Struggle: The Life and Lost Art of Szukalski


The lion in winter.

(2018) Documentary (NetflixStanislav Szukalski, Glenn Bray, Robert Williams, Ernst Fuchs, George Di Caprio, Jose Israel Fernandez, Suzanne Williams, Ben Hecht, Karen Mortillaro, Pyotr Rypsin, Lena Zwalve, Adam Jones, Gabe Bartalos, James Kagel, Timothy Snyder, Marek Hapon, Adam Jones, Charles Schneider, Sandy Decker, Natalia Fabian, Rebecca Forstadt. Directed by Ireneusz Dobrowolski

 

It would be understandable if you hadn’t heard of Stanislav Szukalski. Even within the art world, his work is largely unknown these days, which is a shame – his talent and imagination are undeniable. However, the Polish-born artist’s case is not easy to contemplate.

Much of his work was destroyed during the Second World War; all that is left is conceptual drawings that he made. Following the war, he emigrated to the United States and lived in the quiet Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills until he passed away in 1987. Late in life, underground comic artists like Glenn Bray, Robert Williams and R. Crumb discovered him; some of Szukalski’s drawings appeared in the latter’s Weirdo.

Bray, a collector of Szukalski’s art and a close personal friend (he ended up the executor of his will), taped hundreds of hours of interviews with the artist which remain the only recorded footage of him. It gives the portrait of a man who was often maddeningly arrogant, highly opinionated and occasionally sweet.

But there’s a dark side to Szukalski, one that was unearthed during the making of this documentary and one which even his closest friends weren’t aware of. The revelations change the nature of the documentary from a straightforward biography to something with a much more urgent issue that we continue to grapple with in the age of #MeToo – is an artist separate from his work? Can we love a Woody Allen movie and deplore his actions? Can we love Chinatown and censure Roman Polanski?

That’s what his friends have to come to terms with. Some, like Bray, remain loyal to the old man they knew; Bray contends that Szukalski was a changed man when he knew him and there is evidence that Szukalski was anxious to make amends. However, others such as Di Caprio are not so sure that some of the actions of the artist can be forgiven and we also have to consider the legacy of those actions; in his native Poland, Szukalski has been adopted as a figurehead by far-right extremists, even though Szukalski himself would point out that his work was meant to illustrate the common themes of mankind through his philosophy of Zermatism, which has come down to us thanks to the Church of the Sub-Genius which purloined some of the concepts as their own.

Szukalski used the art forms and mythologies of other cultures to help him explore Poland’s identity, and there’s no doubt that the art is powerful and expressive. But considering his state of mind when he created some of this work, can it be trusted? The filmmaker leaves it to you to answer that for yourself but I can’t help but wonder that if the art is an extension of the artist, then is the art also an extension of the darker elements of that artist? We may never adequately answer that one.

REASONS TO SEE: The artwork is incredible. Szukalski himself is fascinating although there are parts of his personality that are disturbing to say the least.
REASONS TO AVOID: Szukalski isn’t always an admirable guy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and depictions of anti-Semitism.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artist George di Caprio was friends with Szukalski late in his life; his son is the actor Leonardo. Both men are listed as producers on the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Afterimage
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
My Hindu Friend

Vincere


Vincere

This is what obsession looks like.

(2009) Biographical Drama (IFC) Filipo Timi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Corrado Invernizzi, Fausto Russo Alesi, Michaela Cescon, Pier Giorgio Bellocchio, Paolo Pierobon, Bruno Cariello, Francesco Picozzo, Simona Nobili, Vanessa Scalera. Directed by Marco Bellochio

 

Benito Mussolini was a dictator and a despot with an ego far greater than the entire country he ruled. His private life was carefully orchestrated so that his image would be pleasing to the predominantly Roman Catholic citizens of Italy as well as to the Church of Rome, with whom he had a political alliance. Having a mistress and a son by that mistress would have been devastating to the way Il Duce was perceived.

But then again, he wasn’t always the jut-jawed figure that his Fascist party spin doctors made him out to be. Once upon a time Mussolini (Timi) was a firebrand, an atheist who advocated the violent overthrow of Italy’s hopelessly corrupt government.

He caught the attention of young Ida Dalser (Mezzogiorno), an idealistic young shopgirl who was initially attracted to Mussolini’s politics and eventually to the young firebrand himself. The two had a passionate and torrid relationship that had Ida giving him her life savings in order to fund a Fascist newspaper which led to financial disaster for her. It also led to her bearing him a son.

However what she didn’t know was that Mussolini was already married, and as his star rose politically, it became expedient for him to cut ties with her. Dalser could have gone quietly into the night and lived a comfortable life as so many women who had gotten involved with charismatic politicians had over the years, but Ida was determined that her son be the heir of Il Duce, so she forced his hand.

She was forcibly committed to an insane asylum where her story that she was married to the Italian leader (a ceremony was performed or so goes the rumor) and had a son by him was met with to say the least skepticism. She continued to try to fight for her son’s place in the Italian hierarchy right up until the very end.

This is a little known story, even in Italy where Dalser’s existence wasn’t even re-discovered (after the Fascist regime essentially buried her from history) until 2005. Veteran Italian director Bellochio (a contemporary of Antonioni, Fellini and Bertolucci, among other great Italian directors of the era) has crafted an interesting biopic that is largely conjecture, based on what little we know about Dalser and extrapolating how things might have happened.

He is fortunate in having Mezzogiorno, one of Italy’s great leading ladies in the pivotal role of Dalser. Mezzogiorno has been compared to Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard (whom she resembles) and she brings an inner strength that becomes readily apparent. During the first half of the movie, Dalser is almost obsessively in love with Mussolini, submerging all else of her personality and her life for his benefit. During the second, the obsession turns psychotic and you wonder if she really IS insane. Dalser, that is. It’s a bravura performance and one that has been acclaimed all over Europe, but sadly not here where the movie went little-seen.

The movie does take a bit of a tumble during the second half as Mussolini disappears from the film and is seen only in newsreel footage – the real Mussolini, not the actor playing him. While I think that the move to center the movie on Dalser was a logical one, I think it could have used more of the dynamic between the two, even if Mussolini isn’t interacting directly with her. Perhaps that’s what the director was trying to achieve – create an iconic Mussolini who ceases being a man and becomes a demigod which is, at the end of the day, what Il Duce was trying to achieve in life.

This is a mesmerizing movie that ultimately falls short of being great. Mezzogiorno gives a performance that might have been Oscar-worthy in a perfect world, and the assured hand of an experienced director makes the first part riveting material. If only that sure hand hadn’t failed him in the second half.

WHY RENT THIS: Mezzogiorno’s performance is riveting. Interesting use of historical footage

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The end of the movie becomes unfocused. Suffers from disappearance of Mussolini from the narrative.

FAMILY VALUES: There is graphic nudity and sex scenes here, as well as a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was selected as the #2 best film of 2009 by the respect French journal Les Cahiers du Cinema.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.7M on a $13M production budget; the movie was unprofitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close