30 January, 2010

Il divo (2008)

Behind the throne

Won Best Actor (Toni Servillo) and was nominated for Best Film, European Film Awards 2008

Showbiz has its divas - politics, at least in Italy, has 'il divo'. AKA Giulio Andreotti, alias Mr. Italy, Little Caesar, eternal Giulio, Beelzebub, Gobetto ('cute little hunchback'), and probably many more diminutives not fit for a G-rated film review.

'Toni Servillo E Giulio Andreotti' might scream the Italian trailers, like 'Jamie Foxx IS Ray Charles' in the typical Hollywood biopic formula. Only Il divo (2008) is not formulaic, and may not even be a biopic.

Says writer-director Paolo Sorrentino: 'I want Il divo to be seen for what it is: a film, a story, a fable.' He makes no claim to understand the "profoundly narcissistic" world of politics (a previous film, L'uomo in più (2001), took place in the world of professional soccer). Sorrentino, from an interview in Belgium's Le Soir, is primarily interested in the title character, whom the newspaper calls 'the impenetrable Andreotti'.

Even though he may not understand it, Sorrentino portrays the Byzantine world of Italian politics with panache. Prepare yourself for a whirlwind of political intrigue, only 10% of which you need understand to enjoy this Cannes award-winning film. Is it important to know that Andreotti was prime minister seven times (one of his governments lasted all of nine days)? Or minister 25 (or is it 33) times? Not really, when you realize that Andreotti was (and remains - he is a Senator-for-life) a permanent fixture of postwar Italian politics, which has had some 60 governments in as many years.

Though not a Mafia film, there are nonetheless plenty of murky murders in the time-honored tradition: machine-gun ambushes, poisoned coffee in a 'safe' jail cell, plastic bag over the head - death in all its forms. That this happens during Andreotti's rule does not make him guilty, though he was convicted (and subsequently acquitted) for crimes ranging from conspiracy with the Mafia to murder (of a journalist who apparently had the goods on other Andreotti-era political crimes).

There are cameos of famous crimes, like the car-bombing of anti-Mafia Judge Giovanni Falcone, the London Bridge 'suicide' of banker Roberto Calvi, and the kidnapping/assassination of Aldo Moro, Chairman of Andreotti's Christian Democrats, by the Red Brigades.

Sound like fun? It is, actually. There's a great original score by Teho Teardo, in a soundtrack that includes some appropriate period music, including the unforgettable Da Da Da. Sorrentino favourite Toni Servillo plays the hunchbacked, Scottish Fold-eared, mournful-faced Andreotti with a fervor that the 90 year old politician must have possessed to stay in Italian politics (and out of Italy's prisons) for so long. Including the Archives, which were said to be the key to Andreotti's power over everyone with a secret to hide.

It may be my own taste in films, but I have the impression that Italian cineasts are slightly obsessed with the last half century or so of their history. It's been rich in subject matter: the 2003 Buongiorno, Notte covered the Moro affair from the Red Brigades standpoint; La Meglio Gioventù (2003) was a magisterial portrait of the last four decades; Sanguepazzo (2008) reached back to the Fascist era; and Il Caimano (2006) skewered Silvio Berlusconi before his return to power two years later.

Though Sorrentino reminds us that Il divo is a fable (maybe for reasons of libel protection), his film hints that Andreotti was at least guilty of association with a whole cast of unsavory characters. Especially for a church-going, Pope-befriending, defender of the West, as he was seen during the Cold War. But, as Vanja Luksic said in Le Soir's excellent companion article heralding the film's release in Belgium: 'Commentators, from left and right, breathed a sigh of relief at his acquittal. Had he been found guilty, it would have meant that Italy had been governed by criminals for 50 years!'

Awards: Click here for details.

Gerald Loftus
110 mins. In Italian and English.

26 January, 2010

Der Krieger und die Kaiserin (The Warrior and the Empress) (2000)

Put preconceptions aside

Nominated for European Cinematographer of the Year and Audience Award (Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director) European Film Awards 2001.

German cinema and I have never seen eye-to-eye. I don't really get why this is - I am not a man who is fearful of the odd subtitle. If a non-English-language DVD is to be found in my player, it will almost certainly not have dialogue in German. And yet, nearly every time I happen across a piece of German cinema, I'm impressed. I defy anyone with heart and a conscience not to sit slack-jawed in awe of the majesty of Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boot (1981), for example. Another stand-out moment for me - albeit for entirely different reasons - was Tom Twyker's Lola Rennt (Run Lola, Run) (1998). This segues nicely into the fact that the quite beautiful Der Kreiger und die Kaiserin (2000) was also directed by Twyker - although it would have been hard to have guessed just how different the two films could be.

