A cheap production and crude narrative make “Batman: the Killing Joke” very unfunny

Sam Lim and Bruce Timm, “Batman: the Killing Joke” (2016)

That “Batman: the Killing Joke” has lasted nearly 30 years as a milestone in the history of Batman’s adventures – because it contains the story of the Joker’s origins – is not necessarily a good reason to make a film of it. Neither is the fact that Alan Moore, writer of such classic comics / graphic novels as “The Watchmen”, wrote the comic a good reason either. Still, DC Comics thought these and other reasons were enough to finance an animated film version of the story, and the result is a tremendous disappointment.

The original story was very short and frankly very flimsy and shaky in its plot and logic, so in its filmed version it is combined with another story about Batgirl pursuing a psychopathic criminal called Paris Franz. Yes, it’s that kind of story with not very witty shots at humour. The combination though turns the whole film into Batgirl’s story which was probably not the original intention and calls into question Batman’s motives for pursuing the Joker in the main plot with a suggestion they are not quite as noble as in the original graphic novel. An unwelcome and unpalatable sex scene is introduced which sours Batman and Batgirl’s working relationship. None of the characters undergoes much in the way character development; even the Joker’s own origin story, intended to make of him a character one can sympathise with, fails to elucidate the darker and more manic aspects of his nature.

The plot follows Batgirl attempting to round up Paris Franz and his henchmen who are supposedly working for Franz’s gangland boss uncle. The reality is that Franz himself is planning to usurp his uncle as the local Gotham City capo di capi. Batman warns Batgirl that she is dealing with a psychologically disturbed criminal and tells her he will deal with Franz himself. Naturally this riles Batgirl and she is determined to get Franz once and for all. In her day job as Barbara Gordon, working at Gotham City Library, Batgirl is pestered by a co-worker curious to know who her current boyfriend is; she tells him cryptically that he is her yoga teacher.

Batgirl does end up capturing Franz (and at the same time rescues Batman) in a tortuous way that has her questioning her motivation to continue as Batgirl. She hangs up her cape permanently but has only a brief time to enjoy her new life outside work before an even more deranged and dangerous criminal – the Joker himself – cripples her and abducts her father, Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. The Joker subjects Gordon to physical and psychological abuse in his theme-park den. In the meantime, Barbara Gordon is hospitalised and her doctors tell Batman she will never walk again. Batman then hunts down the Joker who then tries to force Batman into the mental maelstrom he put Jim Gordon through earlier.

Through the main story of the film, there is interspersed in fragments the Joker’s own origin story, as remembered by the Joker himself. The Joker does forewarn the audience throughout the film that his memory is unreliable and that he prefers to think of his past as multiple choices: this means that the story as presented (and frankly it’s not all that interesting or plausible) need not be taken as gospel.

Batman is never more than a mostly one-dimensional shadow figure representing order, stability and control in a corrupt society on the edge of social breakdown and chaos; in a world such as this, he can never allow himself self-doubt and relaxing his strict personal moral code is out of the question. Compassion for the Joker’s plight would surely invite comparison between himself and the Joker, and Batman would see in that compassion a potential weakness in himself that the Joker would exploit for all it was worth. This limits Batman as a character and the focus of the film must therefore fall on other characters and the action of the plot. The Joker revels in chaos and madness as expressions of his hate and revenge against an unjust and uncaring world that has robbed him of love and respect, and denied him his identity, physical health and body. He correctly sees that Batman has suffered severe personal trauma and tries to draw him into his world as a fellow sufferer. Batman’s own restrictions would trap him in the Joker’s world and here is where Commissioner Gordon offers a way out as a representative of justice, the rule of law, the establishment of moderation and proper boundaries between the two extremes represented by Batman and the Joker, and the possibility of healing and setting right a dysfunctional world. The action that binds the three men though is not substantial and all it really highlights is that Gordon is made of different moral substance than the Joker, and the audience must look to something beyond the bounds of the film that can explain the Joker’s unstable tendencies and criminal actions.

