• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (13/5/2022)

Updated: May 20

(Reviews of Marx Can Wait; The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson; and Spitfire Over Berlin)


Even if we presume that cinema-going is a thing again, the UK's various streaming platforms are still doing sterling work. In addition to subscription sites like Curzon Home Cinema. MUBI, Netflix and the BFI Player, the likes of iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation are all ready to keep you entertained.


Whether you opt for the big-screen experience or some quality home time, enjoy and stays safe.


MARX CAN WAIT.


There's something deeply disconcerting about confessional cinema, in particular those documentaries in which the maker exposes a family secret or explores a personal tragedy. The medium certainly accommodates intimacy and introspection and affords directors an opportunity to reflect upon issues that they might find difficult to broach in everyday life. This certainly seems to be the case with Italian auteur Marco Bellocchio in Marx Can Wait, in which he considers his exculpatory attitude towards his 29 year-old twin brother's suicide during the Christmas holidays in 1968. Yet, the very rawness of the emotions on display, as Bellocchio feels the need to recall events on camera with his surviving siblings, will leave many viewers feeling like intruders upon private grief.


On 16 December 2016, Marco Bellocchio joined siblings Letizia, Piergiorgio, Maria Luisa and Alberto at a family celebration in Piacenza. During a toast to absent friends, Marco recalls Camillo, the twin with whom he was born on 9 November 1939. Everyone remembers him as the angel of the family, as he had been baptised three times because he had nearly succumbed to asphyxiation at birth. Yet, nobody was concerned for him when he was forced to share a room with his tempestuous brother, Paolo, whose histrionics informed a scene in Bellocchio's A Leap in the Dark (1980).


Amidst the family snapshots and school photos, we see newsreel clips ticking off key events such as Benito Mussolini's declaration of war in 1940, the 1946 referendum on the monarchy, the Communist threat hanging over the 1948 election, and the 1950 Holy Year instituted by Pope Pius XII. Through it all, Marco and Camillo started their education and discovered a mutual love of the sea, even though the younger twin wasn't a good swimmer. However, Camillo was much more devastated by their father's death, as he had been Francesco's favourite and feared losing this privileged place.


Over some colour home movies, the brothers agree that Camillo enjoyed being a bad boy, who enjoyed pranks and flirting with the girls. Giovanna Capra, the sister of his girlfriend, Angela recalls him with affection, but Piergiorgio and Alberto claim there was always a melancholy beneath the `couldn't care less' attitude that he adopted to get him through unhappy episodes like surveyors' school and national service.


Alberto suggests that his problem was a lack of direction, as he didn't have the wherewithal to follow his own path and wished he could emulate the intellectual Piergiorgio and the artistic Marco. In 1964, he wrote to Marco asking if he could find him an opening in the cinema, but his brother doesn't remember getting the letter, let alone whether he replied to it. Daughter Elena and son Pier Giorgio are surprised by their father's lack of memory over something that seems so crucial, but Alberto reckons he wasn't committed to cinema, he simply sought an escape from the family circle.


Giovanna remembers her sister telling Camillo that he didn't have to be like his brothers and hopes were raised when he got a teaching certificate and opened a gym. But he didn't seem to settle and was profoundly affected by the suicide in 1967 of singer Luigi Tenco. Around this time, brother Tonino got married to Pia and Marco won a prize at the Venice Film Festival for China Is Near (1967). Moreover, Camillo was still suffering from his childhood experiences with Paolo, the older sibling whose rages had blighted his nights. With Marco busy spouting revolutionary ideals, as the student movements gained traction in 1968, he failed to notice his brother's torment, even when he told him, `Marx can wait.'


Bellocchio included this exchange in his 1982 feature, The Eyes, the Mouth. But Giovanna implores him not to blame himself, as everyone was too wrapped up in their own concerns to help Camillo. Pia recalls how she found him hanging in his gym, with Tonino and his mother. She had torn off her new dress in despair at seeing her son and wished she could have died in his place. Letizia had gone upstairs for a knife and climbed the wallbars to cut him down, while Pia held his body and laid it on the floor.


