Category Archives: cinema

A young French sphinx


Pros: cast, look, sound

Cons: opacity of motivation

François Ozon has made some movies I like (8 Women, Time to Leave, Potiche, the 2012 “In the House”) and some I loathe (Criminal Lovers, Water Drops on Burning Rocks). I sort of liked “Jeune & jolie” (Young & Beautiful), structured with a song for each of the episodes set in consecutive seasons and the coming of sybilline (that is, enigmatic) age of Isabelle (Marine Vacth), who is 16 years old and a virgin being spied on as she sunbathes topless by her younger brother Victor (Fantin Ravat, the voyeuristic incarnation of the film-maker, I think), in the first scene. Before the family vacation is over, she has disencumbered herself of her virginity to a German boy named Felix (Lucas Prisor) she judges too stupid to be introduced to her parents. What’s love got to do with it? Not a thing!

With an alternative cellphone chip she undertakes casual prostitution, making substantial sums mostly from jones (jeans?) who don’t make heavy demands on her. When an old man ((Johan Leysen) has a fatal heart attack (Nelson Rockefeller style) while insider her, she panics and flees, and security cameras enable the police to find her, and they inform her mother, Sylvie (a very sympathetically frustrated Géraldine Pailhas), who forces her to undertake seeing a therapist. (Her stepfather, played by a wry Frédéric Pierrot, leaves childrearing to Sylvie.


What she feels remains opaque to the viewer and to the other characters, and I think to Isabelle herself. The usual French aversion to providing motivation as well as Anglo discomfort about whether young people can consent to sex with old ones, for money or otherwise make it uncomfortable viewing for me. (Knowing that the actress was 22 rather than 16-17 lessens if not removing some of the discomfort.) Pascal Marti’s cinematography is quite pretty, however, and I like the songs (delivered by Françoise Hardy). And I like the opaque final encounter, too.


©2015, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Fleeing south in 1940

Reading “Storm in June” (the first novel in Suite Française)  stimulated me to watch “The Last Train” (simply “Le Train” in French) again, though I remembered how “horrible” the color transfer is and the annoyance of the dialogue being dubbed (though I think that the multilingual Romy Schneider might have dubbed herself).


A romance in a crowded freight car filled with people fleeing the Nazi invaders across France in June of 1940 no doubt sounds a dubious enterprise to many, and when the 1973 French movie was shown in Anglo North America, some viewers were vociferously offended at the very idea that a very conventional-seeming electrician, whose daughter and pregnant wife were traveling in first-class would undertake to protect a lone woman—however coolly elegant—in a box car, and that people would copulate during the many nights on the train, between Luftwaffe strafings.

Characters of the prolific Georges Simenon would! And the phenomenon of marrying and/or getting it on before a man goes off to combat in which he has a good chance of dying is not exactly unprecedented. “Pretty” it ain’t, but the panicked flight before the Hun hordes was far from pretty, as Némirovsky showed, writing at the time.

Surely, the lone woman seeking protection and warmth while terrified is not difficult to credit. And how many men would fight off Romy Schneider ca. 1973? I have not doubt that she turned the heads of many married men in real life.


Anna, Schneider’s character in “The Last Train” has no expectations of kindness or chivalry. In a black dress with her hair pulled back in a very tight bun, she looks severe. Given that the movie is dubbed, it is fortunate that her most important scenes are wordless. Commanding the screen, she makes the viewer attend closely to the slightest flicker of facial expression.

Her champion, Julien Maroyeur (Jean-Louis Trintignant in the midst of an extraordinary run of international successes that included “A Man and a Woman,” “Z,” “The Conformist,” “Les Biches,” “My Night at Maude’s”—and much later, “Rouge“) has never had a vacation or an adventure, and presumably has never ventured into infidelity (not having been popular with girls). The trip south puts him in a liminal state.

Anna does not expect him to be heroic—or a great lover (romantic, that is). It has clearly never occurred to him that he might be (either), and he surprises himself. (Movie audiences are accustomed to men rising to the challenges of heroism and love, but one suspects that Julien has not imagined himself as being like screen heroes…)

I love train-bound or train-centered movies (The Lady Vanishes, The Narrow Margin, The Train, Murder on the Orient Express, and, my absolute favorite, Shanghai Express) and especially steam locomotives like the one much observed herein. Locomotive C253 seems like a major character in the movie, which increases my appreciation of it. (On the other hand, other passengers—including Julien’s wife and 7-year-old daughter—have some screen time, but make little impression.)

The best part of the movie, however, is the last five minutes, which occur in a French police office rather than on a train. It is very unsensational and very tense with Paul Le Person as a suave human crocodile presiding.

The colors are very degraded (making all the flesh tones too close to that of crocodiles, washed out blues, and reds turned brown). Through a crummy print, the very stripped-down performances of Schneider and Trintignant can still be glimpsed. My rating is of the movie. My rating of the DVD would be 1-.

