Pasolini’s Jesuses (Pasolini retrospective 4)

18 Apr
April 18, 2014

The TIFF Pasolini retrospective is over, now; the final screening was last Saturday (Salò, April 12) and though I’m pained to have missed the last 11 screenings, I can count myself lucky for having been in Toronto for the first five. My favourite of the lot was the one that I have perhaps seen the most times—The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964), but I almost missed at least the first few minutes, narrowly avoiding entering the wrong screening room at the Lightbox.

The last-minute change of theatres was due to an extra screening that had been added to meet overwhelming demand for Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls—a later screening, introduced by Adam Nayman, author of It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, had sold out well in advance. If I had accidentally ended up in the wrong theatre on this night, those first few minutes would have been confusing…

Verhoeven and Pasolini might seem an improbable director-swap, but in fact the two have at least one relevant quality in common—a long-held fascination with Jesus.  Of the two, it is in fact Verhoeven who has the greater command of Jesus historiography; although his PhD was in math and physics, he developed quite an expertise in the historical reconstruction of Jesus’ life. He was a voting fellow of the Jesus Seminar (the only one without a related graduate degree), and—according to a mutual online acquaintance who was also in the Seminar—reads Koine Greek (the original written language of the Gospels) “like a newspaper.” As you might know if you have read, for example, the excellent Grantland feature on his directing career from a couple of months ago, Verhoeven published in 2008 a scholarly biography of Jesus, and has long harboured plans to direct a historical Jesus movie—plans that so far have failed to come to fruition.

You might well ask whether such a film—the life story of Jesus narrowed down to the parts that are historically possible and probable—would be possible even to make. For his part, Pasolini felt sure that it wasn’t—at least, not for him. “If I had reconstructed the history of Christ as he really was I would not have produced a religious film because I am not a believer… I would have produced a positivist or Marxist reconstruction at the most, and thus at best a life which could have been the life of any one of the five or six thousand holy men who were preaching at that time in Palestine. But I did not want to do this, because I am not interested in deconsecrating: this is a fashion I hate, it is petit-bourgeois.”

Pasolini was much more interested in the Christ of myth than the Jesus of history (a cliched distinction that buries some complications, I realize), and nothing gives greater proof of that than the Christ narratives and Christ figures that dominate many of his films: Franco Citti as the titular pimp in Accattone, Ettore Garofolo as the ill-fated son in Mamma Roma, Terence Stamp as an almost-otherworldly seducer in Teorema. It is almost too obvious to mention but there is also Pasolini’s infamously court-case-inducing, supposedly blasphemous short film La Ricotta, featuring Orson Welles in a brilliant comic turn as a bourgeois Jesus-film-making director. La Ricotta features not just one but two Christ-figures—the actor portraying in the film-within-the-film one of the thieves crucified with Christ, and the actor portraying Jesus. The former turns out to be the true proletarian Christ of the narrative, while the latter is implicitly false.

I sometime encounter statements that seem to marvel at the thought that this highly secular, gay, Marxist intellectual directed a movie about Jesus that leaves in most of the significant miracles and contains no dialog that doesn’t come directly from the Gospel, but this rather overlooks the fact that the Jesus of Il vangelo secondo Matteo is, by my count, the fifth in a series of at least six cinematic Christs that Pasolini deployed in his films.

What is more, the specifically Matthean Christ is there, indirectly, in his very first film, Accattone, via a looped excerpt from the finale of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion that repeats on the soundtrack. Pasolini would bring back this piece, along with the tune of a famous aria from the same oratorio, on the soundtrack of his film of Matthew’s Gospel. I recently attended an excellent performance of this Bach oratorio here in Halifax, and read along, musical number by music number, with Victor Lederer’s excellent Bach’s St. Matthew Passion: A Closer Look. I found myself once again thinking about, you guessed it, Pasolini (who, you might also guess, was such a student of Bach’s music that he wrote a study of the sonatas).

This is worth a quick explanation for those not familiar with the structure of this and other oratorios. Bach’s three-hour-long musical extravaganza mixes narrations that are pulled directly from the Biblical text—sung by various soloists who are effectively taking the roles of individual characters from the Gospel story—with other songs and hymns that effectively comment on the action not from the point of view either of the characters or any authority figures of the church, but from the point of view of a present-day pious individual. How great the suffering of Christ, the choruses tell us, attempting to articulate and incorporate or inspire our thoughts for us. What a debt we owe. How shall we then live?

