Videophiled Classic: Investigations of ‘A Citizen Above Suspicion’ and ‘Generale Della Rovere’

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), Elio Petri’s blackly comic satire of politics and power in late-1060s Italy, opens with a charismatic chief of detectives (Gian Maria Volonté) murdering his mistress (Florinda Bolkan) on the day of his promotion to the political division and mucking about with the crime scene as if staging a puzzle for his successor. It’s a perverse game of power by a bored and corrupted politico who brazenly leaves clues to his own guilt at the scene as if daring the department to arrest him, and his disappointment in their response is less a matter of moral judgment than unhinged obsession. But then this whole culture is unhinged in Petri’s view, one enormous political construct designed to protect itself from all challenges (“Repression is civilization!” he shouts to a responsive crowd of government officials and gatekeepers). Petri was no stranger to social satire, but where the satire of his pre-Survivor reality game death hunt film The Tenth Victim veers toward parody and shares a winking complicity with the audience, this Investigation is more Kafka-esque in its grotesque portrait of a Fascistic culture. Subtle it isn’t, though Volonté is magnificent, a mix of hearty decadence, corrupted boredom and wily game-playing. It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Never before on disc in the U.S., Criterion presents a new 4K digital restoration partially funded by the Film Foundation and mastered with supervision by Grover Crisp. The American disc debut features two DVDs and one Blu-ray and each format includes the film and all the supplements, including two documentaries: the feature-length 2005 Elio Petri: Notes About a Filmmaker (on the life and career of the director) and the 50-minute Investigation of a Citizen Named Volonté (on actor Gian Maria Volonté). Also includes an archival interview with Petri from 1970, a 2010 interview with composer Ennio Morricone, and a new interview with film scholar Camilla Zamboni, plus trailers and a booklet with essays and notes.

Il Generale della Rovere (Raro, Blu-ray, DVD), previously released as a Criterion DVD, gets a new edition and a Blu-ray debut from Raro, which specializes Italian classics and genre rediscoveries. This 1959 drama, one of Roberto Rossellini’s last commercially-targeted pictures, is inspired by a true story and it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Vittoria De Sica stars as an Italian con man in World War II who profited in the margin between desperate Italian families and the German Gestapo who essentially policed the country. It’s a richly drawn drama of an opportunist whose conscience is reignited and De Sica’s performance is a model of understatement and ambiguity. The new edition, mastered from the 35mm negative, offers both the theatrical cut and a longer director’s cut, mastered with more clarity than the earlier Criterion edition (the added scenes are of noticeably lower clarity) and presented in a windowboxed 1.37:1 aspect ratio that presents the entire negative image but has caused some controversy (the film was released in a tradtional 1.66:1 ratio). Both Blu-ray and DVD feature a video essay by film critic Adriano Aprà and video interviews with Renzo Rossellini Jr. (mostly repeating clips from the video essay), Aprà and Aldo Strappini, who oversaw the digital transfer and restoration.

More releases at Cinephiled

DVDs for 3/31/09 – Wong Kar-wai, Rossellini, Slumdogs and the family dog

Kino remasters a pair of Wong Kar-wai’s films from the 1990s for new special editions. Fallen Angels (1995), made in the wake of his breakthrough film Chungking Express, carves out and expands on a splinter story originally written for that film. Two stories of disconnected individuals cross paths, a hit man (Leon Lai) loved the woman (Michele Reis) who arranges his contracts but never meets him (though she does clean his apartment), and a mute ex-con (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who breaks into businesses at night to play at running them who meets a volatile girl (Charlie Yeung). Wong punctuates his rather melancholy narrative with odd humor and unexpected explosions of shocking violence, all shot in Doyle’s sensuous, oversaturated colors. Wong Kar-wai’s most emotionally volatile drama Happy Together (1997) brings an edgier dimension to his work. Hong Kong heartthrobs Tony Leung and Leslie Cheung take a chance playing angry, ecstatic, frustrated, vindictive, in fact everything but happy together lovers who travel to Buenos Aires and find themselves stuck in the strange land. Rarely has a director so convincingly explored a love-hate relationship. Shot in grainy, high contrast black and white that transforms into delirious dream colors, the film achieves an extravagant, overwrought emotional quality, more real than real.

Wong Kar-wai's nocturnal world of "Fallen Angels"
Wong Kar-wai's nocturnal world of "Fallen Angels"

Fallen Angels features a new interview with director of photography Christopher Doyle and three featurettes and Happy Together includes the new Q&A featurette Wong Kar-wai at the Museum of the Moving Image in addition to the previously released documentary Buenos Aires Zero Degrees. Both are mastered from fresh HD film transfers and look quite beautiful, which leads me to the obvious question: when will Kino enter the Blu-ray market?