The movie was directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre, who adapted many Simenon novels, including dozens of Inspector Maigret policiers. He directed Simone Signoret in adaptations of two Simenon novels that I badly want to see (Le Chat, L’étoile du Nord) but that are not available on DVD. (I also particularly wish that I could see “Christine” and “The Victors” with Schneider.)

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Coming of age in fascist Sicily, fixated on one who was treated as a “collaborator” after Mussolini’s fall

I think that “Malèna” (2000) is a better film than many of the other Italian films set in fascist times that have been honored as “best foreign language films”: Mediterraneo, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Life Is Beautiful, and even Amarcord. Indeed, I think that it is probably the best Italian film since “Cinema Paradiso,” which was also written and directed (twenty years ago) by Giuseppe Tornatore.

One admirable aspect is that the “macro context” is clearer in “Malèna” than in these other films. There is no need to stop and insert newsreel footage, because the local reverberations of the course of the war are very clear. Making historical sense is a rarely invoked criterion of excellence. “Malèna” has many others, but the passage of time is handled so ineptly in the much-honored list of films above, that I start with it.

Hardship is downplayed in all these films, though getting food is a problem for the title character in “Malèna.” Renato (Giuseppi Sulfaro) is propelled more by hormones than by hunger, but his family seems to have enough to eat.


Renato is obsessed with Malèna Scordia (Monica Bellucci), the daughter of the small city’s new Latin teacher. Her husband is off fighting colonial wars in East Africa. She is very beautiful, very unprotected, and more than a little provocatively dressedand shod. Renato is not the only one obsessed with her. The whole city is! Men of all ages are drooling about—and occasionally on—her. Respectable women are outraged at the effect she has on the men. Both sexes resent her—the women because she distracts the men, the men because she is at the time so voluptuous and so unavailable to them. Renato seems to be the only one who does not resent her. He worships her as a goddess from whom one cannot expect anything, spies on her, fantasizes about her, is horrified at the good citizen’s treatment of her, fights to defend her honor, and is heartbroken by his inability to protect her from what others spitefully regard as and make be her fate.


The film, beautifully photographed in Syracuse, Sicily by Lajos Koltai, from a story by Luciano Vicenzoni, takes Renato’s retrospective perspective on his wartime youth. What Malèna thinks of what befalls her, from the daily ogling and resentment to her “punishment,” is opaque to the viewer, because inaccessible to the boy. In a sense this means that the film objectifies her, just as the townspeople, including Renato did. Although she is the object of masturbatory fantasies in the film, I would stress that the perspective of the film is retrospective. That is, it is the adult narrator conjuring both the hormone-crazed boy that he was and the woman who probably never noticed him. Looking back he has compassion for both, as does the audience, or at least most of the audience. For the mob that hails Mussolini’s declaration of war, welcomes the Nazis and the American troops in turn, it is more difficult, and for the officials who go from being fascist officials to being aides to the Americans, it is impossible.

I know that the film has some detractors, mostly those expecting another celebration of the Italian past like “Cinema Paradiso” or the blitheness of “Amarcord.” And for the first hour or so, this film is lighthearted, even comic. But “Malèna” is not bittersweet in the manner of late Fellini movies. The violence is not stylized as it is in much recent American popular culture. What happens is excruciating to watch. The violence, when it comes, lasts an agonizingly long time.

I do not think that the leads are “wooden,” as some other viewers have. Monica Bellucci’s subjectivity is supposed to be unavailable, and during most of her scenes she is trying not to show emotion, but it’s hard for me to understand how anyone could think that Giuseppi Sulfaro is inexpressive! And, being an Italian movie, there are some other very expressive characters. There are plenty of theatrical gesticulation and operatically overdramatized speech available from the lawyer and from the mother in two of the film’s hilarious (yet not unserious) scenes.

I think that the film is at times extremely funny, but it plunges into horror and anguish, and ultimately provides catharsis. Is there anything else that art is supposed to do?


The cinematography of Lajos Koltai (The Legend of 1900) is superb (and wasa Oscar-nominated), the pacing brisk, and the acting convincing. My only dissatisfaction was with the overly insistent music supplied by Ennio Morricone (composer for hundreds of films, including “For a Few Dollars More,” “Brun!” and “Cinema Paradiso”). Eventually, I predict that “Malèna” will be recognized as a worthy addition to the tradition of “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Nights of Cabiria,” two of the most poignant classics of Italian neorealistic cinema. It is also one of the few great films about those treated as collaborators, along with “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”

©2001, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


A young, not-very-bright collaborator with the Nazis

Lacombe, Lucien” (1974, written and directed by Louis Malle, cowritten with the typically vague Patrick Modiano) starts slowly and proceeds at a languid, dreamy pace (with bursts of violence). It is a disconcertingly lyrical look at an 17-year-old Frenchman in rural southwestern France (near the Pyrenees and the Spanish border) who joins the Gestapo in 1944 (that is, after Allied forces have landed in Normandy) and develops a very complex relationships with three Jews (a young woman, her father, and his mother) who are in hiding.