Although Barbara Gordon / Batgirl is a minor character in the main story, the inclusion of the Paris Franz teaser story turns her into a tragic figure robbed of a normal life and a future; unfortunately viewers do not see her recovery, rehabilitation and resurrection, and only see her contemplating her new role as Oracle, the leader of the all-female Birds of Prey crime-fighting team. One would have liked to see how Barbara was able to recover from the crippling and abuse inflicted on her by the Joker and his minions, and what this would have implied about her strength of character.

The animation is crude and typical of “Batman: the Animated Series” starring Kevin Conroy as Batman’s voice and Mark Hamill for the Joker. (Indeed the two actors voice their respective characters here.) The cheap style of animation is not adequate enough to portray the characters and their psychological complexity. What is unfortunately implied by the cheap production and the crudely constructed narrative of the movie is that DC Comics has unthinkingly tried to cash in on one of its more profitable franchises to milk it for more profit without thought or care for the Batman universe or its fans.

Under Capricorn: a psychological romantic melodrama of intense emotion, suspense and redemption

Alfred Hitchcock, “Under Capricorn” (1949)

Set in the early days of the British colony of Sydney in Australia, “Under Capricorn” turns out to be an intense psychological romantic drama of hope, redemption and the possibilities of renewal. A new governor arrives in the Sydney colony in the early 1830s, bringing along his cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding) who hopes to make his fortune and return to Ireland a prosperous gentleman. Almost immediately he meets ex-con Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten) who, after serving his sentence of transportation for having killed his brother-in-law, has become a prosperous land-owner. Sam offers to put up Adare in his mansion where Adare meets Sam’s depressed alcoholic wife Hattie (Ingrid Bergman). After discovering that Adare knows Hattie through his sister Diana, Sam suggests that Adare try to talk and humour Hattie in the hope that she will become the spirited woman she once was. Patiently Adare draws Hattie out of her cocoon and fears, and teaches her how to deal with her recalcitrant servants. Hattie’s new relationship with the convict servants threatens however the position of her housekeeper Milly (Margaret Leighton) who secretly loves Sam, so she plots to get rid of both Adare and Hattie by insinuating to Sam that they are having an affair and by poisoning Hattie.

Milly’s plotting leads to a shooting accident that nearly kills Adare and puts Sam in a difficult position where he faces returning to prison and losing his wealth and property. This leads Hattie to confess publicly that she, not Sam, killed her brother because he had tried to break up her relationship with Sam (as Sam was a lowly stable-boy at the time and she was an aristocrat) and as a result she faces being returned to Ireland to stand trial. Adare is subsequently faced with a choice to clear the Flusky couple’s names and consequently having to return to Ireland promptly without a fortune to his name, or stand aside and see Sam and Hattie separated, their marriage destroyed and Hattie returning alone to Ireland where she faces being condemned to capital punishment.

Plenty of melodrama abounds and Hattie herself faces several threats to her life and sanity. The acting is good if sometimes a bit florid and the dialogue is over-elaborate and too genteel. Hitchcock’s direction is marked by meticulous attention to historical accuracy in visual details and long takes in which the camera sweeps from one scene to the next so that viewers virtually drink in the colour and lavish detail of the historical settings.

Aside from the visual and technical details, what gives this film its attraction is its typically Hitchcockian obsessions: the precarious status of women in society and their dependence, regardless of their social class, on being married and their husbands; the hope for renewal and redemption that can be dashed by past historical ghosts; and the plot that revolves around an irascible, flawed man who is wrongly accused of a crime and is forced to pay for it, and the effects that punishment has on him. Hattie appears an innocent woman controlled by her husband and a sinister housekeeper who wants love and security no less than Hattie does. Class conflict is present as well: the reason the Fluskys are in Australia is that they have upset the social order with their love and a low-born stable groom is presumed to have killed his social superior.

Eventual redemption comes to the characters who have sacrificed a great deal, though it means that secret loves must forever remain secret or die. There is conflict between duty and maintaining social order and stability on the one hand; and on the other, natural longing and desire, and the potential for social disruption inherent within. It is this dilemma that faces Charles Adare, Hattie, Sam and Milly, and one in which each choice and its alternative are irrevocable, and their consequences are heart-break and sorrow. At the same time there is a possibility of renewal and hope for new futures.

