Thursday, 30 June 2016

A brief film review: "La pelle" [1981 Italy]

Liliana Cavani:
Veteran Italian director Liliana Cavani's films aren't always easy to love because they tend to tackle subjects that are often skirted around during mainstream discourse, and because they make for uncomfortable viewing and also leave behind a bitter aftertaste. Perhaps best known outside her native Italy for the controversial The Night Porter and the more recent Ripley's Game, Cavani's films nevertheless form a unique strand within the broader tradition of commedia all'italiana.

A scene from "La pelle" (1981), Italy Liliana Tari and Ken Marshall in "La pelle" (1981)
Alexandra King and Marcello Mastroianni in "La pelle" (1981) Burt Lancaster and Alexandra King in "La pelle" aka "The Skin" (1981)

"La pelle" [Eng. Title: The Skin], based on a novel of the same name by writer, journalist, and diplomat Curzio Malaparte (whose villa was also famously featured in Jean-Luc Godard's unforgettable Le Mépris), is Cavani's attempt at a narrative of the Second World War from the losing side, particularly those women and children who not only became a commodity for sexual exploitation in wartime Naples, but also an essential engine of the local economy.

Set towards the end of Italy's active participation in the war, an American regiment has recently arrived to firstly liberate the city before marching on to Rome. The film follows Malaparte himself (Marcello Mastroianni), hired by the US General Mark Clark (Burt Lancaster) as his chief interpreter and liaison officer. He is also helping out with the logistics, and befriends young US officer Jimmy (Ken Marshall) in the process.

Events are woven around three central female characters in the film, each of contrasting circumstances and standing, to compare and analyse the consequences for women during the time of war; Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo (Claudia Cardinale), a woman of independent means and occasional lover of Malaparte, Deborah Wyatt (Alexandra King), a pioneering American aviator and powerful US senator's wife who insists upon joining the war effort and gets her way, and young working class lass Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) that Jimmy befriends and falls in love with.

Part of Gen. Clark's brief to Malaparte is to accompany, entertain, and somehow persuade Ms. Wyatt to return back to the US. Malaparte does show her, to little effect, the seedier side to Naples, the suffering, and the chaos in the city, but it will take an apocalyptic event to finally make her change her mind. For Caracciolo and Concetta however, the same event will nevertheless be liberating, albeit in slightly different ways.

Cavani's film is not as much a political statement as a well-reasoned argument against generalisations in history and the need to examine the sociological impact on all sides during conflict; it opines that war is messy, extreme situations change people's values and allow them to do the otherwise unthinkable, and that trauma of war isn't merely restricted to the combatants. Cavani doesn't flinch from using shock when necessary to make her point. Some scenes verge on the graphic, like the unsuspecting final sequence when the audience are mostly waiting for the end credits to roll, where the director uses a shocking accident to make a plea against 'whitewashing' history for whatever it is worth. A difficult film in typical Cavani-style, but Highly Recommended Viewing..!

Amazon DVD Link [PAL] | Amazon Blu-ray Link


The Nudity: Rosaria della Femmina, Liliana Tari, and others
Apart from one scene where poverty forces the father of Maria Concetta to exhibit his daughter to American soldiers as the 'virgin of Naples' (an outraged Jimmy effectively succeeds in stopping the show from happening again), nudity in the film is largely fleeting and nonsexual. Alexandra King (Ms. Wyatt) has her dress torn while making an emergency landing on her plane. Rosaria della Femmina, in a scene tame when compared to her other film, plays a onetime society girl looking for a meal ticket. It is humorously illustrated when she compliments Jimmy's 'rump' in bed while eyeing the leg of ham he'd brought for her. Blonde merkins, apparently worn to attract black US soldiers, are randomly flashed by 'working women' in the streets. So, there's something frequently happening in this department throughout the film. :-)

Rosaria della Femmina, Liliana Tari, and others in Liliana Cavani's Italian drama "La pelle" aka "The Skin" (1981).


Wednesday, 8 June 2016

A short holiday: "Isla Bonita" [2015 Spain]

Veteran Spanish filmmaker Fernando Colomo not only writes and directs, but also plays one of the central characters in his latest romantic comedy, "Isla Bonita" [Eng. Title: Pretty Island].

Olivia Delcán, Tim Bettermann, and Lluís Marqués from "Isla Bonita" Fernando Colomo and Olivia Delcán in "Isla Bonita" (2015)
Olivia Delcán, Nuria Román, and Fernando Colomo in "Isla Bonita" Olivia Delcán, Tim Bettermann and Lluís Marqués in "Isla Bonita" (2015)

The film is set in the island of Menorca, where sculptor Nuria (Nuria Roman) lives with her teenage daughter Olivia (Olivia Delcán). Olivia had invited her Swiss boyfriend Tim (Tim Bettermann) for a holiday and the couple were having a great time together, until Lluís (Lluís Marqués) - her ex boyfriend, bumps into them in the market. Unmindful of Tim's presence, Lluís briefly gets touchy-feely with Olivia like the good old days. He pulls back after being introduced to Tim, but Tim is already upset. When Olivia confesses that she ended her affair with Lluís only after she was certain of Tim's visit, Tim packs up his bag and leaves in a hurry, even when there were no flights available.

Around the same time, film maker Fernando (Fernando Colomo) had been invited by his old friend Miguel (Miguel Ángel Furones) to shoot a documentary about the island. Miguel had hoped to host Fernando at his place, but had to change plans and convinces friend Nuria to put him at her place for a few days. Miguel wants to help the down-and-out Fernando who's just been through his third divorce and is having a tough time finding work. The documentary was hence Miguel's idea.

