Don’t Look Now: an eerie and profound Gothic horror film of grief, trauma and misperceptions

Nicolas Roeg, “Don’t Look Now” (1973)

Adapted from the short story with the same title by Daphne du Maurier, this famous British cult horror film is ostensibly a study of grief and how it affects a family’s ability to cope with life’s daily routines and informs family members’ perceptions of the world around them. On another level, the family affected by the death of a young child lives in a universe where time appears to be of a different dimension than how we experience it, in the way the past, the present and the future seem to bleed into one another and people may just as readily have premonitions of what will happen as they have memories of past events. After losing Christine in a drowning accident back home in the UK, John (Donald Sutherland) and Laura (Julie Christie) Baxter dump their son in a boarding school and flee to Venice where John has taken up a job helping to restore a Roman Catholic church’s mosaics. The couple meet two elderly sisters, one of whom is blind but has the gift of second sight: she sees the spirit of Christine, still clad in her red raincoat in which she died, hovering around the couple, and tells Laura. After a fainting fit, Laura informs John of what the sister has told her but John remains sceptical.

Over the next several days, while continuing to reside and work in Venice, John and Laura experience flashbacks of the drowning accident and John himself has strange visions in which a small figure in a red raincoat roams the bridges and streets of Venice, and in which (after Laura returns to the UK on being informed by long-distance phone by her son’s school that he has had an accident and is in hospital) his wife is still in Venice but is clad in black mourning clothes and flanked by the mysterious elderly sisters sailing on a vaporetto draped in black. Meanwhile the police in Venice are finding dead human bodies in the canals of the city and realise there may be a serial killer on the loose.

The plot is very clever if not completely plausible: the tragedy is that John has been gifted with second sight, as one of the elderly sisters recognises, but because of his scepticism and belief in rationality, his ability causes him endless trouble and also gets the two sisters detained by the police, which event forces the sighted sister to make arrangements to leave Venice permanently, a move which upsets her blind sibling; and his inability to recognise his gift but to confuse it instead with his memories of his daughter’s drowning leads him on a path to tragedy. In this, the past, present and future intersect in a way that suggests in the universe in which the Baxters live, the events of one’s life really can be predetermined by the decisions and actions one takes.

Various occurring motifs of bright red raincoats, breaking glass, images and their mirror twins, doppelgangers and duplication, and water as the giver of life and bringer of death run throughout the film to reinforce the notion of the Baxters living in a seemingly time-less world where the past could be the future and the future could be the past. Even John’s work in the restoration of the church’s artistic works involves duplicating old glass pieces with new pieces. Misinterpreting incidents and mistaken identities are a major theme in the film. The climax of the film is shocking and viewers quickly realise nothing is what it originally seemed to be: people thought to be innocent turn out not to be so, and those believed to be sinister turn out to be protective.

The film works as it does by drawing inspiration and elements from the work of Alfred Hitchcock and from the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges whose literary concept of the world as a labyrinth is extended to the portrayal of Venice as a city of seemingly endless mazes through its paths, bridges, tunnels and even its canals. Roeg’s use of editing in which shots of two events are spliced so that they appear to be running at the same time, most famously in the scene in which John and Laura have passionate sex and get dressed to go out for dinner, reinforces the idea of a universe in which past, present and future do not follow a linear structure. The actors do excellent work in their roles as the troubled Baxter couple, experiencing the usual ups and downs in their relationship while at the same time recovering (or trying to) from a major trauma. Venice is a significant character in the film: a grittier and darker side of the city is shown, with buildings almost falling into disrepair, streets and tunnels conveying sinister menace, and the city’s bright facade for tourists hiding bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. The film could not have been made anywhere else in the world but Venice.

Roeg’s unusual filming techniques and the way in which he places his motifs at significant points in the film to advance the plot and send the characters on their destinies from which they are unable to deviate give “Don’t Look Now” an eerie and haunting Gothic feel that in its own dark way is very profound and beautiful.

