Block-notes Di Un Regista (1969) (aka Fellini: A Director’s Notebook)
Federico Fellini
Italian/English

“To me, the subway is like a catacomb which goes right through the bowels of Rome.

 

Fellini - A Director's NotebookIf there ever was something called personal cinema, it had to come in the form of Fellini’s masterpiece (1963). With had come a new kind of cinematic artist, standing in front of an unlimited canvas woven in time, dipping his hands in colours called memory, fantasy and magic, painting it without giving a damn about what a world would think about it. Placing himself at the centre of his fictional world, Fellini had indeed made it clear what the director of a film can do to it – as a manager, as an artist and as a personality himself. But to see that a film that he made half a dozen years later, Fellini: A Director’s Notebook (1969) that is as ambitious in its scope and as groundbreaking in its impact as , is much less discussed is both surprising and disheartening especially considering the way Fellini transforms a mere, unappealing making-of-movie into something that is as profound and as personal as his acclaimed movies. Made as a part of a series titled NBC Experiment in Television (1967-71), A Director’s Notebook is a precursor to his next film Satyricon (1969) and traces the groundwork that Fellini laid before the shooting of this film.

A Director’s Notebook presents us Federico Fellini setting out in search of locations, sets and character inspirations for the period drama  within modern day Rome. The narrator tells us that he is trying to affirm his belief that there is a strong link between the ancient and the modern and that the Rome of history text books is still alive and kicking. This idea forms the backbone for the hunt as Fellini hops from night-time streets of Rome to the countryside, from the city’s subways to world renowned monuments and from abandoned sets to active slaughterhouses. We meet a range of characters and also get to see them through Fellini’s eyes. Soon we start to sense what Mr. Fellini is arriving at. We see the Coliseum alongside defunct movie sets, we see images of Nero’s debauched army along side the street birds of Rome, and we see brave gladiators alongside butchers of slaughterhouses. Fellini, as usual, has fun transforming his situation as he wants. He seamlessly switches between images of the past and those happening now. We even get to see the iconic Marcello Mastroianni, whom Fellini likes to call a true Roman (“has all the virtues and all the faults of the ancient Romans”), and his subsequent conversations with Fellini beyond which the film really digs deep.

Throughout the film, Fellini sets up a channel between the two Roman civilizations – the present and the ancient – in a way that, primarily, serves as an inspiration for his next movie but also as a personal journey towards the director’s own roots. Be it the virtues – especially the warm and hospitable nature of the people – or the vices – the notorious debauchery of Nero and Caligula – Fellini seems to believe that the culture and the spirit has persisted through the years in the Romans. Towards the end of the A Director’s Notebook, Fellini even has the townsfolk who work at the slaughterhouse enact sequences from ancient Rome, complete with costumes and wreaths, in order to validate them for his next film (In the sequence’s hilarious end, one of the gladiator almost cries because he gets a scratch on his ear). In some ways, A Director’s Notebook is Fellini’s version of the wonderful Tarkovsky documentary Voyage in Time (1983), which too unfolds as a nostalgic trip set in Italy, wherein the director uses geography extensively to invoke memories and emotions. In one scene, Fellini and company travel in the subway train and we notice ancient Romans standing outside the train at many places, upon which the director himself notes that this must be a journey in time and not space.

Fellini - A Director's NotebookA Director’s Notebook is to what Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997) is to his Stardust Memories (1980). Allen’s admiration for Fellini has been largely overshadowed by the influence of Bergman on him. In fact, Allen’s career closely follows that of Fellini’s even though the philosophical questions that Allen revisits is that of the Swedish. Stardust Memories (which, in a way, happens to be Woody’s 8½th movie), like Fellini’s , is all about the director. Both movies are exercises in narcissism as many have pointed out. In both, the director treats himself as if he is the centre of the universe while the world around seems to exploit him despite his turmoil. In Deconstructing Harry, Allen comes full circle and, once and for all, accepts the fact that it is he who has been exploitative and that he has to let go of his balancing act between his fictional world and the real world. Likewise, in A Director’s Notebook, Fellini studies his own self and, in an act of purging himself of the ego, reflects on how his relation has been with his actors and everyone else who has helped him gain the international reputation. Towards the end, when many actors and players try to impress the director with their skill set, Fellini tells us in the voice over:

