- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (18/2/2022)
(Reviews of The Real Charlie Chaplin; Flee; L'Arminuta; and In the Family)
Cinema-going may not be the most straightforward pastime at the moment. But it's possible to see the latest releases on the big screen, providing you meet the venue's admission criteria and have your mask and vaccination status at the ready.
If you prefer to avoid this rigmarole, 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. Whatever choice you make, think of others to make sure everyone stays safe.
THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN.
For those of us of a certain age, Kevin Brownlow spoilt us rotten when it came to the kings of silent comedy. Having teamed with David Gill on the epic series, Hollywood (1980) - why, oh why is this not available on disc - he completed the holy trinity of The Unknown Chaplin (1983), Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987) and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius (1989).
So good was this slapstick triptych that the late Peter Bogdanovich's The Great Buster: A Celebration (2018) paled alongside Brownlow's profile. But nowhere near as badly as Peter Middleton and James Spinney's The Real Charlie Chaplin, which not only keeps presenting well-known evidence as revelatory, but also does so in a distractingly fussy visual style that the makers rather pompously call `kaleidoscopic documentary collage'.
The picture opens with an intertitle bearing friend Max Eastman's contention, `Enjoy any Charlie Chaplin you have the good luck to encounter, but don't try to link them up to anything you can grasp. There are too many of them.' Over a montage of film clips and newsreel footage, narrator Pearl Mackie seizes upon this notion of indefinability to ask whether it's possible to unearth the real Charles Spencer Chaplin at this remove.
Childhood friend Effie Wisdom, who had played with Chaplin in the streets of Kennington in the 1890s, tells Kevin Brownlow (in a 1983 audio recording that's synchronised with a reconstruction enacted by Anne Rosenfeld and Dominic Marsh) that Charlie was a temperamental boy who was scarred by both poverty and the psychological issues that consigned his mother to an asylum. But (even though she regretted his lost accent) she was fond of him and was pleased when he followed his parents into variety and became a member of Fred Karno's Mumming Birds.
Once in America, Chaplin perfected his shtick during a gruelling tour with thrice-daily shows. Even though Stan Laurel was part of the troupe, it was Chaplin who stood out. Hence, when Ford Sterling quit Keystone Studios, owner Mack Sennett wired the moody Englishman with an offer of $150 per week. He debuted disastrously in Making a Living, he appeared in Kid Auto Races At Venice (both 1914) wearing the distinctive costume, whose origin he discussed during Richard Meryman's 1966 interview for Time magazine.
An amusing segment approaches the creation of the Tramp regalia through the lawsuit between Chaplin and impersonator Charles Aplin. He claimed to have been copying Chaplin-alike Billy West rather than the man himself, while Karno alumni, Fred Kitchen and Billie Ritchie, each claim that he stole the look (or parts of it) from them. But vaudeville comics had been playing vagabonds for decades and they had been inspired by the derelicts they saw on the streets of Britain and America.
According to Chaplin, the costume was thrown together in a prop-room panic that saw him try on Ford Sterling's shoes and Roscoe `Fatty' Arbuckle's trousers, as well as a hat belonging to the father of actress Minta Durfee (who doesn't merit a name check here). Nor does Mack Swain, whose moustache was trimmed down to complete a look that would make Chaplin the most famous person in the world. But the breakneck speed of the ensuing montage taking us to 1916 has no time to mention his moves to Essanay and Mutual, which earned him unprecedented sums for a screen performer.
Instead, over clips from The Adventurer, The Immigrant (1917), A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms (both 1918), we learn that the secret of his appeal was a classless, stateless subversiveness that allowed a nobody to belong to everybody who revelled in the sight of the Tramp not only standing up to the Man, but also giving him `a kick up the arse for good measure'.
Audio clips from broadcaster Alistair Cooke and performers Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Virginia Cherrill and Lita Grey suggest he worked hard to keep people focussed on the myth and not the man, as he was complex and insecure away from the camera. Assistant director A. Edward Sutherland claims that he retained a fear of poverty and it's intimated that he built his own studio and founded his own company (no need to mention that Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith were the other United Artists) in order to secure artistic and financial complete control over his work.