Lola Rennt is a fast-paced original - smash cuts and sick-making fades and wipes abound. It does the job of delivering the story very well, and I enjoyed it immensely. I imagine that with a few movies under his belt before attempting Der Krieger... (including the similarly beautiful and disturbing Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006)), Twyker had proved his directing chops and probably just went ahead and made the film he wanted. A good choice.

I don't know if I'm allowed to say that the female lead in both Der Krieger... and Lola Rennt movies isn't talked about enough, given my earlier admission of my ignorance of German movies, but Franke Potente certainly deserves a lot more credit for her acting skills than any number of so-called Hollywood A-listers I could name. If anyone can make a role 'real', it's her. Her performance here manages to be touching, sad, confusing and frustrating - all seemingly by turns. You will notice by the lack of the word 'funny' that this is not a film that's going to cause you to split your sides. It's quite an oddity, in fact.

The story begins in a psychiatric hospital in the German town of Wuppertal. Sissi (Potente) is a nurse there, and leads a fairly ordinary, humdrum life. She lives and works in the hospital and the building is pretty much the centre of her existence. While out walking one day with a blind patient, a series of unfortunate events causes her to be hit by a truck. The unwitting instigator of these events is Bodo (Benno Fürmann), a small-time crook being chased by two men for his part in a grocery shop robbery. As Sissi lays under the truck, unable to breathe, help arrives. Bodo, having given the his pursuers the slip, rounds the corner to see the scene of the accident. He crawls under the truck and performs an emergency tracheotomy with a drinking straw and a pocket knife. As Sissi is rushed into surgery, she and Bodo become separated. After leaving hospital some 52 days later, she vows to find him.

The story slowly unfolds, revealing plot twists, coincidences and, more importantly, shows the effects that the choices have on one's destiny. Fate is writ large across the screenplay. It seems every character and situation encountered adds not only a new dimension, but a new complication to the plot. The movie has been attacked critically for being too slow, but for me, the pace of the story was perfect. As layers of the onion were peeled away, the story was laid out. Any attempts to rush it would have been a disaster.

Twyker re-established his connection in Der Krieger... to not only Potente, but to his cinematographer on Lola Rennt and Perfume, Frank Griebe. The film is exquisitely shot, and the gaps in sometimes spartan dialogue are barely noticeable when there is much to look at. It's a real camera-fest, and definitely in a good way. To me, it was never excessive, always enhancing rather than masking the story.

If you liked Lola Rennt, you might like this. There's absolutely no guarantee, though. It is something utterly different. Set aside any preconceptions you might have and enjoy this quirky and touching story of love, fate and - ultimately - a kind of redemption.

Awards: Click here for details.

135 mins. In German.

23 January, 2010

Godzilla (1998)

'Sighs' do matter

Winner of the Best European Director (Roland Emmerich, Germany), People’s Choice Awards, European Film Awards 1998

Yes, it's an unusual subject film for our normally restrained, lofty site, but that's what can happen when you give people the vote, you know?

Roland Emmerich, who lifted the EFA People's Choice gong for Best European Director in 1998 for this 'shlock'buster travesty had shown such promise in a similar ilk previously, for it was he who had given the world the riotously good-fun Independence Day (1996), and hopes were high for this, his follow-up film.

Oh dear. Where to begin?

Well, let's start with the appalling casting of Matthew Broderick as Dr. Niko Tatopoulos, shall we? The good doctor is collecting earthworms in Chernobyl for study when a helicopter appears and a spook from the US State Department tells him he's being reassigned - prior to this, the movie began with French nuclear tests back in the day on a remote island. Following the explosion, we see a single unhatched egg. Ulp...

Seriously, Broderick's performance is so bad but, to be fair, the script from Emmerich and Dean Devlin would have made an Olivier or a Brando blanche, so singularly poor it is.

And the monster? Well, as the original tagline had it, 'Size Does Matter' (this was released a few years after Spielberg's genuinely amazing Jurassic Park (1993) had enthralled the world, remember, so the only way to out-spectacle its dinosaur predecessor, it would seem, was to have gone 'big'), so why is Godzilla, virtually every time that he is in shot, seen running away from puny military efforts at attack?

The original Japanese films were outrageously camp, but they never took themselves seriously, and it is this po-faced approach to proceedings (apart from the name and the roar, this contains no references to the original Godzilla movies) that renders Emmerich's film nothing more than a huge drag.

Seriously, do yourself a favour, check out Cloverfield (2008), and leave this where it belongs.

Awards: Click here for details. If you really must.

139 mins. In English, French, Japanese, Russian, Spanish.

20 January, 2010

Nil by Mouth (1997)

'You want it? You want it with me?'

Nominated for European Cinematographer of the Year, European Film Awards 1997.

A warning to the squeamish - foul language (in context) ahead.

It was based on his own childhood, was Gary Oldman's feature debut - Jesus wept. You've never seen anything like Nil by Mouth (1997) - there hasn't been another film made that deals so unflinchingly with what is still very much a problem for many women, namely domestic violence.

