Una vita difficile (1961)

8 02 2023

In my recent review of The Conformist, I reflected on the way aging has altered my perception of “selling out.” There’s a bit more ambivalence in the present day for me, as some of my ideals (both political and otherwise) have fallen out of balance with the simple everyday matter of fact issue of continuing to exist in comfort. Living is difficult, and fittingly, it’s this same tension that is at the heart of Dino Risi’s aptly titled Una vita difficile. Risi’s touch, while sometimes understanding the aching nature of everyday life, is buoyant and cheerful, even as we follow our unlucky protagonist down the rabbit hole of disappointment after disappointment. Strangely, the film celebrates the downward trajectory our lives often take as being of the whole chaotic and beautiful whole of living. The tone is remarkably different from Bertolucci’s film.

At the tail end of the Second World War, partisan Silvio is on the run from Nazi forces occupying near Lake Como. He is taken in by innkeeper’s daughter, Elena, after she manages to rescue him from a near-death confrontation with a Nazi. The two spend three months together in a shack located near the inn, and during that time develop a relationship of pseudo matrimony. When Silvio’s partisan comrades arrive, he abandons Elena. Years pass, Silvio is now a reporter for a fledging Roman leftwing rag Il Lavoratore. A story brings him back to Lake Como where he reunites with Elena, who he takes back to Rome to start a life of marital bliss. Silvio’s lack of income throws a wrench into these plans.

The face of Risi’s picture is Silvio, a hard luck idealist embodied by Alberto Sordi. Sordi himself was synonymous with Commedia all’italiana, the genre in which Una vita difficile can be classified. My understanding of the genre is limited – I’d experienced Sordi once before in Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso which made little to no impression on me at the time. I went into Risi’s film skeptical that I’d be in tune with his humor, expecting something more whimsical – but this about as sour and bitter as a comedy can be. Sordi manages to strike the perfect balance between tragic and pathetic, his Silvio is not a political martyr, but instead an idealistic schmuck whose vision of himself never quite lines up with actions. He is something of a scoundrel, but not an irredeemable one.

In a stroke of luck, my screening of Una vita difficile came a day after a viewing of Mauro Bolognini’s Senilità, released a year later. In that film, the protagonist falls hopeless in love with a woman until it consumes his personal life. Bolognini’s film is brilliantly shot but its protagonist, whose desperation bears some similarities to Silvio’s, is an insufferable bore. The film does not fail because its protagonist is unlikable but instead because it presents his vision of a world as a stifling one dictated only by a romantic interest. Silvio is similarly pathetic, but the anguish found in the film’s humor resonates because even as Silvio overcompensates for his ideals, he at least has those ideals to begin with. He is more than just a seduced target.

Silvio’s plight is accessible because it brilliantly showcases a fundamental flaw in many humans. He sees himself as a dedicated leftist. When he abandons Elena in the film’s first act, he explains it is because of a fighter, but it seems just as likely that he’s doing so for fear of commitment. When he is finally released from two years in prison, he berates his friend and coworker Franco for not standing by his side during the arrests. “The revolution was happening, and you were getting a cappuccino!” Meanwhile, an earlier sequence depicting the arrest shows Silvio himself abandoning his pregnant wife – a move of cowardice that is never referenced again. His vision of himself does not exactly line up with how he is depicted, but Silvio is also not overly self-conscious. As the film’s finale shows, despite his inconsistency, his decision-making is ultimately dictated by his pride.

Christmas in July (1940)

1 02 2023

As I’ve aged into adulthood, one thing I’ve become more secure about is my insecurity. It sounds strange I know, but I’m now more aware that I’m not alone in this insecurity and instead that most of people’s waking lives are dominated by doubt, anxiety, and a level of self-consciousness. Even in returning to writing this blog, I’ve endured some stress at my personal expectations involving the responses of my peers. I, like anyone else, desire some form of validation. Dick Powell’s Jimmy MacDonald synthesizes this desire in Christmas in July when he says “I always thought I had good ideas. Now, I know I have good ideas.” This line comes after he falsely believes to have won the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest. The chaos that follows is one of the most concise distillations of the American Dream and all the agony it false promises can bring. Positioned by some as a minor effort, Christmas in July presents Preston Sturges at both his funniest and most moving.

Jimmy MacDonald sits on the roof of his apartment with his girlfriend and coworker Betty Casey. The two dream of a better life, lamenting the life of struggle that was paved out by their parents. Jimmy has a treatment for their economic ailment: he plans to win a slogan contest for Maxford House Coffee. He believes he has an unbeatable motto: “If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.” Betty is less impressed with the plan, and not at all on board with the slogan. The next day at work, Jimmy is stunned to find a telegram declaring him the winner of the contest, but the telegram is a prank from his coworkers. The ruse is never admitted, though, and Jimmy and Betty enjoy an afternoon planning their now prosperous future.