Both Marco and Piergiorgio travelled back to Piacenza thinking their brother had died in an accident, while Alberto got home without knowing anything was amiss and took a while for the bad news to sink in. They offered his car to Angela, but she refused it. At the funeral, Pia recalls a distraught blonde asking Camillo out loud why he had done it. Piergiorgio reveals the existence of a suicide note, while Giovanna remembers a letter to Angela, in which he had bemoaned the fact that he was a failure while his brothers were enjoying success and respect.


Once again, Marco has no recollection of these details, even though he was specifically mentioned in the message to Angela. But she was upset that the family had taken no interest in her during the three years she had dated Camillo and avoided them at the funeral. They were more worried about their mother, who was a firm believer in hellfire, and they concocted stories that Camillo's death had been accidental to spare her the torment.


Following a clip from The Eyes, the Mouth in which the suicide twin returns to reassure his mother he's okay, we see an extract from My Mother's Smile (2002) before Fr Virgilio Fantuzzi reassures Marco that he has shown love for Camillo in his films and that he should not blame himself for having failed to prevent the tragedy when nobody in the family sensed that Camillo was that unhappy. They admit to regrets, but accept that time must move on. Letizia hopes to see him and all her departed relations on the other side. But she's less fussed about seeing God and more worried that there will be so many souls milling around that she won't be able to find her loved ones.


It's not entirely clear what Bellocchio is hoping to achieve with this poignant family memoir. Evidently, he feels grief at losing his twin and guilt at not being able to help him. But he doesn't see why he should bear more responsibility than anyone else in his family, especially as he was being swept along by the events of history at the time and was trying to change the world to improve the lot of the oppressed. Yet, while he appears to be seeking to understand his emotions rather than be absolved for his actions (or lack of them), the 81 year-old Bellocchio doesn't always convince - even his children seem uncomfortable as they listen to his reasoning over coffee - and seems content to go with the family line that Camillo lacked the determination and courage to change his own narrative.


While Bellocchio is cautious on camera, his siblings are more forthcoming. Their accounts don't always tally and it's interesting that Letizia and Maria Luisa are never interviewed with either of their brothers. Editor Francesca Calvelli achieves some neat clashes of recollection, while her assemblage of the archive footage, family artefacts and Bellocchio's canon is engrossing (and evocatively complemented by Ezio Bosso's score). But this most fascinates in the way in which it reveals how Bellocchio has used his art to process feelings he has otherwise chosen to suppress for over half a century. One can only hope it brings a sense of peace, for Camillo, as well as his siblings.


THE DROVER'S WIFE: THE LEGEND OF MOLLY JOHNSON.


Henry Lawson's 1892 short story, `The Drover's Wife', clearly means a great deal to Leah Purcell. Having adapted the harrowing tale for the stage, she expanded it to novel length before reworking it again for the screen. In addition to writing and directing The Drover's Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson, the debutant also takes the title role. Yet, for all the intensity of Purcell's achievement in exploring Australia's colonial past from an Indigenous and feminist perspective, the sketchiness of the subplots and the secondary characterisation leaves this Bush Western looking decidedly lopsided.


Fiercely protective of her four children, Molly Johnson (Leah Purcell) treats Danny (Malachi Dower-Roberts), Joe Junior (Jobe Zammit-Harvey), Henry James (Nash Zammit-Harvey) and Delphi (Amahlia Olsson) to roast beef after she shoots a bull that strays too close to their remote tumbeldown shack in the Blue Mountains. The aroma attracts Sergeant Nate Clintoff (Sam Reid) and his proto-feminist wife, Louisa (Jessica de Gouw), as they make their way by wagon to the nearby settlement of Everton. Overcoming her suspicions of the strangers, the heavily pregnant Molly is touched by Louisa's delight in her brood and invites them to lunch.


