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

The Names of Love (Les nom des gens)


The Names of Love

We need to send Sara Forestier to the Republican National Convention next year.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Music Box) Jacques Gamblin, Sara Forestier, Zinedine Soualem, Carole Franck, Jacques Boudet, Michele Moretti, Zakariya Gouram, Nabil Massad, Cyrille Andrieu-Lacu, Cristina Palma De Figueiredo, Lydie Muller. Directed by Michel Leclerc

Back in the day the counterculture sorts used to proclaim “Make love, not war.” This is a film that takes it to new heights.

Arthur Martin (Gamblin) has a dull, common name – the French equivalent to Bob Jones. He is an ornithologist working for the French government doing autopsies on dead birds to determine how they died and whether or not a disease is involved that might cause problems for the French meat industry.

His mother (Moretti) was a survivor of the Holocaust whose parents were deported to Greece. These twin events served to traumatize her deeply; Arthur’s dad (Boudet) has made a series of taboo subjects that are not to be discussed in order not to upset mom. Although Arthur’s parents have their quirks (they seem to latch on to every failed technology that comes along, from the Betamax to the Laser Disc – I’m sure the HD DVD is in there somewhere too), Arthur grows up in a fairly repressed environment which makes him a kind of weird boy who is absolutely anathema to the ladies. This makes it incredibly hard for him to get laid.

Baya Benhmamoud (Forestier) is a free spirit whose father (Soualem) was a refugee from Algeria (which at the time was a French colony) in France illegally. Her mom (Franck) was a hippie who advocated France’s withdrawal from  Algeria and overall, peace and love in general. Mom helped Dad get his French citizenship. Dad is one of those people who loves to help other people fix things; his happiness always seems to be secondary to everyone else’s and Baya yearns to make her daddy happy.

When Baya is molested by a piano teacher, it drives her to express her sexuality more openly than she might have. Inheriting her mother’s political outlook, she basically categorizes everyone into two categories; good people and fascists. It is her goal to have sex with fascists and convert them to her way of thinking.

Baya is a bit scatter-brained, forgetting in one unforgettable scene to put on clothes before leaving the house. You know that she and Arthur are going to meet (she storms into a radio interview he is doing as she is working at the station answering phones and proclaims him a fascist for scaring people with fears of bird flu) and when they do, both of their views about life, love and sex are going to change forever.

The movie is based on some actual experiences the director-writer had with his partner which I suppose could only happen in France. Can you imagine some hippie chick bedding Rush Limbaugh in order to change his allegiance? Forgive me while I throw up a little in my mouth – feel free to join me if you wish.

Forestier won a French Cleo (their equivalent of the Oscar) for her performance here and I have to admit, she is very natural and uninhibited in this role which might make an American actress run screaming for her trailer and locking the door behind her. Baya is very aware of her ethnic background but also aware of her own sexuality and what she can do with it. One wonders if the inspiration for her read the Lysistrata, a play by Aristophanes in which the wives and girlfriends of a Greek army withhold sex from their husbands until they come home from war. I suppose it can work both ways, men being such sex-driven animals.

Gamblin has to play as white-bread a character as you’re likely to find in French cinema. He is all rules and repression, rarely letting what is bubbling below his surface be revealed. Once Baya works her magic on him, he discovers the joys of sex and attraction which turns him into a bit of a maniac. Gamblin has to insure that Arthur treads the line between lust and love, a line the French understand very well (in general) and that Arthur be one of the exceptions to that rule. One of the fine things about French cinema is that Gamblin wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as romantic leading man material in Hollywood, but he fits this role very nicely in a physical sense.

The movie brings sexual politics into actual politics and the line blurs as to which is which at times. There is a lot of poking fun at stereotypes of both the left and right, and while I’m fairly ill-informed as to how the French political system works and some of the jokes no doubt went sailing above my head like an Independence Day rocket, nonetheless there’s enough here that is universal enough that non-French speaking audiences will get a kick out of it too.

REASONS TO GO: A low-key comedy with gentle humor that brings sexual politics to real politics. Forestier is easy on the eyes.

REASONS TO STAY: The central conceit of the script might be too much for the more puritanical.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of nudity (most provided by Ms. Forestier) and some accompanying sexuality; there’s also a bit of swearing (in French).

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: After an actress initially cast as Baya demanded a nude scene be removed from the script, Forestier requested it be put back in the script as she felt it was central to the character’s identity.

HOME OR THEATER: This film is near the end of its release run and might be much easier to find on DVD/Blu-Ray when it’s released to home video October 18th.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Real Steel

Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)


Paris 36 (Faubourg 36)

The stars of Paris 36 take time out for a little dip.