“Yes, it might seem very cynical, very cruel. But no, I am very fond of all these characters who are always chasing after me, following me from one thing to another. They are all a little mad, I know that. They say they need me, but the truth is that I need them more.”

In one section in A Director’s Notebook, Fellini visits his long time friend and movie star Marcello Mastroianni to audition him for the leading role in his unfinished film The Journey of G. Mastorna. Fellini tries a lot – adding make up, setting up wigs, going for multiple takes – to somehow get a shade of the cellist Mastorna out of Mastroianni, but finally resigns. When he turns down Mastroianni telling him that he wasn’t into it at all, the actor quips back: “No Fellini, it’s because now you have no faith. It’s as if you are scared. If you could believe that I am Mastorna, I would automatically become Mastorna”. Throughout the movie, Fellini examines the cost that he has to pay for conforming to his reputation, the cost to that has to be paid for him to remain the Fellini that the world knows him as (Fellini is notorious for rarely using the same actor more than once), the cost for imitating oneself just for the heck of it. Fellini’s situation remains true for any filmmaker who tries to construct his fictional world the way he wants it, even at the cost of the real one – issues that both Woody Allen and his idol Bergman have explored time and again.

Fellini really pushes the boundaries of filmmaking over here. Unfolding as a tone poem in typical Markerian style, A Director’s Notebook soon goes on to blend documentary and fiction to create a truly personal form of expression that seems to be way ahead of its time. Far from the assured and fluid camera work of and rightly so, the cinematography in A Director’s Notebook is self-conscious, largely handheld, seemingly offhand and purely functional all the way. Closer to a series of essays than a complete film, the movie seems to be one of the earliest examples of the kind of cinema that would later be explored deeply by filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Jean-Luc Godard. What part of the film was scripted, what was improvised and what was plainly documented will remain a mystery, but what matters is the unique concoction that the director achieves by this mixture. Stacking various levels of reality over one another like , but also taking it further, this stunning little gem from Fellini may just be the golden key required to unlock all his films that were to follow.

Fellini - A Director's NotebookA Director’s Notebook, true to its title, also serves as a nostalgia trip for both the director and fans of his work. There are throwbacks of his earlier films throughout A Director’s Notebook. When Fellini visits Mastroianni, the latter is in an interview where the reporters ask him inane questions, much reminiscent of the irritating paparazzi of La Dolce Vita (1960). Early in the film when Fellini is scouting for locations during the night, we cut to a little interview of his wife Giulietta Masina who recalls the (then) edited scene in The Nights of Cabiria (1957) where a strange man delivers goodies to the people living on the fringes of Rome. The hilarious audition section where we have all kinds of people, including a boy who claims he can whistle like a blackbird, a charlatan who seems to know painters more important than Raphael, a lady who thinks her music conveys the same thing as Fellini’s films and even a man whose life depends on his wig, seems straight out of . Even the sequences in the film where the director hunts for life in the streets of Rome during the night time has a lot in common with the positively eerie and Lynchian atmosphere that he created in his segment Toby Dammit in the portmanteau film Spirits of the Dead (1968).