The title character is devoid of ideology. He is rejected by the Resistance and then, being out after curfew because a tire on his bicycle went flat as he was returning to town, he is taken up by collaborators who are attempting to root out and destroy the Resistance. He does not decide to join the other side. They get him drunk and he provides useful information (so that he can’t go home again), and they keep him around. (Similarly, he did not decide to betray his village’s resistance leader, but did so nonetheless.)

Lucien seems to find an outlet for his sadism, an opportunity to swagger like the young collaborator in Georges Dirty Snow. I think that Malle was influenced by the “banality of evil” thesis that Hannah Arendt advanced in Eichman in Jerusalem a decade earlier (and that was illustrated in “The Sorrow and the Pity” in the French context, a few years before “Lacombe, Lucien.”

The surly Lacombe is easily manipulated by those who enroll him in the Gestapo and make him feel important. He is very immature, which makes him dangerous to everyone (including those on the side he has drifted onto more than joined). He lacks the methodical organization of the Germans in the Gestapo, the greed of other French collaborators, and the anti-Semitic ideology of both. None of which make him a nice guy, but, as the cultivated Jewish tailor Albert Horn (Holger Löwenadler ) says, it is difficult to despise him. And it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for Lucien being way over his head and almost endearingly gauche in courting France Horn (the beautiful and sophisticated Parisian played by Aurore Clément). Lucien is something of a bully (indeed a sociopathic sadist) but unsure of himself, a good son, and in many ways close to being an innocent. He is armed and dangerous, but his dangerousness is unpredictable. To be somewhat of an innocent within the Gestapo is still complicity with great evil, which is not mitigated by seeing that Lucien does not understand what he is doing and how what he does affects others beyond making them cower. He does not like being talked down to, but does not notice being tolerated in silence by the vulnerable (Jewish) family he forces himself into.


Pierre Blaise was killed in an auto accident a year after the movie justifiably brought him international acclaim (and augments the aura of doom surrounding Lucien). Löwenadler, Clément , and Therese Giehse the surly grandmother forever playing solitaire are all fascinating to observe, as are the supporting players. (Blaise, Löwenadler, Clément had not acted in films before (Blaise was a country boy who had only seen a few movies, Giehse had appeared in German films dating back to 1928, Löwenadler, was a Swedish stage actor).

Despite running 140 minutes, the film has a frustratingly perfunctory ending that leaves the viewer in doubt about some important matters (typical Modiano…). As Pauline Kael wrote, “There’s no special magic involved in the moviemaking technique—it’s simple, head-on, unforced.” She says that “the movie is in the boy’s face,” though I think it in the faces of the three Horns as much as in Lucien’s. (And I think that what we see through Blais’s “open face” is a blank mind rather than a dark one.) The almost upbeat musical score by Django Reinhardt seems to me to indicate how Lucien would like to see himself and what he is doing. The cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli, particularly of the French countryside, is almost jarringly beautiful (though the interiors are neo-noirish).

“Lacombe, Lucien” was Malle’s favorite of his films film, though his other portrayal of complex French-Jewish relations during the German Occupation, “Aux revoir, les enfants” (1987) garnered the best notices and most rewards and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” (Murmur of the Heart, 1971) and “Viva, María!” (1965) are my own favorite Malle films. The image of the Criterion DVD is excellent with clear monaural sound and easily legible subtitles (though dialogue is fairly sparse).

The single DVD’s extras are only a two-and-a-half minute trailer (that includes some shots not used in the final cut of the film) and Pauline Kael’s New Yorker review from 1974 (also available in her collection Reeling—which should have a “plot spoiler” warning attached to it. (I rarely agree completely with Kael—but also rarely disagree with her completely. I think she is right that Malle lost interest in some of the scripted scenes, particularly the scenes of Lucien and the maid in the Gestapo HQ/hotel where they live and torture. It is also plausible to me that working with nonprofessionals in the leads and adapting the script to Lucien’s emerging character, Malle probably had to cut scenes he needed to tell the story but that didn’t pan out. I did not dare to read what she wrote until after writing my own take, BTW.) The DVD is also available in a four-volume boxed set with “Aux revoir, les enfants” and “Le Souffle Au Coeur” and a whole disc of extras (which I have yet to see), including an interview with Malle’s widow, Candice Bergen.

