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Review: Le Amiche

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Le Amiche
Photo: The Film Desk

The band Joy Division once recorded a song called “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” They may as well have been speaking of Le Amiche, among the most entrancing views of love’s sweet devastation that the movies have ever seen. The film unfolds in a bourgeois Turin of sharp angles, harsh, clear light, endless looks, and poses, with people urging each other to connect but unable to do so themselves. They are constantly separated by buildings, doorways, the paintings on the walls, the clothes on their skin.

The physical distance becomes emotional distance. A man talks to a woman busy regarding herself in a mirror, both their backs to us, her face’s reflection apparent but the face itself unseen. In the deep-focused hallways the couples walk through (captured gleamingly, sheeningly well in the Cinemateca Bologna’s new, restored 35mm print), everything seems visible but very little is actually known. The poet T.S. Eliot, so keen on evoking l’amour‘s wasteland, might not have described it better. The men—hunched-over, failed Prince Hamlets—push their meaty mouths forward for kisses; the women kiss back, and then break away. “We can’t do without other people,” one woman says, “It’s no use deceiving yourself,” and then tries to anyway. Even the well-wishers smother. When a group of concerned friends discuss a troubled member, they do so in front of her portrait, blocking it from sight.

They’re the amiche (girlfriends) of this elusive movie, which is perhaps best understood through a series of frames. The film is based on a Cesare Pavese novel, Among Women Only, with which it cursorily shares a plot: A young woman tries and fails to kill herself and, in the struggle to understand her motives, her friends confront their own unhappiness. The movie changes much of the book’s storyline (ciao, lesbian love affair), but its biggest change is perspective. The book’s first-person narrator, Clelia, observes the world darkly, dropping bon mots along the way (“When you make love, you take off your mask. That’s when you’re naked”); the movie, by contrast, blows up to tell all five women’s stories, preferring the long shot to any character’s point of view. Psychology emerges from landscape rather than from an individual perspective. An example lies in the film’s most famous scene, a beach-bound picnic where one couple steals away from the group. Framed between a giant black bush and an insistent ocean, the lovers look small and furtive; a woman comes to kick at them immediately after they start kissing, to which the man leaps up and says that they were just playing around.

The people are characters as much as the waves, dresses, paintings, train whistles, and high heels clacking against stone are—all figures in a moving landscape, objects soon to collide. This is usual for the work of director Michelangelo Antonioni, who would later end 1962’s The Eclipse with seven minutes of street lamps, crosswalks, and waterlogged barrels rather than movie stars Alain Delon and Monica Vitti; by the time of 1969’s Zabriskie Point, the blocks of wood called actors were all but irrelevant in the face of Death Valley. Antonioni was fascinated by peoples’ attempts to fit themselves into a mechanized modern world, and in tracking them revealed that the world was made up of animate, dynamic parts, people included. And if objects have secret lives, then people also must, lives secret even to them. Antonioni claimed of his 1961 film La Notte that “the characters this time find themselves, but they have trouble in communicating because they have discovered that the truth is difficult”; he might have gone further and said that people are always and essentially alone. One of Le Amiche‘s male lovers is an architect, another a painter. Just as any work of art is made up of separate material pieces, so, too, do human consciousnesses stay isolated, even within the deepest emotional bonds. “Every human being,” Antonioni also once said, “represents a world.” (Several critics have linked Antonioni’s view of human psychology to that of the novelist Henry James; one might think in particular of a novel like The Golden Bowl, where motives are suggested through objects and vice-versa.)

Antonioni was far from his most radical materialism when he made Le Amiche, though. He was still shifting away from another materialist movement: neorealism. The Italian crop of films that grew after WWII, on many of which Antonioni served as an assistant, often used untrained performers, location shooting, and improvised moments that aimed for a more authentic emotional reality. Their stories also often followed poor people through harsh political and economic climates as they hurt themselves and each other not for sentimental reasons, but out of a basic will to survive. Critic Andrew Sarris later argued that neorealist films oversimplified reality by comparing The Bicycle Thief, the film that won neorealism international attention, with the more pedigreed French melodrama The Earrings of Madame de…; while The Bicycle Thief‘s characters might have better lives with more money, Sarris claimed, Madame de…‘s miserable socialites “lack nothing and lose everything.”

