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Tomka dhe shokët e tij

Rescued from near oblivion
This marvelous film about a group of children in the town of Berat, Albania was virtually unknown outside of its country of original until fairly recently. Its appearance on TCM should make it familiar to many more. From the end of World War II until the 1990s Albania was a closed society, one of the most restrictive Communist nations on the planet, rivaling that of North Korea. (I recommend seeing Gianni Amelio's 1996 film "Lamerica" which dealt with the nation's collapse and the outflow of refugees resulting from its turmoil.) The children here have an ongoing feud with the occupying German soldiers who have taken over their playground. They develop some patriotic consciousness and assist the local partisans in combatting the intruders, in a way we also saw in Rossellini's classic "Open City." The boys (and the occasional young girl) are all fine troupers as is their mascot dog Tuli and a little goat, and the adults as well. The woman director Xhanfize Keko was remarkably skilled in eliciting natural performances from the young cast and apparently made a number of other films with a youthful roster. The opening shot with the group of kids cheerfully walking together, and accompanied by lilting background music, sets the tone for this very nice movie.

Donne proibite

Fascinating obscurity.
I've had the opportunity to watch this film in both its Italian version and English-dubbed release version. There are some great women in the cast, including Linda Darnell, Valentina Cortese, Lea Padovani, and Giulietta Masina before she appeared with Quinn in "La Strada." This obscure little rarity is a noirish character study about three dispossessed prostitutes evicted from a bordello and about a sucker (Anthony Quinn) who wants to run off to Venezuela with one of them. Giulietta Masina became friendly with Quinn during the filming, introduced him to her husband Federico Fellini, and got him the role of Zampanò in "La Strada." Unlike "La Strada," where Quinn was dubbed in Italian for the home version, here he spoke his own Italian, probably coached by Valentina Cortese and Masina. Although the reviews were not overly kind to this picture, it is worth seeing because of its atmosphere, its extraordinary cast, and its rarity.

Beed-o baad

Wind, willow, glass, boy.
"Willow and Wind" is an appealing little Iranian film about the painful adventure of a young boy laden with the task of replacing the broken window of his school classroom. It doesn't sound like much, but it is in fact very engrossing. The boy, played by Hadi Alipour, treks over the rural countryside to a glazier who makes the replacement-pane to the dimensions he specifies. The last half-hour of the movie is the best, showing the lad walking in the windy weather, across stream and dale, to bring the pane back to his school where he will attempt to install it. While the boy is en route, the viewer is on edge wondering whether the kid will break the glass or decapitate himself. Neither happens, en route, that is. The heartbreak occurs at the very end, through a bit of carelessness of the boy's own. This last segment is almost wordless, a kind of visual poem of epic struggle on a smallish scale, and it is truly marvelous. The first part of the movie, while good, does not have that same urgency. The scene with the boy and the glass-dealer, for example, goes on way too long. I was at a disadvantage in watching this film, since it was not subtitled in English. I first saw a Chinese-dubbed copy, then the original Farsi version and had a hard time understanding much of the narrative, though the overall plot situation is quite evident. In the final almost wordless half-hour it becomes rather easy to follow. The film, directed by Mohammad-Ali Talebi, was scripted by the great Abbas Kiarostami, whose other children-themed films are also splendid and beautiful. I think particularly of "Where is the Friend's House," with a difficult-quest-story that rather parallels the one in this movie. While probably intended primarily for young folks, this is a work that adults can also truly appreciate. If you can find it, watch it! It's a gem.

Cavalleria rusticana

The revenge of Alfio
There have been numerous versions of the Giovanni Verga story and play as well as the Pietro Mascagni opera based on the work. This film is an amalgam of the opera and a straight dramatic version, with acceptable results. The well-known plot of Sicilian love, jealousy and revenge is directed here by Carmine Gallone, who specialized in, among other things, the transferring of operatic texts to the screen and films about classical composers. Turiddu (Ettore Manni) has returned from military service, gotten his fiancée Santuzza pregnant, abandons her for Lola, the wife of the town's cart-driver and wine-hauler. Alfio challenges him to a duel and kills him… to the horror of the townspeople. Swedish actress May Britt as the wronged Santuzza looks angelic; Tunisian-born actress Kerima is excellent as the slatternly object of Turiddu's passion (that same year she was the 'she-wolf' in Lattuada's "La lupa.") But the strongest impression is made by Anthony Quinn as the avenging Alfio, suggesting in this early role some of the qualities that would make him famous in his later performance as Zorba the Greek. He is dubbed in Italian, as he would be in Fellini's "La strada." The film itself has been almost impossible to see , but can be glimpsed in its entirety on YouTube. Unfortunately the movie , which was shot in Ferraniacolor (and 3-D!) , now seems to exist only in black-and-white copies. In fact when it played the U.S. in 1963 as "Fatal Desire," dubbed in English, it was shown in black-and-white prints only. The ad read "There is a special kind of payment for 'borrowing' another man's wife." I remember a local drive-in program, with this at the bottom of a double bill with Elsa Martinelli in "Rice Girl", another Italian film, as the main feature. I'd love to see "Cavalleria Rusticana" restored and made available in better copies, but I'd like to see a lot of impossible things.

