Videophiled: ‘Adua and Her Friends’

Adua
Raro

Adua and Her Friends (Raro / Kino Lorber, Blu-ray) are prostitutes from a Rome brothel attempting to take charge of their own lives after their place is shut down in the aftermath of Italy’s Merlin Law, which ended legalized prostitution in 1958 (the film was released in 1960). Adua (played by Simone Signoret), a veteran of the life, has a plan to open a restaurant as a front for their own little brothel in the rooms upstairs and her friends—cynical and hot-headed Marilina (Emmanuelle Riva), naïve and trusting Lolita (Sandra Milo), and practical Milly (Gina Rovere)—pitch in for the purchase and start-up and fake their way through running a real business. Adua may be a dreamer but she has a lot invested in this project. She’s the oldest of the four and, as anyone familiar with the films of Mizoguchi will attest, life on the streets isn’t forgiving of age. But what really charges up the film is the feeling of accomplishment and ownership as they work their way through each problem and, almost without noticing, create a successful business out of the restaurant.

For all the stumbles along the way, director Antonio Pietrangeli and his screenwriting partners (which includes future director Ettore Scola and longtime Fellini collaborator Tullio Pinelli) don’t play the disasters for laughs but rather a mix of warm character piece and spiky social commentary. It’s not simply that their pasts follow them around but that the Merlin Law has actually made things worse for women, whether they remain in the life (without any legal protections) or attempt to transition into another career. Palms need to be greased and officials cut in on the business; they haven’t even started up and they’re already paying off a pimp. And no, it’s not Marcello Mastroianni’s Piero, a charming hustler who hawks cars and woos Adua, who enjoys engaging in a romance that she gets to define for a change. He’s a pleasant distraction and something of an ally, but he’s better at looking out for himself.

Simone Signoret and Sandra Milo
Simone Signoret and Sandra Milo

 

Pietrangeli has great empathy for women (based on the evidence of this film and his 1964 La Visita) and his story frames the sexual double standards and cultural chauvinism of their lives. Those are the kinds of forces that good intentions and elbow grease can’t always overcome. But between the arguments and setbacks, Pietrangeli offers a portrait of life lived in hard times and buoyed by friendship and hope for a better life. When Marilina’s young son moves in (the girls didn’t even know she was a mother), they coalesce in a kind of family. The scene of the boy’s baptism, with the women lined up like adoring aunts, is a lovely and touching moment. There are no happy ending fantasies here but their moments of triumph, solidarity, and defiance are oases in a life that otherwise has it out for their dreams of self-definition.

Raro first released the film on DVD in 2011. This marks the Blu-ray debut and it looks very good, clean and sharp with lots of detail, and sounds great. Its score is informed by fifties cool jazz (and I’m a sucker for any soundtrack featuring the vibes) and dotted with pop songs (including a great use of Santo and Johnny’s instrumental “Sleepwalk”). It features an introduction by Italian film historian Maurizio Poro, the short film Girandola 1910, a segment from the 1954 anthology comedy Amori de mezzo secolo directed by Pietrangeli, and a booklet with essays, excerpts essays and reviews, and filmographies.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

Videophiled: Liliana Cavani’s ‘The Skin’

Skin
Cohen

The Skin (aka La Pelle, Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD), directed by Liliana Cavani in 1981 from the novel by Curzio Malaparte, is ostensibly a war drama, set during the American liberation of Sicily from the Fascists, but it’s really about the politics and economics of occupation. As the Allied forces (led by Burt Lancaster’s General Mark Clark) roll in, the Americans are as busy with public relations opportunities (Clark wants his Fifth Battalion to get the glory for the liberation) as with local issues, for which they defer to Curzio Malaparte (Marcello Mastroianni), an aristocrat and former Fascist who switched allegiances and fought the Fascists in Spain.

There’s not a lot of grace in Cavani’s direction—she seems occupied simply corralling such an enormous international production—but then it’s not a graceful subject. This isn’t about war, it’s about civilians caught between invading powers and soldiers in their downtime, and Cavani enjoys the chaos of this world in upheaval without letting us lose our way through. She takes us to the streets and apartment houses where the flesh trade cashes in on the new occupying army and to the heart of the Sicilian mafia, which negotiate a ransom for German POWs they’ve kidnapped (they want to get paid by the kilogram and have been stuffing them with pasta to fatten them up). True to form, the gangsters treat American military like just another syndicate.

Mastroianni, a master at playing jaded characters, brings compassion and understanding to Malaparte. He’s a realist who knows how to grease the wheels with the moneyed families (Claudia Cardinale as a vacant princess), the local leaders, and the mob, but he also knows what war does to civilians just trying survive a world where they are constantly occupied, starved, and bombed out of their livelihood, making money and scrounging food any way they can. He’s no longer shocked at what people do to survive and (in contrast to the American officer, many of them lost in their own double standards) doesn’t judge them, but he is tipped over into anger by cruelty and hypocrisy.

