Friday, January 27, 2006

#49: Nights of Cabiria

Nights of Cabiria, 1957, directed by Federico Fellini, screenplay by Ennio Flaiano and Tullio Pinelli, with additional dialogue by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

If I made a list titled "Good Settings For Physical Comedy," I think "An Aging, Low-End Prostitute's Descent Into Penury" would be toward the bottom. Which means I would never have made Nights of Cabiria, a film that owes as much to City Lights as it does to The Bicycle Thief. Mixtures of pathos and comedy fit somewhere on a continuum from Waiting for Godot to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. As you would expect from its subject matter, Nights of Cabiria is more Beckett than Apatow, but Fellini isn't afraid to have his star walk into a glass door when the mood needs lightening.

Nights of Cabiria shifts so effortlessly between the heartbreaking and the comic that it's easy to forget how badly the movie could have gone. It's about that most sentimental of stock characters: the hooker with the heart of gold. It's easy to imagine a lighthearted version in which Cabiria is lifted from her sordid surroundings (and that version is called Pretty Woman). Or the movie could have gone the other way and been a turgid "gritty" drama about life on the Roman streets. In its bare outlines, the story is an encyclopedia of cruelty: bad people do bad things to our good heroine. But Cabiria is so fully realized and human that she defies stereotypes. Credit for this goes entirely to Gulietta Masina, who captures Cabiria's loneliness and pride in every frame. She's got a face for the ages:

Most of the movies in the collection so far have showcased the work of directors or writers, but Nights of Cabiria is an actor's movie. Masina has a preternatural talent for both broad gestures and more nuanced ones. The most celebrated example is the sequence where she is picked up by a film star named Alberto Lazzari and taken dancing at a nightclub. She's the shortest person in the room, out of her league culturally and financially and pretty clearly intimidated. But once Lazzari takes her on the dance floor, she does this crazy outsized mambo and owns the room (not necessarily for the right reasons):

If this were Pretty Woman, the scene would be all about Cabiria's infectious enthusiasm winning over a crowd of stuffed shirts. It's not, though; as the movie makes clear again and again, none of Cabiria's adventures end happily. This one ends with her sleeping on the bathroom floor while Lazzari enthusiastically reunites with his girlfriend.

Smaller details are just as keenly observed. My favorite is at the very beginning: Cabiria has just narrowly survived being thrown into the Tiber by a lover who wants to steal her purse. Understandably, she's a little upset.

You can't show it in a still, but when you see the film, pay attention to the way she taps her cigarette, starts to light it, then loses her train of thought and forgets about the cigarette. On paper, it sounds like a showy bit of actor's business, but it's not; I didn't notice that she'd forgotten to light it until the second time I saw the scene.

Nights of Cabiria lives or dies on Giulietta Masina's performance. I think it would be hard to make a bad film with her playing Cabiria. That said, Fellini's direction and Piero Gherardi's production design don't hurt. You could say of Cabiria, as Martin Amis said of Austen, "Money is a vital substance in her world; the moment you enter it you feel the frank horror of moneylessness." I was impressed with the ways Fellini and Gherardi imbue that class awareness into the locations and props. The most ostentatiously wealthy person she knows is a pimp with bad sunglasses and a Fiat 600:

Attention to little details like the car makes all the difference in making you aware of how much money matters in this world. The locations are also carefully chosen. Cabiria doesn't work the Via Veneto, but the Terme di Caracalla, a hangout for prostitutes to this day. Best of all is Cabiria's house, a cinderblock cube in the middle of a wasteland between Rome and Ostia. In 1956, Rome was undergoing its postwar expansion, and Cabiria's neighborhood is on the edge of that sprawl. You can see the city transforming itself into something bigger and uglier in the background of almost every shot, even the first:

I'd be willing to bet that there's a terrible block of terrible apartments now where they're standing.

There's nothing about any individual production design choice that's really showstopping. Instead, Gherardi and Fellini make Cabiria's world credible through a slow accumulation of small details. This is what sells Masina's performance when it switches from charming to heartbreaking, when you realize how badly she wants to change. Most people seem to think this happens when Cabiria and her friends make a disastrous pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Divine Love. But to me, the moment the tone really shifts is a summer afternoon she spends out in the country sometime later.

