Senso (1954, Luchino Visconti)

Sometimes I watch what I damn well please (The Zero Theorem, On Top of the Whale, Master of the House) and sometimes I am a slave to lists. The lists said it’s time to watch Senso, even though I hated The Leopard and this sounded similar. Since that last Leopard screening almost a decade ago I’ve come to terms with the Italians’ ignorance of proper on-set dialogue recording, and some of my new favorite filmmakers are Italian. I even gave ol’ Pasolini another chance after hating Salo in college, and was blown away by his Teorema this year. But Senso‘s a period melodrama about people who do dumb things for love, a tragedy about the downfall of the upper class, so it had a lot of strikes against it.

Alida Valli (The Third Man, The Spider’s Stratagem, mad doctor’s assistant in Eyes Without a Face) is a wanton countess in 1866 Venice whose cousin (Massimo Girotti, the father in Teorema) is involved in the rebel movement against the occupying Austrians. He gets in an argument with Austrian officer Farley Granger (Rope, Strangers on a Train), she intervenes and falls for Granger – though she’s married to a clueless count (Heinz Moog).

Clueless count:

As the war escalates, Valli betrays the revolution and Granger betrays his army – then betrays Valli, so she reports him and the film ends with his execution. Before the inevitable unhappy ending, I admit the photography could be quite dreamy. Mark Rappaport on the film’s beauty: “You don’t want to hang the images on the wall. You want to live in them.”


The sets and costumes bespeak wealth, privilege, and especially the casual acceptance of them in a way that no dialogue could adequately convey. If decor is as important an element as characters, camera work, and plot in many films, in Visconti’s, the ante is upped — decor is destiny.

From the extras: aha, it’s pronounced Lu-KEE-no.

Farley cheerfully unveiling his lover:

Valli reporting on him:

Played at Venice Film Festival (obviously) alongside Seven Samurai, Sansho the Bailiff, La Strada, Rear Window and two by Bunuel, but somehow Romeo and Juliet won.

Teorema (1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

I’ve avoided Pasolini because I began with Salo and have never been a huge fan of Italian cinema in general. But explorations of Fellini and Rossellini have lately got me looking at the artistry beyond the sound sync problems, so fourteen years after cringing through his nazi shit-eating movie, and in the wake of Ferrara’s new film about him, it seemed time to give ol’ Pasolini another chance.

A factory owner has just transferred ownership to the workers, who are being interviewed by the media. This is a fantasy dear to the hearts of leftist French filmmakers like Godard and Marker, and I was worried it’d get all Tout va bien, but then we flash back a few months to the factory owner’s home with his wife, daughter, son and maid, beginning with a wordless b/w intro section. The magnetic Terence Stamp (same year as Toby Dammit) comes to stay with them, soon sleeps with everyone in the household, then abruptly leaves.


Family portrait:

The first half of the film is a long seduction (sometimes the action stops entirely, the Ennio Morricone music keeping the film alive), then in the second half each person deals with Stamp’s disappearance. Most spectacular is the maid, Laura Betti (the domineering Brunelda in Class Relations, also of 1900 and Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales), who barely speaks a few words in the movie. She leaves the house and returns to her home village, where she sits quietly in the courtyard, eating only boiled weeds and performing miracles. The rest of the family behaves in more normal (or at least movie-normal) ways: mother Silvana Mangano (of a bunch of movies set in ancient times: Oedipus Rex, Barabbas, Ulysses, Dune) starts driving into the city picking up random men and daughter Anne Wiazemsky (Au Hasard Balthazar) loses her mind and becomes catatonic. Son Pietro rents a loft and starts painting, becomes obsessed with creating new abstractions “where previous standards don’t apply… Everything must be presented as perfect, based on unknown, unquestionable rules.”

Am I crazy, or is the maid shown multiple times back at the wealthy house even after she has left for the village? Dad Massimo Girotti (Ossessione and a couple of early Rossellini features) has the last word. He gets naked in the train station on his way to work, presumably gives away his factory (it doesn’t repeat scenes from the beginning) then appears walking across a volcano, shouting in rage. We’ve seen the volcano before, an unworldly mist blowing across it, in frequent cutaways from the main action. I thought it was meant to remind us of Stromboli or Voyage to Italy, but perhaps the Italians film on volcanos all the time – Pasolini shot part of the following year’s Porcile on the same volcano, Mount Etna.

Part of Pasolini’s “Mythical Cycle” with three other films. IMDB claims Miike’s Visitor Q is a remake. Played the Venice Film Festival alongside Partner, Faces, Monterey Pop and Naked Childhood. Italy tried to censor it, of course. The catholics had mixed feelings, first giving it an award then changing their minds. I discovered the word “bourgeoise” is much better in Italian, pronounced bohr-GAZE-ee like the filmmaker.

The Stendhal Syndrome (1996, Dario Argento)

Someday I’d like to visit Italy and see if everyone acts the way they do in Argento films, moving all artificially and speaking poor dialogue out-of-sync with their mouths. Probably it’s just a very bad movie. And that’s not even counting the fact that it’s about a rape investigator (played by Argento’s daughter) who gets repeatedly raped (she’s also a cop who repeatedly gets her gun stolen), then it justifies this in the second half by having her become the killer. “He forced his way into me and now I can’t get rid of him.” Worse, I’m not even sure why I watched this. I’d previously read up on Argento and decided which movies might be worth watching (just the ones I’ve seen plus Crystal Plumage, Grey Velvet and Opera), and Stendhal Syndrome was not on the list. Maybe I put it on the netflix blu-queue as a placeholder? Anyway at least the picture on the disc looked fantastic.

The earliest Asia Argento I’ve seen, two years before New Rose Hotel. After being kidnapped and raped the first time she acts prickly towards a creep coworker (Marco Leonardi, love interest Pedro in Like Water For Chocolate) who is relentlessly trying to date her, starts seeing a psychologist (Paolo Bonacelli of Salo, one of the few films more icky than this one), and eventually returns to her stress-inducing family (to relax, haha), where she’s followed by both creep Marco and blood-obsessed rapist Thomas Kretschmann (Argento’s Dracula, also in Queen Margot with Asia).

Then she kills the rapist but keeps insisting he’s still alive, as she carries on his work, taking out the psychologist, her new French boyfriend Marie (a boy with a girl’s name as the movie continually mentions), Marco and a couple others.

Moo Orleans:

And by the way, Asia has the Stendhal Syndrome, which causes you to become entranced by works of art, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with this, plot-wise. It combines well-staged practical effects with the worst computer graphics I’ve ever seen, which is used with Fight Club excess (why, when she swallows pills, must we follow them down her throat?). It’s not just 1996 CGI – it’s Italian 1996 CGI. The movie has story problems (a half hour in, it’s already explaining its first scenes in flashback), missed opportunities (Marco brings Buster Keaton videos to a girl who imagines herself falling into paintings, but we get no Sherlock Jr. clip) and the unsurmountable flaw of having no recognizable human behavior. After reading that interview about invisible acting in The Dirties, and watching well-performed horrors like Hellraiser and The Tenant, this is especially disappointing. At least I could enjoy the paintings, the cinematography and the blatant Vertigo references.

Asia takes up painting:

Things I remembered while going through screenshots: (1) Asia gets amnesia between passing out at the art gallery and being raped by the loony, (2) she kisses a fish in a dream sequence, which looks like the romantic opposite of the zombie-vs-shark scene in Zombi 2, (3) she sees graffiti come alive in the loony’s lair, (4) her dad is freaky.

Asia loves fish:

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?