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Marcello Mastroianni

Videophiled: ‘Adua and Her Friends’

AduaAdua and Her Friends (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) are prostitutes from a Rome brothel attempting to take charge of their own lives after their place is shut down in the aftermath of Italy’s Merlin Law, which ended legalized prostitution in 1958 (the film was released in 1960). Adua (played by Simone Signoret), a veteran of the life, has a plan to open a restaurant as a front for their own little brothel in the rooms upstairs and her friends—cynical and hot-headed Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva), naïve and trusting Lolita (Sandra Milo), and practical Milly (Gina Rovere)—pitch in for the purchase and start-up and fake their way through running a real business. Adua may be a dreamer but she has a lot invested in this project. She’s the oldest of the four and, as anyone familiar with the films of Mizoguchi will attest, life on the streets isn’t forgiving of age. But what really charges up the film is the feeling of accomplishment and ownership as they work their way through each problem and, almost without noticing, create a successful business out of the restaurant.

For all the stumbles along the way, director Antonio Pietrangeli and his screenwriting partners (which includes future director Ettore Scola and longtime Fellini collaborator Tullio Pinelli) don’t play the disasters for laughs but rather a mix of warm character piece and spiky social commentary. It’s not simply that their pasts follow them around but that the Merlin Law has actually made things worse for women, whether they remain in the life (without any legal protections) or attempt to transition into another career. Palms need to be greased and officials cut in on the business; they haven’t even started up and they’re already paying off a pimp. And no, it’s not Marcello Mastroianni’s Piero, a charming hustler who hawks cars and woos Adua, who enjoys engaging in a romance that she gets to define for a change. He’s a pleasant distraction and something of an ally, but he’s better at looking out for himself.

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Videophiled: Liliana Cavani’s ‘The Skin’

SkinThe Skin (aka La Pelle, Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Liliana Cavani in 1981 from the novel by Curzio Malaparte, is ostensibly a war drama, set during the American liberation of Sicily from the Fascists, but it’s really about the politics and economics of occupation. As the Allied forces (led by Burt Lancaster’s General Mark Clark) roll in, the Americans are as busy with public relations opportunities (Clark wants his Fifth Battalion to get the glory for the liberation) as with local issues, for which they defer to Curzio Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni), an aristocrat and former Fascist who switched allegiances and fought the Fascists in Spain.

There’s not a lot of grace in Cavani’s direction—she seems occupied simply corralling such an enormous international production—but then it’s not a graceful subject. This isn’t about war, it’s about civilians caught between invading powers and soldiers in their downtime, and Cavani enjoys the chaos of this world in upheaval without letting us lose our way through. She takes us to the streets and apartment houses where the flesh trade cashes in on the new occupying army and to the heart of the Sicilian mafia, which negotiate a ransom for German POWs they’ve kidnapped (they want to get paid by the kilogram and have been stuffing them with pasta to fatten them up). True to form, the gangsters treat American military like just another syndicate.

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‘The 10th Victim’: Give the People What They Want

Before The Hunger Games, before Battle Royale, before The Running Man, there was Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim. Based on Robert Sheckley‘s short story “The Seventh Victim” (Petri upped the body count), this 1965 feature is set in a near future of unlikely fashions and pop-art stylings, where comic books are the literature of the day and murder games have become the dominant form of media entertainment. The government-sponsored “The Big Hunt” is the original Survivor as a series of one-on-one bouts: “a real chase, a real victim and a real killing,” promises the cheery TV host as he outlines the rules for the home viewing audience.

Ursula Andress in ‘The Tenth Victim’

It’s ostensibly “a safety valve for humanity” but Petri’s wry perspective reveals the activity as less primal scream than the logical evolution of today’s reality TV fad. The hunter is given a target and the victim has to be on guard to pick out a potential assassin from the crowd. These games don’t play out in a controlled arena but in the streets and sometime in the nightclubs of the real world, where the occasional civilian becomes collateral damage. And unlike the usual dystopian portraits of kill-or-be-killed games, which invariably play out as a form of punishment and social control by an oppressive regime, this game is completely voluntary. No surprise, there’s no shortage of competitors. The lure of celebrity, prize winnings and endorsement deals apparently trumps survival instinct. Or maybe it’s just a matter of a population so narcotized into numbness that they jump at anything that can offer them a sensation outside of their consumer bubble.