Masini's performance borders on melodramatic here, but I think the scene captures the way idleness can be unspeakably depressing when you're afraid your life is going the wrong direction. But then I'm the kind of person who takes it for granted that religion won't offer much solace, so the pilgrimage sequence offered no suprises for me. In the later scene, getting drunk fails to cheer Cabiria up. Now that's horrifying.

To the extent the movie has a formal structure, it's a retelling of the same story in successively louder tones: Cabiria finds something she believes will make her happy, but it ends in disaster and humiliation. So the last act is hard to watch: she meets a man who wants to marry her, open a shop in the country, and grow old together. Cabiria doesn't know what kind of movie she's in, but the audience does, and it's not a romantic comedy. The beautiful locations toward the end are to the Roman scenes as Lazarri's villa is to Cabiria's house, and if you've been paying attention, you know that Cabiria won't be allowed to enjoy them for long. It's a rare movie that can fill a shot like the one below with menace.

It's worth noting what makes the last sequence as nerve wracking as it is. Fellini sets up a number of points where you expect Cabiria's new lover to betray her. But instead of the humiliating disaster you've been conditioned to expect, Fellini uses each scene to give you more information about how much Cabiria has bet on this last chance at happiness, financially and emotionally. It's excruciating, but it serves a purpose: the higher Fellini ratchets the tension, the more strange and wonderful ending is.

More than almost any other film character I can think of, Masina's Cabiria seems fully realized to me. It's not that she's particularly realistic in the sense that anyone I've ever met is like her. But I think it's precisely that uniqueness that makes her so alive; she's a true original, as vibrant and sad and suprising as anyone you will ever know.


  • Alberto Lazzari, Movie Star, is played by Amedo Nazzari, Movie Star. It probably wasn't too much of a stretch for him.

  • Of all the great Roman locations, the shot that really got me was this one:

    That's Termini, looking just as I remember it from 1995. Apparently it's different now; the station was renovated in 1998 and nothing in current photos is recognizable to me.

  • And speaking of renovations in 1998, Nights of Cabiria was cleaned up for a theatrical rerelease that summer (while we were all watching Armageddon). It may be the best example of film restoration ever. Here's what it looked like on video in the states until that summer:

    And here's roughly the same frame from the Criterion edition (made from the 1998 restoration):

    Look at the detail on the dog's face and Masina's hair—it's like a different movie.

  • The subtitles were also rewritten for this release. Unfortunately, the scene they chose to show in the DVD extras as an example of this rewriting has the one line that jumped out at me as a bad translation when I saw the movie. Cabiria is burning everything an ex-boyfriend left at her house (it's the ex who "broke up" with her by "stealing her purse and pushing her into a river to drown"). So she's in a hell of a mood and is yelling as she throws his stuff in the fire. The original subtitle for one of her lines read "Who'll feed him now, my fine good-for-nothing?" Which doesn't make much sense. The new one reads "And who's gonna feed you now? St. Peter?" That's an improvement. But the line (in a bad phonetic transcription of dialect) is actually "Do vai a mangia? A San Pietro?" In modern Italian, that would be "Dove vai a mangiare? A San Pietro?" Which is literally "Where are you going to eat? To Saint Peter's?" It's a name, but it's also a place.

  • This version of the film restores a sequence that was cut out before the film's release, reportedly at the request of the Catholic Church. At least, that's the story everywhere I can find it, except in an interview with Dino Di Laurentiis on the DVD. He claims that he and Fellini fought long and hard over that sequence because he believed it brought the action of the movie to a screeching halt; his version of the story ends with him stealing the negative so Fellini couldn't use it. Reports also vary as to whether that scene was ever shown; Fellini writes that it was shown at Cannes, but this doesn't square with De Laurentiis's version of the story or the more common story of church interference. In any event, the sequence was restored from a print found in France, so it may have screened at least once.