Loro: a portrayal of political corruption and debauchery seduced by its own excess

Paolo Sorrentino, “Loro / Them” (2018)

Originally made in two parts totalling three hours, this fictional drama about Italian media magnate and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, and his circle of business pals, sycophants and hangers-on, was condensed into a 145-minute flick for foreign audiences, which would explain the strange narrative jumps and the shaky narrative itself which initially focuses on young businessman Sergio Morra (Riccardo Scamarcio) eager to ingratiate himself with Berlusconi (Toni Servillo) to gain favours for his clients and ultimately a nice comfortable job with much money and power and little responsibility for himself, and then switches over to Berlusconi and follows him all the way to the end, discarding the young follower and his friends with no explanation as to whether they all achieved what they wanted. A bewildering parade of people, fictional and real, and many of them lasting only a few minutes, pass through Morra and Berlusconi’s lives on screen.

While Servillo is excellent in the role, with his clown-like face masking over a character entirely lacking in integrity and ethics, concerned only with gaining more power and wealth (and to hell with the consequences for Italian politics and democracy, and Italy itself), and is the centre-piece around whom the film revolves, viewers unfortunately will learn very little about how Berlusconi came to be a wealthy media tycoon and how his wealth and connections helped to vault him into the nation’s leadership. What viewers will see is the brash and tawdry life-style Berlusconi led during his reign as top-dog and the people that life-style attracts: the parade of young escort women who will do anything and everything (and more besides) to get close to heady power; the gangster-like bodyguards and minders who surround him; young pimps like Morra who regard Berlusconi as a role model; and the various politicians Berlusconi buys. Berlusconi’s mansions are luxurious if not particularly tasteful and the parties he and Morra throw initially look like a lot of fun but become repetitive and banal. It’s as if, in attempting to detail how debauched and empty Berlusconi’s world is, the film itself ended up being seduced by the debauchery and its gaudy superficiality.

While the film’s focus was on Morra and Berlusconi, at least there was some tension and direction (will Morra get what he desires? will Berlusconi deliver?) but once Morra is literally out of the picture and the focus turns to Berlusconi to the exclusion of everyone else, the film limps through a series of sketches. Only the earthquake in L’Aquila, leaving working-class survivors homeless and destitute, provides the moral backbone that tests Berlusconi’s character and that of Italy itself. While Berlusconi manages to cough up money to rehouse the homeless, the real job of salvaging Italian society and its soul falls to the ordinary people as represented by the firefighters who retrieve a statue of Jesus from the rubble of a destroyed church.

The film does a very good job of portraying the empty and corrupt world of those who have more money than they have the mental faculty to deal with it all but says nothing about how Berlusconi bought and cheated his way into it and corrupted Italian politics and state institutions in the process – nor about the people and organisations, legal and illegal, that helped him along the way.

Perhaps the funniest part of the film is the sketch where Berlusconi, believing himself to have lost his persuasive abilities, thumbs through a phone book and phones an unnamed woman and tries to sell her an expensive piece of real estate: the disgruntled recipient doesn’t fall for the sales pitch. After this sketch, we don’t see this woman any more. Apart from this and other occasional gems, the film’s moral heart looks as shaky and shallow as the world Berlusconi created around himself.

Don’t Torture a Duckling: behind the sensationalism, a surprisingly thoughtful and critical film

Lucio Fulci, “Don’t Torture a Duckling / Non si sevizia un paperino” (1973)

Fret not, no ducklings, nor indeed any animals, were harmed in the making of this giallo film which, under cover of admittedly gratuitous nudity, violence and gore, is actually a serious examination of the Roman Catholic Church’s attitude towards sexuality and of the insularity and poverty of a small rural Sicilian village and the complacency, ignorance and corruption that exist as a result. A series of murders of young boys in the town attracts media attention from all over Italy and reporter Andrea Martelli (Tomas Milian) is sent by his newspaper employer in Rome to investigate. Police quickly find various suspects: the local village idiot Giuseppe (Vito Passeri) and gypsy witch Magiara (Florinda Bolkan), whom the police quickly find are innocent of the murders when more murdered boys are found. Martelli follows the police case and offers some insights to the main investigators; he also befriends a young woman, Patrizia (Barbara Bouchet), whom he recognises from having seen old photographs of her in newspapers back home, and who is currently lying low in her dad’s mansion in the wake of a drug scandal. The villagers dislike Patrizia for her modern fashions and she becomes a suspect in the murders in their eyes. Martelli also meets the local priest, Don Alberto (Marc Porel), who runs a boys’ group at the church and gets them to play football in the church grounds to keep them out of mischief; for this, the villagers admire him.