Sarris was himself oversimplifying (The Bicycle Thief‘s characters have both free agency and deeper problems than money can solve), but the class distinction he made applies to the split in Antonioni’s filmmaking career. Antonioni, a wealthy former tennis star from Ferrara, began as a documentarian with a chronicle of the rural poor of the Po Valley, but after 11 documentaries shifted to fiction films about the middle class and the rich. “It’s no longer important to make a film about a man whose bicycle is stolen,” he claimed; rather, he desired “to depict neorealism within the individual,” a goal he thought could be more easily achieved by following people who had the time and money to complicate their interior lives. It’s difficult to think about love when you’re starving.

Neorealist films like Open City, Ossessione, and Shoeshine make a pretense of happening organically, the scenes permitting whatever natural light and action enter; by contrast, the psychological realism of Le Amiche, Antonioni’s fifth fiction film and by far his most controlled to that point, feels moment-to-moment perfectly composed. Critic Eugene Youngblood has rightly claimed (in a brilliant commentary track on the Criterion DVD for Antonioni’s L’Avventura) that many of the director’s images aren’t metaphoric so much as metonymic; they advance the story both figuratively and literally at once. A Le Amiche scene shows Clelia (Eleonora Rossi-Drago) and Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer) fretting nervously inside a cramped train car, then cheering up as they step out.

Yet, at the same time, Le Amiche is a documentary, in the sense that the movie is a literal recording of people interacting with the world. Antonioni claimed that his first filmmaking experience was an attempt to record patients at an insane asylum, during which their instinctive reactions proved most intriguing to him. By the early ‘60s he was explicitly arguing that every film was a record of its making, and that the line between fiction and documentary bordered on irrelevant (a belief, incidentally, that he shared with Jean-Luc Godard). The thought’s a reversal from neorealist principles; instead of fiction that feels like documentary, Le Amiche is documentary that looks like fiction. The more one knows about the film’s making, the truer this becomes: Rosetta, the film’s least assured character, is played by its most nervous, uncertain, and self-conscious actress, who Antonioni discovered in a magazine photo two days before shooting began. As in many of his other films, both earlier (Story of a Love Affair, his first fiction feature) and later (L’Avventura, his most famous; Blowup, his most blatant, a photography-centered story that argues, quite literally, that reality is determined by the viewer), he even teases audiences with conventional fictional genre trappings that he then confounds. An Antonioni film will frequently pose a riddle, and then never answer it; here the mystery of why Rosetta tries to kill herself becomes a pretense for the rest of the film. A stereotypical neorealist film might show Rosetta’s attempts and blame physical circumstances, while Antonioni leaves them off screen, and clams shut on the cause.

A traditional melodrama might blame her despair totally and completely on love, but here love doesn’t doom Rosetta so much as fail to save her. Concerned with aesthetics as the film is, her absence, and the empty space it leaves in the film, is much more important than its reason. (Many of Antonioni’s films feature suicides—the movie he made directly before Le Amiche, a series of interviews with would-be self-murderers, was even called Suicide Attempt. As he continued making films, though, the reasons behind peoples’ vanishings became less important to him, to the point where characters disappear in his later movies without any explanation at all.) The standard film genre Le Amiche most superficially resembles—and spiritually opposes—is in fact the melodrama, specifically the women’s film. George Cukor’s The Women shows an all-star, all-female cast pining for and fighting over off-screen men for 133 minutes. The sick joke of a movie is one of the more extreme examples of what Philip Rosen has called classical Hollywood’s “obligatory heterosexual closure,” where every woman from Jean Harlow to Jean Arthur is supported and affirmed by the love of a good man or, failing that, sacrifices herself for the sake of her kids.