But even without the references, A Director’s Notebook remains an auteur’s work. Even if one doesn’t see any connections of this film to his other movies, one can say with conviction that it is a “Fellini movie”. No one other than the ringmaster called Fellini could have assembled the army of characters that appears at various places in the film. At one point in the film, Fellini takes a mini nostalgic trip where he recounts the people of his childhood watching a movie at the theatre, hinting at the kind of films he would be making henceforth. The clairvoyant who can talk to the people of the past, the professor who studies the connection between historical Rome and its present version and the crewmen who turn into Nero’s soldiers are all characters who have the Fellini tag stuck on their forehead. The lonely yet lyrical, dark yet alluring, beautiful yet decaying streets of Rome, the array of immensely human characters who keep flooding the screen with enthusiasm and women with exaggerated make-up and strikingly extreme expressions – now, where else can one see such images other than at Fellini’s circus?

Il Conformista (1972) (aka The Conformist)
Bernardo Bertolucci
Italian

“That’s why a normal man is a true brother, a true citizen, a true patriot… A true fascist.

 

The ConformistBernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) is everything that a viewer could ask for – a great story, interesting characters, stylish visuals and a purely cinematic language to convey them all. Using images that possess the judiciousness of a Tati, meaning of an Antonioni and elegance of an Ophuls, Bertolucci, not even 30 at that time, conjures up a film of both high mojo-quotient and long “shelf-life”. Evidently inspiring The Godfather series, The Conformist is the kind of film that persuades you to understand what the difference between direction and visual illustration is. The next time somebody kills you with that irritating “The book was better” act, hit them with this one. Not that The Conformist is better than its book version, but only that it makes such comparisons invalid.

Adapted from Alberto Moravia’s novel, Bertolucci’s script follows a young man, Marcello Clerici (Jean-Louis Trintignant), during the years just before the second big war. He is about to get married to a typical middle class woman, Giulia (Stefania Sandrelli), with “paltry, little ambitions – all bed and kitchen” in order to become a “normal” person in the society. He is also all set to be inducted into the Italian fascist party and has to carry out the assassination of an insurgent in Paris, Quadri (Enzo Tarascio), incidentally his professor during his college days. Employing ace cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s hypnotic tracking shots and handhelds and seamless, highly-stylized, tense cutting between various timelines, Bertolucci attempts to illustrate the reason for the rise of fascism by delving into the psyche of one man with a troubled past and an uncertain future.

The Conformist is a difficult film, not because its themes are heavy or its form too radical, but because the statement it proposes is a tad indigestible. Once you get over its slight simplification of ideas and reasons, it is a sweeping masterwork that you are looking at. I probably haven’t seen any film that as clearly reveal how we have all confused sexuality with morality, morality with religion, religion with politics and politics with security. The tension is palpable in almost every shot of the film. Consider the central scene of sheer cinematic awesomeness where Quadri and Clerici recollect what actually went wrong. Using staggering interplay of light and shadow, gestures and movements and room space and sound, Bertolucci develops the central motif of the film in pure film language, without ever betraying the diegesis of the film. Bertolucci’s script takes up Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, which suggests that humans are all prisoners inside a dark cave unable to differentiate between real objects and the shadows that they cast on the walls, and adapts it so as to examine the dark history of the country. It is after this point that every element of the film cries out for attention and the ambivalence of the central character brought to light. Especially remarkable is the final shot of the film where, after Italo is swept away by a Rossellinian crowd, Clerici sits on a low platform near the fire, looking towards a homosexual street dweller through prison-like iron bars, still unsure of his political, sexual and moral footing.

The ConformistIn fact, all the major characters in the film tantamount to prisoners of Plato’s cave. None of them actually know what their principles actually mean or what they want from it all. Clerici is confused with both his sexual orientation and political ideology. His wife, Giulia, does not see beyond the two things that Clerici mentions. The professor seems to spend an idyllic life like that of the bourgeoisie –the very people whom he is fighting against. Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) is none but a female counterpart of Clerici. Only that the mass she is conforming to happens to be the resistance group. The tragedy about Manganiello (Gastone Moschin) is that the people he despises is the very group he works for (“Cowards. Perverts, Jews. They are all the same. If I had my way, I’d put them all up against the wall. They should all be eliminated at birth”, he says). Even the blind Italo (José Quaglio) joins the group not because of his political leanings, but for “normalcy” and hence safety. It’s almost as if the people who oppose passive acceptance of political philosophies are themselves creating another form of fascism by unanimously scandalizing it – an idea ambiguously explored in Daldry’s The Reader (2008), where it is as much a taboo to humanely understand the people associated en masse with the Holocaust as it is to carry out the inhuman acts of fascism without questioning it.