La porta del cielo

A semi-lost masterpiece
Vittorio De Sica's "La porta del cielo" ("Gate of Heaven") was made during the last part of the Nazi occupation of Rome and was not released until after the liberation and then only minimally and pretty much shelved. De Sica took on the project as a delaying tactic so as not to be forced to join the Italian cinema industry in its forced move northward after the Badoglio government signed the armistice with the Allies and Italy was thrust into a fratricidal civil war. De Sica told the urging Nazis that he had taken on a film project for the Vatican and worked on the movie, slowly, hoping the war would end while he filmed.

The movie was financed by the Centro Cattolico Cinematografico and much of it was shot inside the extra-territorial basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, with the interior doubling as the shrine of Our Lady of Loreto. The story follows a group of pilgrims, each with personal health issues and other problems, hoping to find a cure or solution in the church at Loreto, Italy's version of the shrine of Lourdes in France. Much of it takes place on a special train ("treno bianco" or "white train") transporting these pilgrims to the shrine from the south of Italy and making stops in other cities along the way to pick up additional participants.

The narrative includes several flashbacks into the lives of the people on the train. Among the pilgrims is a young concert pianist, played by Roldano Lupi, who has lost the use of his left hand, and who hopes for a miracle, despite his not being a believer. There are two workers, Carlo Ninchi and Massimo Girotti, one of whom is blinded in a factory accident that turns out to be caused by his friend. The blind man wants to regain his sight; the other seeks forgiveness for his act of malice. There is a handicapped boy in a wheelchair accompanied by his sister, played by Maria Mercader. Mercader was De Sica's wife/mistress and it was she who had arranged for the project to take place. There is an old woman, a governess in the service of a wealthy family, who wants to seek peace for the warring family members. There are many wonderful sequences, and the screenplay, written in part by De Sica's great collaborator Cesare Zavattini, adds a good deal of humanity to the movie and a realism not characteristic of much Italian cinema of the time. In a way this was a precursor of neorealism as much as Visconti's "Ossessione", and De Sica's own "I bambini ci guardano."

For De Sica himself this was one of his favorite movies and he always regretted that circumstances had caused it never to reach a public in the period after it was made. For the longest time De Sica's son Christian owned what was the only know copy of the movie, a 16mm print that she showed to people from time to time, including the writer Nino Lo Bello, who published on article on it in 1981 after a private viewing. In 1991 The film was shown, based on newly discovered archival-quality 35mm materials, as part of a De Sica retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That was where I first saw it. DVD copies of the movie can, as of now, only be found in private collections and derive from a RAI-TRE television showing.

Il mare

"Il mare" re-visited
The program booklet for the 1963 New York Film Festival (first one ever) shows that "Il mare" was scheduled for one screening on September 17 at 6:30. The blurb made reference to the Venice Film Festival showing where the movie had been "greeted by one of those sessions of prolonged booing, hissing, and cat-calls that, at festivals, generally herald a masterpiece." Later the film received non-theatrical distribution in 16mm by Audio Brandon Films. I do not believe it was shown commercially anywhere in the U.S., though it may have had minor runs and was shown by film societies on college campuses and elsewhere before the prints were withdrawn from distribution. I first saw it in Providence in April 1980 when the local Italian American Cultural Society sponsored one showing at the Cable Car Cinema.

I recently saw it again on an unsubtitled DVD from a private source. What I remembered of the film, its stark atmosphere and the special beauty of off-season Capri, superbly photographed, still held true for me. Also holding true was the stunning pretentiousness and Antoniennui (to borrow Andrew Sarris' clever coinage)of the whole piece, like a directorial wet-dream inspired by the island sequences of "L'Avventura." It has fine photogenic actors speaking some impossible dialog. It is a synthesis and time-capsule and reductio-ad-absurdum of early 1960s art house cinema, beautiful yet unbearable, requiring multiple cups of the free espresso the art cinemas of that epoch used to supply their patrons to kick-start them back into the world of the living.