Freedom suited him, with The Kid (1921) - an autobiographical treatise on penury that made a star of young Jackie Coogan - being a major success that allowed him to return to London as a conquering hero. He returns to Pownall Terrace to see Effie and takes mother Hannah back to Los Angeles, where he embarks upon The Gold Rush (1923). Refusing to follow the talkie fad, he also filmed City Lights (1931) in silence, even though the key to the scene over which he would agonise for many months was the sound of a slamming door. Interestingly, Middleton and Spinney burnish the story by averring that Chaplin toiled over this picture for 534 days, when only 166 were actually spent filming.
In an interview with Brownlow, Virginia Cherrill recalls being fired and Georgia Hale and Marian Marsh were considered as replacements before he re-hired her. She jokes that she was too old to be his girlfriend, as the Hollywood gossip went, as she was 20 and he preferred teenagers. Of Chaplin's four wives, only Modern Times (1936) co-star Paulette Goddard was in her twenties and the film deflects into #MeToo territory to investigate Chaplin's relationships with Mildred Harris, Lita Grey and Oona O'Neill.
Grey's treatment by Chaplin (who didn't mention her by name in his memoirs, despite marrying her at 16), his adoring fans, fawning intellectuals and subsequent biographers is inexcusably disgraceful and the footage of Grey trying to put her side of the story (in 1966 and 1993) is distressing. But that doesn't excuse the association (via a brief rumination on how the Great Depression inspired Modern Times) of Chaplin with fellow moustache enthusiast, Adolf Hitler.
They may have been born four days apart, but the split-screen paralleling of Chaplin and Hitler's careers is gimmickly grotesque. But, in playing the Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel in The Great Dictator (1940), Chaplin gave the Little Fellow a voice and Middleton and Spinney contend that he never recovered as an artist and as a man from laying his trademark creation to rest.
Of course, his state of mind wasn't helped by the hounding he received from FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, who allied to drive Chaplin out of the United States as a homosexual Jewish Communist. In digging for dirt, Hopper found the pregnant Joan Barry, who was dragged through the courts in a paternity suit designed to discredit Chaplin. Once an aspiring actress, Barry wound up in an institution, while Chaplin sought solace for the failure of the misogynistically macabre comedy, Monsieur Verdoux (1947), with the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill after having been flayed by the right-wing press.
Two days into the transatlantic voyage to promote Limelight (1952) in Europe, Chaplin was informed that he would have to demonstrate his moral virtue in order to return to the US. Protesting that he was not bitter about his ostracism, he relocated to Switzerland, where he played the fool in home movies while remaining distant from his eight children (four of whom, Geraldine, Eugene, Jane and Michael, are heard lamenting his coldness - is the silence of siblings Josephine, Victoria, Annette and Christopher telling?).
Such is the disinterest of the co-directors in Chaplin's career, they don't both to give the names of the films he makes in self-pitying exile, A King in New York (1957) and A Countess of Hong Kong (1967). Indeed, this isn't a film history at all, but a psychological profile of a flawed genius. There's a sequence towards the end that compares the London streets that Chaplin revisited while writing My Autobiography (1964) with the settings for some of his films. But, as we see footage of his 1972 Hollywood reunion and his 1975 knighthood trip to Buckingham Palace, the emphasis falls again on the legacy of 3 Pownall Terrace and the fact that the doubts that haunted him his entire life derived from the inability to escape his origins.
One of the great strengths of Notes on Blindness (2016) was the way in which Peter
Middleton and James Spinney used imagery to convey the deterioration and loss of theologian John M. Hull's sight. Such visceral flourishes are less necessary in what is essentially a straightforward biodoc and, consequently, the jittery freeze frames and digitised celluloid meltdowns employed to reinforce points made in the narration feel gauchely intrusive.
Although they have become a facet of modern actuality, the dramatic reconstructions are also clumsily done, as Middleton and Spinney borrow Clio Barnard's technique of lip-synching pre-existing audio to on-screen performance. It just about works in the case of Kevin Brownlow's meeting with Effie Wisdom, but feels arch when Paul Ryan and Jeff Rawle stand in for Chaplin in the 1947 Verdoux press conference and the 1966 Time interview.
The co-directors and their fellow scenarist, Oliver Kindeberg, clearly don't want outside opinions challenging their hypotheses about the psychological baggage that shaped Chaplin's on- and off-screen personae. So, there is no hint of specialist knowledge in their overview (it's seemingly one thing to clone and crib from Kevin Brownlow and quite another to seek his expertise) and no sense of context in which to place Chaplin's comic achievement and his unique status as the world's first truly global celebrity. Instead, they keep facts and dates to a minimum and have Pearl Mackie spout fustian platitudes and specious insights in a tonally contrary voiceover that is nowhere near as profound as it sounds.
