miracle in milan (vittorio de sica, 1951)

This is the third film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 3 is called "Italian Neorealism Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the Italian Neorealism movement.

With Miracle in Milan, I have now seen 6 of the 32 movies on the above-mentioned list of Italian Neorealist films. I should probably branch out a bit more ... this is the third I've seen directed by Vittorio de Sica, including my favorite, Umberto D, while Roberto Rossellini directed the other three. Miracle in Milan had several components associated with Neorealism: filmed on location, with a blend of professional and non-professional actors, playing characters fighting poverty. What sets Miracle in Milan apart is de Sica's embrace of fantasy. The title is literally true: the film tells of a miracle that occurs in Milan.

Totò is a young man who lives in a squatter's community on the edge of Milan. Totò, an orphan originally taken in by a kindly old woman, has such an abundant exuberance about life that he helps bring the community together, with most of the people seeing the bright side of their situation. When oil is discovered on the land, the landowner uses police to force them out of their homes. And it's then that de Sica gives us something different. The old woman, who had long ago died, appears to Totò as an angel and gives him a dove that allows Totò to grant wishes. He proceeds to grant those wishes to pretty much everyone, changing the entire social order. Except then two other angels appear and take the dove back to heaven, the greedy landowner regains the upper hand, and all appears lost.

But de Sica finds one last magic trick to place in Totò's hands, and at the end, the squatters fly away on broomsticks, heading towards heaven. Which does seem to be quite a distance away from the settings of many neorealist films.

The atmosphere is overwhelmingly happy, and I admit that I soon tired of Totò (and the actor who plays him, Francesco Golisano). I found his endless optimism more annoying than transcendent. That could just be me, of course, and many have called Miracle in Milan a classic (it is #490 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the greatest films of all time). There is an intriguing trivia item on the IMDB: "The original planned ending for the film was to have the poor flying around the entire planet on broomsticks but being unable to land as everywhere had 'Private Property' signs. This was jettisoned as being too expensive and ambitious." If true, this is ironic indeed: an ending that further condemns the rich is bypassed because the filmmakers couldn't afford it.

revisiting the 9s: hotel rwanda (terry george, 2004)

[This is the eleventh in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10. Of course, it's always possible I'll drop the rating, but time will tell.]

I saw Hotel Rwanda back in 2006, liked it so much I gave it a rating of 9, but never wrote about it for some reason. Watching it again after all these years, it's clear why I was impressed. The based-on-fact heart wrenching story of the Rwandan genocide is effectively presented ... we hate the people behind the slaughter, and we root for Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle), a hotel manager who protects some thousand refugees while deflecting the efforts of those committing genocide. It's all fairly straightforward ... Rusesabagina does not ask to be a hero, but he rises to the crisis.

Cheadle's brilliant performance further embeds his character into the hearts of the audience. If that was all there was to Hotel Rwanda, it would be easy to say "9/10". But there has been controversy over the film's presentation of Rusesabagina, with some claiming he wasn't as selfless as the movie suggests. For me, this doesn't detract from the power of the film, but it does give pause when evaluating the movie after the fact.

The film was nominated for three Oscars, including Cheadle for Best Actor (he lost to Jamie Foxx for Ray). #696 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 8/10.

"the telephone" (mario bava, 1963)

Many years ago, I wrote about a favorite horror movie from my youth, Black Sabbath. It was a 3-part anthology, hosted by Boris Karloff, who also appeared in one of the stories. I'm going to quote myself at length here:

One of the stories, “The Telephone,” is about a bisexual call-girl, Rosy, who keeps getting phone calls from her ex-pimp Frank, who has escaped from jail. Frightened, she calls her lesbian former lover Mary … they’re estranged, but Rosy has no one else to turn to, so her ex comes to her apartment. She gives Rosy a tranquilizer to help her sleep, then sits at a desk and writes a confession. She was the one making the calls, impersonating Frank … she heard Frank had broken out of jail and thought to scare Rosy, knowing Rosy would call her and she could come to her aid, bringing them together again. While she is writing her confession, Frank sneaks in, strangles her, then tries to kill Rosy. But Rosy has a knife under her pillow, and she kills Frank instead.

If you saw Black Sabbath when you were young, you might not remember this one in quite the same way. Turns out the entire episode was reworked for the American market. The lesbianism was removed … the estrangement now comes because Mary was with Frank and Rosy took him from her. Rosy was no longer a call-girl. Mary doesn’t impersonate Frank … Frank is the one calling Rosy, which is scary, because Frank died some time before this. The letter Mary writes, her “confession,” is now an admission that she will be calling a shrink for her friend, who is clearly deluded since she thinks she’s getting phone calls from a dead man. Frank shows up, kills Mary, Rosy kills Frank … and we get one last phone call, as Frank tells Rosy she can’t kill him because he’s already dead, and he’ll be calling her every night.