La morte civile

Stark emotions in a stark drama
"La morte civile" was based on a popular melodrama by Paolo Giacometti and has been filmed several times. It is the story of a woman, Rosalia, who marries a failed painter, Corrado, despite the opposition of her family to the marriage. They have a little daughter, Ada. A violent argument between the woman's brother and her husband provokes Corrado into killing his brother-in-law. He is tried and sentenced to life imprisonment. Some grim sequences delineate this incarceration. Meanwhile a doctor who has lost his wife and little daughter comes to Rosalia's aid, assuming the role of the child's father while Rosalia is hired as the little girl's governess. The child is now called Emma after the daughter that Palmieri lost. Rosalia is in fact her mother. The girl believes this fiction as the next few years pass. Later Corrado escapes from prison and returns in an attempt to restart his life with his wife and daughter, but he comes to see this cannot be. He asks Rosalia to have little Emma call him "father" before he goes away forever. The "forever" turns out to be a brief one as Corrado dies in a fall, probably a suicide. But, as the title implies, he has already died a "civil death" in his imprisonment and separation from family and society. The film is very well acted by Dina Sassoli as Rosalia, Carlo Ninchi as Corrado, and Renato Cialente as the benevolent Doctor Palmieri. The stark atmosphere of the Gargano peninsula in Puglia gives force to the stark emotions of the drama which contains, like a somber and tragic opera, absolutely no humor or levity. A particularly good scene has a procession of townsfolk to a religious shrine. It has a surge of emotion that is similar to the one in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," and it is taking place as Corrado makes his re-appearance from the dead. The last half-hour of the film is particularly strong and moving. Director Ferdinando M. Poggioli was one of the finer craftsmen of the Fascist era, though this film has descended into virtual oblivion. It deserves to be better known.

Preludio d'amore

A worthy film, unseen for over half a century
World War II has ended. After four years Davide (Vittorio Gassman in his first movie, dubbed by another Italian voice, and with hair weirdly dyed blond!) has returned home to Camogli near Genoa hoping to resume his relationship with Anna (Marina Berti). In the meantime she has shown an interest in shady black-marketeer Rocco (Massimo Girotti), taking him away from his former girlfriend Alida (Maria Michi), prodding the poor girl to suicide and inspiring a backlash against Anna by the relatives of Alida. Ultimately Davide and Anna are reconciled, and a happy life together in Camogli will result.

This four-pronged melodrama of love and jealousy is played against an expertly-etched natural background of Camogli and environs, including Genoa. Much of it, stunningly photographed by the legendary Piero Portalupi, seems as much a documentary with dramatic overtones as a drama with documentary flourishes.

With its striking stylistic amalgam of neo-realism, regional documentary, Carné-like poetic realism, and Italianate film–noir à la Lattuada in that director's "Without Pity", the movie creates a certain fascination. It was directed by noted documentary film-maker Giovanni Paolucci and is considered his best work. It was co-written and produced by Leopoldo Trieste, who would be remembered for many films he performed in, but especially as the worried husband in Fellini's "The White Sheik."

There was a good deal of fascination and interest aroused by "Preludio d'amore" when it was unearthed in late 2011 for a single showing in Camogli, where it had been filmed, after having gone unseen in Italy since its initial release over sixty years earlier. In the U.S. it is equally as rare. From the early 1950s to the early 1960s it played sporadic engagements at exploitation houses and drive-ins all over the country, especially in 1958 and 1959, paired with the Rossellini-Pagliero film "Woman" ("Desiderio"). "Preludio d'amore" was re-titled "Shamed" in the U.S., and the program of Rossellini's "Woman" and "Shamed" wended its way through secondary venues noted for risqué billings as well as urban art houses of lesser repute. The films actually deserved better, but the inappropriate promotion of "Woman"/"Desiderio" to capitalize on the Rossellini-Bergman scandal inhibited much general serious consideration or critiques. The thrashing "Shamed" received from the New York Times critic precluded any programming in houses where audiences might appreciate this amazing little postwar gem.

I remember this double bill playing on 42nd Street in Manhattan in late May 1964 at the Apollo Theatre with the marquee blazing "Rossellini's 'Woman' and 'Shamed'. " As far as I know that was the last that was seen or heard of "Preludio" in America, though "Desiderio" has been shown in archival Rossellini retrospectives. Maybe in an overdue Gassman retrospective this first screen appearance of his will see the light of day once more.

