Thursday, September 3, 2015

PORCILE aka PIGSTY

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969
Starring: Pierre Clémenti, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marco Ferreri, Franco Citti

“We have decided to devour you for your disobedience.”

A quiet man wanders a foreboding, volcanic landscape, willing to go to any lengths for survival. He attacks a soldier and cannibalizes the body. Later, he teams up with another man and they attack a wagon carrying female slaves. Eventually he is arrested and executed. Before dying, he states, "I killed my father, I ate human flesh and I quiver with joy." Meanwhile, in postwar Germany, a powerful industrialist, Herr Klotz, is trying to convince his son Julian to marry a young woman. But Julian’s dark secret is that he’d rather spend time with the family pigs, which his father’s nemesis, Herdhitze, discovers. The two industrialists team up — Klotz blackmails Herdhitze to keep the latter’s Nazi activities quiet — and dispose of Julian.

One of Pasolini’s most difficult films, but also one of his greatest triumphs, Porcile is at the center of a fascinated web that connects the director’s cinema as a whole. It strikes a fine balance between the mythic works like Oedipus Rex, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Medea. Like Oedipus Rex, it is concerned with polluted lands, patricide, and crimes against the family. Like the later Salò, this is one of Pasolini’s few films overtly about the devastating effects of WWII, and also like that last, greatest of his films, it is comprised of a mix of storytelling and highly intellectual language. This is closely related to the bourgeois satire found in Teorema, but here Pasolini exchanges sex and religious epiphany for violence and discussions of the Holocaust. 

I’ve read that his satire of the bourgeois industrialists in Porcile is too heavy handed, but if you assume that Pasolini always knew what he was doing — and was always in complete control — he provides a nasty, blackly comic tale of pervasion and murder. The contrast between the two stories is where the crux of Porcile lies. Pasolini’s choice to blend the two together may seem jarring at first; roughly every ten minutes or so he cuts back and forth between them with some obvious noise (black screens with a soundtrack scratch) at the end of each reel. Pasolini often spoke of “disinterested cinema” and included references to Brecht in Porcile. Brecht was a German playwright known for his “alienation effect,” a theatrical technique meant to distance audiences from a story’s sense of artifice and melodrama so that they could gain a deeper appreciation of political and allegorical themes at play. While Brecht sought for an experimental break with realist cinema, I believe that Pasolini also sought this kind of separation from neorealism at this point in his career.

But Porcile is not as experimental as it seems and provides two coherent stories. The parallel between the two is both incisive and terrifying, as Pasolini conflates a seemingly medieval tale of human sacrifice, pre-modern terror, cannibalism, and savagery with Germany’s economic miracle (known as the Wirtschaftswunder). Ultimately he shows us that little has changed with a chilling, casual discussion between Klotz and his right hand man. The latter states, “In various shipments the prisoners were driven into the gas chambers, naked. The crystals were placed in the pipe. The pipe was closed with a plug. The plug had a metal tube, which sprayed the crystals. The prisoners breathed for 30 seconds and fell to the floor, covered with excrement. The corpses arrived at the Institute still warm, their eyes wide, glistening.” This exposition is accompanied by harp music (Klotz, who has a very intentionally placed Hitler mustache, is literally playing the harp in this scene), while he goes on to explain the autopsy and dismemberment process. It seems Herdhitze, Klotz’s rival, developed quite a collection of the bodies of Holocaust victims and it is this discussion of getting rid of the doctor’s “prize collection” — the corpses — that inspires the men to get rid of the pig-loving son with Herdhitze’s assistance.

I haven’t written much about the parallels between Pasolini and the younger German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose career I covered in depth earlier this year, but the similarities are many. Two of Europe’s most towering cinematic intellects, both men made films deeply critical of life in postwar Europe. While Pasolini lived through the war, Fassbinder was born in its last year. Though fundamentally leftists, they were both ostracized by the political left (and right). They were highly controversial and often in the media spotlight in their own countries. They were prolific with output that included much more than directing. They were gay (loosely bisexual in Fassbinder’s case), had difficult relationships with their absent fathers, but close relationships with their mothers (who both men cast in their films), and they both died tragically young. 