What is brilliant is the way Bertolucci brings to surface this ambivalence of his characters. He regularly captures Clerici in the frame along with his reflection on mirrors, glass panes and windows. He places him behind wind shields and transparent surfaces and cuts in tandem between the views from both sides. He softly blurs out of focus and then into it when recording Clerici. He breaks both continuity and the 180 rule (also serving as a distancing tool) to have his characters oriented in opposite directions. At one point, Clerici even assumes two quirky firing stances – one symmetrically away from the other. Furthermore, throughout the film, Bertolucci takes Clerici through regions of light and darkness – knowledge and ignorance – thus elevating the already expressionistic tone of the film. It is as if this duality of Clerici’s is as inseparable as his features, perhaps because he never completely believes he is doing the right thing by trying to fit into pre-fabricated structures of the society. As Bertolucci rightly says in an interview:

“Marcello is really a very complex character, searching to conform because of his great, violent anti-conformism. A true conformist is someone who has no wish to change: to wish to conform is really to say that the truth is the contrary.”

As a matter of fact, Clerici is swappable with any character in the film, for he imbibes something from each of them. He behaves like Giulia in order to become one of them. He gradually finds himself moving towards Quadri’s ideologies than the fascists’ (In the layered scene at the ballroom, Bertolucci cuts to a photograph of Laurel and Hardy, indicating the frivolous and merely superficial antagonism between them). Clerici sees himself in Anna. His craving to become an acclaimed fascist comes in the form of Manganiello. One could even say that he meets his own future self in the form of his conformist father (Giuseppe Addobbati) at the asylum, whose political and (alleged) sexual contradictions are not far from Clerici’s own. But he is actually the closest to his friend Italo – insecure and scared because of a difference but unable to see beyond immediate refuge (Bertolucci once superimposes their faces, when Italo is reading a piece of text in praise of Mussolini and Goebbels). Italo even says early on in the film that they are, in a way, similar, after which we notice that he is wearing an unmatched pair of shoes. The idea of physical and ideological blindness recurs throughout in the film to reinforce the Plato allegory.

The ConformistI have always considered Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties (1975) as one of the greatest movies ever made and the best one about the Holocaust that I have seen. Watching The Conformist, one can clearly see where Wertmüller’s movie gets its inspiration from. Both films seem to complement each other thematically. While Seven Beauties examines how man’s fake principles fade into oblivion when it comes down to survival, Bertolucci’s film shows how man can assume false policies in order to survive. However, formally, both the films seem very similar in the sense that both of them exaggerate melodrama to the point of caricaturing it and consequently, derive meaning out of that absurdity. Both use oversaturated colour palettes and chromatic shifts generously to keep reminding us of the phony nature of it all. In fact, Bertolucci keeps prodding us with theatricality. As Clerici recites his father’s past, three women are performing a song in the background (Incidentally called “Who’s happier than me?” – another allusion to the prisoners of the cave). He meets Anna in a ballet class. There is even an edited scene that involves blind people dancing to a piece of music.

Bertolucci is one of the biggest New Wave fans and it shows in the host of movie references that he places in the film. It wouldn’t be a coincidence if you spot allusions to The Little Soldier (1960) or Alphaville (1965) in the film, for the director himself tells us so in an interview. Not counting the humourous nods to neo-realism and Buñuel, Bertolucci is continuously in conversation with his mentor Jean-Luc Godard throughout the film. With anecdotes about the film’s first screening and the influence of Godard on his style, he mentions here how Quadri was modeled with the French director in mind and his assassination, in a way, signified the film’s stylistic and ideological shift from Godard’s. But clearly, the relationship is one of reverence. When Clerici tells Manganiello at point: “What a strange dream I’ve had. I was blind and you took me to a Swiss clinic for an operation. And professor Quadri performed the operation. It was successful. I regained my sight and went off with his wife who had fallen in love with me”, one suspects that this is not just a token of his wavering political and sexual stance, but Bertolucci’s own gratitude towards Godard for his influence.

