Monday, 7 October 2013

The beauty of a rake

Jep Gambardella has reached the age of 65 and, though he may now prefer to talk to women rather than have sex with them, still loves a great party in the sybaritic high life of Rome. Increasingly, though, loss and mortality catch up with him. If the subject is a familiar one for a more elegiac kind of moviemaking, the way it's told by Paolo Sorrentino in La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) constantly surprises.

There's the stupendous cinematography, of course: scene after scene of stunning colour, composition and richness - when I was looking for images, I found myself fulminating about how many great situations were missing - beautifully fused with a heady mix of music (delighted to hear Arvo Pärt's 'My heart's in the Highlands'). But above all there's a finely shaded script which turns melancholy into humour. Much of this is carried by our Jep, the still handsome and versatile Toni Servillo who can change an expression at his big party, in a giddying sequence near the beginning of the film, from one of smug cock of the roost

to desolation.

Later his speech to an insecure, self-praising friend should become a cult scene of cinema. The other star of La Grande Bellezza is Rome itself, putting Sorrentino's work up there with Rossellini's Roma, città aperta and Fellini's La Strada, two of Pope Francis's favourites as I mentioned in the last post (Roma is a lesser, but intriguing, film which I haven't seen since student days, when I didn't quite know what to make of it). Of course I loved it that so many of the places I strode on my noon to evening walk the last time I was there feature: the streets, cloisters and gardens around Santa Sabina on the beloved Aventine, the miraculous false perspectives of Borromini's little passageway in the Palazzo Spada, the low-level walk along the Tiber's edge to the Castel Sant'Angelo. But they're never there as window dressing. The scene which really moved me to tears was when Jep and his sad-eyed new friend Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli)

are given a night tour of the great palaces by a man who has all the keys, thanks to his association with principesse. That truly is supernaturally beautiful.

Agreeing with Emma Simmond's Arts Desk review which inspired me to go see it, I found only one flaw: that at what turned out to be the three-quarter mark - and I hadn't checked how long the film was due to last - there seemed to be a failure of pace. Sure, it's a leisurely meditation, but J was also feeling a slight sense of ennui at that point too. It recovers as the centre of gravity moves from the profane to the sacred in the figure of a mysterious, hundred-and-something saintly nun: far-fetched only if you haven't succumbed to the stranger side (by which I don't mean the St Peter's experience) of Roman religiosity.

And in any case, what would you cut? It's all suffused with that grand beauty which our hero says has too often eluded him in a meandering existence. The original trailer, though of course I want it to show more, captures the two poles of the protagonist's existence rather well.

Glad we saw this in the cinema (in the company of a sparse and totally silent crowd). The other I wanted to go see, again courtesy of a five-star Arts Desk review, but which we've had to be content with borrowing from LoveFilm and watched last night, is Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, Spanish silent re-telling of the Snow White story set in the 1920s (and conceived before The Artist, which I still haven't seen).

What a magnificent piece of story-telling, again full of visual riches in every tableau (superb cinematography by Kiko de la Rica). There's a distancing here which prevents much emotional involvement, but it's flawless as a stylistic exercise with, again, stupendous performances, especially from Maribel Verdú as a truly wicked stepmother

and Macarena Garcia as the teethy-smiling lady toreador our Snow White, Carmen, becomes following a life-saving encounter with circus people. Plus a winning debut from a nine year old with no previous experience as the young Carmencita and an enormous, camera-friendly cockerel. No point in my cataloguing the riches and spoiling the surprises: see it, marvel at the aptness of Alfonso de Vilalloga's non-stop score and succumb to the enchantment.

To conclude, first a statistic which I hope will raise a gentle smile: did you know that six out of seven dwarfs aren't Happy? And I leave you with a 39-second trailer for Blancanieves, rapid images accompanied by a touch of theremin - for the evil one, of course - followed by flamenco 1920s style.

8/10 Still in the right area, here's my Arts Desk tribute to Patrice Chéreau, a fitfully great film-maker and an even greater opera director, who died yesterday of lung cancer at the too young age of 68. I have some catching up to do now on his filmography.


Susan Scheid said...

Up here, the number of decent movies available is so small, and their appearance so fleeting, we've pretty much given up. These both, and particularly the first, sound so tantalizing--and how absolutely marvelous that the soundtrack is good, including that nice piece by Pärt. I remember watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi, which found its way to Netflix, and delightful though it it was, the Glass soundtrack really got in the way, as you can imagine.

We did manage at some point to see The Artist. It was, as I recall it, a well-made, but slight, entertainment. Would be interesting to hear what you think, but I can't recommend rushing out to see it.

wanderer said...

Are you on a kickback from Amazon or what?

K loves the Theremin, it is totally within his mind-space-thingy, and that frame (about 20 secs I think) of the apple being injected said buy me.

I'm not sure how much (truly) sacred there is in Rome, if any, but it is the profane, the most profane dressed like all most profane as sacred, that I love so much such that it is the only city beyond here where I would want to live my life, and die. Buy me.

David said...

Worth going into New York to see La Grande Bellezza, Sue...has to be in the cinema. And you'll get a respectful crowd, so don't fear the usual horrors of going to the movies these days.

