11 January 2015

Anita Ekberg (1931-2015)

No one set the standard for platinum blonde quite like Anita Ekberg.

Having played bit parts in America in the 1950s, Ekberg met Fellini on the set of War and Peace in Italy. The rest is history. Passing off extremely well as a Marilyn Monroe-pastiche in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), Ekberg was rocketed to fame as the Trevi fountain sex kitten named Sylvia.

Ekberg often played the mesmerizing female object because of La dolce vita. On screen (and also in real life) no other woman could counter the gravitational pull she had on men. It was a given that if she appeared in a film, she would have top (read, upper body) billing. Famous for her ample curves, sultry glances, and that squeaky-smokey voice, her breasts were often given their own shot in a film.

Although her body speaks for itself, her 50-year acting career is quite impressive. She averaged a project or two every couple of years and never stopped. Although appearing mostly in Italian films,  she was known to make the jump to English-speaking films as well. Here's a bit scene of hers from Back From Eternity (1956), in one of her few English speaking films.

As you can see, she never really left the fountain.

I will leave you with one of my favorite Ekberg characters, Sister Gertrude from Killer Nun (1978). Not only is this a bizarre lesbian horror film, but it is also one of her last great performances in my opinion. A must see if you like giallo films.

Goodbye Anita! Italian cinema will never be the same without you.

13 December 2014

Io sono l'amore (2009)

i Recchi

Every now and then, a contemporary Italian film gem reveals itself and reminds me why I love Italian cinema. Director Luca Guadagnino's film Io sono l'amore is one such film which deserves attention for its craft, story, and sense of audacity (see also Melissa P. for another amazing Guadagnino film).

The film does not have much of a plot to speak of, but focuses on a minutiae of events that occur in languid succession in and around contemporary Milan. The focus is on the Recchi family, a symbolic powerhouse of the Italian manufacturing sector. Unlike films from the postwar years in which the factory workers would be central narrative figures, the Recchi factory is overshadowed by the events that occur within the family, in their palace.  The palace is really a secluded, somewhat dull fortress-house in central Milan. Tilda Swinton plays Emma, a Russian bride who married into the powerful family and remains somewhat outside of the family rules. Her children are growing and changing, and she finds herself becoming increasingly restless after the death of the family patriarch signals a shift in family politics. Emma becomes unstoppably attracted to the cook Antonio, played by Edoardo Gabbriellini, a close friend of her son. As her attraction becomes more intense she begins an emotionally deep and physical affair with Antonio, however going out of her way to hide it. Eventually her son discovers that his best friend and mother are having an affair, and the movie comes to a quick and intense climax.

Nick Vivarelli writes in a 2011 issue of Variety that "Guadagnino's Tilda Swinton-starrer is an awards-season standout, landing a Golden Globes nomination, a British Independant Film Awards nod, and six BAFTA longlist bids, besides making several prix lists and pulling in over $5 million stateside via Magnolia Pictures." And yet despite being given rave reviews by the upper echelons of the festival circuit, Io sono l'amore's success waned after it lost out to the other Italian contender for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, Paolo Virzì's La prima cosa bella (2010). For now it remains among one of the better 'art films' that Italy has ever produced, in my opinion.

Muted colors provide contrast as the story gets wild
And of course there is Tilda Swinton. Not just any Tilda Swinton, but Tilda Swinton playing a Russian-turned-Milanese factory giant's wife who speaks in northern Italian dialect. It is a rare phenomenon when international stars appear in Italian films and speak in fluent Italian. Her demeanor is demure, maternal, conservative, respectable. In short, she is everything a noblewoman ought to be and a prize catch at that. Her austere physique, highlighted by prominent bones and luxurious Italian textiles, is paired with an undercurrent of deep internal unrest. Swinton does a fabulous job of combining all of these qualities into a complex, unique character. To top it off, the excellent casting of Emma's daughter Elisabetta, played by Alba Rohrwacher, balances Emma's rigid demeanor.

I highly recommend a watch for the technique alone, but the story is also one of a kind and worth the time.