Viewers can smell from a mile away who the serial killer is likely to be: sure as heck, the killer turns out to be the one person everyone least suspects. Fulci throws in plenty of red herrings to keep viewers guessing as to who the killer might be: the young bored woman who flaunts her naked body to the wide-eyed youngsters? the reporter who tampers with the crime scene? the town idiot who buries one child’s body and pitifully tries to extort a ransom from his parents? the witch who makes voodoo dolls in the likeness of three boys and stabs the dolls? the mad woman with the mentally retarded daughter? Significantly, Fulci doesn’t play fair with viewers and the killer’s identity is only revealed with a plot twist. On the other hand, the plot moves smoothly and surely to the climax which fittingly takes place on top of a mountain with stunning views of the Sicilian countryside: quite literally, a place between heaven and earth, and the serial killer falling to his death (and by implication, to Hell) in a suitably gory way.

While the acting is average, and a couple of actors go over the top, the plot nevertheless is unsettling (even if some of its details don’t quite gel) and the cinematography is very effective in drawing out the horror, the violence and above all the ignorance and superstitious character of the villagers. Modernity at times is but a slim cover for the deeply irrational nature of the people, evinced in their hysteria over the boys’ deaths and their unwavering, unquestioning loyalty to the Church. Even the police, for all their supposed expertise, are not immune to arresting people simply because they are outsiders, despised by their community.

The killer’s motivation that children should be despatched to Heaven to preserve their innocence and prevent them from maturing and gaining sexual awareness (which might lead them into sin) might seem shocking to modern viewers but makes good sense in a film that dares to address the boundary between childhood and the sexual innocence associated with it on the one hand, and maturity and sexual awareness on the other, and how communities and institutional religion deal (or fail to deal) with the transition from childhood to maturity adequately. From failing to deal with this transition might emanate other social evils such as scapegoating others and social oppression, in particular the social oppression of vulnerable groups such as unattached women and the mentally ill. In spite of its tendency to sensationalism, this film proves to be surprisingly thoughtful and critical of unquestioned tradition and the human preference for following custom for its own sake.

All the Money in the World: a solid if dull and heavy-handed lesson on the importance of family ties (and how they’re exploited)

Ridley Scott, “All the Money in the World” (2017)

Intended as a character study on the ways in which people use and abuse power and wealth, “All the Money …” ends up a heavy-handed screed featuring various character stereotypes instead of characters based on actual people. The film revolves around the kidnapping of rich oil heir John Paul Getty III by ‘Ndrangheta mobsters in Rome in 1973. The 16-year-old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is spirited into the countryside by the Calabrian soldati who try to ransom him for US$17 million. News of the ransom is relayed to his mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and his grandfather John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) who respond in very different ways to the kidnapping: Gail is frantic at the news and desperate to get her son back, while JPG himself is more concerned that paying the ransom will only encourage more potential kidnappers to try to abduct his other grandchildren.

From there the movie dives into brief and hurried flashbacks to bring viewers up to speed on why Harris constantly implores old JPG for the money while the Calabrians wonder what the hold-up is and are becoming desperate with holding the boy and having to feed him. We learn that JPG was frugal and stingy with both his wealth and his love in his relationship with his son Paul (Andrew Buchan) who grows into a rather feckless husband and father while Harris tries to keep her family together and to pay the rent and other bills on time. Suddenly Paul Junior gets a job from JPG but it leads into too much easy wealth and pleasure, and before you know it, Paul Junior and Harris’ marriage ends in divorce. Harris gets custody of their four children but no alimony (courtesy of a vengeful father-in-law) so that when her eldest child is kidnapped, she is virtually penniless.

