Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Four years after his last work, Habemus Papam, Nanni Moretti returns to some of the themes he’d dealt with in his 2001 Palm D’Or winner, The Son’s Room. Only this time at the heart of the drama no longer lies the abrupt loss of a child, but the much slower and equally dramatic passing away of a mother.

Margherita (Margherita Buy) is a director shooting a film on Italy’s unemployment. She must come to terms with an eccentric foreign star (John Turturro), a divorce, an actor-turned-lover (Enrico Ianniello), a teenage daughter (Beatrice Mancini) and an elderly bedridden mother diagnosed with a terminal illness (Giulia Lazzarini).

The meta-filmic component is nothing new to Moretti’s films. A few works ago in Aprile (1998) he had brought to life the story of a director trying to shoot a film on the decay of Italy’s left, whilst grappling with the worries and dilemmas of his forthcoming parenthood. This time, however, film-making is no longer interwoven with the act of giving birth, but with a mother’s forthcoming passing away. Buy is not ready to accept her mother’s illness any more than she seems prepared to fully commit and engage with the movie she is meant to direct. In some fundamental sense, she cannot respond to art the same way she cannot respond to death.

Unlike most of Moretti’s oeuvre, in Mia Madre the 62-year-old Italian director plays a somewhat marginal stage role. Buy wears the outfit Moretti had worn in Aprile, a director struggling to make sense of a film he himself did not fully believe in, and at times seems to mimic Moretti’s own acting repertoire. And it is chiefly around the relationship between Buy and Lazzarini which the movie gravitates, with Moretti, Turturro and the promising Mancini acting as corollaries of the two women’s drama.

If Moretti takes up a minor stage role, however, his touch behind the camera and the script is what makes Mia Madre stand out as a remarkable work. It would have been all too easy to turn the story of a dying woman into a melodramatic and voyeuristic description of her last days, but Moretti does none of that. We know more about Lazzarini’s deteriorating health through her doctor’s reports than through the scenes where Buy and Moretti visit her, for what stands out in these encounters is not so much the old woman’s illness, but the fragility and incapacity of her daughter and son to come to grips with her passing away. We know she will die, eventually, but the camera never voyeuristically indulges in her forthcoming death with the sole purpose of documenting it, and treats it with a profound sense of delicacy and respect.

It is this polite and humane gaze which allows Moretti to establish a great empathy between the viewer and the story, and turns Mia Madre into a film whose energy lingers above the audience longer after the ending credits.

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rsz_1rsz_screen-shot-2015-04-13-at-100638-am-e1428934141259Someone should really take away Paulo Sorrentino’s passport. Just quietly remove it from his bedside desk, perhaps hide it under the sofa, anything to stop him from getting on a plane with it. Whenever Sorrentino seems to take flight from his native Italy, things seem to go wrong. His characters become caricatures, his witty dialogue becomes tedious and his profound ruminations merely silly.

Sorrentino wrote the main role especially for Michael Caine, but it’s difficult to see why. Caine plays Fred Ballinger, a retired composer residing in a luxury resort in rural Switzerland. Stoic and stubborn, Ballinger watches with detached amusement at the circus of well-to-do freaks that drift through the resort. He’s joined by his lifelong friend Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel), a fading but zestful movie director and his daughter Lena (Rachel Weisz), who acts as his assistant. Paul Dano plays a jaded Hollywood starlet hiding from himself and the world, and even grumposaurus musician Mark Kozelek makes an appearance.

Youth, like The Great Beauty, has simultaneously little story and too much of it. The essential thread of the film is Ballinger’s conflict over accepting an invitation from the Queen to perform one final concert. The reasons behind this reluctance are unclear, and like Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty, Ballinger is a somewhat passive, ponderous protagonist. Elsewhere, Boyle wants to make one final film, his last shot at a great piece of art, by cajoling some obnoxious young writers to help him conceive it.

The main problem with Youth is that it’s difficult to care about any of the characters or their woes. Sorrentino is a director who takes risks, he throws some left turns, surprises the audience, and in most of his previous films these risks have blossomed and soared. However, when they fall flat, they fall really, really flat. Ballinger and Boyle’s pretensions are neither charming nor interesting, and it is somewhat sickly that a middle aged director has sought to convey the complexities of old age.