Olivia is distraught and wants Tim back, but he couldn't be found despite Lluís helping her search for him. When her mother had to go away on business, Olivia strikes up an unlikely friendship with Fernando. They share their stories, and go sightseeing and swimming together. Fernando soon becomes fascinated with both Nuria and her work, and decides to feature her too in his upcoming documentary film.

Having had an opportunity to study Fernando, Olivia tries to pair him up with her mother and even sets-up a dinner date between the two, but it backfires, because Nuria felt he was taking things 'too fast' for her liking - after all, "poc a poc" is the way of the island. Olivia gets a shock too when she discovers that Tim was not only in town, but to add insult to injury, was in an intimate relationship with Lluís all this time. They patch things up in a thoroughly modern way of course, by becoming a threesome..! :-)

Colomo is known for his gentle comedy arising from awkward situations and improvised dialogues, and he loves the beach too, and the skinny-dipping that comes with it (naturally), as evident from his earlier films such as Al sur de Granada, and Los años bárbaros. He is one of those rare veteran filmmakers who's not only moving with the times, but also carrying the spirit of the seventies and eighties wherever he goes, and at least for that reason, "Isla Bonita" is Recommended Viewing..! DVD Link [PAL]


The Nudity: Olivia Delcán, Tim Bettermann, and Lluís Marqués
The main film features nudity, mostly from the charming young débutante Olivia Delcán who plays Olivia, along with Tim Bettermann and Lluís Marqués. The DVD however includes an alternative ending shot in full-frame, which feature additional nude scenes from the same trio. One scene has a particularly awkward moment when mum Nuria sees Olivia, Tim, and Lluís sleeping in the nude after sex with the door wide open, and she quietly slips out of the house to avoid embarrassing them.

Olivia Delcán, Tim Bettermann, and Lluís Marqués from "Isla Bonita" (2015 Spain)


Sunday, 5 June 2016

A film review: "Angely revolyutsii" [2014 Russia]

There's now plenty of proof that Aleksey Fedorchenko has a deep reverence and fascination for the customs of ethnic tribes that cohabit his motherland. While his moving Silent Souls (2010) touched on the funerary rituals of the Merya, and his richly exotic anthology Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari (2012) boisterously celebrated Mari womanhood, his more recent "Angely revolyutsii" [Eng. Title: Angels of Revolution] is an unfettered re-imagining of a factual Soviet suppression of the Siberian Nentsy and Khanty people during the Kazym Rebellion.

Darya Ekamasova in "Angels of Revolution" (2014, Russia) Darya Ekamasova in "Angels of Revolution" (2014, Russia)
"Angels of Revolution" (2014, Russia) Darya Ekamasova in "Angels of Revolution" (2014, Russia)
"Angels of Revolution" (2014, Russia) "Angels of Revolution" (2014, Russia)

But Fedorchenko, being who he is, doesn't present the film with a conventional historical narrative, but rather like a poetic retelling of a myth; exercising generous artistic license while presenting his facts. There are true-life characters nevertheless in the film, like Polina (Darya Ekamasova), a noted revolutionary and performance artist, who is assigned the task of 'civilising' the aforementioned tribes; by encouraging them to embrace Soviet ideology, join mainstream society, and give up their pastoral lifestyle and move into permanent homes in their newly built town.

To this effect, she enlists the help of four fellow avant-gardists; film maker Pyotr (Pavel Basov), photographer and sculptor Zakhar (Georghi Iobadze), architect and coffin-maker Nikolay (Konstantin Balakirev), and theatre director Smirnov (Aleksey Solonchev). Together, they set off to the Taiga on a mission that Polina hopes would intellectually enlighten the tribes and make them appreciate modern art.

But the Khanty are aloof to this enforced 'meeting of civilisations', and at times barely tolerate their uninvited presence. While they might have been mildly bemused watching their works and antics at the beginning, they soon grow tired of them and refuse to 'join the collective', and events take an inevitably tragic turn once their respective irreconcilable positions are established, and the State decides to have the last say...

There is more to the film than meets the casual eye - be it artistic, political, or philosophical. Federchenko doesn't make it any easier for us by refusing to feed us the historical pretext for the conflict. In my case, one had to score through festival interviews and the wiki to get acquainted with collectivisation during the early days of Soviet Union. It is ironic that the avant-garde artists, themselves a minority who'll soon to be 'collectivised' by the state, were press-ganged into persuading other minorities. It is also worrying to see that states; red, blue, or whatever their hue, have found it irresistible to homogenise their entire population to control them better - it shows how incredibly fragile human civilisation has always been.

Fedorchenko's film provokes debate on ethics, ideology, and humanism itself. And after the final scene in an apartment in present-day Kazym, in which we see an elderly Khanty woman singing a tribal song while looking into the camera, we are left wondering who the angels of revolution indeed were - were they the avant-garde artists who were sacrificed for a now defunct Soviet state, or are they the disparate tribal cultures that still survive, albeit by the skin of their teeth, a quarter of a century after the revolution itself has ended.

To say that the cinematography and production design is exceptional would be stating the bleeding obvious - one can hold a photographic exhibition by simply blowing up some of the film's key frames and mounting them on a wall. They would need neither titles nor descriptions - quirky, surreal, humorous, and tragic, they'd be probing artworks on their own. Of course, good photography doesn't equate to good cinematography, but films with a master like Fedorchenko at the helm make a pleasant exception. A particularly mesmerising scene is still haunting - where Pyotr projects his film on a cloud of smoke bellowing from a wintry night's campfire. I could go on - but will end by stating that this gem is Highly Recommended Viewing..!


The Nudity: Polina Aug
Polina Aug plays Anna, Zakhar's model and muse, and briefly appears topless during one of the photo shoots.

Polina Aug in "Angels of Revolution" (Angely revolyutsii), Russia, 2014.