On the willing collusion with evil, beyond Simenon’s already mentioned Dirty Snow and Arendt’s Eichman in Jerusalem, I would recommend Uwe Timm’s In My Brother’s Shadow. I find these reflection of too much contemporary relevance, even though I realized that “Lacombe, Lucien” was made closer to the time in which the film was set than today. (It is also disconcerting in that I remember the theatrical release of “Lacombe, Lucien” and was already an adult when I saw it the first time.

©2006, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


Chabrol’s film of Simenon’s Betty

The 1992 movie adaptation by Claude Chabrol [1930-2010] of Georges Simenon’s 1961 mysterious (but not detective) novel Betty reminds me of some of the aspects of French culture and cinema that I like and some that I don’t like.


Paramount in my dislike column is the ubiquity of cigarettes: the title character chainsmokes. Something I alternate between admiring and being appalled by is the extent to which families make decisions about intimate relationships (and this is very much central to the movie).

Among the aspects that I like is the matter-of-factness about older women not only having sex but being desirable. Here, Chabrol’s wife of many years and star of many of his movies (especially notably in “Les biches” and “Le boucher”), Stéphane Audran, who was 60 at the time, is sexually active without this being the focus (the problematic even) as it is with Diane Keaton in “Something’s Gotta Give” (which prompted at least some to express repulsion at the very idea of a sex scene for a woman of her age).

This is not to say that the French are “casual” about sex. The title character, who would be diagnosed in American culture du jour as suffering from “low self-esteem” fucks around in part trying to feel something (anything) and, it becomes clear, was courting danger/disgrace (ultimately successfully) when she was suffocating in a gilded cage, after serving her purpose of birthing babies (who were then put in charge of a very efficient nanny). That is, Betty’s sexuality is not healthily integrated into her life.

As for French cinema, I like that not every “i” is dotted, every “t” crossed…. but sometimes wish that a few more were. The viewer (and/or) Simenon reader) has to do some work to put together the story of this woman in white who is first seen careening through the streets of Paris, going into a bar, and is then taken to a Versailles bar and restaurant called “Le Trou” (the hole) by a physician who picked her up and who turns increasingly creepy (and needle-wielding, which has a special power to creep me out!).

Over the course of the movie, the woman in white, Betty (Marie Trintignant), tells a rich widow—who is a regular customer at Le Trou Laure (Stéphane Audran) and who is sexually involved with the proprietor, Mario (Jean-François Garreaud)—the story of her life (the early parts of which were hard, the more recent parts too easy) and the story of what happened earlier on the night she fled into the street. That is, there is a “plot” but it is what led up to the present (as, say, the flashbacks of “Sunset Boulevard” lead up to the body seen floating in the pool at the outset).

As in such a New Wave classic as “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” there is a somewhat oddly matched pair of adults with flashbacks (some of them narrated to the other person, some memories internal to the consciousness of the younger woman). These flashbacks and reminiscences show how the young(er) French woman got to where she is (psychically, not geographically). More of Marie Trintignant is displayed (it seems to me casually; others can rule on the prurience) than Emmanuelle Riva’s body was in “Hiroshima” (in which the sex scenes mostly focused on the back of Okada Eiji). The flashbacks are not in chronological order, and some scenes flash back more than once. In that the viewer knows nothing of this past at the start of the movie, any filling in constitutes “plot spoiling” (even though neither Simenon nor Chabrol was focused on plot in either version of Betty).

By the end, the viewer (at least this one) has some understanding of Betty and has seen formative experiences (I would not call them “highlights,” some of them are quite unappetizing). The viewer (at least this one) is left wondering why Laure took such an interest in Betty and undertook salvaging the chicly dressed but mangy and quite possibly rabid dog (b____ and lush) Betty. (Similarly, the viewer must puzzle out the motivations of the never-named Japanese man in “Hiroshima” almost no help from the film-makers.)

I don’t like the ending or the coda, though I have to admit that they make sense. Also, knowing that Mlle. Trintignant, in real life, was beaten to death by her boyfriend (Bertrand Cantat) in a hotel room (in Vilnius in 2003) casts a dark shadow back on her prolonged residence in a (Versailles-Trianon) hotel room in this movie (intertextuality in a very unpleasant sense).


(Chabrol directing Trintignant)

Although there is high contrast between the nightmarish night-time scenes and the chic Versailles hotel interiors, there is no particularly arty framing or lighting from cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann (whose previous work that most impressed me was in “Molière” way back in 1978, though I also liked the lush rural images in “Olivier, Olivier” and in “Angels and Insects,” even if I found the last movie sleep-inducing). also shot “L’enfer” (1994) “La Cérémonie” (1995) for Chabrol, whose recent movies seem less interesting but no less craftsmanlike than his perverse masterpieces of the late-1960s and early-1970s (mostly with Audran (they divorced in 1980 and Audran married Marie Trintignant’s father, Jean-Louis—more offscreen intertextuality! Plus the contrast between her ready nudity and his turning down “Last Tango in Paris” because he did not want to do its nudity…).

