The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday (1960, Mario Bava)

I know there’s a rule that Italian horrors need a minimum of three titles, but I don’t see why this is mainly known as Black Sunday when The Mask of Satan is its original title and far more descriptive. I believe this is my first Mario Bava movie unless we’re counting Danger: Diabolik on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fun camerawork, great lighting and atmosphere, and mixed effects (swell zombie makeup vs. rubber bat on a string). Opening titles are unintentially funny (The Mask of Satan, produced by Jolly Films).

Wide-eyed Barbara Steele (of 8 1/2) is the resurrection of a murdered witch from the 1600’s, killed by nailing a devil mask onto her face. In present day, a stumblebum professor (Andrea Checchi, hotel detective of The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) pauses between clumsily destroying ancient relics to purposely remove the mask, and then I get confused because the witch is reborn but also has a doppelganger descendant living in the castle next door. The professor gets himself possessed, so his student (John Richardon of Torso and One Million Years B.C.) becomes our hero. He wrestles the devil in a hallway and wins! I’m used to rooting for resurrected ghosts to take revenge on the families of their murderers, but this movie makes it hard, the zombies all rotting and horrid with no vampiric panache. It also takes its Christ vs. Devils thing very seriously, and the townspeople with pitchforks and torches are the good guys.

Anyway, if I ever move into a castle, first thing I’ll do is measure all the walls House of Leaves-style to check for hidden passageways.

Summertime (1955, David Lean)

The most perfect tourist movie ever. Spinster Katharine Hepburn vacations to Venice alone, not-so-secretly hoping to end up in a great romance with a handsome, exotic Italian man, and that’s exactly what happens when she meets shop owner Rossano Brazzi. Turns out he is married with grown children, so she is suspicious, but they have their great romance for a day or two, then she abruptly leaves for home. Movie looks like it was produced by the Venice tourism board, every shot a postcard.

D. Denby:

Lean’s technique has never been smoother and more tactful, never more supportive of a star giving a bravura performance in a difficult role. He takes his time, lets the movie breathe; Summertime’s principal drama is Jane’s changing state of mind… Jane drinks quite a bit, and she holds on to other couples, bravely offering to be the third or fifth wheel for an evening, then withdrawing at the first sign of resistance. She has the longtime defenses, the starts and hesitations and refusals of a person with too much pride to give up the loneliness she hates… The love affair itself may be formulaic, but Hepburn falling in love is a miracle. Her opening up to passion—she did it again and again in films—is the main reason she remained a star despite all her upper-class mannerisms and by-golly declarativeness. Suddenly, the heat comes up right through her cheekbones; her red hair seems to burn.

Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)

Two kids are playing while the girl’s parents (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) are inside. Girl drowns in a pond wearing a red jacket. Donald senses danger and rushes outside, too late. Roeg is in top form, between Walkabout and Man Who Fell to Earth, with editing that kept making me say “whoa” out loud, and this must be one of the most thrilling movie openings (and endings) ever. Wonder if this is what Trier was aiming to outdo with his own child-death opening of Antichrist.

The family is in Venice while Donald works on architectural restorations. Julie meets a blind psychic who says her dead daughter is happy, is troubled by this but wants to see the psychic again if she has contact with the daughter. Donald is experiencing spooky visions and having near-fatal accidents, while incidentally, there seems to be a murderer on the loose and the psychic tells him he’s in danger and should get out of town. The movie continues building atmosphere without much story to speak of, until Donald has a fatal encounter with the local murderer, a midget women with a red jacket like the daughter’s and a sharp knife. Predates The Shining in featuring characters who can see visions of the future but this doesn’t actually help them.

Now that I’ve seen this, I wonder if Cronenberg was attempting a grotesque parody/reference with The Brood. Original story by Daphne du Maurier (The Birds & Rebecca). Nominated for all the Baftas, winning cinematography. Blind psychic Hilary Mason later appeared in a couple Stuart Gordon movies.

Need to see again… and again.