Moreover, there's such a lack of genuine interest in Chaplin's silent shorts that the film provides only a superficial reading of the Tramp's persona. By failing to explore the music-hall tradition in which Chaplin grew up, by overlooking the tricks he picked up from French counterpart Max Linder, and by opting not to examine what he learned about staging comedy for the camera from Max Sennett and his Keystone ensemble, Middleton and Spinney barely scratch the surface of a character who did much more than fall over and boot bullies up the backside.
We hear nothing about the pathos that informed Chaplin's work and even less about the relationships he established with leading lady Edna Purviance and favourite heavy, Eric Campbell. When Chaplin attempted to legitimise himself as a screen artist, he starred Purviance in A Woman of Paris (1923), the perennially overlooked melodrama that rather sums up Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s comments about Chaplin being a faux intellectual, who had opinions on everything, including books that he had merely skimmed rather than read from cover to cover.
Indeed, this contention proves equally valid with regard to the wartime speeches Chaplin made about unity among the Allies. These display a naivete that characterised many of Chaplin's attempts to address serious issues on screen. They also confirm the egotism that the documentarists don't explore to any degree (as it goes against their key theme of self-doubt) and yet which manifests itself in Chaplin's working methods (acting out scenes for co-stars to duplicate and keeping people waiting while he improvises scenarios from scratch), as well as in his attitudes towards women.
Yet Chaplin did have recurring collaborators, most notably Rollie Totheroh, the cinematographer who worked on over 30 films from 1915-47 and who was always ready with suggestions, as Chaplin honed his gags on the set. Another important figure in the entourage slips through the net, even though he shared Charlie's impoverished childhood. Five years his senior, half-brother Sydney had been born to Hannah before her marriage and he shared the Victorian Lambeth garret before going on to enjoy fame with the Karno troupe and having spells on screen between stints as Charlie's business manager during the negotiations with Mutual and First National that saw him become cinema's first million-dollar star.
How different our view of Chaplin might now be had Lita Grey been taken seriously and not dismissed as a gold-digging lush. Or had wife Oona not destroyed the journals and jottings that she had amassed during their marriage. But she took her secrets to the grave, with the result that Middleton and Spinney become the latest to get nowhere near to uncovering the `real' Charlie Chaplin.
He even eluded such accomplished biographers as David Robinson and Simon Louvish. Thus, the makers must take their place alongside Pamela B. Green, who claimed to have excavated `the untold story of Alice Guy-Blaché' in her 2018 documentary, Be Natural. What they have produced is a polished primer that concludes somewhat prosaically that Chaplin and the Tramp were one and the same. But this is a rather rushed study that says a good deal more about our own times and attitudes than it does about those of a sad clown and those who sought to destroy him.
Regardless of whether it wins any prizes, Jonas Poher Rasmussen's Flee is already assured of its place in Oscar history. In addition to being nominated for Best International Feature Film, this Danish production has also been listed in the Best Documentary Feature and Best Animated Feature categories, which is an unprecedented achievement. It's up against some tough competition on 27 March and may well come away with nothing. But, while winning would be nice, Rasmussen will probably be content that this account of his boyhood friend's experience has got people talking and spread a vital message.
As names have been changed to protect those involved in this true story, Amin Nawabi is given the reassurance of a pseudonym, as he starts to relate his story to his old school friend, Jonas Poher Rasmussen. His earliest memory sees him running along a Kabul street in 1984 in his sister's nightgown while listening to A-Ha's `Take on Me' on his Walkman. He adores his grey-haired mother and the older sister, who tells him and brother Saif tall tales about their absentee father.
Amin sits up from the couch on which he's lying and warns Jonas that there are certain parts of his history that he's not yet ready to divulge. But Jonas assures him that there is no deadline and that he merely wants to help him come to terms with past traumas and determine the veracity of rumours that surrounded him at school, including one he had walked to Copenhagen all the way from Afghanistan.
Riffling through the pages of a Dari journal that he kept when he first arrived in Denmark, Amin reads about the deaths of his parents and brother, as well as his sister's abduction. He confesses that he has kept much about his past secret from his partner, Kasper, even though they are planning to marry. However, Amin is reluctant to buy a place and settle down and confides in Jonas that he has a couple of trips to the US in the pipeline to discuss his post-doctoral work with his Princeton professor.