I Live in Fear: a portrait of society in denial of looming nuclear attack disaster

Akira Kurosawa, “I Live in Fear” (1955)

I must admit to not being very impressed with this film: it seems like an over-long and overwrought soap opera with hammy performances and a rather cheap look. At the very least the tag team of director Kurosawa and star actor Toshiro Mifune prove they can do more than pop out one hero-samurai film after another. Though the film may be rather dated in some respects, it is most noteworthy for its social commentary on the institution of family in Japanese society and as a snapshot of Japanese society and public attitudes in the aftermath of World War II and the atomic bomb hits on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Mifune plays ageing industrialist Kiichi Nakajima who is terrified that Japan will soon be targeted for nuclear attack (again) to the extent that he is determined to move his entire extended family, including two mistresses and their children, and another child by a third mistress who is no longer alive, to Brazil where he is trying to buy a farm in São Paulo state. Not surprisingly his children are all upset for various reasons at having to be moved and they are convinced that Dad has gone raving mad. As a result everyone is at loggerheads with one another and the whole affair is referred to third-party mediation. Dentist Dr Harada (Takashi Shimura) tries to listen to and understand all sides’ points of view, but he cannot stop Nakajima from destroying his business or the adult children from dumping him in a mental asylum.

Kurosawa’s film deftly exposes the adult children’s greed and selfishness in wanting to stay in Japan and bickering over their father’s fortune. They are exposed as lazy parasites who think only of themselves and never give a fig about what may happen in the future. Nakajima as played by Mifune is an intense, almost monomaniacal figure: one can appreciate how he must have single-mindedly built up his business with sheer force of will and hard work, and how he drives his workers like a slave-master. Obviously accustomed to being obeyed without question, he is at a loss at how to deal with his children’s rebellion.

The family conflict is a microcosm of the tensions existing in 1950s Japan between an older generation who believed in hard work and absolute obedience to the Emperor and the political elite, and a younger generation that’s politically cynical and more interested in living for today rather than working towards a better future. Into this cauldron Kurosawa throws in a few stereotypes: the compassionate mediator; the young mistress with Nakajima’s latest child, a small baby; and a young teenage boy, another illegitimate offspring, who is loyal to Nakajima. Funny how for all his paranoia about what will happen to Japan, Nakajima still keeps fathering more children.

The whole action takes place in a society where the vast majority of people appear not to care what might or might not happen and who carry on with their lives as if living in an eternal present. Whether they don’t care or are in denial of the future and suppressing their fears is not known; only Nakajima has mentally come out of Plato’s cave and seen the light, and this revelation threatens to drive him insane. Indeed, he does go mad when someone points out that in the event of a nuclear attack, Brazil would not be spared the after-effects and this gives Nakajima’s children the opportunity to appeal to the court which gives them the permit they need to have him admitted to the asylum.

For all its shortcomings, the film is worth watching as a portrayal of a society in denial about a future catastrophe it is helpless to prevent and as an examination of how individuals aware of such a danger might live their lives. Some, like Nakajima, will try to flee and persuade others to come with them, at risk to their sanity and health; others perhaps might try to awaken society and work towards preparing to confront the looming disaster and minimise the potential damage.

The film might have worked better (if more stereotypically) if Shimura’s character Dr Harada had been the main character and the family dispute presented with the two sides appearing to be evenly balanced; the children’s prejudices and selfish motivations could have been exposed more gradually, and the father’s rationality coming as the climax. Dr Harada would have been the individual forced to make a decision as to whether to remain in denial (and stay in Plato’s cave) or to see the light and deal with the consequences of doing so.