Piccoli naufraghi

The camaraderie of shipwrecked youngsters from fascist Italy
A group of thirteen boys, tired of the day-to-day boredom and doldrums of life in the classroom and other restrictions on their freedom, conspire to stow away on a merchant vessel bound for Ethiopia, the new Italian colony in Mussolini's fascist empire, in search of liberating adventure. There is a shipwreck, and the boys, stranded on an uninhabited small island, set up a colony of their own, while awaiting the chance to leave. In time another ship arrives at the island; on board are a group of pirates intent on selling arms to the Abyssinian "rebels". In a burst of proud Italianate heroism, and exemplifying fascist-youth ideals, the lads take control of things and commandeer the vessel to return to to Italy. The cast includes Riccardo Freda as a benevolent and inspirational teacher. He would later become a director of some renown. Giovanni Grasso plays the captain of the merchant vessel. The boys themselves are a pleasant lot, though their characters are barely fleshed out in any clear way. While there is certainly an intended subtext here of fascist "manhood", imperial adventure, the film remains most likable as a simple boyish adventure with "Lord of the Flies" overtones. The Italian title of this film was changed to "Piccoli Avventurieri" (Little Adventurers) from the original "Piccoli naufraghi" (Shipwrecked Boys) for its ethnic language-house release in the U.S. A copy of this rare title can be viewed at the Library of Congress Film Study Center in Culpeper, Virginia. It was one of the titles in the "captured film collection" at the start of World War II.

Francesco d'Assisi

The humble and beautiful man from Assisi
One of the least-known and best of the films about the life and work of Francis of Assisi is this first feature film made by Liliana Cavani and coincidentally the first feature film drama made for the Italian network RAI. It is a true wonder. Rarely has a filmmaker captured the true simplicity of the man, the privileged son of a wealthy Assisi cloth-maker who rebels against his father and against all manifestations of external luxury and wealth. His rebellion is not a prideful one but done as a means to follow more closely the teachings of Jesus any display of pomposity and might obliterated. As a soldier he experiences the horror of war and bloodshed and it fills him with revulsion. The scene where he publicly removes his clothes in a symbolic act of renunciation is beautifully done The young rebel is played here by Lou Castel, fresh from his performance in Marco Bellocchio's landmark "Fists in the Pocket." His founding of the new order of Friars Minor, conceded by Pope Innocent III, is shown here in a very moving scene, with his followers doing all the discussion with the pope while Francis hovers in the background like a timid child. Apart from the fact that the hero of Bellocchio's film was amoral and depraved and even insane, the two roles closely resemble each other in the extremeness of the two character's world views, one nihilistic, the other mystic. Bellocchio himself has a small role as Pietro, who pleads with Francis later for some modifications to the stringent rule of poverty and simplicity that his friend insists upon. In illness Francis he leaves his place to Pietro, he retires into a solitary life in Assisi and dictates to one of his followers the new rule for the order, reflected almost entirely by a reading of the gospels. In the end, as death approaches, he has a simple meal with his followers, including a favorite child who winningly repeats the final words of Francis' sentences. Soon after, he is buried naked in the earth. There have been many films about Saint Francis. This is my absolute favorite one. For me it is high praise given that I am a great admirer of Rossellini's masterful "Francesco, giullare di Dio." It is also Liliana Cavani's best film, before she went off into a number of unseemly and kinky creations that rarely appealed to me. Nor is her later remake of the Francis story, called simply "Francesco," and starring Mickey Rourke, of the same high caliber as this picture. See "Francesco d'Assisi" it if you can. It is tragic that this masterpiece is not more widely shown.

It's Not Just You, Murray!

Memory of an Italian mother and a plate of pasta at Brown University
I first saw this early film by Martin Scorsese at an intercollegiate student film festival at Brown University in Providence on April 16, 1965. I was not a Brown student but I used to attend film showings there, of which there were many, and they formed the nucleus of my education as a film buff. I saw a few other movies in that festival held at Alumnae Hall, but "It's Not Just You, Murray" was the one that caught my attention at the time, because of is brash and entertaining qualities. I remember in particular the amusing image of the Italian mamma coming in with a big plate of pasta, eager to feed her boy. Later I would find out that this mamma was actually played by Scorsese's own mother Catherine, whom we would see later in the documentary "Italianamerican", about both the directors parents, as well as in other cameo roles, including one in "Goodfellas," where her character is kind of an extension of the earlier role in "Murray." The movie got a top award at that Brown festival, not surprising. I filed away a memory of it, taking care to note the director's name. I suspected he would be going places. Later when "Boxcar Bertha" opened in Providence at the Strand Theatre, I went to see it on the basis of the name Scorsese and I was not disappointed, and of course greater films were yet to come in his remarkable career.