Unable to recall his father being taken away by the Communists after the 1979 Soviet invasion, Amin spent a lot of time with Saif, whom he considered a real boy because he got his hands dirty, bred pigeons and played volleyball. His sister, Sabia, collected Bollywood movie cards and Amin realised he was gay at a young age when he developed a crush on Jean-Claude Van Damme. However, homosexuality was such a taboo in Afghanistan that there wasn't even a word for it and Amin knew he had to keep his feelings to himself.
By 1989, the Mujahideen had started to resist the Communist regime and Saif was one of thousands of teenagers who had to lay low to avoid conscription in the national army. When the Soviets withdrew, Amin's mother feared Taliban reprisal and secured a tourist visa for the entire family to relocate to Moscow. He recalls crying all the way to the airport, but the necessity of the journey is illustrated with news footage of the violence wracking the Afghan capital.
Although his big brother Abbas had come from Sweden (after fleeing Kabul in the 1980s) to rent them an apartment, Amin found it difficult to settle in a Russia still coming to terms with the collapse of Communism. Food was scarce and crime was on the rise because the corrupt (and often drunk) police did little to stop it. Indeed, they even took cash from Amin's mother's purse to overlook the fact her papers were out of date.
Cramped in the apartment with Saif and sisters Sabia and Fahima, Amin spent the day watching dubbed Mexican soap operas. However, Abbas raised the money to smuggle their sisters to Sweden, although they were fortunate to survive an arduous journey on a container ship that was intercepted in Estonia.
Jonas is puzzled, as Amin had always claimed that his entire family had been wiped out. But he is pleased to learn that Abbas and his sisters are still safe in Sweden, although he sounds slightly sceptical about Amin's claim that he had based his asylum claim on being alone and vulnerable and had decided to withhold the truth after a university boyfriend had threatened to turn him in to the immigration authorities after a bitter break-up.
Shortly after the police came banging on the door, the family secure a passage with traffickers to the coast. The trek through a forest in the snow proves too much for one old lady, who is threatened with a gunshot to the head if she holds them up. A small boy with flashing red trainers also threatens to give them away and he has to be carried when he refuses to take them off. Once aboard the boat taking them across the Baltic, it becomes clear that the hold leaks in the swell and the migrants have to hammer on the door to be let out.
After several days adrift, the craft is spotted by a Norwegian cruise ship. Amin remembers feeling embarrassed when his fellow travellers cheered and waved to the passengers peering over the side and taking snapshots. He also recalls the sense of deflation when the crew inform them that they have called the Estonian coastguard and they are billeted at a joyless detention centre in Harku.
After languishing there for several months, the family opts to return to Moscow, where they are detained by cops during the opening of the city's first McDonald's. Bereft at having his father's watch confiscated, Amin is angry with himself for not protecting a teenage girl, who is raped in the back of a police van because she didn't have any bribe money.
Having argued with Kasper about studying in the States rather than setting up home in the country, Amin continues his story while staying with Jonas. He tries to explain how freedom is precious to him and he can't surrender it so easily, especially as he feels so indebted to his siblings for the chances he has received.
As Abbas can only afford one passage, Saif stays in Moscow with his mother. Amin recalls riding in the back of a van with an older boy, who gave him his gold chain while they listened to Roxette's `Joyride' on the Walkman. Flying to Istanbul with fake passports, they are told to claim they are orphans and Amin sticks to this story when he lands in Copenhagen. He admits to having forgotten his companion's name, but recalls having had a crush on him.
Accepted as a refugee in Denmark, Amin was found a home and befriended Jonas at school. He eventually got to reunite with his siblings in Stockholm, where Abbas treated him to a night at a gay club after he came out to them. However, he was too career-minded to allow himself to rest on his laurels and it's only on this last trip Stateside that he realises that he's ready to put down roots, with Kasper and their ginger cat.
With its blend of animation and archive footage bringing it closer in style to Ali Samadi Ahadi's The Green Wave (2010) than Ari Folman's Waltz With Bashir (2008), this is a poignant reflection on the psychological strain endured by both those facing persecution in their homeland and those who risk their lives in order to start afresh elsewhere. Yet what doesn't quite come across is the time it took for Amin to entrust Rasmussen with a truth that he has had to extricate from the burden of trauma, guilt and shame that had made burying the facts so necessary.
