Review: Novecento (1976)

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Bernardo Bertolucci’s historical epic 1900 (Novecento) is the final film in Kino Klassika’s “A World To Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen.” Inspired by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ famous declaration in The Communist Manifesto, the season aims to educate and inform the public on the wave of Soviet Film that had swept Russia for a hundred years. The season ran from 17th February to April 15th at the prestigious Regent Street Cinema.

With 1900 (Novecento) Bertolucci has constructed a tight wire act of a film; combining interpersonal drama that has archetypal resonance, a generational struggle between rich landowners and impoverished farmhands as well as the political turmoil that had swept Italy across a forty-four year period. This is combined with a permeating bawdy operatic flair that comes dangerously close to derailing the ambitious endeavour. However, in its epic 317 minutes running length; Bertolucci deftly illustrates an interesting metaphorical rise of particular populist ideologies that were prevalent in the 20th century.

The early part of the film is dedicated to the childhoods of Alfredo Berlinghieri and Olmo Dalcò. They are both born at the same time in 1901 and are on opposite ends of the social/economic hierarchy. Alfredo is born into a wealthy land-owning family and is named after his grandfather. Whereas, Olmo is the son of a poor foreman and is named after a man who had recently passed away. One does get a sense that Bertolucci’s heart resides in this stretch of the film. Trackings shots reveal sumptuous feasts and familial traditions; natural sun-soaked radiance washes over the lush green, and straw covered environments and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting “Il quarto stato” (The Fourth Estate) boldly accompanies the opening credits.

At the same time, Bertolucci presents pivotal moments that fundamentally shape deeply ingrained ideological beliefs. A particularly striking scene is when a young Olmo walks barefoot across crowded dinner table towards his father. (Leo) His paternal figure states that no matter what Olmo becomes he should never forget his poverty-stricken roots. The scene culminates in the nine-year-old boy saying his friend gave him a single gold coin and Leo simply retorts “whatever is yours belongs to us all.” The moment feels like a secular and humanist baptism as the sun shines on the boy in a particularly breathtaking manner that reminds one of the great Renaissance paintings of yore.

By his own admission, Bertolucci has amusingly said that “I don’t film messages. I let the post office take care of those.” However, at the core of 1900’s structure is the emergence of Fascism and Communism within the confines of a family and its agricultural business. With this in mind, one can read the film as a directorial grappling of both forms of ideology. In regards to Fascism, Bertolucci has paralleled the conditions for its emergence in the narrative to that of Europe. Crucially, Alfredo (At this point in the film, the character is played by Robert DeNiro) is ineffective in dealing with the escalating abhorrent acts of violence in his community.

In the final act, Olma (At this point in the film, the character is played by Gérard Depardieu) and the workers’ community he oversees put Alfredo on trial for his passive behaviour and profiting off the labour of the workers. Through the character of Alfredo, there is a clear historical brush being used to suggest that Fascism emerged in Europe because it went unchecked and was allowed to grow by weak leadership. Cinematically, Bertolucci also effectively illustrates the rise of Fascism in the narrative. One sequence makes the blackshirts feel like an unforeseen force in a horror movie as we get fleeting glimpses of the army that are cut like lightning as they emerge on constructed boats, land and the surrounding countryside. The mutated colour palette that is chiefly made up of grey and black also make the violent squad seem like a terrifying mythological entity that is an affront to nature.

In tandem is a Biblical idea of the sins of the father passing onto the son as Alfredo’s father hired Attila Mellanchini (Donald Sunderland) as a foreman and fanned the flames of his violently held beliefs. In lockstep with his father, Alfredo keeps Attila on as a foreman and is oblivious to his continued violent crimes and the fact that his new belief system is being incorporated into his dealings with the workers.

In the history of cinematic villainy, Sunderland’s performance is singularly unsung. His primary facial expression of sadistic glee and manic energy match Italian cinema and its fits of frantic, energetic emotion. And his quiet moments of contemplation, drunkenness and aloofness imbue the character with a humanity that has a steadfast commitment to an extreme authoritarianism.

Robert DeNiro is simply spellbinding as the affluent older Alfredo. There is a scene when the character is wearing a fur coat that is too big for him and the small moment perfectly encapsulates DeNiro’s performance. He plays Alfredo as though he is a ten-year-old child who is playing dressing up. He is easily bored, foolishly idealistic in his approach and quickly resorts to brash action. More noteworthy is the stark contrast between his paternal warmness and numbness in the tail end of the film. In the context of DeNiro’s entire acting oeuvre, 1900 represents his most fascinating performance. The common perception of the actor that comes from his crime films is subverted here in favour of a jovially foolish and ultimately nebbish portrait of a man.

In the aftermath of the trial, the workers’ community disappears into the fabric of the newly regulated government that was established in the final days of the Second World War. With this act, Bertolucci suggests that Communism was like a short-lived hurricane that swept Europe; it never truly caught on or got its vindication due to the pragmatism of many world leaders.