Adventures of a two-lira Don Giovanni
"Rubacuori" was one of the first Italian sound films and also one of the first to be shown in America where it played at the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in New York, unsubtitled, intended for the local Italian-speaking population. The movie features the splendid Armando Falconi as our fastidious banker hero Giovanni, who acts the role of petty martinet with the office girls and is a self-styled lady-killer or "rubacuori" elsewhere. Though married (to Tina Lattanzi) , he has constantly roving eyes as he comes into contact with any female who crosses his path or whose path he goes out of his way to cross because he cannot help himself and any pair of shapely female legs changes the direction of his walk. He gives the excuse of nocturnal business meetings to his wife when in fact he is on the prowl at a local cabaret. One night the lights go out and a jewel is stolen from the Dietrich-like singer played by Mary Kid. (She sings the title song "Rubacuori.") Much of the contrived plot from that point on involves that jewel winding up accidentally in our Don Giovanni's hands, implicating him even further in some amorous peccadillos as he attempts to return it to the singer, and creating a concatenation of mishaps. It's all nonsensical contrived fluff, of course, but still quite enjoyable, mostly due to the on-target performance of the great Italian screen actor Armando Falconi. For an early sound film, the visual style is quite inventive and the movie is never stage-bound and even recollects at moments some of the German films made during the previous decade. And for me the presence of character actress Ada Dondini as Giovanni's mamma, is another plus in this pleasant escapade.


Italian giallo set in New York
"Grattacieli" ("Skyscrapers") is a pedestrian Italian giallo, a whodunnit set in a New York high rise apartment. Made in 1943, during the war, it seems to be set in the year 1933, judging by the stock shots we get of two different movie theatre marquees, one of the Strand where the 1933 "Havana Widows" with Joan Blondell is playing and a second one of a B.F. Keith's theatre where the 1933 film "Only Yesterday" is displayed. The rest is confined to an apartment and a terrace overlooking the city. At a party a drunken guest falls from the terrace and is killed. That is he falls or is pushed to his death. The victim is an obnoxious lecher type played by the fine Paolo Stoppa, who is the only good thing about the film before he is written out of the story. Most of it involves the investigations of a police inspector(Luigi Pavese)to ascertain who the murderer was. By the end the murderer is uncovered and is killed too. The whole thing moves along so mechanically one can hardly care much. The original play this was based on, written by Guglielmo Giannini, who also directed this film adaptation, had some popular success at the time.

La sua terra

Mussolini's youthful turf
This short film by renowned documentarian Luciano Emmer gives us a bucolic view of the peasant area around the village of Predappio, Italy, where Benito Mussolini was born and raised. The title means "His Land." The camera roams here and there, over hills and streams and fields which the "Duce" would have been familiar with. Interiors of the house of Benito's birth are shown as well, and we see the matrimonial bed where presumably he was conceived, as well as framed photos of his mamma and papà. It is reported that after it was shown to Mussolini, he considered it such a bad omen (why?) that he ordered the destruction of the film. The surviving print does not have the original music track, which is lost, and other music has been substituted.

Il canale degli angeli

Rarely-seen gem set in Venice.
This beautiful little film, rarely seen outside of archives, is a semi-documentary, semi-dramatic story set in Venice. There are essentially four characters. Daniele (Ugo Gracci) works on a dredger clearing the "Canal of the Angels" so that larger ships can pass through, saving them local navigation time. He is married to Anna (Anna Ariani) and they have a little son Bruno (Pino Locchi). An out-of-work sailor called "the captain" (Maurizio D'Ancora) works temporarily as a uniformed vaporetto ticket-taker before being assigned to a ship. They each display a loneliness and a strong a desire for companionship and affection. Daniele's leg is injured in an accident and he is out of commission for a few weeks. Anna meets "the captain" at a fair and where the two go to the dance pavilion together and later spend some time in a semi-romance as the woman's husband is recuperating from his injury. It is clear she is smitten by him. All this is taken in by the young Bruno who has a clear apprehension over the his mother's behavior and senses something is amiss, much like the boy Pricò in De Sica's later "The Children Are Watching Us", which also had a wife seeking romance outside of her marriage, though here it never fully progresses to the same tragic consequences of the later film. Bruno gets ill (like Pricò, whose real illness is fear of abandonment by a mother he loves.) When the mother announces at dinner that she is going out for a few minutes, we wonder, as does the boy, whether she will return to diner or go off with her sailor. His ship passes through the cleared canal; the mother returns, the family is together and happy. The personal drama is never fully developed , remains on the surface, and yet it has an almost fable-like force. The background elements often dominate. Francesco Pasinetti had and would garner a great deal of esteem for his documentaries on Venice such as "Piazza San Marco" and this was his only real film with actors and a story, schematic as it is. Much of the film has a visual lyricism that suggests parts of Jean Vigo's "L'Atalante." The excellent photography of the canals, alleys, and dock areas of Venice was done by Giulio De Luca. Director Pasinetti died in 1949 at age 37. This film is probably his finest achievement. More than a cinematic trifle, it is a remarkable visual poem.