Counting Riz Ahmed and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau among its executive producers and very different in theme and tone from Rasmussen's Searching For Bill (2012) and What He Did (2015), this conversational piece owes much to the director's background in radio, as he knows how to pose incisive questions and listen intently to the answers. But the animation team has also ensured that this has a distinctive visual feel, as it switches during moments of peril from the colourful hand-drawn graphics to expressive charcoal sketches that deprive figures of distinguishing features and reduce them to moving or cowering shadows. This is particularly effective during the trafficking sequences, as those at the mercy of the heartless thugs transporting them are stripped of their humanity.
Uno Helmersson's score guides the tonal shifts, as Rasmussen seeks to contrast Amin's ordeal with his domestic dilemma. However, the relationship with Kasper is the picture's weak link, as the strength of the bond isn't readily evident and the happy ending feels a tad tacked on (even if it might have happened in fact). As a rumination on the migrant mindset, however, this is quietly devastating and deserves to be seen.
The latest CinemaItaliaUK screening will take place at Riverside Studios in London on 20 February. Adapted from Donatella Di Pietrantonio's bestselling Campiello Prize winner, L'Arminuta, Giuseppe Bonito's A Girl Returned is set in Central Italy in the mid-1970s and leaves one curious to see the director's first two features, Pulce non c'è (2012) and Figli (2020).
Deposited by the man she calls `father' (Giacomo Vallozza) at a rundown farmstead in the Abruzzo region, a 13 year-old girl with long red hair (Sofia Fiore) is dubbed L'Arminuta (`the returned one') by the woman of the house (Vanessa Scalera). She turns out to be the newcomer's birth mother, who had sold her daughter at six months to a wealthy city cousin whose wife could not have children. Now she has become too ill to care for the girl, she has been sent home to make the best of things.
At supper, L'Arminuta meets her strict father (Fabrizio Ferracane) and five siblings, Vincenzo (Andrea Fuorto), Adriana (Carlotta de Leonardis), Sergio (Stefano Petruzziello), Riccardo (Giovanni Francesco Palombaro Fiorita) and toddler Giuseppe (Mattia Vitale). No one speaks to her and she is appalled by the fact that Adriana wets the bed they are forced to share top to toe. Too squeamish to pluck and gut a chicken, she is set to do housework and faints after realising the bath is too stained to be cleaned.
Adriana brings some food when L'Arminuta takes to her bed. But she perks up when Vincenzo takes the girls into the village and they ride a chair-o-plane operated by his Gypsy friend, Giostraio (Giulio Beranek). She enjoys the freedom of flying through the darkness and creeps into her brother's bed when he stays out for the night. However, she is shocked when Vincenzo returns at breakfast and is savagely beaten by his father.
Adriana explains that Vincenzo had run away with the Gypsies for several months and had received a thrashing on his return. However, his mother had shown no emotion during his absence or after his punishment and L'Arminuta thinks back to how quietly demonstrative her adoptive mother, Adalgisa (Elena Lietti), had been until her health failed.
She writes to Adalgisa about the cramped sleeping conditions and is disappointed when bunk beds arrive, as this means she won't be returning `home'. Adriana can't sleep on the top and huddles in with L'Arminuta and asks her to describe her life beside the sea. The next morning, she asks her mother why she can't go home and learns that Adalgisa had broken a promise to raise her together. They had moved without leaving an address and the mother had only seen her child again at a family wedding when she was six.
Frustrated, L'Arminuta uses the money Adalgisa had sent her to pay bus fares to the coast with Adriana and Vincenzo. He rushes into the sea, but Adriana is afraid of the water and plays with the sand while her siblings splash around. As she has her back to them, however, she doesn't see Vincenzo kiss L'Arminuta so passionately on the mouth that she hurries back to the beach in stunned silence.
Leaving Adriana at a café, L'Arminuta slips away to visit her friend, Pat (Aurora Barulli). She peeks next door, but there's no sign of life. Pat's mother, Vanda (Margherita Coldesina), tries to reassure her, but L'Arminuta knows they've abandoned her. Back at the farm, Vincenzo shows her the jewellery he has stashed in the shed and she warns him he'll get into trouble for fencing stolen goods.
