Tag Archives: Italian

CAPSULE: LA CHIMERA (2023)

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La Chimera is currently available to purchase on VOD (more rental/streaming options available later).

DIRECTED BY: Alice Rohrwacher

FEATURING: Josh O’Connor, Carol Duarte,

PLOT: An Englishman in Italy with a mystical talent for discovering burial plots joins a group who traffic in ancient Etruscan artifacts while brooding over his lost love.

Still from La Chimera (2023)

COMMENTS: If nothing else, La Chimera‘s milieu is unique: a ragtag gang of modern tomb raiders, trading in a black market for Etruscan artifacts. We first meet Arthur (a slovenly, rakishly melancholy Josh O’Connor) in mid-dream, as he remembers the woman whose absence will lurk in the background of the rest of the picture like a ghost. Arthur, an Englishman who speaks passable Italian, has just been released from jail, and he soon reluctantly returns to his gang and their old racket: digging up ancient pottery for resale on the black market. They need Arthur because of his preternatural ability to locate old burial grounds, which he can do with a diving rod like he was dowsing for water. The crew is motivated by money, but Arthur, we are told, investigates the tombs because he believes he can find a legendary door that leads to the afterlife. Besides his crew, Arthur hangs out with Flora (Rosselini), an old friend who lives in a decaying villa. There he meets the oddly-named Italia (Duarte), a tone-deaf maid who shows an interest in the handsome brooding stranger. Will she be able to spark new life in him, or will he continue descending into graves?

La Chimera is a European-style drama, more focused on character than plot. It wanders about, in no hurry to get to the point, but rather allowing us to soak in the characters for 130 minutes. Rohrwacher enlivens the stroll with assays into multiple (not always congruent) styles, including a smattering of magical realist touches. She provides changes in film stocks, digital undercranking for comic montages, fourth wall breaks, a Felliniesque festival where the gang’s males dress in drag, an outlaw folk song about the “tombaroli” (grave robbers), and an affecting dream on a train where Arthur faces up to some supernatural ethical dilemmas. There is also a repeated vertical pan that always ends with O’Connor upside-down, to simulate the vertigo that accompanies a successful divination. But despite these touches, La Chimera hews close to the standard art-house drama formula. It is, to a large extent, a meditation on death; with tomb-raiding as a plot point, it would have to be. But it seems somewhat unsure as to what it wants to say on the topic. Arthur struggles with a death wish, which is something of an addiction for him, so perhaps it’s an ersatz cinematic take on Keats: “Ode on an Etruscan Urn.”

La Chimera has been receiving near universal praise from critics, as did Rohrwacher’s previous magical realist drama, Happy as Lazzaro. I must confess that the director hasn’t won me over yet, and I have difficulty figuring out what all the fuss is about. She’s a  craftswoman who wields cinematic techniques competently, but with no strong auteurial stamp. That’s not to say her films aren’t thoughtful and well put together; they just fail to stand out from the art-house pack.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Strange, aesthetically gorgeous and profound, La Chimera is ultimately just as unknowable as the liminal space that it protagonist inhabits within it.”–Tanner Gordon, Spectrum Culture (contemporaneous)

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: HOW STRANGE TO BE NAMED FEDERICO (2013)

Che strano chiamarsi Federico; AKA How Strange to Be Named Federico: Scola Narrates Fellini

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DIRECTED BY: Ettore Scola

FEATURING: Vittorio Viviani, Antonella Attili, Tomasso Lazotti, Giacomo Lazotti, Maurizio De Santis, Giulio Forges Davanzati 

PLOT: Film director Ettore Scola remembers his friend and contemporary, the legendary Federico Fellini, recreating moments from the great filmmaker’s life on the soundstages of the fabled Cinecittà Studios.

Still from How Strange to Be Named Federico (2013)

COMMENTS: If we’re being honest, How Strange to Be Named Federico is not a movie at all. It’s a eulogy, an Italian take on an Irish wake, replete with fond remembrances and amusing tales of a sadly absent friend. For most of us, it’s the kind of thing that might be shared at a bar or a VFW hall. But then, most of us aren’t successful filmmakers, and our friend isn’t a titan of the art form. So it’s only to be expected that Ettore Scola’s eulogy for Federico Fellini would have to take the form of a film.