 Christmas in July clocks in at a brisk 67 minutes. Maybe the optics of the short run time has led to limited critical evaluation, it seems many of my peers consider this to be a “minor Sturges.” Much of the critical rhetoric suggests that it is a light and fluffy affair. I can understand how one might feel this way, especially in comparison to the far more socially pointed Sullivan’s Travels (which only came out a year later!) but I think more of a punch is packed here than in the longer, more celebrated film. It’s the sort of film where if one blinks, they might miss something that launches pages worth of discourse.

When Jimmy first strides into work, he is greeted by a workspace that resembles a machine. Rows of desk all in perfect symmetry, with the humans occupying them acting as automatons laboring away. Sturges quotes and evokes King Vidor’s The Crowd and in a few quick seconds manages to convey the same weight of that film within a fraction of the time. Like Vidor, Sturges captures the anxiety of the working class – the feeling of being replaceable, a cog in the machine. Yet, Sturges film supports this sensation with humor. When Jimmy’s (false) win leads to a promotion at work, his boss at work astutely states, “Now that you’re a capitalist, I don’t know how you feel about working for a living.”

Jimmy’s working-class ennui is not pointed at, like the self-pitying liberalism of Joel McCrea in Sullivan’s Travels, but instead something in which Sturges manages to draw in the margins. That’s film very explicit message of the importance of making people laugh seems to register better in this earlier effort, strictly on the basis of (and this is of course a personal opinion) it being immensely funnier. But most impressively to me, is the fact that Sturges pulls his best punches in the film’s rare but completely earned moments of tender emotion. Upon discovering that the telegram declaring the victory is a hoax, Jimmy and Betty return to their place of employment. A painter is putting the finishing touches on Jimmy’s new desk. The promise of a better future is slipping away and taunting them. Jimmy’s boss enters to re-congratulate him on his recent success, his promotion, his new office. Jimmy feels the need to come clean, but he does so obliquely. He suggests that his ideas he had earlier are still great, no matter if he won the contest or not. Winning the contest should be irrelevant. His boss replies that it does matter, “It’s what you might call commercial insurance as when a horse wins the Derby, you back him for the Preakness.” In the film’s most emotionally stirring moment, Jimmy confesses. “Well, I didn’t win.” To which his boss replies, “The Preakness?” Only Sturges could pack such a humorous uppercut in the middle of an emotional gut punch.

I fidanzati (1963)

31 01 2023

I wouldn’t wish a long-distance relationship on my worst enemy. Mind you, I don’t really have a worst enemy, but my point stands. The phenomenon arrives from a compromise: the person you love is going somewhere else physically but neither of you can bear the idea of concluding the romance from such a massive inconvenience. I’m sure there are people who this has worked out for, but I cannot count myself as a participant in a successful long-distance relationship. From my personal experience, it produced a unique and unfamiliar type of anguish and longing, the sort that isn’t commonly depicted in art. It’s something that requires a delicate precision to depict, and it is something that Ermanno Olmi accomplishes in I fidanzati.

Lovers Liliana and Giovanni enter a small dancehall. The action has already begun, but the two pick out a table on the outskirts of the dance floor and they sit together in moody silence. Giovanni initiates a dance, but Liliana declines. This brutal date, we soon learn, is the couple’s last before Giovanni leaves Milan for Sicily. Adding to the bittersweetness, the locale was chosen as it was where the lovers first met each other. Giovanni’s job has relocated him with the promise of advancing his career. The move is temporary, 18 months we’re told, and is tantamount to a promotion but both parties in the relationship seem very unsure of themselves.  

I first saw I fidanzati 14 years ago. I was still a teenager. I had already been transfixed by Olmi’s previous film, Il Posto. To me, Il Posto was especially remarkable for how it true to life it felt. I understood the realism Olmi accomplished had lineage in the works of Rosselini and De Sica, but it felt like something completely different to me. He was not advancing a rhetoric of social condemnation but simply observing. The anxiety of that film’s young protagonist, Domenico, felt real to me because it resembled the way I faced a world that was beginning to feel more and more intimidating and exciting. As it was, I was impressed by I fidanzati but it was Il Posto that moved me.

The beautiful thing about cinema is that it is an art form and as such, one’s response to it can fluctuate. Our existence is always in flux, and our thoughts evolve. In this instance, it is more importantly that life events factor in. A budding teenage cinephile in suburban Ohio (uhh, that’s me, or was, rather) can maybe feel some of the longing expressed in I fidazanti but he certainly didn’t understand or connect with it on a deeper level. A 31-year-old man in Brooklyn (that’s also me) meanwhile has been shaped by the world through life experiences that have evolved and hurt him. The longing Olmi communicates here in even more impressive because it replicates an aching I endured.