I go into such detail because the changes were so huge, yet were pretty seamless, i.e. I had no idea all of these years that I was seeing a different film entirely. Since the American version was dubbed, it was easy to change the dialogue to fit the new version. What was originally a noirish tale of love and revenge became a horror story about a ghost. As luck would have it, the version I saw was on MGM HD … and guess which version they have the rights to? Yep … I still haven’t seen the original.

Well, it turns out Kanopy has the original, called I tre volti della paura ("The Three Faces of Fear"). And I had recently recorded the film, and it was sitting on our DVR taking up space. So I decided to watch "The Telephone" in the original, and then again in the doctored American version. The above explanation is quite accurate. The American version also had a different soundtrack, provided by Les Baxter, that was more intrusive. Both versions had elements of suspense, but it was nice to finally see the original, with subtitles and its different plot.

le cercle rouge (jean-pierre melville, 1970)

Gradually, I am catching up to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Of course, he's been dead for almost 50 years, but better late than never. Le Cercle Rouge is my fourth Melville movie, and it's not just that I liked them all, it's that they are all very good indeed. Bob le Flambeur, Le Samouraï, Army of Shadows ... hard to pick a favorite amongst them. Le Samouraï in particular was a big influence on John Woo.

Le Cercle Rouge is another strong film. It was Melville's penultimate film ... he died in 1973. He wasn't well-served in the U.S. Le Samouraï, made in 1967, didn't make it to the U.S. until 1972, in a poorly-dubbed version titled The Godson (guess what hit movie had recently been released). Army of Shadows won multiple awards on its release in the USA ... almost 40 years after its initial release. Le Cercle Rouge, which runs 140 minutes, was released in America in a truncated version missing more than 40 minutes.

Le Cercle Rouge is a heist movie, and the actual heist is almost half-an-hour long and features no dialogue. (It's very tense, as you can imagine, but I also confess that at one point, what seemed to be a stationary camera focused on ... well, I don't know what. It took me about a minute to realize the Blu-ray was stuck.) I've seen a lot of Alain Delon's movies and they are all good-to-great. As I wrote about Purple Noon, "Alain Delon seems to intuitively know what makes a movie actor. It is rare that you see Delon doing anything ostentatious, and in those rare occasions, he is serving the script. For the most part, he watches others, learning how to become them in the manner of a chameleon, while his physical beauty grabs our attention no matter who or what else is on the screen."

I might start with Le Samouraï or Army of Shadows, but Le Cercle Rouge is equally worth your attention. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

paisan (roberto rossellini, 1946)

Paisan was the middle film in a trilogy Rossellini released just after WWII, after Rome, Open City and before Germany Year Zero. I am not alone in thinking Open City was the best, but all three are important films. Rossellini combined documentary techniques and mostly amateur actors to create a neo-realistic approach to his fictions. He was a major figure in Italian neo-realism, with this trilogy being perhaps the foremost example.

Paisan is broken into six episodes that roughly tell a chronological account of Italy from the moment when the Allies invaded Sicily. A common thread throughout is the difficulties the various characters have communicating with each other, since they speak different languages. In the first episode, a local Italian woman helps an American patrol where only one of them speaks Italian. In a later episode, some American chaplains stay at a monastery. The language isn't the only source of communication difficulties, because only one of the chaplains is Catholic (the others being Protestant and Jewish).

While the episodes have a certain flow, they also serve to break up the continuity in a way that reflects life during wartime. It's hard to predict what will happen next, both for the audience and for the characters in the war. This adds to the special version of realism the film embodies.

The music, by Rossellini's brother Renzo, is unfortunate. Renzo was an accomplished composer, and the quieter scenes in Paisan are effective. But whenever the action becomes rousing, the music overstates things, overwhelming the visuals, sounding like nothing more than canned background music. #205 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

the great beauty (paolo sorrentino, 2013)

Some times I watch a movie and a few days later I realize I haven't written anything about it because I have nothing to say. This isn't the case with The Great Beauty, which I watched a few days ago but haven't made any comments on it yet. The Great Beauty is lovely in ways that I find hard to articulate. It reminds me of other films, but it's very much its own movie.