La giornata balorda

A forgotten classic.
I missed this film in its initial release; then it disappeared completely. It wasn't even shown in Bolognini retrospectives in subsequent years because of its rarity. The movie boasts an excellent screenplay by Pasolini and Moravia and resembles "Accattone" in style and content. It really seems more like a Pasolini film than one by Bolognini. It is a story, set entirely in one day, about a Roman loser (like Accattone himself) who has fathered a child with his mistress and is now trying, sort of, to find work when not having sex with one woman after another. His name is Davide Saraceno and he's played by Jean Sorel. Paolo Stoppa has a small role as a sleazy man-of-connections that Davide asks for help in finding work. The settings are stark, and the opening of the film beneath the multi-tiered and cacophonous balconies of an apartment complex is breathtaking. Lea Massari plays a well-to-do woman who takes to Davide. Valeria Ciangottioni plays his distraught mistress. She is the girl of the innocent face we remember from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." Roman dialect abounds on the soundtrack.

Lo straniero

The Outsider
I watched two different copies of "The Stranger," the French version and the Italian version. I'm not quite sure which I prefer. The French version sounds more authentic, of course, because of the setting and the fact that everybody performed for the camera in French. Mastroianni did too, but his spoken French probably remained too accented and so he was dubbed by a native actor in the final version, or in THIS version. You get his voice in the Italian version, though Italian dialog in that setting makes no sense, and all the supporting performers, from Karina to Blier, are dubbed. Despite Mastroianni's talents as an actor, he really seems miscast here. He just doesn't look or feel right as Meursault. Yet he is still unforgettable. I've been re-reading chapters about the film in studies by Monica Stirling and Gala Servadio. Visconti originally had Alain Delon in mind for the role, and the Camus people preferred him, but I believe the Italian producers wanted Mastroianni, and Delon supposedly asked for too much money. The Camus people also insisted on absolute fidelity to the novel, whereas Visconti wanted to enlarge and adapt it, moving it to the present and including references to the struggle for Algerian independence. It was filmed in Algiers, about a year after Pontecorvo's film "The Battle of Algiers." The alternate English title "The Outsider" is a better one, since it clearly describes that character's alienation from society. I don't know if the results are a masterpiece, but it is still an indispensable work.

Dove vai in vacanza?

Sordi episode the best!
The Sordi episode of "Dove vai in vacanza" ("Le vacanze intelligenti") is one of the most hilarious Italian comedies ever made. By itself it runs 70 minutes and would make a great program for any audience. I once showed it to an Italian cultural club here in RI and it made everybody laugh galore. Same result at the "commedia all'italiana" series at MoMA. The fabulous Anna Longhi plays Sordi's fat wife. They are both Roman fruit vendors. Their snobbish children send them off on a vacation trip through Italy where the parents are supposed to get cultured and lose weight at the same time. But they are in turn puzzled, unhappy, and hungry. They long for their Roman sausage and pasta. The other two episodes in the film are mediocre, but "Le vacanze intelligenti" is a little masterpiece. It should have been released as a separate film.

Dillinger è morto

Dillinger re-seen, finally...
"Dillinger è morto" is a bizarre Italian film by Italian director Marco Ferreri, made in 1969, and never shown in the U.S. until now, 2009, in its scattered special engagements. I had the good fortune to catch it in Rome in 1970, on my last night in the city, at the neighborhood Cinema Farnese in Campo de' Fiori.

It deals pretty much with an evening in the life of a character named Glauco, played by Michel Piccoli, who comes home from work in a gas-mask factory, is disgusted with the cold supper left for him by his always sleeping wife, prepares a gourmet meal of his own as he cleans (with virgin olive oil) a revolver found in a closet and wrapped in old newspapers. The papers contains the story of the death of American gangster John Dillinger. The revolver, of uncertain origin, obsesses him. When done, he paints it red with white polka dots. This is an interesting man but hardly a sane one.

And then...well, and then...what Glauco does with that revolver and how it becomes an invigorating turning point in his unwell life, gives the film a measure of its eerily fascinating allure. This lost cult movie is certainly an interesting counterpoint to Johnny Depp's current "Public Enemies," about the gangster himself.

I never thought I would see it again, since it has never been available on video or DVD. Yesterday I caught it at the Brattle in Cambridge. You may like it; you may not. But, as with me four decades later, it will never leave your mind.

La région centrale

Personal reaction
Last night I went to Brown University to watch the Modern Culture and Media screening in 16mm of Michael Snow's legendary experiment. I braced myself to stay through to the end (with a brief rest-room hiatus) and I made it, along with five others of the original twelve. I clocked the film at 194 minutes.

