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On paper Stefan Sollima’s Suburra doesn’t really offer anything new: it’s a sprawling epic about gangsters and organised crime in Italy, and it details the way in which the influence of different crime families and gangs spreads all the way up to the highest echelons of society, noting that there is a point where the movers and shakers of the underworld interact with the movers and shakers of the business world (or, as is the case here, high-ranking politicians and those holding the purse strings in the Vatican). Yet this is a film that is executed with such grace and style it’s difficult to withhold admiration for its pizzazz, or to resist its pulpy, neon-heavy charms. The two-hour running time fizzes by thanks to a strong, multi-threaded story incorporating a range of well-drawn characters, there’s a relentlessness in the way that it moves toward a seemingly-unavoidable crescendo, and it’s all helped along by sporadic action scenes that are as tense as anything I’ve seen this year.

Though it’s set in Rome, Suburra is similar, in a way, to Matteo Garrone’s terrific 2008 crime drama Gomorrah, which fused together five stories featuring a range of different characters who are all connected in one way or another to the Casalesi crime family in Naples (itself part of the organised crime syndicate The Camorra). Indeed Sollima’s name may be familiar to viewers of the TV spin-off of Gomorrah – now in its second season – as he has directed a number of episodes, and it appears he’s about to do the same with Suburra, with Netflix currently developing an initial season for release in 2017. With the TV series of Gomorrah, Sollima developed a number of related, interweaving narratives, and it’s a device that he employs successfully here, juggling and crossing storylines while managing to do justice to most (if not all) of the main characters. Some arcs do feel a little rushed at times – which is understandable considering the comparative length of time of a feature film, as well as the fact that events in Suburra take place during a period of several days – and there’s a little bit of contrivance in terms of moving all the pieces around, but this does imbue the film with a pace that steadily quickens as the stakes get higher for all involved.

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Pierfrancesco Favino in Suburra

The story is largely concerned with collapsing patriarchies, some of which are criminal and some of which are supposedly more respectable and fundamentally important to Italian society. An old, well-connected gangster nicknamed ‘Samurai’ (Claudio Amendola) is trying to broker a deal to build a Las Vegas-style stretch of casinos in a suburb of Rome. As the representative of several criminal gangs he must negotiate with the Vatican, which will help to finance the potential re-development and stands to make huge profits if a law is passed in Parliament allowing the project to proceed. Pushing this through against a backdrop of post-crash austerity and political sleaze – the film is set in 2011, just before Silvio Berlusconi was forced to stand down, though he is never mentioned by name – is Pierfrancesco Favino’s MP Filippo Malgradi, a corrupt and complicit official who throws a disastrous ‘bunga bunga’ party of his own which ends with the death of an underage call girl. Meanwhile we follow another high-class prostitute (Giulia Elettra Gorietti) and her pimp (Elio Germano), both of whom become embroiled in the subsequent mess, as well as a young, violent gangster-on-the-up named ‘Numero 8’ (Alessandro Borghi) and his junkie girlfriend Viola (Greta Scarano), whose escalating tit-for-tat war with ruthless gypsy crime boss Manfredi (Adamo Dionisi) threatens to undermine the re-development project.

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Greta Scarano in Suburra

The drama is well-scripted – there’s enough detail about the financial and political transactions involved to give the story a degree of credibility – but it’s during the moments of sudden, unexpected and violent mob action that Sollima truly excels, directing several passages with considerable flair. An early hit-and-run outside a suburban restaurant is an arresting and impressively executed taste for what lies ahead, while a gunfight in a supermarket and a subsequent escape through a shopping mall had me on the edge of my seat; it’s the kind of bravura cinema that makes you want to stand up and spontaneously applaud. There are at least three other similar, impressive scenes, each of which carries plenty of impact, each of which raises the stakes even higher for those involved. Sollima is a fine director of realistic, brutal action.