No such comfort exists for these girlfriends, unmarried and childless. Youngblood has said that “In Antonioni’s films, a woman can be seen as autonomous for the first time in the history of cinema.” The statement seems hyperbolic, and probably is; that said, Antonioni’s is the only case that comes to mind where an artist’s objectification of women is neither pejorative nor diminishing. Le Amiche, among its many other virtues, is the strongest example of how Antonioni depicts women as freestanding, relating to men and to each other without (for the most part) a subordinate clause. The most important role he assigns each of them is as a figure in the larger world.

Yet the independence he gives his women comes with a price, for to be freestanding means to live without the comforting myth of locking into love. In August Strindberg’s great play Creditors, a man sees a couple and murmurs, “She really does love him. Poor woman”; in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night one character frets over a potential paramour, “Poor lady, she were better love a dream.” Love is indeed a dream: A dream that another person can make us whole, fix our damaged spots, and above all, support us. To live without that support is to live without love.

In Le Amiche, the dream turns to nightmare, as a man asks a woman, “Why do you still love me?” and learns, “Perhaps because you make me suffer so” (note the “perhaps”). The film’s gorgeous images show, over and over, how human contact brings only momentary, transitory, mutable comfort, and how one of life’s greatest dangers lies in thinking that it brings anything more. Rosetta walks through the world dazed and numb till human voices wake her and then she, clinging to them, drowns; Clelia, like Virginia Woolf’s modernist feminist heroine Clarissa Dalloway, gains her own life by observing another’s loss, leaving love with a lovely image of a single parting train.

Le Amiche remains exciting, though, largely because of how unsettled it feels. Antonioni had told an interviewer in December 1950 that “I don’t yet know if I have a style, or if I’ll get one.” Stunning as many of his later films are (and Red Desert, his first color film, will come out on a Criterion DVD June 22 as evidence), they also often feel preordained and settled, their ideology especially so. At a 1960 Cannes Film Festival press conference for L’Avventura, Antonioni declared, “Eros is sick.” The statement certainly pertains to the film he made five years earlier. Unlike the bored, blank faces he used subsequently, though, the people in Le Amiche seem restlessly, agitatedly, literally and figuratively movingly hold out hope that Eros can be cured, or at the very least, that their small version can get well.

In this way, Le Amiche resembles Roberto Rossellini’s film Voyage to Italy, released two years earlier (perhaps fitting, since Antonioni helped write one of Rossellini’s first films). Voyage to Italy depicts an English wife and husband who realize once abroad that they no longer love each other. Shifting from neorealism himself, Rossellini shows the two competing for attention with the physical world around them, occasionally spiked with surprise by a statue’s wide eyes, an endless row of skulls, or a live child. Antonioni’s world could not have happened without Rossellini’s masterpiece: The thought of a couple as essentially distant, isolated by landscape, icons, history, and the very fact of themselves.

In Rossellini’s film, though, the couple unites by miracle; Antonioni’s film, struggling, finally separates couples, and then spreads them further apart, in longer and slower and more static takes, as the director’s career ensues. Le Amiche is Antonioni’s Nights of Cabiria, his Solaris, his Breaking the Waves, his La Chinoise, and his Voyage to Italy: A key transitional film where, beneath an artist’s emerging new aesthetic, a heart not just beats but screams.

Cast: Eleonora Rossi-Drago, Yvonne Furneaux, Valentina Cortese, Anna Maria Pancani, Franco Fabrizi, Gabriele Ferzetti, Ettore Manni, Madeleine Fischer Director: Michelangelo Antonioni Screenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni, Suso Cecchi D'Amico Distributor: The Film Desk Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 1955 Buy: Video

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Review: The Resonant Tito and the Birds Wants Us to Reject Illusion

The Brazilian animated feature offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture.