Flung back into the present day (of 1973), we viewers then follow two plot strands: Harris’ attempts to plead with and wheedle money out of a stubborn and miserly JPG and the kidnappers’ growing impatience with Harris, wondering why such a supposedly rich woman is taking so long to pay the ransom. In the meantime, JPG hires ex-CIA operative and current Getty Oil negotiator Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg in an underwhelming role) to investigate the kidnapping and rescue the boy … with as little expense, financial that is, as possible. The kidnappers, led by Cinquanta (Romain Duris), horse-trade Paul Getty III to their ‘Ndrangheta bosses – one of whom is Saverio Mammoliti (Marco Leonardi) – and the Calabrians scale up the intensity of their negotiations and their brutal treatment of their captive, culminating in the removal of his right ear and mailing it off to an Italian news media outlet to demonstrate that they mean business.

The acting is uneven: Plummer revels in his role as the scrooge oil billionaire, given that he stepped into the role at short notice after director Ridley Scott decided to replace Kevin Spacey as JPG and scrapped all that actor’s scenes after Spacey was hit with  allegations (as yet unproven at this time of review) of sexual harassment and assault. Plummer easily holds centre stage in all his scenes, pulling off JPG’s miserly, mean and manipulative behaviour in a way that cannot be resisted by those who come within his radioactive orbit. (I wonder if Spacey’s scrapped scenes are as good as Plummer’s and I suspect they are or possibly even better, and my suspicion that Spacey is the better actor might help explain why Scott rushed to replace all his scenes: a sterling acting performance would garner much audience sympathy for Spacey and none for his accusers.) On the other hand, Wahlberg has very little to do as the ineffectual Chase. Charlie Plummer’s Paul Getty III shows enough feistiness and bravado to combat the bumbling peasant gangsters and escape from them briefly; if he’d been given more to do, he might have become a character viewers could care about – but how much can a young teenage captive in the hands of a powerful criminal organisation do? Williams as the worried mother gives a good performance but again one has the impression that she could have given a lot more had her character been allowed more development. Minor cast members – in particular those playing JPG’s lawyers – put in serviceable performances as everyday people all looking out for number one. Indeed, the only character audiences are likely to have any sympathy for as a developed character is Cinquanta, the leader of the small-time crooks who kidnap the boy: his is the only character who appears to care for the boy as he is and who, in another universe, might have had a deep friendship with him in spite of their cultural and class differences.

Overall the film is solid if a bit slow for most modern audiences, and near the end of the film liberties are taken in the way Paul Getty III is eventually recovered, to maintain audience interest in a film of little action and mostly dull talk. Direction is competent without being outstanding – for Ridley Scott, his career high came early with “Alien” and “Blade Runner” and since then the career direction has been downhill, roller-coaster style – and the cinematography is good without being remarkable.

While the lesson about the importance of family vis-a-vis money is very sledgehammer earnest, it seems that everyone involved – even Gail Harris to some extent – is obsessed with wielding power and influence over others. For all the cultural differences between so-called money-hungry Americans and the supposedly family-loving and communal Italians, and how the rich and the poor live parallel lives and only rarely mix except in extraordinary events such as a kidnapping, there are moments in the film where the two opposed sides have more in common than perhaps even Scott and his script-writers realise: the Calabrian mobsters are prepared to press-gang their mothers and grandmothers into the drudgery of factory work making fake designer hand-bags, and have such a hold over their communities that even the police and ordinary citizens have to co-operate with them; Gail Harris finds the only way to extract anything from JPG is to think and act like him; and Chase uses the power he has in providing security detail for JPG’s family to berate and shame the old fellow. The times when an alternative and perhaps happier universe, free of the class antagonisms and obsession with material things and values, opens up are when Cinquanta and Paul Getty III have brief conversations but the script has no time or space to explore these short-lived possibilities.