The film is scored beautifully by the French electronic band M83, and their pulsating, emotional songs are a smart accompaniment to the melodrama, montages and scenes of escalating violence. Yet the most striking element of Suburra is the photography, with cinematographer Paolo Carnera incorporating colour in a very stylish fashion. He uses bright neon lights to fine effect during the scenes set at night, and relies on the bold interior production design to fill his frames with a range of lustrous hues. It’s crisply-shot and sleek, and not dissimilar to the look of certain films by Gaspar Noé or Nicolas Winding Refn, though a broader colour palette is used here. As with both of those directors you could make an argument that there’s more style than substance to Sollima’s film, but also as with those pair there’s a wholehearted commitment made in order to achieve that style that you really have to admire. I’m not suggesting for a minute that Suburra is empty-headed or poorly thought out, though; there is weight and consequence to the story, and it serves as a succinct critique of Italian high society, but this director is clearly at his best when he’s enticing you into this brash, colourful, glitzy underworld, and he delights in revealing the ruthlessness of those who occupy it.

Directed by: Stefano Sollima.
Written by: Stefano Rulli, Sandro Petraglia, Giancarlo De Cataldo, Carol Bonini.
Starring: Pierfrancesco Favino, Alessandro Borghi, Greta Scarano, Claudio Amendola, Giulia Elettra Gorietti, Elio Germano, Adamo Dionisi, Giacomo Ferrara, Jean-Hughes Anglade.
Cinematography: Paolo Carnera.
Editing: Patrizio Marone.
Music:
M83.
Certificate:
18.
Running Time:
134 minutes.
Year:
2016.

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I love a lavish, beautifully-designed and visually-stunning film, I generally enjoy portmanteaus, and given that today’s the day the UK votes on whether it wishes to stay as a member of the European Union or leave I’ll happily celebrate any film that helps to highlight cross-border collaboration, at least as it applies within the film industry. Fairy tale compendium Tale Of Tales is a joint Italian/English production, it’s an English language film, it’s directed by an Italian, it’s based on stories by a 16th/17th Century Italian writer, it’s scored by a Frenchman and it includes a number of French, English, Scottish and Italian actors (with a Mexican and an American thrown in for good measure). Crucially, though, it’s no europudding; the likes of Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones, John C. Reilly and Salma Hayek deliver performances that are strong enough to keep the film and its three interweaving fairy tales ticking along, and there are a number of impressive turns from less widely-known cast members, such as Bebe Cave, Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael. Above all else, though, this is a film worth watching for its sumptous production design, striking photography and exemplary costume work.

Director Matteo Garrone – hitherto best known for his excellent and gritty Neapolitan crime film Gomorrah, which is a world away from this new effort – has taken three of Giambattista Basile’s lesser-known stories and imbued them with a distinctly adult-flavoured tone; due to reasonably strong scenes of sex and gory violence it’s apparent after five minutes that Tale Of Tales isn’t for children, even though Basile was the man behind the early versions of stories that later ‘inspired’ the Brothers Grimm to write the likes of Cinderella and Rapunzel. The film has a strong sense of tone that brings to mind the work of Guillermo del Toro, first and foremost, though I’ve seen Tale Of Tales imaginatively described as ‘Pasolini meets Monty Python’ elsewhere. Garrone clearly revels in the macarbre material, with monsters, giant fleas, ogres, witches and necromancers vying for screen time with the common fairy tale staples like kings, queens, princes and princesses. He also deftly incorporates a number of sudden twists and unexpected bouts of violence, and though I doubt many adults will find Tale Of Tales disturbing by today’s standards, I found the trio of stories quite engaging as a result of these deviations, as well as being weird and unfamiliar enough to hold my interest. Of the three it was Jones’ performance as a foolish king who neglects his daughter that eventually made that particular thread my favourite, although the most extravagant visual elements and special effects are largely to be found within the story about Salma Hayek’s queen, and the prices she must pay in order to give birth to a son. It’s shot mainly in and around three gorgeous castles in Italy, and although there’s certainly plenty of style over substance here, when the style in question is as beautiful and as imaginative as this I’m not going to complain too much.