In Pasolini’s Il vangelo, we have, as with Bach’s oratorio, verbatim words of the Gospel in the mouths of the characters—but the dialogue has this and nothing else. Is Pasolini inspired not just by the emotions of the oratorio, but indeed by its structure? If Pasolini is attempting to create in this way, we have the scripture, but what provides the commentary on it? In Pasolini, the commentary is purely visual. It is in the landscapes, and in the faces of the cast.

What Pasolini realized early on was that he was not going to be able to accomplish anything by attempting to reconstruct with historical verisimilitude the people and the landscapes of Jesus’ time. In the documentary Seeking Locations in Palestine (Sopralluoghi in Palestina) we see Pasolini touring the irreversibly transformed Biblical lands, realizing from the first day that he cannot shoot there. The Israeli Jews are modern and prosperous, the Arabs are an impoverished underclass, he observes—neither will do to portray Jewish peasants of two millennia past, and the landscapes of places like Nazareth are thoroughly modernized.

Instead, Pasolini chose to work by analogy. For locations, he chose Italian locales that would feel archaic and visually communicate the essence of the Biblical locations. For Bethlehem, for example he used the caverns of a village between Lucania and Puglia. He worked similarly with the casting. His cast members, including all the Jewish characters, are often unmistakeably Italian, but he cast them based on how effectively they could portray members of their characters’ economic classes. Those choices were themselves based on many layers of Christian tradition—Pasolini said in an interview: “About half of them were of humble origin; others, like Matthew, did have a more intellectual background, so I chose an intellectual for him.” Ferruccio Nuzzo was the intellectual in question; Pasolini also cast a young Giorgio Agamben in the role of Jesus’ disciple Philip.

None of this seems very intuitive in the post-Gladiator age of CGI reconstruction of ancient locales, and I have to say that I really didn’t understand Pasolini’s approach at all when I first saw his film. It was the first Pasolini film I’d seen, and I had no sweet clue why ancient Israel was being represented by the people and locations of rural Italy—it seem rather awkward to me, quite frankly. But coming back to this film, in 2014, in the form of a fresh 35mm print beautifully projected at the TIFF Lightbox, I felt I was not just viewing a pristine image, but seeing much more clearly the aesthetic strategies driving the film.

Blu-ray diary: Canon nearing (Pasolini 9: The Decameron)

26 Mar
March 26, 2014

In the Decameron I filmed the way I know how: more than ever in my own style. But while in Porcile and Medea my game was atrocity, now strangely it’s happiness. A happy work (made with great seriousness, of course) seems to me to contradict all expectations. It’s complete disobedience. (But maybe I’m lying.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini, interviewed November 24, 1970

Making the decision to read Pasolini’s source texts before viewing each of his last four feature films, all of which are literary adaptations, rather derailed, for a while, my plan to watch all 13 features in the space of a year or less. Rather than charging straight ahead from Medea to The Decameron, I took the time to read all 800 pages of the McWilliam translation/Penguin edition (and posted a brief review). I probably could have prepared just by reading the 10 stories of Boccaccio’s 100 that made it into the movie (helpfully listed by Wikipedia) but it’s a work I’ve long been wanting to read and I wanted to soak up the flavour of the entire text.

Finishing the book, and the timing of this ensuing Blu-ray screening (I viewed the BFI’s UK release—I’ll get around to the Criterion edition as well at some point), delightfully coincided with the opening of the Dalhousie University Theatre Department production of Patrick Baliani’s stage adaptation, which I took in last night.

Baliani’s play is almost the direct opposite of Pasolini’s film in theme and, to some degree, in tone—fascinating to see the degree to which readings of Boccaccio’s text can vary. Let it be said that the current crop of Dal Theatre students are a game, talented crew of performers who gave Baliani’s version a energetic workout, to say the least. But in the Baliani play, the background of the bubonic plague weighs heavily on the proceedings. Where the book is mostly diversion and escape, the play is weighed down with constant reminders of doom.

The play makes much of the tale of the scholar’s revenge—the perhaps-autobiographical revenge fantasy that others might suggest is both ethically problematic and a poor fit with much of the rest of the work. The ethical problem is countered partly by finding an improbable ray of hope at the end—a twist which diverges from the source text completely. For his part Pasolini didn’t include it amongst the nine tales that he chose, and in fact, there are only two tales that show up both in the Baliani play and the Pasolini film.

