Friday, February 25, 2022

Displaced Women: Three films by Antonio Pietrangeli


Add Antonio Pietrangeli's name to the long list of Italian directors of the 1950s and 60s who should be a lot more famous. In a career cut short by his accidental death in 1969, he made only ten films, three of which could be considered classics of Italian cinema. Like so many of his peers, Pietrangeli was fascinated with the swift and shocking changes taking place in Italy during this era. The economy was red hot and creating a vibrant consumer culture, the influence of the Church was on the wane, and women were no longer tied inextricably to hearth, home or, most strikingly, to one man. 

Pietrangeli's focus was on the changing role of women in this new Italy, caught between traditional Italian sexism and the more liberal attitudes that were sweeping the western world. In three of his best films, the female characters (women were almost always the protagonists in his films) find themselves adrift in a changed Italy, uninterested in traditional roles, but at the same time unable to find a secure foothold in a society with one foot in the traditional past and one in the liberal present.

In Adua and her Friends (1960), four prostitutes are left with an uncertain future after a new national law bans brothels. Adua (Simone Signoret), and three of her former co-workers open a restaurant in a rundown house in the country. Their plan is to serve food downstairs and turn tricks upstairs (this was actually what some prostitutes turned to). Instead of the restaurant serving as cover for their sex work, it immediately becomes a success on its own and the women don't have to work upstairs. Their respite from serving men in bed is only temporary. Two of them are betrayed or abandoned by their new boyfriends because of their former careers, and their landlord extorts them once he realizes how successful they are. They film ends with Adua now a lowly street prostitute being rejected by clients because she's too old. 

The Girl from Parma (1963) is about Dora, an orphaned young woman who's been raised by an elderly

female relative. Although she maintains a prim facade in her small hometown, Dora wants to see the wider world, especially the men in it. She has a brief affair with a seminarian and then leaves for the bright lights of Parma to live with her aunt. She soon becomes the object of desire for a succession of men, none of whom she really has any deep affection for. Dora finally ends up in Rome with Nino, a feckless and luckless commercial photographer who has big ideas but small skills. In many ways he's Dora's male equivalent, and she's the only guy she really seems to like. She finally agrees to marry a straitlaced policeman who's both frightened by and drawn to her easygoing sexuality, but dumps him with carefree abandon. She looks up Nino again, but he's surrendered to middle-class respectability by partnering with a woman who owns a small cafeteria. Dora leaves Nino with a look of contempt, sits down at an outdoor cafe, and with a smile on her face looks forward to her next adventure. Roll credits.

Two years later, Pietrangeli made I Knew Her Well (1965), which stands as a darker take on the themes in The Girl from Parma, which is mostly a comedy. Once again, his subject is a rootless young woman who's fled a dull life in the sticks. The woman is Adriana and she dreams of a career as an actress. In today's terms she'd probably be trying to become an Instagram or YouTube personality. She has no real talent, just a burning desire to not be a nobody. A brief glimpse of her childhood home, a shack in the middle of a dusty plain, tells us why she's set out on her chosen path. Adriana bounces around the lower depths of Rome's entertainment industry, getting small acting jobs, but making most of her money as an escort. Unlike Adriana, she isn't content to go with the flow, and when she recognizes that the future holds nothing better for her, she kills herself.

In all three of these films the female protagonists are adrift in a rapidly evolving society that seemingly offers new opportunities for women, but is still riddled with patriarchal and sexist attitudes. In Adua, as soon as the women are making real money from labour that's traditionally been done for free in the home, men move in to exploit them. They can sell their bodies, but not their cooking. In the other two films, the protagonists are only valued as eye candy and sex objects. In Girl Dora adapts to this situation and rides the wave, as it were. She has no goal in life, and seems to find her aimlessness pleasurable. Adriana, on the other hand, has her spirit eroded away by the many reverses she suffers, all of them coming from a male-dominated industry that treats her as a product.