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Tito and the Birds
Photo: Shout! Factory

In several ways, Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, and Gustavo Steinberg’s Tito and the Birds offers relief from the impersonal assault of contemporary pop culture. Instead of the sanitized, disposably “perfect” computer animation that gluts children’s TV shows and films, Tito and the Birds weds digital technology with oil painting, abounding in hallucinatory landscapes that casually morph to reflect the emotions of the narrative’s protagonists. This Brazilian animated feature has the warm, handmade quality of such adventurous modern children’s films as Henry Selick’s Coraline and Mark Osborne’s The Little Prince.

Tito and the Birds’s artisanal tactility is also inherently political, as it invites consumers or consumers-in-training not to mindlessly gobble jokes, plot, and branding opportunities by the yard, but to slow down and contemplate the sensorial experience of what they’re watching. For instance, it can be difficult to recall now that even middling Disney animated films of yore once seemed beautiful, and that the studio’s classics are ecstatic explosions of neurotic emotion. These days, Disney is in the business of packaging hypocritically complacent stories of pseudo-empowerment, which are viscerally dulled by workmanlike aesthetics that deliberately render our consumption painless and unmemorable.

In this climate, the wild artistry of Tito and the Birds amounts to a bucket of necessary cold water for audiences. Throughout the film’s shifting landscapes, one can often discern brushstrokes and congealed globs of paint, which are deliberate imperfections that underscore painting, and by extension animation, as the endeavors of humans. And this emphasis on the humanity of animation underscores the fulfilling nature of collaborative, rational, nurturing community, which is also the theme of the film’s plot.

Like the United States and much of Europe, Brazil is falling under the sway of far-right politics, which sell paranoia as justification for fascism, and for which Tito and the Birds offers a remarkably blunt political allegory. The world of this narrative is gripped by a disease in which people are paralyzed by fright: In terrifying images, we see arms shrinking and eyes growing wide with uncomprehending terror, until the bodies curl up into fleshy, immobile stones that are the size of a large knapsack. Characters are unsure of the cause of the “outbreak,” though the audience can discern the culprit to be the hatred spewing out of a Fox News-like TV channel, which sells an illusion of rampant crime in order to spur people to buy houses in expensive communities that are fenced in by bubbles. Resonantly, the network and real estate are owned by the same rich, blond sociopath.

Ten-year-old Tito (Pedro Henrique) is a bright and sensitive child who’s traumatized by the disappearance of his father, a scientist who sought to build a machine that would reconnect humankind with birds. Like his father, Tito believes that birds can save the world from this outbreak of hatred, and this evocatively free-associative conceit underscores the hostility that far-right parties have toward the environment, which they regard as fodder for hunting grounds, plunder-able resources, and parking lots. In a heartbreakingly beautiful moment, a pigeon, a working-class bird, begins to sing, and its song resuscitates Tito’s friend, also pointedly of a lower class than himself, from a frozen state of fear and hopelessness.

As the birds come to sing their song, the landscapes lighten, suggesting the emotional and cultural transcendence that might occur if we were to turn off our TVs, phones, and laptops more often and do what the recently deceased poet Mary Oliver defined as our “endless and proper work”: pay attention—to ourselves, to others, to the wealth of other life we take for granted and subsequently fail to be inspired by. Inspiration has the potentiality to nullify fear, but it doesn’t sell as many action figures as the frenetic velocity of embitterment and violence.

Cast: Pedro Henrique, Marina Serretiello, Matheus Solano, Enrico Cardoso, Denise Fraga, Matheus Nachtergaele Director: Gabriel Bitar, André Catoto, Gustavo Steinberg Screenwriter: Eduardo Benaim, Gustavo Steinberg Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 73 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: The Invisibles Is an Awkward Combination of Fiction and Documentary

The film doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide.

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The Invisibles
Photo: Menemsha Films

If Schindler’s List and Shoah represent the opposite ends of a spectrum for cinematic representation of the Holocaust, The Invisibles is at the perfect midpoint between those two extremes, combining intimate interviews with cleanly composed, tightly controlled reenactments of the events discussed therein. But in seeking the precise middle ground between the dreadful beauty of Steven Spielberg’s historical melodrama and Claude Lanzmann’s radical privileging of personal testimony over visual representation of suffering, The Invisibles finds a mediated position that’s also decidedly middle-brow.

