The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

(2020) Drama (Charades) Viola Pusatieri, Eleonora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiario, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna, Bruno Di Chiara. Directed by Emma Dante

 

One of life’s few universal truths is that we all experience both joy and sadness; triumph and loss. Those things mold us, shape us into the people we become; some through the memory of golden moments, other through the bittersweet acrimony of what might have been.

The five Macaluso sisters live in a shabby but spacious top-floor apartment in Palermo, Sicily. They keep doves in what had once been a playroom long ago, doves that they rent out for parties, weddings, magic shows and so on. The doves return back to their nest once they’ve finished with whatever spectacle they’ve been rented to. The sisters have been orphaned but don’t seem terribly traumatized by it.

Maria (De Luca) is the oldest and most responsible; she handles the business and for the most part keeps the lights on and the pantry from being bare. Next is vain Pinuccia (Pomario) who is all about make-up and flirting with boys. Then there’s bookish Lia (Piraino) who squabbles endlessly wth Pinuccia. Plump Katia (Orlando) is next and the youngest is Antonella (Pusatieri), who although five is ready to be a big girl. She begs Pinuccia to dab some lipstick on her mouth, which Pinuccia does in an affecting scene – the first of many.

Once the business is done for the day, Maria gets the girls ready for a day at the beach. Not being very well-off, they mostly walk there, finding a field full of plaster dinosaurs to play in, and once they get to the beach which is fronted by an exclusive club to which they are not invited, they lead the bathers in an impromptu dance. But the day’s joy turns to tragedy.

The rest of the film is all about how the sisters deal with that tragedy, and is told in three acts; the first is the day at the beach, the second takes place about twenty years later as the girls are now adult women, at which an adult Maria (Malato) has some startling news, and an adult Katia (Giordani) tries to convince the stubborn adult Lia (Barone) – in whose name the apartment is – to sell the crumbling apartment so that each of the sisters might get something to help them out financially.

The third and final act is the shortest and takes place when the sisters are elderly women. Throughout the apartment remains, growing shabbier as time passes. The doves also remain, much to Katia’s annoyance. Dante (no relation to the American director Joe Dante) gives the movie a fairly sad, bittersweet tone which only increases as the film goes on. The younger Macaluso sisters get the most screen time as their section is essentially the film’s longest, as they show up in flashbacks throughout the film. The nature of the tragedy which essentially shapes the lives of the sisters is hinted at throughout the movie, but shown in full near the end in perhaps the only misstep of the film; I don’t think it was necessary to show it, to be honest. There is also a scene in the idle of Lia, who is apparently studying to be a veterinarian, dissecting a cow which might set off alarm bells for the squeamish.

Dante uses Erik Satie’s elegiac Gymnopédie No. 1 throughout, mostly sourced as the music for a clock that plays the well-known tune, and then in the piano version most of us are familiar with. The piece is often used in cinema as a metaphor for growing old, and its use here is fitting.

Although most of the action takes place in the apartment, the movie never feels claustrophobic. The first third is incredibly joyful which makes the second and third acts all the more poignant; Dante does a wonderful job using tone throughout the movie. And while the metaphor of the doves may be a bit overdone here, it isn’t so overdone as to become monotonous and quite frankly the relationships between the sisters at various times in their lives was absolutely compelling for me.

The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is probably not on the radar of a lot of cinephiles since it isn’t getting distribution by one of the more noted arthouse labels, and that’s a shame because this is an absolute gift of a movie. It’s playing in New York and Los Angeles only at the moment, but there are plans to release it in select theaters around the United States throughout August. Hopefully, it will be playing in a theater near you but certainly keep an eye out for it on VOD when it becomes available there if not.

REASONS TO SEE: Intensely, powerfully emotional. A realistic examination of sisterhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally melodramatic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexual content, adult themes and an animal dissection.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play, also written by Dante.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Suicide Squad

Tomboy


What determines sexual identity?

What determines sexual identity?

(2009) Drama (Rocket/Dada) Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy, Rayan Bouberki, Yohan Vero, Noah Vero, Cheyenne Lainé, Christel Baras, Valérie Roucher. Directed by Céline Sciamma

Sexuality is a complicated thing, particularly now. Our gender identification itself isn’t always what we’re born with; what really determines who we are sexually is what we feel inside.