  • The company logo on this is Paramount's, and the title reads "La Paramount Presenta." Did Paramount have a European distribution branch in the fifties?

  • The screenwriters relied on Pier Paolo Pasolini for help with Roman slang. Yes, it's the same Pier Paolo Pasolini who directed Salò. No, nobody eats shit in Nights of Cabiria. Stop worrying.

Monday, January 16, 2006

#48: Black Orpheus

Black Orpheus, 1959, directed by Marcel Camus, screenplay by Jacques Viot, from the play Orfeu da Conçeicão by Vinicius de Moraes.

Critics often write about movies as though they exist in a vacuum. Although they'll trace one filmmaker's influence on another, the ways a film can bleed into the rest of the culture isn't usually part of the conversation (the notable exception is right-wing pundits blaming Hollywood for America's moral decline). I'm not really that interested in talking about movies destroying our moral values (and that conversation is only tangentially about movies). Movies that change the landscape for other kinds of art, though? Yeah, that interests me. One example: I left the United States for Italy in September of 1994, about two weeks before Pulp Fiction was released. Although I saw it while abroad, I didn't think it was going to be more influential than, say, Forrest Gump (its rival at the Academy Awards that year). The next July, on my second day back in the states, I saw a commercial for Crest toothpaste with a surf rock soundtrack. Tarantino had changed what that kind of music meant, and in just ten months it had trickled down to toothpaste ads. For the next five years or so, every time a band at a party launched into a half-assed cover of "Misirlou," I had Tarantino to blame.

Black Orpheus is also one of those movies that bled from one kind of art into another. Marcel Camus didn't inspire the kind of devotion among filmmakers that Tarantino did. But Black Orpheus changed the music world, introducing the west to Latin American music. So when that cover band stops playing Dick Dale and goes into "The Girl from Ipanema," you've got Camus to thank (or curse). Black Orpheus is filled with music from the first frame to the last. The songs were written by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and they still show up in movie soundtracks, most recently in Casa de los Babys. As far as their bossa nova credentials go, try this: Jobim's the guy who actually wrote "The Girl From Ipanema." So the movie's worth seeing for the music alone, which is good, because I wasn't blown away by the rest of it.

Black Orpheus is a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. In the myth, Orpheus is a gifted musician; as played by Bruno Mello, he's also a streetcar conductor.

His low-paying job makes him seemingly the most employed man in his whole neighborhood, a slum of epic squalor overlooking the city. Rio is the one city where traditional housing patterns are reversed: the rich live at sea level, while the poor get views like this:

Those kids are watching the sunrise because they believe Orpheus's music literally makes the sun come up. He's something of a local hero among the adults of the neighborhood as well, which is why his fiancé is so hellbent to get married. The first half of the movie or so is a pretty conventional love triangle between his fiancé, Mira, and Eurydice, his true love. Mira is played with aplomb by Lourdes de Oliveira. It's not a particularly difficult role, since Mira is basically enraged at someone from frame one to the end. Usually, it's Orpheus, although in the still below, she's mad at a clerk:

Eurydice, played by the jaw-dropping Marpessa Dawn, has to look dreamily in love for most of the movie. And she's very good at it:

If you know your mythology, you know Eurydice isn't long for this world. Which is good, because although Camus's version spends most of its time with Eurydice still alive, the love story feels prefunctory. Not to say the early sections of the film are boring: Camus has a tourist's enthusiasm for Rio, and the settings are gorgeous. The movie takes place during Carnival, when the favela's samba school is preparing for the parade. Here's part of the parade:

As you can see, Jean Bourgoin's cinematography is a really vibrant technicolor throughout. The colors are at least as bright as The Red Shoes. But Black Orpheus doesn't really get interesting visually until Eurydice is dead. After running through the depressing wreck that Carnival becomes when it's over (police rounding people up, drunks passed out on the streets, &c.), he arrives at the bureau of Missing Persons, possibly the most depressing building in South America.