I found the movie particularly fascinating when the swirling, swinging, fluctuating, mountain-top images suggest not the real world but a kind of fragmented and almost abstract visual painting in motion. I'm not saying I enjoyed all of it, but I was fascinated by what Snow was doing in his one-of-a-kind tour-de-force and was drawn to the enormous variation he employed with the robot camera. If this were a piece of classical music rather than a film, its form would be that of theme and variations.

Particularly effective, I thought, was the use of sounds: beeps, vibratos, repeated motifs, which at one point sounded like a phone ringing in another room. They contributed to the mesmeric quality of the experience.

The swirling ending was really really really long and excessive, and by that point I had had enough and just wanted it to end, but in fact it is this very excess that gives the film its uncompromising strength.

This is a natural for DVD, where one could more comfortably watch it in bite-size segments, but then, purists might suggest, one would be deprive of the cumulative effect.

Shestaya chast mira

Soviet self-congratulatory propaganda
This relatively unseen silent classic propaganda documentary from the former Soviet Union in its first decade is a self-congratulatory paean to the "wonders" of socialism and Russian life.

Once you understand that, it is easy to revel in the succession of spitfire montage showing a new nation in the frenzy of work and play. Much of the magnificently edited imagery deals with factory production and machines and "the machines that make machines." From European Russia to the wilds of Siberia, it all finds a part here, and the call is to the presumably deprived workers of other nations of the world who need to take this Utopian dream as a model for their own futures. Papa Stalin is there too in a few images to provide his paternal incentive.

The film is a perfect example of how movies can transcend their subjects, even if they are agit-prop, to win us over on a gut level, if not on an intellectual one. Films like this one of Dziga Vertov, are the leftist-Marxixt equivalent of the rightist-Nazi works of German propagandists, such as Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." All are worth seeing with an open mind and a historical perspective.

La canzone dell'amore

Ready-made motherhood.
This was the very first Italian sound feature film to be released, though Blasetti's "Resurrectio", released a year later in 1931, was actually shot before this one. It was based very loosely on a Luigi Pirandello short story called "In Silence" and is about a woman who cares for her widowed mother's out-of-wedlock child. In the short story it was about a man who cares for his widowed mother's son.

Returning from her music studies in Rome to her distant town after receiving word about her ailing widowed mother, Lucia (Dria Paola) discovers that mom has died and that she had given birth to son out of wedlock. The father had pretty much abandoned the mother. Lucia decides to become the mother to her little half-brother, sever a relationship with her boyfriend Enrico (Elio Steiner) and keeps the nature of the situation quiet. Her landlady helps tend the baby while Lucia works in a Rome record store/ recording studio as a sales clerk, having abandoned her pursuit of a singing career in order to care for the baby.

At a certain point the child's father returns to claim his son. Enrico, now a successful conductor, has met Lucia again and wants to resume their relationship. In a quandary about what to do about the child, whom she cannot abandon, and a man who clearly loves her, she is about to attempt suicide until Enrico stops her just in time. He has had an encounter with the boy's father and he assures Lucia that she, he, and baby Ninní will be together as a family.

Although laced with elements of soap opera, the film is nicely acted and manages to engross the viewer so that one really cares about what happens to this poor woman and her "son" that she has grown to love. The boy, at the age of 14 months, is played by this sweetheart of a kid named Nello Rocchi. The film has some genuinely touching moments. My favorite one is when Lucia is at a loss about how to change and diaper the child on her first day with him. She looks out the apartment window across the way at another mom who is bathing, changing, and nursing her own child. Lucia imitates what the other mother is doing as though the neighbor were providing how-to instructions in motherhood. The only thing she cannot imitate is the breast-feeding; Lucia ponders the difference between herself and her neighbor, then grabs the baby-bottle to feed little Ninní. All this is accompanied by a lovely ninna-nanna in the background.

Some nice views of Rome in 1930 provide backgrounds, including the Spanish Steps. From Lucia's window you can make out the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica in the distance. "La canzone dell'amore" (The Song of Love) was extraordinarily popular at the time of its release in Italy, and critics praised its beauty and skill at the hands of director Gennaro Righelli as well as the performances, especially that of Dria Paola.

The movie was simultaneously shot in two alternate versions, French and German, called "La Dernière berceuse" and "Liebeslied."

La finestra sul Luna Park

A boy chooses a father. A father chooses a son.
Although this movie is not as well known as most of Luigi Comencini's other films, I believe it to be one of his best. It deals with the love of a young boy, Mario, for his surrogate father, Righetto, who along with the boy's mother Ada, takes care of the child while the husband Aldo is separated from his wife and son as he works in Africa for long stretches of time and barely ever sees his family.