AntiRacist Hitler: a subversive cartoon satirising Western social policies and hypocrisy

Matt the White Rabbit, “AntiRacist Hitler” (2013)

A subversive animation short satirising open-borders immigration policies and multiculturalist agendas in Western countries, most of which also hypocritically support Israel’s own racist policies and genocide against Palestinians, this cartoon posits what would happen if Israel were forced to have similiar social policies imposed on it. The former German chancellor Adolf Hitler, having apparently been in hiding in Argentina for over half a century (which might explain his youthfulness and the unchanged moustache), returns to the West and announces before an amazed audience that he no longer believes in Aryan racial supremacy and now embraces multiculturalism and diversity. He vows to bring diversity to the whole wide world and selects Israel, bastion of Zionist exclusivity, as the place where to start. Miraculously elevating himself to head of the Israeli government (one assumes he had to send the entire fruitcake Knesset somewhere out of the way … maybe not remote railway terminuses in rural eastern and southern Poland), the new Hitler opens the country’s borders to all the displaced peoples of the world. Over time, the new arrivals remake Israel’s urban landscapes into their own, their languages replace Hebrew and they intermarry with Israel’s Jewish population until Israelis are no longer Jewish. The last remaining Jewish citizen in the country runs into Hitler’s office and exclaims that Israel is no longer Jewish, at which Hitler (barely looking up from eating lunch) murmurs that he had not foreseen such a scenario when he first opened the borders.

While the motivations behind the creation of “AntiRacist Hitler” could be racist and discriminatory towards non-white people, the way in which the new Hitler uses the “diversity” agenda and supporting social policies to eliminate Jews should at least give us all pause to consider how similar policies and programs have been used by Western governments in the past to undermine social democracy, workers’ rights and working conditions and to denigrate those protesting against the weakening of worker protections as fascist or racist. The outsourcing of manufacturing from Western shores to Third World countries offering cheap labour in conditions where workers’ rights are suppressed viciously can be seen as a parallel policy to open-borders immigration policies: ultimately everyone, local people, immigrants and overseas workers alike, stand to lose whatever rights they had and whatever social and industrial democratic progress they had previously made. Democracy overall has receded under the onslaught of the corporate state and the individuals and corporations supporting it.

Where the cartoon possibly falls short is in implying that Jews (or an elite made up of Jews) are actively encouraging multicultural “melting pot” or “salad bowl” societies in Western countries. Such a blanket assumption opens the door to racist infiltration into and eventual domination of individual countries’ historical narratives of how they initially encouraged immigration and what their original reasons for doing so were; in most cases, the reason was that governments determined sufficient manpower was lacking for their nations’ economic development and decided to import foreign workers to overcome worker shortages. In some countries such as Germany, these foreign guest workers were not expected to stay permanently and they and their families were supposed to return home when they had fulfilled their work contracts. To that end, the host countries failed to provide education for these workers in the host language, culture and history, and as a result these workers and their families ended up alienated and disadvantaged.

In other countries that imported foreigners to fill their factories, programs to assimilate these people and to teach them the languages of their host nations existed but since the 1970s when the neoliberal economic paradigm became supreme, such programs have been squeezed for funding. At the same time, the corporate world in these countries continually wants more foreign workers to come, regardless of the prevailing economic situation and whether there are enough jobs for both foreigners and locals. In many nations where manufacturing has now ceased to exist, the only way money can circulate is through financial bubbles including property bubbles … which means that people have to be persuaded to take out more mortgages … and if the present population is already saturated with excess debt, then immigrants and refugees are the next targets.

What would have made the cartoon’s message even more biting would be the fact that many of the poor flooding into the new Hitlerian Israel are people displaced by wars and invasions instigated by Israel through its lobbying activities in Western governments. The invasions of Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011 onwards) by the US and its allies have the effect of removing political and economic challenges to Israel as the only or the most advanced / democratic country in the Middle East.

Ultimately the cartoon’s message is very simplistic and reduces a complex issue to a level where it and its creators might be accused of racism (unjustly perhaps) but its use of a known historical figure notorious for policies of genocide to demonstrate how superficially anti-racist social policies might in fact be racist, even fascist, is sobering and thought-provoking.

Allegro Non Troppo: a suite of animation shorts of breath-taking imagination and originality, and much food for thought

Bruno Bozzetto, “Allegro Non Troppo” (1976)

A spoof of and tribute to Walt Disney’s famous “Fantasia” film, “Allegro Non Troppo” is noteworthy mainly for its six animation shorts set to short works of famous composers in Western formal compositional music linked by a live-action narrative of slapstick comedy. The black-and-white live-action sequences are insincere, painful to watch and utterly forgettable; they feature dull and dated comedy skits that mock the elderly female characters in them and viewers can dispense with these interludes. The animation sequences range from surreal and playful to almost realistic and painful, with plenty of room for director Bozzetto to give his views on human evolution, the nature of love and the effects of materialism, conformity, capitalism and industrialisation on human societies and possibly the future of humanity itself.