I didn't get a still of the exterior (nor do I know what building Camus actually used) but it's as inhuman as anything in Brasília. My favorite shot in the movie is of Orpheus being led downstairs from the Bureau of Missing Persons: the red light on the ground floor tiles makes it look like he's descending into a pool of glowing lava.

I'm skeptical that those stairs are in the same building as the exteriors, but I love them. (Incidentally, Insomnia also has an oval variation on the stairway-as-maze shot, so we're two in a row now). Less cool than the above: the lowest depths of the underworld, represented by a Macumba ceremony, although I did like the priest:

Now that's a religious leader I could get behind: stone crazy. Camus shows maybe five minutes of this ceremony, and to me, this was the worst scene in the movie. The whole film walks a fine line between focusing on its characters and being a combination travelogue and introduction to bossa nova. The Macumba ceremony goes far enough towards travelogue to feel anthropological. It should be the emotional high point of the film; it's Orpheus's last contact with Eurydice (and the core of the original myth). Maybe it's just my ADD, but staging it during this ceremony seemed distracting to me.

And I guess that was my real problem with this film: it is clearly a celebration of Rio, but it seems at times to focus on being enthusiastic about the city and its music at the expense of its characters. I really didn't find Orpheus, Mira, or Eurydice remotely believable. Not that I know much about it myself, but I suspect that life in the favelas involves more than singing, dancing, and spectacular sunrises. And I'm not a hard-liner about racial stereotypes, but surely I'm not the only person who squirms when a film features a lazy black man chasing after a slice of watermelon.

This is one of those cases where it matters who made the film. I first saw it when a friend who'd lived in Brazil the previous year recommended it to me; I was kind of baffled as to what she saw in it. Talking to her about it later, it became clear that she'd believed the movie was made by a Brazilian, not a white Frenchman. If it were the work of an insider, Camus's condescending view of poverty and flirtation with racial stereotypes would be more forgiveable. But there aren't any insider filmmakers in the favelas of Rio. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund are the closest thing I can think of, and they both grew up in the suburbs of São Paulo. Discussions of authenticity are always a little uncomfortable, and I'm one of the least authentic, most waspy wasps you'll ever meet. So I'm uniquely unqualified to talk about stereotyping or snipe at Camus for being out of line. Still, I have a (probably misguided) sense of who's allowed to say what. Jessy Terrero gets to make Soul Plane and even Stepin Fetchit is undergoing cultural rehabilitation and I don't have a problem with either thing. But the watermelon scene in Black Orpheus made me genuinely queasy.

Anyway, scratch too deeply at anyone's feelings about race and authenticity and you're staring into the abyss (or worse still, watching Crash). That's a discussion for a different place. With Black Orpheus, you'd do better to just enjoy the scenery and music. Camus is smart enough to bring those two elements back together at the end of the film, when one of the neighborhood kids takes on Orpheus's duty of making the sun rise. But unlike Orpheus, who tended toward mournful ballads, the kid's song is fast and infectuous. Whatever you think about the rest of the film, it's impossible to watch the ecstatic ending without being sucked in. It's a pity the rest of the film isn't as fluid and seductive.


  • Bosley Crowther's original review of the movie for the New York Times is available online. It's quite a read: the review is shot through with phrases like "she conveys more forthright emotion than does the non-terpsichorean man." He also uses the royal we. On the whole, it reads a bit nineteenth century (or at least early twentieth). Crowther was in his fifties when he wrote it. How then, to explain the last paragraph?
    The language spoken, incidentally, is Brazilian Portuguese, which is translated in English subtitles that completely lack the samba beat. A cat with a cool vocabulary should have been turned loose on them.
    Maybe I'm missing something here, but that seems a little out of place.

  • Lourdes de Oliveira earns a place in my personal hall of fame for her unbelievably spectacular... sleeves. You can see them pretty clearly in the still below; that's her Carnival costume. But a still photograph doesn't do justice to the force-of-nature impact of watching them move as she dances. Because, um, they're ruffled. Her sleeves are ruffled.

