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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (10/5/2024)

(Reviews of La chimera; Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger; and On Resistance Street)


LA CHIMERA.


The theme of doing what it takes to get by has run through Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders (2014) and Happy As Lazzaro (2018) and it continues into La chimera, a delightfully offbeat story that's set in the 1980s, yet casts light on Italy's current state through the prism of its ancient past.


Released from prison, Arthur Harrison (Josh O'Connor) travels through Central Italy by train in a crumpled white suit. Having driven away the three girls sharing his compartment with his boorish response to a vendor trying to sell him some socks, he gets watched quizzically in the corridor by a white terrier. Ditching Pirro (Vincenzo Nemolato), the friend who collects him at the station, Arthur goes to the villa owned by Donna Flora (Isabella Rossellini), the mother of his lost love, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello).


Flora's family disapproves of Arthur, but he intrigues her singing student lodger, Italia (Carol Duarte), who she rather treats as a skivvy. When he develops a cough at his shack outside the town walls, Italia comes with a flask of coffee to warm him up. She also takes him to the farm where Pirro is based after he discovers that his stash of Etruscan treasures is missing from its hiding place. Arthur has done time for stealing artefacts with Pirro and his gang of tombaroli, but they have looked after his trove while he was away and he winds up joining them at the Epiphany carnival in the town.


Working with a dowsing branch, Arthur leads the crew to a spot in the woods. They return under cover of darkness with Mélodie (Lou Roy-Lecollinet) and Jerry (Giuliano Mantovani) and start excavating. They unearth a burial chamber, which they fear has already been looted. But they find several items of potential value and celebrate at a shack beside the sea, where a troubadour sings about the deeds of Arthur and his tombaroli. A montage accompanies the ballad, showing the gang finding treasures and keeping one step ahead of the carabinieri. It's a peculiar existence and Arthur spends many hours with Flora and Italia, who has singing lessons while doing chores, learning sign language, and looking after her two young children.


She likes Arthur and joins him at an outdoor party to celebrate being paid by Spartaco (a mysterious dealer who seems to be based at an animal hospital). He's amused by her dancing, but sweeps her away when too many blokes crowd around her. Pirro, Jerry, Mario (Gian Piero Capretto), and Fabiana (Ramona Fiorini) join the couple on the beach across from a vast power plant. But Arthur goes into one of his chimera trances and wanders to an untouched spot that he is convinced is special. However, Italia hadn't known he is a grave robber and she is so appalled that she tosses away the Etruscan bell he had given her. She urges Fabiana to call the cops and the others order her to see Italia home so that she doesn't ruin their find.


In the tomb, they find a priceless haul of votive animals, as well as a goddess petting a big cat. Arthur is dismayed when Pirro breaks off the head, as he is so moved by the beauty of the frescoes and the sanctuary of the shrine that he's disinclined to desecrate it. As the gang members argue among themselves, the sound of sirens gets closer. Convinced that Italia has betrayed them, they flee with the head. However, the cops are fake and we see Spartaco (Alba Rohrwacher) supervising the winching of the goddess statue into a packing crate that is then filled with plastic World Cup footballs with panels in the colour of the Italian tricolour.


Having been thrown out by Flora for hiding the presence of her children, Italia moves into the abandoned Riparbella station. Flora's daughters plead with her to go into a care home so that they can sell the villa and enjoy the rest of their own lives. Arthur is repelled by their greed. However, he still feels cheated by Spartaco and goes to his headquarters to demand an appointment.


He discovers that Mélodie is Spartaco's niece and she takes them by boat to the paddle steamer in the middle of the lake where Spartaco is conducting an auction for the goddess using forged authentication papers. Pirro demands that Spartaco cuts them a deal by buying the head or he will expose her to her clients. Arthur looks on as they snarl at each other and decides that the marble head is too beautiful for human eyes to gaze upon and he hurls it over the side and it rapidly sinks to the bottom.


Travelling home by train, Arthur is ignored by the other tombaroli. He goes into a corridor for a smoke and is badgered by the guard, the vendor, and the three girls with their dog, who all demand the return of lost tomb items. Suddenly finding himself alone, Arthur realises his conscience has summoned the spirits he has swindled and slips off the train alone. Returning to his shack, he's unable to prevent from being demolished.