More than these personal similarities, their films contain overlapping themes: a rejection of realism and explorations of postwar trauma — while Fassbinder made many films (and one of the most incredible television series in history) directly about or with references to WWII, Pasolini will be forever remembered for Salò — combined with aggressive barbs directed at capitalism and bourgeois Europe; discussions of the family and sexuality; and a certain romantic idealism about crime, poverty, and prostitution. Many of their protagonists possess a sense of irresponsibility and a certain disregard for the rules; they also embody the German concept of Sehnsucht, a sense of profound longing or craving, a search for what is often indescribable. 

This hungry, ravenous searching is literally embodied by Pierre Clementi’s angelic cannibal. Like Fassbinder, Pasolini was often dead-on with his casting and Clementi — one of Europe’s most underrated actors — carries his half of the film magnificently. For my money, he is the ultimate symbol of European art house cinema and I wish that Pasolini had worked with him more (and that Fassbinder had worked with him at all). 

Porcile comes with the highest recommendation. You can find it on region one DVD, though I recommend the superior Masters of Cinema UK disc. Hopefully it will soon find a home on Blu-ray. I can’t understand why it doesn’t have a wider audience, and anyone weighing whether or not to watch (or re-watch) Salò would do well to dive in here first.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

AMORE E RABBIA aka LOVE AND ANGER

Carlo Lizzani, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, Elda Tattoli, Marco Bellocchio, 1969
Starring: Ninetto Davoli, Julian Beck, Nino Castelnuovo, Tom Baker

I just wrote in my review of Capriccio all’italiana, an anthology film from the previous year that Pasolini also contributed to, how sick I am of European art house anthologies, but Amore e rabbia was blissfully the last of these. When these anthology films weren’t completely self-indulgent, like The Witches, they tended to focus on the fraught political situation of the late ‘60s. Marked by protests, strikes, and government-wide shut downs, this period was the closest Europe has come since 18th century France to attaining revolution. 

While the US was home to the Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam demonstrations, French students nearly overthrew their own government, Italy had a major anarchist conference, and Czechoslovakia underwent the Prague Spring, etc. Without understanding the political climate of the period, it’s almost impossible to absorb everything going on in Amore e rabbia, which is made up of five clips from six directors. 

Carlo Lizzani, one of neorealism’s foremost screenwriters and a prolific director in his own right, kicked off the anthology with “L’indifferenza" aka “Indifference,” the most effective segment of the film. In the courtyard of an apartment, a woman is attacked while onlookers ignore the crime to listen to a sporting event (based on the true story of Kitty Genovese, who was raped and stabbed to death just outside her apartment complex), and elsewhere people refuse to help an injured man and woman trying to get from a car accident to the hospital. This latter tale would be more effective if I hadn’t already watched a more comical version in The Witches, which this much more somber retelling closely mirrors. Still, its implications are chilling and there is an almost Cronenbergian feel to the hostility and violence of the city.

Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Agonia” aka “Agony,” on the other hand, is really an acquired taste. A man is passing away and his death is accompanied by a troupe of dancers who form body sculptures (like something you might see at Cirque du Soleil), spout pseudo philosophical nonsense, and otherwise guide the man to his death in the most ‘60s European counterculture way possible. Put together by The Living Theatre and with a performance from the company’s founders Julian Beck and Judith Malina, you really have to know the background to get this one. It might be nice to watch after checking out Fassbinder’s documentary on experimental theater, Theatre in Trance (1981).

