Thursday, December 09, 2004

Two Italian cinema classics revisited

My attitude to movies has been a complex one. When I was a kid television was at first nonexistent and then trivial and fledgling. Everyone went to the movies two or three times a week. There were special prices for children and I reveled in cartoons. Later, as my culture-vulture tendencies increased, I came to look down on current Hollywood films as major supports for the mindless “togetherism,” conformity, and consumerism I perceived as blighting America. I did have a love for the early silents—D.W. Griffith, Chaplin, and above all the German expressionist cinema. Coming at the end of that tradition was “The Blue Angel,” with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, a masterpiece whose full range I will attempt to explore on another occasion.

Only in the 1960s did I become engaged with contemporary films, in the work of Antonioni, Bergman, and Fellini. I was less keen on Godard.

Today I carefully ration my visits to current films. Too many of them reflect the “car-crash” aesthetic—lots of violence, whirling camera work, and overly loud music. The principal alternative is only slightly less palatable, the sentimental fare sometimes termed "chick flics." Instead of these things, I go back to the classics.

As part of a recent retrospective of Italian films, I saw two classics of the sixties, Antonioni’s "La Notte" (The Night) and Bertolucci’s "Before the Revolution."

"La Notte" has been saddled with the reputation of being about alienation and noncommunication. Citing these issues (which were indeed preoccupations of the era) fails to do the film justice. In reality the self-disciplined upper-middle-class lifestyle of the characters reflects a utopian vision, a world of the near future (as seen from 1961) that will blend European sophistication with American efficiency. Of course this outlook emerged in the years before Watts, May 1968, the Brigate Rosse, and do on. The sleek modern architecture of Milan (or those parts we are shown) sets the mood for a Le Corbusier city of cleanliness, propriety, and efficiency.

The chic La Notte folk are always well dressed and their hair is impeccably groomed. No one is overweight or sloppy in appearance. Voices must not be raised; outright arguments must be shunned. It is better to take evasive action, as the dashing intellectual Pontano (Marcello Mastroianni) does, than engage in any direct confrontation. He does not even refuse the tycoon Gherardini’s job offer, though it is repugnant to him. A flat turn down would be, well, so gauche. Even the servants adhere to the code of respectability and discretion. Although liquor is available, no one gets drunk. At first the disappearance of Pontano’s wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) for the afternoon seems an attempt to get free (she even encounters the offer of a maison de passe!), but it turns out not to be. Instead, she agrees to meet her social obligations by attending the evening soiree at the Gherardini’s lavish villa.

In short this is a world in which those who wish to get ahead must conform. If so, the rewards are there, including the last one--a "sweet death" in an ultramodern hospital (the destiny of Pontano’s ailing mentor Tommaso).

A few chinks afford a vision into another world. A nymphomaniac being treated in the hospital lures Pontano into a brief embrace. Two fighting toughs duke it out in the rundown suburb of Sesto. A nightclub features two exotic dancers, African Americans whose “daring” clinches are carefully calculated. We learn of the rich family’s junket to America to witness a hurricane (off screen). At the soiree the viewer encounters a middle-aged woman, Resy, who yields to a crying jag. Everyone ignores the unfortunate Resy (apparently a discarded mistress of the tycoon), except for the interlocutor who seeks to comfort her on the settee at the closing soiree. All these things are eruptions of a world of irrationality and primitivism that must be banished.

That these eruptions represent a primitive world that once was more pervasive, but is now ready to be discarded is shown by Lidia’s revelation that she and her husband once lived in the dilapidated suburb of Sesto. That was then—now is now.

With its almost Corbusian vision of a world of progress, this film contrasts with a product of the young Turk of the era, Bernardo Bertolucci. His "Before the Revolution" (1964) deals prophetically with sexual anomaly (the hero has an affair with his aunt) and the prospect of political upheaval. The prophecies did not take long to work out. Four years later came the uprisings in France and in US universities. The gay rebellion occurred at Stonewall a year later.

In the long run, though, the vision of "La Notte" seems the more enduring one--as we struggle to cope with cell-phones, iPods, DVDs, and who knows what is coming next.