Kasra is a writer being monitored by the government, secretly working on his memoirs, which include an incident when he and a bunch more writers were meant to be killed together on a bus. Khosrow is an amateur hitman with a sick kid at home, working with his heavier, more confident partner Morteza. They go around calmly tormenting and killing Kasra and everyone he knows in order to shut them up.

G. Cheshire:

In his striking earlier films, Iron Island and The White Meadows, Rasoulof deployed a distinct version of the visual lyricism and quasi-mystical symbolism of other Iranian films. Manuscripts Don’t Burn offers no such cinematic poetry. It is bluntly literal, almost shockingly so given the context … The kinds of killings depicted in the film appear to be based on the “Chain Murders,” in which roughly 80 Iranian intellectuals were murdered between the late ‘80s and 1998 … Rasoulof has done something that Iranians will instantly recognize: drawn a comparison between the Shah’s regime and the present one.

I keep mistakenly calling it Manuscripts Also Die.

For a while there, I dismissed all Italian movies. Their horror is badly acted and makes no sense, 98% of their movies have awful lipsync and among the higher-quality pics I’ve seen are The Leopard (which I hate) and flicks starring Roberto Benigni. Sure, I admit Antonioni and Fellini can be great, and I liked Suspiria a whole lot, so I figured I’d give the country another shot this year via poster-boy Rossellini. Rome, Open City was wonderful, but before moving on to Paisan I took a pit stop with L’Amore, wanting more Anna Magnani – and what a pit it was.

L’Amore is actually a film and a half, or an hour-long feature preceded by a short. First off is The Human Voice, a one-woman play written in 1930 by Jean Cocteau. I’d heard it performed before, on an LP by Ingrid Bergman recorded sometime after her divorce from Rossellini and return to Hollywood. So two Rossellini lovers recorded the same French monologue – coincidence? The play is pretty straightforward, a woman who’s been dumped awaits a call from her ex-guy, talks to him through a failing connection, going through various levels of grief. Should be a showy actresses’s dream role. The Bergman LP sold it better, as far as I’m concerned, sounding more like an actual phone call, all the visuals imagined. Rossellini’s version adds straightforward visuals – an unkempt Magnani on the phone in her room, with no fancy editing or showy camerawork. The biggest problem is the sound, distractingly out of sync (distracting even for me, who was busily reading subtitles), harsh and shrill, Magnani’s whining getting on my nerves until I finally turned the volume waaay down. You’d suppose a one-person movie in a single room would have been a good chance for the Italians to try recording synchronized sound for the first time ever, but even the pioneering Rossellini didn’t think to try that.

In the second part, The Miracle, from a story by Fellini, simple Nanni has a religious mania. While up in the mountains herding goats, she meets a lone dude, whom she welcomes as Saint Joseph (as in the stepfather of Jesus). They share some wine and she wakes up later, wanders back to work. A few months later she’s pregnant. Neighbors taunt and joke with her, a devilish midget throws her from her “home,” which looked like a pile of clothes in a plaza, then literally the entire town comes out to throw her a fake parade then throw stuff at her. So she flees up the mountain, delivers the baby herself.

G. Moliterno: “… largely made, as Rossellini himself acknowledges in the film’s epigraph, to showcase the consummate acting talents of Anna Magnani.”

He also mentions that the Human Voice segment was shot in Paris during prep for Germany Year Zero. “A clear indication of Rossellini’s greater than usual attention to visual style here is given by the pronounced presence of mirrors throughout the film in order to underscore the ongoing fragmentation of the self.”

And if I may overquote from the same source:

[Nanni] clearly anticipates the characters of Gelsomina and Cabiria in Fellini’s La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, but Magnani channels an animistic vitality into the role that makes the poetry of Fellini’s two later creatures appear wan in comparison. And in fact, despite Fellini’s own appearance in the film as the silent and mysterious vagabond who prompts Nanni’s religious delirium… Nannì brings to mind the “durochka” or holy fool, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. … [Appeals against the film’s banning in the States] also overturned the Court’s own decision in 1915 which had for decades denied films the status of self-expression and thus protection under the First Amendment. Part of the miracle of Il miracolo, then, turned out to be its role in initiating the beginning of the demise of film censorship in the United States.

