Le Quattro Volte (Italy-Germany-Switzerland, 2010)

The goats have it

Michelangelo Frammartino’s unusual film appears to offer four slices of life in a rural backwater of southern Italy (Calabria). Not a lot happens here but the film is entrancing in surprising ways. There’s no intelligible dialogue (nothing is subtitled), the dominant sound on the soundtrack is the bleating of goats (I’d had enough of that by the end; we do hear the ambient sounds of the town. The central character, if the definition serves, is the goat herder who is obviously, from the start, going to die soon. It’s not only the fact he’s very old but he coughs a lot; a sure signifier of death. That’s hardly a spoiler because what happens is not important, what matters is simply that it happens.

Cinematically it’s interesting as Frammartino often places his camera in a position simply to observe events mostly disallowing the director’s privilege of putting it anywhere he likes. There are, for example, very few close ups (this is one way of avoiding the problem of performance when using an amateur cast). One  position allows us to see the goats’ pen and the herder’s home in the background. During the Easter parade, which marches past this position, we witness farcical happenings that belong more in a black comedy than a low-key representation of routine. This startling clash works but I’m not sure why.

Frammartino is recording the end of tradition as the herder’s successors work in different ways. I wonder about the representation of the Easter parade; is it meant to be laughable or is that my perspective colouring what happens?

There is one dramatic moment, the brilliant cut from the herder’s coffin’s incarceration to the birth of a goat was as visceral a scene I have watched recently. I am slightly concerned that we were meant to think the herder had been reincarnated in goat: ridiculous or more skewed humour?

The film’s short (88 minutes) but that was long enough.


Shun Li and the Poet (Io sono Li, Italy-France, 2011)

Effortlessly lachrymose

Effortlessly lachrymose

Documentary filmmaker, Andre Segre, chose a ‘slice of life’ narrative for his first feature and an affecting on it is. Li Shun (Zhao Tao) is working in Italy, paying off the snakeheads who organised her passage, and hoping that her eight year old son can join her. Zhao is a Jia Zhangke regular (see Still Life) and is quite brilliant in this submissive role whilst conveying her inner steel. My work life at the moment is pretty abysmal, however the fortitude of migrant workers renders me pathetic. She forms a friendship with a much older, sympathetic fisherman, another emigre, albeit one who’s resided in Italy for 30 years; played by prominent Croat actor, Rade Sherbedzia. I was slightly uneasy that a cliched romance between an old man and younger woman would develop, however Segre, who also scripted the film, is too adept for that.

Apart from the performances, what stands out in the film is the cinematography by Luca Bigazzi (a character from The Godfather?). The setting is near Venice, we do have one sojourn into that most photogenic of  cities, and the sea and lagoons of north east Italy look superbly melancholic, especially when the Dolomites, seemingly miraculously, appear in the background.

The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, Italy-Algeria, 1966)

Urban warfare

The Battle of Algiers is an extraordinary film for a number of reasons, primarily the impartiality with which the events are portrayed and the style in which it is shot. It was made just after Algerian independence from France and focuses upon the battle for the capital city in 1957, which although a failure for the National Liberation Front (FLN) at the time, sowed the seeds for the eventual withdrawal of France.

Director Gillo Pontecorvo drew upon the Italian tradition of neo realism by using non-actors, except for the vital role of Colonel Mathieu, and location shooting. The latter was possible as the film had the cooperation of the Algerian government. Despite the fact that the government’s involvement might suggest a propaganda , nation-building, purpose for the film, Pontecorvo, and screenwriter Franco Solanas, do not portray the French as monsters.

Indeed, the even-handedness of the way each side is presented is quite remarkable; both commit atrocities and deaths on both sides are shown to be equally tragic. For example, the bombing of the  Casbah, by off duty French policemen, is followed by the equally cold blooded bombing of, amongst other places, a milk bar full of young people. Whilst it is clear that the atrocity committed by the French was answered by Algerian revenge, Pontecorvo spends more time emphasising how innocent the French victims are through a series of eyeline matches from the woman planting the bomb. The aftermath uses the same music, Bach’s B minor Mass, which also accompanied images of the dead being dragged from the rubble in the Casbah.

Ali La Pointe: he won't give in

Later, Algerian ‘freedom fighters’ rampage through town in an ambulance shooting anyone they can. This is in response to the torturing of Algerians as the paratroopers tried to track down the FLN’s leadership. Col. Mathieu is even allowed to justify the use of torture, though this is used to illustrate politicians’ hypocrisy. As he says, if you wish Algeria to remain French then it must be done. Mathieu is no cardboard villain but a compassionate, professional soldier, played with great charisma by Jean Martin (who’d lost a part because he signed a petition supporting Algerian independence). On two occasions, when French passers-by attack Algerians in hysterical revenge for killings, it is gendarmes who come to the rescue. It’s not obvious as to why the French banned the film for many years.

I should make clear that the film doesn’t condone torture; the scenes are quite horrific and the film’s viewpoint is obviously anti-colonialist. The French should not be there; there should be no reason for torture.

Unlike the neo-realists, the event portrayed is not insignificant but a decisive moment in Algeria’s fight for freedom. Also, the use of faux newsreel footage (the image was processed to look grainy) is a departure from neo realist technique. It does, however, give the film immense immediacy. I have to keep reminding myself that the film is a recreation; Paul Greengrass achieves the same effect with Bloody Sunday (UK, 2002).