Io sono l'amore. Dir. Luca Guadagnino. First Sun/Mikado Film, 2009. 120 min  

Weissberg, Jay. "Review: I Am Love." Variety, 2009. http://variety.com/2009/film/reviews/i-am-love-1200476375/

06 December 2014

Lion of Thebes (1964)

Helen is often shown dependent on her potential mate...
Il leone di Tebe, popularized as Lion of Thebes, is a peplum film made in 1964, right at the genre's peak success. However, the skyrocket success of the first Italian westerns in the mid-60's soon diminished the peplums' popularity and consequently their studio time.

Lion of Thebes is a typical peplum. Fleeing by boat, Helen of Troy escapes her city's destruction with Aryan, a former lieutenant in the army. They shipwreck near Egypt. Days later, both destitute and lost in the desert, they get picked up by the caravan of the great pharoah Ramses.

What is interesting to me about Lion of Thebes is that, unlike many peplums, the female lead is not a quivering statuette like Ramses' wife. Helen possesses a grace that easily dissolves into raw power and forcefulness. She is (was) a queen, and often reminds everyone of that fact. Coupled with her beauty, no man or woman can resist her wishes.

...but she is actually controlling everyone, including Ramses.
Despite this power, Helen is unable to break Ramses physical imprisonment with only her political wits and a pretty face. Aryan always steps in when she needs brute strength applied to the situation.

When they are finally rescued by the Spartan army, Helen and Aryan go off together in love, relieved that their Egyptian imprisonment is finally over.

And now for a classic scene in the film. Only after Aryan rescues Helen from between two gigantic crushing stones does she realize that she really does love him. It is a proven formula of the peplum to grant love, success, victory, etc. only after the male lead has passed a feat of physical endurance and pain. After the man has proven his worth, the plot continues.

Lion of Thebes. Dir. Giorgio Ferroni. Filmes/La Société des Films Sirius, 1964. 87 min.

26 December 2013

Va' Pensiero: Storie Ambulanti (2013)

For various reasons the subject of African immigration doesn't make it to screens very often in Italy, but a new movie was brought to my attention that adds to this subgenre. Va' Pensiero: storie ambulanti, directed by a rescued immigrant named Dagwami Yimer, tells the story of several African immigrants and their struggle to survive in an unwelcoming country. I haven't yet seen the film because it is just being released in Italy and may not make it to an American theater, but hopefully this post will at least attract the attention that I think this film necessarily deserves. I am posting some sources to videos made by the crew of the film, including an interview with the cast and several video diaries. None of them are particularly satisfying without having seen the film, though. 

Italy has, at first glance, a somewhat unique rich-country problem: its socioeconomic relationship with its poorer immigrants is horribly 'behind' by contemporary standards. The European immigrant now enjoys legal integration, but African immigrants, particularly black Africans, are held to unjust social and legal standards in the black market, no pun intended. Part of this treatment is racist, but as I've learned, Italians don't approach racism from the same angle that Americans do; the term racism isn't quite relevant in the sense that skin color alone does not necessarily motivate anti-immigration sentiment. Part of it is also legal - Italy does not have a clear legal framework to naturalize citizens who weren't born in Italy, nor does its visa system make it easy to work there. Mostly, though, it is cultural. The Italian "imagined community," to quote Benedict Anderson's often used phrase, simply does not include people from outside of Italy. The very concept of becoming Italian sounds strange indeed.

Although I don't know if the people involved in Yimer's film want to become Italian, I do know that their struggle to make a living is worth attention. Va' Pensiero is an attempt to shine light on marginalized Africans who immigrated to Italy to work and support their families within the cultural framework that I described above. Drawing connections to Verdi's hugely popular opera song "Va' Pensiero," Yimer argues that Africans are being held back by the Italian people, much like the Hebrew slaves who sing the song, and that they have as much right to live and work in Italy as Italians do. By also attaching Verdi's legacy to this documentary, Yimer is claiming a certain degree of Italian-ness in his role as director.

Yimer is also clearly motivated by African griot storytelling, as the film's website quotes him stating that the griot "accompanies the story of the incident from a remote past that seems to continue to persecute the victims (accompagna il racconto degli avvenimenti partendo da un passato remoto che sembra continuare a perseguitare le vittime)". That the director is an immigrant in Italy and that he has created a film with both African and Italian qualities places Yimer among the ranks of those who have decided to speak out about the inequality they face in their lives.

