Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala) directs an adaptation by Robin Swicord of a novel by Christine Bell, yielding a comedy about Cuban immigrants in Miami that is consistently pleasurable for its lead performances by Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Chazz Palminteri, and Anjelica Huston. The story concerns a former political prisoner (Molina) who hasn’t seen his wife (Huston) and daughter (Trini Alvarado) in two decades. Though the circumstances delaying their reunion seem a little contrived in spots, the details about what Cuban immigrants have to contend with and the spirited riffs of the actors keep this busy and bubbling. With Celia Cruz and Lazaro Perez. Ford City, Lake, Webster Place, Evanston, Norridge, Chestnut Station, Plaza.
From the Chicago Reader (May 19, 1995). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Pier Paolo Pasolini
With Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti, Silvana Corsini, Luisa Orioli, Paolo Volponi, Luciano Gonini, Vittorio La Paglia, and Piero Morgia.
Who can predict the changes in intellectual fashion over 20 years? In 1975, when the controversial Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was brutally murdered by a 17-year-old boy in a Roman suburb, he was no more in vogue than he had been throughout his stormy career. If any openly gay writer-director was an international star in the mid-70s, it was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who at that point was spinning out as many as three or four features a year; he died in 1982 after an orgy of cocaine abuse.
Pasolini and Fassbinder were both maverick leftists who often alienated other leftists as well as everyone on the right, and both had a taste for rough trade, but in terms of their generations (Pasolini was born in 1922, Fassbinder in 1946) and cultural reference points they were radically different. The only reason to compare them now is to note how much their reputations and visibility have changed here over the last two decades. In 1995 Fassbinder is much less a household name in the United States than either Jean-Luc Godard or Andy Warhol, the two artists he was most often compared to when he was alive, whereas Pasolini has much more currency. For one thing, nearly all of Pasolini’s features are available on video, and nearly all in their original screen formats — a fact that separates him from Fellini, Antonioni, and Rossellini. (All that’s missing of his filmography in this country are most of the shorts, many of them major efforts.)
It’s unlikely that Pasolini is as important as these three other Italian filmmakers, though as a writer his reputation is well established. (Only a few years ago Alberto Moravia called him “the greatest Italian poet of the second half of the 20th century.”) But he remains a key figure to many major filmmakers. One of the crucial episodes in Nanni Moretti’s recent Caro diario is Moretti’s visit to the site of Pasolini’s murder, and when I once asked the late Armenian master Sergei Paradjanov (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, Sayat Nova) what filmmakers were important to him, he reflected for about half an hour on why such directors as Luis Bunuel and even his friend Andrei Tarkovsky were too middle-class, then settled on Pasolini as the only contemporary he respected without qualification. Orson Welles, who appeared in a Pasolini short made immediately after Mamma Roma, was surprisingly respectful: “Terribly bright and gifted. Crazy mixed-up kid, maybe — but on a very superior level. I mean Pasolini the poet, spoiled Christian, and Marxist ideologue. There’s nothing mixed-up about him on a movie set.”
As a poet and novelist and in particular as a newspaper writer, Pasolini enjoyed an influence on Italian culture that would be unthinkable for an American intellectual, but scandal followed him there as it followed him everywhere else, and its impact was international. I’ll never forget the strident, hysterical hooting of professional critics at a late-60s New York press screening of Pasolini’s remarkable Teorema, a deadly serious parable about a contemporary Christ figure (Terence Stamp) seducing every member of an Italian household — father, mother, sister, brother, maid — then disappearing, thereby traumatizing everyone in a different fashion. This movie floored me at the time with its brute eloquence as well as its simple audacity, but it brought irate responses from some of my friends. “The trouble with Pasolini is he wants to be fucked by Jesus and Marx at the same time,” one of them said, and she certainly had a point; it’s hard to think of another artist for whom Marxism, Catholicism, and homosexuality were at once so urgent, so alive, and so outrageously interdependent.
Mamma Roma was Pasolini’s second feature, made five years before Teorema. It’s a good deal less provocative, but it remains one of his better features — and until Martin Scorsese decided to release it, it was the only one that hadn’t been distributed in the United States.
The movie originally came about because the great actress Anna Magnani saw Pasolini’s Accatone in 1962 and decided she wanted to make a feature with him. Pasolini spent three weeks writing a vehicle for her, then began shooting almost immediately. What emerged from their encounter was not entirely satisfactory to either of them, but it remains a landmark in both their careers. A grande dame and something of a prima donna, Magnani is best known today for her films with Rossellini (Open City, The Miracle), Visconti (Bellissima), and Renoir (The Golden Coach), as well as for her 50s forays into Hollywood opposite Marlon Brando (The Fugitive Kind), Burt Lancaster (The Rose Tattoo), and Anthony Quinn (Wild Is the Wind). She was arguably as much an auteur as Pasolini, and the results of their collaboration are a good deal more memorable than his subsequent teaming with Maria Callas on the 1970 Medea.
