[Originally published inThe Weekly, December 25, 1985]
Somewhere in the 16th-century Japan of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, four horsemen—a warlord and his three sons—sit atop a hill, each facing a different point of the compass. The world spreads below them and, in Kurosawa’s high-angled, space-collapsing telephoto compositions, above them, too. The surrounding vastness of hill and vale is like a great green wave, at once the measure of the horsemen’s noble sway and a trembling surge, perhaps only momentarily arrested, that might break over them at any time.
When the poet-hero of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée, his creativity straitjacketed by easy popularity, approached an old mentor for advice, the sage’s response was brutally succinct: “Astonish us!” Cocteau’s poet was a man in his prime; Akira Kurosawa is 75 years of age. Yet with his new film Ran, this magisterial motion picture director, universally and rather complacently accorded the status of old master for more years than most of us can remember, has usurped the prerogative of young geniuses in the arts: He astonishes us, and then astonishes again, and again.
Antonio Pietrangeli is the greatest Italian filmmaker of the sixties you’ve never heard of and his bittersweet I Knew Her Well (1965), starring Stefania Sandrelli as a country girl in Rome trying to break into show business, is his masterpiece. Young and beautiful, Adriana (Sandrelli) is able to get by on her looks, taking temporary jobs between modeling gigs and screen tests, and she’s savvy enough to understand that sex is a commodity to be traded for favors from press agents, managers, and minor celebrities. But she’s far from cynical, at least at first, as she plays the game and enjoys the nightlife, and she’s even a bit naïve, constantly hooking up with charming, good-looking cads who have a habit of abandoning her. It’s episodic by nature, a series of snapshots from her life, and directed with the light touch of a frothy Italian comedy that belies the mercenary society and cruel behavior of the rich and successful.
Pietrangeli co-wrote the film with Ettore Scola (among others) and they offer a satirical portrait of the shallow celebrity culture and Roman nightlife of La Dolce Vita with both a more vicious edge—the callous treatment of a washed up actor (played by Ugo Tognazzi) is truly painful—and a breezy, easy style. The simple irony of the title isn’t hard to fathom. None of the men ever bothers to get to know Adriana at all, dismissing her as a silly beauty good for a one night stand, and Sandrelli plays her as a seemingly frivolous, capricious young woman with nothing on her mind, kind of Italian Holly Golightly without the cynical calculation. Yet she’s more perceptive than anyone realizes as she navigates the mercenary world with energetic optimism before she grows disillusioned in the final act of the film. Sandrelli has a kind of blank, oblivious beauty that makes her great casting for simple, silly, not-too-bright characters (see The Conformist) in her youth, and Pietrangeli uses that surface frivolity beautifully. She’s simply heartbreaking.
The new 4K restoration of Ran (1985), Akira Kurosawa’s epic re-imagining of Shakespeare’s King Lear in sixteenth-century Japan, runs for a week at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Tatsuya Nakadai plays the aging warlord who divides his empire among his three sons and slips into madness as he is neglected, betrayed, and stripped of his dignity. Kurosawa is not merely true to Shakespeare’s story, he brings scenes alive with a cultural twist and a visual mastery, from the pageantry of warriors filling vast fields of green with red and white flags and uniforms to the howling storm that strikes during the warlord’s spiral into madness. The spectacle is brought home with delicately observed performances and beautifully sculpted relationships, an intimacy that gives the epic its soul. I haven’t seen the restoration but I imagine those colors are more vivid than ever. Chris Marker’s documentary A.K.: The Making of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), a profile of Kurosawa on the set of the film, also plays at SIFF Film Center.
Jacques Becker’s Antoine and Antoinette (1947), the first film in SAM’s “Cinema de Paris” series, plays on Thursday, March 31 at Plestcheeff Auditorium. Individual tickets are available on the day of show on a first come, first served basis. Details here.
The Cinerama is one of the only ten theaters in the country to show Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice in a 70mm film print. It will run for a week on film, and then revert to DCP on Friday, April 1, so celluloid junkies should make a plan for that first week. And remember: the Cinerama sells reserved seating so you may want to purchase in advance. The Cinerama webpage is here.