Wednesday 31 January 2024

The Night of the Shooting Stars (La Notte di San Lorenzo) (1982)


San Lorenzo natten

War is a terrible thing, there are not two ways about it. For an adult it is often difficult to comprehend. For a child, war is downright bizarre. “The Night of the Shooting Stars” (“La Notte di San Lorenzo”) tells the story of a war seen through the eyes of a six-year-old girl.

The movie takes the form of a mother telling her child of a war taking place a long time ago as she experienced it when she was a child herself. The war is the Second World War in 1944 when the front was somewhere in Tuscany and the retreating German army was wrecking as much destruction as they could get away with. In the town of San Martino, the German have selected a number of houses for demolition and told the inhabitants to seek shelter in the church. Some of the townspeople decide to disobey the order and leave the town at night to find the American. Those who go to the church gets blown up by the Germans.

Cecilia (Micol Guidelli) is a six-year-old girl who has joined the exodus with her mother (and the father, I think). We follow the group at large and meet a host of people and what they are experiencing is both strange and traumatic. The fighting, when it occurs, is barbaric and, in the eyes of Cecilia, often surrealist. Friends meet, but being on different sides in the war they shoot each other after their greetings. A bus drawn by horse are led by opera singing German soldiers, a fascist who kills Cecilia’s grandfather is killed by Achilles spear and so on. The Americans are never quite there, and disaster is always close if not present. Yet, in this nightmare there are also small wonders, such as a field of watermelons, American soldiers giving chocolate and balloon (?!) and the elderly Concetta (Margarita Lozano) and Galvano (Omero Antonutti) find each when they have lost everything else. It is a world that makes little sense on any level, but especially for Cecilia.

The special angle of the movie makes it a strange war movie. It is surreal, scattered and illogical, but in the way war is all that. It is full of people, real people, who talk (a lot, this is Italy), have feelings, dear ones, flaws and then suddenly die. There is no point to who dies and who lives, nothing is really fair, it just happens, as in the strange shoot-out in the wheat field. As we see all this from the little girl’s viewpoint, there is a certain innocence about it, as if people are just playing at war with each other and not really dead, yet we also see it as adults, the cruelty and tragedy of it.

“The Night of the Shooting Stars” is a beautiful movie to watch. The Tuscan landscape is sundrenched, and all colors are sharp and crisp, especially the matching dresses of Cecilia and her mother. Most of the people are smiling, sometimes even when they kill each other, and the wonder of things are in every image. This may be a nightmare, but it is also a great adventure at that eye-height.

As a viewer those feelings are conveyed to me. I sit back with equal amount of horror and wonder. A lot of it happens in glimpses, a lot makes little sense, not because of surrealism, but because from the child perspective we perceive certain highlights that the child see as important and so I often lack the context or the knowledge of the relations between each character. The position of both being a third person viewer and share the second person view of the girl is sometime confusing, but it also juxtaposes elements that are wildly differently perceived by the child and an adult.

War is really not for children, or for anybody, really, and what the movie seems to tell us is that children need to create this alternate reality to cope with it. That is both a wonder and a tragedy in its own right and while the movie does not go all in depressive, it is easy to perceive that beneath the surface of wonder, there is depth of mourning.

I am still undecided if I truly liked “The Night of Shooting Stars”. I am still a bit dizzy from watching it and trying to take it in, split, again, between wonder and sorrow. Then again, its success at conveying those feelings very much speaks for the movie.


Friday 26 January 2024

Gandhi (1982)



The movie “Gandhi” is one of those gargantuan projects that either stands as a landmark or falls pitifully under its own weight. Fortunately, “Gandhi” manages to be of the first kind.

“Gandhi” is, not surprisingly, a biopic on Mahatma Gandhi and rather than, as has in later year become popular, being  focused on a single event, it tries to take in a broad sweep, covering five decades, from Gandhi’s time in South Africa in the 1890’ies to his assassination in 1948. It is also, which is more astonishing, not preoccupied with Gandhi’s personal life but focusses on what he did as a public person. It stands as proof that the remarkable things people did are interesting enough in itself and does not need support from trivial personal details. Watch and learn, producers of “Maestro”. This does not mean that we do not get close to Gandhi, we do, but in small details, integrated into the larger picture.

In South Africa, Gandhi was shocked to find racism being flaunted as blatantly as it was. As an Indian he was a second-rate person to the white overlords. He got the Indian community involved in a non-violent campaign for emancipation that came to include other ethnic groups as well. He was thrown in prison repeatedly and his supporters were physically assaulted and yet he prevailed and got a number of demeaning laws withdrawn. In South Africa he developed the doctrine of non-violent protest as well as his pastoral and ascetic outlook on life.

