Theorem, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968

Theorem is an enigma, a beautiful enigma that deserves to be considered carefully and analyzed for its many rich subtexts. On the surface level, it is a fantasy of eroticism in which an otherworldly being visits and summarily seduces each member of a bourgeois Italian family. However, in keeping with Pasolini's lifelong preoccupation with Marxist criticisms of consumer culture, it is also an examination of the means through which those trapped within the system of capitalism can be elevated above the restraints and repressions foisted upon them.

Visually, this film is stunning. The director uses a sort of magical realist system of representation in which documentarian portrayals of the family's every day life are combined with brief splashes of the super natural. The set pieces are intricate and detailed with Pasolini preferring to shoot on location to capture a sense of realism. And the performances of the actors are astonishing due to the psychological depth possessed by each characterization.

Those looking for a film which can be easily explained with few ambiguities should look elsewhere. The film provides few narrative details with which to make sense of the events depicted. Nevertheless, Theorem is so rich with ideas and visual references that even those who find its political and social commentary befuddling will surely find something to latch on to.

The Hawks and the Sparrows, Pasolini, 1966

The Hawks and the Sparrows is a fascinating, but difficult to interpret film.  Pasolini constructs the film as a space in which he can explore conflicts between Christianity and marxism, a schism which he views as key to Italy’s problems in the decades following WWII.  The film has the tone of a fable.  Its characters are archetypal, meant to embody certain traits or attitudes indicative of various classes within Italian society.  Overall, the movie seems to be a sort of ideological comedy, combining the slapstick antics of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with Pasolini’s overarching political concerns.  Though certain sections of the film will remain opaque to contemporary audiences who’ll have difficult navigating the intricate system of references and allegories the director has constructed, it is quite entertaining, nonetheless.  This is due, in large part, to the performances of its two leads, one of whom, Toto, was the most famous Italian comedian of his age.

After a single viewing, it is difficult to say what the exact political message of The Hawks and the Sparrows is, besides noting that it offers a broad satire of class relations, demonstrating the means through which each class under capitalism is forced to extort and be extorted from in order to maintain economic relations.  In this sense, the film mirrors the original intent of absurdist art which was intended to highlight the non-logic of modern life in industrialized societies.  Similarly, the film makes visual references to both religious imagery, a recurrent feature of Pasolini’s work, and the film’s of Federico Fellini, one of Pasolini’s close friends.  Upon watching this film, one gets the sense that it is an intensely personal vision for Pasolini, a movie whose difficulties would be alleviated immediately if one could have the opportunity to speak with the director.  Since this is not an option, however, it remains an elusive if fascinating feature whose striking imagery and ideological trappings help it to rise above its cryptic structure and subtext.

Mamma Roma, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962

Pasolini’s second feature continues many of the thematic concerns explored in Accattone with the benefit of a larger budget and better camera equipment at the director’s disposal.  Pasolini continues to explore the lives of morally compromised individuals on the fringes of society who find themselves struggling to find meaning and purpose in a world which seems designed to grind them into dust.  Pasolini uses the typical neorealistic device of presenting a slice of life as a means of typifying the the experience of the lower classes.  However, his depth of characterization and willingness to grapple with the ugly realities of life single Pasolini out from his contemporaries as a filmmaker willing to tackle injustice head on, with little concession to the status quo.

This tale of a former prostitute striving to escape her past while securing a future for her son  offers little moral instruction or easy platitudes about poverty and privation.  Instead, Mamma Roma abounds with ambiguities which allow for the possibility that the difficulties experienced by the characters.  These ambiguities extend to the film’s visual language as well.  Pasolini uses the juxtaposition of profane and sacred images to draw connections between the suffering experienced by marginalized peoples and historical martyrs.  The use of crucifixion imagery in the film’s heartbreaking conclusion calls to mind the torture scene in Rossellini’s Rome Open City.  However, Mamma Roma‘s bold stylistic choices differentiates it from the classic works of neo-realism and signals another step in Pasolini’s development as a radical cinema artist.

Accattone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be exploring the filmography of one of the most subversive and iconoclastic directors of the 20th century, Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Like most Italian directors of his generation, Pasolini came of age during neorealism’s brief period of dominance in his national cinema.  His first feature film, Accattone, displays the influence of neorealism on the director’s work and worldview in a manner which would be absent from his later, increasingly inventive and experimental works.  Like the films of De Sica and Rossellini, Accattone depicts life on the fringes of post-war Italian society.  The landscapes are bombed out and squalid, and the director uses a documentarian style to capture the naturalistic performances of his non-professional actors.  Therefore, on the surface level, this film seems very much of a kind with the movies which preceded it.  However, key differences exist between the world Pasolini constructs here and the paradigm presented by the more traditional practitioners of neorealism.

