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Film Reviews: Italian Cinema, Old Folks and Bayou Beasties

1970: Italian Cinema Revisits World War II


By Noel Mawer


Vittorio DeSica, the great chronicler of the aftermath of World War II, turned in the 1970’s to the origins, the causes, and ultimately the effects of war. The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1970) is a logical culmination of the explorations of DeSica’s earlier films. Two other Italian films of the period invite comparison with Garden. Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 The Conformist deals with the relationship between fascism and the bourgeoisie: “Fascism was invented by the petit bourgeois,” Bertolucci has said. Luchino Visconti’s 1969 The Damned, on the other hand, depicts the relationship of affluent Germans to World War II. (Visconti, like DeSica, was in the forefront of neo-realist Italian filmmaking in the 1940’s.)


Bertolucci’s conformist, Marcello (Jean-Paul Trintignant) is a son of the Italian aristocracy, but he chooses to turn his back on that class and all it represents to him and to align himself with the fascist middle class. His reasons for doing so are made quite clear and suggest the relationship between aristocrat and bourgeois depicted in The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Marcello is in flight from his past. The aristocracy is stereotypically decadent: Father is insane; Mother is a drug addict who sleeps with her chauffeur. Most pertinent, as a child Marcello was approached by another chauffeur, this one gay, whom the thirteen-year-old boy shot and left for dead. Now, on the eve of war, Marcello is marrying into the bourgeoisie, working for the fascists, and telling his priest that what he desires is normality--here meaning exclusion, exclusion of all class, race, and sexual deviations. As Marcello’s fascist friend Manganiello puts it, when the adult Marcello is unable to fire a gun, “Cowards are like Jews and pederasts, all should be exterminated.”


This exclusion, this embracing of one set of values at the expense of all others, is what these Italian films find at the center of the fascist ideology. In The Conformist, normality is what one says it is. The fascist Marcello must prove his normality by his hatred of those who deviate: aristocrats, Jews, and homosexuals. The anti-fascist Anna Quadri (Dominique Sanda) can on the other hand accept her lesbianism and thereby find it unnecessary to exclude. Though she, too, as a member of the bourgeoisie, is finally (in the director’s words) “not saved,” she is still on the side of right and never descends to Marcello’s level.


But Marcello finds himself at last one of the excluded. All of the normality he has embraced becomes abnormality, and Marcello can only cling desperately to the behavior patterns he has adopted. He turns on his fascist mentor, branding him a murderer, and then comes his collapse: When all values fail, there is no longer any need for repression. If “normality” no longer serves effectively as a reward for repression, repression ends. Marcello is left at the close in a situation which suggests that he will succumb to his homosexual desires, desires which he had apparently always possessed but denied.


Unlike The Conformist, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis does not spell things out and take them to their logical conclusions. DeSica, as always, is most concerned with giving us a portrait of people as they live. Conclusions--psychological, social--are ours to reach as we may. Garden deals with the same two classes, aristocrat and bourgeois, and sees the same forces at work within them. It sees, too, the sense of family that Visconti saw in the past (La Terra Trema, 1948)) and dwells on at length in The Damned.


Near the end of The Conformist, when the war is ending, Marcello’s wife (Stefania Sandrelli) asks Marcello for the first time about his part in the murder of Anna Quadri and her husband. She never asked before, she says, because she knew that whatever he did was important to his career and therefore justified. Career and family are precisely the obsessions that destroy all conscience, all morality, in The Damned. With Hitler imploding, the Von Essenbecks are concerned only with control of the family fortune.


But Visconti is even less concerned than Bertolucci with such subtleties as DeSica’s. He is content to use aristocratic decadence and sexual deviance as signs of moral corruption. For Bertolucci, these behaviors are corrupt only if one insists on viewing them as such. For Visconti, they are absolutely so. One is reminded of the moral simplism of Roberto Rossellini in two films from the 1940’s: Open City and Germania Anno Zero, in which homosexuality equals fascism, or the more recent Night Porter (1974), in which Liliana Cavani equally simplistically identifies fascism with sexual decadence.


DeSica employs the same phenomena, and his way of using them is deceptively like that of the stereotypic patterns against which he is working. Race, nationality, class, family, political party, even sexual orientation are used as labels in Garden of the Finzi-Continis.


The film follows two Italian Jewish families, one aristocratic and one bourgeois, from the imposition of the first racial laws in 1938 through the shipping off to the death camps in 1943. The

bourgeois family is pious, hard-working, and racist. The aristocrats are cloistered, idle, and conventionally decadent: the son is homosexual.


The central plot mechanism is the love of the bourgeois son, Georgio (Lino Capolicchio), for the aristocratic daughter, Micol (Dominique Sanda). On the periphery are Micol’s brother Alberto (Helmut Berger) and the dark “Aryan,” Malnate--lover of Micol, friend of Giorgio, beloved of Alberto. It sounds terribly tawdry when summarized, but it’s not. One must try to think not of what Visconti would do with these elements but rather of Umberto D. DeSica has said of that film that he “thought again of that category of people who find themselves, at a certain moment, excluded from a world which they nevertheless helped to build; a tragedy which is most often hidden by resignation and silence but which sometimes explodes in resounding manifestations, driving men to horrifying premeditated suicide.” The Garden of the Finzi-Continis deals with this situation and possible responses to it, silent or resounding.