The Decameron itself is, needless to say, a challenging text for adaptation to any visual medium. As a lengthy collection of a hundred stories, most without overlapping characters, the main decisions are which small fraction of the stories to include, and what to do with the narrative framing device.

In the book, 10 young Florentines try, in the summer of 1348, to escape from the Black Death that is sweeping their city. They take turns each day in their country estate retreat MC’ing a round of story-telling, so that each of 10 days, each of the 10 plague-refugees tells one story. The Baliani play uses the group of young people to both tell and enact the stories, blurring the lines deliberately between those roles, while Pasolini’s film jettisons the framing altogether, relying on 10 original linking scenes that include dream sequence animations of paintings and a kind of framing story involving a painter (played by Pasolini himself), and an overall consistency of tone and visual expression to create something that feels more unified than the the typical anthology film.

In reality I was not just having fun with this film. I understood something very simple that it had taken me ten films to understand: namely, that cinema is a game… I’ve discovered play.

Even when Pasolini is playing he is doing so with rigour—in this film it is his way of insisting on what seems to me an essential quality of the source text. Boccaccio’s stories, for the most part, have a very un-fraught and down-to-earth way of presenting sexuality, and Pasolini insists on being cinematically true to that. In the story of the young man who pretends to be a mute in order to secure work and residence at a convent for the purpose of regular intercourse with the nuns, we get a scene with a young, sex-curious nun pulling up her skirt and giving him the wave-in, as we say, cutting to a head-on shot of his nude, tumescent member—yep, Pasolini sees no reason to flinch from the nun’s-eye-view of a naked boner (1971 seems like another world, now, doesn’t it?). But at the same time the film has really very little in common with porn as it is produced now—what the sexual scenes all have in common is a kind of innocent glee. They are well-lit to establish a joyful, carefree tone rather than to provide pornographic inspections of anatomy and sexual mechanics.

Pasolini, in this film, provides some flashes of mortality and doom around the edges, here and there, without reversing the overall direction and tone of his source text. It must have seemed a very daring film in 1971, and in some respects still seems today—but other than by its choice of stories it doesn’t seem to have the least bit of interest in correcting Boccaccio, or reading him against the grain. It is a cinematic argument that Boccaccio is forever contemporary, and in its own way I feel, on first viewing, that this film earns its own lasting relevance.

Notes:

  • The film has an intermission near the 57-minute mark.
  • Quotes from Pasolini in this post can be found in this fantastic book.

Medea (Pasolini retrospective 3)

14 Mar
March 14, 2014

Call me crazy but I think I’m starting to get what Pasolini is on about with this film. I’m not sure how many in the audience at last night’s nearly-full screening, the third in TIFF’s complete Pasolini retrospective, would agree with me… especially the woman two seats away from me who spent considerable time texting on her iPhone.

However I think Pasolini’s adaptation/palimpsest of the Medea myth, after thoroughly baffling me on first viewing, is starting to make some sense to me thanks to a fantastic book I picked up at the Lightbox gift shop—Pier Paolo Pasolini: My Cinema. It’s a coffee-table-appropriate book stuffed with incredible archival photos, and with text derived from Pasolini himself—interviews, articles, letters. For each of his films there are multiple such quoted passages. It’s as close as one could come to having Pasolini himself write the exhibition catalogue for this retrospective.

In one of the Medea passages—an interview from 1970—Pasolini says “I abandoned the Greek myth and started reading essays on the history of religions, ethnology, anthropology, with the result that little by little, my imagination began to move in that direction, basically leaving Euripides behind, though I did keep a few of his ideas…”

And later… “Medea… is based on the history of religions, on Frazer, Lévi-Strauss, Levi-Brüle [sic]. Reading their books gave me the idea to conceive the world of Medea as a symbolic fragment, an oneiric-visionary image of the Third World.”

OK. I can’t be sure of all the specific ideas from these scholars that Pasolini was wrestling with in the construction of this script, but I was able to draw one clear conclusion that really illuminated the first 45 minutes of the film for me—that section of the film that is not really based at all on the Euripides play. What Pasolini is doing, it seems to me, is to try to liberate the narrative with its climactic filicide from its typical rational frame—its strange place nestled in the foundation of the canon of Western literature. He wants us to see Medea’s murder of her children in the context of a more primitive world where human sacrifice was an accepted social practice with its own protocols. And he wants to dramatize the conflict between the primitive/child/myth world and the civilized/adult/reason world or Weltanschauung. If you like, he wants to blow up the bridge from the present/Western world to Greek myth and make us approach the strangeness of Medea’s murderous act from an entirely different direction.