The title comes from a review of the movie by John Simon.

©2005, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


Rossellini’s fifth end-of-WWII film

Roberto Rossellini (1906-77) jolted international audiences with three films — “Rome, the Open City” (1945), “Paisa[/n]” (1946) and “Germany, Year Zero” (1948) — that came to be called “neorealist” and at least according to the Criterion Collection as the “War Trilogy.” They focused, respectively, on the end of the Nazi occupation of Rome, the US fighting from Sicily north to the Po River, and hard-scrabble life in bombed-out Berlin for a young boy.

Rossellini returned to the last days (weeks?) of the Nazi occupation of Rome in “Era notte a Roma” (which means “It Was Night in Rome,” though the English-language release title was “Escape by Night,” 1960; the DVD reverts to the Italian title), following upon another great film set during the Nazi occupation, “Il generale Della Rovere” (1959), a Pirandellean drama about rolue engulfment in which fellow neorealist pioneer Vittorio de Sica delivered his greatest onscreen performance.

I’d estimate that half of “Era notte a Roma” was in English, with some of the rest in Russian. These were not subtitled for the Italian release, so that audiences were in the same situation as the Roman characters harboring a British army captain, an American Air Force lieutenant, and a Russian army sergeant who had escaped a prisoner-of-war camp when Italy surrendered (and before the northern two-thirds of the peninsula came under Nazi domination).

The opening narration (in what sounds like American rather than British English, though the point-of-view of the movie is that of the British captain, played by Leo Genn) attributes the sheltering of enemies of the Reich to “Christian charity” more than any political feelings — thus not directly participating in the erasure of fascism in revising history to make Italy a victim of the Nazis rather than a co-aggressor when things were going well for the Wermacht. I think that the movie whitewashes the complicity of the Holy Mother Church in particular, and of fair-weather fascists in general, but there is at least one still-ardent fascist in the movie, albeit a limping failed priest, Tarcisio (George Petrarca).

At the start, after the invocation of “Christian charity,” nuns are scrounging food somewhere north of Rome. A farmer gives them foodstuffs for practically nothing so long as they take the escaped prisoners, who have been hiding in an Etruscan tomb, with them. Back in the Eternal City (Roma, perpetual), Esperia Belli (the vivacious Giovanna Ralli) removes her habit and lets down her luxuriant long hair, and it becomes clear to the viewers (including the three prisoners) that she has been masquerading as a nun.

Esperia is an active participant in the black market and reluctant to add harboring enemy (of Germany) prisoners to her already risky existence. But she does, and her fiancé, Renato Balducci (Renato Salvatori in the same year as his scoundrel performance in Visconti’s “Rocco and His Brothers) is very enthusiastic about a Soviet comrade (how many Soviet prisoners were there in Italy? Not to get into how these three bonded with only two sharing any common language…)

I think Leo Genn (born in 1905 and a real-life WWII officer two decades earlier than when the movie was shot) was too old for the part of Major Pemberton. Also, throughout the movie, he speaks very, very slowly (perhaps helpful for those with marginal English comprehension in the Italian audience?).

I doubted that the actor playing the wounded American bomber pilot was really American, but Peter Bradley (the name of the actor and of his character) was born in Winnetka, Illinois, and eventually said something that convinced me (I don’t recall what it was, though).

The original American release was trimmed down to 82 minutes from the Italian 151. The DVD I saw ran 138 minutes. It seemed overly long with some shots held unnecessarily long. I later learned that Rossellini was enamored with a new zooming capability and delighted not to have to cut as often as previous technology had made necessary.

Despite the protracted length of some shots, the movie is not bad as a thriller, and despite the sentimentality of a Christmas dinner in the attic of Esperia’s apartment, the dangers are not sugarcoated. I find Major Pemberton a bit wimpy, not least in comparison to his alien mates.

The DVD subtitles everything in all three languages, which is just fine with me. It contains no bonus features, but I have three books on Rossellini, and am going to look at the bonus features on the Criterion “War Trilogy” release. Though I consider “Era notte a Roma” (also released in the UK as “Blackout in Rome”) the least of the five Rossellini WWII movies I have seen, not as close to the time of the events portrayed as in the “War Trilogy,” and not among the best of the thousands and thousands of WWII movies, it was fairly absorbing and suspenseful.