Ben Wheatley:

It’s an odd feeling, the realisation that you may have to revisit films at every stage of your life. I thought I’d “done” Don’t Look Now. I had no idea. I suppose I should have had a clue as it’s a Roeg film. It’s a kaleidoscope of meaning. I’m looking forward to seeing it again in 10 years’ time.

Reality (2012, Matteo Garrone)

Garrone’s follow-up to Gomorrah prompts a lot more smiles and less dread, though the dread builds towards the end. The second fiction I’ve seen after Dead Set revolving around the show Big Brother, which must be bigger in Europe (or maybe it was huge here and I just haven’t noticed).

Opens with a great helicopter shot with Elfmanesque music. Luciano, who runs a fish market and plays a noisy blue-wigged woman at parties, is coerced by his family into interviewing for Big Brother at a local mall, then he gets a callback interview at Cinecitta. He becomes obsessed with the show, sells his business to prepare for stardom and gives all his possessions to the homeless to impress producers he thinks are spying on him, but the season’s cast is announced and his phone never rings, so he takes to stalking the show’s spokesman, a former winner named Enzo. Luciano’s obsession grows, but he also learns to hide it from his family, so at the end he wanders off during a trip to Rome, sneaks into the Big Brother house, and the camera pulls slowly out as he laughs crazily to himself.

There’s also a scam plot involving Luciano and his brother getting local seniors to apply for free government-issued robots (?!). I caught one of the gun-happy kids from Gomorrah as a bartender. Alexandre Desplat contributes the wonderful fantasy score.

Reverse Shot:

Back home in Italy, the film has registered more keenly, perhaps because they are still crawling out from under a prime minister whose legacy is marked by tax evasion and media monopoly, game shows and bouncing bimbos. A show predicated on voyeurism and humiliation like Big Brother, the program that sits like a bioluminescent tumor at the center of Garrone’s film, would seem to be the quintessential cultural marker for a period led by a man who was once a cruise-ship and nightclub crooner. Reality is then the unspoken anti-Berlusconi film of the moment, interrogating at once a culture of crassness, wild social inequality, and blatant fraudulence, both financial and otherwise.

Big Deal on Madonna St. (1958, Mario Monicelli)

Rewatched Rififi recently after reading that this is supposed to be a parody. Instead of a team of experts successfully pulling a heist then getting killed off by rivals in the aftermath, we’ve got a team of incompetents who botch the planning and the heist itself, escaping with their lives and nothing more.

Cosimo (Memmo Carotenuto, a croaking Eugene Pallette type) is arrested ineptly breaking into cars, forms the heist master plan but gets edged out of the group. Peppe the boxer (ladies’ man Vittorio Gassman) takes over, teams with aged Cappanelle, tough-looking mama’s boy Mario, new dad Tiberio (Marcello Mastroianni, a couple years before La Dolce Vita) and suave mustache man Michele who keeps his virginal sister Carmelina (Claudia Cardinale in her first year in the movies) locked in their apartment. The plan involves Peppe dating a girl who lives above the shop they plan to rob, gaining access to the building through her.

L-R: Mario, Michele, Cappanelle, Peppe and Tiberio:

By the time of the heist, Cosimo is dead (run down by a bus trying to purse-snatch), Tiberio’s arm is broken, Mario is fooling around with Carmelina, and Peppe’s girl has quit her job. They break in anyway, fail to get the safe, just steal some food from the kitchen, knock down a wall, then slink away. Reads like there’s a ton of comic business, but for an Italian comedy it’s actually pretty subdued.

Mario meets Claudia Cardinale:

Based partly on an Italo Calvino story – what?

Berberian Sound Studio (2012, Peter Strickland)

Squeamish British sound engineer Toby Jones arrives in Italy to work on a movie called The Equestrian Vortex, not realizing it’s an extra-bloody horror film. Supposedly he was hired because the film’s director Santini holds him in high regard, but nobody else in the studio could care less, and his requests meet with blank stares and insults, as over the weeks of work he gets more shaken by the company and his work stabbing and snapping vegetables as torture-foley.

