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Pasqualino de Santis

Review: The Mattei Affair

[Originally published in Movietone News 28, December 1973]

The Mattei Affair affords one of the year’s most peculiar film experiences. I think most people who see it will agree with that, whether or not their personal reactions to the picture closely resemble my own (possibly very subjective) response. For about half the film’s running time I was conscious of enduring the movie more than experiencing it. It offers few of the conventional compensations. For one thing, its subject is highly political—and not only political but also, as it appears for a while, narrowly regional. Who is—was—Enrico Mattei? An official in an Italian state industry who concerned himself with realizing the oil and especially the methane resources of various impoverished sectors of the country, and who died in the mysterious crash of his private jet in 1962. The movie opens, Citizen Kane–like, with Mattei’s death, presented fragmentarily through the points of view of a farmer who’s awakened by the crash, the airline personnel routinely monitoring the flight, and various media contingents who leap into action to cover the event. Immediately the case is fragmented even further: there is a flashback from the discovery and aftermath of the crash to the crash actually occurring; and then time and place and point-of-view become still more problematical. A bank of TV screens gives back diverse images of Mattei at various stages of his career, images of newsmen commenting on Mattei, images of other people being interviewed about Mattei—and some of the screens are just full of static; more or loss constantly, at least one of them glows with the words ENRICO MATTEI, as though The Truth were lurking, “Rosebud”-like, Executive Action–like, amid this welter of available media documentation.

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Review: Lucky Luciano

[Originally published in Movietone News 36, October 1974]

Francesco Rosi’s attempt to adapt the method of The Mattei Affair to the career of Charles “Lucky” Luciano fails almost completely. What made the earlier film such a morally disturbing and aesthetically challenging experience was its formal complexity as a real-life mystery story in which the levels and processes of the narrative act became implicated in the hypotheses and half-truths it hoped to sort out. No such structural complexity informs Lucky Luciano. Sections of the movie are compelling, partly because they are imaginatively filmed, partly—the greater part—because they provide us with fascinating historical dirt: e.g., the connivance between Vito Genovese (Charles Cioffi) and the United States Army after the liberation of Italy. But whereas the fractured chronology and mixture of narrative modes served in Mattei Affair to render the very abundance of its mountain of evidence meaningful, here the method merely produces a muddle.

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On the Absence of the Grail

[Originally published in Movietone News 47, January 1976]

The interest of the reader (and one reads the Grail stories with a real interest) does not come, one can see, from the question which normally provokes such interest: WHAT HAPPENS AFTERWARDS? One knows very well, from the beginning, what will happen, who will obtain the Grail, who will be punished, and why. Interest is caused by a totally different question, which is: WHAT IS THE GRAIL?

-Todorov, Poetique de la Prose

Obviously Bresson is not aiming at absolute realism. The rain, the murmur of a waterfall, the sound of earth pouring from a broken pot, the hooves of a horse on the cobblestones … are there deliberately as neutral agents, as foreign bodies, like a grain of sand that gets into and seizes up a piece of machinery. They are like lines drawn across an image to affirm its transparency, as does dust on a diamond—it is impurity at its purest.

-Bazin; on Diary of a Country Priest

It seems inevitable that Bresson would have eventually filmed the Arthurian legends; in a real way the director’s entire work points in this direction. An important thing to keep in mind is that in France the Arthurian legends are known by heart to virtually everyone schooled beyond the tenth grade. In adapting Lancelot, Bresson is not indulging in a sort of culture-for-the-masses approach or more-intellectual-than-thou snobbery. He is telling a story which has the value of a totally familiar myth or folk tale for francophone audiences, a fact that grants the director extraordinary liberty in his manner of telling his tale (and allows, as we will see, some important contradictions to arise and shape the work).

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