To illustrate Yimer's point, the very timely and horrifying scandal involving Cécile Kyenge comes to mind. Kyenge, a Congo-born immigrant, was selected as the new Italian Minister for Integration. Embarrassingly for the Italian government, she was harassed and threatened by politicians when she arrived at her new job and has since become the shining example of Italian racism and bigotry. To see a video of her at the film's screening, see video diary 3

None of this should come as a surprise from a country that treats its poorer immigrants the way depicted in Yimer's film. It will be interesting to see what impact Va' Pensiero has across Italy as it is gradually released throughout the country.

Click here to see the trailer on Vimeo.
Interview (italiano)


Diaries (italiano)

1 - https://vimeo.com/81596199
2 - https://vimeo.com/81830669
3 - https://vimeo.com/82045341


Nonleggerlo, Will. "Kyenge, cento giorni di insulti". L'Espresso. 19 August 2013. http://espresso.repubblica.it/palazzo/2013/08/19/news/kyenge-cento-giorni-di-insulti-1.57931

Scherer, Steve. "Insight: African immigrants use films and books to fight Italian racism". Reuters. 22 December 2013. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/22/us-italy-migrants-racism-insight-idUSBRE9BL02220131222

Va' Pensiero: storie ambulanti website

08 December 2013

La Grande Bellezza / The Great Beauty (2013)

Note: I originally wrote this post previous to the 2013 European Oscars Film Awards, and the recent recognition for La Grande Bellezza (including European Film, Director, Editor, and Actor) only adds to my assertions on the film's popular appeal, which I make below.

One of the reasons I am fascinated by Rome and films about Rome is the juxtaposition of elements that envelops and shapes the course of its history. Whether one walks through the scattered ruins of the Via dei Fori Imperiali, littered with over two-thousand years of architectural and cultural history, to the current slow-motion political ping-pong that brings politicians from far-right, far-left, and everything in-between to Montecitorio, Rome has long set the standard for putting things together in quite unusual and, sometimes, painstaking ways.
Contemporary, juxtaposed Rome

This juxtaposition is rather unique to this particular city, and quite different from cities like Dubai (with its unsustainable desert skyscrapers) or Rio de Janeiro (with a poverty line clearly visible from above), for example. Roman juxtaposition surfaces in several Italian films from the past century. Paolo Sorrentino's La Grande Bellezza / The Great Beauty is one of them.

The storyline is a smattering of scenes related to the latter years of the life of the high-society author, Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo). Jep, who is aptly Neopolitan, narrates the film from a detached point of view, using Rome as the setting for all of the film's episodes. At points his voice is off-screen (and in textbook Italian), and at points he explains things in 'foreign' dialect to those involved in his daily rituals of sauntering about Rome, partying until the night's end, and interviewing people for the newspaper that he writes for. Overarching this rough narrative structure is his desire to write another novel, which he hasn't done in over forty years.

I find it challenging to assign meaning to this film. In some ways it is a pastiche of Federico Fellini's filmmaking techniques. In some ways it is not. My first impression of the film is that it is the bastard child of a ménage à trois between Fellini's La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, and Roma. Moreover, one could write an entire book comparing Fellini's depictions of Rome and Sorrentino's. For the sake of length, I wish to highlight a few important similarities with Fellini's well-known films and also question the film's use of juxtaposition, within the text and between texts.

On the macro scale, the film expresses the role of the Italian director as storyteller, a hallmark of the Fellini era. This can then get very specific: these films share phallocentric narration and employ the protagonist as a guide to the text. In La Grande Bellezza and in La Dolce Vita, our storytellers are detached writers; in 8 1/2 he is a hapless director; and in Roma, Fellini himself is the storyteller via the camera.

And even more specifically, there are direct ties to La Dolce Vita within the film. Jep alludes to a sea monster in La Grande Bellezza, while Fellini shows one. Using the same set as Fellini, Sorrentino places a magician and a giraffe in the famous baths of Caracalla, amounting to a circus act that Fellini would have approved of; "It's all a trick," the magician says. But perhaps the most obvious allusion is the mysterious key man who gives Jep and his lover, Ramona, a night tour of Rome. Dressed in strikingly similar haute couture with the same candelabra, Sorrentino's characters are firmly situated within a time and space detached from reality by juxtaposing the so-called glorious past with the superficial present.