He is by all accounts a diamond geezer and a real gentleman, Ray Winstone, but that doesn't change the fact that he was simply born to play Ray, the self-destructive, repugnant, abusive and sickeningly violent working-class Londoner who is the focus of Oldman's film.

Kathy Burke, who is also brilliant, plays his long-suffering wife Valerie, whose life, as she herself describes it, is nothing but drunken beatings and the dread in between:

Valerie: [to Ray] When you go out, you go out with your mates, and when you are in, you're pissed out and your brain's asleep in front of the fucking television. I turn the television off, go up to bed, you follow me up at three o'clock in the morning stinking of booze. That's what I get. Either that or you're knocking me about. I'm 30 today, you know, and I feel so fucking old. You know, I'm tired, you know, I wanna be able to look back and say, "Yeah, I had a bit of fun," you know, when I'm old, instead of saying "Everyone fucking felt sorry for me!" I mean, that's the life I've got. Do you hear what I'm saying? I just don't want it. I'll, I'll find somebody else. You know, someone who can love me. Someone kind.

And it is this sense of dread that overwhelms the film - Oldman's script, while absolutely littered with foul language, is nonetheless absolutely faithful to the only kind of communication that Ray understands, except for his fists. The violence itself, while almost impossible to watch without flinching, is almost like a dance of death, with Ray seemingly powerless to break the chain of abuse that began with his old man:

Ray: Yeah, all right. I remembered that day, because I could've put [Nil by Mouth] on his fucking tombstone, you know? Because I don't remember one kiss, you know, one cuddle. Nothing. I mean, plenty went down, not a lot came out, you know, nothing that was any fucking good. And I'd look at this man that I call Dad, you know? My father, I knew him as Dad. He was my fucking dad but he weren't like other kids' dads, you know? It was as if the word itself were enough, and it ain't.
Mark: That ain't when he died though, is it?
Ray: No. He lived another ten years, slippery old cunt.

Sympathy for the devil, then? Not a bit of it - but what Oldman nevertheless achieves, particularly with the above dialogue, is an illustration of how people are nurture, rather than nature, based.

And does the film offer any hope? Well, this is where your reviewer disagrees with his European Film Awards partner, Colin, who is convinced that the 'happy ending' (with Ray apparently having seen the error of his ways and being shown as gentle and tender with his wife and small kids) is a pure sham, and that the cycle of destruction will only continue as it obviously normally does in real (as opposed to reel) life.

I don't know, but I am going to have to watch the film again, methinks - in the meantime, your thoughts would also be much appreciated.

Awards: Click here for details.

128 mins.

17 January, 2010

C'est arrivé près de chez vous (Man Bites Dog: It Happened in Your Neighborhood) (1992)

None more black

European Film Awards Young European Film Of The Year Nominee 1993

We're back - and a very happy 2010 to all our readers.

Amazing to think that some 17 years have passed since writer-directors Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoît Poelvoorde put Belgium on the cinematic map, big time, with C'est arrivé près de chez vous (1992), n'est-ce pas?

Poelvoorde has since gone on to be one of the Low Countries' most succesful exports but has moved away from the jet-black horror-humour that characterizes his performance as aimiable serial killer/thief Ben in C'est arrivé... towards the broader (but no less enjoyable) strokes associated with classics such as Philippe Harel's Le vélo de Ghislain Lambert (2001) and Yann Moix's fabulous Podium (2004).

Ben is every hack's dream - a real-life serial killer living in the small Belgian town of Namur (from where Poelvoorde himself hails) who comes into the orbit of reporter Rémy (Rémy Belvaux) and cameraman André (Andre Bonzel) and allows himself to be filmed 'working' - that is to say, mercilessly murdering and raping various victims (young and old), whom he also relieves of various possessions and cash. Clearly intelligent and articulate, Ben holds forth on life, art, music, and society while he's on his 'rounds' but, as he gradually begins increasingly involving the camera crew in his 'work', and the lines between chronichlers and perpetrators become blurred, things start getting very dicey...

It is, of course, a relatively old director's trick, one that dates at least as far back as Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), to make the audience complicit in on-screen atrocities. Why, after all, should we want to watch such a film?

Well, îf you're looking for reasons, start with Poelvoorde's absolutely priceless performance, then add a script and cinematography that redefine cinéma vérité, combined with naturalistic, entirely believable performances from all concerned (most of the actors, after the fashion of other break-out films such as George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968), were already known to the directors, and even included Poelvoorde's mother).

Finally, nobody ever said that great cinema has to be soft and cuddly, did they? Frankly, this masterpiece, which combines sickening horror with laugh-out-loud humour, but also includes genuine pathos, has more to say about the human condition than some may wish to know. Too bad - not seeing it would be their loss.

Awards: Click here for details.

95 mins. In French.