Heart and Soul

Tony Pipolo on the 18th “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” at Film Society

Roberto De Paolis, Pure Hearts, 2017, color, sound, 115 minutes.

IN ADDITION TO HOSTING the American premiere of what may be the best new film of 2018 from anywhere, this year’s Open Roads at the Film Society of Lincoln Center pays tribute to four key figures of the past. Roberto de Paolis’s film Pure Hearts (about which, more below) is, at the very least, a sign of hope that the Italian cinema that gave rise to the beloved the Taviani brothers (Paolo and the recently deceased Vittorio), maverick director Marco Ferreri, and the elegant but largely underappreciated actress Valentina Cortese—not to mention the formidable masters who preceded them—still lives.

At Open Roads, the Tavianis are represented by two works. Rainbow: A Private Affair, their final film, is about a test of honor and loyalty undergone by a young student and ambivalent partisan during World War II, who, though in love with the same woman as his best friend, sets out to find the latter, who has fallen into enemy hands. While not quite as magical as earlier films like The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982), which Open Roads revives, Rainbow touches on universal themes with the Tavianis’ parable-like simplicity. In their spirit, though much lighter in tone, Fulvio Risuleo’s Look Up presents an oddly conceived, often amusing series of adventures that seem designed to evoke the fantasy spaces Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have encountered had she fallen asleep amid the interlacing rooftops of Rome rather than a rabbit hole.

Films about women in distress could not be more varied, ranging from the well-intentioned but one-dimensional Nome di donna (Name of Woman), Marco Tullio Giordana’s contribution to the #MeToo moment, to the beautifully photographed but psychologically convoluted thriller Naples in Veils, directed by Ferzan Ozpetek, which descends from a Fifty Shades of Grey–style fling between medical examiner Adriana (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and too-good-to-be-true hottie Andrea (Alessandro Borghi) into a sequence of wildly contrived plot turns that the film cannot survive.

On the other hand, there is Sergio Castellitto’s Fortunata, which follows the misfortunes of its ironically named titular protagonist—ebulliently impersonated by the multi-talented Jasmine Trinca—as she struggles to keep her life together as a hairdresser with a daughter. While fending off a brutish, not quite ex-husband, she becomes romantically involved with her daughter’s erratic psychiatrist and tries to keep a drug-addicted friend from offing his burdensome mother. Even when Fortunata’s messy life threatens to spill into the film’s structure, Castellitto keeps things moving. The accumulation and intersection of personalities and events may be dizzying, but the film has a winning sensibility not unlike that of Fortunata herself, who remains resilient and undefeated at the finish line.

Francesco Patierno, Diva!, 2017, color and black-and-white, sound, 75 minutes.

Not a year passes in which Open Roads does not offer features that stress the continued power and destructive effect of the Camorra on everyday lives. In Vincenzo Marra’s Equilibrium this is played out as the efforts of a newly arrived priest, on behalf of his parishioners in a small city north of Naples, are continually and violently counteracted by local thugs. While the ambience and many of the actors are convincing, the film’s impact is somewhat muted by the character of the priest (Mimmo Borrelli), whose naïveté makes us question his intelligence and effectiveness. A stronger, more disturbing picture of the phenomenon is Boys Cry, an impressive directorial debut by Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo about two friends who accidentally run down a pedestrian while driving home one night, triggering a series of bad judgment calls that lead to their forced involvement with local crime figures and ultimate disaster. If the story follows a conventional path, it is nevertheless well served by filmmaking savvy and strong performances by every member of the cast, led by Andrea Carpenzano and Matteo Olivetti as the boys.

While crime as a desperate option also rears its ugly head in Pure Hearts, it is by no means the central or driving force of this brilliantly directed and beautifully acted film. Director Roberto de Paolis’s uncanny skill with actors is matched by a gift for nuance and subtlety rarely seen in a story of such topical relevance. Set on the outskirts of Rome, and focused primarily on the blossoming relationship of an odd couple—Agnese (Selene Caramazza) and Stefano (Simone Liberati)—the film gives us a picture of present-day Italy, confronted with divisive political and social challenges and still entrenched in the cultural and religious foundations of the past. Stefano, a guard in a parking lot adjacent to a temporary camp of migrants, must fend off the locals while trying to prevent his parents from being evicted. Agnese, whose mother’s fervent wish is to have her take a vow of chastity, attends religion classes but struggles with natural desires, sexual and otherwise, aroused by Stefano. The collision course of their lives is immediately and viscerally captured in the film’s opening shots—a breathless chase in which Stefano pursues Agnese, who has just stolen from the market he is hired to protect. It is to de Paolis’s credit that he allows the intuitive rapport––not only physical or sexual––between Caramazza and Liberati to build in depth and sincerity with every scene. I can’t recall the last time I saw two young actors so perfectly in sync that they seem able to read each other’s hearts and minds. De Paolis’s screenplay resists the overliteral and cliché, trusting the actors to follow the natural flow of their extraordinary attunement. This conviction is remarkably sustained even through the inevitable sex scene, which is both bluntly presented and intimate, resonating authentically with each character’s psychology as we have come to know them. The ramifications of that moment and the closing “chase” that parallels the opening are nothing less than transcendent.

