Tag Archives: Italy

61st London Film Festival – Day 8 i

Three PeaksThe day started with an absolute nerve-shredder! It was under the LOVE section so I was not entirely prepared for this. Three Peaks, an new film by German director Jan Zabeil, was filmed on location in the Dolomite Mountains. A three-hander, we meet a young couple with a little boy, Tristan, who is about eight. It soon becomes apparent that Aaron, a strong, healthy outdoorsy man, played by Alexander Fehling, is the step-father.

This becomes more and more problematic, mostly for Tristan but also for Aaron who says openly that at times he loves him but also at times wishes he wasn’t there.

There are some really beautiful scenes with Aaron and Tristan walking and climbing in the mountains near to the three peaks, it is astonishingly beautiful and also changeable, both the weather and the emotions can alter in a fraction of a second…

The boy, Arian Montgomery, is a consummate actor already, his expressive little face showed anger, joy, excitement and anxiety and it was in the Q&A that we were told quite how remarkable he had been, able even at such a young age to take instruction, think about it and then “act”.

This should have been an idyllic holiday, a log cabin in the mountains, what more could one ask? The film explores both the potential wonder of such relationships and the toxic alternative, with devastating truthfulness.

One thing I do notice though, audiences (and I have seen a good few in the thirty years that I have been coming to the London Film Festival) seem more and more uncomfortable with open endings. At nearly every Q&A that I have been to in the last three years, members of the audience have asked the director whether what ended the film meant either/or. In today’s film, Jan put the question back to the audience and it went 50/50 to a bad or good next step. But I find it interesting that people want to KNOW…is it that we live in such uncertain times that we cannot bear even our entertainment not to tell us exactly what happens next?

This film, as yet, has no UK distribution which seems a pity. You have one more chance to see it on the screen if you can get tickets for Saturday 14th at NFT2

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Family secrets

Tolstoy is supposed to have said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“, the same can be said of family secrets, happy families have small secrets that do no harm; unhappy families seem to have secrets that can cause damage generation after generation. So it is with the two books I am writing about today.

conradThe one I read first was Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers. The two eponymous characters are scientists, they met at Cambridge, married when Eleanor fell pregnant, have four children and have been married some twenty five years. The children are all very different, but the third child, Caro is even physically different from the rest of the family.

But one quite outwardly ordinary day, Conrad fails to return from a conference in Germany. For a couple of days, Eleanor convinces herself that this is just because he missed his flight, she had the wrong day anyway or some fairly logical but unexplained reason. But soon, the continued silence, the fact that his colleagues seem perplexed by his non-appearance and her children’s concern force upon her than this is no ordinary absence.

Caro takes off to Munich in pursuit, Eleanor feels conflicted, was this the best option? But there is no stopping Caro, she will go and find him. Meanwhile, Eleanor overhears her other children discussing the possibility that she has “done away with him”.

During the course of this novel, we see both partners considering their past relationships; ones they have with other people as well as each other. The disappearance makes Eleanor review her behaviour, which has not been admirable and Conrad reviews the circumstances that have caused him to run and hide…

Professional conflict, work related stress and general busyness accounts for some of the fracture, professional jealousy also plays into the mix, and personal jealousy contributes to a fairly toxic situation. But it is not until there is a crisis on this scale that either of them take the necessary steps to resolve the failing marriage.  Inertia has caused them to carry on, both on a separate trajectory that is contributing to their lack of communication plus the dreaded secret – the uncovering of which has caused a leprosy of distrust to blight the marriage, the slow deadening of feelings…

Jane Rogers has the ability to observe human frailty with a warm and insightful gaze, to impart this on to the page in a way that packs an immense punch. To pick up almost any of her novels is to enter a world of awareness into characters that may be widely different in age and circumstance from our own and to inhabit their world completely for the next three hundred or so pages. Gifted and brilliant writing.

The second novel, also by a well known writer, is Cousins by Sally Vickers. This is a book after my own heart. It speaks to me of the sort of family I know, Northumbrians root and branch, with a pedigree that goes back generations and who have lived man and boy in the same house for many, many years. Dowlands, at the start of this novel, is in the hands of Hetta’s parents having been given over to them in a rather run-down state by Hetta’s grandfather. The book is told from the point of view of three women, all related to William Tye whose devastating accident is the focal point of the opening chapter.cousins

Hetta Tye is William’s younger sister, the older girl is called Sydella, know as Syd who lives in Jordan with her husband Omar. Hetta recounts all of the first section. Bell recounts the second section.  Bell is William’s aunt, sister of his father, and mother (single) of Cecelia always called Cele. Bell is a wild card, rackety and irresponsible but with a generous heart, in the eyes of the family she finally redeems herself.