Next up is Pasolini’s segment, "La sequenza del fiore di carta” aka “The Sequence of Paper Flowers,” which is surprisingly short and simple. His regularly star from this period, the irresistibly likable Ninetto Davoli plays an innocent young man who wanders the streets in utter harmony with the world, sometimes carrying a large paper flower. These images are contrasted with clips of atrocities and historically important moments and the youth is eventually struck dead, as if the heavens are outraged by his innocence and gaiety. This one would be unlikable if it weren’t for an infectious performance from Davoli, whose sunny personality shines through. It’s easy to see why he become one of Pasolini’s most used comic actors.

The little dialogue in “La sequenza del fiore di carta” is more than made up for with the dialogue-heavy story from the film’s only non-Italian director, Jean-Luc Godard. His “L’Amore” aka “Love” is a fascinating companion piece to some of his films that revolve around relationships — such as Contempt and A Woman in a Woman — as it follows a couple who sit around and argue. Their discussions of love and politics are underlined by the fact that she is Jewish and he is Arabic and they are contrasted with another couple who discuss the actions of the central couple.

Marco Bellocchio and Elda Tattoli segment, "Discutiamo, discutiamo” aka “We Tell, You Tell,” is the last and will probably feel as relevant as the first segment to contemporary viewers. It follows a group of politically-minded students who don’t take any action, but sit around preaching ideas of Marxism and anarchism that they all already agree on. Essentially their discussion is about whether it’s possible to change things from within the system or whether the system should be destroyed and rebuilt. It’s not the best of the short films, but the discussion feels fresh and some of the themes haven’t changed at all.

Overall I can only recommend Amore e rabbia to Pasolini and Godard completists, or to anyone with an interest in or knowledge of ‘60s history. You can surprisingly find the film on DVD, in a nice-looking edition from NoShame. It’s definitely worth watching at least once and I would be fascinated to hear some feedback from viewers totally ignorant to the events of the late ‘60s.

Monday, August 31, 2015

CAPRICCIO ALL’ITALIANA aka CAPRICE ITALIAN STYLE

Mario Monicelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini, Steno, Pino Zac, Franco Rossi, 1968
Starring: Totò, Franco Franchi, Ugo D'Alessio, Regina Seiffert

After Ro.Go.Pa.G and The Witches, also produced by Dino de Laurentiis, this is the third anthology film Pasolini took part in. While he’s not typically remembered as a director of comedies, he made a fair few, most of them either anthology films and/or starring the great Italian comedian Totò. This includes “La ricotta” from Ro.Go.Pa.G, the feature-length Uccellacci e Uccellini with Totò, and “The Earth as Seen From the Moon” from The Witches, also with Totò. “Che cosa sono le nuvole?”, his segment in Capriccio all’italiana, is the last of these and the last film Totò appeared in; it was actually released after the actor’s death.

Crowded with segments despite its 95-minute running time, there are six segments divided between six directors. Mario Monicelli, director of Big Deal on Madonna Street, helmed “La Bambinaia” aka “The Nanny,” about a nanny who tells unsettling stories to the children she has been hired to mind. The second segment, “Il mostro della domenica” aka “The Monster of Sunday,” was directed by the prolific Steno (An American in Rome, Execution Squad). He frequently worked with Totò, who appears here as a grumpy old man stuck in his bourgeois ways, determined to get revenge against the young people he hates.

The third segment, “Perché?” aka “Why?”, was directed by Mauro Bolognini, who also directed an adaptation of one of Pasolini’s novels. In “Perché?”, frustration comes to a head as a couple is stuck in traffic in the middle of Rome and the wife encourages her husband to get them out of it by whatever means necessary. The fourth episode is Pasolini’s “Che cosa sono le nuvole?” aka “What are Clouds?”, which I’ll examine in depth shortly. The last two segments include Pino Zac and Franco Rossi’s (who also worked on The Witches but was uncredited here) “Viaggio di lavoro,” where the Queen of England’s trip to Africa goes horribly wrong, and Mauro Bolognini’s second entry, “La Gelosia” aka “Jealousy,” another story about a troubled husband and wife.

