountain scene, all you can do is remember the Trevi Fountain scene.

The camera then drifted away from Anita (what would have Fellini have done with a Steadicam?) to Scorsese, and the entire theater erupted in applause and cheers, and then immediately hushed to hear what he had to say. At that moment someone behind me whispered, “You don’t have to be tall to be big.” In other words, No Scorsese, no cinema.

Once the little giant entered the building, things started to move quickly. There were a few introductions and some clips before Anita Ekberg was brought out on stage (with purse) to remember the filming, which she did with sardonic glee. I’m not sure, but she may have cackled. In fact, Ekberg got so gleeful she didn’t even see the cortege of stagehands that had gathered to signal her time was up. So she went on, gleefully, and as her enthusiasm grew, they moved closer, until finally the cluster was on stage, practically standing beside her. Even then she didn’t see them. So deep was her Fellini trance, they had to literally, almost physically, interrupt her sentence to bring her back to the present. It was glorious.

Then Scorsese. Watching La Dolce Vita, he said, is like the dream sequence – Guido freefalling – that opens 8 ½. “You feel like you’re flying,” he said. “At times it’s frightening or even terrifying. But at the same time it’s liberating.” In other words, no Fellini, no cinema.

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Goodbye, Furio Scarpelli

Furio Scarpelli, the prolific screenwriter of (raunchy, fearless) Italian comedies, died on Wednesday. He was 90.

Scarpelli had a hand in an unbelievable number of films (imdb counts 141), the best and most historically significant of which belonged to the “Commedia all’italiana” movement of the late fifties and early sixties. For director Pietro Germi, (arguably) the unofficial leader of the brigade, he wrote Seduced and Abandoned, which I am certain is one of the greatest film comedies ever made, Italian or otherwise. It tells the story of Don Vincenzo Ascalone (played with outrageous fervor by Saro Urzi), the patriarch of a fairly well off Italian family. He’s a simple man, a proud man, and wants only respectability for his family, so he facilitates the engagement of one of his daughters to a promising young man. Then that young man sleeps with Don Vincenzo’s other daughter (the pretty daughter), impregnates her, and skips town, thereby compromising not only the family honor, but the possibility that Vincenzo’s pretty daughter will ever marry again. So Vincenzo, who now hates this boy, goes off to find him and make him marry his daughter, who also hates him. That’s act I.

Because it is as ridiculous as it is emotionally plausible, this is a sensational premise for a comedy. The “Commedia all’italiana” filmmakers understood, quite profoundly, that an emotion pushed to it’s extreme can be very, very funny, but also deeply problematic. Without moralizing, Scarpelli’s story gets to the heart of this very Italian dilemma: hot-bloodedness, like honor, is both the making and undoing of modern Italy, as much an obsolete, feudal ethic as it is a noble tradition that must be upheld. Seduced and Abandoned plays with this paradox like a feral cat toying with a mouse.

It’s the best kind of satire. Excise the specifics of Italian politics and society, and you still have airtight motivations, fabulous set pieces, and the kind of tempestuous extravagance everyone finds amusing, whether they can relate to it or not (see the film’s trailer above – even without subtitles it’s funny). It’s no wonder that Furio Scarpelli began (like Fellini) as a cartoonist.

As much as I love Seduced and Abandoned, I shouldn’t close without mentioning two of Scarpelli’s other great creations, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (written with three others) and Mafioso, which also fits squarely in “Commedia all’italiana,” and by virtue of its title, needs no introduction. But I’ll say this: imagine The Godfather if Michael were more invested in keeping Kay in the dark about his family than inheriting the Corleone mantle. Again, it’s the best kind of satire. Take Mafioso out of Italy and the point still comes across: Every family is a mafia. Bring your fiancée home to dinner and pray the weapons stay in their holsters.

Furio Scarpelli.

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How to Tilda

How can you convince an audience that Tilda Swinton is capable of living a sedentary life?

You can’t. That’s one of the problems with I Am Love, the enterprising and enterprisingly twee new film from director Luca Guadagnino. It’s a family saga in the Visconti style, and Guadagnino bows very low to Rocco and His Brothers, The Leopard, Ludwig, and Death in Venice (Marisa Berenson even appears in a few scenes – pretty smart, I thought), but the rest is soft-focusy hullaballoo, middling Merchant-Ivory in disguise. Rich matriarch “discovers” herself. Sex in fields. Closeups of glistening strawberries.

Which brings me back to where I started. Tilda Swinton can’t “discover” herself. Her look is too alien, her eyes too curious, and her sexuality too diaphanous. All that spells the opposite of bourgeois dispassion, which is the angle I Am Love is trying to take. It’s difficult to imagine a woman of Swinton’s rabid strangeness – somewhere between a maiden out of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and the Geico Gecko – as a Dalloway type coming to her sexual senses. Babe Paley’s look, which Guadagnino should have gone for, speaks to the patrician multitudes of ladies who lunch with their orange Fendi bags and brittle bones of Christofle. A face like Swinton’s speaks to a life like no one’s.

You’ve got to give Guadagnino credit for casting way against type. Or Swinton credit for casting Guadagnino. As one of the film’s producers, she surely saw I Am Love as an opportunity to broaden her range beyond “personality” parts, and with the right director, I’m sure she could have pulled it off, but Guadagnino, unfortunately, is more interested in things than acting. Food, for instance, draws a majority of his attention. Curtains come second, and nature third. Oh, nature! How it makes the blood run warmish!

If you want to see slow motion bees, or a woman’s hand brushing through a sward of wheat, this is the film for you. But not for me. I always get nervous when actors get D.H. Lawrencey. All that passionate abandon in all those fields and someone is bound to get a rash, no? Only Ken Russell seems to get that even the most stimulated couple has to lay down a pocket square or two. But not Guadagnino. He loves art too much.

For all of his allusions to the master, this is a misreading of Visconti. The Leopard may be a production designer’s sogno bagnato, but all that linen and drapery is a part of the realism, just a backdrop. But Guadagnino sees it as content, placing I Am Love farther from Luchino Visconti, and closer to the Tom Ford school of cinema. Pretty is one thing, but I Am Love is so tra-la, it makes Elvira Madigan look like Mean Streets.

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