“In Pasolini’s first films, upward mobility is a descent into hell,” writes critic P. Adams Sitney in his recent book Vital Crises in Italian Cinema. And because upward mobility is all that the title heroine of Mamma Roma really aspires to — trying to find a “better” life for her son than she’s managed for herself, edging him into the lower middle class — this would be a tragic story even if she succeeded. A former prostitute, she joyously attends the rural wedding of her pimp Carmine (Franco Citti) and a respectable country woman in the film’s opening scene: the event signals not only the official end of her servitude but the opportunity to collect her teenage son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo) — who knows nothing about her work — from the countryside and bring him to an apartment she’s found for them in the public housing of a Roman suburb. She eventually finds work selling fruits and vegetables in an open market and, with the help of a prostitute friend, begins stage-managing Ettore’s sex life — steering him away from a promiscuous older woman and single mother — and conniving to get him the right sort of job, as a restaurant waiter, through an elaborate blackmail scheme. But by this time Carmine, who’s left his wife, turns up at her flat demanding that she give him money even if she has to return to prostitution to get it — and threatening to tell Ettore about her past if she refuses.
Pasolini began his filmmaking career as a postneorealist: Citti and Garofolo, like most of the other actors in the film except Magnani, were working-class nonprofessionals whom he more or less pulled off the street. In fact Citti, whom Pasolini had also cast in Accatone, was arrested and put in prison during the shooting of Mamma Roma; Pasolini refused to replace him, holding up the production until Citti was released. When he discovered Garofolo, Pasolini wrote: “It was beautiful, like finding the last verse, the most important, of a poem, like finding a perfect rhyme.” But Magnani came from the petite bourgeoisie, and the fact that her character — “Mamma Ro,” as most of her friends in the film call her — aspires to that class when the actress was actually of it was apparently the source of most of the problems between her and Pasolini.
In Open City (1946) — the film that made her famous, and a favorite of Pasolini’s — Magnani plays a courageous partisan during World War II who’s killed by the Nazis while carrying an unborn child. It’s been noted that if she and her child had both lived, they might well have become Mamma Roma and Ettore; certainly they’re the right ages. But Pasolini’s film communicates an acute pessimism about Italy that makes it as much a critique of Open City as a sequel to it. That pessimism continued to the end of his life and career: ultimately he rejected contemporary settings entirely. For him consumer culture and the obliteration of the Italian peasantry were two sides of the same ugly coin; he set his last picture, Salo, during the final days of Italian fascism and gave his pessimism apocalyptic overtones.
For all its direct emotional power, Mamma Roma is choppy and often somewhat disjointed as storytelling. The viewer is frequently confused about how much time has passed between sequences, and the dramatic confrontations that the story seems to demand and promise — such as a scene between mother and son after he discovers her prostitution — are often left out.
Yet Mamma Roma remains a delicate and at times beautiful work. For all Magnani’s volcanic eruptions in an exuberant bravura performance, this tragedy often seems to have been perceived from a certain distance; the music we hear is mainly Vivaldi (Concerto in D Minor and Concerto in C Major), and Pasolini’s sources for the look of the film came from art history rather than other movies. “That which I carry in my head as vision, as a visual field,” he recorded in a diary during the shooting of Mamma Roma, “are the frescoes of Masaccio and of Giotto — the painters I love most along with certain mannerists (for example, Pontormo).” It’s a tribute to Pasolini’s conception that these classical references seem more natural outgrowths of the story than contrivances imposed on it. When Ettore toward the end is linked to images of the crucified Christ, it’s only after an extended initiation into the brutality of his surroundings has been presented as a calvary. And it seems appropriate that Pasolini’s final image of blighted urban wasteland, a vacant lot surrounded by grimy buildings and a church, should reverberate like an El Greco.
Also known as For Fun, a title I prefer, this is a delightful comedy from mainland China (1992) about grumbly old men, directed and cowritten by a young woman, Ning Ying, who studied film in both Beijing and Italy, was assistant director on The Last Emperor, and is currently director of the Beijing Film Studio. An old man is obliged to retire from his job as house manager for a local Peking Opera troupe, and after he finds a few opera buffs around his age in a park he organizes a club that meets in an abandoned hall. Working mainly with nonprofessionals, Ning shows a genuine flair for documentary-style shooting and humorous observation, though this is only her second feature. She’s clearly someone to watch. Adapted with Ning Dal from a novella by Chen Jiangong; with Huang Zongluo and Huang Wenjie. To be screened as part of the Silver Images Film Festival. Facets Multimedia Center, 1517 W. Fullerton, Saturday, May 20, 1:15, 281-4114 or 881-8491.