In Pietrangeli's films, women are the main victims and beneficiaries of Italy's new economic and social order. They're given a taste of new freedoms, but almost all of these opportunities are booby-trapped by men. And the women don't quite know how to navigate this new terrain. It's interesting that the women in Adua, all of whom have lived outside the mainstream their entire adult lives, are fully realized characters. Dora and Adriana's inner lives are largely mysteries to us, which seems like a reflection of the mystery they have to face in finding a place for themselves in Italy. The male characters are unsympathetic to a man. The best of them can be charming, but inevitably they turn out to be craven, weak, hypocrites, or fools. The worst are exploiters and predators. 

Inasmuch as any male director or screenwriter of that time and place could be described as a feminist, Pietrangeli qualifies as one. Three of his other films, It Happened in Rome, The Magnificent Cuckold, and The Visit all feature women enjoying or experiencing new freedoms. Rome is a frothy rom-com about three female tourists visiting a picture postcard Italy, Cuckold is a farce about an unfaithful husband who ends up being betrayed through his own jealousy, and Visit is a partly comic study of a courting couple who can't quite figure out the rules of romance in the new Italy. All of these films feature good to great cinematography and production design, and, given their era, they seem far, far ahead of their time.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Film Review: Last Night in Soho (2021)


Sad to say, but it appears that Edgar Wright, director/writer of Last Night in Soho, is following Quentin Tarantino's career arc. Both started fast but are fading in the stretch, undone by a tedious and self-indulgent obsession with glorifying B-movie tropes and crafting calorie-free cinematic set-pieces. Wright's last film, Baby Driver, was built around the idea of, hey, wouldn't it be cool if car chases were synchronized to pop songs? Music videos, in other words. Attached to this unoriginal idea were a boatload of heist movie cliches, a much-hyped, but unimaginative, continuous take, and a romantic relationship that was only plausible if you accepted the idea that the female half of the romance was dumber than a bag of hammers.

Soho is even poorer, and with even less attention paid to the plot. Twentysomething Eloise comes to London to attend fashion school, and to be scorned and humiliated by a small group of fellow female students who seem to have been drafted in from a TV series about an especially bitchy American high school. Eloise has a West Country accent that Thomas Hardy would find too much, and is such a country mouse it's a surprise that she doesn't live behind a skirting board. She can't take the hazing at the school residence so she moves into the top room of a tall, gloomy house in Soho. Faster than you can say "Swinging Sixties," Eloise is suffering from hallucinations/visions/dreams/hauntings (you choose, clearly Wright can't make up his mind) every time she falls asleep. During these night terrors Eloise journeys back to 60s Soho and follows, literally, an aspiring singer named Sandie who wants to be the next Cilla Black, which isn't overly ambitious; it's rather like an American singer wanting to be the next Connie Stevens. Sandie soon falls into the clutches of a promoter/pimp well-played by Matt Smith, who soon has her turning tricks rather than singing. And it all ends in murder most bloody!

The plot, like Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown efforts. is a spindly coatrack on which to hang big, busy set-pieces. The camera swirls endlessly around lavishly-realized Soho nightclubs, CGI puts Eloise in the middle of the action like a wide-eyed ghost, and the period clothing and detail is so shiny and bright it feels like it's just arrived from a mid-century modern future. The film is really nothing more than these incessant flashbacks, each of which reveals a morsel of plot leading to a final twist that's a Grand Guignol of nonsense. Thomasin McKenzie plays Eloise, and it's a role that only asks her to scream, run, scream again, do some more running, and then look doe-eyed and put-upon. Her screaming and running are adequate. Sixties icons Terence Stamp, Diana Rigg and Rita Tushingham make cameo appearances and cash a paycheque. And poor Michael Ajao is stuck with playing John, Eloise's erstwhile boyfriend, a character so underwritten he might as well be a cardboard cutout with attached speech bubbles.