This is why the film begins, it seems to me, with the gruesome sacrifice of a young boy. What Pasolini has inserted is a kind of call for which Euripides’ climax later supplies the response. Seen from this perspective, everything up to the theft of the golden fleece in the film no longer seems like an arbitrary, confusing preface. Pasolini’s cooked-from-scratch first act is nothing less than an attempt to set an entirely different frame of reference than that which is usually brought to contemporary readings of Greek tragedy.

Some of the scenes in the film have minimal or no dialogue (Pasolini refusing to provide standard psychological/motivational explanations for the narrative events), while others feature dense philosophical discussions and pronouncements that are not easy to absorb on the fly. So the film is really not possible to fully absorb in one viewing it seems to me. Pasolini said that Medea is “perhaps the most intellectualized part” of his oeuvre. For the first time—on third viewing—I am glad that I have stuck with this one.

Accatone encore (Pasolini retrospective 2)

09 Mar
March 9, 2014

Tonight I took in the second screening in TIFF’s Pasolini retrospective at the Lightbox, and let me just say at the start that the new 35mm print looked great—far better, in fact, than even the fine Masters of Cinema Blu-ray release led me to expect. For a first feature, shot in a deliberately rough/ugly style—legendarily so—it looks quite beautiful up on the big screen, to my eye.

When I blogged about my first viewing of this film, on Blu-ray, I wrote “If you just want to watch his films, sticking to the more significant ones, I’d say you’re better off jumping in with Mamma Roma.” I’m now even more convinced that TIFF did exactly the right thing by programming his debut as a follow-up on the evening after his second film. I think that watching Mamma Roma, which is a step closer to mainstream film convention, can help teach us noobs how to watch a more abrupt, challenging film like Accatone.

Pasolini’s films are already, to borrow a phrase from Roberto Chiesi, “so foreign to the conventions of present-day cinema,” so most of us need all the help we can get.

One such connecting point that I noticed this evening was the revelation that Stella, the apparent innocent with whom the titular protagonist of Accatone falls in love, is the daughter of a prostitute. This forms a link back from, or a pointer forward to, the fulcrum of Mamma Roma‘s plot. If we haven’t seen the second film it seems like a simple bit of narrative colour but in the light of Mamma Roma it takes on much more significance and indicates that Stella is in a complex struggle between her past and her possible futures—mirroring Accatone’s own crisis.

On the technique level, I think about the reverse dolly shots during key conversations in Accatone, and how the similar shots in Mamma Roma take on a more choreographed/consciously-artificial feel, almost like a musical without songs—a move that serves to emphasize how these scenes are elucidating the inner conflict of the protagonist. In Accatone the reverse-dolly shots seem to part of a more realist, filming-in-place aesthetic, but if you’ve seen Mamma Roma first you’ve been trained to understand these scenes as containing key information about the characters.

The first time that I watched these two films, I was much more enamoured of Mamma Roma than of Accatone. After tonight, the latter film, Pasolini’s harder-to-appreciate debut, has risen substantially in my estimation. After my first Blu-ray viewing, I felt I understood why Fellini didn’t appreciate it, but now after my first big-screen viewing, I understand why so many other people did.

 

Revisiting Mamma Roma (Pasolini retrospective 1)

09 Mar
March 9, 2014

The TIFF Pasolini retrospective (Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination) kicked off at the Lightbox last night with a packed screening of Pasolini’s second feature, Mamma Roma. This was my first big-screen viewing of this film and, in fact, only my second theatrical viewing of any of Pasolini’s films, and needless to say I was thrilled to see it in its intended size and format.  The archival 35mm print that was screened was the same Cineteca di Bologna restoration (2002 if I remember correctly) that formed the basis of Criterion’s 2004 DVD release—still the best version available for home viewing.

Some of the other screenings coming up in the series are more recent restorations and/or fresh prints and I am looking forward to seeing ever more pristine editions of his films.  The home-video nerd in me is just a little bit disappointed to see that no further restoration work has been done on Mamma Roma because it suggests that we won’t be seeing an HD release of this classic in the near future.

