One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic and quarantine, Part 9
By Laurence Lerman
As the actualities of real life grow ever more immersive than the fictions of reel life, I’ve found myself more lured than usual to the small screen by the realities unfurling on CNN, MSNBC and the local news (when it’s not too dire….).
And so, my streaming over the past week has been far more distanced and targeted—a fancy-shmancy way of saying I’ve been watching fewer movies with less connectivity.
A quick glance at my last week of streams reaffirms my ongoing love of Italy’s brash and bawdy cinema from the Sixties through the early Eighties. I think this time my craving may also be prompted (or paralleled, at the very least) by my wife’s and my extended quarantine experimentation with all manner of pasta and sauce recipes, the latest batches including such colorful ingredients as parsnips, toasted garlic, prosciutto, broccoli rabe, smoked bacon, corn (removed from its cob) and various peppers.
For my cinematic repast, I skipped the appetizer and dug into a pair of entrees, namely a couple of films by two of Italy’s greats, Federico Fellini and Bernardo Bertolucci.
First off was Fellini’s Casanova, the American release title for 1976 Il Casanova di Federico Fellini,, Il Maestro’s luxuriously stylized look at the later life of the renowned 18th Century Italian lover.
Sporting a shaved head and a prosthetic nose and chin, Donald Sutherland stars as the Giacomo Casanova, here depicted by writer/director Fellini as a degenerate and increasingly weary adventurer whose shallow life has turned him into a shallow, emotionless husk of a man. He enjoys a lot of sex and a lot of playing, yes, but he doesn’t appear to be having much fun.
Frequently at the back of the line when considering Fellini’s films of the era—Satyricon (1969), Roma (1972) and Amarcord (1973) usually grab the lion’s share of the attention—the filmmaker’s dour but undeniably entertaining take on the garish artificiality of its protagonist’s life is perfectly reflected in a setting created in its entirety on the stages of Rome’s Cinecittà Studios. And it’s further accented by the kind of Fellini-esque cinematography, production design and costuming (which won an Oscar for Danilo Donati) that deserves its eponymous name.
I moved forward four years and north to the city of Parma for Bertolucci’s 1980 Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man, a quietly effective tale about businessman Primo (the great Ugo Tognazzi, who won at Cannes for his performance) who witnesses his son Giovannni’s (Ricky Tognazzi, Ugo’s real-life son) kidnapping by terrorists, and then must decide whether he should pay the terrorists an exorbitant ransom or use the money he has procured to save his failing cheese factory—and comfortable lifestyle. Primo’s wife (Anouk Aimée), Giovanni’s girlfriend (Laura Morante) and the local worker-priest (Victor Cavallo) all have their own ideas, including a suspicion that Giovanni may have orchestrated his own disappearance to extract money for his left-wing anarchist friends.
A lesser known Bertolucci entry that approaches its central mystery with more questions and observations than answers, Tragedy of a Ridiculous Man plays like an open-ended parable where the story and plot points are never fully resolved. There’s a meditation on family, fathers and sons and the influence of money floating in there somewhere, but it’s difficult for the audience to precisely perceive them, just as it is for the film’s players. It’s not even a surprise, then, when the film ends on a puzzling, ambiguous note.
Visually, the film’s shaggy narrative is visually matched by the work of cinematographer Carlo di Palma, who steps in her for Bertolucci’s usual DP Vittorio Storaro. Di Palma’s palette is more subdued and his camerawork less elaborate than Storaro’s, whose work on five previous Bertolucci films, the most recent being 1979’s Luna, was indispensable in defining the filmmaker’s personal style. I’m assuming this tighter, more static approach was created in collaboration with Bertolucci—or at his behest, at the very least—to leave breathing room for the uncertainties of the story.
Six years later, Bertolucci would enter a different phase of his career with the wildly popular international production The Last Emperor (1987), making Tragedy his last arthouse selection until 1998’s Besieged nearly 20 years later. That said, this one is worth catching.
I left the film society behind by next jumping into some Italian horror—well, arty Italian horror—with Michele Soavi’s 1994 Cemetery Man, known in its native land by the more provocative Dellamorte Dellamore.
The Milan-born Soavi is one of Italy’s more prolific horror auteurs and made his bones working alongside genre masters Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. Soavi broke out in the U.S. market with Dellamorte Dellamore, his fourth narrative feature following Stage Fright (1987), The Church (1989). and The Sect (1991).
Starring Rupert Everett (whose presence helped get it noticed early on by American distributors), the darkly comic horror tale revolves around the caretaker of a small cemetery, Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett), whose search for true love is always being interrupted by the freshly buried dead, who continually rise up from their graves to assault the living. In between re-killing and re-burying his charges, it’s impossible for Dellamorte to find the time—until he meets a foxy widow (luscious genre starlet Anna Falchi), who’s looking for some nighttime excitement. That she’s quickly killed and buried in the cemetery is no problem—Dellamorte knows she’ll be back. But those undead just keep knocking on his door…
Well-acted, colorfully designed and costumed, and filled with delirious, stylized blood-letting, Dellamorte Dellamore is a really nutty one. Some critics have argued that Everett’s dispatching of zombies is a metaphor for Italy’s fight against bureaucratic corruption and even fascism, but I don’t see that. What I come away with is a mild guy who must lay waste to all those around him in order to obtain the woman he lustily loves, a woman who changes, reincarnates and reappears so many times over the course of the movie that, by the end, he’s forgotten what the initial attraction even was.
It’s an almost-moving tale of love lost and found among the undead in a world fueled by Italian dream logic, which is definitely better than one run by nightmares…eternally decaying lover notwithstanding.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.