We Are Who We Are (HBO)
Written by Paolo Giordano, Francesca Manieri, and Luca Guadagnino
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has a talent for making small, everyday moments bubble over with emotion and energy. In his mini-series, We Are Who We Are, the daily travails of American teenagers living on a military base in Italy will be going along as expected, and then the right music cue and change in camera speed elevate the outing into something mythic, poetic, beautiful. Just as he’s done in I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino is once again exploring ideas of love and of being an uncomfortable outsider in a new place. The result is the best television program of 2020, a work of art that reminds us why HBO is a powerhouse for quality television that allows artists to manifest their vision.
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Written by Franco Ferrini & Dario Argento
Directed by Dario Argento
I have tried to find something to like about Dario Argento’s movies for almost twenty years, and I have finally gotten to the point where I can say I dislike almost everything he ever made. Deep Red is a decent movie, but even Suspiria is a narrative mess. After seeing Luca Guadagnino’s take on that horror classic, it helped me know that I just don’t care for how Argento elevates style so far over substance to the point that his films devolve into incomprehensible messes. Phenomena is one of those movies that I tried my best to enjoy, but by the third act, I just wanted it to end.
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Cinema Paradiso (1988)
Written by Giuseppe Tornatore and Vanna Paoli
Directed by Giuseppe Tornatore
Cinema Paradiso did a lot of things. It garnered a lot of attention for Miramax, who distributed the film in the United States. By winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Picture and helped revive Italy’s faltering cinema industry which had once dominated cinema with the New Wave films. When you watch Cinema Paradiso, it feels like a template for audience-pleasing Oscar movies to come, but you have to remember the movie wasn’t made with those pretensions in mind. One thing it did not do was bring its director, Giuseppe Tornatore a large amount of attention, but it kept him working even today.
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The Great Beauty (2013)
Written by Paolo Sorrentino & Umberto Contarello
Directed by Paolo Sorrentino
Jep Gambardella has just turned sixty-five and has spent decades in Rome as a journalist, mingling with an aging crowd of partygoers, washed-up celebrities, and wannabe artists. He’s suddenly forced to face reality when he learns that his first love, a slightly older woman he met as a teenager has died. Jep begins to reevaluate his idea of beauty and becomes lost in nostalgia for a time that may have never been at all. Along the way, he encounters the wealthy, and the holy all seem unable to answer his question or give him meaningful guidance.
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Call Me By Your Name (2017)
Written by James Ivory
Directed by Luca Guadagnino
Elio is the son of academics living in northern Italy. He spends his days consuming books and composing piano pieces. He is also in friendship with local girl Marzia where the beginnings of attraction are forming. Summer looks to be a monotonous season until Oliver arrives. Oliver is an American doctoral student who has come to get the aid of Elio’s father in revising his dissertation. Elio finds himself drawn to Oliver and even feeling pangs of jealousy when it appears the older man fancies a woman in town. As Elio explores and discovers himself in this formative year, he becomes aware of his feelings for Oliver. First, with some anger, he tries to push them aside, and finally, he confesses all of this to Oliver who reciprocates.
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I Am Love (2009, dir. Luca Guadagnino)
Starring Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini
I Am Love is attempting to tread the same territory of Italian cinema in the late 1950s and 60s, in particular I was reminded of Visconti’s The Leopard. They were films about the aristocracy and the secrets that lied beneath the clean and constructed surface. I Am Love brings modern elements into its plot, but still manages to evoke a sense of the classical. Swinton is perfectly cast as a Russian-turned-Italian via marriage. And the cast around her does an excellent job in their roles. The plot is fairly straightforward, there are only a few twists, but its the cinematography and music that really raise the picture above the rest.
Emma Recchi (Swinton) is the matriarch of an Italian family who has made its fortune in textiles, even during the time of Mussolini, an element that plays a bit part sub-textually in the film. Her husband and son have inherited the business from the elderly father and a tension exists, as Emma’s husband believed he would be the sole inheritor. Emma has recently met her son’s friend, Antonio, an aspiring chef. Emma’s son is helping fund Antonio’s first venture into the restaurant business and so she and the young man become more acquainted, eventually starting an affair.
You will be an awe of the camera work in this film. It is some of the most lush and gorgeous work I have ever seen on film. Director Guadagnino is able to pull the warmth right out of his bright spring scenes and bone chilling cold from the winter ones. This is a very sensual film, constantly focused on sex and food, and to get those themes across you need powerful cinematography just like this. In addition, the choice to use musical pieces by John Adams was brilliant. Adams’ contemporary orchestral music helps to create momentum and then a sense of urgency, especially in the film’s surprisingly frantic finale. A great overlooked picture that every fan of good foreign cinema should check out.