Of the various animated sketches, the best ones are those attached to Jean Sibelius’ “Val Triste”, in which an aged cat lingering about a ruined mansion remembers the comfortable life he had in the building; to Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird”, in which a snake fails to persuade Adam and Eve to taste the forbidden fruit it offers and as punishment must experience all the ills of capitalist society; and to Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero”, detailing the evolution of life from primitive one-cell origins to the triumph of humanity. The animation is highly imaginative and inspired, frequently bizarre and mind-blowing, and always colourful. Each sketch has its own style of animation and colouring. The music is not bad though the choice of pieces might leave something to be desired as not all the music is equally good and the animated pieces, taking their cues from the music, are also uneven.

The Sibelius sequence is very moving and tragic: the cat tries to remember the humans who cared for it, and the warmth of the mansion in its former glory – but memory eventually fades and the cat also fades with it. Finally what remains of the mansion is destroyed by a wrecking ball. The Vivaldi piece (featuring “Concerto in C major for 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets, Strings and Continuo RV 559”) is light-hearted and bright in colour, yet sympathetic to the tiny bee inconvenienced by the two large humans romping and making love in her garden.

While the animation can be stunning, and some of the messages contained within individual segments invite thoughtful examination, the film as a whole is very uneven and the mockery in the live-action sequences is unnecessarily cruel and may appear alien and strange to contemporary audiences.

 

Buckskin: a fascinating story about a young teacher determined to give his people a renewed identity and hope for change

Dylan McDonald, “Buckskin” (2013)

A young teacher and sometime Australian Rules football player called Jack Buckskin is one of a very tiny number of people who can understand and fluently speak the lost indigenous Australian language Kaurna, and he is determined not only to pass this language on to his toddler daughter Malia but also to his family and other Aboriginal people in north Adelaide, and to teach and train other people to teach Kaurna also. In this way, Buckskin hopes to give his people a renewed identity and an alternate outlook on their living conditions through a revitalised language, and through this renewal inspire them to reclaim their destiny and future. This unusual subject is the basis for up-coming film-maker Dylan McDonald’s debut film and documentary “Buckskin”.

The film follows Buckskin as he goes about his daily life teaching high-school students, consulting with linguist Rob Amery on creating Kaurna vocabulary and rules of grammar appropriate for speakers in modern settings, instructing teenage boys in dance and trying to encourage his baby daughter to be bilingual. Buckskin’s mission can be daunting at times: several of his school students are not really motivated to learn the language and the only reason they are in his class is that their school compels them to learn a second language; he and Amery haven’t yet developed a vocabulary for AFL football terms and expressions; and until Malia was born, most people in his family were not interested in learning or speaking Kaurna. The documentary does not note whether Buckskin is able to follow up with former students to see if they still retain knowledge of Kaurna or are motivated to keep learning and using it; neither does it note whether Buckskin’s employers at school and in government take his efforts seriously, pay him enough and provide him with the resources he needs to keep teaching and to improve as a linguist and teacher.

Viewers also learn something of Buckskin’s family background and how he was spurred on to learn Kaurna and to teach it to others. We watch him patiently teach his daughter words for food items and instruct his two pet huskies in the language. Amery and Buckskin’s relatives express admiration for his determination in reviving the use of Kaurna as a living, changing entity. The man himself has an engaging personality and is full of energy and fierce intelligence.

While the film and its central character are fascinating to watch, I did feel that “Buckskin” was at a loss as to how to end gracefully and inspire viewers to want to know more about the Buckskins and their life quest. Buckskin could have been asked about his hopes for the language and Kaurna culture, and for their revival. How will his daughter (and any other children he and his partner Khe Sanh might have) use the language after he has gone? To survive beyond Malia’s life-time, the Kaurna language needs to be used in all areas of life including the life of work, sport and the intellect beyond the immediate needs of the Kaurna people in the Adelaide region. This will be a formidable task for which Buckskin will need all the help he can get.