©2014, Stephen O. Murray


Rossellini’s “Vanina Vanini”

Roberto Rossellin seized and to some degree made the neor-realist zeitgeist at the end of the Second World War with “Roma città aperta” (Rome, the Open City, 1945), though it was completely scripted, shot mostly in a studio, and starring major Italian movie stars of the day (Aldo Fabrizi and Anna Magnani). The neorealist use of nonactors in real locations burst out in “Paisa” (1946), which was to some degree a historical movie, but with the history being very recent. Similarly, “Germany, Year Zero,” shot in the rubble of Berlin was very recent history, if history at all. Between the latter two movies of what is now seen as “the war trilogy,” Rossellini shot Magnani in a version of Jean Cocteau’s one-character (on a phone) play. “La voix humaine” (The Human Voice), which was not neorealist by any stretch of the term.

Then Ingrid Bergman (who would make another version of “The Human Voice,” in English in 1966) came into his life. Rossellini impregnated the actress, who was married to another man (one of the twins she bore was Isabella Rossellini, future movie star if not of the wattage of her mother), and there was a huge international scandal with Bergman being denounced on the floor of the US Senate. The movies they made together (Stromboli, Europa ’51, Journey to Italy, Fear, 1950-54) were neither commercial nor critical successes at the time though they have come to be regarded much more highly (despite a certain sadism directed at the character of the international star who had come to him).

I have not seen the three immediately post-Bergman Rossellini movies, but hold “Il Generale della Rovere” (1959, with a great performance by fellow neorealist director Vittorio De Sica) in high regard. It and Rossellini’s next film, “Era notte a Roma” (“Escape by Night” in English-language release) returned to the end-of-WWII era of Rossellini’s first masterpieces.


They were followed by a turn to 19th-century Italy with two 1961 films, the tableaux of “Viva l’Italia!” (Garibaldi in English) and adaptation of Stendahl’s 1829 novella “Vanina Vanini,” which I would say is a bad movie and not one with much claim to being interesting cinema (except for the scenes of forging and flinging chains). Like “Garibaldi,” it t has some scenes with many extras, but, unlike “Garibaldi, thesescenes that are superfluous to the story, a story that is very badly told, dropping its most interesting characters. It is also devoid of the wit and charm of Stendahl’s voice.

At the outset Contessa Vitelleschi (Martine Carol) [Ophuls’s Lola Montès) vouches to the (Papal States) police for a fellow passenger in a stagecoach into Rome, Pietro Missirilli (the tall, slender, never-smiling Lauret Terzieff), who turns out to have come to Rome to kill an informer from the Masonic organization seeking Italian independence (from domination by the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic majesties of Austria north of the Papal Sates and of Spain south of them).

The killing is very awkwardly shot. Pietro takes refuge in the palace of the countess, and to ensure she is not implicated in a scandal, the prince whose mistress she is, Asdrubale Vanini (Paolo Stoppa) whisks the wounded Mason (in drag) to the attic of his own Roman palace, where his overripe daughter Vanina (the 28-year-old, talentless Sandro Milo, who was the mistress of the film’s producer, Moris Ergas; Stendahl’s title character was 19) is smitten by him.


Milo and Terzieff have zero chemistry, and their passion is completely unbelievable. She certainly does not know him at all, and to monopolize him (back in Forli, in Romagna where there is a Vanina palace and where Pietro is part of the Masonic conspiracy, though he seems more a late-19th-century Russian nihilist than a champion of independence before the Risorgimento) ensures that he will be permanently separated from her. (The heroine telling all to the enemy recurred from “Era notte.”)

In addition to the countess who disappears (reportedly she had scenes that were shot and excised by the producer in favor of Milo; Ergas reputedly destroyed the negatives of the first three reels of Rossellini’s rough cut and Rossellini was completely absent from the editing of the movie), the other interesting character who simply disappears (after being kidnapped by the revolutionaries) is Vanina’s new confessor (Leonardo Botta, who manages to look like he his smoldering for her more than Terzieff managed to do).

For differing reasons, both Rossellini and the screenwriters disavowed the movie, which also did not have a US release for more than a decade. The screenwriters were appalled by the currying favor with the Church in general (they must have missed the very positive portrayal of churchmen in “Era Notte”!) and the ending Rossellini tacked on in particular; Rossellini with the cuts made by the producer.

In his book on Rossellini, José Luis Guarner claims that Rossellini did “not set out only to record a love story but to disclose the precise social and political factors that dominated the characters, whose destiny is connected with that of Italy”— to which I Say “Pshaw!)

Most of the movie was shot in studio sets that look very fake, and the genial behavior of the cardinals (other than the verbosity of the family’s man in the College of Cardinals, Savelli [Nerio Bernardi]) seems false to me.

I also see the movie as well along the path to the deadly boring and talky later tv movies about major thinkers (Pascal, Socrates, Augustine, Descartes) that are politely described as “anti-narratives.” (Once upon a time, I was more positive about the 1966 “Rise to Power of Louis XIV,” which was made for French television, but have not seen it in decades.)

