Rocco and His Brothers (1960)

14 03 2008

This was really a nice surprise. Not that I was expecting it to be bad or anything, but the fact that it basically established all Italian stereotypes of modern cinema made me fairly skeptical. The length and frequent shifts in tone will be off-putting to some, but those that stick around will find a film that is much more truthful than almost all of the American films that it influenced. It has some random blasts of violence that come off as silly, but the rest of the film shows no rush in establishing these characters’ lives.

In the film’s opening sequence, we are introduced to most of the family: Rosaria and her four sons, Rocco, Simone, Ciro, and Luca. They are all on a train headed to Milan to meet the fifth brother, Vincenzo, who is celebrating with his wife and parents in-law to be. At first, the family are polite and delighted to meet each other but eventually, Rosaria breaks and she takes her sons to begin a new life in Milan.

It’s at this point that the film establishes it’s structure. Via title cards, we are introduced to each member of the family and each member is given their own episode so to speak. The film is not a series of vignettes, though. The “Simone” episode, if anything, points our interest towards Rocco. Despite being the only name mentioned in the title, he stays in the shadows. It’s a mixed reading on my part, but I find Delon’s reserved character who lacks attention for the first hour, as the most developed character in the film. It seems almost as though Visconti is developing the other characters in a much more conventional style but still putting the real flesh on Delon’s character. No doubt, his perfectly subdued performance more than prepared him for working with Antonioni two years later in L’Eclisse.

The narrative takes a violent swing somewhere around the hour and a half mark. Returning from his military service, Rocco has fallen for Nadia, a whore and ex-lover of Simone. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but Simone’s response to his brother dating a girl he liked two years ago is a bit over the top to me. Without giving anything away, he basically wants to kill him. The observant and downplayed scenes leading up to it are gripping and may very well be the film’s highest peak but at the same time, I can’t fault the film for a narrative choice it makes halfway through. Especially when it regroups after an odd swing of drama, though there is indeed some excess, particularly the scene in which Nadia wants to kill herself.

As articulated earlier, this does have some “rough” patches and honestly, it probably is a bit too long but for the most part, it is really fantastic. It may require one to “unlearn” some of the Italian stereotypes brought on by The Godfather and multiple Scorsese films, but it’s probably a testament to the film’s influence that some honest character traits are now recognized as cliches in films depicting Italian-American life. Beyond all of this, is one of the most honest recreations of not only family life in Italy, but life in general. I’ll definitely need to make it a priority to see Visconti’s other films. He’s not on the cinematic level as Olmi or Antonioni, but he does puts the same amount of care into his characters.

Summer Palace (2006)

14 03 2008

Lou Ye has finally followed up on the promise showed in Suzhou River (2000) but there’s a lot of flaws one will have to overlook in order to proclaim this film as a masterpiece. In Suzhou River, he seemed a bit fixated on a silly Hitchcock-esque mystery story. Here, he trades that in for something a bit more along the lines of The Regular Lovers or even Masculin, Feminin. In other words, this can easily be filed under the faux-genre of “young love in the mist of rebellion” or something like that. The film tries a bit too hard to be bleak at times, but it still has it’s fair share of strengths.

Yu Hong, a young and slightly naive country girl, moves to the city to attend in college. Though an almost rapid series of connections, she begins a self-destructive romance with Zhou Wei. They cannot comprehend their feelings for eachother and this usually results in anger and frustration, which subsequently leads Zhou Wei to call the whole thing off. One night, a protest breaks out near the campus and the ex-lovers go out into the chaos to look for one another. Now literally broken up, Zhou Wei attends a military school and later moves to Germany. Yu finds a job in a small town, not unlike the one she grew up in. She has a lover and he is now with her friend, Li Ti, but they both still long for one another.

As said before, this is undeniable taking some cues from Masculin Feminin and other films like that. Perhaps an even more accurate comparison would be to Jia Zhang-Ke’s Platform, which tackles relationships amidst the same time period. Earlier on, though, the focus looms mostly on Yu Hong. In fact, for awhile, it feels like the film is going to take a trip down the path of Morvern Callar and Millennium Mambo. The early scenes with Yu Hong partying, drinking, yelling, and so on have a much more carefree but poignant spirit in comparison to the film’s far too silly conclusion. The tone shifts far too rapidly, which I guess, corresponds with the seldom in-focus camera work. The most obvious point is the montage halfway through the film that inexplicably catches us up on seven years. Such needless exposition puts the director in many narrative holes that he has to take care of with melodramatic coincidences. Did Li Ti really need to jump off a building? The scene where she falls off comes off with no resonance whatsoever. Compare it with the scene in Zhimin Sheng’s Bliss, in which a kid we do not know, falls leaping from one building to another. Here, we have a character we are familiar with but I personally couldn’t help but laugh when she melodramatically dives to her death. In comparison, Bliss shows (well, implies) the death of a character we never knew prior but the emotional and physical repercussions are immediately felt. It’s hard to blame Lou Ye, though, considering the fact that I hold Bliss with the highest regard.

Despite stumbling in many areas (particularly towards the end) this is certainly worthwhile if only for being pretty much a perfectly crafted film. In addition to all the great technical qualities found in Lou’s other films, there seems to be a new-found interest in Alan Clarke-style tracking shots that look stunning here. There’s also much more liberal use of zooms and fades, which are annoying, but not overbearing. It’s really the film’s overtly-epic scope that makes it come off as too earnest to be the masterpiece it clearly wants to be. A film this long should put a bit more into the characters rather than just having them float from one awkward situation to another. Overall, this truly is an impressive film but it’s aspirations may over shadow some of its strengths.