The basis of director and co-writer Claus Räfle’s film is archival interviews with Holocaust survivors Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, and Hanni Lévy, four of the 7,000 Jewish Berliners who hid within the city even after Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels declared it “free of Jews” in 1943. Sheltered by friends, shepherded between members of the limited communist resistance, and in Cioma’s case, maintained in the basement of the Afghan embassy by a network of document forgers, all four managed not only to evade the mass deportations to death camps in Poland, but also to survive the Allies’ incessant late-war bombings of Berlin and the devastating siege of the city that brought an end to the war.

Complementing the subjects’ verbal accounts of their experiences are dramatic reenactments of their lives as “invisibles” in a hostile and dangerous city. Cioma (Max Mauff) is a talented young artist who escapes deportation with his aged parents by forging documents verifying that he’s needed in Berlin as a laborer, eventually managing to eke out a black-market salary from the forgery business. Because his stepfather is a gentile, Eugen (Aaron Altaras) is afforded a bit more time to find a place to hide, ending up masquerading as a cousin to a family of secret Nazi opponents—even occasionally donning a Nazi uniform as part of the act. Ruth and her brother huddle for months with their respective significant others in a single room. And Hanni hides mostly in the open, dying her hair blond and spending her time in the populated commercial area around the famed Kurfürstendamm boulevard.

The four individuals didn’t know each other, and while their stories correspond in certain ways—Ruth and Hanni both adopt disguises, using the omnipresence of mourning women in Berlin to their advantage, whereas Eugen and Cioma must either hide completely or come up with reasons for why they haven’t been called into service—Räfle and co-writer Alejandra López resist staging an arbitrary intersection of the subjects’ lives. While they’re all in the same city, they’re totally isolated, from their families as well as from other young Jews like themselves. “I thought I was the only one,” the real-life Hanni explains as she recounts discovering that 1,500 other young German Jews survived the war in Berlin.

Through its subjects, The Invisibles tells us much about the precarious conditions that they endured during the war, but the staged reenactments show us little that these individuals’ words haven’t already captured. The short bits of drama that Räfle and López compose out of their subjects’ testimony have a cable-documentary quality, both in terms of the excessively neat, stagy sets and the simplicity of the correspondence between the real survivors’ narration and the action depicted. The narrative loosely assembled there has affecting moments—particularly the finale to Ruth’s ordeal, which features a tense confrontation with a Russian soldier—but it never develops its own unique insights or personality.

Missing from the narrativized sections of the film is also a strong sense of environment. We see the cramped corners that the four young people must hide themselves in, but the film is limited in its ability to convey a sense of what Germany’s capital city was like under the constant bombardment that brought an end to the war. Bombings are mentioned but never depicted, except in intermittently deployed archival footage. The Battle of Berlin, when Soviet forces sieged the city and effectively ended World War II, is largely depicted through allusion. The absence of a palpable representation of these events, and of a sense of the city as a whole, is enough to make one wish that the film had simply stuck with the interviews.

The Invisibles’s combination of documentary footage with dramatic conventions doesn’t bring to light otherwise unexplored aspects of the experience or memory of persecution and genocide. The result isn’t a film that manages to craft out of its staged portions a meaningful and evocative portrait of life lived under the constant threat of death, nor one that, like Shoah, gives itself over fully to the harrowing stories of survivors.

Cast: Cioma Schönhaus, Eugen Friede, Ruth Arndt, Hanni Lévy, Max Mauff, Alice Dwyer, Ruby O. Fee, Aaron Altaras Director: Claus Räfle Screenwriter: Claus Räfle, Alejandra López Distributor: Menemsha Films Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2017

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Review: Myth and Reality Are Smartly Tangled in The Kid Who Would Be King

Joe Cornish’s film is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn.