Like the 1970’s and 80’s Italian horrors Berberian claims to be recreating (we never see a scrap of footage from the film-in-a-film except its opening titles), this movie cares much more about atmosphere than anything else, and does a great job creating that through image and sound. With Jones playing a foley artist and sound recorder, they knew we’d be paying close attention to the soundtrack, and it’s wonderful. But while the Argento and Fulci movies have overstuffed but ultimately empty stories submerged in their gothic atmosphere, this one mostly dispenses with story and lets its atmosphere do all the talking. In fact, they seem to have forgotten to give the movie an ending. It has a neat build-up, as Toby’s letters from home bleed into his work, a story of a birdnest rampage paralleled in the inner film’s carnage and in editing-room chaos after a wronged actress takes out her frustration upon the audiotapes, but then it peters out after that.

Very nice touch that sound equipment is activated by a black gloved hand in close-up. Shot by Nic Knowland (Institute Benjamenta, Piano Tuner of Earthquakes). I must find Strickland’s earlier feature, a Romanian revenge drama.

8 1/2 (1963, Federico Fellini)

I remembered the atmosphere of this movie but not the story or characters, so watched it again – turns out it’s 98% atmosphere. What story? What characters? Even Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido is a weak and confused lead. Instead it’s an impressionistic glimpse into Fellini’s life and work, a film about filmmaking, or about itself. I’m not saying anything that everyone doesn’t already know, but I had to be reminded – there’s not really a story of Guido casting and shooting some big picture, just fragments: agents and critics and hangers-on as the director deals with his fame, personal life and artistic indecision.

Opens with a wordless dream sequence – film director Guido (Marcello Mastroianni) floats away from an oppressive traffic jam, flies over the ocean but is roped and pulled down by business partners.

Guido is “taking the cure” at a vacation retreat, prescribed holy water, keeps running into people he knows in a sort of choreographed dance of acquaintances. Soon he’s on his film set, arguing with a writer (Daurmier?) who criticizes the script, placating coworkers and avoiding making decisions. Soon I lose all ability to describe plot or characters as it spirals inevitably into the spinning whirl of an ending.

I’ve seen an even five of Fellini’s 7 1/2 previous films. Cinematographer Gianni Di Venanzo shot about half the Italian movies I’ve heard of – this was his first for Fellini, having just worked on L’Eclisse.

Guido

Claudia Cardinale of The Leopard the same year, supposed to be starring in Guido’s film, seems good-natured about the whole thing.

wife Luisa (Anouk Aimée, shortly after Lola) with mistress Carla (Sandra Milo of Juliet of the Spirits)

His buddy Mario Pisu with new mistress Barbara Steele

Magician Ian Dallas, who according to IMDB inspired the song Layla. He and his apparently psychic partner pull magic words from Guido’s psyche cueing a flashback schene wherein young Guido is told that these words could make a portrait come to life… a “motion picture,” if you will.

Saraghina, wild woman of Guido’s youth

Guido and Carla

A. Sesonske:

8 1/2 is a film about making a film, and the film that is being made is 8 1/2. Notice how everything Guido says about the film he is making turns out to be true of 8 1/2, even the sailor doing a soft-shoe dance; how all the screen tests are for roles in the film we are seeing; how some camera movements create an ambiguity between Guido, the director in the film, and Fellini, the director of the film, thus taking self-reference one step beyond the work to its maker.

Fellini: A Director’s Notebook (1969)

“I composed a poem on the ruins of your film.”

This masquerades as a documentary on Fellini’s working methods, but is really a self-conscious fake-doc made by Fellini himself. Suspension of disbelief lasted about 30 seconds – you can’t convince anyone you’re making a documentary, interviewing random people on the street, when all the voices are badly dubbed.

In 1966-ish the director was to film Mastorna, “perhaps the most famous unmade film in Italian cinema.” Its half-built sets sit unused on huge lots, so Fellini shoots them here, haunted by poets, then roams Rome at night. All the places he goes are full of people who seem like… well, like characters in Fellini films.

Giulietta Masina introduces the “man with the sack” sequence from Nights of Cabiria, which at this point had never been seen, claiming it’s based on a true story. Some Satyricon, then we get a frenetic sepia-toned ancient-Rome silent short watched by a screaming audience (including a raptly attentive young Fellini).