The screening was prefaced by a talk from Italian cinema scholar Luca Caminati, who lent some helpful insight into Pasolini’s technique and continuing relevance in the first portions of his presentation, but later had people looking at their watches when he began to theorize about how Pasolini resolved the 1960s-era debates around representational art versus its opposites. On the topic of Pasolini’s continuing relevance he mentioned various examples of contemporary art inspired in various ways by Pasolini, including the Sharon Hayes video piece “Ricerche: three” which premiered at the 2013 Venice Biennale.

On the technique side he mentioned how Pasolini made his images more painting-like using a telescopic lens for medium-to-close shots, effectively flattening the frame, magnifying the sense of an opaque backdrop, as can be seen in the image above. This was a technique developed for him by his cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli.

Caminati also mentioned the way that Pasolini deploys images of the sublime ruins of the ancient Roman aqueduct juxtaposed with the new housing developments of the postwar Italian boom. I realized that I hadn’t paid sufficient attention to this recurring image during my previous DVD viewing of the film, but projected at theatrical size it could not be missed. TIFF I cannot thank you enough for programming this series.  On to Accatone!

 

Blu-ray diary: Amarcord

13 Jan
January 13, 2014

amarcord-coverI’m not really sure why it took me so long to get around to Fellini’s 1973 classic—his 4th and final winner of the best foreign language film Oscar—but I’m glad I finally did. Amarcord feels like a film that everyone ought to be able to agree on… film snob and casual moviegoer alike. It moves with a kind of effortless joyous bouyancy, anchored by a melancholy for the irretrievable past, which is only magnified when one considers its status as both the fulsome culmination and the doom-harbinger of the arthouse cinema tradition.

It features an outstanding script from Tonino Guerra (L’AvventuraLa notte, L’eclisseNostalghiaNight of the Shooting Stars, Eternity and a Day) and one of the best scores by Nino Rota (yes, I think it’s even better than the Godfather soundtrack).

Amarcord is convincingly personal even though it is only glancingly and intermittently autobiographical. The hyperreal world of 1930s small-town Italy that it re/creates is absurdly fantastical and convincingly real by turns, yet it unfolds seamlessly.

I’m increasingly convinced that I never gave Fellini his proper due, even though I’ve always been moved and impressed by the films of his that I’ve seen (Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8-1/2, Juliet of the Spirits). Ever since my visit last year to Teatro 5 at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, where he made many of his films (including Amarcord), I’ve been infected with curiosity about his life and work. On my viewing agenda for this year, then: recent Blu-ray releases of Il Bidone and City of Women, and the forthcoming release of Roma.

Blu-ray diary: A Man Escaped

30 Dec
December 30, 2013

A Man EscapedAs a result of my recent, intense encounter with the films of Roberto Rossellini, I’m thinking a lot lately about the possibilities entailed in breaking style conventions not simply for innovation’s sake but in the name of moving past the limits of style itself. Such formal attempts to get at something more substantial than “mere” form, seem to be, perhaps inevitably so, inseparable from spirituality itself. In other words, I seem to have found the right moment to start exploring the films of Robert Bresson.

As  the blurb for Paul Schrader’s noted book puts it: “Unlike the style of psychological realism, which dominates film, the transcendental style expresses a spiritual state with austere camerawork, acting devoid of self-consciousness, and editing that avoids editorial comment.”

My first and only previous Bresson viewing experience was a small-screen (CRT I think) viewing of Au Hasard Balthazar some seven or eight years ago. It was an emotional bombshell of a film but I don’t remember doing much thinking about how it achieved its effect, other than the obvious scrupulous/rigorous follow-through entailed in taking an animal’s point of view through an entire feature film narrative arc. I probably couldn’t have told you anything very specific about how Bresson accomplished what he did.

Having now watched through the various special features on the Criterion release of A Man Escaped (detailed in this review) I feel I have a much better grasp of Bresson’s methodology and vision. So let me here put in a plug for The Essence of Forms, a 2010 doc (46 min.) that appeared originally on the Gaumont French Blu-ray release of the film and offers a series of insights into Bresson’s filmmaking approach, from collaborators and critics. Unlike the other docs about him included here, it includes only clips from A Man Escaped even though it considers his whole career—so it is both fascinating and free of spoilers for his other films.  With the other, older docs included I found myself fast-forwarding through some clips from other films that I haven’t yet seen. So if you are going to pick just one of the special features to watch after a first viewing of this film I recommend this one.