Time works differently in I fidanzati than it does in Il Posto. The earlier film, for all of its strengths (and there are many) is far more linear. It works considering the subject matter, as someone as young as Domenico probably experiences life in a linear fashion. That is, when you’re younger, you are anticipating the future and are thus less dogged by your past, haunted by failures, frustrated over would-be relations. In I fidanzati, we have Giovanni, who is older and has done more. While he is often in the present – which is depicted through his acclimation to a new environment (not unlike Domenico’s acclimation to office life in Il Posto) he is just as often in the past, reminiscing of tender moments he shared with Liliana. The result is a full dimensional portrait of a man struggling to come to terms with a new reality.

Olmi’s compositions are magnificent, of course, which helps to establish the anguish of his lovers. There seems to be a wonder in several of the set-pieces in Sicily, in particular. It’s almost as though he’s a documentarian linking a series of short pieces into one cohesive story, rather than structuring a film around a concise narrative. In one such scenes, Giovanni wanders into a church. He sits in the back, away from service and the clutch of children attending. He, like Olmi’s camera, is an observer rather than an active participant. Then, suddenly, a dog wonders in and causes chaos. The humor in Olmi’s world feels almost accidental, further fueling the quiet style of observation with which he shapes his films.

It’s in the final fifteen minutes that Olmi really ramps the film’s elliptical nature into hyperdrive. We jump back into the initial courting of Liliana and Giovanni. Knowing what we know from the previous hour, there is something unmistakably poignant in these little moments we now share with the couple. The two of them frolicking in a swimming hole, stroking each other face’s wordlessly in the grass, and even arguing. These are the moments that populate a relationship, and they must be replaced with something else when the two live in different cities. In this reverie, even the ugly moments become something to pine for as at least then you could talk to the person face to face. “We each kept our thoughts to ourselves” says Liliana as the film cuts back to the couple wordlessly facing each other, a composition from the film’s opening sequence. Time away brings thoughts, thoughts bring things you want to say but sometimes the distance is too great an impediment.

La Cina è vicina / China is Near (1967)

25 01 2023

I mentioned in my review of Bellocchio’s first film Fists in the Pocket that it lacks the political specificity of this, his follow-up. That seems to be an understatement. He’s pulled on a similar yarn here – once again most of the action takes place in a claustrophobic bourgeois mansion. The incestuous energy is admittedly toned down here but there’s still ample psychosexual tension. The difference of course is that the political subtext of the previous film becomes, well, the text here. Here, there is not one ideology that is privileged and one satirized but instead a multifaceted sendup of the entire ideological axis. In the end, no one ends up looking particularly great.

Working class lovers Carlo and Giovanna awake from a mutual embrace in less-than-ideal circumstances. The setting for this lovers’ tryst is two benches pushed together in a cold room. The house belongs to an upper-class professor, Vittorio, and his sister Elena. Elena is politically conservative and sexually adventurous. Vittorio, meanwhile, is taking an opportunity to boast about his newfound socialist leanings. A third family member, Camillo, struggles to establish a limited and strict Maoist group. Eager to break into the protective grasp of a wealthy family, Carlo and Giovanna both sleep their way upward; Carlo impregnates Elena and Giovanna is impregnated by Vittorio, who continues to stumble his way through a campaign for municipal office.

Much of the sexuality that was suggested in Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket is made literal here. The film opens immediately with our would-be heroes/lovers in an embrace, and the subsequent social climbing seductions that both undertake shortly thereafter are very matter of fact. Carlo beds Elena almost immediately, without even a moment to develop any sexual tension between the two. This works appropriately with the story Bellocchio and his screenwriter Elda Tattoli (who also plays Elena) are attempting to tell. In this world, sexuality functions almost like a social currency, and this is cynically believed by not only the film’s writers but by the characters of Carlo and Giovanna as well.

Carlo and Giovanna do not become our noble and upstanding work class heroes. Instead, their cynicism (mirroring Bellocchio’s own but differing in its interpretation) renders them as calculating and sinister as Vittorio and Elena, the comfortably bourgeoise siblings. Vittorio’s cynicism develops in his nearly spontaneous interest in politics. His interest is nearly almost entirely driven by power, which lands as the perfect punchline when the setup for the joke is he’s running for office as a socialist. Carlo acts as his accountant and unofficial guide to the Italy that exists outside of the family’s mansion. He’s, of course, not as much interested in Vittorio’s success in government as he in exposing to him to as many difficult situations as possible.