Recreating Fellini’s childhood cinema:

A cab ride with a clairvoyant, and a subway ride with a professor. This last one is great because he tries to talk about lost societies beneath Rome but Fellini keeps interrupting, asking him to speak into the camera – then their train accidentally travels through time, proving the professor’s point.

We visit Mastroianni, who gives us a fake screen test, then off to an early morning slaughterhouse to summon the feeling of ancient sacrifices, where the workers keep transforming into ancient Romans. Then a stream of non-actors come to Fellini’s office to submit themselves for film roles.

That’s F.F. at left:

Criterion: “Producer Peter Goldfarb … had suggested the project as a way for Fellini to deal with his inability to make the film The Voyage of G. Mastorna. As Tullio Kezich and others have pointed out, 8 1/2 is strikingly prophetic of this development in Fellini’s career.”

Eduardo de Gregorio double-feature

Eduardo de Gregorio, cowriter of the great Celine and Julie Go Boating, died last month. I don’t know any of his non-Rivette works, so I watched one he wrote/directed and one he adapted from a Borges story directed by Bertolucci, both very good.

Surreal Estate (1976, Eduardo de Gregorio)

A novelist (Corin Redgrave, Vanessa and Lynn’s brother) seeks a country house in France as an investment – can’t find gate so he climbs the wall. A sexy, ghostly Bulle Ogier shows him around then abruptly disappears when he attempts to enter a forbidden room. Already he’s referring to his situation as novelistic: “Her act was pointless. The mixture of old clothes, erotic come-on and overacted hysteria was in the most hackneyed gothic tradition, a tradition I had done my own small part to debase.”

Next time he meets a different girl (Marie-France Pisier, Bulle’s fiction-house coinhabitant in Celine & Julie) and an older servant (Gigi star Leslie Caron). He rightly comes to think that the vanishing girls are part of an imaginative scam to get him to buy the house, and decides that he must meet Bulle again to write a book about her – but eventually he buys with the understanding that the two beautiful girls will stay there with him – which they do not.

Leslie Caron:

Marie-France:

I lost track at the end of who really was working for whom, and who knew what about which scam, instead paying attention to the mobile camera creeping around corners, the great crazed piano music, and the self-conscious gothic atmosphere the film is creating. Shot by Ricardo Aronovich (Ruiz’s Time Regained and Klimt) with assistant director Claire Denis!

But maybe losing track of the plot threads and simply reveling in the atmosphere of mystery was the film’s intent. It seems to purposely confound expectations in order to mess with Redgrave, beyond simply the goal of selling the house, and the girls end up competing for him (and against him), while Caron takes a larger role than first expected, and even takes over narration for a while.

D. Cairns in The Forgotten:

Secret passages and two-way mirrors are hinted at. What emerges is a much stranger yarn, one which never fully coalesces into an “explanation.” Depending on one’s inclinations, this is either less or much more satisfying than the initial Scooby Doo plot. What seems to be the case is that the younger women are actresses playing parts for the dubious benefit of Redgrave, whose mind starts to unravel when faced with such duplicity. … The idea of actors performing a semi-improvised “play” in a real location with an unwitting stooge as co-star is a beautifully Rivettian one.

Of course, Marie-France Pisier (Agathe) had problems with flowers in Celine & Julie as well.

The Spider’s Stratagem (1970, Bernardo Bertolucci)

Bertolucci made this the same year as The Conformist. I think I’ve underestimated him because the only movie I’ve watched in the last decade was his underwhelming The Dreamers. Similarities to Surreal Estate: it’s about an outsider entering an enclosed world full of unknown intrigues. Also, both movies have overt Macbeth references. Very elegant camerawork, outdoing the other feature.

Young Athos comes to the town where his militant anti-fascist father (also Athos, and they look identical) lived and was murdered. He meets his father’s mistress Draifa (Alida Valli of The Third Man, schoolmistress of Suspiria), who sets Athos to investigating the murder. The town is hostile to his queries, and Athos feels endangered from all fronts except by creepy Draifa who wants to hook him up with a young niece so he’ll stay. Then when he tries to flee in frustration, the secretive parties suddenly open up.