Based on his success in South Africa he was invited to return to India to assist in the independence movement there. Already on arrival he was seen as a hero, but his preference for going out to see for himself and walk among people rather than work party politics endeared him to the public, and the independence movement leaders first learned to respect him and then to love him. Indeed, in the course of his activities in India it is not wrong to call him the father of India, or, maybe better, the guru of India.

All this sounds like the story of the real person Gandhi and, indeed, I do not know the difference. The movie’s very clear objective is to tell the story of Mahatma Gandhi and gives the impression of telling the objective truth. One should always be suspicious of that, but I am not in a position to tell the real and the fictious Gandhi apart. I suppose it speaks to the credit of the movie that it feels real.

It truly is an amazing story and even covering the highlights of it requires a long movie, but, surprisingly, “Gandhi” never overstays its welcome. It stays long enough on each episode to round it off and never falls into the trap of repetition, even if Gandhi with remarkable consistency follows the same policy that he developed in South Africa. It is difficult not to feel anger at the wanton cruelty of the British in both South Africa and in India, the massacre of Amritsar was particularly difficult to watch, but even the British are not portrayed with utter contempt. Rather, they seem bemused or even confused at what they are facing in Gandhi. So am I, actually, as a viewer. My cynical common sense tells me that Gandhi’s nonviolence and non-corporation and especially his inclusiveness should be all too easy to trample and pick apart, yet it works against the British.

So much more sad is it that it did not work against the religious tension among the Indians themselves. Against that sort of madness even Gandhi fights in vain.

“Gandhi” features a remarkable roster of actors and actresses. Foremost Ben Kingsley in the role of his life. I think for my generation, Mahatma Gandhi simply looks like Ben Kingsley. In supporting roles, we have everything British and Indian cinema could field at the time plus a few Hollywood A-listers. I even saw Daniel Day-Lewis far down on the list. The Indian top leaders were really remarkably portrayed. Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey and Alyque Padamsee really look like the real Nehru, Patel and Jinnah.

“Gandi” cleaned the table at the Academy Awards, taking eight statues, including three of the big ones. Gandhi is an extremely ambitious movie, like Gandhi’s politics by all rights it should not work, but it does, it flies. Highly recommended.


Sunday 14 January 2024

Fitzcarraldo (1982)



In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned to roll a stone up a mountain. Every time he reached the top, the stone would roll down and he could start all over. “Fitzcarraldo” is a slightly more modern take on that story.

Fitzcarraldo is a corruption of Brian Fitzgerald, an Irish adventurer in the early twentieth century, played by Klaus Kinski, who has big ideas, but less good luck on carrying them out. His project of a trans-Andean railway went bust and his idea of bringing opera to the frontier town of Iquitos is not going too well either. His latest idea is to buy a lease to a plot for rubber plantations that nobody else wants. The problem with this plot is that it is inaccessible. The rapids on the river means that it is impossible to sail upstream to the plot. Fitzgerald, however, has a plan. It turns out that another, accessible, river is very close to the inaccessible one a bit upstream from the plot, so Fitzgerald wants to sail a steamer up this river, then drag it over the isthmus and sail down to the plot. The steamer will traffic this river, rubber will be sent back across the isthmus and shipped down to Iquitos. Fitzgerald, who is broke himself, gets his girlfriend, the brothel manager Molly (Claudio Caridinale), to put down money for the plot and the steamer, and he now has a short time to prove that the lease is feasible. Major drawback: The accessible river is controlled by a hostile indigenous tribe.   

As the boat approaches the Indians, the crew flee the boat, leaving Fitzgerald, the captain Resenbrink (Paul Hittscher), the machinist and the cook alone on the boat. When the Indians surround the ship, they are trapped. This is where Fitzgerald decide to gamble everything on a myth of the tribe about a white god who is supposed to bring the tribe salvation. It seems to work and through an enormous (and rather dangerous) effort by the Indian, the boat is dragged over a hill onto the other river.


Sleeping off the celebration hangover Fitzgerald wakes up as the boat is speeding down the rapids, getting beaten up in the process. Turns out the Indians totally bought into the myth, but slightly differently from Fitzgerald’s intention. The white boat had to be carried across and sent down into the rapids. Only then will the gods be appeased. The operation was a huge success for the Indians, but Fitzgerald is back exactly where he started, like Sisyphus.


From the point of view that the ingenious people win out against the white man, I suppose this is an interesting and successful movie. The problem is just that we, the audience, are so invested in Fitzgerald and his huge undertaking that his failure feels devastating. He may just be back at square zero, but that is also a pitiful result given the effort. The strange opera ending, which I did not entirely understand, feels like a patched on happy end. There really is nothing to celebrate for Fitzgerald. That in itself makes this a painful watch.