In one key sequence, Carlo arranges Vittorio to speak as a town square. Unimpressed with the turnout, Vittorio is immediately incensed, but Carlo talks him into proceeding, “Just admit you’re shitting your pants” he tells the professor. The fecal rhetoric works on him but the whole things turns on it’s head when a disgruntled Vittorio’s papers are blown away, and he feels so utterly helpless that he has no choice but to take out his frustrations on a small boy. It’s the sort of spectacular public speaking disaster that isn’t entirely foreign to local politics in 2023, which makes the humor ring even truer. As they watch a hostile crowd descend into madness, Carlo remarks to Elena rather nonchalantly, “your brother is rather nervous.”

While the consensus on China is Near is that no one character comes out unblemished or avoids ridicule, it’s perhaps the film’s most passively non-political character who comes out most conscious of the untamable and unsalvageable nature of the political machine. It’s Elena, Vittorio’s sister, played by the film’s screenwriter Elda Tattoli. There is little to nothing written about Tattoli’s career in general and only Andrew Sarris’ review even makes passing reference to the fact that she wrote the film. Her presence is staggering to me, as she seems the numbest to all the chaos enveloping everything else. Tattoli collaborated two more times with Bellocchio. First, she codirected with Bellocchio a segment for 1969’s Love and Anger, which also featured contributions from Bertolucci and Godard. Later, in 1972, she made her full-length directorial debut with Pianeta Venere, a film which I am unable to find as of this writing. Her pen and her performance suggest a career of worthwhile contributions to cinema but outside of the projects I’ve already mentioned, it seems her career was resigned to bit roles in Italian sword-and-sandals pictures. She died in 2005.

I pugni in tasca / Fists in the Pocket (1965)

18 01 2023

The defining image of Marco Bellochio’s debut, Fists in the Pocket is undoubtedly the face of its protagonist, Alessandro, portrayed by Lou Castel. The devilish smirk belongs not to a calculating menace, but instead a tormented, fragile, and deeply disturbed son. If The Conformist retold the story of Fascism in Italy, Bellochio’s film instead tracks a deep ambivalence that must have been present in a period of political refractory. At the time of its making, Bellochio himself was active in the Italian Communist Party, but little to no ideology is detectable in the film’s surface, something that cannot be said for his follow-up film China is Near. Yet, there is an undeniable energy here compatible with his antifascism. Gallows humor is the intention here, but there is a rebellious spirit that manages to resist any political classification. It is a supremely satisfying as a portrait of, well, dissatisfaction.

Alessandro lives in his family mountainside villa with his blind mother, his sister Giulia, and two brothers, Augusto and Leone. All of them, save Augusto, suffer from epileptic fits. Its Augusto who is engaged to be married, to his lover Lucia, much to the chagrin of his siblings. Lucia receives a love note, presumably fabricated, by a lover of Augusto who does not exist. Meanwhile, Alessandro writes a love poem for Giulia. When he reads the daily papers for his blind mother, Alessandro dreams up non-existing headlines of immense violence and devastation, setting himself up for a future where he commits such acts against his family. To him, his brother’s marriage, and the prospects of a subsequent move into the city will so deeply dissolve the family that their physical extermination logically corresponds.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century, Lou Castel’s presence in world cinema was often a shorthand evocation of the May 1968 spirit. This is most obvious in Phillipe Garrel’s La Naissance de l’amour and Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. The two films were made three years apart and Castel’s presence is contrasted in both films with Jean-Pierre Leaud, cinema’s definitive face of May 1968. Watching Castel in his debut is thus a marvel, as his incestuous closed off family plays out a claustrophobic chamber drama in step with the (then) recent geopolitical history of Italian fascism. Unlike his more explicitly political second film, China is Near, Fists in the Pocket never directly addresses any sort of political intentions. Instead, we are left with the sinking feeling that the twisted logic of Alessandro has been disseminated amongst his family (his sister Giulia seems to willingly share their incestuous tension) just as the twisted logic of Fascism was disseminated amongst Italy.

As his first film, Bellochio was starved for resources. Initially, he had intentioned his film to be the sort of naturalistic and poetic vision reminiscent of Jean Renoir. Infamously, two of his biggest cinematic heroes, Luis Buñuel and Michelangelo Antonioni, were dismissive of the film. While one can track the influence of all three, he has also innovated through limitations. While we are treated on occasion of foggy setups of the rolling mountains enveloping our character, we are more often forced to cohabit with them inside a large but tight villa. This works wonders for Bellochio considering the incestuous undertones of the film, emphasizing the limited world(view) and alienation from those on the outside.

Of course, the other massive component that worked out great for Bellochio is young Castel’s manic energy. He manages to operate on high and low with such (un)harmonious brilliance. He can take on the tender dissatisfaction of a Bressonian model in one sequence, and then burst chaotically into a fit of laughter during a funeral in another. While his intentions are often monstrous, one never feels at ease sacrificing all their empathy. His plot to eradicate his family suggests sickness, but his volatility makes it plays natural, as if a byproduct of an environment that harbors the possibility of such thoughts, as opposed to the pen of a screenwriter.