Amarcord (1973, dir. Federico Fellini)
Italy is an incredibly complex landscape. Since World War II they have been through dozens of governmental regimes and even before, there has been a centuries long intermingling of the Vatican and secular government. But these are the issues of adults, and as children we rarely are aware of the intermingling of government and our daily lives. We simply live our lives, and what stands out as monumental to us are those local moments. Federico Fellini returns to the Italy of his childhood here, life on a coastal Italian village where life is told through the observance of the seasons. What he creates is a small town masterpiece, on par with Our Town and Under Milkwood.
Beginning at the start of Spring, Amarcord (meaning “I Remember”) follows the denizens of an unnamed village through the course of a single year. The story is told in a series of vignettes, almost like a collection of interconnected short stories that feature recurring characters. The core of the film focuses on Titta, an adolescent coming of age in this particular year, getting in trouble with schoolmates, dreaming about life outside of the constraints of the village, and lusting after the gorgeous women of the town. There is also Gradisca, the most beautiful woman in the village who is never seriously pursued by any of the men in town. There’s Aurelio, Titta’s father, a local businessman who may or may not be involved in anti-Mussolini activities.
The film is not political, rather anti-establishment of any sort. There is a wonderful series of scenes taking place near the end of the school year where we are presented with a parade of the most outlandish and absurd teachers. This is something Fellini has a real gift for in all his work: casting the most interesting looking actors, who defy the traditional movie star standards. Every actor in this film look like a wonderfully bizarre illustration in a storybook. The flights of fancy the teenaged characters take are also quite amusing, in particular one boy whom dreams of a wedding with his crush during a visit from one of Mussolini’s lieutenants. They stand before a floral Mussolini head made for the parade and its mouth moves, delivering the wedding ceremony.
There are also moments of reality that have an equally magical effect. At one point, the townspeople migrate to their small rowboats to go out a few miles from the coast for a chance at glimpsing an massive Italian ocean liner, symbol to all of them in this moment of Italy’s hollow power. Another powerful moment occurs during the winter when, during an impromptu snowball fight, large male peacock swoops down from the sky and perches on a fountain in the square. The way the bird is filmed was in such a strikingly brilliant way I found myself unsure of how such a shot was achieved. Amarcord has moments of great humor and aching sadness, and because of its honest love and criticism of its characters it stands as one of the more moving cinematic experiences I have had.
Gomorrah (2008, dir. Mateo Garrone)
In Southern Italy there is a disease that infects the lives of many people living below the poverty line. This disease is a crime cartel known as the Camorra. The mafiosa organization has interwoven itself into the workings of both black market operations and legitimate enterprise, including investing in the construction of the rebuilding at Ground Zero in NYC. Such a concept seems too large to be real, but as director Garrone chronicles in this film, it is all too true.
Gomorrah, based on the nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, takes an interesting direction in telling this story. The film is divided up into five separate plot strands that occasionally interweave, but more than not remain as their own isolated story. If the plots were to connect, it would cause the film to feel insular rather than expansive, which is the feeling Garrone wants to evoke. The Hollywood version of this film would seek to be sleek, refined, and would desperate to constantly try and engage the audience. Gomorrah, plays out slowly and at a pace that could be infuriating to some viewers. It is a slice of life film, showing how mundane and common these acts of violence and crime are in the lives of the people in these regions of Italy.
The main characters are Don Ciro; a man charged with distributing cash to the families of imprisoned members of the family, Toto; a 13 year old boy who seeks to join the family to gain prominence in his slum community, Roberto; a recent university graduate working with a mob boss to illegally dump toxic waste, Pasquale; a tailor who is struggling to make the order demands of the mob and moonlighting as a sewing instructor for a Chinese-Italian sweatshop, and finally Marco and Ciro; two young men who are caught up in the fantasy of being in the mob and are unaware of the real dangers of pissing off the wrong people.
Instead of focusing the top tier of the mafia and glamorizing it, the film seeks to explore the lives of the people at the bottom rung of the ladder. The lives displayed are gritty and bleak and there doesn’t seem to be much chance of rising out of the mire. The mob has so taken over every aspect of life that they have replaced the government, and in the case of Tito, his biological family. There is much this picture has in common with Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, just even less stylistic. In fact, I believe Garrone is trying to create a film without embellishment so that the every day nature of crime is the main focus. I highly recommend this as counterprogramming to the mainstream films that stylistically glorify the criminal lifestyle