While Pasolini displays a degree of empathy and care for the pimps and prostitutes who people Accattone, many of these characters are undoubtedly self-serving and predatory.  Such characterizations directly contradict the humanistic depictions of the Italian people seen in films like Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves whose visions of the Rome are populated with principled, downtrodden saints.  Similarly, Pasolini deals more directly with the economic realities facing his characters, constantly bringing to the forefront squabbles over small amounts of money and discussions about the foolishness of working as a wage laborer in a legitimate occupation when crime pays so much better.  It is hard to imagine De Sica writing a version of Bicycle Thieves from the perspective of the thief without offering overt condemnation of his actions.  That is the feat Pasolini manages to accomplish with Accattone, in constructing a protagonist who is not particularly likable but is compelling and sympathetic nonetheless due to his inability to extricate himself from the desperate circumstances into which he was born.

Pasolini’s overt critique of the underlying economic systems at work in Accattone positions him as a more radical voice than the Italian filmmakers who preceded him.  Along with Luchino Visconti, Pasolini would help to usher in a new age of politically motivated cinema with a basis in Marxism.  The development of these pre-occupations in his cinema are obvious from the outset with his stark, unflinching portrayal of life on skid row offering a bleaker, more fatalistic vision of life below the poverty line than earlier works while also managing to avoid the trap of canonizing his poverty-stricken characters.  That the film manages to repurpose the techniques and stylistic flourishes of neorealism to its own purposes is a testament to Pasolini’s artistic vision and his early mastery of cinematic storytelling.

Les Cousins, Claude Chabrol, 1959

Chabrol seems to have a penchant for constructing films around their conclusions.  This is certainly the case for Les Cousins as well as Le Boucher.  While he is totally capable of maintaining a viewer’s interest throughout a feature, the irregularities of his pacing caused by this backloading can be acutely disorienting.  I certainly found this tendency to be more distracting in Les Cousins than I did in Le Boucher although I think that the former is more visually interesting than the latter.

Cousins shares characteristics with many of the early Nouvelle Vague films of the late 50’s/early 60’s.  It is concerned with the lives of young bohemians in Paris, it utilizes grainy, black & white photography, and eschews the narrative conventions of classical cinema in favor of an elliptical structure.  It’s interesting that Chabrol found popular success with a series of thrillers because his films from his new wave period, though concerned with issues of anxiety, paranoia, and deception, have more in common with Truffaut than Hitchcock.  It’s possible that upon finding success with material more amenable to box office returns he consciously decided to turn away from the more personal work which characterized the first decade of his career.

Le Boucher, Claude Chabrol, 1970

Le Boucher is a well-crafted and engrossing tale of murder and desire which falls into the unfortunate trap of making its murderer more sympathetic and interesting than his victims.  This is an issue with many films in the thriller genre in the post-Hitchcock era.  As viewers began to expect more psychologically nuanced portrayals of madness, certain filmmakers fell into the habit of rendering serial killers and madmen as ambiguously empathetic characters, victims of their own damaged psyches.  This is not in and of itself objectionable.  However, when a film depicts a murderer’s state of mind as more important and deserving of sympathy than his/her victims and their own loved ones, issues of romanticization and idealization come into play.

Chabrol is hardly the first or last director to utilize these sorts of storytelling devices, and if one is capable of moving beyond these issues, Le Boucher is an entertaining and beautifully shot picture.  Its last 15 minutes in particular highlight the director’s mastery of horror and anxiety as the movie’s heroine and its villain share one last car ride through a nightmarish, surreal landscape.  That the film is so backloaded, withholding most of its thrills til its final act, renders its opening and middle slightly sparse, though the acting and Chabrol’s images are well-executed enough to buoy the narrative through these passages.  Overall, Le Boucher is an intriguing, but flawed, film–a thriller whose emphasis on psychologically realistic characterizations comes at the expense of its pacing and overall “scariness” (for lack of a better term).

The Wages of Fear, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953

The Wages of Fear is one of the most tense and gripping thrillers ever crafted.  It uses its deceptively simple premise as a means of staging a psychological drama which touches on the nature of fear and desperation and the lengths to which some men will go for a second chance at the good life.  Clouzot demonstrates a mastery of tone and pacing with this feature, taking time to establish the characters and the world in which they live before jumping into the more overtly thrilling material at the story’s core.  This first hour of deliberation may turn some viewers off, but if one is willing to indulge Clouzot as he sets the stage, the pay off is more than worth it.

