Monday, July 14, 2008

Dino Risi

I learned of the death of Dino Risi via the obituary published in the latest Cahiers du Cinema. Long time critic Luc Moullet devoted two pages to a eulogy on Risi and its career. It brought back some memories and made me ponder on just how many of Risi's films remain unseen.
Risi died on 7 June at 90 years of age and it seems to have passed unnoticed, at least in the mainstream English language press. His was a name that had largely fallen off the radar in recent years. Yet at his peak he directed a number of the most popular Italian films ever made, worked with some of Italy’s finest actors and had at least one of Hollywood’s accolades accorded to him, a remake of one of his greatest successes.

Risi was born in 1917 and trained as a psychologist. He got into the film industry as an assistant in the early forties and later took classes under Jacques Feyder while still interned in Switzerland during the war. He made documentaries and in the early fifties gave up his psychology practice and established himself as a feature film director. He specialized in the light comedies beloved of Italian audiences. The roots of these films trace back to neo-realism and the settings especially were always quite meticulous in their detail of everyday life. Few of them were exported for viewing by art house audiences around the world but in the 50s and 60s in Australia you could see them at the inner suburban cinemas which catered to the vast pool of recent Italian immigrants. Many, though not all, however were screened in copies without subtitles and it was hit or miss for the dedicated followers who lapped up the pleasures offered by Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni long before they achieved international success.

In the early 60s Risi became something of an art house treasure. His Il Sorpasso/The Easy Life (1961) was a huge hit with cinemagoers who appreciated its sly humour. Risi tapped into studies of that peculiarly Italian combination of traits - sophistication, street cunning, and a blithe disregard for the law. Few will ever forget the moment Vittorio Gassman blithely steals someone else’s parking ticket before placing it on his own car which in a flash establishes Gassman’s character. Gassman’s riotous sentimental education of the young and repressed Jean-Louis Trintignant in the ways of the world set the world laughing.

Risi’s other big critical success, and international hit, was Profumo di Donna/Scent of a Woman, made in 1973. Again it starred Gassman, one more of the sixteen very fruitful collaborations between the actor and director. The part of a blind man with a chip on his shoulder, a giant libido and an extraordinary nose for female scent was dangerous but riotous. Hollywood remade it with Al Pacino in 1992. Martin Brest’s film, incredibly long for a dramatic comedy at some 156 minutes, was also a critical and popular success. As usual however the original was a better movie.

As per usual with European films, the distribution of Risi’s work outside his home country was sporadic. Some of it popped up dubbed. Much of it was ignored. That hardly seems to have mattered to a director who kept working until well into his seventies. Today very little of his work is available. A check of the Time Out Film Guide doesn’t have a single Risi title listed as being available for TV or DVD in Britain and you suspect that the same would apply in Australia.

If his death causes anyone anywhere a tingle of nostalgia then it would be nice if someone got out a selection of his best and assembled them for an international tour. SBS could help with the subtitling for over the years the keen eyed viewer had the chance to see more than a little of his best work on that channel. (Alas no more those golden years have passed). One film especially would be welcome, the drama he made with Alberto Sordi in 1960, A Difficult Life. Whether it has ever been screened here is beyond me but in the European obituaries it is singled out for high praise. Otherwise I’d just be happy to see all sixteen of those films he made with the extraordinary Gassman, collectively probably the actor’s best work when his characteristic jauntiness, suavity, brilliant comic timing and unassailable ability to deliver dialogue at machine gun pace were on full display. Throw in the early Sophia Loren pictures as well and a bit of the cinema’s heaven would be there for all to see.

Risi’s two sons Marco and Claudio have followed him into the film business

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Wajda roars back with "Katyn"

Every so often a film comes along which doesn’t merely intend to change the world’s political and social perceptions but actually succeeds in doing so. The numbers in the first group are large enough but the numbers in the second are small. I dont believe I'm over-exaggerating when I suggest we think of the effect that Rossellini’s Rome Open City or Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Pasolini’s Salo Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses or Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth had on society, on their own national cinemas and the cinema itself. You can go all the way back to the silent era and D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation or Eisenstein’s Strike and Battleship Potemkin, to find yet other films which shook the world or at least the part of it that stood to be deeply affected by such radicalism.

It may just be that the latest such transformative film might have been made by Polish master Andrzej Wajda. You might have thought Wajda’s battles, lasting forty years or so, against authoritarianism and Soviet communism had all been won. He had spent most of his adult life as a film-maker trying to bring the truth of the modern Polish nation to his own people and to the world. He had done it in an environment of suppression, censorship and fear. He had stood resolutely against the oppressing forces and Poland recognized his work sufficiently to give him latitude.