The ConformistHowever, Bertolucci deviates from Godard by making The Conformist a highly individual-oriented film. While Godard’s is a study of the effect of social and political structures on the individual, Bertolucci’s is the exploration of the effect the psychology of (a generalized) individual has on socio-political norms. His Clerici is a character tailor made for in-depth psychoanalysis and many facets of the film clearly remain subjective. For instance, why does he “see” the same woman thrice, at different places, in the film? Why does no one else stalking Manganiello? Does he even exist? Why does Clerici marry Giulia, even though he hates her typically bourgeois mentality? Bertolucci’s mise en scène suggests that the answers are functions of Clerici’s psyche, which is evidently affected by his childhood trauma and sexual “deviation” (Although every reading of The Conformist insists that it illustrates the role of sexual deviance in the rise of fascism, a case could be made for any kind of difference – sexual as with Clerici, physical as with Italo and even religious, as with the mystic Hanussen). This way, Bertolucci calls for a reassessment of fascism as a force that has grown bottom-up because of individual insecurities, fears, motivations and ignorance rather than a mass hysteria initiated by an arbitrary single man.

(Pics Courtesy: mcnblogs.com, brynmawrfilm.org, dvdactive.com)

Road to the Oscars?

Road to the Oscars?

The official entries for the Academy Award have been made and as many as 67 countries are vying for the coveted award this year. Among the leading contenders for the nominations are Germany’s The Baader Meinhof Complex, Italy’s Gomorra, France’s Palm D’Or winner The Class, Iran’s The Song of Sparrows directed by Majid Majidi and Israel’s Waltz with Bashir. And the Italian entry is already making waves and being termed as one of the best crime dramas from the country.

Read full review

Verdict:

Blowup (1966) (aka Blow-up)
English
Michelangelo Antonioni

“I wish I had tons of money… Then I’d be free.”
 

BlowupMichaelangelo Antonioni‘s films have always tried to establish the growing distance between humans and the alienation of self in the modern society. Though L’Avventura (1960) is his most intense meditation of that concept, it is measured in its pace and may not entice viewers of the newer generation. Ironically, his Blowup (1966) has more lovers now than it had during its time! Unlike its contemporaries which age with time, Blowup‘s appeal seems to grow with the years.

Thomas is a young and famous photographer who has models running after him for an appointment. He is indifferent towards them and even treats them as mere objects to the extent of being misogynistic. He spends his time doing ritualistic things such as collecting scrap objects and antiques. One day he finds a couple talking in a park and photographs them. The female in the couple finds this and asks him to return the film. On refusal, she tracks him to his studio and gives a futile attempt at recovering it. Getting suspicious, Thomas examines the photographs by blowing them up to the point where he sees a man holding a pistol among the bushes. He goes to the park to check and finds a corpse near the bushes. Shocked, he tries to call his friends who are too busy living in their own fantasy. Next morning, he revisits the park and is befuddled to find the corpse missing. He is not able to gather what is happening. In what I consider as one of the best endings in cinema history, a group of mime artists recreate a tennis match as Thomas watches on. Suddenly they act as if the ball has gone out of court. They ask Thomas to throw the ball in. Trying not to look different, he “throws the ball” to them. As the “match” progresses, Thomas is able to hear the hitherto silent rally of the ball. Thomas stands alone on the vast empty field as the screen fades to black.