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The Kid Who Would Be King
Photo: 20th Century Fox

In modern-day London, 12-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) is thrust into combating forces both global and intensely personal. Following an animated prologue that briefly recaps the legend of King Arthur, the opening shot of Joe Cornish’s The Kid Who Would Be King pans over a series of newspapers, each with headlines preaching doom and gloom while overlying audio from various news programs informs us of the widespread rise of authoritarian strong men. This is the only direct glimpse we’re given of the current chaos of our political climate, but it looms large over the film’s events as the focus shifts to young Alex, who finds himself with more immediate problems to confront.

At his new school, Alex and his best friend, Bedders (Dean Chaumoo), a goofy but sweet pushover, are quickly targeted by the most notorious bully in the yard, Lance (Tom Taylor), and his loyal minion, Kaye (Rhianna Dorris). Acutely aware of his status as one of the most “insignificant” and “powerless” kids at school, Alex fights back against his tormentors, tackling Lance from behind, only to later be scolded by the school principal (Noma Dumezweni): “The world is not going to change. It’s you who has to change.”

It’s meant as a condemnation of Alex’s violent reaction to aggression, but the woman’s
empty platitude also serves as a motto for the scarcely effective adult leadership in Alex’s life. Indeed, the boy’s principal is incompetent, his father abandoned him as a child, and his mother (Denise Gough), caring as she may be, seems incapable of truly listening to him. Adults have let the world turn to shit and Alex is quickly learning that they’re not particularly well-equipped to protect him or fix the very problems they’ve allowed to fester and multiply.

When Alex soon discovers a sword stuck in concrete, The Kid Who Would Be King shifts gears into a full-on adventure fantasy akin, though never beholden, to ‘80s kids’ adventure films like The Goonies and The Neverending Story. Cornish layers familiar forms with new meanings, amending an age-old tale to directly address the perilous and uncertain future that today’s youth must face. In doing so, the director’s postmodern re-imagining of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table retains a refreshing earnestness in both its unwavering sincerity and commitment to lending its characters an affecting emotional vulnerability.

The film’s humor doesn’t stem from ironically mocking stodgy, centuries-old mythology, but from richly rewarding character details mined from children grappling with an increasingly terrifying world. Cornish retains the framework of Arthurian legend while connecting its themes to the struggle of the disenfranchised to forge bonds with their equally oppressed enemies. In The Kid Who Would Be King, the myth of King Arthur becomes entangled with reality—and a catalyst for self-actualization. Here, adventure empowers Alex and his friends to apply lessons from the past to the challenges that await them moving forward.

As Alex and Bedders discover the responsibilities they must shoulder as a result of Alex pulling Excalibur from the stone, the two convince their former foes, Lance and Kaye, to help them take on the fiery skeletons on horseback that arise from the underworld under the command of the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson). Along with the extremely verbose and awkward Merlin (played by the hysterically precocious Angus Imrie in his 16-year-old form and by Patrick Stewart whenever the magician is in his dotage), the group sets out across England to find the portal that will take them to Morgana. But even as the group battles Morgana’s demons along the way, they continue to struggle with the ever-present fears and insecurities of adolescence.

In one of many inventive grace notes, Cornish has all of London’s adults vanish at night whenever Morgana’s army arises, leaving the kids to literally fend for themselves as they adapt to their newfound roles as both protectors and shapers of the future. And despite its relatively bleak view of the present, The Kid Who Would Be King is vigilant in its positivity and hope for the future at nearly every turn. Cornish’s film meets a world full of bullies, thieves, and malevolence with a warmth and pureness of heart that’s evident in everything from the inclusivity of its casting and its offbeat sense of humor to its thrilling, galvanizing finale, which sees Alex’s entire school takes up arms in an epic battle against Morgana.

Cast: Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Dean Chaumoo, Tom Taylor, Rhianna Dorris, Angus Imrie, Rebecca Ferguson, Patrick Stewart, Denise Gough Director: Joe Cornish Screenwriter: Joe Cornish Distributor: 20th Century Fox Running Time: 120 min Rating: PG Year: 2019

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