Although the film has a happy ending, and the end credits suggest that JPG’s wealth was put to good use for the benefit of the American public, what transpired after Paul Getty III was reunited with his family is even more tragic than the kidnapping which came to define the oil heir’s life: suffering from trauma, much of it avoidable, from his abduction, the prolonged haggling over his ransom and the mutilation of his ear, Paul Getty III went off the rails with drink and drug addictions that climaxed in liver failure and a stroke at the age of 25 years. He lived as a partly blind and paralysed quadriplegic for the rest of his life until his death in 2011. At the same time, there were comic aspects to his abduction: many delays that occurred during his captivity were the result of postal strikes in Italy which meant that sometimes correspondence between his captors and his family and Italian police was slow; and the negotiations over the ransom money to the extent that the value of the teenager’s life went from a respectable US$17 million to a measly $4 million were at once petty and pathetic. A great director would have appreciated and tried to emphasise the tragicomic aspects of the defining event of Paul Getty III’s life and what they imply about how the pursuit of the capitalist dream deadens and ultimately kills the pursuer’s soul and sense of values. Unfortunately Ridley Scott is not that director – his approach and vision are too pedestrian.

 

Extraordinary revelations about foreign involvement in Maidan 2013-2014 events in “Ukraine: the Hidden Truth”

Gian Micalessin, “Ukraine: the Hidden Truth” (2017)

A short but very pithy Italian documentary, “Ukraine …” focuses on the notorious episode in Kiev in mid-February 2014 when mysterious snipers in a building overlooking the Maidan shot at both civilians and police. This incident led to then President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing Ukraine for Russia and the takeover of the country by politicians associated with the political opposition and far right extremist groups. The incident has been blamed on the Berkut police (and by extension on Yanukovych’s government and its supposed backers in the Russian government). Therefore any information that can reveal the identities of the killers or lead police to them would be valuable in helping to establish a lawsuit against them that would bring some justice to victims’ families. However Western governments and the Western mainstream media seem uninterested in pursuing such a case.

Through interviews the programme reveals that the killers (or some of them anyway) were Georgian mercenaries brought over from Georgia by a former military advisor associate of ex-Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and trained by an American military instructor. (This instructor would later turn up as a fighter with the Ukrainian military in the Donbass region against rebel fighters there.) The interviewees reveal among other things that they did not know until the very last minute that they were going to shoot at civilians as well as police and that when they did discover what they were going to do, as opposed to what they had initially been told (to shoot to create confusion and incite the police to shoot at Maidan protesters), they realised they had been duped over their mission in Kiev. What’s more, the Georgians were not the only foreigners among the snipers; there were Lithuanian shooters as well.

The bombshell revelation is that the sniper attacks had been organised by the very political opposition that was dead set against the Yanukovych government and which claimed that the government was behind the killings.

The film is fairly brisk but not so fast that viewers would lose the conversation thread. Not much background is given about the snipers apart from their nationality and viewers would be entitled to ask what role Saakashvili and other Georgians are playing in turning Ukraine away from Russia and destabilising the whole eastern European region around that country and the Black Sea. After revealing the foreigners’ role in the shootings, the film ends very quickly leaving viewers to absorb all the information that has been offered and the full implications of what they have just learned: that the current government of Ukraine is a criminal government that used deception and violence to get rid of a legitimate if incompetent and corrupt leader, and did so with the tacit support of Western governments and news media.

The Last Man on Earth: still retaining the power to shock and horrify with a message of post-apocalyptic despair and existential angst

Ubaldo B Ragona and Sidney Salkow, “The Last Man on Earth” (1964)

Over 50 years since it was made, this cheaply made horror film has clearly not lost its power to shock, horrify and leave its audiences in stunned silence with its message of despair. “The Last Man on Earth” is the first of three films based Richard Matheson’s sci-fi horror novel “I Am Legend” (the others being “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend”) and apparently follows the novel’s plot quite closely. Vincent Price plays Dr Robert Morgan, the eponymous star of the story, in which he survives a mysterious plague due apparently to having been bitten by a bat while working in South America. Seemingly the rest of humanity including Dr Morgan’s wife (Emma Danieli) and daughter has succumbed to the disease which turns corpses into zombie-like vampires if they are not immediately burned after death. Morgan himself is forced to survive by playing a Van Helsing vampire hunter role each day, every day: in the day-time he hunts down, impales and burns any vampires he finds and in the evenings he holes up in what remains of his house while a group of zombie fangsters, led by a former work colleague Ben (Giacomo Rossi-Stuart), besiege him and threaten him.

