A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, June 12, 2017

Toni (Jean Renoir, 1935)

Authenticity in movies is like sincerity in politics: If you can fake it, you've got it made. Jean Renoir's Toni is a venture into realism, the quest for the kind of authenticity produced by using non-professional actors and shooting on location without resort to studio-built sets. Like the films of the Italian neorealist directors who admired and imitated Toni, it focuses on the struggles of the working class, in this case the immigrant workers from Spain, Italy, and North Africa who come to the South of France seeking jobs on the farms and, in the case of the Italian Antonio "Toni" Canova (Charles Blavette), the quarries. The film begins with Toni's arrival on a train; as the workers spread out on their search, we follow Toni as he knocks on the door of a boarding house run by Marie (Jenny Hélia). Then there's an abrupt cut in which time has passed and we see that Toni is now sharing Marie's bed. It's a time jump that Renoir will use several times over the course of the film. While still with Marie, Toni falls in love with Josefa (Celia Montalván), a Spanish woman, but she agrees to marry the brutish Albert (Max Dalban), who is Toni's boss at the quarry. Toni proposes that he and Marie join them in a double wedding ceremony. After another time jump, Josefa has had a baby and named Toni as the godfather, a role that doesn't please Marie at all. As the marriage of Toni and Marie disintegrates, he moves out of the house and she attempts suicide. Eventually, the relationship of Toni and Josefa ends in calamity, and as the film ends we have a reprise of the opening scene: Another train arrives, with yet another group of laborers. Toni is, as we should expect from Renoir, a work of great cinematic sophistication used to create a sense of simple immediacy, of witnessing real lives unfold. The story, while often melodramatic, maintains its documentary quality by relying on ambient sound and the deglamorization of its players. The polyglot cast is utterly convincing, and for once the viewer reliant on subtitles may be at something of an advantage over those just listening to the dialogue: Even if you know only a little French you can tell that the accents are thick and varied. But the film is also often visually quite beautiful: It was the first collaboration of Renoir with his nephew, Claude, as cinematographer, who achieves some quite striking nighttime scenes without resorting to the filtered or underexposed daylight shooting known as "day for night" or, in France, la nuit américaine.

The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)

I've known enough Christians in my lifetime -- in fact, I used to be one -- that I'm unhappy with the usurpation of the name "Christian" by those who denounce any deviation from their particular interpretation of what is a vast and confusing -- some would say contradictory -- body of texts, teachings, and traditions. Many of these hidebound true believers are charlatans and hucksters, whose proclamations of  "heresy" and "blasphemy" are inspired by the fact that they can milk attention, and therefore money, from those who regularly listen to them. Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ was an easy target for them: an R-rated film of the life of Jesus, with some nudity and much violence, made by a director whose other films are filled with shocking language, and featuring a scene in which Jesus (Willem Dafoe) has sex with Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey). So theaters were picketed and showings were shut down, and even after the film's run ended and it was released on videotape, the largest American video rental chain caved to pressure and refused to stock it. No matter that the offensive scene in context is part of the titular temptation, or that the point of the film is to affirm the entirely orthodox premise that Jesus had to be crucified in order to save the world. If anything, The Last Temptation of Christ should have strengthened Christians' faith, not shaken it. I'm not here, however, to endorse the film's doctrine -- or for that matter to attack it. Theology is not my forte. I'm here to say that as a film, The Last Temptation of Christ is a pretty impressive feat of storytelling by Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader. Some parts of the story, particularly those adapted from the Gospels, are told in a fresh and engaging manner, shaking off many (if not all) of the clichés of the biblical epic. The deviations or extrapolations from that source -- the long, close friendship of Jesus and Judas (Harvey Keitel), the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had been childhood sweethearts -- are really no more shocking or irrelevant than those in Cecil B. DeMille's dutifully pious silent The King of Kings (1927), in which the Magdalene and Judas are lovers and Mark, the author of the eponymous Gospel, is shown to have been a beneficiary of one of Jesus's miracles. It's the concluding "temptation" section, adapted from the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, that tends to drag and become over-talky. Dafoe unfortunately reinforces the blue-eyed blond stereotype of movie Jesuses, and Keitel's Brooklyn accent might have been toned down more, but both actors perform with conviction. Most of the roles are played by American actors, including Verna Bloom as Mary, Jesus's mother, and Harry Dean Stanton as Saul/Paul, so it's something of a neat touch to hear a British accent from the occupying Romans, represented by Pontius Pilate, played very nicely and dryly by David Bowie. Satan, too, is a Brit, at least to judge by the accent of Juliette Caton, who plays his embodiment as the faux guardian angel in the temptation scenes. The Last Temptation received only one Oscar nomination -- for Scorsese, perhaps as a way of acknowledging his role at the eye of the controversy -- but it certainly deserved notice for Michael Ballhaus's cinematography and especially for Peter Gabriel's superb score, for which he brought together an impressive collection of musicians from around the world.