Louisa describes their arduous journey from London, while Nate explains that he has come to bring Queen Victoria's new laws to the Outback. When asked about her husband, Molly (despite being bruised from beatings) rhapsodises about her happiness when Joe returns home from a sheep drive, but Nate notes the look of puzzlement on the children's faces. He agrees to take the younger three into town, where Miss Shirley (Maggie Dence), the casually racist sister of Father McGuiness (Bruce Spence), has offered to look after them while she has her baby.


On his first morning, Nate is called to the house of bigwig Mr Edwards (Sean Lynch) to investigate a multiple slaying. Judge Eissenmangher (Nicolas Hope) leaves the sergeant in no doubt of the importance of solving the crime, as the entire local economy depends upon Edwards and would collapse if he decided to move away. Summoning reinforcements from the next outpost, Nate urges Trooper Leslie (Benedict Hardie) to show more commitment to his duties, as they hawk wanted posters around the marketplace in the hope of tracking down an Aboriginal fugitive from the penal colony.


Louisa battles influenza, while planning the launch of a women's journal that she intends using to tackle the problem of domestic violence (following the death of her younger sister). However, Nate learns from brothel keeper Elpida Sava (Victoria Haralabidou) that Joe Johnson's drover mates have arrived in town with his horse, which they found wandering around the Outback. They are concerned that he should have missed the drive, as he's usually so reliable and Nate confides in Louisa that he thinks Molly has murdered her spouse and buried him under the woodpile in her yard. When his wife suggests that she may just have been defending herself from a drunken brute, Nate insists that the law must take its course if the charge is proven.


Meanwhile, Molly has given sanctuary to Yadaka (Rob Collins), the prison escapee in broken chains who had helped her deliver and bury a stillborn daughter. Despite her initial misgivings (`I'll shoot you where you stand, and I'll bury you where you fall.'), she comes to trust him, as he helps with chores and befriends Danny, showing him how to hunt with a spear. He even does a traditional dance to re-enact the killing of the bull. But Nate is under pressure to crack the Edwards case and sends Hardie to the Johnson place to check on Molly and keep an eye out for Yadaka.


Hardie tries to confront Molly and Yadaka after finding them together. But she shoots him and orders Yadaka to bury him deep. She also defends herself when Joe's pals, Robert Parsens (Tony Cogin) and John McPharlen (Harry Greenwood), come snooping. Yadaka invites Molly to come to his ancestral grounds and she declines, even though he informs her that her mother was Aboriginal, as he recalls hearing stories about her as a boy.


Instead, Molly insists on riding into town with Danny to collect her kids and return home. They are waylaid on the road, however, and Molly cuts a deal with the brigand to let Danny go free. She tells him to collect his siblings and join Yadaka in the hills. As soon as her son disappears, she stabs her attacker, only to be arrested when Nate comes across the scene. Louisa pleads with him to show mercy, as it's clear to her that Joe had been an abusive husband, But Molly is hanged from a tree outside Everton and her spirit watches over her offspring, as they are adopted by Yadaka's kinfolk.


In the course of reworking a story first told to her by her mother, Goa-Gunggari-Wakka Wakka Murri artist Leah Purcell has given a name and a First Nations background to Henry Lawson's anonymous heroine. She has also made Molly Johnson her own and her towering performance dominates a saga that recalls the brutal crimes of the Frontier Wars and the Stolen Generation, while also commenting forthrightly on the present.


Purcell is well supported by Rob Collins and young Malachi Dower-Roberts. But the Clintoffs and the other residents of Everton are sold short in subplots that (surprisingly, given Purcell's familiarity with the material) feel frustratingly unresolved and underwritten. The denouement also feels hurriedly fumbled. Nevertheless, the messages strike home under the watchful gaze of Mark Wareham's camera, which studies faces and terrain with equal care and fascination, as Salliana Seven Campbell's score makes striking use of violins, pianos, banjos and electric guitars to give the action a Morriconesque jolt of anachronistic atmosphere.


SPITFIRE OVER BERLIN.


Ever since Winston Churchill immortalised the `few' to whom the cause of freedom was indebted during the darkest days of the Second World War, British film-makers have been drawn to tales of RAF derring-do. In the immediate aftermath, cinema audiences were treated to a steady stream of aerial adventures filled with stiff-lipped intrepidity.