Prison Songs: a snapshot in song and dance of indigenous Australians’ prison experiences, and the issues that blight their lives

Kelrick Martin, “Prison Songs” (2015)

Billed as Australia’s first musical documentary, and probably the first of its kind to be set in a prison, “Prison Songs” is a snapshot in song and dance of Australian indigenous people’s experiences in prison through the stories of individual prisoners held in Darwin’s Berrimah Prison. The film tackles issues of alcoholism and substance abuse, domestic violence, the alienation of indigenous Australians in white society and the stress and struggle they undergo in trying to find their own paths in a country that was originally their own but which has been taken away from them and moulded into something completely different and hostile to them. The stories the prisoners tell are not only very personal but highly intimate and moving.

For this film, director Martin sat with and interviewed selected prisoners with singer-songwriter Shellie Morris sitting in. Morris later took her impressions and complete interview transcripts to Casey Bennetto in Melbourne and together they wrote the songs in a mix of various styles ranging from blues to reggae, hiphop and gospel. All songs are sung and performed by the chosen prisoners: the lyrics are frank and straightforward, and thus easy to follow and even to sing along to in their choruses. The approach taken by some songs to their subject matter is often creative: one song about alcohol and its effects on people’s thinking and behaviour addresses the demon drink as a seductive and demanding lover; another song riffing on the experience of prison life presents Berrimah Prison as a hotel where inmates can enjoy 24/7 security, free food and state-of-the-art (if not visually aesthetic) exercise facilities. One very emotional song is sung by a female prisoner who finds her refuge in Christianity to counter feelings of guilt and shame, and to find a purpose in life.

Title cards that inform viewers of statistics about the incarceration of indigenous Australians and of some of the history of Berrimah prison provide the background context to the prisoners’ experiences. The cinematography uses plenty of negative space and bird’s-eye viewpoint shots to emphasise the isolation of the prisoners from the rest of the world. The film’s style is minimal and stark, in which prisoners have both starring roles and roles as background and chorus line extras.

Because the stories are often so personal, there is the danger that they may not be seen as part of a larger phenomenon in which dispossession and the colonial experience have damaged indigenous cultures and replaced them with a caricature of Western society in which poverty, unemployment leading to boredom, addictive substances and violence dominate people’s lives and become the fabric that links successive generations of people who otherwise have no hope or purpose.

Since the documentary was made, Berrimah Prison has been converted into a facility for juvenile offenders and the adult prisoners moved into a newer, larger facility elsewhere. Unfortunately there is very little information given in the documentary about the prison itself and who runs it or was running it until its conversion.

Pony: a dark little story about the loss of innocence in a banal setting

Dony Permedi, “Pony” (2006)

“Pony” is a short animated film made by Permedi as an undergraduate college project with the subversions of everyday life and student black humour one might expect of people in their late adolescence / early adulthood. A young girl aged about 8 or 9 years runs out of the house one fine morning to celebrate her birthday with her friends. She discovers a surprise behind the tree in the backyard: it’s a colourful critter called Pony. He’s a co-operative friend too, if one overlooks his tendency to bite the heads off little girls’ dolls. The girl and Pony play around for a while and ignore her friends who have started to arrive for the birthday party. Later in the day, the girl goes looking for Pony and discovers to her horror that he’s dangling from a branch by a rope and her friends are preparing to hit it with a baseball bat. Bang, bang! – Pony’s guts spill out and the kids start grabbing bits and pieces of him. One child hands a bloody part to the girl and she eats it … The scales fall from her eyes and she realises she’s eating a sweet and Pony has been a piñata the whole time. She looks at her friends anew and all she sees are other piñatas … so she picks up the baseball bat and goes after them …

It becomes obvious that the birthday party and the character of Pony represent aspects of a rite of passage in which the girl passes from the world of infancy and innocence into another world where life is not so kind and friendly, the difference between good and evil is not well defined, and one constantly has to be on guard against friends who too easily become enemies, and against enemies who pretend to be your friends. Fantasy and reality are not easily separated. In this world of ambiguities, where the law of the concrete jungle reigns and folks live by dog-eat-dog rules, violence becomes a first resort rather than the last option. Apart from the symbolism, the ideas and the themes they may represent in “Pony” are not well developed and it may be that Permedi is trying to express more than he can actually say in this short. The characters are too undeveloped and stereotyped and the birthday party context perhaps too banal and flimsy to carry the rite-of-passage theme and how it affects one particular individual with devastating consequences.