Two must-see documentaries deserve mention: Anselma Dell’Olio’s Marco Ferreri: Dangerous but Necessary, a workmanlike portrait of one of the bad boys of Italian cinema, and Francesco Patierno’s Diva!, which takes a risky but creative approach in an effort to resurrect Valentina Cortese, an underrated actress of the 1940s through the 1960s who is largely unknown today.

Sergio Castellitto, Fortunata, 2017, color, sound, 103 minutes.

The lackluster English subtitle Dangerous but Necessary hardly captures the wildness and paradox of the Italian original—La lucida follia di Marco Ferreri—which is more revealing of the director’s work. The “lucid madness” in question is one of many impressions voiced by participants in the doc to distinguish Ferreri from such legendary masters of Italian cinema as Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Luchino Visconti. Hanna Schygulla, who starred in Ferreri’s The Story of Pierra (1983), is on hand to describe him as one of the “archangels of destruction,” alongside Luis Buñuel, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pasolini, a judgment apparently shared by Serge Toubiana, the only notable film critic in the film. In fact, Toubiana exclaims, Ferreri is interesting precisely because he was not a maestro, but a disrupter—though he fails to elaborate on that distinction. Though this assessment squares with the often angry response Ferreri’s films evoked, it merely confirms the notion that his work was and to some extent still is judged primarily, if not exclusively, in terms of the social or political scandals it aroused. Virtually all clips from his films illustrate this point; many of them, though critical of men’s abuse of women, would almost certainly generate vociferous reactions in the present #MeToo climate. Ferreri aligned himself, at least symbolically, with revolutionary figures like Che Guevara, assaulting the conventions and values of capitalist society with satirical aplomb. Few films induced as much wrath and disgust from audiences and critics as La Grande Bouffe (1973), his all-star attack on consumerism in which four prominent high-society gourmands set out to eat themselves to death over an absurdly indulgent weekend.

Despite Ferreri’s seeming nonchalance and his well-known quip that he wished not to be remembered for anything, he revealed, in one telling moment, quite the opposite frame of mind. Responding to an interviewer, he wistfully reflected that while the films of his contemporaries are always discussed as films, somehow his work only elicits questions about economics and philosophy. While this suggests that, subject matter aside, Ferreri had artistic intentions, which he believed were overlooked, it’s almost inevitable that an artist seeking to shake up his audience invites such a fate. Given his facility in making films in Italy, France, Spain, and the United States, and given his talent for attracting some of the biggest international stars of his day—including Marcello Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Gérard Depardieu, Ornella Muti, Hanna Schygulla, Roberto Benigni, and Ben Gazzara—it would seem that the only way we might assess the lasting merit of his oeuvre beyond the cultural circumstances of its time would be via a complete retrospective. In the meantime, viewers can see The Ape Woman (1964), an early film of Ferreri’s that is having its North American premiere in the series. Though not as ambitious as his best work, the film demonstrates the director’s macabre wit in a tale of a nineteenth-century ex-nun, her body covered in hair, who is discovered and exploited as a carnival freak.

Valentina Cortese, the subject of Diva!, appeared in films directed by Antonioni (Le Amiche, 1955), Fellini (Juliet of the Spirits, 1965), and François Truffaut (Day for Night, 1973), but also worked in Hollywood, beginning with an affecting turn as a prostitute in Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway (1949) and then in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), with Richard Basehart, whom she wed. She and Basehart divorced in 1960, and she never remarried. Like many international actresses, Cortese played small but memorable roles for a variety of directors, notably Joseph L. Mankiewicz (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Richard Fleischer (Barabbas, 1961), Robert Aldrich (The Legend of Lylah Clare, 1968), and Joseph Losey (The Assassination of Trotsky, 1972). The documentary’s boldness lies in having eight actresses “impersonate” Cortese at different stages of her life, complementing this with clips from her films to illustrate key biographical details. If the strategy arose out of need—namely, the impossibility of finding enough interesting talking heads to reconstruct the life and career of the actress—it nevertheless works brilliantly and is unexpectedly moving. Cortese’s face is an uncommon blend of noble features and soulful wisdom, exhibiting a mature but gentle humanity that is unique and remains haunting. Her performance in Le Amiche as the talented artist held back by her inability to free herself from a painfully masochistic marriage is memorable. Using the very means of Cortese’s chosen métier—other actresses and film excerpts—Patierno acknowledges the difficulty not only of bringing a figure from the past alive with her complexity intact but also of defining the line between an actress’s life and the persona she conveyed in many roles on-screen. More than once, the emotional thrust of a scene from one of Cortese’s movies is an unexpected fit with the facts of her life.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema runs May 31 through June 6 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.