Alexandra King and Marcello Mastroianni

Ken Marshall is bland as the American officer who stands in for American morality, a seemingly compassionate guy who is shocked – Shocked! – at what he considers immoral behavior from a girl he loves only as long as she’s an innocent virgin in need of rescue, and Alexandra King cuts a striking figure as a Senator’s wife on her own PR mission, a sleek, headstrong redhead in the sea of Mediterranean faces and dark locks. These are not A-list American performers and it shows. Their characters are more bullet points than personalities and far less interesting than the Italians hustling through almost every scene, everyone looking for an angle before the army moves on. You can feel her admiration for the ingenuity and energy of these survivors, like the garment workers who create an industry making fair-haired merkins for Sicilian hookers to pass as blondes for the American soldiers.

In Italian with English subtitles, with commentary by film critics Wade Major and Andy Klein and four featurettes with interviews with director Liliana Cavani and production designer Dante Ferretti), plus a booklet with cast and credits.

More releases on Blu-ray and DVD at Cinephiled

‘The 10th Victim’: Give the People What They Want

Before The Hunger Games, before Battle Royale, before The Running Man, there was Elio Petri’s The 10th Victim. Based on Robert Sheckley‘s short story “The Seventh Victim” (Petri upped the body count), this 1965 feature is set in a near future of unlikely fashions and pop-art stylings, where comic books are the literature of the day and murder games have become the dominant form of media entertainment. The government-sponsored “The Big Hunt” is the original Survivor as a series of one-on-one bouts: “a real chase, a real victim and a real killing,” promises the cheery TV host as he outlines the rules for the home viewing audience.

Ursula Andress in 'The Tenth Victim'

It’s ostensibly “a safety valve for humanity” but Petri’s wry perspective reveals the activity as less primal scream than the logical evolution of today’s reality TV fad. The hunter is given a target and the victim has to be on guard to pick out a potential assassin from the crowd. These games don’t play out in a controlled arena but in the streets and sometime in the nightclubs of the real world, where the occasional civilian becomes collateral damage. And unlike the usual dystopian portraits of kill-or-be-killed games, which invariably play out as a form of punishment and social control by an oppressive regime, this game is completely voluntary. No surprise, there’s no shortage of competitors. The lure of celebrity, prize winnings and endorsement deals apparently trumps survival instinct. Or maybe it’s just a matter of a population so narcotized into numbness that they jump at anything that can offer them a sensation outside of their consumer bubble.

Continue reading at Keyframe

DVD/Blu-ray: Mario Monicelli’s ‘The Organizer’

Mario Monicelli, one of the most prolific and popular directors of post-war Italian cinema, never earned a reputation in the U.S. like his compadre, Federico Fellini, despite the international success of numerous films, from Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958) to A Very Petit Bourgeois (1977). Perhaps it’s because his preferred genre was comedy, notably the commedia all’italiana, a mix of social satire, clownish comedy, streetwise attitude, and earthy compassion, that he helped pioneer. But satire doesn’t always export outside of its culture and comedy isn’t often granted the same respect as “serious” drama and his modest, gentle visual style never attracted the attention of his flamboyant countrymen.

The Organizer (1963) brings the sensibility of commedia all’italiana to social drama. The story of a labor strike among the socially tight but politically disorganized community to textile workers in a mill outside of Turin in the late 1800s, this is not a political statement nor a social protest. It is lively, funny, chaotic, appreciative of the foibles and failures of the frustrated collective, if you can call them that. Not really a union by any definition, the workers meet after another 14 hour day in which one of their own was maimed by a machine to brainstorm a response. Half of them can neither read nor write and they have all resigned themselves to conditions that demand everything and still keep them in poverty. Their idea of a protest is simply to sound the whistle and walk out an hour early, and they can’t even execute that plan, much to the ire of Pautasso (Folco Lulli), the hot-tempered veteran who volunteers to blow the shift whistle and thus make himself the most visible member of the nascent protesters.

Enter Professor Singaglia (Marcello Mastroianni), a threadbare intellectual riding the rails out of a previous scrape to hide out in this town. The arguments in the schoolhouse rouse him from his sleep in the storeroom and, in the manner of a gently encouraging teacher, builds up their confidence and spurs them on to greater (if still modest) goals, along with a little practical advice in preparing for a long strike. He’s no con man, but his oratory passions sweep them up before they really know what they’re in for. While they lack any faith in their power to effect change, he believes in the inevitability of labor’s collective power. Just maybe not this time around.