A good two-thirds of the film are taken up with showing the doctor’s dreary daily routine of driving around his abandoned home city and hunting down and impaling vampires. The middle part of the film finds him remembering or dreaming about the last days of his former normal existence as a virologist and happy family man before his daughter and then his wife die suddenly. Price does a good job portraying Morgan with his survivor guilt, his depressed episodes and mixed emotions about his past life. Voice-over narration by Price establishes the narrative of Morgan as lone surviving human forced against his own reasoning and knowledge to acknowledge the existence of the vampires and to hunt them down mercilessly.

The story becomes interesting in its last third when a female non-vampire character Ruth (Franca Bettoia) is introduced and warns Morgan that, because of his exploits as a vampire killer, he is feared by a small community of surviving humans. Almost on cue, these humans arrive in Morgan’s city and despatch all the vampires including Ben before turning their guns on Morgan – because he had taken out quite a few of their number as well as the hunted vampires.

For a cheap movie which is dated in parts, “The Last Man …” features some astonishing scenes of sheer loneliness and isolation, despair and hopelessness. It is rather wonky with respect to dubbing and other technical aspects linked to the shoestring budget, and maybe there were some bad decisions made with regard to plotting as the last 15 minutes of the film become an action thriller set in an incipient police-state dystopia. The early parts of the film are slow-moving and reveal Morgan in all his desolation and anguish. He probably could have shown more angst about having to kill vampires who were once friends and relatives of his but one significant scene in which Morgan laughs and then cries is well done, showing what a fine actor Price was when given the chance to showcase his talent and experience.

The cinematography turns out to be a major highlight in creating an atmosphere of despair and hopelessness, especially at the beginning of the film with a series of silent stills showing dead bodies in streets of an apparently abandoned city. If it were not for the Italian neo-realist influence on the cinematography, “The Last Man …” would probably look even more B-grade cheap.

The film’s conclusion is tragic and depressing, demonstrating how societies under severe stress can become more dangerous and monstrous than the monsters they pursue. For a slow-moving character study with not a great deal happening until the very last moment, “The Last Man …” turns out to be an intriguing piece on the nature of being, the purpose of one’s existence and how societies might cope with long-term terror and mass psychological stress.

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.

 

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.

The Hawks and the Sparrows: a rambling road movie enquiry into the social and political conflicts of Italian society in the 1960s

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Hawks and the Sparrows / Uccellacci e Uccellini” (1966)

A bit confusing and rambling, this road movie about a father and his son roaming aimlessly through Italy is an investigation of the social and political conflicts that threaten to pull 1960s-period Italian society apart, in particular the conflicts between the Roman Catholic Church and modern secular society at the time, and the conflicts between landowners and working-class rural folk. The Italian comedian Toto and Ninetto Davoli play the father Innocenti Toto and son Ninetto who have several unusual adventures on their walking journey. Along the way they are joined by a talking raven (voiced by Francesco Leonetti) who represents a left-wing intellectual tradition strong on rational thinking and who comments on the men’s backgrounds and the adventures they have taken or are about to take.

First up, the raven tells the men a fable about two mediaeval monks (Toto and Davoli) sent out by St Francis of Assisi to convince hawks and sparrows to accept God in their lives and live with love. This requires an extreme ascetic life-style lasting well over a year but finally the two monks master the languages of the birds and broadcast the Gospel among them. Yet no matter how earnestly they teach the birds, the birds are still at the mercy of their instincts and habits, the hawk still kills the sparrow for food, and St Francis pressures the two monks to try harder to convince the birds to overcome their natures and live in peace.

The fable takes up about half the film’s running time and the other stories that follow are not nearly so deep or complex. In two scenes, Toto and Ninetto threaten to evict a poverty-stricken family from their farmhouse if the money the mother owes the two men is not forthcoming, and Toto and Ninetto themselves are threatened when they appeal to their landlord to have mercy and waive their debts and the landlord refuses. The duo also meet a travelling troupe of actors representing minority groups in Italy and watch the troupe perform a play that is forced to end when one of the actors goes into labour and must deliver her baby. Not long after Toto and Ninetto witness the baby’s birth, they are caught up in crowds following the cofin of a local Italian celebrity figure. Later the two men take turns dallying with a prostitute (Femi Benussi) before being overcome by hunger and greed while looking at the raven …

The film is in neo-realist style, using non-actors to play most roles, and with some very stunning cinematography work showing off landscapes and featuring close-ups of people’s rugged faces. Toto and Davoli are fine actors just as much at home with Marxist notions on the nature of class-based struggle and the clash of Marxist ideology, Roman Catholic dogma and human nature, as they are with slapstick humour that owes a debt to old Charlie Chaplin silent films. The film flows smoothly and well, with each skit blending seamlessly into the next with no break in pace, mood or character.