Permedi would be well advised to find a writing collaborator who can express his ideas and aims in a story-telling form while he concentrates on creating credible animated characters and worlds.

God Willing: a brisk slapstick comedy opposing self-complacency and arrogance against humility and faith

Edoardo Maria Falcone, “God Willing / Se Dio Vuole” (2015)

A gentle slapstick comedy, Falcone’s “Se Dio Vuole” won its director top directing honours in Italy’s own version of the Oscars and one viewing shows why: it manages to be brisk, witty and wise with a message about how self-complacency and intellectual arrogance can be one’s undoing and how personal faith and humility can change people’s lives and relationships. Main protagonist Tommaso (Marco Giallini), a rich and renowned heart surgeon seems to have everything: a successful career, a beautiful stay-at-home wife Carla (Laura Morante) and two well adjusted children Bianca (Ilaria Spada) and Andrea (Enrico Oetiker) and a son-in-law dealing in luxury real estate. At least, that was until Andrea decides to unburden himself of a personal secret to everyone. The family steels itself for Andrea’s revelation that he’s gay (or so they think) and then the unthinkable happens: Andrea announces that he wants to become a priest in the Roman Catholic Church!

Enraged, Tommaso tries to find out how Andrea decided to become a priest and secretly follows his son to the local youth group where he sees charismatic preacher Father Pietro (Alessandro Gassman) holding his audiences spellbound with inspirational sermons. Tommaso is convinced Pietro is a charlatan so with the help of his son-in-law and a private investigator he tries to find dirt on Pietro and discovers the man does have a past as a jailbird. The trio stage an elaborate set-up to entrap Pietro but this quickly unravels when Pietro unexpectedly visits Andrea at home and bumps into Tommaso. As penance, Tommaso must help Pietro on the weekends for a month renovating an old church that Pietro’s mother visited for solace during the period when Pietro was off the rails, committing crimes and ending up in jail.

As if all this tomfoolery weren’t enough, Carla, bored with her life and lack of purpose, moves out of home and into the family maid Xenia’s room and rediscovers her old passion of college student activism, and Bianca becomes enthralled with learning about Christianity and religion. In their own ways, each member of Tommaso’s family moves out of his or her complacent or stagnant rut, learns something new about himself / herself, and renews connections with one another. Tommaso gradually also gives up his domineering ways and narrow outlook, and under Pietro’s guidance learns what true spirituality really is. The ultimate test of whether Tommaso has matured and become less perfectionist and authoritarian, and more open and forgiving, comes when Pietro meets with misfortune and his life hangs in the balance.

The action is very brisk and the slapstick comes full bore with hardly any pause, but most viewers will be able to adjust their attention and keep up. The sub-plots are very minor and play out more or less completely though there are still a few loose ends at the end of the film. Some of the characters are very uneven (notably Bianca’s who initially is as superficial as can be and yet becomes suddenly profound) and others like Carla, Andrea and the son-in-law are not very well developed. Pietro’s character is mainly the catalyst via whom Tommaso breaks out of his self-satisfied rut and goes on a journey of self-discovery and development.

The comedy skits flow smoothly from one to the next and Falcone directs the action so deftly that at times the film itself can seem a bit complacent and smug like Tommaso. But it then takes a sudden turn at its climax and from then on it sobers up and carries on rather untidily towards an uncertain and open ending. What inner revelation comes to Tommaso when he sees the pear fall from the tree at sunrise? Does he come to realise that, no matter what happens to Pietro, the universe will carry on seeding life and hope?