On starting school, L'Arminuta is embarrassed when Adriana comes to her classroom to check on her in the middle of a lesson. But she's grateful for her murmuring in her sleep when Vincenzo sits on her bunk and starts masturbating while holding her hand. She is also relieved when Adriana intervenes in a tussle with her mother that had been caused by L'Arminuta tearing up the banknotes that had arrived in an envelope and demanding to know if her mother is still alive.
Their squabbles are soon forgotten, however, when Vincenzo is killed when Giostraio's motorcycle is rammed by a truck on a mountain road. L'Arminuta sees her carabiniere father at the funeral, but he keeps his distance. Mother is broken by the loss and takes to her bed, leaving Adriana to beg dog scraps from the butcher to make supper. Father works at the local quarry in a daze. But, when Mother finally returns to the family table, he squeezes her hand to give her strength.
Snow falls and L'Arminuta's teacher (Antonella Stefanucci) enters her for a story competition and she writes about an alien (like herself). Arriving home from school, she sees boxes of oranges and canned food on the kitchen table. Mother tells her that Adalgisa had come to pay her respects to Vincenzo and had left the supplies. She also reveals that they have agreed to find L'Arminuta lodgings in the city so she can attend a better school. But she is furious at being passed around like a parcel and informs her mother that she is going to find a judge to punish them. When she runs into the village, Adriana braves the cold to find her and they hug in narrow back street.
When L'Arminuta wins the contest, Father gives her a half-smile of pride and insists she keeps the prize money placed in a savings account. Shortly afterwards, the family go to see godmother Carmela (Anna Scipione), who tells Mother that she was born to suffer. However, she consoles her with the prediction that L'Arminuta will bring her happiness.
As they walk through the trees, Mother explains that she had agonised over giving her baby away. But she was expecting again and her husband had lost his job, so the deal seemed to make sense. However, she had miscarried and it was too late to renege. Seeming to appreciate the pain her parents had endured, L'Arminuta invites Mother to the school to see her being presented with a certificate for coming top of the class. She turns to see her mother smiling for the first time.
Her contentment doesn't last long, however, as Adriana pays L'Arminuta back for pushing her over by informing her that she was returned because Adalgisa is pregnant by another man. Furious at not being told the truth, L'Arminuta takes the bus to the city and forces Pat's mother to tell her where Adalgisa is staying. She's surprised to see her and tries to apologise for keeping her in the dark by showing her a photograph of the baby. Not sure what to say, Adalgisa promises to send L'Arminuta to an Ursuline convent to study. But she is in no mood to listen and runs away.
Mother understands her daughter's confusion, but reminds her that she would be working in the fields if Adalgisa hadn't taken her in. She urges her to accept the school offer and allows L'Arminuta and Adriana to visit Adalgisa and her new beau, Guido (Davide Gagliardi). He snaps at Adalgisa when she goes to leave the lunch table to attend her crying daughter and L'Arminuta feels uncomfortable for her.
As the bawling continues, Adriana calmly gets up and brings the crying infant to the table. Guido shouts at her for daring to touch his child and Adalgisa is mortified. Realising where she now belongs, L'Arminuta thanks Adalgisa for a nice meal and takes Adriana to the beach. Stripping off her dress, she wades into the sea and encourages her sister to conquer her fear and join her.
Despite ending on a moment of touching simplicity that contains faint echoes of the beach freeze frame at the end of François Truffaut's Les 400 Coups (1959), this is a harrowing study of the pressure and the pain that mothers and daughters endure in a patriarchal society. Writing in conjunction with Monica Zapelli, Donatella Di Pietrantonio translates her novel into a series of sometime melodramatic episodes that reveal how daughters are shaped by their relationship with their mothers - and vice versa.
With her shock of red hair giving her the air of having stepped through time from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, Sofia Fiore is exceptional in the title role, as she tries to deal with not only her sense of betrayal, but also the demoralising feeling that she has been deposited with social and intellectual inferiors who are going to drag her down. In addition, she has to establish bonds with her mother and sister, father and brother (whose welcome is sincere, but imposed and incestuous), while also worrying about her `lost' parents and the future for which she is initially unconvinced that her new school will be able to prepare her.
The support she receives from her teacher makes her the third maternal figure in L'Arminuta's life (the fourth, if you include Vanda) and it's a little disappointing that the screenplay doesn't explore this avenue further. Similarly, it's a shame the story marginalises L'Arminuta's connections with her fathers, as they seem to care for her in their own peculiar ways. But the charming friendship she forges with Adriana makes amends, especially as Carlotta De Leonardis is so engagingly wise beyond her years.