As you might imagine, from the title of the book, William, Cele and Hetta are very close, and have been for as long as anyone could remember. Cele was often, not to say always, parked with William and Hetta either at Dowlands or at the house of their grandparents, Wilfred and Bertha Tye, always know as Fred and Betsy, while Bell was off with one partner or another.

Betsy, William’s grandmother, is the narrator in the third section and the final section returns to Hetta. There are more cousins, Fred and Betsy happen to be first cousins, they have three children, the eldest is Nathaniel, he also figures in this story, although even before the beginning of the novel he has died in an accident; another uncle who has died is Fred’s older brother who was killed in action.

This may all seem rather incestuous now, but reading around from books that include The Bible and many Victorian novels, the marriage of first cousins was not thought in any way odd or unsavoury or, even, unwise until quite recently. The Tye family are in no way unique, you only have to look at many Quaker family trees to find married first cousins, and as I said, Abraham sent Isaac off to marry one of the daughters of his brother.

Consanguinity and its consequences were not recognised until the mid-twentieth century. Inbreeding increases the risk of genetic disorders which leads to a decreased biological fitness, a fact which was only studied properly fairly recently. Parents with similar genetic mutations may be unaware of and unaffected by any disorder, however their children are at a higher risk and may be susceptible. Even second cousins who marry and have children, will have given their offspring a higher level  of risk than the rest of the population.

Cousins is not really about the genetic risks, but there is a definite undercurrent of family disasters being visited upon generation after generation. It is this that makes the novel so fascinating, the hidden histories that are slowly revealed, family secrets that impact one upon another. Collateral damage being how each event impacts on the rest of the group, in much the same way as a pebble thrown into a lake.

This is also a book about love and the risks that one will take, for love or through loving someone enough, or too much.

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States of Mind

I don’t know whether it is reasonable to mix fiction and non-fiction in a single post, but I am going to do it anyway.
MillerThe Crossing, a new novel by Andrew Miller, follows the strange relationship between Maud and Tim, centred round a sailing boat called Lodestar. Everything seems superficially to be fine, marriage and a child, new house – but pregnancy has affected Maud’s inner certainties and then when tragedy strikes she goes deep into herself, unable to function except on a purely automatic level. Then one day, she wakes up and takes the Lodestar out of her moorings, fully equipped for a long voyage, the longest she has ever undertaken…

LiptrotThe non-fiction book is a difficult and demanding memoir by Amy Liptrot. Leaving Orkney to follow her dream of success in England, Amy lands up in Hackney. Several years, and several jobs later and more drinks than is good for her and with a broken heart and in danger of killing herself, she drags herself back to Orkney. This painful but honest memoir, swings between rotten descriptions of a drunkard’s depravity to a sublime recognition of the beauty of nature. Orkney being a far outpost of land is beaten with wind and weather straight off the Atlantic, and hunkered down against the raw power of nature, the land reveals itself to Amy as a survivor. The longer she stays sober, fighting her demons, the more she perceives the struggle around her of flora and fauna simply to survive. There are wonderful passage of poetic beauty in this book. The Outrun, the title of this book, is the name of the slightly untamed land at the edge of a farm where animals are sent to graze during the summer months, Highland cattle and sheep bred for hardiness. Recognising in her addiction to alcohol something akin to her father’s manic depression, Amy’s battle takes on a new enemy, but one that she is now better equipped to fight – herself. This is a book about forgiveness and redemption as much as anything. It is on the short list of the Wellcome Prize.