DeSica has always dealt with the marginal--the poor, the very young, the old--and in Garden he works endless variations on the theme of acceptance and rejection.


The desire for normality that culminates in the need to exclude others is manifest in Giorgio’s father, patriarch of the bourgeois family. He is forever reminding Giorgio that his love for Micol, his friendship with the Finzi-Continis is doomed. When the first racial laws are enacted, the Finzi-Continis are accused of welcoming them: they have never wanted to be Italians; they prefer to maintain their own ghetto. The Finzi-Continis are too aristocratic for Giorgio. They are not Jewish enough. The Finzi-Continis are “different.” Giorgio’s father is ardent in his pursuit of identity with the Italian bourgeoisie. He is a member of the Chamber of Commerce and of the Fascist party. When the first exclusions come, they are shattering to Georgio’s family: much is made of the proscription of “Aryan” servants and of Giorgio’s expulsion from the tennis club.


Paralleled with Giorgio’s family are the aristocratic Finzi-Continis. If one feels that the bourgeoisie are, however inadvertently, at least partially responsible for the fate that is overcoming them, one does not know how to feel about the Finzi-Continis. There seems to be no relationship whatsoever between their lives and the fate that befalls them. They go on as they have done, reading poetry, putting clay on the tennis court, making rueful jokes about Micol’s Nazi professor. Do they take their exclusion seriously? Micol shakes her head over her father’s foolish care of the tennis court. Alberto predicts that the war will end in the triumph of the good--but only after a great deal of suffering.


For the Finzi-Continis there seems to be no surprise in anything that happens. Giorgio’s family is shocked, appalled at what is happening to them. For the Finzi-Continis it seems inevitable. They seem not to value identity with Jews or Italians. They are not Fascists. They are not concerned over their servants or their schools or their clubs. When Giorgio is expelled from the public library, he discovers that the institutions which once seemed a refuge from the world can also be the agents of exclusion; that one responsibility can cancel out another. The library director would like to help Giorgio, but he has a family. “All Italy has a family,” is Giorgio’s response. But when he tells this story to Professor Finzi-Contini, Micol’s father, the old man is merely understanding.


For the Finzi-Continis are war’s victims, seen after the post-war Italian film experience. The Finzi-Continis are prey to the ennui, the emotional debilitation of Antonioni’s characters. If they are insulated by their position, their past, from much of the initial impact of the exclusionary laws, they are equally isolated from the future. Alberto tells Malnate that he has nothing to give him a reason for living. And Alberto dies not of the war, but of a fever resulting from a rainstorm. The Finzi-Continis have little will to live, and the war offers no hope, whoever may win. As the protagonist of Visconti’s Senso (1954) says, “What does it matter to me that my compatriots have won a battle today in a place called Custoza … when I know that they’ll lose the war … and not only the war. And Austria within a few years will be finished. And a whole world will disappear. The world to which you and I belong. And the new world which your cousin speaks about has no interest for me. It’s better not to be involved in these matters and take one’s own pleasure where one finds it.”


And so the Finzi-Continis follow Alberto’s hearse through an air raid to the Jewish cemetery, ignoring the public struggle for the private death. The public struggle holds no hope for them; the private death is a token, a sign of their faith.


The doomed Finzi-Continis are the necessary comment on the doomed aspirations of Giorgio’s father, who worries endlessly about Jewishness and Italianess. As in The Conformist, the label is ultimately arbitrary, merely a product of the mentality that craves normality and acceptance. DeSica’s aristocratic Jews are blond and blue-eyed, seldom attend the synagogue, and are reminded only from the outside of their identity.: “Malraux says Jews are never boring,” says the crude Malnate. The Finzi-Continis are not even really decadent. The father is a scholar, and Micol is finishing a degree in English. The uncles are hard-working. Alberto’s homosexuality merely intensifies his melancholia: DeSica does not even hint that aristocratic idleness or sexual deviation are to be taken as symbols of inner corruption.


The Finzi-Continis are relics. Micol dwells endlessly on her attachment to the past: the books, songs, people of her childhood--even the trees she lives among. Such attachments dominate the life of the Finzi-Continis, leaving little room for the frantic adjustments to changing circumstances of Giorgio’s family. The bourgeoisie are of the future; they make the future and have a stake in it. Giorgio’s father sees the present as a tool for use in the future. Giorgio’s unhappy experience with Micol will help him, his father assures him, in days to come.


But the days do not come. The past has no uses after the death camps. Giorgio’s father and Micol come together at the last as they wait to be shipped away. She is concerned for Giorgio; he hopes that those from Ferrara will not be separated: he clings to his illusory exclusiveness to the end. But the tide of exclusion as turned against him. The total negation of the camps makes all difference irrelevant.