Directed by: Matteo Garrone.
Written by: Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso. Based on Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile.
Starring: Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Bebe Cave, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, John C. Reilly.
Cinematography: Peter Suschitzky.
Editing: Marco Spoletini.
Music: Alexandre Desplat.
Certificate: 15.
Running Time: 134 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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This contemplative documentary by Gianfranco Rosi – a Golden Bear winner at the recent Berlin Film Festival – examines the current European migrant crisis, paying particular attention to the way that it impacts (or doesn’t impact) on the small community on Lampedusa, an Italian island in the Mediterranean Sea that is nearer to the north African coastline than it is to its own country’s mainland. Due to its proximity to Libya in particular, Lampedusa has become a point of entry for migrants and refugees seeking passage into Europe, and during the past 20 years around 400,000 people have landed on the island, with many of those processed by the Lampedusa Immigrant Reception Centre (the vast majority within the last 24 months, at the time of writing). However the journey from Libya to Lampedusa is hazardous, and during that same period more than 17,000 people have died trying to make the crossing. It has become the most dangerous migrant route in the world, with those transported on packed, poorly-constructed boats suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration at sea. As this documentary illustrates many also suffer serious chemical burns when fuel stored in jerry cans mixes with water before coming into contact with skin. On Lampedusa a doctor – one of the few people in this documentary who talk to the director and address the problem at hand – reveals his frustration and his sorrow at not being able to save more lives.

In addition to the doctor, Rosi observes and films others who have direct contact with the migrants as they arrive, such as those who carry out rescue missions on the water and others who process the new arrivals while dressed in hazmat suits. He also (briefly) films the day-to-day activities of migrants living temporarily in the reception centre, while all of this is contrasted with the quotidien life of the permanent residents of Lampedusa, some of whom rely on the sea for their livelihoods and have apparently become numbed by the sheer number of people that have passed through their island. In particular Rosi keeps returning to a man who dives for sea urchins, a local DJ who plays wartime records – including the song that gives the film its evocative title – and a young boy named Samuele who wants to be a fisherman when he grows up. The latter is an endearing kid who roams free on the island, in direct contrast to the cooped-up migrants, and when we see him playing imaginary war games it’s a reminder to the audience that many of the island’s visitors are fleeing real, ongoing conflicts. When we see him attack a bird at night with his home-made catapult it’s an act of childish cruelty, but later we see a change of heart, and he displays a tenderness towards one of the small, unprotected creatures which is more in keeping with the caring adults that appear in the film. The director’s use of Samuele as a symbol for the Lampedusan community’s relationship with the migrants – and possibly Europe more generally – reaches its pinnacle when a visit to the doctor reveals that he has a lazy eye: he can and can’t see what’s happening in plain sight right in front of him, or – put more simply – he’s turning a blind eye to it.

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Samuele and his catapult, an object that symbolises warfare in old Europe

At times it’s an aesthetically-pleasing documentary, despite some of the harrowing material shown. Rosi is sympathetic to the plight of the migrants and he films any dead bodies or injured people in a way that is straightforward and respectful. When concentrating on the land itself, or the community living on it, Fire At Sea becomes no less poignant but is infused with much more in the way of beautiful cinematography. (In particular it’s the beauty of the island that is highlighted, as per Luca Guadagnino‘s A Bigger Splash, another recent film set on Lampedusa which also briefly explored its role in the migrant crisis.) Rosi also variously depicts the calmness (and the dangerous swells) of the sea, with some shots included here that could have been lifted directly from Lucile Hadžihalilović‘s recent film Evolution. In terms of the content, there are no answers presented here to the problem, and those looking to hear the opinions of Italian residents on the matter will probably be disappointed. You’ll have to look elsewhere for straight-to-camera accounts from the people who have made the journey by boat, too, but Rosi’s documentary doesn’t feel at all incomplete or lacking; it’s quite insightful about life in this remote community, which serves as an outpost of a kind of lost, old Europe, and it examines the difficult work undertaken by some Lampedusans while never neglecting to acknowledge the suffering of many of the migrants.

Directed by: Gianfranco Rosi.
Written by: Gianfranco Rosi, Carla Cattani.
Cinematography: Gianfranco Rosi.
Editing: Jacopo Quadri.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Year: 2016.