ThomsonKatherine Carlyle is a strange and disturbing novel, the eponymous heroine is the result of an in-vitro fertilisation, the fertilised egg has been stored for some years before she is actually “born”, and somehow this suspension of life comes to figure largely in her choices. In Rupert Thomson‘s novel we never learn why there was such a delay but the eight years seem to matter to Katherine. Sadly, she also has to cope with the death of her mother, from cancer – presumably the reason for the in-vitro procedure? Though born in England, she moves with her family to Italy, we meet her first alone in an apartment. Her father, a journalist, is away on an assignment and overhearing a casual conversation at a table nearby, Katherine decides to re-invent herself. She takes off to Germany, in pursuit of a new person and her path follows a perverse and unstable trajectory. She knows how many days it will be before her father returns to Italy, will she disappear from those few days and then return, of will she disappear further still, waiting for him to start looking for her – is this a test? If so, who is being tested? Having left her first encounter, chosen deliberately as a result of the overheard information, she abandons another contact and falls in with a louche and unappealing con man; through his contacts, dubious to say the least, she ends up in Russia – but when that does not suit her, she takes off further and further north…and vanishes.

Goshen What is a good upstanding Israeli doctor, an eminent neurosurgeon thinking when he hits a man on a deserted road in the middle of the night? He panics and thereby hangs the whole of the rest of the novel. In Ayelet Gundar-Goshen‘s second novel, Waking Lions we are confronted with a dilemma – what are we capable of? Instead of thinking his way out of trouble, he drives off. But not before he has got out of his red SUV and examined the man lying there with his head split open and his brains leaking into the sand. Einat Green knows that the man will die, and that he has killed him, what he does not realise is that he is being watched by a woman lying to one side where she has just be punched terribly hard by her husband. So Green drives off, but he has dropped his wallet and the woman he didn’t see, and would never have “seen” had he walked past her in a street, has seen him and has seen his wallet, can read and comes to find him and from then on until the last few pages, his cowardice and her intelligence keep the two of them in thrall.

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59th London Film Festival Day 11

SVSworn Virgin, a debut feature from Director Laura Bispuri, comes in the JOURNEY Section. An unsettling film, set first in a remote area of Albania where women are completely subservient to men. The brides are blindfold when they travel to their husband’s village so that they cannot find their way home, that sort of subservient.

Two girls, Lila and Hana (Hana’s parents are both dead and her life has been saved by Lila’s father) romp around together in the snow, but are troubled by their lack of freedom. Eventually, Lila escapes with her boyfriend and Hana, a tomboy, takes the only step available to someone of her persuasion. She swears never to have sexual congress with anyone and becomes a legitimised man in the eyes of the village. Her hair is cut and she wears men’s clothing and takes the name Mark.

Eventually the father dies, we witness an unusual and moving burial ceremony and life goes on for Mark, he helps deliver goods around the community by boat, herds goats and then suddenly we see him getting off a bus in Italy.

He arrives unannounced at Lila’s house, she is married with a child and is not entirely welcoming, but accepts the situation; unlike her daughter who only thaws slowly. The journey that Mark (and indeed, Lila’s daughter) is taking moves on until finally he/she reverts to being a woman.

There were some odd changes of mood and scene, often very abruptly which added to the unsettling nature of the film. The landscape in Albania, though dramatic and severe, seemed to be permanently in a state of winter, maybe this was a metaphor reflecting the cold, heartless nature of the choice Hana was forced to make. It was beautiful though, steep mountains falling straight into water, wispy clouds obscuring the tops, but also an unforgiving terrain.

An unusual film.

TruthTruth is a very different film. A docudrama about two reporters, Dan Rather and Mary Mapes who attempt to disclose the fact that George W Bush, who was campaigning for a second term of office had avoided the Vietnam draft. Having found compelling evidence, they go live on CBS, only to have the case blown out of the water. Robert Redford, playing the CBS anchor man and reprising his role (somewhat) in All the President’s Men seems indefatigable, and was entirely at home in the role. Cate Blanchett, who plays Mary is scintillating, smooth, taut and brilliant. It is a clever reconstruction based on Mary Mapes book, Truth and Duty – The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power.

This is America. The military, the reputation of the candidate and a host of other things conspire against the evidence; there is an on-line frenzy which is followed by an “independent” review. Mary loses, the report is destructive and as a consequence of her brave exposure, many people lost their jobs, not least Dan and Mary, herself – who was sacked by CBS. This did not stop the organisation from accepting a Peabody Award for her journalism and exposure of the Abu Graib scandal, one of the more important pieces of journalism in recent history.

Cate Blanchett has been awarded the Fellowship Presentation.

James Vanderbilt has produced a tense political/media drama which explores the relationship between trust and truth and the uncomfortable inconsistencies that lie in the pursuit and exercise of power, real political power and the power of the media.

