This week we watch one of the classics of world cinema, a tale of desperation in destitution, and continue our streak of not needing to leave the text very much at all in order to show the Marxist reading of a movie. Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves tells the story of a man who just wants to make an honest living in a society that is either indifferent or actively working against him.
The story of a corrupt businessman seeking office to better enrich himself while actively endangering the lives of others, the political party that supports him because they’ll get rich, too, and the political system so intent on absolving itself that it lets him get away with it.
Happy Fourth of July, America.
Over a year ago we watched Divorce Italian Style and decided that there was ample evidence that film was an attack on Fellini, instead of the attack on Sicilian culture Germi maybe thought it was. This week it’s harder to ignore that Germi is decidedly punching down as he heaps a national issue onto a certain region. Still it’s a funny movie, so there’s that.
Marco Bellocchio’s 1965 film is open to interpretation, so this week we spend the episode suggesting, then dismantling, various interpretive theories. The story of a wealthy family with physical and mental disorders, and the one son who decided to kill them all, Fists in the Pocket is a bit of a mess and a bit innovative and mostly reminds us of a lot of better films.
Pat submits that this week’s film is actually a horror movie, judging by the title and the professional child actor who stars. Vittorio De Sica’s The Children are Watching Us is a cautionary tale about our influence on future generations, and about the moral failings of fascism and the moderatism that enables it. Also, divorce and suicide.
We're in the middle of a trilogy of films that claim influence from Dostoevsky with the most straightforward adaptation of the lot in being the only one not loosely inspired by a half-remembered scene from The Idiot. Instead Luchino Visconti, who we last saw with the phenomenal film The Leopard last year, does a fairly faithful take on Dostoevsky's 1948 short story White Nights which turns out to be better representative of my psyche than The Idiot ever really was. My relationship to Dostoevsky's work gets meta this week and I learn some things. Hurray!
Pat and I both come from protestant Christian backgrounds in the Midwest US, though certainly different expressions of even that niche, and more certainly we've landed in very different spots (to where we came from and one another) later in life. Still our divergent ideologies are ever more deeply rooted in humanism, and the Christian-themed films we've watched while Lost in Criterion that we've most loved are those with a humanist touch: Ordet, Winter Light, The Last Temptation of Christ.
Listen to any of those episodes and you'll find that I try to embrace a rather humanist interpretation of Jesus and the Gospels, one focused on the realities of the poor and oppressed in the world today. That is to say, I consider Jesus Christ to be an early humanist hero. But even setting aside Jesus himself, historical expressions of humanism are deeply tied to Christianity and we discuss the life of one of the earlier seeds of that this week with Roberto Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis from 1950. Along the way we talk about some of the problems with Francis, or at least his portrayal by Rossellini, and the larger Church, and for some reason discuss Pat's hatred of medieval paintings.
Pietro Germi's 1961 comedy Divorce Italian Style is a satire of mid-century Italian manhood. Or it's not. We talk a bit about whether or not "satire" is an accurate term this week, as well as Fellini, because when do we ever not talk about Fellini?
A little over three years ago Lost in Criterion watched the first film in a trilogy of sorts by Michelangelo Antonioni. We were not impressed with L'Avventura, but could it be that by the the last film of the trilogy we'd could get into a Antonioni film? Marginally!
1962's L'Eclisse isn't quite as tedious as I remember L'Avventura being, though I think I'm understanding Antonioni's perspective a bit better now. If there's one thing long time listeners may have noticed, it's that the longer we spend in the Criterion Collection the less Lost we feel -- but that doesn't mean we can't still feel totally Lost at times. Anyway, there's still the fact that I watched L'Eclisse twice and when I sat down to edit this week's episode I couldn't remember a thing about it. Though to be fair to myself I've also watched Groundhog Day 12 times in the intervening 3 weeks, so my brain is a bit fried.
An Italian neorealist film where the prostitute doesn't represent the state of the nation! Probably. I mean, you could probably interpret it that way if you wanted.
Bernardo Bertolucci's debut, La Commare Secca is, in a lot of ways, clearly directed by a 20 year old first timer. But it's also got some really good stuff going on, even if it's a Rashomon-plot done by a guy who absolutely swears he's never seen Rashomon. We don't believe him, but it doesn't matter either way. La Commare Secca tells its story of on the ground life below the zooming highways, out of sight down by the river, and it's tells it well.
In 2003 the US Department of Defense held a screening of Gillo Pontocorvo's 1966 film The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon. A flyer for the screening read:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.
Subsequent US history tells us that the showing did not achieve its objectives.