This is the second Paolo Sorrentino film I have watched recently, the other being The Hand of God (I also liked Il Divo). The films look beautiful (the cinematographer here is Luca Bigazzi, who also did Il Divo). To my untrained eye (I've never been to Italy), Sorrentino's movies feel authentic to what I imagine is Italy, as a country, as a culture, and even as something affected by geography (north and south are not the same). I read many comments comparing The Great Beauty to Fellini's work, and I can see that. There is a cross-section of humanity, albeit more interested in the upper-and-upper-middle classes. I often find Fellini too absorbed in what comes across in his films as freakish people, but Sorrentino doesn't fall victim to that. At some level, he likes most of his characters here, and the one time someone is dressed down, it's because they don't accept the bemused fatalism of the main character, Jep, and his friends:

You're 53, with a life in tatters, like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little.

Sorrentino has affection. There are some similarities to La Dolce Vita, and The Great Beauty would make a good, if long, double-bill with Fellini's classic. Of course, The Great Beauty comes later ... it's partly a commentary of the earlier film. I imagine Sorrentino has affection for Fellini's characters, too. For me, The Great Beauty is kind but unsparing, as the above quote suggests ... on the brink of despair, always with a little joke.

Toni Servillo is Jep, and without him, the movie would suffer greatly. I'm liking him more every time I see him. With The Hand of God, I noted the wonderful performance by Luisa Ranieri as middle-aged woman who carries an intense aura of sexuality and a troubled emotional background. Sorrentino repeats this with The Great Beauty, this time with Sabrina Ferilli, new to me but not to the world of Italian cinema. She isn't as troubled as Ranieri's characters ... she seems to be in something of the same place with Jep. She is a well-drawn character, and Ferilli does her justice. #151 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

the hand of god (paolo sorrentino, 2021)

Autobiographical film from Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo) about a young boy in a town, Naples, that loves Diego Maradona. While we only see Diego on television (and some distant shots played by an actor who is pretty good at free kicks), he is a central character in the movie. The primary local soccer team, Napoli, had struggled for some time while teams from Northern Italy were enjoying success. Napoli paid a record fee to bring Maradona to Napoli. He was the greatest player of his era, perhaps the greatest of all time, and with him, Napoli returned to the heights of Italian soccer. The Argentine became an icon to the people of Naples ... late in his life he was named an honorary citizen of the city.

The young boy, Fabietto (Filippo Scotti), decides to become a film director as he becomes a young man. Much of this follows the real life of Sorrentino. The first half of the film draws an insightful panorama of life in Naples through the eyes of Fabietto. Family and community are paramount, and the people are lovely, each in their own way. Also, the importance of Maradona to the community is made clear. But then something tragic happens in the life of Fabietto, and the film loses its flow. While the earlier half of the movie covers a period of a couple of years, it's all of a piece. After that, what we get is more a series of vignettes, many of them interesting (and many of them based on the "real"), but the flow is gone. The first half of the film is a classic; the second half is promising but ultimately unfulfilling.

Scotti is very good as Fabietto, and the rest of the cast fits right into their characters. Special kudos to Luisa Ranieri, who plays Fabietto's aunt ... she exudes an aura of sexuality that burns off of the screen, but she also conveys the troubled psyche of a woman who is troubled, emotionally and mentally.

The Oscars are in a few days, and I may not see any more of the nominated films before then, so here is a quick look at those films. I've seen 9 of the 10 movies nominated for Best Picture ... here they are, with links to my posts:

My #1 film of 2021, Summer of Soul, is nominated for Best Documentary Feature.

As for the rest, I think Drive My Car deserves every award for which it is nominated, and I'd like to see Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas win Best Song.

For the acting awards, my only opinions are that Ariana DeBose (West Side Story) is easily the best of the supporting actress nominees, and Andrew Garfield (tick, tick ... BOOM!) is the worst of the best actor nominees. I've seen 17 of the 20 acting nominees.

Finally, here is a work-in-progress ... a Letterboxd list of my Top Movies of 2021.

flee (jonas poher rasmussen, 2021)

You can learn a lot about Flee by looking at the three categories for which it has received an Oscar nomination: Best Documentary Feature, Best Animated Feature, and Best International Feature. It is the first movie in Oscar history to get nominated in all three of those categories, and it is clear from those nominations that this is not a straightforward presentation. Animation draws attention to its unreal nature, while documentaries at least pretend to show "real" life. By choosing to animate his film, Jonas Poher Rasmussen is making a statement about the veracity of documentaries.