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Watching Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty is a dizzying, largely fulfilling experience. The film follows ageing writer and socialite Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) – once a celebrated novelist in his 20s, now a jaded arts columnist for a newspaper – as he reflects on his life in Rome, his career and the woman who became his first love, among other topics. It’s also a love letter to the city by Sorrentino, who fashions – with the considerable help of regular DP Luca Bigazzi – a quite spectacular string of shots that show off Roman architectural treasures new and old. Fellini is the touchstone for obvious reasons: The Great Beauty is partly concerned with one man’s lifetime and the way that the city has changed during it, as per Roma, with which it also shares a keen sense of the Catholic Church’s influence over society (sex, culture, etc.); and with its breathless depiction of the high life you’re duty bound to think of La Dolce Vita, the film that has served as a template for Italian nighttime abandon and architectural celebration for over 50 years.

There’s too much to take in during one sitting. Sorrentino opens with a bang (opera, Roman ruins, collapsing Japanese tourists) before moving swiftly on to what turns out to be a typically-wild party for Gambardella’s 65th birthday: on a rooftop terrace people burst out of giant cakes, drug-fuelled septaguenerians dance to poppier techno and electro tracks and a woman screams directly into the camera (I feared, for a brief moment, that it may all be going a little bit Baz Luhrmann). Such social gatherings take place repeatedly during the film, along with plenty of quieter evenings on Gambardella’s own terrace, in which intellectual chatter gradually gives way to bitter barbs. Yet the birthday party is the big one, and also a catalyst for self-reflection (mainly for Gambardella, but also friend Romano, played by Carlo Verdone), so once it’s over the film duly settles down in line with the main character’s introspection.

That’s not to say the rest of The Great Beauty is any less spectacular than the first fifteen minutes, it’s just a very different kind of spectacular. Gambardella wanders the streets, attends parties, watches performance art pieces, hosts friends, dines with colleagues, and each seductive scene is beautifully coloured, in a setting worth ogling, while the images are pin sharp, as if lifted directly from a fashion shoot or weekend broadsheet magazine. Lele Marchitelli’s score drifts in and out, and a suitably grandiose collection of choral pieces and swelling, classical numbers demand as much attention as the imagery. Sorrentino is celebrating the lifestyle, highlighting its glamour and, indeed, its great beauty, but he also shows its emptiness: ultimately Jep is unhappy, as is Romano, and both end up looking back to their earlier days for traces of innocent contentment (where Jep ponders his first love, with flashbacks serving as an homage to Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Romano eventually decides to reject Rome for the hometown he left 60 years earlier). It’s interesting to note that Jep’s editor, played by Giovanna Vignola, attributes her own happiness to her ability to look at the world through child’s eyes (a joke based on her diminutive stature, but pertinent nonetheless). Jep’s answer to his late-life ennui is a new romance with stripper Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), and her surface happiness also masks inner doubts, the illusion shattered when she suddenly commits suicide. (Sorrentino, ever playful, prefaces this incident with both a long funeral sequence and another scene in which the camera lingers over Ramona’s sleeping body, suggesting she is dead, refusing to cut away until she finally stirs; shortly thereafter her suicide is dealt with matter-of-factly in less than 30 seconds…blink and you’ll miss it.)

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Sabrina Ferilli in The Great Beauty