Laure (Héran) is the older daughter in a young family that moves into an idyllic French suburb one summer. Her younger sister Jeanne (Lévana) adores her; her father (Demy) is kind and loving, her mother (Cattani) expecting a baby in the fall. It’s a wonderful family environment, the kind we all wish we had and all admire.

Laure wears her hair cropped short and could be taken for a boy. In fact, when one of the neighborhood girls, Lisa (Disson) sees Laure, she does just that. Laure plays along, introducing herself as Mikael (or Mickäel as it is spelled in the credits, although not in the subtitles). At first, it’s mainly so she can play with the boys who seem to be having the most fun.

As the summer wears on, Laure’s deception grows deeper and Lisa and her begin to get closer. Lisa kisses her one afternoon and that just seems to intrigue Laure. She takes great pains to conceal her secret, creating a fake penis to put into her swimsuit to make it appear like she has one. When Jeanne discovers what Laure is up to, she kind of likes the idea of having a big brother to protect her. However, school is approaching and Laure won’t be able to keep her secret forever. But is the truth that Laure is not playing a boy but is one inside?

This is a deceptively simple film that Sciamma wisely leaves very open to interpretation. Some critics and viewers immediately describe Laure as transgender or lesbian, but she just as easily could be experimenting. The thing is, we don’t know for sure because Sciamma deliberately keeps Laure’s thoughts to herself. The point is, it is for Laure to determine her sexual identity, certainly not for us as critics and even not for the viewers, although you will simply because that is our nature to assign roles to people.

Héran is an amazing find as an actress. She’s not so much androgynous as she is a blank canvas and everyone who sees her projects their own interpretation onto that canvas. When she wears a dress, she looks very feminine. When she’s in a wife beater and shorts, she looks very masculine. And for a young actress, she shows an amazing willingness to take chances. She’s the center of the movie and everyone reacts to her; she provides a fine means of delivering emotions and thoughts.

The loving family atmosphere might seem a little bit unrealistic to some; there seems to be absolutely no disharmony early on in the film. We do get an intimate look at the family, not just in a sexual sense (although it is never overtly said, it is clear that husband and wife are very affectionate with each other physically) but just in private moments with one another. We see the family dynamic at work and working well and there’s some comfort in that.

The pacing is slow, like an ideal childhood summer day. Some might find it too slow but that’s part of the movie’s charm; it takes its time to arrive at where it’s going and when it gets there, you get to decide where you are. That’s the genius of European filmmakers is that they don’t feel obliged to spell everything out to their audience; they take it for granted in fact that they’re intelligent enough to fill in their own blanks.

This movie doesn’t take any easy shortcuts; it merely presents the events and lets the audience make the decision as to what they are seeing. Is Laure a transgender? Could be. Is she a lesbian? Could be, too. Is she simply trying to fit into a new neighborhood and got caught in a lie? Also could be. What the movie does is force us to examine our ideas of sexual identity and essentially, our rights to form our own conclusions about who we are sexually. That in itself is a powerful message that is all too rarely delivered in our judgmental society.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performance by Héran. A compelling slice of life that examines sexual identity in a positive way.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The very slow pace may put off American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mild violence and language as well as adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project came together extraordinarily fast; the script was completed in April 2010, Héran cast less than a month later, and the film was shot in 20 days in August.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $3.3M on a $1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go, Hulu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Danish Girl
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Mustang

Your Sister’s Sister


Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

Mark Duplass finds the horizon to be a bit murky.

(2012) Dramedy (IFC) Emily Blunt, Mark Duplass, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mike Birbiglia, Kimberly Chin, Mike Harring, Kathryn Lebo, Jennifer Maas, Jeanette Maus, Jason Dodson, Dori Hana-Scherer, Steve Snoey, Pete Erickson, Evan Mosher, Seth Warren. Directed by Lynn Shelton

Florida Film Festival 2012

 

A relationship between two people is complicated enough. Add a third wheel and things get really crazy. When there’s also a fourth person in the mix (who happens to be dead) well, then, we’re talking crazy here.

Jack (Duplass) is mourning his brother Tom (Harring) who has been dead a year. Jack seems permanently stuck in the anger phase of grieving; at a party celebrating his brother, Jack seems intent on alienating everyone by explaining what a dick his brother was and that just because he’s gone doesn’t earn him a candidacy for sainthood.