(Sony Classics) Gerard Jugnot, Clovis Cornillac, Kad Merad, Nora Arnezeder, Pierre Richard, Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Maxence Perrin, Francois Morel. Directed by Christophe Barratier

Paris in 1936 was a volatile place. The left-wing Popular Front held power and the nation seemed to be swinging towards socialism, but the rise of Hitler in Germany was fueling a fascist faction that was gaining more and more traction, particularly with those who had a lot of money which wasn’t a particularly large number in Depression-era France. It was a good time to be nervous; it was a good time to be in love. It was also a good time to put on a show.

The Chansonia Theatre regularly did just that, although their rent was in arrears to the point where the soulless blackguard of a landlord, Galapiat (Donnadieu) is threatening to seize the theater if he doesn’t receive his rent my midnight. The theater manager does what any good manager does in a situation like that; he shoots himself. The doors of the theater are padlocked and it seems, after all, that the show won’t go on.

The effects of this are devastating on those who work there. For Pigoil (Jugnot), a stagehand who’s given his life for the Chansonia, it means his marriage is over; his wife had been stepping out on him anyway, but out of work, he is unable to support his young son Jojo, a prodigy on the accordion. Jojo is sent to live with his mother, who has since remarried a much wealthier man.

Pigoil is heartbroken. He sees the soul having been ripped away from him, just as it was from the neighborhood when the Chansonia closed. But wait! If Pigoil can put together a show that would fill the tiny, decrepit theater, perhaps the neighborhood would be saved and Pigoil could get his son back. On board with the idea are Jacky (Merad), a man who wore a sandwich board to advertise the theater and who also fancies himself an impressionist. The socialist stagehand (and serial womanizer) Milou (Cornillac) also seizes upon the idea. Galapiat agrees to allow the show to go on – after all, the empty theater is generating no money for him. Then, the three friends discover Douce (Arnezeder), a singer with talent and charisma and they know they have a hit on their hands.

And they do. Douce turns out to be the best thing since Piaf and the theater is packed night after night. Even better, Douce and Milou fall deeply in love. Unfortunately, the rapacious landlord Galapiat has his own plans and they don’t include the happiness of others. Can this plucky troupe fight back and win the day?

This is the kind of movie they’re talking about when they say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore” which is ironic since the movie proves that they are making ‘em like that anymore – only they’re making ‘em in France. Director Barratier had the Faubourg neighborhood built outside of Prague, streets and all and the set is magnificent. It evokes not only the period, but the place. There is so much rich detail that you can watch this movie several times and not pick up everything.

Jugnot is not what you would call a typical leading man from a Hollywood point of view. Overweight, middle-aged and not particularly handsome, he has a droopy-eyed charm that instantly warms you to him. In the United States, he would never see any sort of role other than comic relief. Thankfully, the French have no such strictures and give him a role that he makes rather memorable.

The structure of the movie recalls the films of that era. From the “let’s put on a show” pluckiness to characters like Monsieur TSF (Richard) who never leaves his room and just listens to jazz on the radio all day but turns out to be a world famous songwriter who is moved to leave his room by the charm of Douce. The musical numbers, particularly the last one, have the optimistic smile-though-your-heart-is-breaking-oh-you-kid quality that you would find in movies of the 30s.

And yet this is not all sunshine and crepes. The character of the landlord is far darker and more brutal than any you might find in movies of the time save for perhaps movies starring Jimmy Cagney and there is underlying darkness and impending tragedy as the war clouds that are swirling on the horizon begin to make themselves be known. This lends a particular poignancy to the film it might not have had otherwise.

My only concern here is that during the middle of the movie it seemed to drag a little bit, and I thought Barratier might have been better served to condense things somewhat. Perhaps that’s just my American-bred attention span (or lack thereof) talking though.

This is a marvelous movie that reminds me of a bygone era that I’m far too young to remember directly but one that I’ve come to know through watching movies of the time. The charm that Paris 36 possesses is the kind that you can’t manufacture with CGI or find with focus groups. This is obviously a labor of love, a tribute to the kind of movie that those who made it adore and respect, and their affection shows through in every frame. It won’t dazzle you but it will melt your cares away, and isn’t that what movies are supposed to be about?

WHY RENT THIS: Gorgeous period detail and a wonderful performance by Jugnot are buttressed by an Andy Hardy “let’s put on a show” mentality underscored by the darkness of the period.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie could have used some plot condensing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality, as well as a couple of scenes of violence. Probably okay for older teens and mature younger ones.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Monsieur TSF is named after a radio station in Paris that has broadcast jazz music since the era of Paris 36.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: W.