“A comic strip in 7 episodes on the life of Richard Strauss 1864-1949” Strauss is played as a power-hungry megalomaniac by Christopher Gable (also of Russell’s Tchaikovsky film The Music Lovers). The film itself is fanciful and alive, and surely one of the best biographic movies I’ve seen.

image

Only two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey, Russell accompanies that film’s big opening song with shots of a caveman who soon runs into religious mania and screaming nuns (both of which would be rampant in The Devils the following year).

image

“Alas, the time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars. The dead end of mankind is approaching.” I could quote every line and display stills from every shot. This seems way too extravagant to be a made-for-public-television movie, and too good to be a long-censored rarity. Only ten years until this can be shown legally despite the Strauss family’s objections, unless copyright law is extended like it always is.

image

We get a love triangle in the box seats at the opera, scenes of Macbeth, Don Quixote, a fun Salome with two lead actresses, and the infamous garden party with the nazis. Yes, the film does feature Strauss giving Hitler a piggyback ride, both of them grinning and playing violins. Various fantasies, both nightmarish (Allied soldiers interrupt Strauss’s innocent mountain vacation and murder his family) and wishful (his glorious music pounds critics into submission).

image

Kenneth Colley (Jesus in Life of Brian) – the only actor to play both Jesus and Hitler?
image

“A life completely away from politics and war – that is what I’ve always longed for.” Ends with a speech by an aged Strauss distancing himself from the nazi party, “There’s no stain on my character. These nazis are criminals, I’ve always known that.” But a minute later complains about “Jewish stubbornness” before catching himself. Russell partly credits Richard Strauss with scenario/dialogue, saying he used the man’s own words in the script. A scathing portrayal.

image

IMDB has incomplete credits. Judith Paris (a nun in The Devils) played Strauss’s wife Pauline, Vladek Sheybal (camp classic The Apple, Russell’s Women In Love) was Goebbels and Imogen Claire (appeared in and choreographed Lisztomania) was one of the two Salomes.

image

Tape number at top of screenshots provided so the BBC can locate their tapes and release this properly. Timecode (below) provided so you can easily find your favorite scenes. Thank me later.

The MBC:

The complete title reveals Russell’s intention to create a satirical political cartoon on the life of the German composer, who Russell saw as a “self-advertising, vulgar, commercial man . . . [a] crypto-Nazi with the superman complex underneath the facade of the distinguished elderly composer.” And, although, according to Russell, “95 percent of what Strauss says in the film he actually did say in his letters and other writings,” many critics and viewers found Russell’s treatment of the venerated composer itself to be vulgar.

People are talking about Ken Russell these days because of a DVD release of his early biographical documentaries, so when I was frustrated at the video store (no Stuart Gordon! no Wizard of Gore!) I rented this on a whim. Oh boy am I glad I did. Don’t know what the modern critical consensus is (it’s on the They Shoot Pictures list and in D. Ehrenstein’s top ten, so probably pretty good) but to me, this is a masterpiece. Got to see it again, preferably in higher quality than this blurred DVD copy could provide.
UPDATE 2016: Watched this on 35mm, front row at the Alamo – a divine experience.

Vanessa Redgrave has spinal problems:
image

It’s about the same 1600’s nun-mania incident in France that Mother Joan of the Angels covered very capably and artistically a decade earlier, but this one opens up the story, bringing in King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu (who together strengthened the monarchy and centralized power in France), enlarging the town and creating amused mobs and public executions, and focusing mainly on a priest outside the convent, Urbain Grandier (played by Oliver Reed, his favorite role), who seems corrupt at first but becomes the most noble character in the movie towards the end.