Scola makes no effort to try and sum up Fellini’s career or the tremendous mark he left upon cinema. How Strange is a deeply personal account, and we see Fellini’s life exclusively through Scola’s eyes. Early scenes depicting Young Fellini’s big break drawing cartoons for the satirical magazine Marc’Aurelio are presented as a prelude to Scola’s own arrival at the periodical and his subsequent tutelage under Fellini and the staff of hard-bitten comedy writers. Later scenes depict the men holding court at an outdoor café, recounting Fellini’s successes. This isn’t an opportunity to analyze or deconstruct Fellini. Scola just wants you to know what it was like to hang out with the man.

If we learn anything about Fellini, it’s how much of his films seem to come from his observation of others. Scola suggests that Fellini’s intense insomnia, which he addresses by taking lengthy drives through his beloved Rome, provided inspiration in the form of passengers he picked up and encouraged to expound upon their views and experiences. We see two such raconteurs: a prostitute who deliberately overlooks the lies told to her by a thieving suitor because she derives happiness from the falsehoods, and a sidewalk chalk artist whose need to express himself is paramount. They don’t map directly to characters from Fellini’s films, but you kind find their spirit throughout his career.

This isn’t going to make much sense to the uninitiated, and the narrow focus of Scola’s memory play may be more likely to close off audiences, rather than invite them in. The wordless opening scene is like a parade of Easter eggs for Fellini aficionados, as a series of performers appear to audition for the director on a beach at dusk (one of many such scenes set on Cinecittà’s iconic Stage 5), evoking the memory of such classics as La Strada or . And there are occasional side trips into archival footage of Fellini at work: making a rare turn as an actor, traveling to Hollywood to pick up an Oscar, or finding ways to showcase his avatar, Marcello Mastroianni. (We see the actor’s mother confront Scola with the charge that Fellini makes her son look handsome while Scola’s films turn him into a monster.) But these are all part of the kaleidoscope of Scola’s reminiscence. He’s remembering his friend through the method of storytelling they both knew best.

The final scene is probably the most unusual – or Felliniesque – as the not-dead-after-all filmmaker bolts from his own funeral, eluding the honor guard and escaping to an abandoned fairground where he finds pleasure in the rides, and we are treated to a whirlwind montage of striking visions from throughout his catalog. It’s akin to a celebrity-themed version of Cinema Paradiso. But the moment is affecting, because this is truly Scola’s farewell to the man he loved and admired, using Fellini’s own cinematic language to render him forever free. It’s the wish we all hold for the ones we hold dear, but only a filmmaker can make it come true. 

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

How Strange to be Named Federico, Scola Narrates Fellini hits just the right notes of whimsy, nostalgia and mocking tomfoolery to bring this memory of Fellini and his times vividly to life… Scola leaps around casting bits and pieces of expressionist portraiture before us. This makes the film much more interesting to watch, even for audiences who know little about the director.” – Deborah Young, Hollywood Reporter (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Brad. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

How Strange to Be Named Federico ( Che strano chiamarsi Federico ) [ NON-USA FORMAT, PAL, Reg.2 Import - Italy ]
  • How Strange to Be Named Federico ( Che strano chiamarsi Federico )
  • How Strange to Be Named Federico
  • Che strano chiamarsi Federico
  • Non US Format, PAL, Region 2

SLAMDANCE 2024: THE COMPLEX FORMS (2024)

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DIRECTED BY: Fabio D’Orta

FEATURING: David White, Michele Venni, Cesare Bonomelli, Enzo Solazzi

PLOT: An out of work cook needs cash, and a mysterious organization can provide it, so long as he is willing to undergo temporary possession.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: D’Orta’s background in commercials, music videos, and set design is on display here—in a mighty fine way, to be sure. And while there are plenty of odd flourishes, ornate screen compositions, and the noodle-scratching premise itself, the “entities,” and their grand bejeweled appearance, is what delightfully seared my mind.

