10 December 2012 | cowboyandvampire
Down and out in Hollywood, Rome and the Riviera
When a movie opens with the funeral of the main character, you know you are in for a long, sad ride. Really long, in this case – the movie clocks in at two hours. With the inevitability of a tragic death fixed at the opening, it's hard not to see the entire film through filter of sadness.
The Barefoot Contessa follows the rise, perpetual dissatisfaction and demise of a beautiful, charismatic Maria Vargas, a young Spanish woman played by Ava Gardner. A powerful wall street type turned movie backer wants her to be the new face and visits her in her small village, dragging along a PR man, the director and washed up actress. There are two narrators – a little confusing at times – but most of the movie is relayed from the perspective of Humphrey Bogart, a sad sack, world weary writer/director (in a mythical time when writers were as famous as the stars). He was great, as always, and Gardner was good but lacked oomph for someone supposedly able to set the world on fire.
I think that was due mainly to the direction, she wasn't allowed to sparkle; quite the opposite, she was prohibited from shining. The odd thing about the movie is how much of her action happened off screen. When Hollywood arrives in her village to see her dance, we only see her hands clicking castanets. When she has a screen test which dazzles jaded directors and, we don't see it. When she makes three movies, we never see her on set or even get a hint of what she was like in the movies. When she rises to the top of the celebrity mountain with legions of adoring fans, we don't see them or even understand why. In fact, all she really does is mope around and wait for her demise. The only time she is allowed to partially captivate is during an odd scene where she hand-dances at a Gypsy camp.
It must have been intentional, and added to the doomed mood throughout. Instead of the details, instead of watching a small town girl lose her innocence (though she always seemed quite confident, self-possessed and resigned to her fate) we see the outcomes -- cruel people growing crueler, the dehumanizing effect of fame and redemption for a few characters (Bogart's character finds true love after three marriages and manages to kick the booze habit for good). Mostly we see barefoot Ava, drifting through life, never able to let herself be happy, or fall in love, or enjoy success, or even laugh. And we are never really able to understand why. The opening shot shows that she is doomed and I was never able to shake that inevitability throughout.
Still well worth the time.
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