The main suspect was fascist Beccaccia, who finally tells Athos “unfortunately, it wasn’t us who killed your father.” Elder Athos’s three friends, who seem alternately welcoming and sinister, finally give up the plot – that Athos had ratted on his own group when they’d planned to bomb a visiting Mussolini, then had allowed them to shoot him instead, martyring him for the cause.

Ebert:

He’s on a strange sort of quest. He doesn’t seem to really care much who killed his father (if you’ll forgive me for not taking the plot at quite face value). In a way, he is his own father, or his father’s alter-ego. Magnani was the only vital life force in the district, and the district defined itself by his energy. Even the fascist brownshirts gained stature and dignity because Magnani opposed them, and Bertolucci demonstrates this with a great scene at an outdoor dance. The brownshirts order the band leader to play the fascist anthem. All dancing stops, and everyone looks at Magnani to see what he’ll do. Coolly, elegantly, he selects the most beautiful girl and begins to dance with her.

I Vitelloni (1953, Federico Fellini)

I’m still figuring out Fellini – his movies seem to fall into categories, but I’m not sure how to define those categories, since it’s been ages since I watched most of them. But however you divide it, I Vitelloni’s portrait of aimless, night-owl youth must sit near La Dolce Vita’s portrait of aimless, night-owl aristocrats. Unlike La Dolce Vita, I didn’t hate all the characters (only most of them). This was Fellini’s second solo feature after The White Sheik, but I’ve also watched four Rossellini movies he co-wrote.

The Guys: womanizing leader Fausto (Franco Fabrizi, also in Ginger & Fred, so maybe the longest-lived Fellini actor), cool Alberto (Sordi, title character in The White Sheik, later star of Mafioso), smarty Leopoldo (Trieste, lead newlywed in The White Sheik, later in A Farewell to Arms), singer Riccardo (the director’s brother), and young Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi, star of Shoeshine and I Vinti).

Fausto knocks up Moraldo’s sister (Leonora Ruffo of Hercules in the Haunted World), reluctantly marries her but keeps sleeping around and can’t keep a job. Leopoldo spends his nights writing a play, which he reads to a famous actor who turns out to be enthusuastic for Leo more than the play. Moraldo mopes around every night, makes friends with a newsboy, seems bewildered by this boy because he has a proper job instead of just fucking around all the time. Finally Moraldo has had it with the movie and leaves town. As his train pulls away from town, the camera pulls past all his sleeping friends, a fun visual touch in an otherwise realistic film.

A sad carnival:

T. Piazza for Criterion:

I Vitelloni marks a big step forward in Fellini’s ability to get deep into his characters’ psychology; it points ahead both to the bitter social satire of La Dolce Vita and to the great canvases of nostalgia and the artist’s nature, 8 1/2, Amarcord — and the neglected late masterpiece Intervista.

Against their narcissism and lassitude is posed the solidity and maturity of the town’s older men, who have assumed the standard responsibilities of middle-class family life. But admirable as they may be, these solid citizens — unimaginative, satisfied with their lot, stuck in claustral interior settings — are hardly made to seem a stimulating alternative, and at the end Moraldo leaves the town’s tape loop of foreclosed possibilities for another arena of possibility in the city.

Allergic to endings that sum things up too neatly, or that resolve in a definitive way the tensions set up in the film, Fellini once remarked, “Our duty as storytellers is to bring people to the station. There each person will choose his or her own train… But we must at least take them to the station… to a point of departure.” It is a striking image, one foreign to many popular storytellers: the ending of a story seen not as an arrival, but rather as a prepared departure. I Vitelloni, of course, brings us literally to the station at its end, with Moraldo’s departure from his provincial town. But on a deep level the film was Fellini’s point of departure, too—the beginning of his important work as a filmmaker, the place where he got serious. And as he made clear at the end of Intervista, the only thing that kept Fellini truly happy was his work; the end of any project was a kind of death, overcome only at the moment at which one was ready to begin again, to try and get it right one more time.