Criterion issued their meticulously-restored edition of A Man Escaped back in March, so I am about 9 months late to this party—the first Bresson film to be released in high-def video.  Region B releases of Au hazard Balthazar and Mouchette from Artificial Eye were originally due early this year but have been repeatedly delayed and are now due to drop in March 2014. Can’t wait.

DVD diary: Rossellini’s War Trilogy—completing the cycle

14 Dec
December 14, 2013

Roberto Rossellini's War Trilogy - Criterion CollectionMy fall 2013 encounter with Rossellini has transpired in a strange order… after seeing the restored Rome: Open City at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, I had intended to dive into Criterion’s 3-DVD box of the War Trilogy in the ensuing weeks. But then when I scored the 4-BD Rossellini-Bergman box I excitedly jumped immediately to that.  I have a sort of mild regret about that because the supplements I watched (and certain aspects of Europe ’51) rather spoiled the ending of Germany Year Zero for me. Possibly the most useful piece of advice I can offer people coming to these two boxes / six films for the first time is: watch them in order, and for useful explication watch the Rossellini introductions and Adriano Aprà interviews after each film—and save the supplements that consider the entire trilogies for after you’ve watched each full trio of films.

The only other Rossellini regret that I have at this moment is that it’s taken me this long to get around to watching the War Trilogy films—and this Criterion box in particular, which was released just about four years ago now.  As with the Rossellini-Bergman package the supplements are brilliant—thoughtfully produced and abundantly insightful. Especially valuable are two video essays: Rossellini and the City, by Mark Shiel, about the urban landscapes in the trilogy, and Into the Future, by Rossellini biographer Tag Gallagher, which is essentially a concise half-hour lecture, with quickly edited visuals, that is guaranteed to elevate your appreciation of all three films. As with the Rossellini-Bergman box I have found myself compulsively watching every minute of the extras.

If recent and future further restoration of these classic films does indeed result in new high def upgrade releases for these films, it’s hard to think that the accompanying features can also be improved.  One of Criterion’s best releases ever, for me, and that is saying something. For the dedicated cinephile this is pure gold.

 

Blu-ray diary: Il Generale Della Rovere

09 Dec
December 9, 2013

Il Generale Della Rovere - Blu-rayIn case it wasn’t obvious from my last post, I seem to have a new addiction and it’s the films of Roberto Rossellini.  At the moment the more formalist auteurs seem like weaksauce to me compared to the way that Rossellini challenges and reconsiders formal considerations at every step of his filmic development, or so it seems to me now that I’m about six films into his filmography.  But what’s interesting to me about Il Generale Della Rovere, which was released for the first time on Blu-ray just last week (in a fine package by Raro Video), is that it seems as likely to be misunderstood now as it seemingly was on first release in 1959.

A condition laid down by the film’s producer was that it should be ready for the Venice Film Festival in the fall of that year. This led to the film being shot in studio—Cinecittà in Rome, as it happened (on the legendary soundstage Teatro 5, where Fellini made several of his films). Rossellini, starting with Rome: Open City in 1945, had been associated more than any previous filmmaker with the use of location shooting to bring a feel of verité to his films. For Il Generale he decided to embrace the artificiality of the studio environment and, in fact, play it up.  His approach seems, however, to have been too subtle for reviewers at the time, who wrote of his “return to realism” in response to this film.  His deliberately contrasting of newsreel footage and studio shots with (obvious to later viewers) painted and matted-in backdrops seems to have not had the intended effect.

I tend to think that today’s viewers might watch this film and see those abrupt shifts as poor workmanship rather than deliberate aesthetic.  We have had so many subsequent generations of filmmakers that have embraced conscious artificiality and refined it in various ways such that what was once a bold cinematic experiment might play more like a clumsy misfire. But understood in context it is another fascinating chapter in Rossellini’s development.

I continue to find compelling the complex edition history of Rossellini’s films, and this package offers another chance to explore that aspect of his filmography.  The disc contains both the director’s cut that was presented at Venice 1959 and the later theatrical release that was edited in various ways. Once again it is worthwhile viewing both versions as well as the visual essay by leading Rossellini interpreter Adriano Aprà that meticulously glosses the various changes. To summarize: most of the nips and tucks of the theatrical version constitute indisputable narrative improvements, but one of the most significant cuts in that version is baffling unless you’ve seen the director’s cut.  For this reason that earlier festival version is the default version presented from the main menu of the disc. The theatrical version is available in the bonus-feature submenu.