The film’s final 90 minutes depicts the slow passage of two trucks carrying a highly combustible batch of nitroglycerin through a treacherous, primitive roadway.  Though the work undertaken by the men is arduous and painstaking, Cluzot stages it in such a way as to create an atmosphere of utmost terror, each minuscule movement carrying with it the potential for disaster.   The characters of the film are forced to confront a series of obstacles along the way, each more treacherous than the last.  This allows them to both demonstrate their ingenuity as well as strengthen the bonds of friendship among them.  The attention paid to the relations between the men keeps the material from becoming mundane as the director manages to maintain this state of breathless drama for extended passages.

It is difficult to point to other pictures to which one might compare The Wages of Fear.  The source material which provided the basis for its screenplay was also adapted into William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, a wonderful film in its own right which owes more to 70’s action movies than it does Cluzot’s study in anguish and anxiety.  Whereas Friedkin chooses to explore the choices which led the men to the point where they must accept a suicide mission into the jungle, Cluzot chooses to allow those backstories to remain subtextual, hinting at lives ill-lived which have doomed these souls to an existence on the fringes of society with little hope for redemption, economic or otherwise.  By delivering only the most essential narrative details to the viewer, Cluzot creates space for the audience to internalize the anxieties of the characters.  While watching these men march stubbornly toward some unknown, possibly horrific, fate, one has no choice but to contemplate mortality, labor, and the psychological costs of stress and fears.

The Murderer Lives at No. 21, Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1942

The Murderer Lives at No. 21 is an interesting film for several reasons.  The circumstances surrounding its production are odd in that the film was produced in France under Nazi rule by a Nazi-sponsored film studio.  However, the film shows little evidence of this strange providence as it is a largely straightforward comedy-thriller in the style of many Hollywood productions.  Likewise, The Murderer Lives at No. 21 holds a special place in film history because it is the first feature by famed director H-G Clouzot, one of the most important French directors of the 40’s and 50’s whose reputation for crafting terse, psychologically dense thrillers leads many to characterize him as analogous to the more famous and prolific Alfred Hitchcock.  Though this picture’s lighthearted fare has little in common with Clouzot’s better-known films from the post-war period, it still evidences the arrival of a skilled young director onto France’s cinematic scene.

The Murderer Lives strikes a strange tone for a story which details the pursuit of a serial killer who roams the streets of Paris.  Though it contains some scenes which provide the requisite chills & thrills, it is largely marked by its Jean Renoir-like sense of humor.  Cluzot utilizes an eccentric cast of characters, each possessing some trademark peculiarity, to construct entertaining scenarios which act as an ironic counterpoint to the film’s abrupt and unflinching portrayal of violence and death.  Though the mystery itself loses a good deal of its gravity as the film progresses, The Murderer Lives never ceases to entertain.  The dialogue provided to the characters is pithy and amusing, with the film’s protagonist, inspector Wens, demonstrating a noteworthy gift for gab.  The attention paid to character and dialogue in this film offer glimpses of the greatness Cluzot would achieve later when he would use those same techniques to probe the depths of  human desperation and misery.  In this picture, however, the director’s cleverness and detailed characterizations help to elevate a mundane murder mystery above its inherent limitations.

Cluzot’s most famous films possess a density and psychological complexity which few directors are able to match.  Though there are only hints of those facets apparent in The Murderer Lives, it is still an effective and engaging film, with moments of brilliance demonstrating the director’s full capabilities.  Though its vacillating tone makes it difficult for viewers to fully invest themselves in Wens’ search to reveal the killer’s identity, The Murderer Lives offers a satisfying conclusion which manages to tie together the film’s overall narrative in a manner both unexpected and well-executed.  Even if it does not rank among Cluzot’s most accomplished films, this movie offers cinephiles a glimpse into the emergence of the thriller as a standalone genre in the 1940’s.

Fellini Satyricon, Federico Fellini, 1969

Satyricon, Fellini’s last picture of the 1960’s, prefigures the turn his work would take in the 1970’s through its use of episodic vignettes and elaborate costuming, as well as its basis in a historical/literary source.  It uses the classical text from which the film draws its name as a jumping off point, adhering loosely to the events described therein.  Fellini constructs a portrait of Roman decadence, an empire in decline, where the mythical and the real exist side by side in a manner which creates a surrealistic dream logic within the narrative.  Satyricon is a visually stunning work.  As Fellini had not yet begun to film on soundstages exclusively, this film contains striking instances of landscape photography which allow for expansive outdoor scenes which would not be found in his later films.  The sheer variety of locales explored in this film, from seaside cliffs to vast, arid deserts, as well as its classical Roman subject matter suggest a debt to Golden-Age Hollywood epics, but Fellini manages to wring fresh and exciting images from this oft-depicted material, communicating a vision of Rome which is as fantastical as it is grounded in the filth and frailties of the human body.