Using that latitude Wajda, like all of his colleagues, still had to develop strategies to outflank and out think the forces of a state dedicated to strait jackets of thought. Poland, like all of the satellites of the USSR developed a highly repressive police state structure. However, its people, especially its artists, spent much of their time seeking to undermine this apparatus, questioning its legitimacy and supporting dissent. The strategies that Wajda and the film industry used frequently involved the use of historical parallels or personal issues that reflected current political reality.

Wajda was fortunate enough to start his career by making a trilogy of master works, A Generation, Ashes and Diamonds and Kanal, that still live on not just as films but as political documents produced by a society which has spent centuries involved in doomed attempts to repel invaders, and whose history is littered with failed national causes and disastrous revolts against tyranny. That history provided rich resources for a fearless film-maker and for those who followed in his footsteps. In the bleak cold war years Wajda and his acolytes and followers produced film after film that peeled back layers to show the true feelings of the Polish people. Communism slowly withered. Wajda and the film industry were at the forefront of its demise, especially by supporting the Solidarity movement. Wajda documented the progress towards democracy with two of his greatest films Man of Iron and Man of Marble. He also chronicled those issues more obliquely in his Polish/French co-production Danton. Since then Wajda has made half a dozen films, most of which don’t seem to have traveled beyond Polish borders.

It’s something of a surprise that, 25 years after Danton and at the age of 80 he has come roaring back into public, and political, prominence with one of his most ferocious and controversial films. The premiere of Katyn in Poland took place on September 17, 2007, the 68th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. It took place at the National Opera Theatre in Warsaw, was attended by the elite of Poland’s state and church and covered live by the major Polish television networks. Two million Poles saw the film within a month of its release. In an article in The New York Review of Books, Anne Applebaum reported that ‘for a few weeks almost every cinema in the country was showing the film, sometimes a dozen times a day.’ Its release started a national debate again and brought long-simmering issues out into the open. To some surprise, it has even re-opened debate about the Kaytn massacre in Russia as well. Almost two decades earlier, in 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev had acknowledged Soviet guilt about the events. Later Boris Yeltsin had ordered the Soviet archives to be opened, allowing research to be freely undertaken. A number of books were published in Russian and other languages which made plain the Soviet Union’s guilt and complicity. Notwithstanding this, in Putin’s Russia, nationalism has re-emerged and one major newspaper suggested that Soviet responsibility was ‘not obvious’. Such a view added to the continuing furore in Poland.

So, how should those for whom the Katyn massacre is an unknown byway of history approach the movie. There should be several things to consider. First there is the depiction of the massacre itself. It was a gruesome occurrence, endless cold blooded murders of the flower of Polish youth. Ruthlessness predominates as the anonymous, hardly noticed Soviet foot soldiers go methodically about the business of executing and then burying the dead in mass graves. No detail is spared.

More importantly Wajda leads us to the climax with a fresco of characters and incidents that fill in the details of Poland in 1939. In his statement accompanying the premiere, Wajda saw the film as “about individual suffering, which evokes images of much greater emotional content than naked historical facts. A film that shows the terrible truth that hurts, whose characters are not the murdered officers but women who wait their return every day, every hour, suffering inhuman uncertainty.” It takes him more than two enthralling hours to tell the tale and he starts by ensuring that we realize that it wasn’t just Soviet tyranny that was intent on destroying the intelligentsia of Poland. Early in the film we see the shocking round up by the Germans of the faculty at Jagellonian University in Cracow. Poland, its clear, is a nation jammed between two great powers. Faced with occupation there is resignation and rebellion. There is also stupidity and reckless courage. Small vignettes of Polish pre-war life finally build a composite image of a nation whose entire history has sadly been subject to constant invasion and repression by outside forces. That produces a quite aching sadness. Katyn is a film in which the great and powerful crush the small and weak.

For those outside Poland, Wajda has told the story of one of the worst crimes of the twentieth century. His own father was one of the victims. Has he made a film just to settle accounts, to bring one of the key moments of Polish history still unresolved to the forefront? “Wajda himself says: “Let it spin a tale about the suffering and drama of many Katyn families. About the Katyn lie that triumphs over the grave of Joesph Vissarionovich Stalin which forced into silence about it for half a century the then allies, the western ones of the USSR in the war against Hitler, Great Britain and the United States.” Once again, perhaps for the final time, he has used the cinema to remind us that tyranny, oppression and evil have to be resisted at every step.

(NB. Some of the information in this article is drawn from “A Movie That Matters” by Anne Applebaum, The New York Review of Books, February 14 2008. Katyn had its international premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in January. It is being screened at both the forthcoming Melbourne and Brisbane International Film Festivals. Dont miss it.)