Grandier with one of his pre-marriage young conquests:
image

The nuns (led by a hysterical Vanessa Redgrave of Blow-Up and Camelot) are shown to be repressed young bundles of hormones, stuck in the convent by circumstance and not by choice, who finally explode at the sight of Grandier glimpsed through their barred windows. The nuns request a father confessor but instead of Grandier they get stern, sexually ambiguous Mignon (Murray Melvin, who had a good year in ’75 with Lisztomania and Barry Lyndon) who calls in professional witch-hunter Father Barre (Michael Gothard of Lifeforce, The Three Musketeers) to perform an embarrassing public exorcism. Meanwhile, Grandier has knocked up one girl and made a big deal of defending the city from the whims of central government, meets Madeleine (Gemma Jones, lately playing everyone’s mum in big-budget films) and dedicates himself to her in a private wedding ceremony. Richelieu and the fey King (hilariously shown in his garden shooting protestants dressed as birds) use the nun-mania to their political advantage, taking down Grandier, having him tortured and killed by the enthusuastic Father Barre. Grandier out of the way, the city’s protective walls are destroyed. Final awesome shot is of U.G.’s devastated wife walking out of town, surrounded by ruins of the wall and the bodies of protestants tied to wagon wheels atop unreasonably high poles.

image

Derek Jarman, right at the start of his career, did the glorious sets and production design, and David Watkin (lots of Richard Lester movies, Out of Africa) was cinematographer. Two music people, one did period music and one did the discordant jazz that played over darker scenes. Russell wrote the screenplay based on a play and an Aldous Huxley novel. Pretty closely based on fact, if the Wikipedia article on Urbain Grandier is accurate (wow, it even has a graphic of U.G.’s “confession” co-signed by Satan himself).

As far as religious mania goes, I’ve lately seen Spanish Inquisition movies (Pit and the Pendulum, Goya’s Ghosts) a Boston Witch-hunt referencing movie (Ghosthouse) and other movies about religious conflict (Guelwaar, The Milky Way), and this tops ’em all. Of course, as a non-religious person I’m biased towards the extreme corrupt-church-hatin’, and as a guy I’m biased towards all the female nudity, but aside from all that, this is a scorching, beautiful, excellent movie.

a gem from Wikipedia:
“British film critic Alexander Walker described the film as ‘monstrously indecent’ in a television confrontation with Russell, leading the director to hit him with a rolled up copy of the Evening Standard, the newspaper for which Walker worked.”

King and Cardinal during the bird-shooting scene:
image

Oliver Reed:

You would think from the critics’ hostility that Ken Russell had tried to pull off some obscene hoax. On the contrary, the film is, I think, an utterly serious attempt to understand the nature of religious and political persecution. It is not in any way exaggerated. If anything, the horrors perpetrated in Loudun in the 17th century were worse than Russell has chosen to show . . . the character of the priest was a marvelous one to act. Ken Russell’s brother-in-law is an historian and he helped me research Grandier’s life, with particular reference to his thesis in celibacy. The people of Loudun loved him. He walked among the plague victims and comforted them. I started to play him as a priest and realized that he was a politician.

[on criticism of The Devils] It was very disturbing to make. I still haven’t got over it… Where do you draw the line? This is the way it happened – those nuns were used for political ends, toted round France as a side show for a year. Do you ignore the actual historical accuracy and the fact that the Church, the politicians and the aristocracy were corrupt? I get so angry with the opinion makers who class it with the sex films. If we ignore history because it was unpleasant we’re going to end up with nothing but nature films.

Mignon, belatedly convinced of Grandier’s innocence, with the zealous Barre:
image

D. Ehrlich: “Jarman’s neo-futurist design still gives the madness a divine scale. Any movie that ends with someone furiously masturbating as an expression of their own eternal misery is fine by me.”