This fine Italian festival features wide variety, no polemics
When Sandro Zambetti initiated this modest festival in 1982, he aimed to “make a difference at a practical level.” Invoking no less a source than Benedetto Spinoza’s admission that “I myself cannot bear polemics,” Zambetti and his colleagues Emanuela Martini and Angelo Signorelli consistently provide wide-ranging and unexpected fare, followed each year with several important monographs (in Italian only) on the filmmakers and movements they spotlight.
Hungarian ace Bela Tarr took center stage, with most of his work screened in chronological order. Insightful analysis has been offered by Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose Chicago Reader essay along with the interview by Eric Schlosser in Bright Lights should be read in conjunction with the comments here. Although Tarr denies that the political shifts of Hungary have had much influence on his work, Family Nest (1977), Perdition (1987), and The Last Boat (1990) are crucial documents of Hungary’s Cold-War insularity. The dissolution of Soviet control may have made little difference in gross terms, but the contact with the rest of the world and the opportunity to get out are undeniable benefits. In Family Nest, the one-room apartment shared by three branches of the same family becomes like an overcrowded rat cage in a psych experiment. Even when away from the apartment at their jobs or in the local tavern, Tarr keeps the characters in such relentless close-up that they seem fettered and cramped. The film is reminiscent of Fassbinder’s Merchant of Four Seasons.
Perdition opens with what appears to be the sound of what we see, funicular tubs carrying dirt from a mine, but eventually reveals itself as the film’s musical score. Tarr has spoken about the music in his films as an additional character; it is composed before shooting begins. The bleak tale of a no-hoper infatuated with a Nico-like pub singer, Perdition includes an unusually static sex scene in which Tarr’s extremely long take clocks not only the adulterous couple, but the 8×10 studio wedding shot, the three-part mirror and bureau, managing to convey the affair as a search for comfort rather than adventure. The protagonist’s eventual total slump and desperate tap-dance amidst mud and puddles was like a Jean-Paul Sartre version of Singin’ in the Rain and had something of the anger and desperation of the final dance in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail.
The Last Boat gives a rare sense of the disorientation just after the end of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Sound-tracked with a siren, the opening sequence has a nightmarish Escher-style landscape of what appear to be castle arches that the camera travels under repeatedly: forward motion with no progress. A man is shown beating something – it could be meat or he could be committing a murder. Such primitive violence – clubbing, pummeling, pushing – figures in much of Tarr’s work, a believable expression of the rampant frustration felt by his characters. Hungarians far less apt to solve their problems with a gun than Americans are.
As Rosenbaum has pointed out, there is a definite shift in Tarr’s later work to a more filmic, less content-driven style. The long takes and richly contrasted black-and-white images become panoramas in which scenes build and collapse within the same sequence. Ambient sound becomes increasingly important. In Werckmeister Harmonies (2000), bird songs are given unusual primacy, surpassed only in Kestrel’s Eye (Mikael Kristersson, 2000) which was entirely sound-tracked by kestrel songs. With its almost fairy-tale timelessness, Werckmeister Harmonies brings Werner Herzog’s Heart of Glass (1976), the costumes so shapeless and worn as to give no real indication of period. The film, based on Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Melancholy of Resistance, deals with three versions of eternity: the celestial and maritime universes, both mysteries, and the extra-temporal aspects of music. At the same time, it is an examination of working-class life in Hungary (more than once, Tarr lingers on the squat, dimpled beer glasses so emblematic of the rank pleasures available to those without the financial resources to buy into the new society). Tarr has spoken of making films about “poor people, ugly people.” It’s a comment on the lack of sophistication in so much big-time filmmaking that this sounds positively revolutionary.
Strict narrative clearly doesn’t interest him and in his efforts to capture life as it is (or at least as he sees it), Tarr makes a kind of fictional photojournalism. Insistently based in reality (he spends time in the communities he films, eating, drinking, and hanging out with their residents), Tarr casts mostly nonprofessional actors and documents aspects of current Hungarian life. But his meticulous planning and thorough rehearsal, in short, his total control (Werckmeister Harmonies had seven cameramen yet appears the seamless work of one) dispels any documentary feeling. (Like Chantal Ackerman in her superb 1993 D’Est, Tarr uses listless crowds to great advantage, both directors conveying a sense of entire populations whose expressions testify to the rug they resentfully know has been pulled out from beneath them.) Reality, yes, but the world according to Tarr, rendered in images of such arresting beauty that you want to freeze the projector again and again.