In a recent introduction to the film, Bertolucci said “I wanted to show the birth of Communism in the Po valley and the repression of the {blackshirts} of Mussolini” From this statement, one does get the impression that the director favours one ideology over the other. Consequently, the film’s point feels one-note in its exploration and thematic resonance. It is for this reason and the elusive nature of the central relationship (Bertolucci is indecisive on what to do with the underlying homoeroticism between Alfredo and Olmo) that the film never reaches the richness of the director’s last film- Last Tango In Paris.

Fundamentally, 1900 is a raggedy epic with the import of a boisterous elderly uncle at a wedding who feverishly recalls his youth with captivating enthusiasm and mesmerising detail.

My Brief Thoughts on The Last Jedi Panel, Poster and Trailer

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In what has seemed like a wonderfully generational celebration that has unified various disparate fans of the popular franchise; the headline Last Jedi panel felt like a humbling bow to the Galactic festivities in Orlando. Patience was rewarded with new details, funny anecdotes and an emphasised personable new vision of a Star Wars picture that has not been seen since the great bearded one himself. (George Lucas) Nevertheless, the piecemeal titbits did not compare to the sheer excitement for the first teaser trailer and poster for eighth film in the Skywalker saga.

The brand new poster for The Last Jedi simultaneously evokes the urgency of its premise and the galactic grandiosity of the Star Wars universe. It also harkens back to a time where the movies seemed like supreme event fare; even if it does echo the minimalism of the Tron (1982) poster a bit too much.

Finally, The Last Jedi Trailer is powerful, soul-stirring and lingering in its implications. The force is strong with Rian Johnson and his directing prowess; his widescreen canvas particularly stimulates the senses, and his close-ups are fiercely personal and meaningful. Quite simply, Star Wars has cinematic heft again.

Review: Prometheus (2012)

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In the warm and pleasant summer of 2012, I left Ridley Scott’s Prometheus with a sense of majestic confusion. The film had cast a spell of bewilderment that has been hard to untangle in the intervening years. This was in stark contrast to my fellow patrons whose vivid and graphic vocal utterances were as acidic as the Xenomorph’s blood from the acclaimed horror franchise. To say that Prometheus is a film that causes passions to run high (on both sides of the debate) is putting it lightly. On subsequent home viewings, the film has unravelled into a peculiar concoction that oozes with astonishing cinematic craftsmanship while simultaneously being confounding in its writing. Watching the film is akin to witnessing the last dying gasps of a conceptually ludicrous vaudeville production that is delivered with a considerable amount of gusto.

Conceived as a picture that retains the spirit as well as the DNA of 1979’s Alien: Prometheus chronicles a scientific expedition to the far-reaching moon of LV-223 for the purpose of finding the Engineers. They are beings who are considered the creators of humankind. In the writers’ audio commentary, co-writer Damon Lindelof states “For me, Prometheus was all about making an Alien-Blade Runner mash-up, using the best themes from both movies and dropping them all into the same world.” With this in mind, one could read the film as a reversal of the hefty metaphysical strife of Blade Runner. Crucially, Lindelof articulates that Prometheus is about a human who goes to ask his creator for more life whereas, in Blade Runner, it was the replicant Roy Batty who desired the same goal from his maker. (Edon Tyrell)

While this is a conceptually sound idea, the execution is infuriating in its sheer amateurishness. At its worst, Prometheus indulges in a fetishism for vagueness, a trait that emphatically espouses clarity as a troublesome menace to good writing, and it has plagued many films from The Force Awakens to Star Trek Into Darkness. Culturally, it is truly poisoning the movies; turning them from engaging pieces of art to novelty items that are supposedly orgasmic in their surprises. Instead, they are about as clever as a ten-year-old shouting boo.

Peter Weyland (Guy Pierce) is the man in Prometheus who seeks his creator’s wisdom to eternal life. However, his role in the film is regulated to a cameo as Lindelof considers his constant presence as detrimental to his vision of inane mysteries. There were scenes that had a young Weyland talking to his android creation David. (Michael Fassbender) However, they were exercised in favour of pointless intrigue. Worse yet, Weyland’s appeal for eternal life when meeting the lone engineer on the moon is on the cutting room floor. There is depth in a character expressing his desire, however, Lindelof didn’t get the memo. Blade Runner’s power came from Roy Batty’s violent and rhapsodic presence as well as a desire that blurred the line between human and android. Moreover, Batty truly learnt the value of mortality in his mournfully reflective final moments. By comparison, Weyland barely registers as a human being.

There are many instances of Prometheus decimating its depth in favour of a smooth two-hour running time. One of the picture’s sub-themes is how children view their elders. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) still clings to her father’s impactful words about choosing to believe as the lynchpin for her faith. David perceives Weyland as an obstacle to what he understands as freedom, slyly surmised when he says, “Doesn’t everyone want their parents dead.”