Continue reading at Turner Classic Movies

Classic: Marcello Mastroianni is ‘The Organizer’

The Organizer (Criterion), a portrait of a labor walkout in a textile mill in late 19th Century Turin, is both a provocative portrait of social action and a rich, compassionate story of a community struggling to hold together to get the smallest of concessions from an employer that demands 14-hour days for a wage that keeps them all in poverty. The story of a labor strike among the socially tight but politically disorganized community to textile workers in a mill outside of Turin in the late 1800s, this is not a political statement nor a social protest. It is lively, funny, chaotic, appreciative of the foibles and failures of the frustrated collective that hasn’t any faith in their power to effect change.

Marcello Mastroianni plays against type as a threadbare intellectual and labor activist whose idealism keeps running into reality. Warm, modest, passionate in his conviction and sincere in his actions, the Professor is an idealist with a practical side, whether he’s rousing a deflated collective to hold out or scrounging for a meal. Even under a scraggly, unwashed beard and patchy clothes, he has an easy dignity and the comportment of a gentleman.

But while Mastroianni is the lead, he’s also an outside to the rich community that director Mario Monicelli creates through the dynamic collection of characters and the density of physical detail, from the chilly, overcrowded homes (morning begins by chipping a layer of ice form the pitcher holding their washing water) to the thrum of rows upon rows of clattering looms in a suffocating, steam-powered factory. The seriousness of the drama is buoyed by wonderful comic streak running underneath, not as satire but as simply human comedy in a tough world. It only makes the tragic dimensions more resonant, right down to the resignation of the final image, while still holding out some hope for next time.

On Blu-ray and DVD, with a video introduction by director Mario Monicelli recorded in 2006, and a fold-out booklet with an essay by J. Hoberman.

More Classics and Catalog releases at Videodrone

Vittorio de Sica, Marcello Mastroianni and “Sophia Loren Award Collection”

Sophia Loren Award Collection (Kino Lorber) is branded with the name and likeness of the Italian sex symbol turned iconic actress, but in fact it’s more properly a celebration of a collaboration between three influential Italian superstars: Loren, Marcello Mastroianni and director Vittoria de Sica. The three features they made together, plus a documentary on De Sica, are released on DVD and Blu-ray this week.

The DVD box set

Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (Kino Lorber), their first collaboration and winner of the Academy Award Best Foreign Language Film in 1964 (one of the lightest films to ever take home that honor) is a comic trilogy featuring Loren and Mastroianni in each story. “Adelina” is the broadest of the bunch, a loud farce with Loren as a black market cigarette-selling mother who manages to stay out of prison by remaining eternally pregnant, which wears out unemployed husband Mastroianni (relegated to babysitting the enormous brood) so much that he finally is unable to perform. It has a pleasant sense of community but is overlong and slight. “Anna,” about an affair between a bored industrialist’s wife and a handsome journalist, is a sharp and subtle look at class hypocrisy and reflexive materialism. It’s little more than a vignette, but its brief glimpse into their lives has more resonance than either of the framing films. The film’s reputation comes largely from Loren’s striptease in “Mara,” where she plays a high-class prostitute who gets involved with a crisis of faith by the divinity student next door, much to the frustration of her devoted client Mastroianni. The notorious striptease was parodied by Robert Altman in “Ready to Wear” with Loren and Mastroianni reprising their original roles.

More on Marriage Italian Style, Sunflower, the 2009 documentary Vittorio D. and Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 Shoeshine.

Continue reading at MSN Videodrone

DVDs for 09/28/10 – The Killer, The Law and Mr. Lawrence

The blockbuster releases of the week are featured at MSN—I review Iron Man 2 (Paramount) and leave Get Him to the Greek (Universal) to my colleague Mary Pols—and the release of the week, Criterion’s superb new edition of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line on DVD and Blu-ray, is featured on my blog here. Here are the rest of the releases…

The Killer Inside Him takes a break

Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me (IFC) is actually the second adaptation of Jim Thompson’s violent pulp novel about a blankly pleasant and reflexively polite lawman, Lou Ford (Casey Affleck), taking his place in his small Texas hometown. He also happens to be a sociopath taking his revenge on a few choice community leaders and using bystanders as bait. Winterbottom directs with a chilling calm even as the violence erupts, and he doesn’t flinch from showing the brutality of the beatings he unleashes with cold fury and cool focus. I admire his nerve—the violence, presented in almost clinical detail, is neither exploitative nor titillating—but the film saves the most brutal scenes for violence perpetrated against beautiful young women. He batters the head of Jessica Alba (whose dazed look of betrayal is heartbreaking) into a bloody pulp and kicks in the ribs of another with the seething anger of a man putting the blame on her with every blow and Winterbottom presents both with unflinching focus. It’s the misogynist edge of a sociopath and it sparked many debates over the ethics showing violence onscreen, and it’s so visceral and unpleasant that some audiences will simply want to steer clear of the whole film.

Continue reading “DVDs for 09/28/10 – The Killer, The Law and Mr. Lawrence”