The Criterion website describes Federico Fellini's I Vitelloni as "semiautobiographical" which is a valid description of any Fellini film. The man couldn't make a movie that wasn't ultimately about himself. I suppose upon its release in 1953, with only two other films under his belt (Variety Lights and The White Sheik), it is perhaps the most autobiographical Fellini has been thus far, but both earlier films clearly have elements of Fellini's life woven in. As far as I Vitelloni goes, it's pretty clear who Fellini thinks his author-insert is, but it's also pretty clear which who it actually is.
We've seen three Renoir films so far, and two of them -- The Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game -- are among my absolute favorite films that the Collection has offered us, and the last -- his take on The Lower Depths -- is pretty dang good in its own right.
Now we jump 13 years into his future and find him working in color and out from under the pressures of an impending war (and a bit of an exile to Hollywood) for a trilogy of films dancing around themes of theater and female-empowerment. Well, kind of.
First off from Stage and Spectacle: Three Films by Jean Renoir is 1953's The Golden Coach and boy is it a change from the Renoir we've grown accustomed to.
It was only a matter of time before we had to watch another Pier Paolo Pasolini film. After the first one, so many years ago, we were not looking forward to it. But no movie could be another Salo, though I'm sure some have tried.
Mamma Roma is, in a way, a proto-Salo, though. It is a critique of Italian identity and power structures that while comparatively mild I can imagine that between its release in 1962 and Salo's in 1975 Pasolini boiled over from wanting to be heard properly. "We are bad people. We do bad things to ourselves." is the refrain (echoed by Visconti in last week's The Leopard as well), the message here is a slow simmer compared to what it would become, but no less unsubtle.
We return to Italian/Sicilian history with The Leopard, an historical epic about one rich man's family and political life circa Unification. Luchino Visconti's 1963 film is based on posthumously published 1958 novel of the same name by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa who now has an asteroid named after him.
The story follows an aristocrat -- played by Burt Lancaster so that the American distributors could feasibly have a chance at making any money -- who recognizes that his kinds' time is coming to an end and his nephew who will go wherever the political wind blows him as long as it keeps him in power. It's been called the Italian Gone with the Wind, but as we have seen that just means it's an historical epic. It's also really good. Like better than Gone with the Wind by a lot.
With Salvatore Giuliano (1962) Francesco Rosi strove not just to make a biopic of the famed Sicilian outlaw, but to make a neo-realist docu-drama. Pat calls it a proto-History Channel special, and there's strong comparisons, but Rosi's film goes beyond that low bar. One because the film is simply so expertly shot, but also because unlike, say, Ancient Aliens, Rosi sought to only include the facts as he could verify them, ultimately, then, interrogating the official story and making a highly politically-charged thriller.
If only it were a memorable one. In a comment on the official Criterion page for the film friend of the show Keith Enright of The Criterion Completion says: "Watched and unremembered. Time to rectify?" and as Pat and I get into in this week's episode, we can't be sure of when Keith made that post, but either of us could have said the same thing after watching the film twice in less than a week. There are bits that stick, but the whole just doesn't hold together for us.
It's clear that by the time he made 8 1/2 Federico Fellini was self aware enough to not only claim that all his films were autobiographical (as he always had) but to recognize more meaning in that and start to use them as a way of poorly apologizing to his wife Giulietta Masina. Part of this week's conversation focuses on whether or not he'd reached that point when he made La Strada in 1954.
Of course, there's also the fact that when I started to take Fellini at his word that his films are autobiographical is when I really started to have a problem with him.
At least Masina is great.
David O. Selznick is an interesting figure in the Criterion cannon, having produced a large number of films from a swath of wonderful directors. With one glaring exception we've barely liked or strongly disliked his other projects. Terminal Station, his 1953 collaboration with Italian neorealist Vittorio De Sica, takes that ambivalence and splits it in two, which is appropriate: we get one movie to love and one to hate.
Selznick so hated what De Sica brought him that he recut the film himself, shaving 25 minutes out and gutting it of it's emotional arc. The resulting film, Indiscretion of an American Wife, is also included on this Criterion release, so we talk both this week.
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Another great episode where halfway through talking about it we finally start to understand it fully. I Fidanzati (1963) is a film about memory: how memories shape what we’re perceiving in the present, and how our feelings in the present affect how we remember things. Ermanno Olmi is brilliant, no doubt, and the way the flashbacks in this film playout were extremely influential. (And also entertaining, which is just bonus I guess?)
Though he was working a decade after the movement "ended" Ermanno Olmi's films have all the hallmarks of Italian neorealism even though he claims his film style is a response to (and rejection of) Italian neorealism. That is absurd on it's face, but not the same type of absurd as Il Posto. Olmi's 1961 film is a coming of age tale that the director claims is semi-autobiographical, though we've heard that before. True to life or not, Il Posto is true-to-life with all the hilarity and disappointment that comes with life.
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