THE LAST PICTURE BLOG

OCCASIONAL NOTES ON FILM

Posts tagged ‘Rome’

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.

1707628-dsc_6564

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.

TS61adb6_DSC_7391

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.

7 Comments

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.)

the-great-beauty06

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.

6 Comments

The-Man-from-U.N.C.L.E.-2015-WallpapersThis light, breezy comedy-thriller by Guy Ritchie doesn’t have all that much in common with its TV show predecessor, other than the basic conceit of uniting an American CIA agent and a Russian KGB operative as a Cold War odd couple, but it does an effective enough job as an origin story; such films are ten-a-penny these days, and this is no less deserving of a franchise than anything else out there, but moderate success at the box office earlier this year may well put the brakes on a mooted sequel actually being made. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer star as the charismatic Napoleon Solo and the reserved Illya Kuryakin respectively, and the pair share plenty of easy chemistry on screen, where both characters make clear their mistrust and misgivings while also displaying a childlike desperation to impress the opposite number; Ritchie’s screenplay imbues their awkward professional relationship with a slight homoerotic edge, but rather than anything serious it would have been a welcome surprise to see openly gay heroes in a mainstream action film, for once – this is all firmly in keeping with the tone of the film and is established through comic innuendo. Sadly I guess anything beyond that might put some people off, even in this day and age, so we’ll have to wait for another director to go for it. There are no risks taken with the plot, either. Rather than getting bogged down in the nitty gritty of the deals and political wranglings on either side of the Iron Curtain, Ritchie moves the pair on from gloomy Berlin to a caper in the dolce vita of mid-’60s Rome at a fairly early stage, and the latter setting informs the film’s style: all sharp suits, men in speedboats, swanky event flirtations, Cinecittà strings and swish hotel rooms. Joining in the fun are Alicia Vikander, who plays a mechanic tied to a family of Nazi-sympathisers-stroke-nuclear-weapons-enthusiasts, and Hugh Grant, who Hugh Grants his way through a minor role as a besuited British spy chief. The emphasis is on fun and froth, as with Ritchie’s previous brace of Sherlock Holmes films, and all told he makes a good fist of it. If your expectations are low you will probably be entertained: the story is as plain as they come but The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is all about the eye candy, while the soundtrack jumps very tastefully from soul (Roberta Flack, Solomon Burke) to sweeping, grandiose Italian period scores and the set pieces are laced with good humour.

Directed by: Guy Ritchie.
Written by: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram (screenplay), Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram, Jeff Kleeman, David C. Wilson (story). Based on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. by Ian Fleming, Norman Felton and Sam Rolfe.
Starring: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris.
Cinematography: John Mathieson.
Editing: James Herbert.
Music:
Daniel Pemberton, Various.
Certificate:
12A.
Running Time:
116 minutes.
Year:
2015.

10 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

10 Comments