There is the occasional brilliant moment, such as a fantastic dream sequence in which Ballinger crosses a flooded piazza to meet the gaze of a beauty queen, but these are few and far between. Caine and Keitel are not bad actors but with the pretentious, muddled dialogue they are given by Sorrentino they are made to look foolish. Paul Dano is one of the only actors to come out with any credit; his turn as Jimmy Tree, the lost starlet, is strange and serene. There is the delicate, mournful tones of Kozelek’s fingerpicking to add a touch of pathos to proceedings.

The swooping, elegant camera of Sorrentino’s previous films has vanished. This is replaced by banal static shots, to emphasise the mundanity of life in the resort and the sedateness of old age. Which is a shame, because Sorrentino is at his best when he glides like a bird. If The Great Beauty was pure, sentimental and expressive then Youth is over-thought out, ponderous and dull. The grass is not always greener on the other side.

 

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1) TIMBUKTU (DIR. ABDERRAHMANE SISSAKO, FRANCE/MAURITANIA)
TimbuktuA tremendously moving modern tragedy set in contemporary Mali, but filmed in director Sissako’s native Mauritania. Timbuktu tells a story of a community fractured by a group of power-hungry Islamist militants intent on controlling the population by undermining the people’s existing cultural and religious practices. In spite of its bleak outlook, the film also captures the incredible music of the region and possesses a sense of spirited defiance in the face of tyranny.

2) MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (DIR. GEORGE MILLER, AUSTRALIA/USA)
Mad Max

In the hands of another director Mad Max: Fury Road would likely have been an unnecessary and unwelcome reboot, but in the hands of Mad Max originator George Miller it was a triumph. The film is a relentless post-apocalyptic dash from A to B (then B to A), in which Tom Hardy’s petrol head grunt overcomes his misogyny in the service of fighting totalitarianism. It felt surprisingly prescient.

3) SELMA (DIR. AVA DUVERNAY, USA)
Screen Shot 2015-12-30 at 12.16.05
With Selma Ava DuVernay declared herself a directorial force to be reckoned with in 2015. Telling the story of the civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama in 1965, DuVernay marshals a remarkable ensemble of actors with a superb David Oyelowo as Dr King. The film is most exhilarating thanks to DuVernay’s focus on King’s tactics, making for a timely film that reveals both the tough decision making, as well as the sacrifice behind the cause.

4) A PIGEON SAT ON A BRANCH REFLECTING ON EXISTENCE (DIR. ROY ANDERSSON, SWEDEN)
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on ExistenceRoy Andersson’s latest work is a film of light amusement, deadpan wit and grandiose horror; as the final film in a trilogy about being human, it is an apt achievement. In Pigeon… Andersson’s view on humanity – as found in his advertising work – is one of stale compartmentalised existence, yet there are also moments of painful history, which intrude at uncomfortable intervals. It’s a telling take on modern Western life and a haunting look at our place in history.

5) A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (DIR. ANA LILY AMIRPOUR, USA)
A Girl Walks Home Alone At NightUndoubtedly the coolest film of the year was the brilliant directorial debut of Ana Lily Amirpour, who transitioned from a prolific career in shorts. Though an American production, the film is an Iranian vampire flick in spirit with Amirpour’s Farsi script and excellent troupe of Iranian-American actors. The real success of the film is Amirpour’s perfect blending of the vampire genre with film noir and Fellini & Leone-esque cinematic stylistics. It’s a film buff’s dream.

6) WELCOME TO LEITH (DIR. MICHAEL BEACH NICHOLS & CHRISTOPHER K. WALKER, USA)
Welcome To LeithWelcome To Leith is a brilliant example of how documentaries are becoming increasingly suited to the cinema environment. Telling the story of the residents of Leith as they face off against notorious white nationalist Craig Cobb, filmmakers Nichols and Walker use Western genre tropes to tell both sides of the story and build unbearable tension. It’s a disturbing tale of intolerant ideology and vigilante action in modern America.

7) WILD TALES (DIR. DAMIÁN SZIFRÓN, ARGENTINA/SPAIN)
Wild TalesBrilliantly pulling off perhaps the most challenging film format, the anthology film, Damián Szifrón’s Wild Tales tells a number of disaster stories – from vehicular disasters to weddings gone awry – in an almost-continuously exhilarating two hours. Particular highlights include tales of a jaded demolition expert and a case of rural road rage.