©2014, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


Roberto Rossellini in late-1950s India

I think that Roberto Rossellini made some great films early (Open City, Paisa, Germany Year Zero), some interesting expressionist ones with Ingrid Bergman, and, later in life, some horrendously boring historical biopics (Socrates, Blaise Pascal, and Cartesius, for instance). I was underwhelmed by the four stories and documentary footage he shot in India in 1956, released in 1959 as “India: Matri Bhumi [Mother India].” Though the film has been restored, the colors are quite dull. The dialogue in South Asian languages is not translated. I don’t see the need to read subtitles for Italian voiceovers rather than dubbing them in English.


What I liked best was watching the elephants in the first story, shot in Karapur (after footage of Mumbai, then Bombay, with sententious narration about how tolerant Indians are—less than a decade after the very bloody partition and ethnic cleansing. The narration also rushes over the caste system and ignores altogether starvation.)


In the second part, Nakul, a portly Hindu engineer relocated from what is not Bangladesh (and was then East Pakistan) to work on the construction of the Hirakud dam is about to move on to some other location/project, to the dismay of his wife. First, though he takes a ritual bath in the small and sacred lake that was already there before the reservoir started to fill, and passes a cremation pyre.

Modernization recurs in disruptive form in the preposterous third part in which an old man (who has turned over rice-farming to his two sons) and his two cows coexist with a tiger, whose prey flee trucks and incipient iron mining. The tiger takes on (offscreen) a porcupine and wounded tigers are notorious man-eaters.

The final story stars a monkey trained to entertain (and collect money) whose master seemingly dies of a heatstroke walking between towns. The vultures close in, but do not start pecking the man. The monkey is imperiled by wild monkeys and ends up in a circus. After the very leisurely pace of the monkey episode, and, indeed, the whole movie, it suddenly ends, following a return to the swarming city (Mumbai).

The young woman who catches the eye of the elephant driver (mahoud) in the first episode is a musician in a puppet troupe, the productions of which are pretty awful. There is footage without a story of Benares and the Ganges in the middle. The movie is neorealist in not employing any professional actors, otherwise crypto-documentary (staged vignettes)…. And mostly dull when not focusing on animals (and even then, very stock footage of tigers).

Rossellini credited himself for the screenplay. It was one of his favorites, but perhaps that owes more to the production assistant in India who became his paramour whom he took back with him to Italy, igniting another scandal (not as big a one as the one involving Ingrid Bergman to whom he was still nominally married).

Pros: elephants and monkey

Cons: Italian voiceover narration, slow pace

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Neorealist commedia d’arte?

I didn’t think that Roberto Rossellini’s one comedy “La macchina ammazzacattivi” (The machine [camera] that kills bad people), shot in 1948, i.e., between “Germany, Year Zero” and the arrival of Ingrid Bergman and “Stromboli,” but not released until 1952, was very funny. The Americans looking for a place to stay that has reliable indoor plumbing becomes tiresome quickly, as does the ogling of Marilyn Buferd (the 1946 Miss America, used here as a sort of proto-Anita Ekberg of Fellini’s later “La Dolce Vita,” a busty alien to excite the men and not called upon to act).


As the photographer Celestino Esposito who is provided by the local patron saint, Sant’Andrea, a method (photographing a photograph) to freeze (fatally) people in the position they were in in a photograph, Gennaro Pisano is reasonably ambivalent as he attempts to right wrongs in an Amalfi coast village. (He was the local coffin-maker, and Sant’Andrea an octogenarian local drunkard, Giovanni Amato.)

Those who offend the empowered photographer invariably overact. Greed is rampant, though the village and villagers have been poor until new blessings accompany mysterious sudden deaths. There’s also a very stupid Romeo and Juliet of a certain age.


Apparently, Rossellini was distracted (and strung out on cocaine) during the spasmodic shooting. He did not complete the black comedy that was released in a cut made by others. It has an artificial end to match the artificial opening and Rossellini probably wanted to say something about film-makers playing God, but couldn’t decide what he wanted to say, or realized that the comic low-tech magic was not adequate to the task.

The explicit moral is announced: “Don’t be too quick to judge and think about it three times before punishing [someone].”

Pros: look at late-1940s Italian coastal village

Cons: not very funny a comedy

(There is no region-1 DVD currently available. Indeed, the movie was thought to be lost for decades.)

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

The first Rossellini-Bergman vehicle: “Stromboli”

The first Roberto Rosselini film with Ingrid Bergman is primal drama, though the film was overshadowed by the huge international scandal of their offscreen romance. It is hard to comprehend that the liaison between an actress and a director, each married to others, could lead to the feverish denunciations in the US Congressional Record and American press that were aimed at Bergman. I wasn’t alive at the time, but have read about it.