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59th London Film Festival Day 4

Very much a day of contrasts. In the morning I went to an Italian film, a documentary about an historic bronze foundry in Milan. The foundry itself is one hundred years old, the method – lost wax – dates back to the late bronze age.

10 HGHand Gestures is artisanal study.  In a workshop where the noise of machinery, mixers, beaters, sanders precludes conversation there is very little dialogue, so apart from the radio in the background just occasionally one or other of the workmen will ask another to help move a piece, or lift something. So this documentary film by Francesco Clerici simply shows the process, pretty much from start to finish, with no voice-over just the actions of the craftsmen.

This is, in fact, a perfect way to express the work in bronze using this method since nothing is written down, there are no manuals and one workman learns from another and has done for centuries. But the sad truth is, that two of the principal workers in this foundry are within a year of retirement, and they have been unable to find apprentices – so the method may also be lost.

The lost wax method of casting uses a technique that goes back at least to the 4th Century BC, the artist (or craftsman) makes a wax model (in this case a dog lying prone upon its stomach), this is then surrounded by a series of channels and then encased in plaster. This sounds incredibly simple, but it is not. Once the basic model is made, one man creates an interlocking “outer skeleton” of sealed tubes, each one measured carefully and sealed with a sort of putty.

All the time, the camera is focused on the hands: cutting the tubes, making the putty, measuring and checking all the time; then another man mixes a bucket of plaster or clay, which first he brushes on to the model, and then slaps on using one hand only, the other behind his back like a well trained waiter.

Once the lower portion of the model is completely covered and this has dried, it is tipped up on end and more plaster is slapped on, gradually encasing the whole thing until it is completely entombed. The sarcophagus is then fired.

Moved again and packed into a bed of sand surrounded with steel walls. All the time great care is taken to remove any air bubbles or pockets. Then the metal is heated and poured through the top. Once cooled, the steel barriers are removed, the clay tomb broken up and the bronze has set into the spaces where the wax was. Simple, but ingenious.

Interspersed with the film was some archive footage of the same method being used in 1967, and apart from a few modern materials it is safe to assume that Bronze Age craftsmen did much the same.

Then there is sanding, soldering and polishing, patinating and finishing and this creation goes to join its fellows. In this case, a installation representing “I am Red“.

I am Red, in case you didn’t know, is a novel by Orhan Pamuk in which a dog, a free town dog called Red speaks to other less free dogs, the ones on leashes, and persuades them to join him in a sort of doggy parcour. The dogs, who are all different breeds and none (ie: mongrels) run about in a pack, so that in a group the dogs can be one thing, with one ‘top’ dog, generally an alpha male and when they are on their own, they can be another sort of dog – a pet or domestic animal. The metaphorical message behind this is obviously that if dogs can do this, why cannot humans – since in the domestic situation they are the ‘top’ dog? Indeed, if they are not the ‘top’ dog in the domestic relationship to their pet, then they will not be able to control it.

This is an immensely simplified version of the novel, in Hand Gestures the prone dog was taken to the installation where there were many similar dogs in various poses, both standing, sitting and lying down – significantly each dog was blindfolded.

The film was quite simply a documentary about an ancient practice that is in very real danger of being lost. It is visually elegiac, silent poetry.  The craftsmen do their job, they know exactly what they are doing and many of them have been doing it for decades, unless, before it is too late, someone comes along to learn the method then the foundry will not continue, for each man’s skill is unique, the team work involved is intricate, specialised and irreplaceable. One skill lost, the whole will disappear.

The second film was one chosen right outside my comfort zone. I deliberately choose one film like this each year, as a challenge – Bone Tomahawk may have been a bit too far out!

10 BTThis is a debut film from S. Craig Zahler, it has an all-star cast with Kurt Russell in the lead as a grizzled sheriff in a backwoods town called Bright Hope. Part Western, part thriller this is a film of extreme violence, and though at the Q&A afterwards, SCZ mentioned the influence of several great directors, Cassavates and Peter Greenaway among them, one director he did not mention was Tarrantino. Bone Tomahawk was quite up there with some of his more famous blood-lettings.

It was a Western in the sense that there were white settlers pitted against the wilderness, and there was a mystery behind some of the things that were going on. Our opening scene was of some carpetbaggers cutting the throats of a group of men and rifling through their belongings, only to find a pile of books. Fearing exposure, they run into the hills and trespass unwittingly on a sacred burial ground. The survivor of that encounter runs to Bright Hope, but in an altercation with the sheriff gets shot in the leg.