Criterion releases Roberto Rossellini’s 1959 drama Il Generale Della Rovere, starring Vittoria De Sica as an Italian con man in World War II who profited in the margin between desperate Italian families and the German Gestapo who essentially policed the country. It’s a richly drawn drama of an opportunist whose conscience is reignited when opportunism becomes collaboration and De Sica’s performance is a model of understatement and ambiguity.

I knew that De Sica had been a matinee idol before the war, but only because it was part of the written history. And I knew that he continued to act in front of the cameras even after making his name as a director with Shoe-shine and Bicycle Thieves and maintaining a very busy career behind the camera right up to his death in 1974; the IMDb lists over 100 screen appearances since 1945, many of them in very quite frivolous productions. It’s only recently that I started to notice just how good he is, notably in reviewing the DVD of Max Ophuls’ Earrings of Madame De… and my debut viewing of Della Rovere. He is full of confidence and charm, understated in his playing, ambiguous in his intentions. His sense of aristocratic presence is unforced, assumed rather than stated, and in Della Rovere, he slips into his con artist rap so smoothly that it takes a few scenes to realize that pretty much everything coming out of his mouth is a line of bullshit, most of it apparently ad-libbed for the situation. De Sica makes it feel at once sincere and utterly false, and gives it the spontaneity of an impetuous storyteller, the gears grinding to work every situation.

Vittorio De Sica as the man who would be Rovere
Vittorio De Sica as the man who would be "Il Generale Della Rovere"

Continue reading “DVDs for 3/31/09 – Wong Kar-wai, Rossellini, Slumdogs and the family dog”

DVDs for 1/13/09 – ‘The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV’

Louis XIV makes a spectacle of himself

In the final act of his storied career, Roberto Rossellini turned from the cinema to television and from contemporary stories to historical pieces. Criterion releases four productions from Rosselini’s cycle of historical films this week. Blaise Pascal, The Age of the Medici and Cartesius, all from the seventies, are collected in Rossellini’s History Films Trilogy –Renaissance and Enlightenment, a box set under the Eclipse imprint, Criterion’s budget-minded offshoot. (My copy arrived too late to review for this piece.) The 1966 The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV, Rossellini’s first film in this cycle, comes out as a Criterion proper release, with supplements and a booklet. Part history lesson and part political treatise, it is a strange and fascinating film with exacting attention to sets and dress and realities of the period. In the view of many critics and Rossellini scholars, it is the greatest of his history films and one the director’s masterpieces

Rossellini directs less like a drama than a pageant, with a largely non-professional cast arranged like figures in a painting from the era, right down to the formal poses and the full-shot framing. The sets, the props, the costumes are splendid and lavish but never distracting – they are part of his recreation of the world. The unemotional readings and unflustered reactions of his star, a non-actor named Jean-Marie Patte, is transformed by Rossellini into a confidence and a calculation behind the pageantry. It’s remarkably effective once he inhabits the center of the Versailles court, walking through the role without betraying an emotion, all part of the act. The dialogue serves not as revelations of character and motivation but as explanation and exposition, a series of history lessons that are startlingly clear and direct.

I review the DVD at Parallax View and in my DVD column at MSN here.

In the TV section of the column this week are a couple of British shows: Skins: Volume 1 is a raucous and exceptionally colorful British series about a group of high school teens in Bristol, England, and Saxondale: Complete Seasons 1&2 is another distinctive creation by actor/writer Steve Coogan. Skins opens with an episode that spotlights the most reckless and irresponsible behavior of these schoolkids. It’s an attention grabber, to be sure, leading off with sex, drugs, nudity (but only by the adults), bad behavior, and language that you can only hear on pay cable stateside. But as the series develops it dials down the shock value to delve farther in to the lives of the kids and their often fractured home lives and screwed-up authority figures. Bad judgment is not limited to just the kids here; they have merely made an art of it. In Saxondale, Coogan’s Tommy Saxondale is a retired rock band roadie and one-time counter-culture creature, well into middle age and trying to hold on to his ideals while getting by in suburbia. Pudgy, gray and often to be found behind the wheel of his beloved Ford Mustang Mach 1, Tommy is not a genius but every once in a while the wisdom of his years comes through.

Continue reading “DVDs for 1/13/09 – ‘The Taking Of Power By Louis XIV’”