Continue reading at Keyframe

DVD/Blu-ray: Mario Monicelli’s ‘The Organizer’

Mario Monicelli, one of the most prolific and popular directors of post-war Italian cinema, never earned a reputation in the U.S. like his compadre, Federico Fellini, despite the international success of numerous films, from Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) to A Very Petit Bourgeois (1977). Perhaps it’s because his preferred genre was comedy, notably the commedia all’italiana, a mix of social satire, clownish comedy, streetwise attitude, and earthy compassion, that he helped pioneer. But satire doesn’t always export outside of its culture and comedy isn’t often granted the same respect as “serious” drama and his modest, gentle visual style never attracted the attention of his flamboyant countrymen.

Marcello Mastroianni

The Organizer (1963) brings the sensibility of commedia all’italiana to social drama. The story of a labor strike among the socially tight but politically disorganized community to textile workers in a mill outside of Turin in the late 1800s, this is not a political statement nor a social protest. It is lively, funny, chaotic, appreciative of the foibles and failures of the frustrated collective, if you can call them that. Not really a union by any definition, the workers meet after another 14 hour day in which one of their own was maimed by a machine to brainstorm a response. Half of them can neither read nor write and they have all resigned themselves to conditions that demand everything and still keep them in poverty. Their idea of a protest is simply to sound the whistle and walk out an hour early, and they can’t even execute that plan, much to the ire of Pautasso (Folco Lulli), the hot-tempered veteran who volunteers to blow the shift whistle and thus make himself the most visible member of the nascent protesters.

Enter Professor Singaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), a threadbare intellectual riding the rails out of a previous scrape to hide out in this town. The arguments in the schoolhouse rouse him from his sleep in the storeroom and, in the manner of a gently encouraging teacher, builds up their confidence and spurs them on to greater (if still modest) goals, along with a little practical advice in preparing for a long strike. He’s no con man, but his oratory passions sweep them up before they really know what they’re in for. While they lack any faith in their power to effect change, he believes in the inevitability of labor’s collective power. Just maybe not this time around.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Review: Vincent, Francois, Paul and the Others / Salut, L’Artiste

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

Vincent is losing his mistress, his factory and his health. In the dark night of the bourgeois soul he goes to see the wife he’s already lost because of the mistress. Embarrassed by his needs, discomfited by the sudden knowledge that another man has just left his wife’s bed, he tries on an expansive gesture in her small apartment—and knocks over a vase of straw flowers. Yves Montand is the miraculous kind of actor who can reach over, restore the flowers, and cap the action with a look and wave that encompass “You know me!”, “You would have that kind of thing in your apartment,” ”I’m really up that well-known tributary,” and “There! good as new!” It’s scarcely an isolated actor’s-moment in Vincent, François, Paul et les autres; Montand and his co-players serve up many. One of the best-acted scenes of 1976 is likely to remain the café interview, a bit later in the film, between Montand and wife Stéphane Audran: he indicating by cautious, hopeful indirection that he’s at liberty, the young mistress is gone, he no longer worries about being a man of affairs in any sense, and maybe they could give it another try; she understanding from the first, supremely considerate of his feelings and vulnerability, but aware that life has moved on and so have they, that she must answer other imperatives now.

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Review: Diary of Forbidden Dreams (aka What?)

[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]

What’s being called Diary of Forbidden Dreams or simply Forbidden Dreams in its current run is actually Roman Polanski’s 1972 opus What?, being released in the U.S. for the first time to cash in on the director’s recent notoriety. Like Dance of the Vampires, which he made five years earlier and which also suffered a ridiculously obvious retitling for its American release, What? looks like a film on which the director emphatically did not have final cut. The English-language version, at least—dubbed by predominantly British voices and edited by people with British names—looks like less than what Polanski must have intended. Still, judging from the evidence (which is all one can do), it’s hard to believe there was much good in the film to begin with.

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