The Romans characterized in this work are sex-obsessed decadents, heirs to a great, but crumbling society whose glory days are behind it.  They are crude and uncouth, though they find themselves surrounded by artifacts from an earlier, more enlightened age.  This can be read as a metaphorical imagining of Italy in Fellini’s lifetime, a center of culture and artistry transformed into a consumerist wasteland of sexual deviance and wanton consumption.  Fellini shows little care for historical details, constructing a stylistic approach to Roman clothing and architecture which draws from a variety of cultural sources, reminiscent of Pasolini’s imagining of the ancient world in films like Medea and Oedipus Rex.  Fellini’s attention to costuming and details in background scenery create an imagistic richness which both denies any impulse toward historical realism while also making the Rome inhabited by the characters feel lived-in, if otherworldly.  The film utilizes an enormous cast of actors, each outfitted in a way which suggests unarticulated characterizations, a method for transforming inconsequential figures into intriguing visual details.  This method of staging and composing large crowds would be fully realized in Fellini’s later films, Amarcord and Roma.

The narrative arc depicted by Satyricon is largely non-linear, with several key characters recurring throughout the film, though their motives are often difficult to understand.  Instead of utilizing a more traditional heroic narrative which one might expect from a historical epic, Fellini uses a series of vignettes, as is common in Italian comic cinema, to create an impression of the last years of the Roman Empire under Nero.  By constructing the film as a prolonged montage of disconnected scenes, the sequential logic of which is nebulous at best, Fellini allows space for interpretation, inviting the viewer to inhabit his vision of Rome for two hours, at which point they will draw their own conclusions about the series of images which they have seen.  Are the Romans spectacularly perverse and cruel, thirsting after ever greater displays of sensuality and violence, or are they simply a reflection of human nature, victims of decadence and imperfection?  These are the questions with which Fellini interrogates the viewer, though having a precise answer is not necessary to enjoy Satyricon‘s many pleasures.

Fellini’s Casanova, Federico Fellini, 1976

Casanova fits neatly into many of the patterns and themes developed by Fellini in the 70’s while also departing from many aspects of the director’s established M.O.  Like much of the work from the latter half of his career, Casanova is an episodic film marked by a highly stylized mise en scene reliant on elaborate set pieces constructed on the soundstage of Italy’s famed Cinecitta facility.  However unlike most other Fellini films, Casanova finds its inspiration from a piece of literature, the memoirs of the actual Casanova, and utilizes English for the majority of its spoken dialogue in keeping with the casting of Donald Sutherland in the lead role.  This allows Fellini to move beyond the overtly reflective subject matter explored in Roma and Amarcord while continuing to indulge his passion for exquisite costuming and visually ambitious sequences within a tenuous narrative structure.

Casanova acts as a sort of travelogue, detailing its titular character’s wanderings across the European continent in the 18th century.  Similarly, it calls upon Casanova’s legacy as a lothario in its depiction of a variety of depraved sexual acts and compulsions.  In typical Fellinian fashion, however, the director uses these images to make statements on the absurdity of human sexuality and the hollowness at the core of Casanova’s being which drives his insatiable libido.  In Fellini’s view, Casanova is a figure primed for ridicule, a symbol of the thinly-veiled depravity of the ruling classes of Europe.  That Casanova spends the film offering lengthy asides on art, science, love, and death in-between orgiastic bouts of cartoonish sexual congress demonstrates the thesis that much of the trappings of aristocratic society in Europe is meant to obscure the pathologies which drive much of human behavior.

That Casanova carries himself with an air of unfaltering self-seriousness through even the most ridiculous scenarios renders him a fascinating figure.  He is partly a quixotic buffoon, dedicated to principles which serve primarily to justify his pleasure-seeking lifestyle, but Sutherland manages to imbue the performance with enough pathos to ensure that Casanova remains a tragi-comic hero instead of a punching bag.  The mock-gravitas of the character is reinforced by the film’s overall tone which marries picaresque adventure with vague ruminations on the nature of love and relations between the sexes.  It is this tension which creates the film’s humor and unites the thinly-sketched scenarios which make up the majority of the plot.  Despite its loose structure  and detached portrayal of Casanova’s struggles and triumphs, Fellini manages to produce a coherent vision of bizarro-Europe at the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment.

Those familiar with Fellini’s films produced in the 1970’s will be familiar with the strange pacing and disinterest in narrative continuity displayed by the director in that era.  Casanova displays these tendencies, though its use of a single, central figure offers a more something more solid around which one can develop an interpretation of the film.  I have found that many of Fellini’s later works seem to languish in ambiguity and visual extravagance, bombarding the the user with a barrage of beautiful but un-differentiated images which may or may not relate to the film’s stated purpose.  For those who feel the need to ascribe to each and every scene a specific purpose within a larger narrative framework, Fellini’s films might prove infuriating.  If one is capable of suppressing this urge toward interpretation, however, these films can prove immensely entertaining and inspiring in their visual inventiveness.