The Great Beauty invites two questions: first whether – as I have seen one internet commentator suggest – the film is ‘all fur coat and no knickers’, and secondly whether there is a rather unfortunate streak of sexism peppering the film, given that it contains a lot more female nudity than male and a main character who often displays a rather withering view of many of the women in his life. You could argue that Jep is a misogynist – witness his remorseless belittling of a female writer at a dinner party, which is over the top even if the recipient is full of herself – and that Sorrentino colludes with his character’s sexism with an unrestrained glee, but the film does also wryly send up the male gaze at times, and in particular the idea of wealthy, powerful, older men leering over younger women’s bodies. On the other point, regarding the question of style over substance, I certainly wasn’t angered by The Great Beauty‘s focus on Rome’s grand opulence, or the lifestyle of its main character, and I think it’s a little churlish to suggest that the film isn’t remotely edifying. Sorrentino has his cake and eats it, repeatedly pointing out that happiness lies beyond the glitz and the glamour while remaining enthralled by it. He does this through the behaviour and interests of his incidental characters as much as his protagonist’s jaded musings: a child artist prodigy is happier when she is left to play with her peers than when she is forced to perform for an adult audience, for example, while a Cardinal who ignores questions of faith and is instead far more interested in discussing a much more earthly matter, namely food, is similarly content, even if he is depicted as an oddball buffoon. These are minor players in this grand, Roman stage play, but they help to colour the city every bit as much as the slow pans along the Tiber or the graceful crane shots of the Colosseum at night, and fit with the film’s sudden lurches from loud exuberance to introverted introspection.

I also enjoyed the brief appearances by a 104-year-old nun and her smarmy aide, a performance artist who runs into a brick wall in the name of art, a corrupt neighbour (a Berlusconi reference?) who literally and figuratively looks down on Jep, the aforementioned editor and the snooty actress Romano fusses over throughout. These are all memorable characters (and cariacatures), and watching Jep interact with them – whether on the street or in the middle of some hilarious eurotrash party – is fine fun in itself. I guess you could call it frothy, but it’s a gloriously-staged assault on the senses and Gambardella’s negotiation of late-life unhappiness was just as intriguing for me as his constant marvelling at the numerous strange sights in this vision of the Eternal City.

Directed by: Paolo Sorrentino.
Written by: Paolo Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello.
Starring: Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli, Carlo Buccirosso, Giovanna Vignola, Iaia Forte, Pamela Villoresi.
Cinematography: Luca Bigazzi.
Editing: Cristiano Travaglioli.
Music:
Lele Marchitelli.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
138 minutes.
Year:
2013.

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Luca Guadagnino’s new film is set on the remote Italian island of Pantelleria, the land a semi-parched paradise offering a degree of privacy for rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton), who is convalescing with filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts) after an operation on her vocal chords. Their idyllic, relaxing holiday seems to be going well, but the film is barely two minutes old when the peace is interrupted by gregarious, larger-than-life Harry (Ralph Fiennes), who is both Marianne’s former partner and an old friend of Paul’s. Harry arrives with newly-discovered daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) in tow, and a relaxing stay for two in a beautiful, rustic villa subsequently turns into an increasingly awkward, uncomfortable holiday for four in which passions old and new begin to stir.

It may nod to David Hockney’s famous painting with its title, but A Bigger Splash is actually a remake of Jacques Deray’s 1969 film La Piscine, which starred Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, Maurice Roney and Jane Birkin in the four lead roles (the setting of the earlier film, however, was St. Tropez). Not having seen the original in order to compare, I can’t really say for sure whether remaking it was truly worthwhile, though I enjoyed Guadagnino’s film, principally because the characters are interesting to follow through the movie, and I liked its numerous light, comic touches. Of the four it’s easier to read the motives and thoughts of some characters more than others. Theoretically the most enigmatic should be Marianne (a touch of David Bowie, a glimmer of Chrissie Hynde), given that she barely speaks throughout, but in fact much can be learned from certain looks she trades with others, or even from those facial reactions that are for no-one else’s eyes but the audience’s. She is under orders not to speak, but occasionally shares her whispered opinions with Paul late at night, or speaks up when provoked by Harry, but thanks to Swinton’s evident skill as an actor we assume we know what she is thinking throughout, and not just when she tells another character. Flashbacks suggest that her days with Harry were wilder, and more carefree, and this pull between present day comfort and older unpredictibality propels the narrative forward: her new boyfriend, a recovering alcoholic who attempted suicide attempt a year ago, is considerably calmer, and more mature, than her old one. But in Harry’s eyes Paul is boring, and Marianne’s life has become boring as a result. She acknowledges this, and part of her craves for the life she knows that Harry is able to provide. Tensions between Harry and Paul duly rise as Harry insists on constant partying: drinking, inviting guests round, dancing, playing loud music, organising impromptu karaoke sessions with the locals…it’s everything Paul and Marianne were supposed to be ignoring during their holiday.