8) IT FOLLOWS (DIR. DAVID ROBERT MITCHELL, USA)
It Follows 2The long held horror tradition of punishing the sexually promiscuous comes to its inspired conclusion in It Follows, in which a curse is passed on through the act of sex. Mitchell creates an atmosphere of dread seldom seen since Hideo Nakata’s Ring in 1998 and the direction recalls the artful horror tropes of John Carpenter, making this a rare American horror classic among recent genre entries.

9) PASOLINI (DIR. ABEL FERRARA, FRANCE/BELGIUM/ITALY)
PasoliniAbel Ferrara’s look at the life of Italian cinematic maestro and social critic Pier Paolo Pasolini is something of an oddity. It features a gravely Willem Dafoe and numerous fantastical sequences from an unrealised Pasolini project; yet it is also an atmospheric, passionate, even mysterious tribute from a student to a master. So evocative in style, it’s a film that begs to be revisited and Dafoe is captivating under Ferrara’s direction.

10) FORCE MAJEURE (DIR. RUBEN ÖSTLUND, SWEDEN)
Force MajeureNo film comes close to Force Majeure in the race for the most cringeworthy filmic effort of 2015. This story of a Swedish family on a skiing holiday in the French Alps becomes a hilariously excruciating watch, after the father fails to exhibit the expected alpha male traits in a crisis situation. Director Ruben Östlund amps up the tragicomedy with his use of glorious cinemascope, which makes every awkward line and humiliating detail seem embarrassingly colossal.

HONORABLE MENTION – JOHN WICK (DIR. CHAD STAHELSKI, USA)
JohnWickThe Matrix aside, Keanu Reeves has not exactly been a reliable source of cinematic greatness – but in Chad Stahelski’s John Wick he contributes so perfectly to the film’s understated wit and panache that we should probably think again. Based on a premise of such hilarious simplicity, this is the revenge flick that Nicolas Cage and Liam Neeson have been relentlessly competing to make for about a decade.

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The biographical film is dangerous territory. There are myriad reasons for this: the hackneyed form of the biopic, the biographical inconsistencies, the expectations that come with portraying a revered figure. Dealing with a master filmmaker is perhaps the most treacherous of territories; if your filmmaking doesn’t live up to theirs, what have you said that they couldn’t more eloquently?

When it comes to Abel Ferrara, director of Pasolini, it is well established that he has balls of steel. Whether it’s his self-starring soft-core debut 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, the rampant punk horror The Driller Killer, or his hysterical drug cop drama Bad Lieutenant, his resume is replete with the bold, brash and explicit. But how does this confidence lend itself to the subject here, one of Ferrara’s heroes: Italian neo-realist, Catholic, Marxist, poet, writer, director Pier Paolo Pasolini? The results are fresh, authorial and not at all definitive.

Pasolini begins with Pier Paolo (Willem Dafoe) in post-production on a deeply disturbing scene from his final film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, in which young people are raped and exploited by a fascistic political elite after the fall of Mussolini in 1943. It is a show of confidence to begin the film by referencing this famous scene; a scene representative of Pasolini’s disturbing power as a filmmaker. Fortunately Dafoe immediately cuts a striking, if Americanised, version of Pasolini and generating sufficient intrigue in the character.

There is a tone of rumination that is maintained throughout the film, which plays out Pasolini’s final day before his untimely murder. Juxtaposed with the day’s activities are scenes from an unmade Pasolini film, in which the lesbian and gay communities meet on one night a year in Rome to propagate the human race. The cutting back and forth never glimpses us quite enough of one or the other – given the film’s lean 84 minutes – but with a character as complex as Pasolini one senses that Ferrara intends to create a snapshot rather than a complete portrait.

The film does not attempt to provide us with a comprehensive understanding of Pasolini, nor does it attempt to wrap his death up in an overly ambitious poetic, or political logic. What the film does do is glimpse aspects of a renegade thinker and polymath artist, as seen through the eyes of the generation he influenced most profoundly. It is a reimagining and an attempt at humanising the figure. We see him in his role as an intellectual, as a gay man and as a family figure; he was profoundly attached to his beloved mother.