Outsourcing the Old Folks: The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


By Noel Mawer


Old age is not for the faint of heart, or so we hear. I’m here to witness: it’s true. Physical and sometimes mental impairment (short-term memory loss for almost everybody); loneliness and loss of family and friends (everyone I know is dead); idleness and the feeling of uselessness, of one’s inconsequentiality; crises of faith or lack of faith (what was it all about, my life, and what will come next?); and so on. Moments of puzzled, sometimes despairing contemplation, the knowledge that one is experiencing the universal inevitability: death.


One of these milestones is the death of one’s parents. Now, as a friend of mine puts it, “You’re it.” You’re the matriarch, the oldest guy in the room. My mother died just last year at the age of ninety-five, and then I was “it,” the oldest and, presumably, the next to go. At my fiftieth high school reunion--class of 1958--it was reported that one fourth of us were dead. How do you think about this? At least, they won’t have to suffer the indignity of growing older and older. At least, they were spared the fate of the Cumean Sybil, whose wish for immortality was granted by the gods. But she had neglected to ask for eternal youth--and was left for eternity to wish for death. In the myth, the Sybil instead of dying simply grows smaller and smaller, at last becoming a grasshopper. And in T.S. Eliot’s version, she’s left forever stranded in the Wasteland.


But all is not lost. We can all go to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to be reborn, as much as is possible, or else, if that’s what one came for, to die. The director of this film, John Madden, has aged since Shakespeare in Love, as have his characters. Most are English retirees looking for a place they can afford on their limited retirement incomes. All of them have been seduced by the brochure describing an Indian paradise--luxurious, comfortable, free of all care (“south Florida with elephants”). Of course, what they get is a run-down relic mismanaged by a tirelessly optimistic young Indian who hopes to make the reality match the propaganda.


Let the old-age and ethnic jokes begin!


Given the cast, it would be hard to make this film boring. It’s pretty high on platitudes about love, inevitability, love, death, decay, and love. Everybody’s a good guy here, or becomes one in the course of the film. Les Dames Judy Dench and Maggie Smith lead the cast, the latter as a crotchety, bigoted retired servant, the former as a mourning widow who inevitably finds … love. Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Penelope Wilton, among others, get in on the fun, and it is a lot of fun. None of the characters seem to suffer from memory loss, and most exhibit no greater infirmity than occasional fatigue. This is a happily-ever-after kind of story, not forgetting that ever-after has become brief. So--carpe diem!


And they do, as do the hotelier and his family.


Join the fun! See this movie! Seize the day!



 Bourne Again vs. Bayou Beasties



By Randall Mawer


Two movies released in August illustrate just what money can buy … and what it can’t. The Bourne Legacy, which drove the latest Batman from #1 at the box office, had better do well if it’s to pay for the all-star cast (Stacy Keach, Scott Glenn, Edward Norton [especially good], Rachel Weisz, David Straythern, Joan Allen, Albert Finney,  Jeremy Renner, etc., etc.--everybody but Matt Damon, who wisely turned down the project--not to mention multiple, globe-spanning locations and computer-driven special effects and crowd scenes and mountains and seascapes and several kitchen sinks). Beasts of the Southern Wild, in contrast, has not one name actor and was shot in a couple of swampy Louisiana. parishes--the “found” settings are memorable--but takes place really in the imagination of Hushpuppy, its six-year-old heroine, an imagination so vivid as to make pigs masquerading as aurochses almost believable.


(Sidebar: I don’t remember a note of Bourne’s score--it must have had one--but Beast’s music is wonderful and stirring.)


Is it all a matter of taste whether you want to watch the longest motorbike chase ever filmed or the cleaning, battering, and frying of a gator’s tail? Bourne’s chase seemed to me every bit as long as it was; the bubbling lard browning up Hushpuppy’s lunch in Beasts seemed to spatter my bare arms.


No, it’s not all gustibus. Originality matters too. Bourne’s roaring scooters (climbing stairs?--been there), its running and leaping across rooftops (done that), its heroine in non-stop peril (Weisz is fine, physically convincing, even chipper, but a cliché is a cliché, not a rose) are all yesterday’s chestnuts. The entire U.S. intelligence apparatus is involved in a conspiracy here. (I listen to talk radio, which does it much better.) Rocket-firing drones and a mass-murder spree are ripped from today’s--yesterday’s?--headlines, heroes with superpowers from Marvel Comics, mad scientists from … but you get the idea.


Now consider the more original beauties of Beasts. Did your grade-school teacher have tattoos of prehistoric beasts on her arm? And if you were so lucky, did those beasts come to life and threaten your neighborhood? Was your mother so sexy that when she entered the kitchen the propane burners came on automatically? When you were six, was your daddy, for all his faults, kind enough to build you a house all your very own? Are your past, present, and future all one, your memory, fantasy, dream, and desire? Can you face down the aurochs and lead forth an army of black and white, young and old, united only by poverty, persecution, and belief in you? See Beasts of the Southern Wild so that you can say you really have been there and done that, if only by proxy.


Bourne’s producers--and never was a movie more “produced” than this one--spent more on explosions than Beasts’ creators did on their whole movie. Never mind the stunt doubles, the wolf wranglers, the Asian extras, and the lovely old Maryland mansion they built just to burn down. There are fires in Beasts, too, but they burn a lot more brightly, fanned by a fresher breeze.


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