A tribute to Italian television and film producer Paolo Valmarana (1928-1984) included such usual-suspect highlights of ’70s and ’80s Italian cinema as Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Night of Shooting Stars (1981), Ermanno Olmi’s Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), Gianni Amelio’s Blow to the Heart (1982), and Federico Fellini’s Orchestra Rehearsal (1979). Less well-known was the short television documentary Via Scarlatti 20 (Markus Imhof, 1984), a portrait of the tenants of a large, working-class apartment house in Milan. In this microcosm of Italian life, they loudly bicker about their shared residence, including responsibility for upkeep of the crowded courtyard and those culpable of siphoning electricity from the hallways for private use. In the tradition of farce and comic opera, the documentary culminates in a wedding. An affectionate insight into Italian urban life that had a similar naturalness to Scorsese’s Italianamerican Boy (1974). In La Bomba (1985), director Giacomo Campiotti interviewed a cross-section of Italians (and one retired American weapons researcher) on their feelings about a hypothetical explosion of the atomic bomb. The answers focused on loss of life, of family, of the planet; as to responsibility, a young man in a USA sweatshirt said “a superpower” and a boy unhesitatingly said “an adult.”
A tribute to Roy Ward Baker featured key works such as The Singer Not the Song (1961), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971), and Quartermass and the Pit (1967). Among the less-screened was The October Man (1947), based on an Eric Ambler short story about a young chemist plagued by unmerited guilt for the accidental death of a friend’s young daughter. In the tradition of Michael Powell’s Stairway to Heaven or Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, The October Man is a crackling good story, with no moment wasted. The wordless opening sequence in which the chemist entertains his young female charge by knotting his handkerchief into a rabbit as they ride a late-night bus through a rainy English landscape engagingly establishes the chemist as fate’s pawn. Especially effective is the girl’s brief delight juxtaposed with the loose axle that pitches the bus out of control. When he later comes under suspicion in a strangling, his habit of knotting a handkerchief becomes a tiny petard by which he threatens to be hoist.
Baker used Bette Davis to great effect in Anniversary (1968), a malicious black comedy in which she plays a dominating mother of three boy-men. Kitted out with a self-supporting eye-patch (coordinated to her outfits), Davis commandeers the film like a general in a war room, reducing the competent cast to little more than straight-men (and women) for her antics. With the exception of the affably defiant James Cossins, they faded like shadows, her vampiric character utterly depleting theirs. Davis’s domination makes what could have been psychological horror at the level of John Huston’s preying monster in Chinatown into something closer to Harold and Maude, but essential viewing for Davis fans.
Two films by new directors, An Inescapable Beauty (Francesca Pirani, 2001) and Higher Still (Nicolas Breviere, 2001), both showed a distressing tendency to merely animate magazine shoots and call it a film. Sensitive, dime-a-dozen beauties (one in Inescapable Beauty, four in Higher Still) face down apparent existential crises with all the struggle of deciding to try a new moisturizer. Both films had quirky characteristic-heavy characters who spent much of the film shrugging on and off their coats, pouting and crying. Less egregious but ultimately disappointing was Arad Sopsits Abandoned (2001), an admittedly autobiographical film about his Hungarian boyhood in the 1970s. Marred by his parents’ divorce, protagonist Aron is further undone when his father ditches him in a Dickensian boarding school. Sopsits hampered this potentially interesting coming-of-age story by making the boy cloyingly sweet and larding the film with gooey fantasy sequences in which Aron takes winged flight from his problems. Shot in frequent close-up, its effect was less desperate than merely claustrophobic.
Plenty of choices, with something for all tastes. A fitting celebration of twenty years of “practicality.” It only remains to wish the Bergamo Film Meeting cent’anni.