I’m not going to lie. At this point, I’m already pretty burned out by European anthology films, which is perhaps odd because I absolutely love British horror anthology efforts like Tales from the Crypt and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. For whatever reason, they were all the craze on the European art house scene in the ‘60s, including films like Love at Twenty (1961), The Seven Deadly Sins (1962), The Most Beautiful Swindlers (1963), Six in Paris (1964), The Oldest Profession (1964), and my favorite, Spirits of the Dead (1969), an Edgar Allen Poe themed anthology featuring works by Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim.

Pasolini’s “What are Clouds?” is undisputedly the best film in Capriccio all’italiana. A group of puppets (actually real-life actors like Totò, Laura Betti, Ninetto Davoli, and Franco Franchi) are involved in an adaptation of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy about a husband’s paranoia and violent jealousy taken to extremes. While waiting between acts, they discuss the events unfolding on stage. For example, though the puppet played by Ninetto Davoli (one of Pasolini’s regulars) has been cast as Othello, he recognizes him to be a flawed and negative character and he’s upset that he has to repeat this performance over and over.

The best moments of “What are Clouds?” are echoed in Pasolini’s other comedies: the presence of Totò (here playing puppet Iago with hilarious results), and a healthy blend of comedy and intellectual material. Criterion released Mamma Roma with Pasolini’s short “La ricotta” as a special feature and I would love to see Uccellacci e uccellini  released on Blu-ray with the other comedies shorts accompanying. Though I loved the short, I can’t recommend Capriccio all’italiana. It frustrated that there is no unifying theme and British horror definitely spoiled me with their customary use of a framing device: a central story in which different characters tell their own stories, which make up the short films, and at the end, the characters are reunited and experience the conclusion together. I don’t believe this is available on DVD for English-speaking audiences and it’s also a job to track down online.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

TEOREMA

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968
Starring: Terence Stamp, Laura Betti, Silvana Mangano, Massimo Girotti

“You seduced me, God, and I let myself be seduced.”

A bourgeois Italian family receive a visit from a mysterious stranger. He proceeds to seduce and have sex with all the members of the family -- the religious maid, the somewhat effeminate son, the repressed mother, the shy daughter, and eventually the uptight, businessman father. He speaks very little, gives himself to them completely, and asks for nothing in return. Then he disappears, throwing them all into a state of spiritual upheaval and emotional chaos. Each member of the family is profoundly changed and they have remarkably different reactions to his sudden absence. The daughter becomes catatonic, the son takes up painting, the mother becomes a sex addict, and the maid returns to her village and begins performing miracles. The father, most interestingly of all, becomes a sexual prowler who has some sort of religious epiphany and strips off all of his clothes in a train station.

Teorema (aka Theorem) is a weird little film that fits in with the mid-period of Pasolini’s career in the sense that he was past the early religious allegories set in Roman slums (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta), past the Marxist-leaning documentaries (La rabbia, Comizi d’amore), and almost finished with his mythic period (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Oedipus Rex, while Medea would a year after Teorema). This period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — before the Trilogy of Life and his final film, the death-obsessed Salò — Pasolini made a number of allegorical parables that define the sort of post-Marx, post-Freud, postwar world that defines his body of cinema in general.

Like Pasolini’s early works, religious and/or sacred themes are continued here — the family’s servant (Laura Betti) is profoundly religious and tries to commit suicide because of the desire she feels for the guest. He rescues and comforts her, giving in to her sexual needs in the process. An echo of Pasolini’s simple yet idealized Italian villager (or slum citizen), she leaves the family’s mansion at the end of the film and returns home to her village, where she performs miracles. The father (Massimo Girotto) has a similar experience and becomes a new twist on Pasolini’s frequently used messiah character, who are both prophets and sacrificial lambs.