Eight decades on, the courage of the young men who took to the skies against the Luftwaffe remains a source of pride and inspiration. But, while we should be glad that directors are still keen to laud this dwindling band of heroes, it has to be said that the calibre of the films that have been produced over the last few years (often on meagre budgets) has been frustratingly low. Now, following in the contrails of David Blair's Hurricane, Denis Delic's 303 Squadron (both 2018) and his own Lancaster Skies (2019), comes Callum Burn's Spitfire Over Berlin.


Having taken a detour over England's green and pleasant land following a photo reconnaissance flight over Occupied France, Flight Lieutenant Edward Barnes (Kris Saddler) returns to base. He's not out of the cockpit, when he is summoned by the Group Captain (David Dobson). It seems that a 1200-strong USAF squadron is intent on carrying out a raid even though intelligence has come through that the German defences have been redeployed. So, Edward is required to pilot his unarmed Spitfire over the capital of the Third Reich and get back to Blighty before 20:00 hours with the photographic evidence to avert a disaster.


Sticking to the control panel the pin-up of Georgie that he always carries for luck, Edward heads across the White Cliffs of Dover. Following a game of I-Spy, he thinks back (in a monochrome flashback) to his time when he was a reckless rookie flying Spitfire missions with his squadron leader brother, David (Tom Gordon). However, he snaps back into the present when he picks up a radio signal from the pilot of a B-17 bomber (Jeffrey Mundell). They chat cheerfully, as the American seems unconcerned about the smoke billowing from one of his engines. But the banter turns to panicked cries, as the plane disappears from view and the radio falls eerily silent.


Avoiding the flak over Germany, Edward is troubled by the flickering red light on his control panel. However, he is wounded in the leg and has to fight the searing pain as he swoops down to complete his mission. Regaining consciousness (having drifted back to the ill-fated sortie that still haunts him), he straps up his thigh and asks Georgie whether the brass will allow him to keep flying like Douglas Bader.


At that moment, Edward is engaged by a German fighter and has to use his flying skills to evade it. He swoops over the countryside and flies through the arch of an aqueduct before shaking off the pursuer, who gives him a wing waggle to compliment him on his dexterity. However, when he goes to share the moment with Georgie, he sees that her photo has been sucked through a hole in the cockpit glass.


As he comes to terms with his loss, Edward thinks back to the dogfight in which David had sacrificed himself by flying into a German plane so that he could escape. The memory of that sacrifice coincides with the sound of a familiar voice, as the B-17 pilot urges him not to give up. Confused because he is certain that the bomber had crashed, Edward fights his hallucinations and his jammed landing gear to get down in one piece. However, one of the ground crew has to scramble back to the Spitfire to recover the camera.


Seven weeks later, the Group Captain thanks Edward for putting his neck on the line to save the USAF squadron. He's glad to do his duty and takes off again, with a snapshot of David on his control panel as his guardian angel.


Considering that the bulk of the action is filmed front on with a static camera in a mocked-up Spitfire cockpit, Callum Burn does well to keep this picture airborne for so long. He overcompensates with the repeated cross-cutting to the colour pin-up (whose relationship to Edward is never explained, although the looks more like a movie starlet than a sweetheart) and the red and green lights on the console. But, thanks to Kris Saddler's genial turn as the plucky underdog, he is able to make deft use of the chatter with the control tower (Luke Williams) and the American pilot to balance the photo flirtation, which risks being as overdone as all the flyboy clichés.


The flashback sequence is also strung out, as it's clearly cheaper to create CGI footage of planes in unthreatened formation than it is to show Edward swooping through the barrage to photograph the target for tonight. In truth, the effects by Burn and Scott Ellis are too pristine to convince, but James Griffith does much to pep them up with his sound effects and a bristling score that does the job without quite reaching the heights attained by Eric Coates (The Dambusters, 1954) or Ron Goodwin (633 Squadron, 1964).


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