Spotting Italia's daughter, Colombiana (Julia Pandolfo), on the street, Arthur tries to follow her. She makes him shave and change into a brown suit before taking him to the station, which is now a thriving squat, with Fabiana among the occupants. Itala invites him to stay and they kiss. He sneaks away at first light, however, and joins forces with a rival gang. As the newcomer, he's sent into a tunnel, only to fall and curse his luck as he fears he's trapped. Re-lighting his candle, he sees a shaft of sunlight coming through a small hole and we see him reunited with Beniamina in a relieved hug.


Inspired by La grande razzia of the 1980s, when previously sacrosanct Etruscan sites were targeted for profit, this is a study of how capitalism has crept corruptingly into every facet of modern society. There are those who seek to preserve the past and find new ways of confronting the future. But it's the lack of respect for history and our forebears that makes the scavenging of the tombaroli in this determinedly antic picture so distressing, as nothing is sacred in a world in which profanity and poverty rapidly narrow options as the walls close in and the light fades.


In Rohrwacher's vision, it's not the past where they do things differently, it's the present and the dangers are readily apparent unless we mend our ways. Yet she refuses to judge those who feel entitled to take from those who can no longer benefit from their possessions in order to ameliorate their own situations. Her ire is aimed at those at the apex of the pyramid who calculatingly exploit all below them while taking the biggest percentage. Caught between them is Arthur, whose besmirched white suit and dowsing powers make him a kind of fallen angel (or a colonial relict), who is as happy in the underworld or in his dreams as he is in his problem-filled reality. He's played with melancholic awkwardness by Josh O'Connor, who is splendidly supported by a vibrant ensemble, as well as the enigmatic Carol Duarte, whose off-key singing is contrasted with the cantastorie ballads that frequently comment upon Arthur's debased heroism and the wider action (which is strewn with mischievous references to Federico Fellini, the Tavianis, and Ermanno Olmi).


Shooting in 35mm, 16mm, and Super 16 to alter the shape of the frame and the texture of the visuals, Rohrwacher and cinematographer Hélène Louvart make evocative use of the blues and browns of the Tuscan skies and soil, as the present and various shades of the past cast their shadows on Arthur, as he searches for the most priceless treasure in Beniamina. Elegantly threaded like visual pearls by editor Nelly Quettier, the scenes hang together with a disarming looseness that sometimes renders them puzzlingly elusive. Why the occasional inverted perspectives, for example, or the sudden shift into handcranked pastiche for the nocturnal grave flight?. And what motivates the musical selections ranging from Monteverdi and Mozart to the Italian pop of Franco Battiato and Vasco Rossi, and Kraftwerk's distinctive synthed Krautrock? But that's the beauty of Rohrwacher's cinema. She doesn't expect the audience to grasp every detail; she allows us to be as vulnerably human as her characters, as they learn that the past belongs to everyone and no one.


MADE IN ENGLAND: THE FILMS OF POWELL AND PRESSBURGER.


Martin Scorsese has made more documentaries about popular music than he has about cinema. In addition to his sweeping histories, A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) and My Voyage to Italy (1999), he also produced A Letter to Elia (2010) in an effort to fathom the HUAC motives of one of his director heroes, Elia Kazan. Scorsese isn't actually the director of Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger, as that is David Hinton. But this is just as personal an insight as any of his previous cine-surveys, as not only Scorsese has long professed a love of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's work, but he also befriended the former during his wilderness years and continues to collaborate with his award-winning editor widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, who serves here as an executive producer alongside Olivia Harrison (whose Beatle husband was the subject of one of the aforementioned rockumentaries).


For once, this won't be a thorough dissection of the film's coverage of the Powell and Pressburger canon, as a recent(ish) Cinema Paradiso article has already done this job. Similarly, an essay for the 4K release of Peeping Tom (1960) has covered Powell's travails following his amicable parting of the ways with the Hungarian-born half of The Archers following Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). So, what follows is more a string of notes leading to a grateful conclusion.


Having recalled his childhood discovery of Powell and Pressburger, Scorsese delves into their own backgrounds. Uncharacteristically, he calls Dubliner Rex Ingram an `American director' when chronicling Powell's time at Victorine Studios in Nice. He also offers little by way of analysis of Powell's early films as a director, as he prefers to allow the images to speak for themselves. Only The Phantom Light (1935) is cited by name, although (to be fair), quite a number of the quota quckies are missing. More puzzlingly, while 49th Parallel (1941) is discussed in detail, Contraband (1940) and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), fail to make the cut.