COMMENTS: There is a villa deep in the Italian countryside, and every so often a shining black Mercedes saloon pulls up to deliver a new occupant. This guest is, invariably, a middle-aged man with scant prospects and no family to speak of—but in good health. The management prefers the men be hard-up loners; the “clientele” prefer them healthy.

My thoughts on art house films would be more positive if there were more art house paranormal thrillers. The Complex Forms is among the few of those. (I’d be interested to hear further recommendations in the comments.) The action takes place in a hotel that looks plucked straight out of Marienbad, with officious, cryptic—and friendly—staff. We are often assured that, once an occupant leaves, “He’s fine. He’s left the villa. Nothing to worry about. Go back to your rooms.” While this would be unconvincing on its own, it’s typically intoned after a dramatic visitation from the beings who occupy the woods surrounding the lushly appointed edifice.

D’Orta’s film is an always beautiful, often menacing, and occasionally puzzling examination of angst, ritual, and time, done up in the guise of a horror film that occasionally borders on creature feature. The rote choreography of the dispirited guests, whether synchronicly mopping or dining in isolated assembly, lends a monastic quality to the film, while the protagonist’s occasional nightmares and growing fear spike the proceedings like a thumbtack jabbed, ever so slightly, under the fingernail.

And then, as I’ve mentioned, there are those sylvan forms. Are they are what the title refers to? Probably yes; but, the film does kick off with the main character filling in an exhaustive survey before traveling to the villa. No matter. D’Orta has crafted a playful and enigmatic debut, whose slick looks and cheeky musical cues meld perfectly with the heavy melodrama of the narrative. And in addition, he does us the favor of serving up many memorable, majestic monsters.

CAPSULE: CAVERNA (2023)

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Caverna can be rented on-demand.

DIRECTED BY: Daniel Contaldo, Hannah Swayze

FEATURING: Giorgia Tomasi, Lorenzo Passaniti, Caterina Fornaciai

PLOT: A group of Italian 20-somethings explore their childhoods and psychological ailments via avant-garde theater exercises.

Still from Caverna (2023)

COMMENTS:

The most meandering film I’ve ever seen:
Caverna, Caverna, Caverna, Caverna!
The most grousing and wibble-cam there’s ever been—
Caverna, Caverna, Caverna, Caverna, Caverna, Caverna, Caverna.

I’ve just watched a film named Caverna

By now I have largely made my point, but in an effort to give this whatsit a fairer shake, let me lay down some less flippant remarks. With dream flashbacks and otherwise linear progression, Contaldo and Swayze (which would make a great pair of names on a P.I.s’ office door) tell a story about a group of young, aspiring actors—with a focus on country-bred Lorenzo and Catholic Giorgia—honing their performance-art chops while battling inner demons. Giorgia was a disappointment to her folks, more interested in playing in the dirt than in bending to a rigid religious hierarchy; Lorenzo was a disappointment to his father, wanting to wander the nearby hills and fields as opposed to… well, it wasn’t quite clear just what exactly the possibly-carpenter patriarch wanted from the boy. Guiding Giorgia, Lorenzo, et al. is Alba, an instructor who isn’t above playing favorites; and who, to me, seemed to be making things up as she went along. (Mind you, this may have been the point—or I may have missed the point.)

Caverna is, at least, only an hour long, and during my viewing exhibited the good sense to slip in a twist of tone right around the time I had resigned myself to staring vacantly at the screen. The neophyte performers acquitted themselves adequately, but forget any story (something I don’t actually demand of a film anymore)—there isn’t even a committed pursuit of any particular concept, or even mood. Sure, sure, we get it: childhood traumas, particularly emotional ones, are serious business and can seriously fracture the victims. But the two featured youths seemed more disaffected and occasionally annoyed than particularly addled. They pursue their career goals (“the true performer paints with the eyes of his mind!”), party vaguely, chat idly, and smoke prodigiously in front of charming, down-at-the-heel Old World backdrops. The dreams they relate to one another in class drip with heavy symbolism (of course, it may just be that my own dreams are never nearly so psychologo-poetical), and Lorenzo’s burst of anger—that twist of tone I mentioned—stems neither from anything much apparent, nor from much that might reasonably be guessed at.