The ‘doctor’ appears to be a woman, she comes to the jail to treat the patient but by the morning, she and one deputy sheriff and the prisoner have all vanished, together with a whole lot of valuable horses, leaving behind the eviscerated corpse of the groom who happens to be a Negro. At a conference later that morning, an Indian guide explains that this group of native Americans are not quite the same as usual, they are troglodytes. Since this simply means cave dwellers – our brave settlers go off together in search of their missing fellows, including the doctor’s husband who is crippled, having fallen from a roof…

To say that this is a violent film does not quite do it justice, the violence is truly imaginative – so eye-stretchingly ghoulish in fact, that at times the audience laughed. Plenty of them left before the end and did not return. There was little to laugh at though, except for another deputy sheriff called Chicory. Chicory (Richard Jenkins) was by way of being the Shakespearean comedy act, more Justice Shallow than Dogberry, but a bit of both. Along the trail he talks inconsequentially about this and that and in extremis, he remembers a travelling troupe with a flea circus…

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58th LFF Day 11 Afternoon

The Dinner [I Nostri Ragazzi] Italy DARE Section

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Based, very loosely, on the novel by Herman Koch, this film explores the dilemma facing parents in contemporary Italy and indeed the world. Having added a scene of inexplicable violence at the beginning of the film, we meet the protagonists – professional brothers, one an attorney (avvocato) and one a paediatric surgeon. The doctor just happens to be treating the little boy who was accidentally injured by a ricochetting bullet in the first scene, the attorney is defending the man who fired the gun.

As a regular night out, the couples meet at an expensive restaurant, their respective daughter and son are at home, the cousins though have a thing going on for them on the internet, we don’t see precisely what it is but it appears to be uploaded videos of acts of unprovoked violence, but apart from that they appear ordinary, dull and normal.

However, that is not the end of the story and the tension mounts as it becomes clear that there is a lack of communication between the parents and their children, between each other and between the brothers. It is clear from the start that the older of the two men has a new wife, not liked much by her sister-in-law; there is quite obviously some sibling rivalry even though these two are middle-aged and seemingly personally successful.

One night, however, something happens that makes everyone take stock. This powerful psychological drama by Ivan de Matteo explodes with tension, high-octane emotion and complex familial loyalties play out, as the parents face a moral dilemma, they meet once again in the same restaurant. The message the film carries works on many levels depending on whether you view it as a parent, a teacher or a young adult.

There was also a short film from the Italian archive called Tubiolo and the Moon [Tubiolo e la luna] In a remote Italian village far away a little boy dreams of going to the moon.

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Watching paint dry

scan0003This should really be Man Booker Shortlist part two as it is my commentary on How to be Both, the latest novel by Ali Smith now on the list for the prize, her third shot at winning.

I was bored rigid. We start with the spirit/shade of a Renaissance painter who is watching a boy/girl in a gallery (in London but it doesn’t actually say so) where one of his/her remaining paintings hangs. We then regress into the spirit/shade memory of his/her life as a painter in Ferrara, Italy where there is a whole wall of paintings by said artist in the Palazzo Schifanoia, the painter named as Francesco del Cossa. scan0005

Apart from twelve or so, extant, paintings and one letter we know next to nothing about this artist, so Ali Smith has woven a fantastical story about how he/she came to paint this mural; three parts of a large room showing gods, goddesses, daily life and the life of the owner: Borse, newly created Duke of Ferrara, and we know this because the painter wrote and asked for more money for the work since it was better than the work done by the other painters. If you have been to the Palazzo Schifanoia, you will probably agree with his/her estimation of the work. There truly is something ethereal, and I will admit feminine, about these particular panels.

Anyway, we learn how the paint was made, applied and so on; we follow the spirit/shade following the girl with her camera in the twentieth century; and in the second part of the novel, peculiarly still called ONE, we meet this girl, now a mother taking her fractious teenage daughter and much younger son on a trip to the Palazzo Schifanoia.

But bringing it all up to the present the spirit/shade is now following only the daughter…

There were so many things I didn’t like about this book. I didn’t like the idea, the style of writing, the ingenue use of capitals and numerals, the typesetting, BUT if you are reading this blog to this point – I did finish the book. It is something that I do.

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