A neat observation about the camera pulling away from the duel in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) is complemented by the revelation that Scorsese copied the idea for Raging Bull (1980). Similarly, the notion that The Archers told the love story in Blimp with such tenderness influenced his own approach to the thwarted romance in The Age of Innocence (1993).


There's something touching about Scorsese's affection for A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I'm Going (1945), as he dwells upon the spiritual mysticism of the former and the latter's lyrical depiction of the natural world in order to show how The Archers understood human nature and the bond between the British and their island, whether the setting was Powell's native Kent or the Scotland where he felt so free.


The power of love proves strong in each film, but it conquers all in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), which also offered hope to a postwar world that there was a possibility to recover from the trauma of conflict and return to a semblance of normality. An archive clip shows Powell marvelling at the talent of art director Alfred Junge, although Scorsese might have mentioned how indebted the duo would become to Hein Heckroth. This is a weakness of the film, as The Archers relied heavily on the creative team they built around them. It's also odd that Deborah Kerr's triple role in Blimp is highlighted, while David Niven and Kim Hunter are also name-checked when there's no mention to this point of the equally excellent Roger Livesey, Anton Walbrook, and Wendy Hiller.


Kathleen Byron and David Farrar are named in the discussion of Black Narcissus (1947), along with cinematographer Jack Cardiff, whose meticulous use of Technicolor reinforced the sense of heightened illusion as Powell sought to turn melodrama into opera during the `composed cinema' sequence leading to the struggle between Byron and Deborah Kerr in the bell tower whose Himalayan background had been painted on glass in a remarkable piece of studio trompe-l'œil. This fascination with controlled artifice carried over into The Red Shoes (1948), which Scorsese calls the most subversive commercial movie of its day, as it reflected the driven passions of both its makers and its characters in depicting the sacrifices needed to create great art.


Comparisons are made between the central ballet and the Sugar Ray fight in Raging Bull and between Boris Lermontov and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). Scorsese's acknowledgement of his debt has a humility that makes this the most revealing section of the documentary. But The Red Shoes drove the Rank hierarchy to despair and The Archers left for Alexander Korda's London Films in dismay at how poorly it had been distributed.


Venturing into problem picture territory in The Small Back Room (1949) alienated audiences, while The Elusive Pimpernel and Gone to Earth (both 1950) showed how little Hollywood titans like Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick recognised Powell and Pressburger's genius. The latter hired Rouben Mamoulian to shoot additional scenes with Jennifer Jones so that her new husband could better showcase her in his cut, The Wild Heart. More might have been said about the differences, but the clashes ended any hopes The Archers might have had of making profitable films on their own terms.


They sought to combine opera and dance in Tales of Hoffmann (1951), which might have prompted a comparison with the films that Max Ophüls was making in France at the same time (especially as Walbrook appeared in La Ronde, 1950 and Lola Montès, 1955). Scorsese rightly notes how this undervalued experiment in artistic synthesis encapsulated Powell's ambitions for his medium and reveals that the gondola duel is one of his favourite scenes of all time. But Powell felt that Pressburger had sided with Korda in a discussion about third-act cuts and their rock-solid partnership began to fragment.


During a three-year hiatus, Pressburger directed the forgotten Twice Upon a Time (1953), while Powell developed a story from The Odyssey to star Orson Welles, with a libretto by Dylan Thomas and music by Igor Stravinsky. But the best he could achieve was Oh...Rosalinda!! (1955), a maligned take on Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus that has yet to find its audience, in spite of the wit, pace, and precision of the staging and the winking knowingness of a fine cast. No longer operating as The Archers, Powell and Pressburger returned to bellicose topics in the hope of rekindling old glories. However, neither The Battle of the River Plate (1956) nor Ill Met By Moonlight were on a par with their wartime work, in spite of the VistaVision boost. Even Scorsese struggles to summon much enthusiasm.