One more note: Raro have decided to present this in an archival framing—exposing the rounded corners of all of the exposed filmic image,  rather than matted/cropped presentation that filmgoers would normally see (and which we most often see in video transfers). I’m fine with this presentation—considered in Blu-ray.com’s detailed review—but others may find it a bit strange. Otherwise, Raro Video clearly have been influenced by Criterion in their production of the special features on the disc as well as the accompanying booklet (with excellent Aprà essay)—the resulting package is not quite as slick as the current Criterion standard, but more than worthwhile nonetheless.  We’re indeed lucky that 2013 has seen not one but two excellent Rossellini high def releases.

Blu-ray diary: Criterion’s Rossellini+Bergman package might be the best box set of 2013

23 Nov
November 23, 2013

Criterion Rossellini Bergman box coverA ball started rolling for me when I saw that restored print of Rome, Open City at TIFF in September. It was the first Rossellini film that I’d ever seen and I found it simply devastating —a much more harrowing, yet illuminating, emotional experience than I’d expected.  In October, on the strength of that film alone, when Criterion had a brief 50% off sale, I decided to blind-order the 4-disc Blu-ray set 3 Films by Roberto Rossellini Starring Ingrid Bergman. I started with Stromboli (the English-language version), which I found to be a raw emotional experience in a much different sense, and I didn’t really know, at first viewing, what to make of the abrupt turn to God in the closing sequence. But then I started to watch Europe ’51, and that was went I fell off some kind of cinematic cliff. The film immediately turned me into an Rossellini obsessive.

Both of these films come in this set in alternate English-language and Italian-language versions. As the English-language versions are in better visual condition, and seem to be generally preferred, I started off watching the English cut of Europe ’51. But I quit that cut an hour in, impatient with the way that English dialects and accents were matched to various characters (British accent for the intellectual journalist, Brooklyn for the peasant mother of 6 children). I started watching the Italian version from the beginning and quickly realized the profound changes that had been made. “Are you a communist?” had become, in the English version for the US market, “are you a member of a political party?” The public, social schism in post-war Italian society between West and East, Catholicism and Communism, had been censored nearly out of visibility in the film.

There is a fantastic 37-minute interview with film historian Elena Dagrada on this disc, that explicates very well the changes that were made, and the reasons for them (as well as a written piece by her in the accompanying booklet that talks about the changes between versions of Stromboli). I watched this, but not before going back to watch the rest of the English language version after completing my viewing of the Italian version. Though in the case of Stromboli I will readily concede the superiority of the English version, I think I find myself against the grain of common opinion on Europe ’51—I greatly prefer the Italian version.

Other highlights of the special features:

  • The interviews with film critic Adriano Aprà about all three films. Aprà has clearly thought deeply about all of these films and he opens up multiple meanings and significances to a first-time viewer.
  • Surprised by Death, “a new visual essay by film critic James Quandt on the historical and artistic themes of the trilogy”—first-time viewers of the films will be impressed by the many differences between the three films of this retrospectively-classified trilogy, but Quandt’s striking insights consist in all of the commonalities that he finds between the films.
  • Living and Departed, “a new visual essay by Rossellini scholar Tag Gallagher on the evolution of the director’s style in the trilogy”—excellent on the themes of estrangement and communication (but don’t watch it if you don’t want to spoil Rossellini’s earlier Germany Year Zero).
  • The interview with Martin Scorsese, very interesting on the spiritual aspects of the films.
  • Possibly my favourite—a fantastic interview with daughters Ingrid and Isabella Rossellini; informative, insightful, touching.

At this point I have now watched all five film cuts (the English and Italian versions of Stromboli and Europe ’51, as well as the English language Journey to Italy), as well as the film scholar Laura Mulvey’s commentary on Journey to Italy. So I have watched each film twice as well as the roughly seven hours of special features, for a total of 17 hours of viewing. I don’t regret a minute of that time spent.

I think I was somehow aware of the deep influence of these films on subsequent films and directors—especially Antonioni and Godard. But now this incredibly important point in film history has been crystallized and explicated for me. My film horizons have been expanded—Criterion has bottled lightning with this release.