  • Seu Jorge, who's in City of God and The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, actually did grow up in the favelas. So if he ever starts making his own movies, there'll be an undeniably authentic movie about that world. I haven't seen Life Aquatic recently, but it seems to me that Jorge is doing his best Bruno Mello-as-Orpheus impression.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

#47: Insomnia

Insomnia, 1997, directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, written by Nikolaj Frobenius and Erik Skjoldbjærg.

Insomnia begins with a scene that opens a thousand police procedurals: a man on a plane looks at a grainy photostat of a corpse. We all know how to read it, too: she's just been murdered, he's been called in to solve the crime. It's comfortable and familiar. Until the detective takes out a ballpoint pen and starts idly scratching out the victim's face.

The first act ofInsomnia is filled with moments like that; scenes that begin like a run-of-the-mill police procedural, but go slightly, uneasily off-kilter. I've seen it four times now, and it still makes me queasy. A lot of this has to do with Stellan Skarsgård's excellent performance as Jonas Engström, a man whose guilt is making him lose his grip on reality. Scratching out the victim's face on the plane flight up is only the first scene that makes clear that Engström is not the sanest guy you'll ever meet. He smells the vicitim's hair during an autopsy, then caresses her face until he notices a female detective staring at him:

Engström, it turns out, is in Norway because he can no longer work in Sweden after being discovered "in intimate conversation" with a witness. And if you know the undying and irrational emnity Swedes and Norwegians have for each other, you know that he's fallen far. To make things worse, he's been assigned a case in the far north of the country, where the sun doesn't set during the summer. In the plus side, he's working with longtime partner Erik Vik, played by Sverre Anker Ousdal. Vik is Engström's link to human warmth, and they relate to each other like an old married couple: Engström pulls things out of Vik's jacket pocket without asking, Vik falls asleep on planes with his head on Engström's shoulder. So when Engström mistakenly kills Vik while trying to apprehend a suspect, he goes a little crazy. And by "a little crazy," I mean "batshit insane." Here he is at his worst:

He doesn't look too together there, obviously. He's hiding behind that door because two local teenagers came into the room while he was planting evidence to frame one of them for murder. And he hasn't slipped out of the room because he's watching them have sex. We already know he likes one of the two teenagers, Frøya (played by Marianne O. Ulrichsen, who was also the production's assistant director):

And we know he likes her, because, despite her tender age, he's slid his hand up her skirt while questioning her. So: how do you make someone this unlikeable the hero of your movie? You make the villain even less likeable. The killer that Engström is after is a writer named Jon Holt, and he's seen Engström shoot his partner. So Holt and Engström become secret sharers, and the revolting pleasure Holt takes in finding someone else who has killed (and in being able to maniuplate him) puts the audience squarely in Engström's column. You can get a sense of Bjørn Floberg's performance as Holt from the scene where Engström first meets him (on a cable car, in a scene that owes a little to The Third Man):

Holt's infuriating smugness is critical to the way Insomnia works. There's no limit to Engström's cold detachment (this is a man who thinks baby kittens are "disgusting"), but he's downright charming next to Holt.

The second key to this movie is that Skarsgård's performance and Skjoldbjærg's direction make it clear that Engström is paying a great psychological toll for the things he has done. It's not called Insomnia for nothing, and even before Erik's death, we know that Engström isn't sleeping well. But as the movie progresses, Skjoldbjærg portrays Engström's insomnia in increasingly subjective ways. The slow fades-to-white that Skjoldbjærg uses in the second half of the movie do a very good job of conveying the horror of being unable to sleep in a place where it's dazzlingly bright all the time.

As you've probably noticed by now, Skjoldbjærg's palette is heavy on the whites and sickly greens (for what it's worth, so is Scandinavia). Insomnia is never pretty to look at; this is deliberate. You're meant to feel as isolated from and alienated by the surroundings as Engström.