It is in playing to his own strengths that Ferrara makes a success of Pasolini. He is clearly at home working with Dafoe, whose own work as Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ was an even more preposterous, yet fascinating interpretation of a figure of moral significance. Ferrara’s own thematic interests are present in Pasolini: ethics, faith, politics and the alienation of modern life. This is the work of a committed fan and student of Pasolini and not one who claims to possess all the answers.

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Restored in fine style by Studiocanal and the Independent Cinema Office, Italian auteur Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 Cannes Special Jury Prize winning L’Eclisse returns to cinemas – with a first time appearance on Blu-ray – 53 years after its initial release. The film remains both a visual marvel, as well as an astute and troubling critique of life in a modern world; it’s a vision that feels eerily timeless.

The final entry of a superlative, yet informal, trilogy also comprised of L’Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961), L’Eclisse finds Antonioni exploring his existential concerns upon an increasingly grand scale. While La Notte focused on the relationship breakdown of Marcello Mastroianni’s self-absorbed writer and Jeanne Moreau’s wealthy, unfulfilled wife, L’Eclisse finds a similarly hopeless pair as they encounter one another in the midst of a stock market crash.

Monica Vitti, returning for the third time in the trilogy (and on routinely brilliant form), leaves her older lover and soon encounters a young stockbroker played by the annoyingly stylish Alain Delon (Plein Soleil, Le Samouraï.) In Antonioni’s trademark style, the two drift into each other’s lives, in a casual, non-committal manner and this is how their relationship remains. It is the petit flirtation that makes the pair so enticing to watch, but their city lives and aspirations limit them from forming a meaningful connection.

Such lack of humane engagement is best displayed in one would-be-tragic sequence, in which a drunk steals Delon’s sports car and comes to an unfortunate end in a river. The characters respond to this ostensibly tragic moment with frivolous discussion of the repair costs for the vehicle. Yet, Antonioni’s approach is never particularly critical of this behaviour; it is as if the director regards this as the natural state of people in this time and sets out to at least enjoy it with his detached (and technically virtuosic) image of cool.

While the film is perhaps less captivating in it’s depiction of the failings of modern relationships as La Notte, L’Eclisse truly endeavours to deal with something bigger: the transience of the human story. Just as the impeccably cool leads forget the ill-fated drunk driver, the film itself eventually disregards the protagonists themselves (and perhaps for the best, given Vitti’s character’s less-than-enlightened colonialist behaviour in an early scene and Delon’s detached moral outlook.) It is this bold disregard for character and plot that leaves us as an audience in a genuine state of crisis and makes the film so powerful.

Contrary to the life goal often attributed to James Dean (and actually spoken by John Derek in Knock on Any Door (1949) – to “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse” – Antonioni seems to tell us not to put faith in our more superficial desires. What mark can we hope to make on a world of stock markets, fast cars and good looks? L’Eclisse is a fascinating essay on this question and it’s all the more profound due to the master director’s refusal to offer us an answer.

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rsz_2014-05-18_135943“It feels like we’re living in another world”, said one of my fellow Nisi Masa peers. This is Cannes, at the height of the film festival, and everything feels very strange. It might have been the time we were drinking in Le Petit Majestique, a watering hole for anybody too degenerate to get into the parties, as a man made up as the Toxic Avenger posed for photos with delighted revellers.

One thing that struck me in Cannes was the disproportionate amount of French people inhabiting the place. I couldn’t turn for a Jacques, a Celine, a Pierre, a Jean Paul or a Francois blocking my way. The festival was rife with fevered discussion, strangers gesticulating wildly across the Croisette. I engaged in numerous illuminating and deep conversations with the locals; what did I think of the promotion of female directors in the competitions? Was it a cynical attempt to quell last years controversy, or a valiant effort to right the wrongs of industry patriarchy? “Je suis Anglais”, I shrugged, “Je ne parle pas français”.

Cannes is at times ugly, vulgar and seedy, but it also has an irresistible charm and buzz to it that draws you in. Beneath all the fake, elitist glitz and glamour there are people working with great passion. Film makers who have toiled for years with their minds and bodies, struggling to externalise their worldview, and perhaps in turn make the viewer feel connected to its creator, and therefore the human race as a whole. Then we have the perverts, the writers and cinephiles, desperate to make sense of the world but scared of living, finding solace and escape in intimate tales from around the world.