I also must say I did not entirely understand his plan. It would be a lot easier to use small boats on the inaccessible river and the steamer on the good river. Then there would be no reason to drag the boat across. That of course removes the entire premise of the movie, but I just find the reasoning too week.

Then there is the character of Fitzgerald himself. He is hyperactive to the extent that today he would get a diagnose. It is a difficult character to love, and Kinski is not making that easier. This is a manic character played by a manic actor. Something that apparently caused a few problems on the set. According to Herzog, the Indians used as extras offered to kill Kinski for Herzog. He politely declined.

Technically, however, this movie is a monumental feat. The pictures from the Amazon are stunning and the project of moving the ship is both as a document and an actual effort without comparison. You must see it to believe it. Unfortunately, the sound side cannot match the pictures. My disc has no subtitles, so it was a choice between German and English spoken language. That means that everybody except the indigenous people speak that language, dubbed in the studio. The English version sounds incredibly fake.

“Fitzcarraldo” is in my personal opinion more interesting and impressive than actually good. I found it difficult to keep my interest and attention on the movie until the last act, and while that act is absolutely spectacular, I am not certain it can carry the entire movie. For this reason, I am hesitant to recommend “Fitzcarraldo”.

Wednesday 3 January 2024

Diner (1982)



It is entirely fitting that the first movie I review in 2024 is taking place during the last week of the year (of 1959), culminating on New Year’s Eve. Fortunately, I had better things to do New Year’s Eve than watching movies (it was a good party!), but watching this on New Year's day is not so bad either.

“Diner” is about a group of young men in their early twenties who struggle with growing up. They are clearly childhood friends and use the local diner as their hangout and this is indeed where a large part of the movie takes place. The movie is famous for the banter between these young men and true enough, their talk about, well, anything and nothing, takes up a substantial amount of screen time.

Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) is going to get married (to Elyse, a woman we never see the face of). He is an American football fan and has devised a quiz on football that Elyse must pass, otherwise the wedding is off. Eddie is clearly nervous about the wedding and reveals late in the movie that he is a virgin. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) is already married, but is clinging on to his interests, music and his friends, alienating his wife Beth (Ellen Barkin) in the process. Boogie (Mickey Rourke) is a hairdresser by day and study law at night, mostly as a pick-up for girls. He also has a gambling problem, trying to get easy money and easy girls. Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) is the rich kid who has no idea what he wants with his life and is busy blowing it away with alcohol and irresponsible stunts. Billy (Tim Daly) is back from New York to serve as best man. The love of his life, Barbara (Kathryn Dowling), works at the local TV station. She is pregnant but not really interested in a relationship with Billy. And Modell (Paul Reiser) is just tagging on.

All of the young men claim a careless existence, but they all carry a concern or issue related to growing up. Their irresponsible pranks and their banter all seem like them desperately trying to avoid becoming adults and entering that next phase of their lives. This is symbolized by the change of decade and all the other changes happening at the time, from music over women’s rights to different expectations to them as adults.

Coming of age movies are common and whether as group or individuals, in comedies it is usually about sex. This one is slightly more mature in that these people have to assume a responsibility that is honestly long overdue. They do not realize it themselves, but they are scared of the future and use each other’s company to cling on to an adolescence they have already passed. They are under pressure from society conventions to move on and while that is also about to change, they are just a bit ahead of the curve for that. A decade or two later, adolescence could easily stretch a decade or two longer, but not in 1959.

In this sense, it is a bittersweet comedy. The banter and the pranks are fun at face value, but the desperate irresponsibility is also sad and painful, and I could not help wanting to kick them in the right direction. Not necessarily to get married and have children, but to assume responsibility for their own life. All of them really. It does not matter if it is Shrevie, insisting his records are more important than his wife or Fenwick drinking himself senseless. Shrevie is a nice guy really, he does love his wife, and Fenwick is actually smart, a lot smarter than he lets on. Why waste all this for a careless life?

I found the movie hard to get into. The thing these guys have together seemed like a very closed thing. Their banter is along lines only they really get and as an outsider I am not invited. Only gradually are we invited inside when the movie moves beyond the banter, and they become real people. Still, even to the end I had some difficulty telling Shrevie, Billy and Modell from each other. It does not help that irresponsible stunts work very poorly with me. Fenwick faking a car accident is just not funny to me. However, as their careless surface breaks up and we see their vulnerability, the comedy also gets funnier. Perhaps the characters simply become more likable, and the movie won me over in the end.

“Diner” is also interesting in having so many actors in the early part or what became illustrious careers. Practically all these guys went on to become A-listers.

“Diner” is a rare intelligent comedy. It works because it is not stupid and does not sacrifice itself to silly gags. It may not be as funny as it is made up to be, but it works and that counts.