As the directors  swap between the hazy saturation of dream-reminiscences and the cinema verité of the real lives and theater-ness of the troupe, there’s just enough filmic flair and character charm to keep your attention. But you will be relieved when the timer goes off, and you can move on with your life.

(At the time of this writing, Caverna was available free on Tubi and other free-streaming services).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Things take a weird turn, and this ‘theater workshop’ becomes the stage for a surrealistic fantasy that’s hard to explain. To be fair, if “weird for the sake of being weird” is your thing, then you may well love this experience. I could appreciate what they were attempting; unfortunately, it didn’t land for me.”–Chris Jones, Overly Honest Movie Reviews (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FREAKS VS. THE REICH (2021)

AKA Freaks Out

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Freaks vs. the Reich is currently available for VOD rental.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Gabriele Mainetti

FEATURING: Aurora Giovinazzo, Claudio Santamaria, Pietro Castellitto, Giancarlo Martini, Franz Rogowski

PLOT: In 1943 Nazi-occupied Rome, Matilde, Fulvio, Cencio, and Mario are the stars of the Half-Penny Circus; Franz, a Nazi with oracular abilities, wishes to get all twelve of his fingers on the troupe of freaks in the hopes of averting disaster for the Reich.

Still from Freaks vs. the Reich (2021)

COMMENTS: In a world saturated with superheroes, I say, “bring on the Super Freaks.” Gabriele Mainetti’s sophomore feature has rip-rollicking adventure, charming humor, concerts, explosions, Nazis, swarms of bugs, and—and everything I’d be looking for in a big-screen period piece. Having been lucky enough to catch this at Fantasia last year, it nearly pained me not to treat it with the full writeup it deserves. My fond recollections of this film are best captured with my remarks jotted down immediately following the screening:

“Come one, come all, to the Half-Penny Circus. Witness the aerial insect artistry of Cencio the albino! Giggle at the pratfalls of Mario the magnetic clown! Behold the raw strength—and ample fur—of Man-Beast Fulvio! And delight in the electrifying acrobatic artistry of Matilde, who powers light bulbs with the touch of her fingers!”

Freaks Out deftly walks a thin tight-rope while simultaneously pulling off an impressive hat trick (I shall now dispense with the carnival metaphors). Mainetti quite obviously, and quite unashamedly, dips into several buckets of influence: superheroes, Nazi baddies, buddy comedies, and action movie razzle-dazzle. These are all reliable, if perhaps well-worn, sources, but the alchemical combination makes the concoction shine. Just in the opening scene featuring the Half-Penny Circus, we witness whimsy, true magic—and a shell-blast of stark, wartime realism as the performance is interrupted by the surrounding carnage. The four freaks all feel fleshed-out, and fresh, as they follow their mentor-cum-manager through the blasted streets and hillsides of Rome under Nazi occupation.

But the coup de grâce comes, as it so often does, from the villain:  mild-mannered, six-fingered, future-glimpsin’, ether-huffin’ Nazi Franz, who wants to save the Fatherland while simultaneously being denigrated by his countrymen’s allegorical stand-in, his older brother. Rogowski brings gravitas, tenderness (the performance of Radiohead’s “Creep” by twelve-fingered piano-man is an early show-stopper), frustration, machination, and, against all the odds, sympathy to his performance. In one scene Franz liquidates “sub-standard” freaks, and in another mutilates his body to conform with the able-ist standards of Nazi knuckle-beaks.

I’m repeating myself from before, I realize, but my nostalgia for Freaks Out hit me to a degree I was not anticipating. That in mind, I will leave you with some words of advice, and hearty request. Stand by your friends, say “No!” to Nazis, and find the time to watch Freaks Out on the biggest screen and through the biggest speakers you can find. Mainetti has obviously set this troupe up as a franchise, so get the word out about Freaks Out. I want to see them smash the Nazis again. (And again…)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A strange and complex muddling of X-Men and The Shape of Water, with an abundance of Nazi’s, Freaks Out will have you crying, laughing, wincing, and smiling as it tells its epic story of belonging and embracing your weirdness.”–Kat Hughes, The Hollywood News (festival screening)