Saturday, August 29, 2009

Two new films in a week - somebody stop this man!

Ah, you know me and new films. Can't get enough of 'em. So in the past week I've seen two - count them - two films released this year.
Actually Pranzo di Ferragosto seems to have been released last year, but it's taken until now to reach East Finchley. I went to see it for a number of reasons.
Firstly, because it's Italian. Since we started regularly holidaying there a few years ago I have become totally obsessed with Italy. It's my favourite country by a mile, I love almost everything about it, and even the not so good bits are absolutely fascinating, and unique. So when an Italian film turns up at my local I'll always go and see it because even if it's nothing special it will be steeped in the atmosphere of my favourite country.
Second, it's only seventy-five minutes long. I have always maintained that no story cannot be told in ninety minutes (just one of many thousands of reasons why I'd rather chew my balls off than watch Inglourious Basterds - sorry, Lolita) but rarely since the thirties has anyone had the discipline and taste to let one clock in at 75. It's the perfect length - it doesn't feel long and it doesn't feel short.
Third, it has a U certificate, but it's not for kids. This is an insane novelty for us. Over here the U, equivalent of the American G, stands for Universal and basically means it's okay for anyone to watch it. It doesn't mean it's a kids film, but in practice the only films that ever get U certificates are kids films. Unless they're Italian it seems, where charm can still be bankrolled.
Even with all this going for it, however, I didn't actually know what I was going to get. It was impossible to guess what it was going to be like, because the British distributors have given it a bland title (Mid-August Lunch) and a poster that makes it look like that cinematic equivalent of slow death from disease: the quirky American indie breakthrough sleeper. Gianni di Gregorio looks like David Lynch on the poster. (The poster also warns us, despite that U certificate, that it contains scenes of people smoking. Tramp, tramp, tramp. Anyone hear jackboots?)
Even prepared, as I was, to get something out of this no matter what, I was not expecting seventy-five quite so perfect minutes of total and blissful vindication.
Basically, if you love that feel that Italian cinema has, the beautiful rise and fall of those voices, the architecture and the attitude, if you never tire of Visconti's Ossessione or or Fellini's Cabiria or Antonioni's L'Avventura or Argento's Profondo Rosso, drop whatever you're doing even if it involves the use of dangerous industrial machinery (sorry, I'm trying to get a job designing London theatre posters) and track down this glowing, beautiful thing.
Let me sell it some more.
There are five main characters in this film. One of them is a middle-aged man. The other four are women in their nineties. The supporting characters are a few more middle-aged men and the beautiful city of Rome. That's it.
It's about this guy who lives with his aged mother, and the relationship between them is beautifully realistic; no silly extremes, just real, day to day ups and downs. It's set mainly during the day Romans traditionally leave for the beach and the entire city closes down. Because of his mother he must stay in the city, and he is also left to care for the aged relatives of his landlord (he hasn't paid his rent) and doctor (he can't afford to pay for his consultations).
That's basically it, and it's the most engrossing and delightful thing you'll see this decade. Gianni di Gregorio, the lead actor, also wrote and directed it, and it was shot in the exact apartment he shared with his own mother. All of the old ladies are non-professionals, one is his aunt, one a family friend and the other two came from an old people's home. All four are sensationally good. The ending is so right, so real, and yet so triumphantly warm and hopeful I wanted to stand and cheer.
Not least because we had just endured the trailer for the latest identical to all the others piece of British horseshit, this time calling itself Fish Tank. What a contrast. ("Dark and gritty drama about a girl on a council estate trying to escape her loneliness through her love of streetdancing." Mmmm, yes please!) Nasty gobby people yelling at each other in depressing surroundings, with big heavyweight critical endorsements of course. Some ding-dong from Elle magazine calls it profound. You can always rely on Elle to know profundity when it sees it. They also call it 'uplifting', which is British film critic code for 'after ten minutes you'll want to cut your throat slowly'. What it actually is, of course, is despair-porn, the eroticisation of the underclass by the comfortable media class elite, a kind of patronising prurience which they think, by some impenetrable alchemy only they can rationalise, makes them worthy and useful. To hell with the lot of them. We love you, Italy! We love you, Italian cinema!

Clips from one of my favourite Italian movies, Rosselini's Viaggo di Italia turn up in Broken Embraces.
Funny thing about Almodóvar. When he was in his prime and I went to see new films all the time I had no interest in him at all. Now that watchable films are rare, and his seem to be at least that, and my local cinema is only down the road, I wander along out of habit. The odd thing is that I still have no desire to seek out the back catalogue, so I have a very false picture of him. I've only seen three, all at the cinema and none more than once: Talk To Her, Volver and now Broken Embraces. As usual; pretty interesting, pretty engrossing, pretty pretty. Penélope Cruz, whom I have never sought out but seems nonetheless to be in every film I see at the cinema these days, grows on me a little more. Angela Molina from Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire is in it very briefly, to me at least almost unrecognisable.
It held my attention easily enough while it was on. Parts of it were striking, a lot of it was colourful, it was long, it moved at a uniform pace and it just sort of wandered by - like the circus leaving town.