Amour Fou by Jessica Hausner

Amour Fou by Jessica Hausner

There is a great disparity in the world of Cannes and the films that are on show there. The films are often focused on impoverished people, struggling through their lives, beset by tragedy. The festival, meanwhile, is saturated with somewhat closeted, comfortable industry people in Raybans and critics wearing chinos, manicured within an inch of their lives. Is this their Hollywood blockbuster, their escapist cinema? Are the emotional outpourings their explosions, their car chases?

Queueing plays a huge part of the festival as well. In this age of ‘now’ the act of queueing feels quaint and refreshing. It feels so strange that in a matter of seconds one could be streaming a film on Netflix, yet in Cannes you are made to wait an hour, maybe more, to watch the film. I had a strange admiration for the soldiers around me, putting aside their frenzied lives, to act out the most noble service they could in the situation: standing still. What were they thinking about? The film? The others in the queue? Ruminating on their lives? There is too much time to reflect in queues, it’s unnerving.

The Nisi Masa workshop I participated in was invigorating and often inspiring, The other participants had a genuine passion for cinema and writing. What struck me most was, even though the majority spoke English as a second language, the intensity of feeling pierced through the broken syntax and phrasing. As a shamefully ignorant student of languages I was impressed with the dramatic use of words, at odds with the somewhat conservative way English speakers often write in.

Run by Phillipe Lacote

Run by Phillipe Lacote

As to the films, it was a mixed bunch. Darker Than Midnight, a queer coming of age tale set in Catania’s underbelly was disappointingly high pitched and hysterical. Girlhood, a Parisian set teen drama directed by Celine Sciamma of Water Lilies fame was sparky yet felt less distinctive than her previous work. Catch Me Daddy, a Brit thriller, started off brightly with shades of Lynne Ramsay’s hallucinatory visuals, yet devolved into another ‘gritty’ chase movie. Run was a solid, nomadic film set in the Ivory Coast, a bit like Forrest Gump if it had been directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Refugiado was a well directed, well acted Mexican film about a mother and son fleeing domestic violence, not always as grim as it sounds.

The two best features I saw were It Follows and Amour Fou. It Follows was an original, dreamy American horror that subverts the slasher genre. Amour Fou saw the return of Austrian Jessica Hausner after her success with Lourdes. Jokingly described as a ‘romantic comedy’, it is a loose biopic of the writer/poet Heinrich Von Kleist and his affair with Henrietta, a dying housewife. Incredibly dry and somewhat alienating to most viewers, I found it to be wryly amusing and in its own way quite touching. Special mention goes to the short film Thunderbirds by Lea Mysius. Set in rural France, the thin plot follows a vaguely incestuous brother and sister as they go hunting for birds. It had a strong, brutal visual style reminiscent of Bruno Dumont and a distinctive atmosphere to boot. Definitely one to look out for.

Until next time….

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“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” – L.P. Hartley

Following on from his widely successful breakthrough film A Separation (2011) Iranian director Asghar Farhadi relocates to Paris for his latest family drama, The Past.  Here, Farhadi compiles a strong cast of current French talent, Bérénice Bejo (The Artist) and Tahar Rahim (A Prophet), and places them in Parisian territory as outsiders (much like himself.) As a non-French speaker, Farhadi it would appear, has his work cut out for him directing and writing a French narrative. Through his lead actor, Iranian Ali Mosaffa, who speaks in a broken French, there is a vulnerable distance inevitably created; however through Farhadi’s masterful storytelling ability, he manages to utilise this and express some fairly unifying themes.

The Past follows Ahmad (Mosaffa) as he returns to Paris after a 4 year absence, to sign his divorce papers with his ex-wife Marie (Bejo). While there, Marie asks Ahmad to speak to his step-daughter Lucie, played by a young and particularly impressive Pauline Burlet (La Vie en Rose), who disapproves of her mothers’ upcoming union with Samir (Rahim). This establishing and overlapping of characters is a strong indication of the film’s tone. These four main characters are all connected and yet distant. Ahmad is not the father of Lucie, or her younger sister Léa (Jeanne Jestin), as much as Samir’s son Fouad (Elyes Aguis) has no relation to Marie, and yet here all these characters are brought together under one roof, for a short time at least.