Wright's best films, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End, were parodies of well-worn genre pictures, but they gave him a solid structure to follow. As weak as Baby Driver was, it at least had a conventionally twisty heist plot to surround the vanity car chases. Soho is badly in need of a genre to give Wright navigation points. It's an awkward mix of the supernatural, psychological horror, and giallo, but none of it is convincing, and, bizarrely, the film's finale could have been lifted from a romance on the Hallmark Channel. At least Wright hasn't stooped as low as Tarantino and given himself a role. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Film Review: The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) and The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973)

The giallo genre is the gift that keeps on giving. Just when I thought I'd seen all the famous ones, and a lot of the obscure ones, along comes The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Corruption of Chris Miller. The former is a sort of mash-up of Roman Holiday and a Hitchcock thriller, and the latter is a riff on Polanski's Repulsion. And both bear one of the hallmarks of gialli; they're heavily influenced by more famous films and directors. To be even more specific, the entire giallo genre probably doesn't exist if Psycho and Diabolique hadn't come before. In the 1960s and early 70s, Italy was the counterfeit designer label purveyor of the film world, churning out ersatz westerns, spy films, and toga (called peplum in Italy) epics, all of them low budget versions of costlier, starrier, made in Hollywood (mostly) films. But here's what's so remarkable and enjoyable about these Italian B-movies, especially the gialli: cinematically speaking, they were frequently better than their major league progenitors. For proof, look no further than Vittorio Storaro, the 3-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, who also shot two notable gialli, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Fifth Cord. 

The Girl Who Knew Too Much and The Corruption of Chris Miller are both good examples of gialli that look better than they have to. Girl is directed by Mario Bava, who is usually credited with kick-starting the genre with this film and Blood and Black Lace (1964). Bava did amazing things visually on low budgets, and this is a fine example. Shooting in black and white, he uses Roman locations like the Spanish Steps to striking effect, and one sequence set in an empty apartment lit by bright, bare lightbulbs is stunning. Corruption is in colour and pays close attention to wardrobe and interior design. It was shot by Juan Gelpi who gives the film a glossy look that might be a homage to the Hollywood melodramas of Douglas Sirk, which fits, roughly, the subject of the film. Gelpi also did fine work on They Came to Rob Las Vegas, a heist film shot in Nevada, California and Spain. The director of Corruption was Juan Antonio Bardem, who, it turns out, was Javier Bardem's uncle.                                                                                                                      

As good as both films look, they suffer from faults common to gialli. The plots are twisted and ambitious, but ultimately don't hang together. Girl starts with a bang with the eponymous heroine, an American tourist, encountering a drug smuggler on her flight to Rome, followed in very short order by witnessing her aunt's death, meeting a hunky doctor, becoming the victim of a mugging, and then witnessing a murder that may have happened ten years previously. It doesn't really add up in the end, but it's fun to go along for the ride and the tone is more whimsical than murderous. Corruption revolves around a rich woman, Ruth, who lives in a big house with her step-daughter. The man of the house ran out on them some years ago, and now his abandoned wife has some vague plan to corrupt his daughter, Chris, in revenge. This side of story is rather confused, especially since Ruth seems to have the hots for Chris. A handsome drifter turns up and Ruth hires him to be a handyman, and he takes an interest in both women. Chris, however, is terrified of sex. People start getting murdered in the area, suspicion falls on Barney the drifter, and the film ends with the most spectacular knife attack scene since Psycho. And, like many gialli, the acting is a mix of dodgy and competent. 

So why did Italian B-movies look so much better than their American equivalents? The answer, I'd theorize, comes from the two countries contrasting experiences with television production. In Italy, television only began in 1954 and there was only one channel, RAI, the state broadcaster. A second channel was added in the 60s. Variety shows dominated the limited programming time available, and this meant that TV was not a deep or varied source of talent for film production. In the U.S., TV employed a relative army behind the camera, and these people, with their training in the style and look of TV, were the ones who often made the B-movies. Italian films, then, were largely made by people who drew their influences and experience from films, not the TV industry. The Italian film industry remained vibrant and prolific until more TV channels were allowed on-air in the late 70s and 80s, after which the domestic box office for Italian films cratered. Like I said, it's a theory.