Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Two Films

How often does it happen that you see two really top-flight films back to back on consecutive nights? Two films, moreover, that differ radically in tone while harboring the same import?

That pretty well describes my week-end—aside from the attack of gout.

Last night we went to see Io Sono l'Amore (I Am Love), a lavish Italian production that has been compared to the best works of Lucino Visconti. The comparison is only superficially apt. Visconti’s works are carefully designed and cinematographically dense—even such black-and-white productions as Obsessione and La Terra Trema--but the films are also but rather stagy. The Italian version of The Leopard may be Visconti's best film … but come on, it stars Burt Lancaster!

The distinctive thing about I Am Love is that although it’s cinematically rich, it’s un-stagy. It seems we’ve been given a “fly-on-the-wall” point of perspective on the comings and goings of a wealthy multi-generational Italian family. I don’t have the background to say that it’s entirely accurate, but the presentation is certainly natural and artful, rather than forced and “arty.”

The first ten minutes concern themselves with snow falling across modern-day Milan. Sound exciting? It isn’t. But it is mesmerizing. During the next quarter-hour, we follow members of the Recchi family as they gather to celebrate the paterfamilias’s birthday. Everyone greets one another, hugs are exchanged, we see the cooks and maids scurrying here and there, and we attempt to decipher, by picking up stray snatches of conversation, who these people are and what, exactly, is going on. The camera focuses on any number of odd but interesting details, as if to rid us from the notion that we’re following a specific narrative thred and force us to settle back in our seats and watch this family’s life develop.

The lifestyle itself is opulent … but conservative. The family members are well-mannered, considerate, sincere. Yes, Edo lost the race that morning, breaking family tradition. (We’re never told what kind of race it was.) His grandfather is disappointed but Edo is unperturbed—the better man won, he says. That evening the old man announces he’s retiring from the family’s clothing corporation and names his successor. The choice comes as a surprise to many people sitting around the table.

Meanwhile, the man who beat Edo in the race arrives to present a cake he’s baked as a sort of apology. He’s a chef named Antonio. He works in his father’s restaurant, wants to start his own. He’s not of the same caste as these folk, but Edo seems almost to be in love with him. (Edo’s arriviste fiancĂ©e is already pregnant.)In a later scene at Antonio's family villa in the mountains north of town, the two discuss how the financing of the new restaurant can be arranged.

No one disputes that the man is a genius in the kitchen.

Tilda Swindon, in the role of Edo’s mother, attends not only to his concerns, but also to those of her just-coming-out lesbian daughter, her other son, her square-jawed and rather lackluster husband, and her mother-in-law (played by Merisa Berenson, whom you may remember from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon of a few decades back.) The scenes flow one into the next, we’re not sure which threads are the important ones.

And that’s what makes the film so interesting. It’s as if the director, Luca Guadagnino, wants us to see not only the most dramatic turn of events but also the paintings on the wall, the tile on the floor, the glaze on the shrimp, and the insects buzzing amid the clover. He’s equally interested in the reactions of the brother-in-law and the maid, as interested in the shape of the distant hills as the health of the family’s clothing factory and the aroma rising from the fish soup.

There are a few excesses. In his efforts to extend the sex scenes, for example, Guadagnino intersperses naturalistic details that seem drawn from junior high “birds-and-bees” filmstrips. But considered all-in-all, I Am Love maintains a level of intelligence, intrigue, and visceral appeal that I haven’t seen in movie theater in a long, long time. Marks of character are delineated in a single line or glance, each one contributing to the larger picture without drawing undue attention to itself. The score by composer John Adams (No, not John Williams) intensifies the emotional effect at many turns of the path.

On the face of things, no film could be more dissimilar from I Am Love than The Hidden Blade, a samurai film by Japanese director Yoji Yamata (Twilight Samurai). The camera angles are restricted, the dwellings are earthy, the living conditions humble for the most part. Yet the themes are exactly the same—honor, romance, caste.

The film focuses on Munezo, a samurai whose father had been forced to commit hari kari to preserve the honor of the family when the town council discovers some irregularities in the accounts, though he had personally done no wrong. Munezo’s friend Yaichuro has left their clan's fiefdom on the northwest coast of Japan to work for the shogunate in far away Edo, and Munezo lives modestly with his mother, his sister, and a local farm girl named Kia who serves them as a maid.

Both Munezo’s sister and Kia evenutually marry, though Kia’s domestic situation proves oppressive and Munezo is driven to rescue her from her husband's family and re-install her as his personal maid. When scandal erupts he sends Kia back to her father's farm. And when his friend Yaichiro returns home in disgrace as a military prisoner, things go from bad to worse. Yaichiro escapes and Munezo is ordered by the clan elders to kill his old friend. Yaichiro had been the better swordsman when they studied together, but their instructor Toda entrusted the secret of the "Hidden Blade" only to Munezo.

The entire story, of which I've only mentioned a few salient details, takes place within the context of the introduction of firearms to Japan. Munezo exhibits all the modesty and circumspection we've come to expect from Yamata’s heroes. The final duel between Munezo and Yaichuro is gripping, but it isn’t the end of the story. What will become of sweet, innocent Kia, and the clan elders who drove Yaichuro to revolt in the first place?

Rent the DVD and see.

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