The face of a killer

A final point to make, and something that has been reflected in the Arab Spring, is the vital role of women in the uprising. Three women plant the bombs that kill many and the final shot of the film is a woman, holding the national flag, who keeps coming forward despite being pushed back by French security forces.

The Battle of Algiers is one of the greatest films of the 20th century.


Bicycle Thieves (Ladri di bicyclette, Italy, 1948)

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here?

What happens when you watch a ‘classic’ movie – and there are not a lot that are more ‘classic’ than Bicycle Thieves – and you think ‘that was good’;  ‘good’ is not  good enough for ‘classic’. The ‘good’ reaction was the first I had nearly 30 years ago, when I saw the film twice; in the intervening years I’ve seen it on two more occasions and now agree with the ‘great’ and the ‘classic’. The film hasn’t changed though it has gotten older. It was a ‘mere’ 30-odd years old when I first saw and that amount of time has passed again; it’s not getting better with age, it was a classic in the ’80s, so presumably I’ve become more discerning.

In the decades between first seeing it and now I’ve become a dad and I suspect that’s made the difference as the key to the success of Bicycle Thieves is Bruno, Ricci’s faithful son. Children, of course, are often used to pull the heartstrings but di Sica, and his scriptwriters, use Bruno with subtlety.

There’s no sentimentality of the portrayal of the father-son relationship, Ricci’s stress leads him to strike Bruno and then buy him lunch in a posh restaurant to assuage his guilt. Bruno goes off on a sulk at one point, Ricci allows him then fears the worse as someone nearly drowns in the river. These events encapsulate parents’ treatment of, and anxieties about, their children. Throughout the film, di Sica occasionally gives us Bruno’s viewpoint, though Ricci is the protagonist; and Bruno is always there doggedly supporting his dad. The ending, when Ricci loses his moral authority over his child, Bruno slips his hand into his father’s cementing the bond between them. This simple hand-holding gesture was similarly effective in Mandy (UK, 1952).

Bicycle Thieves is not simply a great film because of Bruno, it’s portrayal of desperate poverty remains potent but what excuse is there now? Post-war Italy was bound to be a place in turmoil, for the rich – of course – it was different, but in the early years of the 21st century in the ‘advanced nation’ that is Britain we are faced with vast cuts in public spending which will inevitably disproportionately impact on the poor. And the reason for the dire state of public finances is the bailing out of the private sector banks. Neo realist films were politically left wing, what we need now is a left wing party that will increase taxes for the rich to pay for public services for all.

Germany Year Zero (Germania anno zero, Italy, 1948)

As grim as it gets

As grim as it gets

Germany Year Zero was director Roberto Rossellini’s third World War II film and it followed Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisa (1946) in filming, on location, the ‘here and now’ of the end and aftermath of the war. While both use melodrama as much as realism, Germany Year Zero is probably the bleakest, which is fitting given the devastation visited upon the defeated Berlin. I was glad that the film runs only 70 mins (on DVD) as the graveyard scene at the start sets the tone and it gets progressively grimmer.

It would be interesting to compare the film with the noir The Third Man (UK, 1949) shot on location in Vienna, which I haven’t seen for some time. Whilst I admire the British film, compared to Rosselini’s portrayal of the degradation forced upon people by war simply ‘cuts to the chase’; or rather, it doesn’t bother with philosophy it simply shows the ‘state of things’ for the defeated nation.

Like Rome the use of location shooting is crucial to realist project, though unlike in De Sica’s work, most of the actors are professionals. The shots of the people looking at the camera as they get off a tram signifies the film’s authenticity in that it was obviously ‘there at the time’.

Gomorrah (Gomarra, Italy, 2008)

Living with death

Living with death

Whilst Gomorrah is clearly a gangster film, representing the Naples Camorra, it also resembles the (so-called) fly-on-the-wall documentaries that trace a number of contemporaneous narrative strands about lives in, say, airports or hotels. These, however, use voice overs thereby disallowing them as ‘observational’ documentaries as their meaning is anchored. That said, if Gomorrah had had a voice over I would’ve been able to follow it more readily!

We’re offered several,  violent, slices of life that portray existence in the poverty-stricken area (that resembles the Kidbrooke estate in SE London)  in the thrall of the Comarra. Silvia Angrisani, in the current issue of Sight & Sound, complains that we can’t understand the social context from the film. However, this is true of this form of documentary; by necessity it shows a limited view. To extend the film to show, say, the role of politicians, would make the film a melodrama (no bad thing). Clearly Matteo Garrone (who, reportedly, is wanted dead by the Camorra before Christmas) wanted to focus on life at the bottom.

Much of the film is shot handheld (the image above is the only stylised shot in the film, a tour de force featuring one of the characters escaping having survived a bloodbath), probably the only way to shoot given the locations, its  use of non professional actors and in keeping with its ‘documentary’ feel.

The film also acts as reportage, many won’t know of the Camorra’s role in dumping toxic waste on farmland and the death toll in Naples (one every three days). It doesn’t deal with the corrupt nature of the Italian state, which allows this to happen, but that’s for other films.

The Passenger (It-Ger-Spain, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)

I’m a fan of arthouse but is it that Antonioni’s portentous (slow) and (would be/maybe is) style simply feels outdated or are my brain cells not what they used to be. The Passenger‘s interesting, and Nicholson’s always watchable, but does it really take 2 hours to tell this tale. As I say, maybe I’m getting impatient in my middle age (do I really have time to watch this when I’ve already seen it?) or maybe the 21st century isn’t friendly to this sort of arthouse. Is it me or is it the film?

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