A sturdily made and beautifully acted comedy-drama about aging from Bob Balaban, whose Parents showed him to be an imaginative director who knows what to do with a set and how to enter the worlds of lonely people. The story here, adapted by Balaban and John McLaughlin from a Richard Bausch novel, concerns a retired violinist (Armin Mueller-Stahl) living in Brooklyn who puts up a homeless former neighbor in her early 20s (Olivia d’Abo) and develops an unexpected relationship with her. His only friend–another former neighbor, now dying in a rest home–is played by the late Lionel Stander, one of the juiciest Hollywood character actors who ever lived. His fabulous swan song is reason enough to see this picture, though Balaban’s taste and intelligence and the warmth of the other cast members (including Maureen Stapleton, Adrian Pasdar, and Kevin Corrigan) provide further incentive. This is one of those rare American movies that know what they’re doing and where they’re going every step of the way. Esquire.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Still.
Rating * Has redeeming facet
Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
Written by Adam Brooks
With Meg Ryan, Kevin Kline, Timothy Hutton, Jean Reno, Francois Cluzet, Susan Anbeh, and Renee Humphrey.
The great Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch once remarked during the heyday of the studios, “There is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris, and of course the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all.” French Kiss offers a movie Paris of its own, but it isn’t one that belongs to any studio or director–or one that any Parisian would recognize. It belongs to this country, and it represents about two decades of bad faith–a copy of a copy of a stereotype, bred out of so much defensiveness and attitude that today anything approximating the real Paris has to be discarded for fear of disorienting the viewer.
After all, French Kiss is a standard-issue romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline, the success of which depends on an audience feeling immediately comfortable wherever it happens to be taken. I can’t vouch for the writer, a Canadian named Adam Brooks, but I suspect that the director, acclaimed hack Lawrence Kasdan, is at least partially aware of the deception involved in making an audience comfortable. He must realize, for instance, that Kline, who plays a Frenchman, is equipped with an accent that bears little resemblance to that of any French person speaking English but has a great deal to do with a by-now hallowed comic tradition of American actors impersonating French people. “Authenticity” is therefore measured by adherence to a familiar set of habits and the success of those habits with audiences.
The same principle applies to the way we commonly perceive other national traits. Ask an average American to name something typically Chinese and there’s a fair chance you’ll be told fortune cookies, an American invention smiled at in Asia. The French term for “French kiss” is baise anglaise, which means “English kiss.” In other words, countries sometimes like to credit other countries with their own inventions in order to define them.
In French Kiss, Meg Ryan plays Kate, an American living in Toronto with Charlie (Timothy Hutton), her Canadian fiance, while she waits for her Canadian citizenship to come through. She instinctively hates the French because “they hate us,” “they smoke,” and she isn’t comfortable with what they do with dairy products. She’s also terrified of flying and refuses to accompany Charlie to a medical conference in Paris. But after Charlie calls her from Paris to announce that he’s fallen madly in love with a Frenchwoman, she grits her teeth and boards a flight to Paris, planning to confront him and win him back.
Sitting next to Kate on the plane is Luc (Kline), your typical obnoxious French male–a petty criminal, we soon discover, who chats her up on the plane, sneaks an illegal plant and a stolen necklace into her purse as they’re going through customs, and then follows her to the George V Hotel. By the time he arrives she’s found out that Charlie has set his room phone on “do not disturb,” as well as been rebuffed by your typical obnoxious hotel concierge and had all her things stolen by another typical obnoxious French male thief who just happens to be a friend of Luc. (As we quickly discover in this movie, every French criminal knows every other French criminal and every cop knows every criminal.) Stealing a car, Luc helps her recover some of her stolen belongings and then, trailed by a cop, accompanies her on the train to Cannes, where Charlie is now headed with his French cutie (Susan Anbeh) to meet her parents. On the way Luc and Kate stop off in Luc’s hometown, where she learns he’s a former landowner from good peasant stock (making him suitable as a hero–earthy and aristocratic) who gambled away his share of the family vineyards; all simple Luc really wants to do now is settle down in the area and grow his own grapes. Then they proceed to Cannes, where everyone, including the Paris cop, is converging, and exactly what you’d expect to happen eventually happens.