The film largely feels like one of Ibsen’s dramatic family stage plays, or the “kitchen sink” dramas of the 1960’s in Britain. The mood can often be oppressive and claustrophobic, with Paris standing in largely as a suburban backdrop rather than a tourist locale, which gives the film a weight of authenticity and naturalism. It is important that Paris remains recognisable but largely absent, as initially at least, we view the narrative through “outsider” Ahmad. He tries to help around the house and crucially understand Lucie’s increasing isolation, he quickly takes on the role of investigator. As he and we learn more about what “the past” actually is here, Ahmad unwittingly becomes a sub-film noir hero, with his past left no clearer than simply being Iranian, Marie’s ex-husband and having previously suffered bouts of depression.

In the centre of all this is Samir’s wife, whose attempted suicide has left her in a comatose state, between life and death, much as the rest of the characters are between the past and the present with their interactions. This is what we, initially through Ahmad, piece together as the narrative moves forward. One of the film’s strengths is that The Past refuses to have a single focaliser and as a result, does not allow the viewer to form assumptions about any of the characters for too long. The film easily could have made Samir the straw-man, a guy who is partly responsible for his wife’s tragic act, yet actually appears to be moving on to a better life with Marie when he should really be wallowing in guilt. However Farhadi instead closes the narrative through his perspective, allowing a good deal of empathy to be shared with all of the main characters here.

As a result, there is an inherent and fascinating tension in The Past which is never truly resolved. Everyone here is somewhat culpable for their actions and simultaneously sympathetic, which makes for a highly believable narrative. It’s fairly modernist in this approach, especially as Farhadi refuses to allow ethnic or class backgrounds to define any of his characters; instead they express themselves largely off-screen (through unseen emails and phone-calls) and dwell largely on their actions in the past.

But while there is much to admire about Farhadi’s film, it’s a tough film to become truly engrossed in. For all his expertly placed motifs, of not allowing a single character to seem entirely blameable, it’s difficult to really forge relationships with these people who are piecing together their miscommunication. While there are some lighter moments earlier on in the film, most notably in Samir and Ahmad’s prolonged awkward silence, it’s suffocatingly serious tone for 2 hours and 10 minutes makes it hard to really ever enjoy. While it’s intriguing to learn about the past of this dysfunctional family, the plot turns exist to the point of distraction; this softens its intended climax somewhat.

Ultimately, for all it’s excellent performances, layered-narrative and stage-play atmosphere, the shared empathy across the board prevents us from making a meaningful connection. For all it’s achievements The Past suffers from its own accomplishments as an excellent modernist morality play. It is something to be seen, but not really felt.

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Salvo‘s gripping first 30 minutes – a dense dance of diegetic devices – is both the film’s greatest asset and its disadvantage. Powerfully using the cinematic form to all of its advantages, directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza have you at the edge of your seat for an extensive period of time. The issue is that once that tension subsides, you are still pumped full of adrenaline, disinclined towards the comedown. The comedown is, of course, the main crux of the film – the aftermath of that first half hour.

In a nutshell, the synopsis follows Saleh Bakri’s eponymous hitman. Opening with a charged sequence in which Salvo tracks down the man behind an unsuccessful hit on his boss – a Renato Pizzuto – and murders him. During this point, he discovers Renato’s blind sister, Rita (Sara Serraiocco), who he is unable to kill. Rita has an effect on the otherwise unemotional hitman, whilst one touch from Salvo inexplicably earns Rita her sight back; a bond is made and Salvo starts to alter his ways.

Were it not for the miraculous, sight-giving motif included in Salvo, the story would seem a tad conventional and/or unexceptional. However, the messianic elements and the way Salvo uses the subject of senses transforms the film into a far more complex gangster film. Italian cinema has long been interested in the romantic and ethereal aspects of life (Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan and the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini, for example) – a cinematic appraisal that Salvo wonderfully adjoins. The pacing that alters itself from the heart-pounding opening, to the steady study of life and death is what will divide audiences, ultimately. To those hearing the buzz words “gangster”, “thriller” and “mafia” surrounding Salvo, as well as sitting through the action-laden opening, there’ll be a sigh of disappointment at the meditative main part.