However, Meredith Vickers’ (Charlize Theron) relationship with her father, which is chiefly illustrated in a scene with Weyland in the third act feels superficial and sketchily developed. Theron’s best moment of acting is when she expresses her admiration for Weyland in the past along with her current source of disdain for the old man. The manner of her delivery and body language (in the moment she is kneeling down at her father’s side and placing her face on his hand) puts one in mind of the process of growing up; as it showcases a child’s shifting relationship to their parents; going from sweet and idealistic admiration to bitter resentment over minor differences. Sadly, the moment is not present in the finished film, and consequently, the scene in its current incarnation feels like a race towards an eyebrow-raising revelation.

One does get the distinct impression that the third act of Prometheus collapses under the weight of its hide and seek antics. The most emblematic aspect of this quality comes from the portrait of the Engineers whose presence were scaled back as the production of the film wore on. In particular, a scene when an Engineer converses with David was cut because Lindloff found “it robbed him of any coolness or mystery.” The opening sequence originally had a number of the humanoid aliens and a striking moment in the initially shot final confrontation had the lone Engineer observe a flickering colour projection of a young girl playing the violin. Contrary to the co-writers’ sentiment, the incomplete portrayal serves only to make the apparent divine beings seem like generic slasher movie fare as opposed to the fascinating creatures who were ascetically inspired by the works of Michelangelo.

In other regards, Prometheus is incredibly postmodern in its approach. The underhanded machinations of the corporate sleazes from the franchise are given overt life by Vickers. The basketball scene from Alien Resurrection is amusingly homaged here; proving that whether one is a Xenomorph/human hybrid or android that your physical prowess is proven by scoring a stupefyingly hard basket.

More noteworthy is the film retaining a quality that has permeated the series and imbuing it with a striking immediacy. The Alien films have always had a subtle judgement of humanity. In the first, our survival instincts are found wanting compared with the seemingly perfect Xenomorph whose biology and design makes it the perfect embodiment of Darwin’s survival of the fittest. In Aliens, Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) maternal instincts are tragically found wanting when she discovers her daughter died while she was in cryosleep for 57 years. They are eventually tested as she must face the nightmarish Alien Queen, for life of a little girl she has bonded with through the course of the movie. In Alien 3, the judgement is religious in nature as the lone Xenomorph is viewed as the physical manifestation of God’s vengeance for  all the prisoners on Fury 161. They believe that the creature is punishing them for their sins and their salvation might come from destroying it.

In Prometheus, David proves to be a constant source of judgement as his various responses towards the crew carry an underlying sense of delight at the fact that he is not a human being. A particularly amusing moment is when he says “Hopefully not too close” when responding to Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) about simulated humanity.

In the context of the many androids that have pervaded cinema; David is less Pinocchio then a curious entity with negative intentions. Director Ridley Scott expectedly conveys this in David’s first appearance. The android walks into a darkened room; the pitch blackness of the cryo room represents his insidious impulses and the brightly illuminated background evoke his flourishing inquisitive nature. His morality is surmised in the scene when he is watching Lawrence of Arabia, and the titular character says “The trick William Potter is not minding that it hurts.” David repeats the line like a mantra. Fassbender’s performance is captivating because it submerges any aspect of the android in favour of a seemingly aloof disposition that hides a remarkably dangerous edge.

Even with its woefully executed premise, Prometheus strangely captures the spirit of Alien in a unique manner. In my revisit of the original picture, I was struck by how it felt like a terrifying evocation of Lovecraftian cosmic horror combined with a potently nasty sexual subtext. The primary strength derives from a sheer insignificance and helplessness of the human characters in the face of a motiveless creature of instinct. One notable scene melds both facets to disturbing effect as Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) is reduced to paralytic fear when she gets a glimpse of the creature. Her unseen and audible death sounds like rape is occurring rather than a swift dispatching.

Prometheus’ sumptuous visuals and direction make humanity seem like an inconsequential species; the potent fear comes from the sheer unknown of meeting our makers. To this end, the picture achieves a certain amount of awe and terrifying wonder in its speculative musings. Humanity has never looked less worthy of consideration in any other Alien picture. The title ship looks like an insect while its travel through the galaxy as overarching clouds and looming landscapes diminishes its scientific and technological endeavour.

Scott’s cinematic artistry particularly shines in the opening sequence due to a series of aerial shots capturing earthly landscapes. The series of shots feel like a reinvention of the famed “phantom-ride” shot (in early cinema, director G.A. Smith, would put a camera on the front of fasting moving trains which would provide a ghostly effect) and gives the audience the distinctive feeling that Earth is being viewed as a single celled organism on a petri dish.

Despite this, the psychosexual subtext of Prometheus is lacking. Elizabeth Shaw cannot give birth and a plot point results in her removing an alien foetus from her belly. The sequence is undeniably great in its feverish intensity because of its uses of close-ups and graphic detail. Nevertheless, the permeating idea seems to be uninteresting and has the same amount import as someone shrugging their shoulders and saying in a detached manner, life is tough. Whereas, in Alien the subtext is tapping into instances of grotesque interspecies violations and a genuine horror of gender swapping birth.

The lingering existential question of Prometheus is what does the seemingly divine dimension add to the franchise? The answer may come in Alien Convent or the various other planned instalments, and that potential vagueness might be most maddening of all.