Vanessa Scalera and Elena Lietti also excel, as the careworn mothers whose decisions have such an impact upon their daughter's life. One wonders how different this Pollyanna variation might have been with a woman director. But Giuseppe Bonito taps into his inner George Cukor or Vincente Minnelli, as he keeps Alfredo Betrò's camera trained in close-up on the wonderful faces of his players. He also makes evocative contrasts between the light and the landscape on the coast and in the countryside (where the houses found by production designer Luciano Cammerieri are spectacular).
Fiorenza Cipollone's costumes are also inspired, as is the score by Giuliano Taviani and Carmelo Travia, which underlines the emotional tone of a scene with a melodic finesse that epitomises this lovely, but profoundly moving film.
IN THE FAMILY.
A decade ago, Patrick Wang made an auspicious start to his directorial career with In the Family (2011). Running close to three hours, it was largely overlooked Stateside unti it was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. It now reaches the UK, as part of an excellent three-title season (more of which next week) curated by Bulldog Film Distribution that will be available in selected cinemas before becoming available on demand in March.
Shortly after losing his wife in childbirth, Tennessee teacher Hines (Trevor St. John) met contractor Joey Williams (Peter Wang). They fell in love and have been excellent fathers to six year-old Chip (Sebastian Banes). When Cody dies suddenly, however, Joey is distraught to learn that he never changed his will granting them joint custody. Consequently, Chip has to move in with his Aunt Eileen (Kelly McAndrew), who not only becomes his legal guardian, but also the owner of Cody's house.
Refusing to be bound by a 2002 will he knew nothing about and puzzled by Eileen (who had always accepted him) becoming so cold and controlling, Joey vows to fight her in the courts to remain Chip's father after she refuses to return him after a family Thanksgiving. He thinks back to how welcoming Cody's parents, Sally (Park Overall) and Darryl (Chip Taylor), had been when they first met (in spite of being bemused by their son being bisexual). But Eileen calling the police to have him removed from her property steels him to the cause.
Work colleague Helene (Zoe Winters), Cody's friend Anne (Eisa Davis) and neighbour Gloria (Elaine Bromka) rally round after Eileen takes out a restraining order, as he has no family of his own. Moreover, client Paul Hawkes (Brian Murphy) is a retired lawyer and he agrees to represent him after he has been repeatedly told that a judge will always back a heterosexual woman over a gay man in a child custody case.
He arranges a deposition hearing with Eileen, her husband Dave (Peter Herrmann) and lawyer Jefferson Robinson (Eugene Brell). Under the guise of genial civility, he pursues an aggressive line of questioning that suggests Joey seduced Cody while he was mourning his wife. He also points out that a lot of people close to Joey have died and concludes by asking whether he's a paedophile.
Impressed by Joey's refusal to be goaded, Paul encourages him to speak about his relationships with his loving foster parents and with Cody. He also gets him to outline how he would care for Chip and he makes such an impact on Eileen that she flees the room in distress the moment he stops speaking.
As he has agreed to move out, Joey is boxing his belongings when Dave comes to the door. He apologises for the tack Robinson took and admits he has been uneasy about Eileen's behaviour. She has agreed to let Joey stay in the house and, as they look out to see her sitting in the car, Chip burst out of the backseat and the film ends on a freeze-framed hug.
It was always heading in this direction, of course, but Wang steers it there with considerable skill as both writer and director. Furthermore, his performance brims with dignity and atones for some of the less persuasive support playing. Trevor St John's Cody scarcely seems like a great catch, but young Sebastian Banes (aka Brodziak) bustles with energy and Eugene Brell is so splendidly hissable as the hostile attorney that the court reporter (Marsha Waterbury) can barely suppress her sympathy for Joey, as he delivers the kind of aw-shucking everyman speech that Gary Cooper and James Stewart used to do for Frank Capra.
Cinematographer Frank Barrera often keeps the camera still during the long takes that Wang uses to reinforce the sense of everyday reality that is conveyed by John El Manahi's interiors. The flashbacks can occasionally seem cumbersome, while the demonisation of Eileen feels more than a little melodramatic. Moreover, the climactic reunion pushes Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) when it comes to pathos. But, with a sincerity to match its humanity, this is an easy film to like. And it never feels 169 minutes long.