For cinephiles and admirers of the arts, Salvo will be a fitting find. The craft is absolute, with colour and sets neatly defining a moment or a character. Lenses and lighting change for Salvo and Rita, respectively. As well as that there is definition on shape and structure – walls with circular or straight patterns, confined space or open rooms that all deftly underline the smooth or suffocated nature of a scene. Capturing all this is Daniele Ciprì’s stunning cinematography and Desideria’s Rayner’s refined editing – a feast for the eyes. And to top off, audio work and a discriminating regard to diegetic sound (striking due to the lack of dialogue) that are masterfully employed.

It’s easy to review Salvo as a technical achievement, perhaps less so when speaking about its story. Few will feel devoted to the main character, what with an enigmatic agenda and near-silent expression. Rita, too, is a quietly curious character, only managing to shine in the last few scenes. There is little to connect with on a personal note, with the film feeling like a far more sensory experience; yet altogether perfect for the darkened space of the cinema.

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1) THE GREAT BEAUTY (DIR. PAULO SORRENTINO, ITALY)

rsz_18nejA Federico Fellini film for the Bunga Bunga generation, Sorrentino returns to form with perhaps his greatest film yet. Toni Servillo plays an ageing playboy journalist who begins to tire of the endless parties and excess in his beloved Rome. The film mixes high art and low trash to an exhilarating degree, swooping from sober existentialism to scandalous hedonism at the directors whim. While the parties are filmed with an inventive, restless vigour, it’s Servillo’s hangdog lead that lingers in the memory.

2) NEBRASKA (DIR. ALEXANDER PAYNE, USA)

rsz_nebraska3This austere, melancholic road movie follows Woody, an alcoholic pensioner and his put upon son as they travel across the American highways to cash in a bogus junk mail prize for 1 million dollars. It’s a superbly concise and effective set up to explore the American dream and the way it lures in its everyday victims with visions of wild riches. Shot in beautiful black and white, director Payne makes great use of both the endless plains and the weary faces. It would be a bleak watch if it didn’t contain a redeeming mix of wry and slapstick humour.

3) POST TENEBRAS LUX (DIR. CARLOS REYGADAS, MEXICO)

This is Mexican maverick Carlos Reygadas going for broke here. Wildly adventurous, visually inventive and probably quite infuriating for large swathes of the audience, I loved every beguiling second of it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I could tell you what it’s about. The story, of which there is little, follows a privileged Mexican family living on the outskirts of an impoverished and remote rural town. Oppressed by a tyrannical father, the film is possibly a semi-autobiographical account of Reygadas’ own life. Surreal highlights include a glowing animated devil figure and steamy sauna scenes.

4) FRANCES HA (DIR. NOAH BAUMBACH, USA)

A delightful and charming rites of passage comedy showcasing Greta Garwig’s inimitable charisma. She plays a naive and childlike New Yorker struggling to hold onto her dreams of being a dancer. Ditched by her best friend and unwilling to commit to a romantic relationship, Frances is forced to seek out on her own. As a privileged and somewhat spoilt protagonist, the film would fall apart if it wasn’t for Frances’ infectious goofiness and will to succeed. Baumbach again succeeds at making us care about characters who aren’t always perfect human beings.

5) HORS SATAN (DIR. BRUNO DUMONT, FRANCE)

Imagine a more mystical Michael Haneke and you might be halfway towards the films of Bruno Dumont. This strange, unsettling film follows ‘The Guy’, a mystical, messianic figure, and ‘The Girl’, a local gothic girl who together roam the windswept coastline of Northern France. ‘The Guy’ has the power to kill and the power to heal, with a strange ability to save people by having sex with them. An absurd idea on paper, but Dumont makes it work. A beguiling mix of realism and surrealism, Dumont orchestrates both the visual and aural brutality of the desolate landscape to startling effect.

6) LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (DIR. HIROKAZU KOREEDA, JAPAN)

Carrying on from his previous film I Wish, director Koreeda concocts another incisive and moving portrait of modern Japanese families. Ryota is a workaholic in the city who has little time for his son Keita, and when Ryota learns that Keita might be the result of a mix up at birth, he has to decide whether blood ties or love ties matter the most to him. The story contrasts Ryota’s uptight, glossy family with their biological son Ryusei’s scatty family living in the country to great effect. A moving and humane exploration of what it means to be a parent.

7) THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES (DIR. DEREK CIANFRANCE, USA)

A film which divided critics and audiences alike, Cianfrance’s ‘difficult second album’ is an ambitious, sprawling crime drama that motors through three generations. Ryan Gosling’s turn as a speedy heist merchant steals the show in the opening act, yet it’s Bradley Cooper’s angsty performance that lends weight to the whole film. The final section is a little weak but overall the film is a joy to watch. Cianfrance combines stylish retro thrills with an inventive structure and meaty drama.

8) TO THE WONDER (DIR. TERRENCE MALICK, USA)

As a self confessed Malick-nerd this arrives at a surprisingly lowly position, and I would suggest it is his weakest film in his ouevre so far. The film is a frustrating, challenging piece of work with some enigmatic, introspective performances…and yet there is something niggling away, burrowing beneath your skin as you watch it. A muted Ben Affleck plays a desolate man torn between Olga Kurylenko, a vivacious Parisian, and Rachel McAdams, a sweet local. The themes and drama are less pronounced that in his previous films and that is often infuriating, yet if I was to pick one of these films to have staying power then it might just be this one.

9) BULLHEAD (DIR. MICHAEL R. ROSKAM, BELGIUM)

This was a criminally under-seen thriller that came out earlier in the year. Matthias Schoenaerts, a hulking presence, plays a simmering Cattle farmer in rural Belgium who helps illegally inject steroids into the animals. When a new business venture with foreign investors goes suitably awry, Schoenaerts has to fight to save the business and his own life. Coming on the heels of moody, character driven French thrillers like A Prophet and A Beat That My Heart Skipped, newcomer Roskam delivers a punchy crime drama like Scorsese used to make in his heyday.

10) SPRING BREAKERS (DIR. HARMONY KORINE, USA)

Harmony Korine now seems like the Peter Pan of the US underground cinema, constantly ferreting away trying to find the latest movements in youth culture. With Spring Breakers he has hit upon the Girls Gone Wild franchise and turned it into something surreal and often beautiful. In a master stroke of casting he nabbed a couple of Disney starlets for the leads, giving the film both considerable marketable clout and blurring the lines between reality and fiction. The lean story is essentially a bunch of bollocks; four teenagers go on a Cancun-style orgy of excess and violence. It is Korine’s own warped, poetic take on proceedings that make it something special.

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The Great Beauty might well be the finest film released this year. Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer-director, excelled himself with previous efforts such as The Consequences of Love and Il Divo, but this is perhaps his greatest achievement so far. Known for his lavish mise en scene, pumping soundtracks and audacious camera work, The Great Beauty takes all of Sorrentino’s tricks and turns them up to 11.

The story is a modern day throwback to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; Jep Gambardella is a jaded playboy journalist who has just mourned his 65th birthday. Surrounded by politicians, artists, writers and reality TV personalities, Jep begins to question his purpose in life as the champagne begins to go flat and the last guests have stumbled home. His existential malaise is heightened by the news of an old flame’s passing- the only love of his life.

The Great Beauty is not your typical Hollywood film; there is no great journey, no moment of realisation, but a series of small happenings. We observe Jep as he observes his beloved Rome, wandering through stone courtyards, catching glimpses of the precocious local nuns, a flock of birds from his balcony. It is clear he is in love with the sights and the sounds of the city, as well as the parties, but is that enough to live on for Jep?

The film is so rich in its sound and imagery that it is almost overwhelming. We are immediately thrown into a raucous party that would make Berlusconi proud (indeed the film is partially inspired by the excess of his tenure), with throbbing euro trance and glistening, swooping camera movements that captures every shuffle of the party’s lurid clientele. Every frame in the film is a delight; a fruit grove littered with orange baubles in the morning, a prodigious child artist creating a swirling masterpiece.

Although the film could easily drown in its own beauty, it is glued together by Toni Servillo’s marvellous performance as Jep. A Sorrentino mainstay, Servillo has a chameleon quality which allows him to move from grinning charisma to hangdog pathos in a moment. In one sense Jep is cruel, snobbish and spoiled, and yet there is an inherent charm and humanity to him. We believe that this is a man who wants to change and be loved. The tragedy running through the film is the feeling that this will not come to pass.

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