His best friend Iris (Blunt) wisely takes him aside and tells him he needs to take off and put in some me time to work through his feelings. She suggests her family’s vacation cottage on an island in Puget Sound (did I mention this takes place in Seattle?) as the perfect place to sit around with no distractions, contemplate one’s navel and maybe do a little psyche repair work so that he can rejoin the human race. Realizing that she’s right, Jack agrees.

He bikes over to the ferry that runs to the island and quickly realize that he’s a little too old for this. It’s dark by the time he arrives at the cottage and he quickly realizes that the house isn’t vacant. There’s a naked woman in the shower. She turns out to be Hannah (DeWitt), Iris’ lesbian sister but he doesn’t know that and she doesn’t realize that her sister had invited Jack up so she clocks him with an oar.

Eventually the confusion is resolved and the two, with Iris in common, sit around and talk circles around why they’ve come to the island for the solitude – Jack’s grief and Hannah’s own as her longtime relationship (seven years) has ended. Talking turns to tequila, as it often will and tequila turns to sex – as it often will.

Iris arrives the next morning unexpectedly and Jack and Hannah scramble to hide the evidence of their indiscretion. You wonder why seeing as Iris isn’t Jack’s girlfriend – if anything, she had a relationship once upon a time with his brother. But as the three of them hang out and things get awkward we begin to see that the dynamics between the three people aren’t what they thought they were.

This is refreshingly a movie for adults. While the synopsis sounds a bit like a typical Hollywood romantic comedy, this is far from one. Shelton, who has been gathering a reputation as a fine writer/director on the indie circuit (her Humpday was one of the best-reviewed films of recent years) has written these as flawed individuals – as are we all – who do dumb things without really understanding why we’re doing them (and sometimes knowing full well why but powerless to stop the dumbness), even though they’re all basically decent people.

Duplass, a highly-regarded filmmaker in his own right, is developing into a fine cinematic Everyman. He isn’t buff, he isn’t tone and he isn’t always right. He’s just a guy, struggling with his own issues and those that come brightly packaged with being a guy in the second decade of the 21st century. You’ll probably recognize him as someone in your own life – a brother, a boyfriend, an ex, a son or a co-worker. He’s passive almost to the point of inertness, wallowing in an endless cycle of grief that he can’t seem to find a way out of. Most of the things that happen when he’s sober (other than the sex with Hannah thing that is largely his flirtatious suggestion) are at someone else’s impetus and he seems incapable of making decisions for himself until the movie’s end (more on that later). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – a lot of people are like that – but it can be infuriating to watch in a movie.

Blunt and DeWitt are both beautiful and smart actresses. There’s even a superficial resemblance and if you can get past the difference in accents (Blunt is British and doesn’t even attempt to hide it with a faux Yankee accent), they could well be sisters. When Hannah’s betrayal becomes apparent, it drives a wedge between them as you’d expect that it would but the way that they reconcile is also how you’d expect sisters to pull together.

What really hurts this movie is the ending. Not the very final scene, which actually is pretty cool  but the way things get resolved. It’s so Hollywood and doesn’t really resonate as the way real people act which is quite jarring when you’ve been admiring throughout the film that these characters are acting exactly like how real people act. Having seen this on Blu-Ray, I was moved to turn off the movie before said final scene and take a walk outside the house to cool off. I felt a bit betrayed to be honest which if intentional worked brilliantly. However I suspect it wasn’t; it was just a means of moving the film from point A to point B (or more like from point W to point X) and smacked of lazy writing, which I’m not accustomed to from Shelton.

Still other than that this is a standout film. Terrific acting, realistic situations, reactions and characters and a beautiful environment to put them in. While I was bothered by the movie’s resolution, I still believe in Shelton as a talented filmmaker who has plenty of wonderful cinematic moments left in her and hopefully, her best work still remains ahead of her. This one isn’t half bad though.

WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances. Emotionally powerful in all the right places.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Duplass’ character is too passive for my tastes. The ending is an abrupt stumble at the finish line.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality, some adult situations and a bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rachel Weisz was originally cast as Hannah but when the shooting schedule for the movie was pushed out, Weisz had to drop out of the film due to a scheduling conflict with her film The Deep Blue Sea.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.6M on a $125,000 production budget; the movie was a modest success.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Five-Year Engagement

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Coverage of the 2013 Florida Film Festival Begins!!