I come here to praise the actress and the film, and will get around to doing so, and not wallow in the scandal swirling around it during the late 1940s indefinitely, but something of the context in which the film came into existence is important for understanding a film in which veneer of civilization is stripped down to primal forces (the ones here are fire, water, woman, and God).


In 1948 Bergman was one of the most famous and honored film actresses in the world (after Casablanca, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Gaslight, Notorious, The Bells of St. Mary, and Saint Joan) saw Rossellini’s “Paisan.” Having admired his earlier “The Open City,” she saw what she regarded as “another great movie” in a nearly empty house. In a letter expressing her admiration, she wrote Rossellini that “if you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well…and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo,’ I am ready to come and make a film with you.”

Italy had been cut off from American movies during the war, and Rossellini had no interest in Hollywood products. He did not know who Bergman was. When her fame was explained to him, he realized that her name could raise the money for any film project he could imagine. Howard Hughes — wanting to woo Bergman himself – -agreed to finance the film.

Rossellini and Bergman began an affair, and she was soon pregnant. In the film Bergman places Karin, a stateless woman who says she is from Lithuania but whose papers are not sufficient to gain entry to Argentine. To get out of the refugee camp, she agrees to marry Antonio (Mario Vitale), a demobilized soldier who kisses her through barbed wire and tells her that he lives on a beautiful island.


She badly wants to get out of the refugee camp and looks on Antonio as her only available ticket. What’s love got to do with it? For her, nothing. For him, well, she’s very beautiful, and he does not think much further about their compatibility. Not to mention that they hardly know each other.

Off they go. The island is beautiful—for those who like volcanoes jutting out of the ocean. There is practically no soil on the island and the volcano is very active. Before the war Antonio had his own fishing boat, but now he must work on someone else’s. His rewards are few and do not include a wife fitting into wearing black, covering her hair, taking orders, and doing things they way generations of Sicilian women have.

The few villagers who have not fled to the Italian mainland or to America treat her as an object — an object of desire for the men, an object of scorn for the women as immodest. Constantly watched, rarely spoken to, Karin is desperate to leave. Husband-wife conflicts are shown perfunctorily. The attitudes of the village women and of the village men are also registered economically.

There is also a rain of boulders from the volcano. There is some fascinating footage of the long rowboats fishing, and hitting the jackpot of a run of tuna (half a century ago, the Mediterranean was not fished out, as it now is). And there is the night in which the whole village is crammed onto boats as part of the town is destroyed by a volcanic eruption. There’s much that looks like a documentary. (Rossellini made films about Socrates and the young Louis XIV that seem like documentaries, so showing the life of a fishing village on a volcanic Italian island could be considered a minor feat for him.) Along with Visconti’s “La terra tremenda,” “Stromboli” is where one looks to see what the rugged life of Sicilian fisherman was like.

A paragraph ago, I left Karin desperate to get out. I failed to mention that she’s three-months pregnant. She tries to seduce the priest (Renzo Cesana in a subtle performance) into giving her the money to finance her escape. She flirts with the lighthouse keeper, and with money from him sets off for the other side of the island. The route goes practically to the rim of the crater. As I’ve said, this is a very <b>active</b> volcano. The trek is horrible, even for someone as robust as Bergman. Trying to walk up ash dunes is bad enough, but clouds of ash are even worse. It is vivid! She suffers. She abandons her possessions. She despairs. She chokes. She collapses.

Before she set out on this suicidal escape route, I was amused by her brushing her hair. To make a good impression on the volcano? But it pays off! When the morning sun wakens her, the only possible word to describe her is “radiant.” I must have been watching too many movies with “stars” like Nicole Kidman, Gwynneth Paltrow, Laura Linney, and other mere mortals. Though these contemporary actresses do many admirable things, Ms. Bergman was a force of nature, a worthy opponent for a volcano. Indeed, it is obvious that all Rossellini needed was Bergman and the volcano. Both Bergman and the volcano show many different faces during the film’s last fifteen minutes. The music during the ash storm is overwrought, and some of what Bergman does could be described as “hysterical,” but she also does resignation, determination, and transcendence.


Karin attains grace through the vehicle of Ingrid Bergman (more convincingly, than Bergman’s Joan of Arc did—this is like Falconetti’s Joan in the flames at the end of Dreyer’s masterpiece). I don’t know what she is going to do with it, or whether she will keep it, or whether it is fleeting, but I have no doubt that what the viewer sees is the attainment of grace. That is more than enough for any movie to do. The fish out of water Bergman-Sicilian fishermen movie is good, but the Bergman and the volcano movie is great. And, eventually, the volcano, too is superfluous. Bergman’s face is, finally, all that is necessary!

I once saw the 81-minute American release with incredibly fatuous narration. It is no wonder that it was a failure. The original Italian version is 108 minutes and is a great and beautiful film though it is certainly not a pleasant film.


©2001, Stephen O. Murray