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Dakota Johnson in A Bigger Splash

Watching over proceedings in an increasingly predatory fashion is Johnson’s Penelope. Initially she seems bored by the group, and wanders off repeatedly to sunbathe, read, swim or listen to music via headphones. However gradually she gradually begins to influence events more and more, and her ultimate motives are not particularly clear: is she just out for sex? Is she widening the developing rifts because she’s bored and there’s nothing else to do? Just how vindictive is she? She seems to come alive when Harry is not around, when she is out of her father’s shadow, and the journey from passive bystander to active agitator is fascinating to watch.

Watching the plot unfold is a delight. Generally the film keeps a narrow focus on the four protagonists, though there are brief appearances by a few local women and a local policeman (an unflattering portrait of an incompetent, ignorant idiot that caused a little controversy when the film was released in Italy last year). (A Bigger Splash does also include a thread about refugees arriving by boat on the island, which certainly adds a degree of currency, though I’m not sure it adds much more of note to the film; Guadagnino said there were refugees arriving on the island while they were filming, and they included the thread to reflect reality, so fair enough.) I was interested enough in the foursome for the two hour duration, and cannily Guadagnino doesn’t simply focus on the relationships between its men and women; there are some illuminating and well-acted scenes here between Swinton and Johnson, and Fiennes and Schoenaerts, that reveal plenty. Swinton adds a layer of class to proceedings, while Fiennes – somewhat obviously, given the nature of his character – is immense fun to watch, dominating every scene he’s in with Harry’s attention-seeking antics (though given all the talk about his dance scene to The Stones’ Emotional Rescue I have to say I was a little disappointed by it). Guadagnino smartly cajoles the story along in tandem with changes to the symbolic, portentous weather: the sirocco arrives from north Africa just after Harry arrives on the island; rain is used at the end to cleanse the dusty land and buildings, while the draining of the pool also suggests a fresh start. The director focuses on other sources of water, too, foreshadowing the big splash of the title and the opening of emotional floodgates.

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino.
Written by: David Kajganich. Based on La Piscine by Alain Page.
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson.
Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux.
Editing: Walter Fasano.
Music:
Various.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
124 minutes.
Year:
2016.

7 Comments

I’ve long felt that I need to see more films by William Wyler. A prolific director who made more than thirty silent movies before switching to an even longer, more distinguished career with talkies, Wyler was nominated for an incredible 12 Best Director Oscars between 1935 and 1970, and won the award three times (for Mrs Miniver in 1942, The Best Years Of Our Lives in 1946 and Ben-Hur – the only film of Wyler’s I’d seen until a week ago – in 1959; only John Ford (4 wins) has been more successful).

A trio of Wyler’s films were also nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award: The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953) and Friendly Persuasion (1957), though none of the three actually won. He also made The Big Country, How To Steal A Million, The Children’s Hour and Dodsworth, among many others. And as for experience with actors, during his career he directed Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Jean Simmons, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Charlton Heston, Terence Stamp, Peter O’Toole, Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Barbara Streisand. In short, he is a Hollywood legend.

Roman Holiday is considered a romantic comedy classic today, and it holds an impressive 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which meant it looked on paper to me to be the “easiest” way in to Wyler’s back catalogue. Hepburn was given her first starring role in the film as Princess Ann, a member of the royal family of an unnamed country who touches down in Rome amid a hectic tour of European capitals. Ann is suffering from exhaustion, and sneaks off one night to escape the meet n’ greets and official photo-ops that are planned for the following day. After getting drunk she is discovered on a bench by newspaper reporter Joe Bradley (Peck), who takes her back to his apartment. Famously Wyler chose Hepburn for the role after instructing the cameraman filming her screen test to carry on after they had seemingly stopped, in order to see what she looked like when she was at ease.

