Lost in the Movies: August 2009

The Life & Death of Peter Sellers, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying & Love the Zeroes

(This is a revised version of the review which recently appeared on Ibetolis' Film for the Soul, as a part of his fantastic Counting Down the Zeroes series. I strongly urge you to check out this venture; Ibetolis, a.k.a. Ric, has invited the best and brightest of the blogosphere to write up interesting films from every year of the 00's and right now the battery of bloggers is approaching mid-decade. So there's still plenty of time for you, dear reader, to join the fun. The review follows the jump. Many screen-caps are featured, so are (beware!) spoilers, including the very unexpected death of the title character.)

Historias Extraordinarias

What comes to mind when you hear the words “extraordinary stories”? An adventurous journey down a long river, pursuing a strange and possibly illicit mission? A mysterious murder, witnessed by a man who flees and hides from his pursuers while unraveling the crime? A journey spanning years and continents, in pursuit of a buried treasure? Is it war which quickens the pulse, with its threat of violent death and suggestion of enemies hidden away in the jungle, waiting to launch a guerrilla attack? Or perhaps you are a romantic, and your extraordinary story would involve an enigmatic woman, whose enchanted entrance into your life seems to foreshadow an implicit departure – one which arrives one day, confirming your suspicions while breaking your heart. As you’ll notice, the title of Argentinian writer/director Mariano Llinás’ remarkable film is plural. Not one but all of these storylines are pursued (simultaneously, no less), with surprising results.


Seen in the light of of the lugubrious Death of Venice, the impressive but stoic Leopard, and the emotionally devastating Rocco and His Brothers, the decadence and historical pageantry of Ludwig can seem almost refreshing. True, it has its psychological intensity, what with the physical and mental decline undergone by its hero (a deeply romantic, and possibly insane, Bavarian royal of the 19th century, whose reign saw his little kingdom swallowed up by the new Prussian-led German state). And at four hours long, it's hardly a sprightly jog through the park. Yet the film is lush, lavish, and entertaining - its long runtime absorbing due to the hero's wildness (he represents all the opposite tendencies of the aristocracy when compared to the melancholy, savvy, and dignified Burt Lancaster in The Leopard: self-indulgence, withdrawal into fantasy, irresponsibility).

Rocco and His Brothers

Among other things, Rocco and His Brothers is the story of a face. Not the face you see above, which a woman’s decorated hand is reaching to caress. That face belongs to Spiro Focas, cast as Vincenzo Parondi. Vincenzo’s visage, along with the rest of him, has already settled into lifelong complacency when the rest of the Parondis show up in Milan to pester their urban relation for support. (Incidentally, the owner of those feminine fingers – Nadia, played by Annie Girardot, will see her own expression shift from hearty cynicism to fragile vulnerability through passionate romanticism, ragged humiliation, coarse self-hatred, and back to the beginning again). Nor is it the face of Alain Delon (playing Rocco himself), which usually broadcasts arrogant assurance but here displays a touching and sweet naivete, broken up by intense disappointment and flickers of hatred (though traces of compassion never leave his brooding eyes or bashful smile). And it isn’t even the memorable face of Katina Paxinou, the Greek actress who portrays Rosaria, the fiery Sicilian mama of the titular brood, I have in mind.

The Leopard

If Italian films from the forties and fifties were dominated by a hard-bitten look at the present, with a transforming Italy moving from fascism and war through poverty and ruin to the cautious construction of a modern postwar world, then Italian cinema of the sixties can be seen as one long, mournful elegy for the lost past, in a variety of different keys. At the dawn of the decade, neorealism had already been relegated to the past, but that movement's overarching social critique and devotion to intense observation of daily life continued to inform works crafted by the best Italian directors. These qualities were put to work in a series of wildly different yet equally powerful films, which together paint a coherent picture of a nation caught in the whirlwind, its people having severed their roots once and for all, yet unable to establish connections to the new world being born around them.


Jaws, 1975, directed by Steven Spielberg

The Story: “Sharkkkkkkkk!!!!!!”

And yet it’s so much more than that. At its heart, of course, Jaws is a fantastic monster movie, a film that plays on fears – that employs Hitchcockian suspense and haunted house surprise to hold us in the grip of masterful entertainment. It has been blamed for a dumbing-down of movie audiences, an onslaught of blockbusters concerned only with reeling in adolescents, and a retreat from the edginess and depth of 70s cinema. Yet Jaws consistently holds human figures at its center – and not only because the mechanical creature malfunctioned through much of the production, while a 27-year-old newbie filmmaker, one Steven Spielberg, had to improvise shooting around it. At heart, Jaws is a story about people more than about a shark.

The Hidden Fortress

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The Hidden Fortress, 1958, directed by Akira Kurosawa

The Story: A samurai general guards and transports his clan’s gold and princess across enemy territory, departing from a hidden fortress in the desert mountains. Along the way there are spear duels, close escapes, pursuits through the forest mists, scrapes with the executioner, and even a paganistic wood-burning ritual around a giant bonfire. The story is told largely from the perspective of two pathetic and bickering peasants who accompany the general and the princess on their journey.

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