As the atmosphere of guilt builds, the structure of the traditional police procedural is left far behind: Insomnia is a psychological study, not a thriller. Nowhere is this more clear than in the debriefing scene towards the end of the movie. After we've seen Engström cover up a shooting, frame an innocent kid for murder, molest a teenager, shoot a dog, nearly rape a hotel clerk, and look away while a paralyzed man drowns, we hear a clueless police officer tell him, "I have to admit you really lived up to your reputation. Never gives up...not until the case is solved." It's the last shambling attempt the movie makes to look like a regular police procedural, and Engström's reaction (he walks out) mirrors the viewer's. Which is not to say we're totally identifying with him. The excrutiating last shot is a head-on long take of Engström driving out of town. He goes through a tunnel, and for once the movie takes us out of the dazzling brightness and into more traditional noir lighting. Skarsgård doesn't look at the camera as he drives; he's got a permanent thousand-yard stare. It's a measure of how well we know Engström by this point that it's a relief he doesn't meet our eyes.


  • All the acting is exceptional, but I would be remiss not to mention Gisken Armand's performance. She's the movie's moral center (which is kind of like calling Eva Braun Hitler's conscience; she doesn't play a big role). But her performance is excellent; look at how much about her you learn from the way she holds up one of the victim's dresses:

  • Technical, wonky information: Insomnia is the first film in the series to be encoded in anamorphic widescreen. Here's what that means, in a very simplified form: DVD players send out a video signal that's at 640 x 480; that's as much information as they can contain per frame. For a letterboxed, non anamorphic movie, a still looks like this:

    If you have a standard television, that's what you're used to seeing. An anamorphic DVD distorts the image to fill the entire screen, so if you were able to look at the frame data in an unadulterated form, the same still would look like this:

    By distorting the image, the DVD is able to use the full frame for image data, and store more horizontal lines of data. Depending on your setup, the anamorphic image is then either horizontally stretched to fit a 16:9 television, or vertically compressed back into a letterboxed image. The result is a noticeably better picture on 16:9 televisions and computer monitors with no loss of picture quality on standard televisions. Both of the images above have been shrunk to fit this page, but here's a full-resolution version of a letterboxed image, and here's a full-resolution version of an anamorphic image. From this point on, most of the widescreen movies in the collection are anamorphic; the exceptions are mostly movies where the transfer was done for an earlier laserdisc version, since laserdiscs are letterboxed. Of course, movies that have an aspect ration of 1.33:1 or lower can't be anamorphically encoded. Oh, and although the film itself is encoded anamorphically, the menus and extras are all encoded in 4:3. Which means if you don't have a high-end DVD player that correctly reads the aspect ratio flags (I don't), you have to switch between aspect ratios when you move from the movie to the extras. Poor form, Criterion!

  • If you want to know whether you can make two movies with the same plot points and roughly the same tone but have them be about completely different things, I direct you to Christopher Nolan's 2002 remake of this film. There are things an American star can't do, and so Al Pacino's version of the Stellan Skarsgård character is, well... different. Here are a few points of comparison:

    • Pacino is in Alaska because the bastards at internal affairs want to put child molesters back on the streets and he needs to be out of town while things cool down. Skarsgård is in Norway because he fucked a witness.

    • Skarsgård plants a gun at the house of the victim's boyfriend; Pacino is only there to prevent the Jon Holt character from planting the same gun, and unfortunately he can't find the gun in time to stop the cops from assuming he's the murderer.

    • Pacino shoots the corpse of a dog that he finds in an alley when he needs to fake some forensics: Skarsgård kills a live dog.

    • The American version of the killer is clearly dead when he hits the water at the end of the movie; the Norwegian one is clearly alive (and Skarsgård stands there while he drowns).

    • Skarsgård skulks out of town after sucessfully covering up his own culpability in his partner's death; Pacino dies a hero's death after telling Hilary Swank's young cop not to cover up for him.

    And on, and on, and on. Anywhere there's an opportunity to make the Pacino character look better than he does in the original, the American version takes it. Starting with the same premise, Skjoldbjærg and Nolan managed to make completely different movies. Nolan's is about a troubled cop regaining his integrity; Skjoldbjærg's is about a man losing his already-tenuous grasp on his humanity. Nolan's version of Insomnia is a competent thriller, even a stylish one. But Skjoldbjærg's is harrowing.