The film is also complicated by the possible untrustworthy source of its narrative. Flee tells the story of the pseudonymous "Amin", who is a long-time friend of the director, and who is a refugee from Afghanistan. Rasmussen wants to tell Amin's story, wants to give Amin a chance to tell his story, but Amin has good reasons to hide behind anonymity. We don't know exactly what he looks like, since he is animated in a style so close to rotoscoping that we might forget the face is probably not a match for the real person. We learn of his escape from Afghanistan as a child, and to some extent, that explains all of the ways Amin hides the truth. Rasmussen assumes he knows much of the story, but over the course of the film, he learns that Amin has never told people his entire true story. The revelations are new not just to the audience, but also to the director.

Once you realize that Amin will adjust his story to protect himself, you question the validity of what he tells us about his life. The emotional makeup of the character feels very real, and his reasons for protecting himself are obvious. We sympathize with him ... we don't turn against him when we see how his story is sometimes a bit sideways to the facts, just as Rasmussen remains Amin's friend even as he learns that some of what he has known isn't literally true.

It strikes me that my two favorite movies so far from 2021 are documentaries. Summer of Soul remains my top choice, but Flee is in the same league.

el verdugo (luis garcía berlanga, 1963)

I'm embarrassed to admit that I had never heard of Berlanga, much less seen one of his movies, although in this clip, Pedro Almodóvar says all of Spanish cinema derives from Berlanga and Luis Buñuel.

El Verdugo (The Executioner) is his most renowned film (#265 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time). It's an often charming movie that gradually becomes unsettling, as the protagonist finds he has become the executioner, a job he never wanted. While El Verdugo is a comedy for the most part, it's not laugh-out-loud. The humor lies in the way our hero finds himself ensnared in a position he wants to avoid, and for most of the picture, it's enjoyable to see his options lessen. But at some point, he realizes, and we in the audience realize, that he really is going to become an executioner.

There clearly are subtle references to life in Spain under Franco, references that went over my head. Berlanga pokes fun at the complications of bureaucracy, but whatever is specific to Franco's Spain, I missed. (It suffered from censors' cuts.) Because of the lack of understanding regarding the social context, I was left with the characters, and they brought plenty of enjoyment on their own, albeit at their expense (as we watch them suffer).

The film was a Spanish-Italian production, with Italian actor Nino Manfredi as José Luis, the undertaker's assistant who falls into the executioner's job. The primary Spanish actors, Emma Penella and José Isbert, had long careers in Spanish film, although again, they were new to me.

The final scenes, wherein the new executioner has his first assignment, are cleverly staged and very disturbing, because while José Luis is in some ways unlikeable, Berlanga takes us deep enough into José Luis' predicament that we feel for him. It's masterful.

geezer cinema: beckett (ferdinando cito filomarino, 2021)

I guess John David Washington is a thing now. He starred in Tenet, which was a Geezer Cinema movie for us a couple of months ago. I wrote a few paragraphs without ever mentioning his name (I did talk about Elizabeth Debicki, though). He's not bad in Tenet, nor is he bad in Beckett, although his most notable feature seems to be the oddity of hearing the voice of his father Denzel coming out of John David's mouth. Beckett reminds you of other good movies, particularly the paranoid thrillers of the 70s. The problem is, Beckett isn't as good as the best of those films. Truth is, it's not as good as a lot of films that come to mind, and if that sounds vague, well, I'm still not sure what the hell Beckett was about so I'm going with vague.

Washington is a good choice to play an average Joe who needs to demonstrate some staying power during the kind of physical action that normally would go to a stuntman. But the character is like Job ... everything happens to him, and he keeps coming back for more. The Energizer bunny is a good comp, or the new-model Terminator played by Robert Patrick in T2 that was indestructible. I think they were trying to suggest John McClane in Die Hard, but Beckett is nowhere near as good a movie, and eventually the things that pile onto Beckett become too ludicrous to ignore. Linda Holmes began her review of the film:

There is a moment in the new Netflix thriller Beckett in which the main character played by John David Washington — who's already been in a rollover accident, been shot, been tased, been stung by bees, and likely broken both of his ankles — gets flex cuffs slapped on him, and now he's on the run ... in flex cuffs. The movie isn't even half over.

For what it's worth, Holmes kinda liked Beckett. And I wanted to like it ... I have nothing against mindless action, even though I usually roll my eyes at attempts to add meaningful context by claiming the movie is about politics, Greek, American, or whatever. But Beckett is ultimately just plain stupid, and by the time it ended, I had given up all efforts at any suspension of disbelief.

[Letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies]