Wednesday, April 29, 2015

EX MACHINA

The world will not end with a bang, but with a whimper, wrote T. S. Eliot. And novelist and screenwriter Alex Garland goes full circle from a possible end to the very beginning, by upending the tale of Adam and Eve with Ex Machina. This riff on artificial intelligence marks his directorial debut after a stellar run of dystopian, thoughtful genre-based scripts, and sets up a classic romantic triangle of a woman and two men in a remote, isolated location inaccessible except at preordained moments by helicopter.

     Then Mr. Garland twists it beyond mere science-fiction genre filmmaking into something else: a coolly entomological, smartly unnerving soulmate of Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, asking who exactly is the human in this battle of wits between man and machine. Ava (a winning Alicia Vikander) is not an alien airdropped on Earth like Scarlett Johansson in Mr. Glazer's film. She is an artificial creation - a female-shaped android whose self-actualizing algorithm of behaviour and understanding feeds on the tentacles of the ubiquitous search engine built by the visionary Nathan (Oscar Isaac).

     Unlike Neill Blomkamp's Chappie, a fast-growing mash-up of puppy, tweener and Terminator, Ava has come into the world fully formed, is not the first of her kind and certainly not the last. Her logical mind is learning how to deal with humans not only from the manipulative, almost amoral Nathan but also from Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), the programmer out of his depth whose selection to spend a week with the boss in his remote secret laboratory is not as random as it seems.

     While some of Mr. Garland's previous scripts have mostly been handed out to hyperactive stylists (though, to be fair, Sunshine remains my personal favourite of Danny Boyle's films), Ex Machina sees him go the exact other way as he steps behind the camera. Measured and cerebral, it's a sleek, utterly controlled chamber piece, almost Aristotelian in its strict adherence to unities of time, space and action (seven days, three characters, one set). Mood and acting go side by side to create the film's singular mood, proceeding inexorably like an anxiety-inducing zero-sum gane of chess where each move has been thought out in advance - and this man-made Eve may not, in fact, require either of her two Adams to go out into the world, much like a machine-tooled femme fatale.

     Neither gods or monsters, only humans are at the heart of Ex Machina, and humanity's attraction towards Pandora's boxes of unknown content. But Mr. Garland's film is no cautionary tale, merely a precise thought experiment that asks questions without necessary laying out an answer.

EX MACHINA
USA, United Kingdom, 2014
108 minutes
Cast Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Sonoya Mizuno, Oscar Isaac
Director and screenwriter Alex Garland; cinematographer Rob Hardy (colour, widescreen); composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow; designer Mark Digby; costumes Sammy Sheldon Differ; editor Mark Day; effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst; producers Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich; production companies Universal Pictures International and DNA Films in association with Filmfour
Screened April 14th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon


Monday, April 27, 2015

CAPITÃO FALCÃO

Comedy is a genre that can have problems in travelling, and Capitão Falcão is even less likely to travel, such are the specificities that link it to its home country of Portugal. This retro-flavoured crime-fighting super-hero spoof taking after the camp 1960s TV Batman aims at the fascist regime that ran the country for nearly 50 years, until 1974; therefore, João Leitão's feature debut will probably only truly make sense for those who are aware of the country's 20th century history.

     But if your penchant for humour arcs towards the slow-burn, nonsensical post-Monty Python satire, then Capitão Falcão may just be up your alley, even though it fails to hang together coherently as a feature. That is mostly due, in part, to its original design as a half-hour TV comedy: the adventures of the crime-fighting regime defender Falcão (Gonçalo Waddington) and his Macao-born sidekick Puto Perdiz (stuntman David Chan Cordeiro) had a "proof of concept" in a 2012 pilot short that, surprisingly, was not picked up by any of the local stations.

     Undeterred, director and co-writer Leitão, Mr. Waddington and the small crew pushed forward with the concept as a theatrical feature, an origin story set in the 1960s that explains how the arch-conservative Falcão becomes the hero of the fatherland and the favourite of regime head António de Oliveira Salazar (a spot-on José Pinto). But the script's episodic nature, resembling nothing so much as a string of stand-alone sketches sequenced together, and the clumsy, uninspired handling that seems to consist mainly of close-ups and wide shots (the action scenes are so awkward it's a wonder they even work), underlined by the unwieldy, nearly two-hour running time that the film has some difficulty supporting, suggest that Capitão Falcão would work better as a small-screen offering.

     What makes the film pass muster is the genial nature of the satire, pushing to absurd excess the numbing propaganda of the Salazar regime: Portugal as a muzzled, subservient country, its stifling greyness challenged by the multi-coloured Captains of April, a group of rebel military officers yearning to bring the country into line with the rest of the world. The film often seems to be exaggerating affectionately the old-fashioned, rigid tropes of serial heroics, but doesn't always make clear what is homage and what is clumsiness; still, Mr. Waddington is brilliantly spot-on as the sharp military officer turned blindly loyal and casually offensive hero (not far from Jean Dujardin's take on OSS 117, though less meta-aware), ably supported by Miguel Guilherme as general Gaivota, Falcão's mentor whose apparent death early on triggers part of the plot.

     The sarcastic, very sly nature of Capitão Falcão's wit is enough to show it's a character that has room to grow - but a tighter, less sprawling film might be in order.

CAPITÃO FALCÃO
Portugal, 2015
106 minutes
Cast Gonçalo Waddington, Miguel Guilherme, José Pinto, Rui Mendes, David Chan Cordeiro, Matamba Joaquim
Director João Leitão; screenwriters Mr. Leitão and Nuria Leon Bernardo; cinematographer and editor Mário Melo Costa (colour, widescreen); composer Pedro Marques; production designer Nuno Tomaz; costumes Isabel Quadros; production company Individeos
Screened April 8th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

THE WATER DIVINER

Exactly why actor Russell Crowe decided to step behind the camera is somewhat hard to fathom, judging from the result of a directorial debut that is literally all over the place. To be fair, I have seen much worse debut efforts - and some of them directed by vastly more experienced helmers - than Mr. Crowe's. But for all the nice touches the actor brings to this tale of World War I, The Water Diviner resolves itself in an somewhat schizophrenic old-fashionedly maudlin melodrama crossed with a wish-fulfillment Boy's Own adventure for grown-ups, filled to the brim with peripatetic, only-in-the-movies developments.

     Though anchored in a strong enough premise that evokes the Antipodean trauma of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign, The Water Diviner quickly crumbles into a handsomely mounted but seriously unbalanced free-for-all seasoned with a few sprinkles of magical realism. Four years after Gallipoli, where his three soldier sons all died, Outback farmer Joshua Connor (played appropriately gruffly by Mr. Crowe himself) travels to Turkey to bring back home their bodies to rest alongside their mother.

     Once there, he finds the British Army most unhelpful and the War Graves unit overwhelmed by the need to dig up and identify a quarter million dead bodies. Connor's "water divining" abilities help find the bodies of two of the boys, but it's anyone's guess why this is then quickly forgotten as the film proceeds and he calls on a sympathetic Turkish officer (a wonderful Yilmaz Erdogan) to help him locate the missing son.

     The first half of The Water Diviner is the best - both the battle scenes, shot with a brutal, no-nonsense directness, and the post-war episodes at Gallipoli, where the film attains a sort of mournful, sober grace and a bone-tired weariness that Mr. Crowe handles smartly. But it's a short-lived truce, since the plot quickly unravels as Connor becomes intrigued by his Istambul hostess (an unconvincing Olga Kurylenko), then finds himself involved in the Turkish-Greek rivalry fights going on in the meantime. As it does, The Water Diviner turns into a would-be saga striving for a gravitas and resonance that the plot's popular/populist developments seem to work against.

     Not even the occasional smart flourishes - such as the use of the Arabian Nights as a recurrent, but seriously underused motif - and the general technical competence save it from being a clumsy, awkward, well-meaning mess, with enough ideas for three or four movies thrown away in a single one.

THE WATER DIVINER
Australia, USA, 2014
111 minutes
Cast Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz, Jai Courtney
Director Mr. Crowe; screenwriters Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios; cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (colour, widescreen); composers David Hirschfelder, Ludovico Einaudi, Richard Tognetti and Lisa Gerrard; designer Christopher Kennedy; costumes Tess Schofield; editor Matt Villa; producers Andrew Mason, Keith Rodger and Troy Lum; production companies Ratpac Entertainment, Seven Network Australia, Hopscotch Features and Fear of God Films in association with Megiste Films, DC Tour, EJM Productions and Axphon
Screened April 13th 2015, Lisbon


Monday, April 20, 2015

OUTRO PAÍS
Another Country

It's one thing to see a director's first effort "in its own time" - that is, when it's first completed and released - and another to catch up with it later, after seeing everything that came afterwards. What's striking about Portuguese documentarian Sérgio Tréfaut's work is just how much of what he would do later is already fully present in his feature debut, 1998's Outro País, finally gaining a limited commercial release: his interest in going after what is there in plain sight but that not many people bothered to look into in depth.

     Outro País looks at the Portuguese revolution of 1974 that brought down a totalitarian regime that ran for nearly 50 years not through the eyes of the locals who lived through it - as most documentaries tend to do - but through the lenses of foreign photographers and filmmakers who came to cover it for international media. Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado or American filmmaker Robert Kramer explain to Mr. Tréfaut's camera what attracted them to Portugal in the heady post-revolutionary days of 1974 and 1975 and what their work meant to them then and now, hence the title, meaning "another country" - this is the country as seen and depicted by those who were unencumbered by the weight of history.

     Mixing interviews shot specifically for the film (some of the interviewees are sadly no longer with us by now) with footage or stills they shot in 1974/75, Outro País carries the same sense of fragmentation, of incompleteness, that is visible in all of Mr. Tréfaut's work: not so much a finished film but a mere fragment of a longer, continuing film. This could have gone on longer, started and ended elsewhere, and yet it would still tell this story and frame it this way.

     This "variable geometry" that nearly all of the documentarian's work adheres to remains one of his most endearing traits, underlining his ability to connect what he's doing to a larger picture, a wider frame of which his work is a mere detail that opens up other and equally fascinating avenues for inquiry. That Outro País seems slight and halting is not so much a problem as it is shown to be part and parcel of the director's method, a course he has stubbornly, and successfully, adhered to.

OUTRO PAÍS
Portugal, 1998
71 minutes
Director Sérgio Tréfaut; camera João Ribeiro, Rui Poças and Jon Jost (colour); editors José Nascimento and Pedro Duarte; production companies SP Filmes in co-production with RTP
Screened April 12th 2015, Lisbon (DVD)



Outro País / Another Country (trailer) from Faux on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

PHOENIX

Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome, went the words welcoming the viewer to the seedy night haunts of pre-WWII Berlin in John Kander and Fred Ebb's popular musical adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's Berlin stories, Cabaret. This came to mind because the crux of German director Christian Petzold's latest film lies in a seedy night haunt in post-WWII Berlin, a cabaret by the name of Phoenix, where a woman in search of the husband she lost track of (but really in search of herself) will come and find more than she bargained for.

     In that cabaret, Mr. Petzold has both Cole Porter and Kurt Weill be performed by the resident singers and players; and just as in Mr. Isherwood's stories, the cabaret is both a respite from the world outside and a constant reminder of it. This is Berlin just after the war has ended, rationing cards, checkpoints, buildings reduced to rubble, people getting by as best they can and just wanting to leave behind the past. But not Nelly (Nina Hoss), the woman Mr. Petzold follows into Phoenix: if anything, she is hanging to the past, to the life she led before, before she had to hid from the authorities for being Jewish, before she was found and caught and taken to a concentration camp, before she survived and had to undergo plastic surgery.

     Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), her friend who works at the Jewish Agency and who is helping Nelly get back on her feet, finding her a surgeon, an apartment, wants her to make a clean break and move to Palestine to start anew, away from all the bad memories. But Nelly is hanging on to the memory of Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the husband she lost track of, the man Lene suspects of having given her location to the nazis.

     As Nelly walks through Berlin in search of him, Phoenix unfolds in front of our eyes as a dazzling but not pointless exercise in cinephilia: a film that evokes simultaneously the darkness and doubt of the American post-war film noir but also the testimonial aspect of the Italian neo-realism (Roberto Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Germany Year Zero come both to mind), the double-cross, morally equivocal feel of something like Carol Reed's The Third Man and the carefully stage-managed back-and-forth twisting of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. Because, yes, Nelly, superbly portrayed by Ms. Hoss like a blank slate looking to regain its shape, allows herself to be buffeted by those around her, by a Lene that wants her to start from scratch and a Johnny that doesn't recognize her and wants her to pass herself off as Nelly as she was then.

     Mr. Petzold's script is as difficult to summarize without giving away its many layers as it is crystallinely presented and filmed: it's all about love, about people looking for love in an era when love is apparently impossible, about losing it and recovering it and letting it go and holding on to it. Following on from the already excellent Barbara, Phoenix takes the director's cool, clinical approach to storytelling one step further, its constant referencing of previous films existing not as show-off or crutch but as the presentation of a lineage the film deliberately invokes while defining itself as its own film - very much like Ms. Hoss' equally minutely detailed performance reminds of Ingrid Bergman or Kim Novak yet stands out as its own beast, confirming the unique relationship that the actress and Mr. Petzold have forged over 15 years and half a dozen features. She is the film's true phoenix, who rises reborn from the flames but, in wanting to recapture her own past, realises how much of it she has to let go of for good - and all of it is felt and shown rather spoken.

     Everything in Phoenix lies openly unspoken, but you will understand all of it.

PHOENIX
Germany, Poland 2014
98 minutes
Cast Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
Director Christian Petzold; screenwriters Mr. Petzold with Harun Farocki; inspired by the novel by Hubert Monteilhet Return from the Ashes cinematographer Hans Fromm (colour, widescreen); composer Stefan Will; designer K. D. Gruber; costumes Anette Guther; editor Bettina Böhler; producers Florian Koerner von Gustorf and Michael Weber; production companies Schramm Film Koerner & Weber in co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk, Westdeutscher Rundfunk and ARTE, in association with Tempus Film
Screened April 7th 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

QUEEN AND COUNTRY

Though people mostly remember him for his breakthrough American films, Point Blank and Deliverance, British veteran John Boorman's first feature was the Dave Clark Five's A Hard Day's Night equivalent Catch Us if You Can, done at the height of the Swinging Sixties. There's always been a very British mischievousness in his eye, a desire to do things his own way that has made him a more interesting director than most but also a highly uneven one.

     For Queen and Country, working under the understanding this would be his final feature, the 82-year old director brings his career full circle with a sequel to 1987's fondly-remembered Hope and Glory, the lively comedy about a young schoolboy growing up in WWII London that fictionalised Mr. Boorman's own childhood. Queen and Country picks up nine years later, as the 18-year old Bill Rohan (now played by Callum Turner, looking like a younger Benedict Cumberbatch), living with his family next door to the Shepperton film studios, is conscripted into military service.

     But whereas there was a sense of wide-eyed buoyancy in Hope and Glory, while portraying a situation where all normal rules of society were suspended for the duration of the war, the new film has to deal with the post-war blues, the sense that the world was changing into something else and nobody quite knew what to expect. Bill and his fellow squaddies are forced to try to fit in into a society that seems by now pretty fusty and old-fashioned - the Army is here presented as a metaphor for the "old England" WWII had pretty much dismantled but to which the country was still hanging on by a thread, while Bill and his best mate Percy (Caleb Landry Jones) are the first seeds of the "new", "pop" Britain that the Beatles came to epitomize. Not by nothing does Mr. Boorman end his film with Bill's first attempts at filmmaking - and those in on the joke will no doubt bring it full circle to Catch Us if You Can. 

     Even granting that by its very nature this isn't a story as light as Hope and Glory - since it deals with the moment in life where the freedom of childhood gives way to the demands of adulthood - Queen and Country comes off as a perfectly nice but rather unmemorable five o'clock tea. Though always warm-hearted and sincere, the film never seems to find the balance it aims for between broad service comedy and bitter-sweet Bildungsroman: the puppy love between Bill and the too-good-for-him Ophelia (Tamsin Egerton) takes a backseat to the underwhelming series of barracks episodes that bring no new particular insight to the genre and seem to essentially overly belabour the issues.

     Maybe the issue is that Queen and Country extends for nearly two hours when it could have very well made its point in 90 minutes - there are certainly worse sins than that. Or maybe it's just that, in following up such a fondly remembered film, it could have used a bit more zip. Or, ultimately, it's just that this is a film Mr. Boorman made mostly for himself, more than for the world at large. Which would make it an even more fitting ending to a certainly idiossyncratic but never less than intriguing career, even if an underwhelming one.

QUEEN AND COUNTRY
France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Romania, 2014
110 minutes
Cast Caleb Landry Jones, Callum Turner, David Thewlis, Pat Shortt, Brían F. O'Byrne, Tamsin Egerton, Vanessa Kirby, Aimée-Ffion Edwards, Sinéad Cusack, David Hayman, Simon Paisley Day, John Standing, Richard E. Grant
Director and screenwriter John Boorman; cinematography Seamus Deasy (colour); composer Stephen McKeon; designer Anthony Pratt; costumes Maeve Paterson; editor Ron Davis; producers Kieran Corrigan and Mr. Boorman; production companies Le Pacte, the British Film Institute and Merlin Films in association with the Irish Film Board
Screened April 6th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)


Monday, April 13, 2015

THE SALT OF THE EARTH

The excellent result of German veteran Wim Wenders' film about Pina Bausch, 2011's visionary 3D experience Pina, certainly helps expect the best from his take on the life and work of acclaimed Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. Yet, no such luck: while this is still a cut above Mr. Wenders' latest below-par fictions, this film co-directed with Mr. Salgado's son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, seems to be a compromise work, a sort of "relay race" where the directors pass the "baton" back and forth but never really make the most of what they have at hand.

     There's a sense that Mr. Wenders wanted to delve deeper into the personal connection between photographer and subject, as seen in the interview sequences where Mr. Salgado is shot head-on through a "scrim" where his pictures are being projected; and that Mr. Ribeiro Salgado was more interested in a straight biographical narrative. The connecting tissue between both is the photographer's powerful black & white work, presented in chronological order, and punctuated by his own comments, as a sort of "witness" or "register" of the "social condition".

     What's interesting about The Salt of the Earth is that it aims at being journey into an unheralded "heart of darkness", as if Mr. Salgado was a still-photography, more contemplative equivalent of Werner Herzog, looking at the underside of contemporary civilization - and that is in fact how Mr. Wenders seem to look at him at times, like a messenger from the other side of life. But that approach never truly gels with the smoother, more traditional biographical aspect that goes from A to B to C; if the film is always beautiful to look at (and yes, it is), it is also somewhat unsatisfactory as an exploration of Mr. Salgado's mind and work, preferring to dwell on the

     The result is a never-less-than-interesting documentary, for sure, done with all the technical polish expected (high marks for Laurent Petitgand's evocative, ambient score), but where you feel an unresolved push-and-pull between its directors (and, in interviews, both directors have stated the film took a long while to "find"). It's less than the sum of its parts.

THE SALT OF THE EARTH
France, Brazil, Italy, 2014
106 minutes
Directors Wim Wenders and Juliano Ribeiro Salgado; screenwriters Mr. Ribeiro Salgado, Mr. Wenders and David Rosier; cinematographers Hugo Barbier and Mr. Ribeiro Salgado (colour and black & white); composer Laurent Petitgand; editors Maxine Goedicke and Rob Myers; producer Mr. Rosier; production companies Decia Films in co-production with Amazonas Images and Fondazione Solares delle Arti
Screened April 4th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener) 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

KAGUYA-HIME NO MONOGATARI
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

Let's call it what it is - a devastating one-two punch that marks both the actual end of Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli and the official retirement of its master craftsmen, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. And though Mr. Miyazaki remains the most acclaimed of the pair, and his swan song The Wind Rises is a moving, perfect summation of his career and aesthetics, it's hard not think that Mr. Takahata's Tale of the Princess Kaguya - 15 years in the conception and eight years in the making - is the actual masterpiece of the two.

     A sweeping zen epic of simple yet exquisitely detailed hand-crafted animation, this take on a traditional Japanese fairy tale turns what seem to be its apparent weaknesses into its greatest strengths, requiring the viewer more attuned to a fuller, more precise type of animation to adjust its expectations as the film moves on at a stately, dreamlike pace. More painterly and evocative than properly descriptive, yet impeccably structured and narratively flawless, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya unfolds as quietly as a budding flower, like the beautiful little baby that sprouts fully-formed from a bamboo stalk in a forest and is taken in by a bamboo-cutter and his wife, only to start growing into a young girl at alarming speed.

     The film's delicate visuals, switching almost imperceptibly between colourful impressionism and dark expressionism, lull you gently into the essence of the universal lessons of its fairy tale narrative about the pursuit of truth and happiness. The inexorability of the circle of life is touchingly rendered as we watch Kaguya literally come of age and learn what it's like to be human, understanding that nobility is not something you buy but something you are born with regardless of your origins.

     What makes its tale even more touching is the refusal of Mr. Takahata to whitewash any of the pain and any of the doubts that Kaguya feels throughout, and to reduce it all to the mere level of a fairy tale for kids. Instead, the director treats it as a classic, universal coming of age tale whose delicate stylings never hide the truth or the strength of the underlying emotions but rather bring them out into the open - something that you would be hard-pressed to do in any other visual form.

     It's the fact that Mr. Takahata has made it as an animated feature that makes The Tale of the Princess Kaguya resonate in such a way: its disarming visual poetry, the quiet watercolour backgrounds and the hand-drawn characters unlock the viewer's emotions by appealing simultaneously to the wide-eyed child and to the thinking, feeling adult that co-exist inside him. To call it a melancholy masterpiece - even if its sprawling length can occasionally seem excessive or unnecessary - is faint praise indeed, even if it takes more than just one viewing to fully understand it.

KAGUYA-HIME NO MONOGATARI
Japan, 2013
137 minutes
Original Japanese voice cast: Aki Asakura, Kengo Kora, Takeo Chii, Nobuko Miyamoto, Atsuko Takahata, Tomoko Tabata, Shinosuke Tatekawa, Takaya Kamikawa, Hikaru Ijuin, Ryudo Uzaki, Shichinosuke Nakamura, Isao Hashizume, Yukiji Asaoka, Tatsuya Nakadai
Director Isao Takahata; animation director Kenichi Konishi; screenwriter Riko Sakaguchi; based on a story by Mr. Takahata and on the Japanese fairy tale «The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter»; cinematographer Keisuke Nakamura; composer Joe Hisaishi; art director Kazuo Oga; animation designer Tanabe Osamu; producers Seiichiro Ujiie, Koji Yoshino and Yoshiaki Nishimura; production companies Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television Network, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi Corporation, Toho Company and KDDI Corporation
Screened April 4th 2015, Lisbon


Friday, April 10, 2015

CARLOS DO CARMO - UM HOMEM NO MUNDO

One of the most important figures in the history of Fado, Lisbon's native song, and the son of one of its greatest practitioners, Lucília do Carmo, Carlos do Carmo's 50-year career certainly deserves a documentary victory lap that underlines the role he played in opening up the genre and renovating it in a period (the 1970s) when it was openly unpalatable and dismissed out of hand. After all, Mr. do Carmo's career has been well documented from his beginnings in the 1960s, and he has arguably been the genre's most visible male practitioner in the past half-century, after the death of the legendary Alfredo Marceneiro and the rise of the remarkable Camané.

     Unfortunately, Um Homem no Mundo sidesteps pretty much all of these aspects to become a self-congratulatory and highly complacent home movie of Mr. do Carmo's travels and of the honours that surrounded the celebration of his 50-year career and his reception of the Grammy Latino award in Las Vegas. Director Ivan Dias, who was one of the producers of Carlos Saura's underwhelming Fado showcase Fados, seems to be attempting to make for the singer what Miguel Gonçalves Mendes did for the late Nobel-winning writer José Saramago in the vastly superior José & Pilar - a film where the personal side of Mr. do Carmo sheds light on his creative practice - but fails miserably.

     There is no possible insight gleaned from a meal with his grandsons that is shown at great length, nor from the extended footage from the Grammy Latino pre- and post-ceremony - and there's precious little period footage that explains just how long his career has been and how important it's been. And the interviews with friends and admirers - like artist Júlio Pomar, Mr. Saramago's widow Pilar del Rio or musicologist Rui Vieira Nery - reveal little or nothing either about Fado or about Mr. do Carmo's artistry.

     For an international audience that has little to no knowledge of Fado or of the artist, Um Homem no Mundo comes off as worthless hagiography; for the locals who know of him, the film may be diverting but is a mere fluff piece, lacking rhythm or direction, that would make more sense as a DVD extra or as segments in a celebrity gossip programme - as underlined by the embarrassing post-credits footage of the Las Vegas wedding where he renewed his marriage vows with his wife during the Grammy Latino trip, something that makes little to no sense to be shared with a wider audience. Which is a shame: Mr. do Carmo does deserve a documentary homage. But this is neither homage nor documentary.

Originally meant for a December 2014 theatrical release in Portugal, the film was delayed at the last minute until April 2015 over what the distributor claimed were legal issues related to some of the music included. This review is based on the original 109-minute cut shown at the time; the final version released in April 2015, which was not screened for the press, is according to the distributors exactly the same with a few shots trimmed in length. 

CARLOS DO CARMO - UM HOMEM NO MUNDO
Portugal, 2014
109 minutes
Director and producer Ivan Dias; cinematographers Carlos Mendes Pereira and Gonçalo Falé; editor Jorge Carvalho; production companies Duvideo Filmes in co-production with Vanya Films, RTP, Fado Património da Humanidade, EGEAC and Lisbon Fado Museum
Screened December 17th 2014, Lisbon (DVD press screener)


Thursday, April 09, 2015

FAST & FURIOUS 7

At some point in Fast & Furious 7 somebody evokes, half-jokingly, "a bad TV series from the 1970s" - and probably without even realizing it, that's precisely what the Fast & Furious series turns out to have become in this long-awaited, utterly disappointing instalment.

     The TV reference is particularly appropriate: the film's insistence in implausible but spectacular action setpieces, while tying up loose ends from previous episodes, practically demands the suspension of disbelief that stuff like Wonder Woman or The A Team churned out week after week. And the scripting (by Chris Morgan, in charge of writing since film # 3) is pretty much at the same level of spoon-fed homilies about the importance of family against a backdrop of simplistic good-vs-evil heroics. 

     In itself nothing to worry too much about; we shouldn't forget the franchise pretty much started back in 2000 like a throwback to the old-fashioned drive-in exploitation movies of the 1960s and 1970s, where what really mattered were cool cars, cool chicks, cool heroes. The problem is, by now Fast & Furious have probably become the most expensive exploitation movies ever, and that comes with its own set of issues; hence, 7 is basically a series of outlandish, gravity-defying car stunts hung out to dry from a narrative clothesline that is so almost thin as to be almost non-existent, going for broke with all the elements of cheap melodrama hoping its excess will eventually propel it into meta-narrative heaven. 

     No such luck, alas: the series' crew of daredevil thrill-chasing drivers, led by the ever-muscular Vin Diesel, must now confront the almost invincible villainy of Jason Statham, seeking revenge for their elimination of his kid brother in episode 6, but are also sidetracked by an operation commissioned by a US black-ops agency in exchange for its help in tracking down Statham. There's a 007-ish undercurrent here, but one that never manages to invoke the Bond series' tongue-in-cheek humour that winked at the viewer and asked him not to take any of this seriously. 

     Furious 7 takes the exact opposite road, awash as it is in the certainly sincere but overly po-faced sentimentalism of "the family that drives together stays together", made worse by the realisation that the series' other anchoring regular, Paul Walker, died tragically halfway through the shoot. It's worth asking how much of this mawkishness was already in the original script and how much of it was added after Mr. Walker's death - all reports say the film was extensively overhauled - but it's also worth pointing out that family has been a recurring theme for director James Wan. 

     The Australian creator of Saw, one of the most interesting contemporary horror-movie directors, moves up in the Hollywood pecking order by helming here his first big-budget blockbuster, but it's clear that the old-school, less-is-more approach that made his films so interesting has all but been discarded here. The entire Furious franchise has been built on excess, so there's a sense that for all the streamlined efficiency Mr. Wan brings to the film, he is clearly here as a mere assembly-line foreman tasked with executing a pre-ordained, pre-approved blueprint according to specifications. 

     In many ways, Fast & Furious 7 fulfills its desire to be the greatest film spectacle a Hollywood big budget can buy; but why does a great film spectacle have to be so bereft of originality or imagination other than in finding out ways of making bigger and better car stunts?

FAST & FURIOUS 7 aka FURIOUS 7
USA, China, Japan, 2015
137 minutes
Cast Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris Bridges, Jordanna Brewster, Djimon Hounsou, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Jason Statham
Director James Wan; screenwriter Chris Morgan; cinematographers Stephen M. Windon and Marc Spicer (colour, widescreen); composer Brian Tyler; designer Bill Brzeski; costumes Sanja Milkovic Ways; editors Christian Wagner, Dylan Highsmith, Kirk Morri and Leigh Folsom Boyd; effects supervisors Michael J. Wassel and Kelvin McIlwain; producers Neal H. Moritz, Mr. Diesel and Michael Fottrell; production companies Universal Pictures, Original Film and One Race Films in association with MRC, China Film Company, Dentsu and Nippon Television Network
Screened March 31st 2015, NOS Colombo IMAX, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, April 08, 2015

HUNGRY HEARTS

Is what you see actually what you get? A good question when it comes to Italian director Saverio Costanzo's mysterious, oblique cinema, full of intriguing twists and turns that build up to a world, a mood, rather to a neatly tied story. Hungry Hearts starts off with a one-take tour de force that forces Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher to share a bathroom in a Chinese restaurant where they find themselves stuck as he's coming out and she's coming in; it's a meet cute straight out of a romantic comedy, but one that is subverted by the unpleasant nature of the event.

     And even if it signposts that Jude (Mr. Driver) and Mina (Ms. Rohrwacher) are about to become a couple, what follows, adapted by Mr. Costanzo from a novel by Marco Franzoso, is as far away from a romantic comedy as possible. Pregnancy changes Mina, who becomes unhealthily obsessed with the baby's health, as if she wants to protect the yet unborn child from the New York City surrounding them; "depression is a flaw of chemistry", can be read on a sign painted on the side of one of the buildings Mina can see from their own place's roof, in a shot that is somewhat reminding of the rooftop suicide in Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth.

     While we're on the subject of references, many have pointed out how much Hungry Hearts evokes Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby; I'd extend that Polanski reference to the Polish director's claustrophobic huis-clos works (Repulsion, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden, even Venus in Fur) but also invoke Todd Haynes' Safe and the "urban allergies" developed by Julianne Moore. Because Ms. Rohrwacher is effectively channeling something of Mia Farrow's uneasiness, playing a woman whose behaviour seems at some point to cross over into the seriously strange and unexplainable, while defending against all evidence that "mother knows best".

     What if she doesn't? That's the question Mr. Costanzo dangles throughout Hungry Hearts, as the film swings between the stubbornness of Mina and that of Jude's overbearing mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) - both letting the primal "mother knows best" attitudes kick in when it comes to defending the health of the newborn baby. Ultimately, the film becomes a struggle for the soul of the couple, as embodied in the young baby that is supposedly the consummation of their love; will he take after the mother or the father? Hungry Hearts revels in the claustrophobic cocoon it envelops itself in (hence the Polanski reference), DP Fabio Cianchetti's camera unafraid of becoming intrusive and obtrusive to best capture the unspoken aggression and questioning that starts to undermine the couple's relationship.

     Less distant and more relatable than the previous In Memory of Me and The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Mr. Costanzo's fourth feature still doesn't reveal its secrets easily, but its disquieting exercise in tunnel-vision, in making things seem different than they are, confirms the director's skill at adapting his style and form to the film he wants to make. Whether it's the film we want to see is something else entirely.

HUNGRY HEARTS
Italy, USA, 2014
113 minutes
Cast Adam Driver, Alba Rohrwacher, Roberta Maxwell
Director and screenwriter Saverio Costanzo; based on the novel Il Bambino indaco by Marco Franzoso; cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti (colour); composer Nicola Piovani; designer Amy Williams; costumes Antonella Cannarozzi; editor Francesca Calvelli; producers Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Mieli; production companies Wildside and Rai Cinema in association with Atlantic Pictures
Screened March 30th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

SUITE FRANÇAISE

Among the many variations on the "love that dare not speak its name", one of the most morally dubious is that of the "forbidden fruit" wartime affair. Though that is indeed at the heart of Suite Française, it's thankfully not rendered as superficially and simply as that.

     In Saul Dibb's adaptation of part of Irène Némirovsky's posthumous, unfinished novel, the inevitable attraction between German officer Bruno von Falk (Matthias Schoenhaerts) and Frenchwoman Lucile Angellier (Michelle Williams) in 1940 rural France is coated in doubt and remorse, but also in defiance and truth. This makes Suite Française into a peculiar sort of woman's picture - one that highlights the traditional romance of a woman struggling against circumstances that prevent her from truly fulfill herself, but that also extends it through a series of micro-narratives that colour it around the edges, mirroring its structure while filling in the blanks.

     Just like Mr. Dibb's bodice-ripper The Duchess seemed on the surface a mere prestige period drama tailor-made for Keira Knightley and turned out to have a peculiar, feminist undertone about a woman struggling with the social niceties of her period, so does Ms. Williams' Lucile reflect the shifting moral dimensions of the early days of the Nazi invasion of France during WWII. Stuck with her ogre of a mother-in-law (a typecast Kristin Scott Thomas in essentially a supporting role) in a small town that still seems to live according to feudal times, with the aristocracy exploiting the rentiers who look over their lands, Lucile is perfectly aware her infatuation with the officer billeted to her house is wrong, especially since her own husband is away fighting. But her stifled self can't help recognise in this piano-playing, polite enemy a sort of kindred soul that seems to be as much of an outlier as she is in a place where everyone is more concerned with making sure they're better than everyone else.

     The word "love" is never really uttered between Lucile and Bruno, though it's clear to us that it is on both their minds from a certain point, and the film makes much of the shifting moral allegiances of everyone involved, pointing out that everybody has their reasons. In one of the film's most arresting sequences, Lucile finds out the trove of poison pen letters the town's inhabitants sent to the German occupants, denouncing once and for all the hypocrisy of Bussy's need to "keep up appearances" that will become the catalyst to her actions from then on. That the film's vision of wartime France avoids gratuitous manicheism and quick judgment to explore the many shades of behaviour and self-justification is all the more tribute to Ms. Némirovsky's writing: the novel was being composed at the very moment its story was taking place, and the writer died in a concentration camp in 1942 without ever finishing it, the manuscript being published posthumously only nearly a half century later.

     A modern woman stifling in the corset of old-fashioned manners that WWII destroyed once and for all, Lucile is another of Ms. Williams' stronger-than-they-seem women roles, and also a quietly controlled, fiery-on-the-inside performance that underlines the actress' ability to lose herself inside her characters. Mr. Dibb surrounds her with the traditionally impeccable, British-quality period reconstruction of prestige pictures, but also allows the underlying disquiet to permeate the film and bubble under the surface without ever truly spilling over the edge.

SUITE FRANÇAISE
France, United Kingdom, Belgium, USA, 2014
107 minutes
Cast Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mathias Schoenhaerts, Sam Riley, Ruth Wilson, Heino Ferch, Tom Schilling, Harriet Walter, Alexandra Maria Lara, Clare Holman, Margot Robbie, Lambert Wilson
Director Saul Dibb; screenwriters Mr. Dibb and Matt Charman; based on the novel Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky; cinematographer Eduard Grau (colour, widescreen); composers Rael Jones and Alexandre Desplat; designer Michael Carlin; costumes Michael O'Connor; editor Chris Dickens; producers Xavier Marchand, Nicolas Bremond, Michael Kuhn and Andrea Cornwell; production companies TF1 Droits Audiovisuels and Entertainment One Films Production in co-production with Scope Pictures, in association with BBC Films and The Weinstein Company
Screened March 27th 2015, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Monday, April 06, 2015

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE

You would expect the meeting between novelist Michel Houellebecq and writer/director duo Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern to pop with absurdist, sly, deadpan humour, judging both by Mr. Houellebecq's performance in the hugely enjoyable The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq and the offbeat gags of Messrs. Delépine and Kervern's Louise-Michel or Mammuth. Surprisingly, and affectingly enough, not so (despite a peculiar entr'acte envolving a cycling game with jawbusters and figurines).

     The melancholy streak that came through in Mammuth, where Gérard Depardieu played a retiree retreading his life, comes full bore in Near Death Experience, extending that sense of a life examined to the calm and collected decision of call-center employee Paul (played by Mr. Houellebecq) to kill himself in the mountains surrounding his town. It's probably the most radical and austere film Messrs. Delépine and Kervern have ever made: for nearly all of its length Mr. Houellebecq is all alone on screen on actual locations, and there's practically no dialogue other than Paul's voiceover, filling in the blanks for what's happening on screen.

     The novelist may not be playing himself here, but there's a huge sense that his performance extrapolates clearly from his public image. The fact he plays a frustrated call-center employee who feels his life is essentially over is not mere "slumming" or dilettantism, but an actual engaging with themes and meditations that he has explored before, whether in writing or elsewhere. And his sheer presence, halfway between a sad clown and a sly wit, helps give Paul's decision to let go of life a gravitas, a realization of what's wrong with modern civilization.

     Would Near Death Experience work as well with another actor? Who knows; even with Mr. Houellebecq, the film has issues of rhythm and occasional flagging that suggest a full-length feature may not have been the fittest format for the rigorous experimentalism being explored here (more visible in the constant and deliberate shifting in image quality and grain). But the subterranean emotion at work in what effectively is a suicide letter from the pits of despair gives the film a heft that can't be easily displaced, even if you feel this isn't exactly Messrs. Delépine and Kervern's most accomplished work. They're actually taking chances here, and that makes it fascinating.

NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
France, 2014
90 minutes
Cast Michel Houellebecq, Marius Bertram, Manon Chancé
Directors and writers Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern; cinematographer Hugues Poulain (colour, widescreen); editor Stéphane Elmadjian; production company No Money Productions
Screened March 26th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Sunday, April 05, 2015

L'ENLÈVEMENT DE MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ
The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq

So much for public intellectuals being po-faced, overly serious elitists without a sense of humour. French agent provocateur writer and all-around-hyphenate Michel Houellebecq sends himself up gleefully, while taking himself entirely seriously, in writer/director Guillaume Nicloux's bewilderingly diverting and entirely unclassifiable UFO.

     A fiction shot like a documentary inspired by real events, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq starts off from the mysterious disappearance of the writer during a 2011 book tour. For a few days nobody knew of his whereabouts; when he reappeared to go on as if nothing had happened, without any sort of explanation, the episode gained a patina of mystery that reminds you of crime novelist Agatha Christie's temporary disappearance at the height of her fame.

     Mr. Nicloux, a friend of the novelist, fantasizes Mr. Houellebecq (essentially playing an alternate himself) to have been kidnapped by a trio of unlikely strongmen (Maxime Lefrançois, Mathieu Nicourt and Luc Schwarz) who keep him at the country home of the parents of one of them. Why he was taken, who is behind all of this and why the kidnappers never even hide their faces will remain unresolved throughout the film's length; both the novelist and the director prefer to gleefully subvert the expectations of the viewer, while simultaneously shattering and reinforcing the idea of a French cultural discourse.

     While the three kidnappers seem on the surface to be of the "brainless muscle" variety (including a true-life bodybuilder, Mr. Lefrançois, and an MMA fighter, Mr. Nicourt), it turns out there will be literary arguments fielded at the dinner table between the working class and the intellectual, prostitute trysts arranged by Mathieu's aging mother, conversations with a Polish mechanic that speaks no French, discussions about the power of creativity and the future of democracy, and cakes. The kidnapping turns out to be a sort of unexpected vacation from reality, a dream of finding refuge from the never-ending bustle of modern life, shot in apparent handheld improvisation with the camera embedded alongside Mr. Houellebecq and his kidnappers.

     More importantly, there is no sense of condescension or elitism in the whole project, ejected by the very dry, deadpan nature of the humour and the continuous comment on the expectations the nature of the modern media cycle place upon public figures. And the novelist's almost clownish, extremely shrewd presence not only fits very well his public persona as agent provocateur, it also explains very clearly why he does it: to allow a different, singular take on things we all take for granted.

     Although made for television, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq is a perfect example of the current experiments in the so-called cinémas du réel, deliberately blurring the lines between documentary and fiction to create a narrative that borrows from both without choosing sides and leaving the viewer to make up his own mind as to what he is watching. It's also the best thing of Mr. Nicloux's that I've seen.

L'ENLÈVEMENT DE MICHEL HOUELLEBECQ
France, 2014
93 minutes
Cast Michel Houellebecq, Maxime Lefrançois, Mathieu Nicourt, Luc Schwarz
Director and screenwriter Guillaume Nicloux; cinematographer Christophe Offenstein (colour, widescreen); designer Olivier Radot; costumes Anaïs Romand; editor Guy Lecorne; production companies Les Films du Worso, Chic Films and ARTE France
Screened March 25th 2015, Lisbon (distributor screener)


Saturday, April 04, 2015

CHE STRANO CHIAMARSI FEDERICO - SCOLA RACCONTA FELLINI

There's something unabashedly nostalgic, but not necessarily fusty, about Italian veteran Ettore Scola's memoir of his friendship with the legendary Federico Fellini. In many ways, it's really nice to see an 81-year old director work at a film so defiant of traditional characterizations; Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico is not a fiction, but despite its basis in fact it can't be called a documentary either, and it switches from black & white to colour at the director's whim.

     At the same time, there's a certain wariness in the fact that this slight but heartfelt memoir becomes, towards its end, a sort of real-life Cinema Paradiso - a celebration of the transformative magic of cinema, something Mr. Fellini seemed to make a point of underlying at every point in his vast career. But the big difference is Mr. Scola is drawing on his own memories and experiences and recreating the central moments of his friendship with Mr. Fellini.

     Using the legendary Stage 5 at Rome's Cinecittà as "nerve centre" of the work, transformed by designer Luciano Ricceri into the offices of the Italian satirical newspaper Marc'Aurelio (where both Messrs. Scola and Fellini started as writers) or into the streets of Rome Mr. Fellini drove through at night to chase insomnia, Mr. Scola creates a sort of free-wheeling fantasia that collapses time and space in a manner recognisable to those who have minimum knowledge of the golden years of post-war 20th century Italian filmmaking. Film is here a sort of "grand illusion" that attracted an entire generation of talents, some of which appear in the film recreated by actors, and it is that generation's story that Mr. Scola tells through his lens, giving walk-on supporting roles to screenwriters Ruggero Maccari, Agenore Incrocci or Furio Scarpelli, director Steno or actor Marcello Mastroianni (in a hilarious gag where Mr. Mastroianni's mother shows up to ask why does Mr. Scola always makes her son look ugly in his films).

     As I said before, this isn't a documentary - though there is a loose chronological flow and archival footage is occasionally used, most of Che Strano Chiamarsi Federico is really a recreation, and here and there a rather creaky one, suggesting a director who is no longer on top of his game. But there's also a welcome lack of pretense or pretension, a sense that this is a pet project carried by genuine emotion and respect and that follows a personal flow rather than a scripted commission - and that certainly gives it an added touch that makes me overlook any insufficiencies the film may have.

CHE STRANO CHIAMARSI FEDERICO - SCOLA RACCONTA FELLINI
Italy, 2013
93 minutes
Cast Vittorio Viviani, Sergio Pierattini, Vittorio Marsiglia, Antonella Attili, Sergio Rubini, Tommaso Lazotti, Emiliano de Martino, Giacomo Lazotti, Emanuele Salce, Miriam Dalmazio, Carlo de Ruggeri
Director Ettore Scola; screenwriters Mr. Scola, Paola Scola and Silvia Scola; based on an idea by Roberto Cicutto; cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (colour); composer Andrea Guerra; designer Luciano Ricceri; costumes Massimo Cantini Parrini; editor Raimondo Crociani; producers Mario Mauri, Carlo degli Esposti and Mr. Cicutto; production companies Palomar, Paypermoon and Istituto Luce-Cinecittà in association with Rai Cinema and Cinecittà Studios
Screened March 24th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)


Thursday, April 02, 2015

VIAGGIO IN ITALIA
Journey to Italy

In many ways, the journey taken by the British couple at the heart of Journey to Italy is a journey of engagement with the world around them. What begins as purely a necessary trip to deal with the estate of a deceased expatriate relative becomes an awakening of the senses and of the mind: not so much a surrendering to la dolce vita as a realization of all that is passing them by.

     Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alexander (George Sanders) have outwardly a good enough marriage, but once taken off their comfortable London surroundings and transplanted to the countryside outside Naples, in the shadow of the volcano, they suddenly discover how little they have in common and how their entire relationship has excluded intimacy. What follows, in Roberto Rossellini's typically thoughtful and pared down melodrama of falling out and back in love, is the story of two people "looking for love in all the wrong places", or trying to rediscover what it is they thought they saw in each other: Katherine looks toward the spirit (poetry, art, sightseeing), Alex towards the flesh (his discreet, and not entirely successful, womanizing).

     Katherine surrenders to what surrounds her, Alex resists it, their seesawing between the need to maintain appearances and their desire to let go of social codes made visible in the luminous, solar b&w lensing by DP Enzo Serafin. It's far too easy to reduce it to a simple matter of "uptight Brits letting go of their problems in the sunny South", because Mr. Rossellini is aiming at a much deeper and more resonating voyage of self-discovery - one that isn't all about pat self-help issues but almost bubbles up from the soil until it becomes impossible to avoid it.

     And no wonder it all comes to a boil along with the discovery of the lava-encased bodies of the Pompeii couple uncovered while they're visiting: it's almost a volcanic eruption of emotion and understanding that makes it clear to Katherine and Alex that their relationship is at a crossroads. Mr. Rossellini has not needed to spell it out loud in block letters, just let it simmer beneath the surface until that outpouring of emotion that inscribes Journey to Italy in the director's grand tradition of spiritual meditations on the simplicity of life and love in a world awash in almost unbearable complexity.

VIAGGIO IN ITALIA
Italy, France, 1954
86 minutes
Cast Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Marie Mauban, Anna Proclemer, Paul Muller, Leslie Daniels, Natalia Rai, Jackie Frost
Director Roberto Rossellini; screenwriters Vitaliano Brancati and Mr. Rossellini; cinematographer Enzo Serafin (b&w); composer Renzo Rossellini; art director Piero Filippone; costumes Fernanda Gattinoni; editor Jolanda Benvenuti; production companies Sveva Film, Junior Film, Italiafilm and SGC
Screened March 19th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)


Wednesday, April 01, 2015

STROMBOLI, TERRA DI DIO
Stromboli

Stromboli was the moment when Hollywood star Ingrid Bergman and Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini met — initially to make a film, but then entering a long-standing personal and professional relationship that pretty much froze her stardom and her American profile. What came to be known as an austere art-house film actually recycles many of the standard concepts of the Hollywood woman's picture, and underlines just how much Mr. Rossellini's approach to filmmaking (shooting on location with mostly non-professional actors) is the key difference between his compassionate moral meditations and the more straight-forward feminine weepies.

     Ms. Bergman, luminous and never lovelier, plays a desperate, strong-headed woman who resists the roles society wants to reduce her to - in fact, Lithuanian war refugee Karin Bjornsen is a double or mirror image of the actress' own predicament as she travels to the Italian volcanic island of Stromboli, following the soldier (Mario Vitale) she fell in love with and married as a way out of the internment camp she was living in. A sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman suddenly thrown into a patriarchal microcosm of poverty and hardship, Karin feels herself a stifling, dying flower, like the tuna fish that struggles helplessly to survive as he is fished by the island's boats.

     A shrew that tries her best to allow herself to be tamed but finds her nature fighting back, for all that prevents her from being openly accepted by the close-mindedness of the local society neither Ms. Bergman nor Mr. Rossellini paint her as conniving or callous. Karin is merely confused and yearning for the better life that she has never had, and fate has brought her to Stromboli as the place for the final showdown with her destiny.

     Truly a tale of redemption as Karin literally goes through hell - a hell in the shape of a granitic mountain whose climb is not so much an ascension as it is a descent - Stromboli is a film anchored in the intense grace and humanity of the actress' committed performance; no wonder that she and Mr. Rossellini entered an affair during its filmmaking, since he films her with the love the sincere Antonio must have seen in her, and she lets herself be filmed like a woman attempting to rediscover the truth behind the Hollywood facade. It's life turned into film, and film becoming life.

STROMBOLI, TERRA DI DIO
Italy, 1950
100 minutes
Cast Ingrid Bergman, Mario Vitale, Renzo Cesana, Mario Sponzo
Director Roberto Rossellini; screenwriters Sergio Amidei, G. P. Callegari, Art Cohn and Mr. Sponzo, from a story by Mr. Rossellini; cinematographer Otello Martelli (b&w); composer Renzo Rossellini; editor Jolanda Benvenuti; producer Mr. Rossellini; production company Berit Films
Screened March 18th 2015, Medeia Monumental 3, Lisbon (distributor press screening)