Through the father’s character, this is also a blatantly Marxist parable. A wealthy, successful businessman, he gives away his extensive factories — signing them over to his workers — in the beginning of the film. Though the film treats the entire family unit as a sort of collective protagonist, it is essentially a story about their attempts to transition after the father’s retirement, after his active abandonment of the capitalist machine. The film has little dialogue, so the father’s decision is not addressed in depth, but he claims to be sick and compares himself to Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy’s novel about an ambitious capitalist ladder-climber who has an accident and finds himself inexplicably terminal. He realizes the divide between what he describes as authentic and artificial life, a concept at the heart of many of Pasolini's films.

Teorema is also Pasolini’s first film with an abundance of sex and nudity, though neither are used in a gratuitous way. Like Salò, naked flesh and sexuality are tied into themes of mortality and the horror of bourgeois life. All of the members of the family are ashamed of their own sexuality, but unable to resist their attraction to the guest, who openly, almost innocently returns their affection. The brief sex scenes culminate in one of the best and most honest depictions of sexual repression and human vulnerability in cinema. While in Salò sex is about power, dominance, and violence, rather than sensuality, here it is a rite of communion. The visitor’s sexual acts serve to set each of the family members free from their bourgeois prison, but this isn’t entirely positive or care free — Pasolini in no sense gives the idea that the film has a happy ending. The visitor could be seen as God or the Devil, or merely as a force of profound change — a living epiphany.

The nameless guest is played by British actor Terence Stamp, who was at the height of his acting powers around this time. His career began just a few years earlier with Billy Budd (1962) and became increasingly more interesting with The Collector (1965), Modesty Blaise (1966), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), though I find his two Italian appearances — in Teorema and Fellini’s masterly Toby Dammit (1968) — to be the most fascinating. I should also add that Terence Stamp is one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen. I could probably watch him peeling potatoes for two hours and be happy.

Highly allegorical, Teorema will not be for everyone. It will either profoundly move you or bore you into incomprehension. The minimal dialogue and plot that is at once simple and complex might be too much (or not enough) for a lot of people. Aside from the sexual content being criticized by the Catholic Church, Teorema received mostly positive critical reception. It's a special and rewarding film. You can find it on Blu-ray from BFI, though I’d love to see it released in the giant Pasolini box set of my dreams alongside Pasolini’s own novel, published after the film was released.

In this movie, everyone willingly kneels before Zod. (Sorry Pasolini.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

OEDIPUS REX aka EDIPO RE

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967
Starring: Silvana Mangano, Franco Citti, Alida Valli, Carmelo Bene, Julian Beck, Luciano Bartoli

Pasolini’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex follows a young couple in Italy in the years before the war. They have a child, but the husband is jealous and has a servant take the baby boy to the desert to kill him. Unable to go through with the task, the boy is abandoned in the brush. The film transitions to an ancient, mythic time, where the baby is found in Corinth and adopted by the joyous King Polybus and his wife, Queen Merope. They name him Oedipus and he grows into an energetic young man. After a playmate taunts him about his parentage, he goes to the oracle of Apollo and learns there’s a prophecy saying he will kill his father and marry his mother. Dejected and miserable, he refuses to go home, setting in motion a chain of tragic events.

A bridge between The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Pasolini’s later films like The Decameron, Oedipus Rex is marked by a dramatic visual sense and use of color that would continue throughout the second half of Pasolini’s career. It also provides an interesting precursor to Salò, as the film is consumed with anger about the actions of previous generations, those that began WWII. Like many of Pasolini’s works, this can be seen as a meditation on the effects of WWII and the postwar world. The film’s opening takes place in modern day — the 1920s — with Oedipus’s father, Laius, garbed in military uniform, the kind worn by men who would soon before part of the fascist movement.

This choice belies one of the film’s deeper themes: Pasolini’s investigation of his own complicated relationship with his mother and his father. While he had a very close relationship with his mother, who he lived with for his entire life and who was even cast as Jesus’s mother in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. His father, on the other hand, was an Italian soldier not unlike Laius. With a gambling problem and an arrest record, he was in and out of the young Pasolini’s life and ultimately abandoned his son. Anxiety about fathers being usurped by their sons is a common theme in Greek myth. For example one of the founding myths is that Zeus, the father of the gods, rises up against his own father, the Titan Cronus, who has consumed all his children and imprisoned them within his stomach. 

Crimes against the family are also often at the heart of Greek tragic myths — Zeus’s murder of his father is only heroic because the foundation myth is about the gods overthrowing the Titans, while the story of Orestes (who murdered his mother after she murdered his father after he murdered their daughter) is perhaps the most famous of the Greek tragedies. These crimes against blood are directly related to a concept of plague and miasma that follows an offense against the gods, where a lands animals and humans suffer and die, disease spreads, and wells dry up. With this element, Pasolini both references postwar turmoil and gives a nod to his earlier, more fervent Marxism with the citizens’ plea for Oedipus to solve their plight — with the high priest character played by Pasolini himself.

Many of these myths are initially caused by one character’s hubris, excellent conveyed by Franco Citti who had a similar role in Pasolini’s first film, Accattone. While the Greek gods are always punishing people for excessive pride and hubris, Pasolini also captures how maddeningly cynical this is. Oedipus only leaves home because of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother — mistakenly believing that Polybus (an endearing Ahmed Belhachmi) and Merope (a beautiful, pre-Suspiria Alida Valli) are his biological parents — but it is this exodus that causes him to accidentally kill his father Laius (Luciano Bartoli) and set in motion a chain of events. Like so many tragic tales, this irritatingly boils down to a failure of communication — the events arguably could have been avoided if Oedipus went home and had a talk with his adopted parents — but Oedipus Rex captures a profounder sense of damning irony and nihilistic fate.

Oedipus Rex is essentially one of Pasolini’s more neglected masterpieces. It captures a sense of awe and wonder, while also effectively being a neorealist sword and sandal film. The Moroccan setting is almost a character in and of itself, while Pasolini captures spectacular performances from some professional actors (including the enigmatic Silvana Mangano in one of her best roles despite a disturbing lack of eyebrows) and nonprofessionals alike. There is dreamlike, surreal sense thanks to the costumes and nonsequitors and Pasolini finds a perfect balance between stark intellectualism and a certain comic campiness that doesn’t take away from the film’s impact but perhaps contributes to it.

The film comes highly recommended, though you should pick up the UK Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu-ray over the US-friendly Water Bearer Films’ DVD. It makes a fascinating double feature with either The Gospel According to St. Anthony or the later, similarly-themed Medea. It is worthy of far more acclaim and should be counted among Pasolini’s masterpieces.

Monday, August 24, 2015

THE WITCHES aka LE STREGHE

Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, 1967
Starring: Silvana Mangano, Totò, Ninetto Davoli, Clint Eastwood, Alberto Sordi, Massimo Girotti

After Ro.Go.Pa.G. and the controversy surrounding Pasolini’s heretic short film, “La ricotta,” he dove back anthology films a few years later with The Witches. The beautiful Silvana Mangano, wife of producer Dino de Laurentiis who organized the anthology, stars in each of the film’s five segments. I feel like I should warn you now that there aren’t actually any witches in the film (much to my great disappointment). Like Ro.Go.Pa.G., the different segments were helmed by well-known directors, including Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini, and Vittorio De Sica. Surprisingly, the shorts vary considerably in length, which means that the film moves at a decent clip at never feels sluggish, as is sometimes the case with anthology films trying to make each segment equal to its fellows. 

Luchino Visconti’s The Witch Burnt Alive
This lengthy first short stars Mangano as a famous actress who takes a day off from her busy shooting and publicity schedule to travel to an old friend’s wintertime resort. Her friend is throwing a party for a wealthy, middle aged group and the actress is somewhat ostracized. Obsessed with her elaborate beauty routine and the paparazzi waiting outside, the actress is bordering on hysteria. The women are jealous and judgmental of her, while most of the men want to have sex with her. Ultimately she faints and falls ill and it is revealed she is pregnant. She sulks off after a fight over the telephone with her controlling husband. 

This film has a lot of potential and an unnerving tone, but doesn’t quite get off the ground. I think it actually would have been more enjoyable as a feature-length work. It is unclear if the actress is just vain and selfish, or if she is really fragile, overworked, and at the breaking point. Visconti suggests the women’s predatory nature — they remove the actress’s hat, wig, false eyelashes, and some of her makeup when she passes out — and the actress almost has an affair with her friend’s husband, but these scenes don’t go to the extremes that they perhaps should. Mangano would go on to better work with Visconti in films like Death in Venice and Conversation Piece. Keep your eyes peeled for a naughty cameo from a very young Helmut Berger.

Mauro Bolognini’s Civic Sense
In this quick short, Mangano plays a rushed woman held up in traffic because of an accident. The driver of a truck has been injured, but she offers to take him to the hospital so that he doesn’t have to wait for an ambulance. The confused, concussed, bleeding man asks her nonsensical questions, but wonders about her frenzied driving and becomes concerned when she passes a series of hospitals. Ultimately she arrives at her destination and drops him off by the side of the road, where he collapses. Bolognini is lesser known that some of the greats on The Witches’ directorial roster, but he helmed The Big Night (1959) with a script from Pasolini and The Inheritance (1976). This quick episode is amusing but is sort of an afterthought compared to the other segments.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Earth As Seen From The Moon
The comic crown jewel of the anthology is this film that reunites Pasolini with comic legend Totò, Pasolini’s ex-lover and close friend Ninetto Davoli, and composer Ennio Morricone. This whimsical film follows a vibrantly red-haired father and son as they search for a new “mama” after their matriarch has passed away. After a number of false starts, they encounter the beautiful Assurdina, a mute and deaf woman with greenish hair and a generous spirit, who agrees to join the little family. She fixes up their tiny shack, but accidentally dies when her new husband cooks up a scheme to earn them enough money to buy a house.

Similar to Pasolini’s previous absurdist fairy tale, The Hawks and Sparrows, which also starred Ninetto and Davoli, this is both funnier and more absurd. It lacks the pedantic moral element of the former film and is a funny, endearing romp that pokes fun at the human quest for advancement. I think this is the best of the five films and Mangano also at her most compelling and this was the start of a multi-film collaboration between she and Pasolini that includes many of his mid-period films like Oedipus Rex and Teorema. And if you think death by slipping on a banana peel is hilarious, then this is definitely the film for you.

Franco Rossi’s The Sicilian Woman
This penultimate segment from Franco Rosso, a lesser known director who made a number of anthology films and The Counterfeiters (1953), is another brief but amusing glimpse at Mangano. She plays a scorned woman who admits to her father after much cajoling that a man flirted with her and then rebuffed her. In response, he father kills the man and his entire family, while a hysterical Mangano protests his deeds. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Civic Sense, but its sole purpose is really to serve as a palate-cleanser between Pasolini’s film and the final episode.

Vittorio De Sica’s An Evening Like the Others
This might actually be tied with The Earth As Seen From The Moon as my favorite film in the anthology. Mangano stars as a bored house wife who is frustrated that her successful businessman husband is always tired or distracted. While doing the dishes after dinner, she begins to fantasize about how things could be different — she sees him in a number of roles, such as lover, jealous husband, and villain. Though he promises her he will work at renewing their romance, he falls asleep and snores loudly. This wonderful short effortlessly shifts between fantasy and reality and feels very much like a musical without songs as it graduates into more and more elaborate fantasies. There’s a wonderful ending sequence where the wife, trying to prove to her husband on a grand scale how sexy she can be, performs in a stadium full of hundreds and strips away layers and layers of ball gowns. 

Allegedly the reason why The Witches is so obscure is because United Artists purchased the film and kept it out of theaters because the actor who co-starred as the boring husband — Clint Eastwood — was on the rise to fame as an action star in the US. I’m not entirely sure why, because he’s both funny and charming in the role and it’s definitely nice to see another side of Italy’s favorite American gunslinger. The above picture of Mangano as some sort of sci-fi villainess is from one of the wife's fantasies and is such a tease that I wish some of the segments had been more horror/cult-focused.

Overall I would recommend The Witches thanks to the segments from Pasolini and De Sica. Certainly anyone with a passion for the weird trend of European art house anthologies, Mangano, Pasolini, De Sica, Visconti, and Clint Eastwood will find a lot to enjoy in this pleasant way to pass two hours. Luckily United Artists have relaxed their death grip and you can find the film on DVD.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS aka UCCELLACCI E UCCELLINI

Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966
Starring: Totò, Ninetto Davoli

Totò and his son Ninetto travel around the Roman countryside, having adventures until they meet with a wise crow. He tells them the story of two friars, Ciccillo and Ninetto, who are tasked by St. Francis to teach a message of love to the nearby hawks and sparrows. A frustrating task, they manage to communicate to the two bird species separately, but can’t convince them to love each other. After the crow is finished his story, he tags along on Totò and Ninetto’s journey through the country, where they have run ins with some violent men, a poor family, actors, and more.

Literally meaning Ugly Birds and Little Birds, this difficult comic parable was allegedly Pasolini’s own favorite among his films, but will likely divide viewers. This is essentially a tale of inherently innocent, naive characters caught up between Marxist (as represented by the crow) and Christian ideals. Nearly all of Pasolini’s early films — Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and even the documentary Love Meetings — reflects this debate and contains religious themes. The Hawks and Sparrows would serve as something of a warm, humorous farewell to that as Pasolini moved on to more mythic films after this. Like those early works, this is also one of his last films where the majority of the characters are poor or working class, another theme that obsessed Pasolini’s early years.

There are a number of things that I genuinely loved about Hawks and Sparrows. For starters, there’s an excellent, whimsical score from Ennio Morricone, which includes the film’s hilarious opening song. Vocalist Domenico Modugno sings the credits — including all the names of everyone involved — as they roll across the screen. While the humor is a little difficult — in the sense that I think some of it is topical and language-based — the first half of the film is funny and endearing with some physical comedy that seems to be borrowed from Chaplin. It’s hard to even look at Totò, one of Italy’s most beloved comic actors, and not be absolutely warmed down to my toes. He has a fabulous presence in everything I’ve seen and he’s great here.

His son is played by Ninetto Davoli, a teenage non-professional actor in his first-ever role. He’s also surprisingly strong in the film and went on to be the great love of Pasolini’s life. Though they only had a sexual relationship for a few years and Davoli eventually got married, he was Pasolini’s frequent companion until the director’s death nine years later. Maybe it’s just Totò’s finesse, but they have wonderful chemistry together — and also with the stuffy, pedantic crow. The latter actually turns out to be a delightful character and I wish I saw more of that in life action films (sans the CGI, please). Totò and Ninetto also appear in the framing story and the tale of two frustrated monks, who are the film’s most charming characters.

In a strange way, it reminded me of a much more whimsical version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Fando and Lis (1968), which concerns a couple on a series of terrifying, humorous, and erotic adventures. Both films have an episodic feel — The Hawks and Sparrows follows the father and son past encounters like a field of young men dancing, a woman giving birth, the father demanding money from a very poor woman, and through a field where they’re shot at — and both have very Dantesque references to Hell and existential torment. 

But like Salò, the film’s intellectualism is self-conscious and it sometimes gets in the way. I can’t really decide if this is something I should recommend or not — you’ll love it, hate it, or maybe have no idea what’s going on — but if a moral parable in the form of an intellectual, absurdist comedy sounds up your alley, then definitely pick up the Masters of Cinema DVD. And if you think you can resist Totò, then you haven’t seen him in action yet. Like Leonard Nimoy, he’s the pretend grandfather that everyone wishes they had.