It does try to say a lot within its 88 minutes, maybe too much for its length and road-movie fantasy narrative. Most contemporary Western viewers would be confused by the way Pasolini sets out the Marxist premise only to subvert it with examples of human greed. Pasolini fails to appreciate that much human greed is itself culturally shaped by societies and cultures that exalt greed, individual competition or low animal cunning that takes advantage of others or manipulates them as worthwhile values. The adventures of Toto and Ninetto might best have been served in a mini-series format that could have explored and explained in more depth and detail, at a level and pace suited to mainstream audiences, Marxist philosophy and its aims, and how it might adapt to or change the Italian society and culture of Pasolini’s times.

The Gospel According to St Matthew: a minimal neo-realist tale of struggle against corruption and injustice

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “The Gospel According to St Matthew / Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo” (1964)

Perhaps more historically accurate or Biblically faithful films – or even just better acted films – have been made about the life of Jesus Christ but few of them surely can match Pasolini’s retelling for power and intensity. Opting for a minimal realist approach using non-professional actors with working-class southern Italian backgrounds, Pasolini draws out the gospel’s message of Jesus’ struggle for social justice against a corrupt religious leadership and the price he had to pay for breaking social conventions and standing up to corrupt hierarchical power and injustice. Shorn of all religious associations, Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui, aged 19 years at the time) is presented as an intense and charismatic young revolutionary who nevertheless is not without his contradictions and his moments of doubt and even loss of hope.

The gospel is presented as it is in the Bible, in a series of tableaux and impressions with a heavy focus on close-ups of actors’ faces in their distinctive rough-hewn and weathered glory as befits the working-class people who rallied to Jesus’ call and preaching all those centuries ago. The near-desert environment and the urban landscapes with their rabbit warren buildings clinging to hillsides and linked by labyrinthine streets give the film an exotic otherworldly appearance in which a man powered by divine spirit truly might walk among mortals. Unusual camera angles, abrupt edits, long periods of silence and faces that look so implacable and emotionless that they might have been carved out of Mt Rushmore add to the film’s alien yet matter-of-fact tone.

Filming on the proverbial shoe-string budget means that fancy special effects are out of the question, yet deft editing and imagination take care of scenes where special effects might be called for: the five loaves and the two fishes miraculously feed the crowds gathered around Jesus in a way that comes over as completely natural and straightforward yet audiences can still go slack-jawed at the clever editing involved. The Devil appears as an unassuming traveller and the visions he presents to Jesus to tempt him look completely realistic.

The film’s pace may be very uneven and some significant scenes in Jesus’ life go missing for unexplained reasons. At times the film does drag but after the man is betrayed and arrested by soldiers, the movie starts to move much faster. That the acting ranges from indifferent to bad should be no surprise – all the actors are amateurs after all – and this focuses audience attention on to the film’s message itself and the way it presents Jesus as a mostly serious and uncompromising leader whose compassion appears rarely and briefly. (But when it does appear, it seems more genuine than if it were to appear frequently.)

The musical soundtrack is very eclectic with selections from Afro-American gospel music, Johann Sebastian Bach and Congolese Christian folk music.

The film does not attempt to interpret the gospel narrative but gives a bare-bones rendition of it. Some viewers may find parts of it long and boring. Whatever prior knowledge of the gospel stories people bring to their viewing of the film, they are likely to come away with strong feelings about the film. The minimal neo-realist presentation, the stark setting and the casting of rural workers with no prior acting experience in several roles strip away sentimentality and what we get is a classic story of one man’s heroism against an oppressive system and a message of hope.