After the mother dies in a street accident, Aldo returns to Rome where his family lives, but only with the intention of putting the boy in an orphanage so that he can return to his job. Mario is indifferent to this father that he barely knows, but is deeply devoted to the affectionate and caring Righetto. Righetto works at odd jobs and has not had much in the way of financial stability, and yet the boy wants to become like him when he grows up. He does poorly in school.

A rivalry develops between real father and de-facto father Righetto. The boy runs away to be with Righetto, until the father retrieves him. Righetto is a kind and meek man and very patient with the boy but also honest is confronting the boy's father about his relationship in the past with Ada when Aldo hints they were lovers. Always the gentleman, in fact nearly a saint, Righetto reassures the man that nothing had ever taken place, except his genuine affection for the boy.

Righetto urges the father to remain, fulfill his parental duties, get to know his son, and not abandon him. By the end of the film, in a reversal, it is Righetto who goes off to work on a farm, and it is Aldo who, at Righetto's urging, will remain. Righetto has a last meeting with the boy at the nearby amusement park of the film's title and urges the lad to walk toward his dad, which he does. In the last few moments of the movie we see the father carrying the boy on his back to a carnival ride, which they will go on together, though he claims "fear" and though the boy doubts it. It is the birth of a new relationship, a boy with his true father, finally capable of the love he needs to give his son. And it is heartfelt and really a moving episode.

The movie is beautifully acted by Gastone Renzelli as Aldo, a magnificent Pierre Trabaud as Righetto, Giulia Rubini as Ada (mostly in flashbacks)and wonderful trouper Giancarlo Damiani as the sensitive eight-year-old Mario. Luigi Comencini has given us many films dealing with the lives of children. Some of the ones that come to mind are his "Proibito rubare," "Voltati Eugenio," "Cuore," "Incompreso," "Un ragazzo di Calabria," even "Pinocchio." My own personal favorite is this one, "The Window Overlooking Luna Park."

La vita è bella

Escaping into song.
I enjoyed watching much of this amiable trifle from the late Italian fascist era. The film begins with the predicament of a young count (Alberto Rabagliati) contemplating suicide because of gambling debts and saved from his plan by a scientist professor who urges the man to postpone his decision and pays him to do so, money he further gambles away. The young man befriends a homeless man, spends the night in the rear of a truck with him, and wind up wandering off into the countryside together, singing cheerful songs along the way.

The two are hired as workers in a farm. Two sisters run the place, played by Maria Mercader and the inimitable Anna Magnani, seen here two years before her "Open City" role that brought her world attention. While Mercader does most of the work running the farm, Magnani is pursuing a vocation as a singer and to that end takes lessons from Carlo Campanini, who is secretly in love with her.

The most priceless moments in this harmless movie are when Magnani and Campanini sing with each other, or rather against each other since Campanini is a parody of an over-emoting hammy Italian crooner.

All turns out well in the end. People sing, have fun, run farms, engage in instant romances, and sing the title song "La vita è bella" or "Life is Beautiful." This movie proved a popular diversion in 1943, particularly in Rome when it played successfully during the Nazi occupation and served as a soothing bit of escape from the grim realities outside the cinema entrance.

Gli uomini, che mascalzoni...

Miracle (of love) in Milan
This delightful romantic comedy, had it been made in America during this same period might have featured Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur and might have been directed by Gregory La Cava.

It gives us a Vittorio De Sica as a chauffeur, Bruno, who passes himself off as a man of importance by offering Mariuccia (Lia Franca) a ride in the car which he passes off as his own. She is the daughter of taxi driver Cesare Zoppetti. From the city of Milan they go off to the country for, spending some time at an inn, enjoying each other's company. Bruno romances her with the song "Parlami d'amore, Mariù" or "Talk Love to Me, Mariuccia" by Cesare A. Bixio, which made the Italian hit parade of the time.

The idyll is disrupted when Bruno is forced by his employer's wife to take her back to the city, getting into a car accident on the way, and poor Mariuccia gets stuck at the inn, feeling that she has been ditched and being saddled with the bill for refreshments and having to spend the night there.

The hurt young lady will have nothing to do with Bruno after this. Ultimately he finds her working at the fair in Milan (in a wonderful sequence shot at the Festa Campionaria di Milano) and in the 64 minutes it takes for the film to run its course of love-misunderstanding-separation-reuniting, all turns out happily with Mariuccia's father blessing his daughter and his son-in-law-to-be.

There isn't much of a plot here or a message or a moral, but who needs those? Especially when you have an amiable, ingratiating and stylish piece of entertainment like this at the hands of one of Italy's finest directors of this period, Mario Camerini.

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