The film manages to make a case for spiritual belief and belief in Jesus without engaging in Catholic dogma and avoids Bible-bashing. On one level it can be viewed as a buddy movie and a road movie with laughs, on another it carries a lesson about the possibility of self-transformation through faith.

New York, New York: a homage to and a subversion of Hollywood / Broadway glamour, fame and artifice

Martin Scorsese, “New York, New York” (1977)

One of Martin Scorsese’s most under-rated films, in my opinion, and in many ways an experimental and even surreal film, “New York, New York” scores in my little red book for subverting Hollywood stereotypes about boy-meets-girl / boy and girl fall in love / boy and girl fall out / boy and girl get back together again and live happily ever after, and the conventions of Hollywood film musicals at their biggest and brassiest. At once it’s Scorsese’s homage to Hollywood and Broadway musicals from the 1930s to the 1960s and his critique of the fantasy world that such musicals encouraged their viewers to hide in rather than face and deal with the humdrum realities of daily life or their personal issues. The film also showcases its lead star Liza Minnelli’s talent as a singer and actor and gives her the opportunity to race through more than her fair share of fantasy Hollywood / Broadway music numbers and mini-dramas that reference aspects of her mother Judy Garland’s career. At the heart of the film though is the romance between two flawed and dysfunctional human beings, their stormy relationship and how it influences their lives and leads them to pursue their own paths and creativity.

Jimmy Doyle (Robert de Niro), a recently returned World War II veteran and saxophonist, is out looking for fun and girls at a victory celebration when he spies Francine Evans (Minnelli) and starts pursuing her. De Niro’s playing of Doyle is electric and not a little reminiscent of his creepy and obsessive character Jake Lamotta in “Taxi Driver”, another Scorsese vehicle for his talent, and Doyle’s relentless stalking of Evans can have viewers on the edge of their seats. Doyle and Evans briefly play a week at a small night-club as a sax and singing duo before Evans high-tails back to her agent and her usual role as singer for a travelling jazz band. Doyle chases her and the band around the country and eventually joins the band as saxophonist, later becoming its leader. The film follows their tempestuous romance as it develops and blossoms into marriage and Evans’ pregnancy, and follows the consequences of Evans’ changed state as she decides to return to New York and take up a career recording albums. Doyle’s time as band-leader is short-lived due to his mercurial temperament and his having to replace Evans with a mediocre singer. From then on, the film sees Evans and Doyle drift further apart, Evans pursuing her recording career in a style of jazz Doyle increasingly finds stale and unchallenging while he is drawn to the more vibrant style of swing and bebop developing in the black neighbourhoods of New York.

The character development is steady if slow and at times Doyle’s insensitive, self-centred character with hints of instability and violence can be wearying. Evans displays worrying signs of codependency as she puts up with Doyle’s domineering nature and need to control her actions and decisions. Both de Niro and Minnelli are marvellous to watch as their characters bounce off each other and the stormy argument they have while they are driving away from a night-club is a sight to behold. The music is a third character in the film, fascinating to hear as it changes through the decades and splits into two parallel jazz styles that mirror the increasing psychological separation between Doyle and Evans.

Visually the film is a treat, culminating in the surreal Broadway number in which Evans, playing Peggy Smith in a show within a show, almost recapitulates her life through the story of an usherette who chances to meet a rich film producer who appreciates her talent and makes her a star. The film combines a lavish and richly glowing style of presentation, especially in scenes where Doyle and Evans are performing either together or separately, with a documentary-style realist treatment of the two characters’ relationship and the work they must do in writing and rehearsing their music, and travelling from one club gig to the next with their band in early scenes of the movie.

The film’s end which initially did not find favour with most audiences when it was first released, seems absolutely right to me: Doyle’s acceptance of Evans’ decision might demonstrate how much he may have matured over the years, realising that he cannot control Evans or their child forever and that his music and her music may never find common ground again. His music is moving ever forward, and he willingly and impulsively follows where it goes, whereas Evans seems stuck in an increasingly artificial music world where her career continues to be controlled by other men.

Viewers may find the film’s inter-twined themes about following one’s heart and the effect of that on one’s relationships with others, the nature of fame and how it tears people apart, and the clash between artificiality and realism intriguing if confusing and scattershot.