Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
On the one hand, Abbas Kiarostami’s intellectualized road trip plays a bit like a Linklater-style philosophical excursion. Two middle-aged strangers discuss art and authenticity while roaming around Tuscany and pretending to be a married couple at odds with one another after fifteen years together. The difference, however, is in the supposed couple’s culpability in the whole affair. Unlike the more upfront work from his Austin-based colleague, the brilliant Iranian director slyly shifts the couple’s perspective — instead of knowledgeably perpetuating the falsehood of their relationship, they instead seamlessly represent the relationship itself. The onus, it would seem, is on the audience to determine what’s real, what’s imagined, and where the fault-lines between the two may reside.
Juliette Binoche plays Elle, a single mother of a young teen boy, who owns a small art and antiques shop in Tuscany. She attends a lecture by the noted British academic James Miller (opera singer William Shimell), who has just published a book about the authenticity of art and the means by which the subjective experience of the work far surpasses that of the reality of its creation. The two meet later, ostensibly so he can sign some books for Elle and admire her shop, but the two decide to strike out in a car and drive to another town nearby. Once there, strolling down the streets and into and out of churches, cafes, and a piazza, their relationship begins to get more and more blurry, their set boundaries and understanding becoming something else entirely.
Whatever your conclusion may be, this isn’t some vacuum-sealed bit of intellectual prop, straining to build an argument about reality and perception. By not giving his characters — and by extension, the audience — the obvious out of having the whole thing be a put-on, Kiarostami has created a near organic experience for the viewer. His camera almost never leaves his two leads, but like an experienced magician, his deft slight-of-hand consistently creates well-crafted illusion we never see coming.
This Criterion BD edition also includes an earlier Kiarostami film, The Report, which engages in some similar sorts of themes; an interview with the director and an Italian doc on the making of the film.
Dir. Anton Corbijn
Appropriately enough, the vast majority of guns in this American assassin abroad film are equipped with silencers: The bullets barely make a sound before slicing through their given targets. The film follows suit. In what could only be described as a deliberate pace with great attention to small detail, it recounts a few idyllic weeks (months?) as our American, Jack (George Clooney), after a failed attempt on his life in Sweden, hides out in a small Italian village in Abruzzo.
Before long, he’s hired for a job, building a top-of-the-line custom rifle for another assassin, Mathilde (Thekla Reuten) for one of her upcoming assignments. Tooling around the countryside, putting the gun together, Jack also takes up with a local prostitute, Clara (Violante Placido), spends a good deal of time in the woods and is paranoid enough to sleep with his gun cradled in his hand. As for plot, that’s more or less about all you get. The film is far less concerned with melodramatic flourishes of narrative and much more involved with the basic stuff of Jack’s life. We never learn terribly much about him, but we seemingly learn a great deal about the business of building a gun from assembled parts.
As such, with its languid pace, undersold emotions, and effectively evocative cinematography from DP Martin Ruhe, it builds its intensity and increasing tension from the ground up. It’s another ’70s throwback film, in other words, a sort of mixture of The Day of the Jackal and The Conversation. Though not really close to their class — for all its attention to scant detail, we never get very much more than a surface reading of the film’s characters — it does have a certain satisfying gait. It allows us to take pleasure from something as mundane as Jack’s OCD-like impulse to smooth out the wrinkled paper bag from under a just-produced canister of bullets, and his repeated mantra that he’s “no good with machines.” It’s not every film that would take a lethal assassin and essentially put him on ice for the vast majority of the remaining running time, but it sure does give you an appreciation for the gorgeous Italian countryside.
Dir. Marco Bellocchio
When we first meet Benito Mussolini (Filippo Timi), he’s in a crowded room of people making a case against the belief in God. Taking a watch, he challenges the Almighty to strike him down in the next five minutes in order to prove his existence. After the five tense minutes have passed, Mussolini announces “Time’s up. God doesn’t exist.” A mini-riot ensues, men and women yelling, pushing, shoving, and grabbing at his suit, but he looks perfectly at home in the chaos. Later, in a movie theater, as silent news reels of Italy at war with Austria flicker on a screen in front of him, Mussolini, now with his young fiancé, Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) at his side, stirs up another near riot by cheering for Italy’s aggression. A lone pianist continues to play a jaunty tune as Mussolini and his comrades combat with neutrality socialists in the crowd, their violence in silhouette against the grainy footage of a real war playing behind them.
If these images strike you as particularly theatrical, you aren’t far off the mark. Marco Bellocchio’s document of Dalser, Mussolini’s first wife and their lone son, Benito Albino (as an adult, also played by Timi), as he first abandons them and later has Dalser committed shortly after marrying his long-time mistress, intriguingly plays off of the tortured history of his subjects with an assortment of dramatic flourishes, including time jumps, screaming headline banners (“GUERRA! GUERRA” flashes on the screen shortly after Italy declares war), and flash-like illumination of his characters as in a formal portrait. The effect is powerful, if not somewhat discombobulating. As Dalser is heartbreakingly kept from her son in an asylum, Mussolini, once a steadfast, if strident, supporter of socialism, morphs into the bald, near hysteric Il Duce, committing Italy to further acts of aggression at their neighbors, until eventually betting on the wrong side of Hitler’s fallen Axis.
Bellocchio’s almost operatic sensibility well fits Il Duce’s melodramatic temperament. Mussolini’s domination of the women in his life and their ensuing idolatry of him — Dalser, for one, sells everything she owns in order to give the young Mussolini enough money to help found his newspaper — is an apt analogy for how he ultimately treated his homeland. Before his downfall, he had, in his twenty years as Prime Minister, also declared himself “Head of Government,” “First Marshall,” and, finally, “Founder of the Empire.” The country became his mistress, as it were, existing solely to serve his limitless ego and boundless ambition before finally turning on him.
Dir. Matteo Garrone
Even though Matteo Garrone’s film about the Italian crime cartel Camorra opens with a mob hit at a day spa, the vast majority of the nearly two and half hours of this sprawling saga is surprisingly blood free. Which isn’t to say the film lets up on you: Nearly every scene is tinged with the potential for savagery, which makes it all the more admirable for its considerable restraint.
Set in the dilapidated slums of Naples, the film’s many characters careen like pinballs against each other and the rusted out ’70s-era apartment complex they habituate. While the film indeed follows some of its characters arcs — including a haute couture tailor (Salvatore Cantalupo) who agrees to work with the Chinese; a young, innocent-seeming kid (Salvatore Abruzzese) trying to break into the biz; and a money delivery man (Gianfelice Imparato) attempting to steer clear of the growing war amongst rival factions, the film eschews any kind of encompassing whole, choosing instead to stay focused on its smaller parts. As a result, it does achieve a certain kind of verisimilitude, but, perhaps at the cost of simply not being all that engrossing.
As we have almost no characters with whom to actually become emotionally connected, the film grows tedious, despite it’s root in gang violence. Reportedly, Roberto Saviano’s original novel upon which the film is based earned the writer various death threats from the gangs, forcing him to stay in police-aided seclusion, but, frankly, there’s simply nothing here we haven’t already seen many times before to warrant their fury.