The poetic paraphrases of Europe found in Lubitsch comedies and musicals of the 30s were above all selective appreciations lovingly shaped by a former European for the American market. Traces of this idealist tradition persisted in Hollywood for at least four decades (Billy Wilder’s 1972 Avanti! may represent the last full flowering of it), and during the last decade or so of this era a renaissance in European filmmaking based in France and Italy made those countries seem closer than ever to a number of Americans. Since then the distance between us has been growing wider and wider, and it’s not easy to understand why, especially since the distance between the U.S. and parts of Asia, for example, appears to have been shrinking during the same period.
The feelings of closeness that used to exist between the U.S. and Europe were mainly reciprocal. Douglas Sirk’s German feature Final Accord (1936), screened at the Film Center last week, begins with the action shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic between New York City and Berlin as if the two cities were adjacent. A woman in Manhattan regains her will to live while listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony broadcast live from Berlin; the conductor’s nonmusical wife, who’s also in Berlin, doesn’t even think of turning on the radio. Sirk’s utopian point was that emotions cancel distances, which is what happened when Parisian film critic Jean-Luc Godard saw Hollywood movies during the 50s and when American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Hal Hartley saw some of Godard’s 60s movies during the 80s and 90s.
Yet over the past 20 years a creeping Francophobia has been making such possibilities seem more and more remote to mainstream concerns. It’s hard to know where such an impulse comes from apart from isolationism pure and simple. After all, some Cannes waiters and Parisian concierges are obnoxious, but some aren’t–and I doubt this has changed very much over the past 60 years, during which time this country has undergone a sea change in its attitude toward France.
In the 90s alone you can chart this change by looking at articles about movies and the French in the New York Times Sunday magazine and Arts & Leisure section–always a reliable index of some of the more egregious received ideas of this country’s middle class. There one can read such guff as the notions that the average French moviegoer regards Mickey Rourke as a hero worthy of Greek tragedy and that American spectators are missing today’s greatest French films because we aren’t seeing the original Francis Veber farces Hollywood is remaking. When the Times wanted an article about Cahiers du Cinema to promote a 1992 film series, it commissioned a piece from someone who wrote that the magazine “is no longer fascinated by Hollywood”–a conclusion possible only for someone who hadn’t read or even looked at the covers of the magazine for almost 15 years. Now that Cahiers is about as unfascinated by Hollywood as Premiere and seems uninterested in making discoveries that haven’t already been validated elsewhere, this may be a moot point. But obviously a sense of ease is restored whenever the Times can assure its readers that they aren’t missing out on anything.
French Kiss jettisons every vestige of the Lubitsch and post-Lubitsch Wilder tradition in conveying France to an American audience, but it does reach for a venerable and even faintly archaic Hollywood staple, rear projection, when it comes to dealing with the passing scenery. This theoretically enables Kasdan to respect the geography of real places while shooting in a studio, though when Luc has to drive northeast in his stolen car from the George V Hotel to Pigalle the journey we’re shown takes him southwest to the Palais de Chaillot (so we can take in a good view of the Eiffel Tower), then, in an almost equally improbable detour, due east to the Place de la Concorde. Later, at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, the view from Luc and Kate’s window of the Mediterranean shows the opposite shore–implying that Algeria’s only a few miles away.
Like the ludicrous conversations that take place between French people throughout this movie, this Disney World version of France is wrong for a reason. The daunting challenge of transforming a Francophobe’s France into a romantic backdrop for Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline becomes easier if she isn’t an embarrassing ugly American but a Canadian-in-progress and he isn’t the arrogant guttersnipe he appears to be but is actually landed gentry in disguise, a gentleman informer even the head flic regards with the proper awe and respect. Similarly, the threat of an uncharted Paris and Cannes is removed when both cities are rendered cozy, surrounded by familiar landmarks; even a rude concierge and a snotty waiter become part of the Hollywood-approved scenery. (It’s a pity that Ryan’s most winning trait, her sensuality, is smothered by such calculation, though she does get off a nice, spontaneous little victory dance after impressing her former fiance on the Cannes beach.)
In the final analysis, we tend to mistrust anything we don’t know much about, and the desire not to know much about France may provide a soupcon of protection against looking too closely at some of our own practices and priorities. (The fact that our government gives more money to military marching bands than to all other arts combined is silly enough–especially as part of the argument that we should fund only art unsullied by ideology–but it becomes even sillier alongside French state support of the arts.) One of the most telling moments of French Kiss, clearly unintended as ironic, occurs when Kate sees that Luc has joined her on the train to Cannes and says, “Do what you want. It’s a free country…isn’t it?” Within that short pause of uncertainty can be found the basic roots of our French bashing, as well as the surest confirmation that it will prevail.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Still.