Eventually Bradley realises who exactly he is sheltering, and – hiding the fact that he is a reporter – offers to show her around Rome so that he can write an exclusive interview for the paper, netting $5,000 in the process. Ann isn’t aware of his motives, but eventually agrees to accompany him, so Bradley enlists the help of photographer Irving Radovich (Eddie Alpert), who tags along as the couple explore the sights of the Italian capital. Meanwhile, the newspaper’s Editor-in-Chief, Mr Hennessey (Hartley Power, gnashing and frothing like all good editors should do) starts to suspect that the missing princess is with his young reporter, and tries to get Bradley to admit he knows where she is. As Bradley shows Princess Ann the sights of Rome and treats her to a night out, the couple gradually fall in love.

It’s easy to sneer today at Roman Holiday‘s simple, obvious shots of Rome’s well-visited tourist attractions; there are scenes at the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain and the Roman Forum, as you would expect. Yet when Roman Holiday was made it was still common for Hollywood studio backlots to be used when exotic locales were required, and Wyler became the first director to shoot entirely on location. Still, despite the unfamiliarity that existed with regard to Rome’s tourist sites, it’s very much (and understandably) an outsider’s view of the city, and it’s interesting to compare it to two Federico Fellini’s films that followed in its wake: the Rome of La Dolce Vita – granted a film set a little closer to the more liberated sixties – seems like a far more exciting place, with a verve and swagger that is lacking in the nightlife of Roman Holiday, whereas Roma offers a more honest, rounded portrait of a noisy, working city.

Unfortunately the natives in the film seem to be there just to play up to some kind of ill-thought out stereotype. All the Italian characters seem to have ridiculous bulging eyes and flaring nostrils when they converse with Bradley and Princess Ann, and, presumably for comic effect, the ‘hilarity’ of the language barrier is milked throughout as characters struggle to communicate with each other. It’s a little cringeworthy today to say the least, but it’s certainly easy to forgive – and understand – in a film that was made 60 years ago.

Hepburn and Peck are both believable, and likable, as the young couple from different backgrounds that meet by chance and fall in love (a simple story that is still being used in many a film today). Peck’s part had initially been written for Cary Grant, but Grant declined the offer, feeling that the male lead in the film was playing second fiddle to the female lead (heaven forbid). (Interestingly, in the DVD extras, Peck suggests that at the time he felt every script that landed on his doormat had already been turned down by Grant. He comes across as being a very likable man, as it happens.) Hepburn, as mentioned earlier, was in her first major role, but was not considered to be the (or a) star of the film until midway through when Peck, realising just how good her performance was, lobbied the director and the studio to put Hepburn’s name above the title with his, where it deserved to be.

Though Peck was better known for his roles in serious dramas, he acquits himself well in Roman Holiday‘s gentle, occasionally farcical, comic moments, and his unthreatening presence adds to the film’s light, easy air. There is much reliance on Alpert for laughs, and he brings a real spark to his scenes, playing an effervescent and unpredictable photographer that leaves Bradley looking a little dull by comparison. But the film is rightly remembered as Hepburn’s breakthrough, and she gives an assured performance as the Princess. Despite some irksome faux-drunk overacting at the start of the movie, once things settle down she is very good. She has a hint of the tomboy about her, and a mischievous look in her eye throughout.

I have to admit my mind started to wander during the film, and throughout I had a strong sense of knowing what was about to happen next (having said that, the bittersweet ending came out of nowhere and left me shocked, though it’s a shame that the final scene was the first time that my interest was piqued). Perhaps it’s because I’m familiar with the locations used, and the class-mismatch love story, though it’s hardly Wyler’s fault that so much romantic pap has been made in the past five decades since that has liberally borrowed from films such as this (*cough, ahem, Notting Hill*). Though the years haven’t been particularly kind to certain aspects of Roman Holiday, it also has a hell of a lot of timeless charm, most notably thanks to Audrey Hepburn’s performance and many striking – if now familiar – scenes of Rome’s most glorious features. 

The Basics:

Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck
Certificate: U
Running Time: 118 Minutes
Year: 1953
Rating: 6.9

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