I thought Glass actually wrote a rather good score for that quasi-thriller Notes on a Scandal. He'd be disastrous for a film like Blancnieves, which needs constant variety in tone and density (the guitar and voice moments after the full orchestra are especially wonderful).

I'd heard the same about The Artist. It looks charming, but clearly doesn't have this film's dimension of the fantastical. David Lynch is often cited, but I see a link with one of my favourite Bergmans, Sawdust and Tinsel.

If K loves the theremin, wanderer, he must have - or if not, must get (Amazon alert) - 'The Art of the Theremin' with ex-violinist Clara Rockmore applying exquisite artistry to Rachmaninov's Vocalise, among others.

Not sure I quite grasp your point about the profane dressed as sacred, but agreed about Rome (shame about the opera, but now Pappano's at Santa Cecilia, the culture has zoomed upwards too). Will and Laurent, whom I'd already urged to see La Grande Bellezza, would heartily third that.

I know you're kidding about Amazon - where, incidentally, you won't be able to get Sorrentino's masterpiece until mid-Jan, search it out in Sydney - but I tread carefully. I doubt if 'monetising by advertising' would bring in any revenue, though we have to plug the site on The Arts Desk. Now that I know about the disgraceful tax situation, I DO try to buy most paperbacks from Daunt Books in London. I fear, though, that when it's a matter of £10 or more's difference, I plump for Amazon

Maria Jesús González said...

I saw Blancanieves some months ago. I enjoyed its beauty and the poetry of its photography enormously, the sharp Andalusian light and chiaroscuro, as well as the situations. Silvia Perez Cruz’s songs (‘No te puedo encontrar’ and ‘Saeta’) are also exquisite. She is a splendid young Catalan singer, very versatile: it’s well worth exploring her music, particularly her last album.

The trio of actresses - Maribel Verdú as the stepmother, Macarena García (Carmen) and also Angela Molina (Grandmother) - is wonderful.

But I had mixed feelings about the way the story is solved. After having enjoyed some three quarters of the film I suddenly began to feel uncomfortable; I can't explain why. But it was the end of the film that definitely left a disappointment and a bitter taste in my mouth. I was not expecting a prince to save Blancanieves. Maybe it's a question of breaking the romanticism of the fairy tale; the flavours and scents of our childhood stay so deep embedded in our head and heart!

ButI don’t think so. To me it felt simply like a bad end to which the film has not led. It all happens too quickly/artificially. It breaks too grotesquely the ethos of the story. But maybe that is precisely what he wanted!

David said...

Thank you, dear Maria, for that, and I agree with you about the ending (which you haven't spoilt for those who haven't seen it, and nor shall I). It may be the right one, but as you say it is too precipitate. Difficult to think of an alternative, though. I suppose the very final 'happening' leaves the door open for optimism?

Can't wait to hear more of Perez Cruz. You know I'm a great fan of Estrella Morente. And I should also have mentioned the very beautiful, gracious Angela Molina, who gives another spellbinding performance.

David Thompson said...

I absolutely agree with you about the delirious beauty of La Grande Bellezza and Blancanieves. Films like these make most British cinema look so dully parochial, don't you think?

Re ending of Blancanieves, as I recall, I wouldn't say I was troubled by it. Surprised, yes, but I think it just made the film that much more distinctive.

David said...

Re the comparative poverty of British cinema, we were saying just that after we'd reeled out of La Grande Bellezza. Scripts and acting can be good, but the telling is often so limited.

The other thing that struck me was what great ensembles of Italian actors we see in films like this and the Italian-based gems of Ferzan Ozpetek. Do they have good theatre? I'd never given it much thought, but films like these seem rather akin to Bergman's teamwork.

Howard Lane said...

Perhaps British cinema is in greater thrall to Hollywood and has never reached the artistic heights of European art cinema, but has other grittier strengths. I am quite squeamish about bullfighting so not sure I could go for Blancnieves. We greatly enjoyed The Artist 'en famille', although it was a bit of a novelty film I would recommend it as more than slight, more entertaining with a serious side.

David said...

I wonder what 'grittier strengths' you might be referring to, Howard, if you mean - as I do - British cinema today rather than in the recent past. It seems to me we're split three ways, between costume drama, gangster crap and - best - the harsh inheritors of the 'kitchen sink dramas' of the 1960s - a prime example being Tyrannosaurus, so heartbreakingly well acted by Olivia Colman and Peter Mullan but stretching miserabilism to extremes.

Perhaps we'd have to look as far back as Ken Russell and Peter Greenaway for greater ambition - but the first was so often amateurish and the last so coldly pretentious that I don't return with pleasure to any of their films, excepting perhaps The Music Lovers.

Howard Lane said...

I'd like to think there is some gangster gold among the crap, but I'm struggling to be more contemporary than 70s classics of the likes of Performance and Get Carter, not forgetting Joseph Losey. Some later cultier movies especially from Handmade Films - Python, Gilliam, Withnail and I - and Merchant Ivory stand out in the black-ish humour and costume drama categories. More recently Colin Firth and an impressive cast did well despite the long shadow of Alec Guinness's TV version of Tinker, Taylor, glacial but riveting. But Brits don't really shine when it comes to noir (pardon the contradiction) which is pretty evenly matched by both American and European sub-genres.