However, he identifies the sadness at the heart of Peeping Tom and the energy he rediscovered with Schoonmaker and Scorsese after he closed his career far too early with Age of Consent (1969) and the invariably overlooked reunion with Pressburger for the Children's Film Foundation gem, The Boy Who Turned Yellow (1972). There's no mention of Return to the Edge of the World (1978), either. But gaps are inevitable, even in a 133-minute study, with Powell's solo work falling outside the Archers brief. Besides, Scorsese has bared his cinematic soul in talking about the films that have never stopped shaping him since he first saw The Thief of Bagdad (1940) on the family couch on a black-and-white television.


Hinton, of course, has a head start when it comes to profiling Powell and Pressburger, as he directed Melvyn Bragg's South Bank Show on the pair in 1986. Footage is recycled, along with extracts from Gavin Millar's Arena film, A Pretty British Affair (1981). Working with an uncredited Schoonmaker, editors Margarida Cartaxo and Stuart Davidson do a neat job of stitching the clips together, alongside the newsreel snippets and feature passages. In truth, aficionados will learn little about Powell and Pressburger as individuals or as a team. But Scorsese's insights are as shrewd as one might expect of such a committed cineaste, although this heartfelt appreciation becomes most interesting when he forgets he's a big-time film-maker (with his own right to a tribute of this kind) and becomes the fan who loves to lose himself in the darkness, as magical images illuminate the screen.


ON RESISTANCE STREET.


Rubika Shah's White Riot (2019) did such a good job in showing how punk took a stand against racism that there didn't appear to be a need for a second documentary on the subject. Essentially the cine-equivalent to a fanzine, Richard David's On Resistance Street has little new to add when it comes to role played by Joe Strummer and The Clash in alerting fans to the pernicious politics of the National Front. However, despite opening clumsily with a reminder of the crimes of William Joyce (aka Lord Haw Haw), it still has a valuable contribution to make to the ongoing battle against prejudice in the 21st century.


Particularly significant is a discussion of The Stars Campaign for Interracial Friendship, a movement that was started in the wake of the 1958 Notting Hill and Nottingham riots by such jazz musicians as Johnny Dankworth and Cleo Laine. Pianist Winifred Attwell, skifflers Tommy Steele and Lonnie Donegan, producer Denis Preston, and actor Laurence Olivier were prominent figures and earned the support of such luminaries as Frank Sinatra and Lena Horne. Indeed, the Musicians' Union had been among the first bodies to call for a boycott of Apartheid South Africa in the late 1940s and it's a shame that more isn't known about this part of British musical history. The SCIF doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page, despite the publication of contributor Rick Blackman's 2017 tome, Forty Miles of Bad Road.


Another worthwhile segment reflects on the drunken `Keep Britain white' rant that Eric Clapton delivered during a gig at The Odeon in Birmingham on 5 August 1976. John Lydon also has his knuckles rapped, although in relation to his comments on Donald Trump rather than for the fact that The Sex Pistols flirted with Nazi insignia. Glen Matlock isn't pressed on this or the Situationist provocations of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Typically, David Bowie is placed upon a pedestal for warning about the potential dangers of the Internet without any reference being made to the Thin White Duke's statement while promoting the Station to Station album earlier in the same year: `I believe Britain could benefit from a fascist leader.'


Much of the documentary's latter third is taken up with a somewhat self-indulgent account of how some ageing punks formed Clash Fans Against the Right in order to take on alt-right infiltrators on their web pages. A lengthy recap of the current state of play involving the hierarchy of transatlantic bigots feels a little shoehorned, as does the righteous fury aimed at Boris Johnson for daring to profess a love for The Clash to which he apparently wasn't entitled. Moreover, the space afforded Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell might have been more usefully filled with a discussion about why so few current musicians are reluctant to nail their colours to the mast and follow in the footsteps of acts feted here, such as Steel Pulse, Tom Robinson, Aswad, Attilla the Stockbroker, Billy Bragg, The Levellers, The Men They Couldn't Hang, Stiff Little Fingers, The Defects, The Outcasts, Taurus Trakker, and Lady Shocker.


But Terri Hooley makes a welcome appearance to reminisce about the part his Good Vibrations record shop and label played in giving the two sides in Northern Ireland's Troubles a common bond. There's also much to commend in the film's visual style, which uses split screens, collage, and period graphics to cram in a lot of information and a wealth of archive material. It all feels homemade, which is the point, as Richard David and producer Robin Banks were on the Rock Against Racism barricades in the 1970s and are damned if they are giving up the struggle while their punk spirit lives on.

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