Thomas is dissatisfied with a simple photograph of the park and digs deep into the picture using blow-ups. Thomas tries to find something extraordinary out of the ordinary picture similar to his real life where he is trying to find some meaning out of nothingness. He pursues false and assumed passions, engages in activities that only seem to bring happiness and tries to find an interpretation to everything and eventually fails. After the final encounter with the mime artists, he learns that the ball itself is a figment of his imagination. Thomas has realized his alienation and spoiled quest for meaning. Winner of Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1967.

La Strada (1954) (aka The Road)
Italian
Federico Fellini

“What a funny face! Are you a woman, really? Or an artichoke?”
 

La StradaSeldom do films come that are so simple in their presentation yet possess such strength in their characters. These are the films that sweep you off the ground with their sheer brilliance. Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) is a benchmark for industries such as Bollywood which flourish on fantasy for film making. La Strada marks Fellini’s transition from neo-realism (His previous film being the brilliant I Vitelloni (1953)) to fantasy. And what a transition it is!

Gelsomina is a innocent and childlike girl brought up isolated from her surroundings. She has always been with nature and children like her. Her life takes an unexpected when Zampano, a wandering stunt performer “buys” her from her mother. She learns to play the trumpet for performing with Zampano. The film follows her encounters with various people on her journey with the “road” being a metaphor for life. Zampano is a beast-like man who has no soft corner towards Gelsomina and ill-treats her consistently. They also meet The Fool, a comedian from another troupe who Gelsomina likes. Things are not smooth between The Fool and Zampano and the latter kills The Fool inadvertantly. Witnessing such cruelty is all novel to Gelsomina who goes into a shell and is eventually deserted by Zampano. Zampano learns later that Gelsomina passed away. The film ends with Zampano breaking down and realizing his mistakes.

A film with great characterization and humour bubbling with innocence. Gelsomina’s character acts as an angel who provides salvation at the end to the sin-hardened Zampano. The images and references of Gelsomina’s childlike innocence indicating her “angelness” appear throughout the film. Guilietta Masina gives a wonderful performance as Gelsomina with strong support from Anthony Quinn as Zampano and Richard Baseheart as The Fool. Oscar winner for best foreign language picture in 1957.

Salò O Le 120 Giornate Di Sodoma (1975) (aka Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom)
Italian
Pier Paolo Pasolini

“We fascists are the only true anarchists.”
 

SaloOnce in a while, there comes a movie that shatters the beliefs of people on cinema and redraws the lines between right and wrongs of the medium. These are the films that redefine the boundaries of film making thus providing new standards and freedom for films to come. At a time when swearing on screen was a taboo, came the classic Gone With The Wind (1939) with the legendary “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” quote. A Clockwork Orange (1971) that questioned induced goodness and evil in a very strong way, Straw Dogs (1971), famous for its graphic rape scene, Un Chien Andalou (1929) that introduced surrealism in cinema, the semi-snuff Cannibal Holocaust (1980) and its brutality – all these movies may have been snubbed by audience and critics at the time of their release, but no one can question their impact on the future generation of directors.

The year was 1975. Pier Pasolini‘s last few few ventures were not received well. What was to be his last film, released. Films were no longer safe now. Banned in almost every country it penetrated, Salò (1975) is a disturbing account of 4 Fascist officials running riot in a holiday villa. A few dozen teens are “captured” brought to the mansion. They are made to perform grotesque sexual acts while the “ladies of the house” narrate erotic and perverse stories. In another round of events, the inmates are forced to dine on human faeces. The ones that do not follow the instructions are tortured and even put to death. After all the debauchery, the officials take pleasure in watching the “violators” being brutally dismembered. More description of the scenes will be futile.

With what exact state of mind did Pasolini make this film, I don’t know. To me, Pasolini’s depressing work looks like a satire on overuse of power, especially pointing out to the division of classes in Capitalism (with Pasolini himself being a member of Italian Communist Party). Whatever be it, Salò has the power and the influence to be considered one of the critical films of the 20th century.