Candelabra and setting in La Dolce Vita

Candelabra and setting in La Grande Bellezza

Fashion and dress in La Dolce Vita

Fashion and dress in La Grande Bellezza
Both films utilize chiaroscuro lighting in these scenes with different outcomes; in Fellini's scene the lack of light is spooky, while in Sorrentino's it is romantic and endearing. In addition, the episodic structure and fragmented editing of Fellini's masterpiece is directly reflected in Sorrentino's film. The editing is jumpy, erratic, static; shots fly at you, they swoon, stop, and sweep. Combined with myriad jib camera movements, widely varying shot lengths, and static shots, the pace of the film is hard to pinpoint. This in turn supports an episodic structure. In one instance, Sorrentino even uses the same episode as Fellini by including the "saint" Maria, which closely mirrors the episode in La Dolce Vita when two children create a spectacle when they see the virgin Mary under a tree. Furthermore, the endings of both films are almost identical: in both, the last shot is an image of a young woman looking toward the camera, cut to black, followed by the title of the film over a black screen.

Juxtaposed one step further with Fellini's ouvre, Sorrentino adds a dose of reality to his film to give it contemporary relevance. Mixing current events with the film has the effect of bringing it out of the clouds and down to earth again. The island, Isola del Giglio, where Jep falls in love, is also conveniently the site of the recent Costa Concordia cruise ship wreck. Given that his editor begs him to write an article about the wreck at the beginning of the film, it is also a timely narrative opportunity for Jep to come to terms with his lost love toward the end of the film.

Another aspect of La Grande Bellezza's contemporary relevance is its out of touch, high-society purview. Indeed, the spectacle of the rich in Rome, from pop singers to decaying nobility, combined with modern cinematography, imbue the film with a commercial feeling similar to a Gucci perfume advertisement. As Fellini used Nico and Adriano Celentano, Sorrentino uses popular figures like Antonello Vinditti and Sabrina Ferilli to allude to the mini-spectacle of the 2001 National Championship game in which Ferilli gambled to emerge nude at Vinditi's concert if Rome won. Notably above the street, overlooking the city, Jep's swank apartment is literally next door to the Coliseum and Nero's gardens, yet none of these shots include a single tourist and they hardly ever feature a pedestrian without cocktail attire. Is this really today's Rome? It seems as if his characters live in the Rome of the past, when tourists were few(er), nuns were ubiquitous, and prime real estate was within a journalist's salary range.

In the end, all of these contemporary allusions enhance the film's relevance and Rome's artistic importance, but they also firmly separate it from reality in the sense that they mimic, and perhaps mock, current events. Superficial juxtapositions of real events and realistic events thus blurs the lines between art and commercialization. In a time where excessive wealth is particularly frowned upon in southern Europe, Sorrentino posits his characters as out of touch with reality. Perhaps for this reason, Maurizio Acerbi titled his review of the film, "La dolce vita è diventata amara (the sweet life turned sour)", with direct reference to Fellini's optimistic decadence.

This brings us back the original dilemma: what meaning are we to make of this film? Why does Sorrentino go through so much trouble to juxtapose present and past? Given that La Grande Bellezza earned handsome returns within Italy, repaying its budget in the domestic market in its first weekend, suggests popular support. And given the alternatives for audiences in tongue-and-cheek rom-coms and family dramas in Italian theaters today, the film is a breath of fresh air, but barely exportable. Is this, then a commentary made for Italy? Has the sweet life for Sorrentino indeed "gone sour"?

Perhaps the great beauty of Rome lies in Sorrentino's juxtaposed presentation of the city as both prison and playground, inspiration and distraction. La Grande Bellezza thus serves as a stark reminder of the faltering Italian capital, while also decadently distracting the viewer from this very fact.

Box office statistics from BoxOfficeMojo.com and MyMovies.it

Further Reading
Acerbi, Maurizio. "La dolce vita è diventata amara," Il Giornale, 30 May 2013. http://www.mymovies.it/film/2013/lagrandebellezza/pubblico/?id=667618

Vivarelli, Nick. "Italo Film Industry Elated About 'Great Beauty' Golden Globe Win," Variety, 13 January, 2014. http://variety.com/2014/film/news/italo-film-industry-elated-about-great-beauty-golden-globe-win-1201051797/

8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, 1960)
La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960)
Roma (Federico Fellini, 1972)