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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (27/1/2023)

(Reviews of January; and Acqua e anice)


Andrey M. Paounov is best known for the documentary trilogy that is comprised of Georgi and the Butterflies (2004), The Mosquito Problems and Other Stories (2007), and The Boy Who Was a King (2011). Each film considers how Bulgaria has fared since the collapse of Communism in 1989 and the same theme informs Paounov's feature debut, January, an adaptation of a stage play by compatriot Yordan Radichkov. that has been co-scripted by British writer-director Alex Barrett, whose credits include Life Just Is (2012) and London Symphony (2017).

In the lodge of a rundown hotel on the edge of a snowy wood, The Porter (Samuel Finzi) pops walnuts into a noisy and unnecessarily complicated mechanical nutcracker, while The Old Man (Iossif Surchadzhiev) reads out crossword clues. A crow in a cage drinks rakia, as the Porter shuffles to the flooded hotel basement to top up the juddering generator after the power fails.

Much to their surprise, The Twins (Zahary Baharov and Svetoslav Stoyanov) knock on the cabin door to ask if they can use a tractor belonging to Petar Motorov to tow their snowplough. He has gone into town on a horse sleigh and the Porter is reluctant to allow strangers to use the boss's prized tractor. They decide to wait, with one of the Twins being curious about the rakia-guzzling bird. However, they all rush outside when the sleigh returns empty, with a frozen wolf strapped to the back.

Wondering what has happened to Motorov, the shaven-headed twin orders his sibling to take the sleigh and search the woods. The station dog barks at the wolf when they bring it inside and the Twin declares that it's too big to be local and must have crossed the frozen water from Romania.

He and the Old Man get into an argument about the empty glass beside the crow's cage. Stuttering, the latter describes a dream in which he had been hanged on a tree branch. However, he had woken up to find he was still asleep and wasn't sure if he had woken from his dream or risen from the dead.

Continuing, the Old Man recalls that he had gone outside to check the tree and had found the crow and brought it home. He wonders whether his dream had been haunted by a `tenetz'. The Porter claims that city folk use the word for vampires, but the Twin insists that they are dangerous spectres who cause entire villages to fall into a deep sleep that could spread around the world.

While the dog mooches around rooms filled with junk and portraits of past Soviet leaders, The Priest (Leonid Yovchev) comes out of the snow seeking Motorov. He speculates that the wolf is from Moldova before breaking nuts with his bare hand. The Porter jokes that Motorov and the Twin are laying low in a pub and laughter rings out until the Priest demands to know Motorov's whereabouts because he owes a debt to the church.

Adamant that his sibling is alive, the Twin sets off on the sleigh and vows to return. Shedding his coat to reveal a torso covered in tattoos, the Priest goes outside with a chainsaw, leaving the other two to resume their crossword. Invevitably, the sleigh returns with another wolf and it is brought inside to stand next to the others. When the generator fails again, the Porter goes to fix it and returns with some lobsters from a large tank in the kitchen. The Priest calls them inedible cockroaches, but the Porter reminds him that country dwellers can't pick and choose what they eat, unlike townsfolk.

They are interrupted by the sound of a drum and discover four figures wearing animal masks. The Mummer (Borislav Chouchkov) explains that they roam the region driving out evil spirits and monsters. He recognises the Old Man as someone he buried some years before and the Priest forces him to kneel and recites a prayer. Taking the chainsaw, he joins the itinerants on the sleigh, which glides into the darkness with torches burning.

Having seen the Old Man dangling from the tree with the dog looking up at him, he deduces that he's in the animal's dream. Removing his beard (as it's unlucky to die unshaven), he leaves the Porter cooking lobsters and ventures out with a rifle on the newly returned sleigh. The Porter places the fourth wolf next to the others and watches his companion go.

Suddenly, the lights begin to flicker and the Porter takes an axe into the hotel and stalks after the shadows of two young boys, as they scuttle and chuckle along a corridor. In the glimmer, it's possible to make out the Twins (who had earlier spied on the Porter while he was repairing the generator). But he gives up the chase to follow the sound of some loud music (that brings about a switch from monochrome to colour).

He wanders into a room full of laid tables and makes his way towards The Bartender (Malin Krastev), who informs him that he is always welcome in this establishment. The Porter warns the elderly man that Motorov will soon return. But the Bartender isn't so sure and wonders whether he even exists.

Back in his black-and-white reality, the Porter cracks nuts, as a fifth wolf surveys him with glassy eyes and the horse sleigh waits outside. Hearing the crow caw, he takes the cage outside and opens the door. The bird hops on to a frozen bench, but quickly retreats back to its perch. Resigning himself to his fate, the Porter pulls up his collar, climbs on the sleigh and tugs on the reins. Inside the hut, the nutcracker lies silent, while the wolves watch and wait.

Taking as its starting point the maxim that one doesn't need a sledgehammer to crack a nut, this equivocal allegorical rumination on the decline and depopulation of Bulgaria in the democratic era is beguiling and bewildering in equal measure. `It's always like this in January,' the Bartender confides in the Porter, as he stands stupefied after his long night of the monochrome soul has suddenly blurred into colour. `The wind blows over the snowdrifts and you can't be sure of anything.' How very true!

It seems clear that Bulgaria is the ramshackle hotel, with its portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Brezhnev dotted around the empty rooms. The lodge is the modern state that is so isolated from the rest of the world that relatively easy crossword clues appear baffling. Despite the return of religion, superstition is still rife, as is the suspicion of city slickers and neighbours who cross borders with the express purpose of exploiting and endangering the locals.

The wolves may well be from Romania, Moldova, or Transylvania, but what to they portend? Do they symbolise the demerits of inward migration or do they represent the inertia caused by so many Bulgarians seeking work abroad? Intriguingly, Radichkov's play premiered in 1974, so there has to be a degree of overlap between the ills that he detected in the authoritarian system and those alighted upon by Paounov and Barrett. Radichkov is also the likely source of the echoes of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot (1953) and Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros (1959). But the references to such 1980s chillers as Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980) and John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) are Paounov's own work.

As is the switch to colour for the bar sequence. But it doesn't have the expected jarring effect, as Portuguese cinematographer Vasko Viana's Tarr-like black-and-white imagery is so evocative and disarming. Maria Paounova's production design is also outstanding, with the clutter of the lodge contrasting with the bleak desolation of the disused hotel.

The performances are similarly well balanced, with Zachary Baharov and Leonid Yovchev's proactive machismo emphasising the kowed acquiescence of Samuel Finzi and Iossif Surchadziev. All share the same fate in this bleak midwinter, however, leaving viewers to ponder their own existence and extinction and wonder where all the women have gone.


CinemaItaliaUK returns for its 2023 season with Corrado Ceron's Acqua e anice. This is the first feature by the 42 year-old from Vicenza, who has served a lengthy apprenticeship since taking a diploma in film direction at the famous Cinecittà Studios in Rome after graduating in Philosophy from the University of Milan.

Ceron won a prize at the Venice Film Festival for his first short, Il mio primo schiaffo, in 2010 and has since been recognised at other events for the likes of Un amore di plastica (2013) and Apnea (2018). Having contributed a segment to Silvia Lombardo's La ballata dei precari (2012), Ceron produced a couple of feature screenplays - Mai frend (2011) and Zanzare (2016) - without securing funding. But his persistence has paid off and he makes a decent impression with this `dance hall road movie' that is also known as Olimpia's Way.

Once the queen of the ballroom, 70 year-old singer Olimpia Belloni (Stefania Sandrelli) still insists on people dancing attendance in the lagoon town of Comacchio. She may have panic attacks in supermarkets, but she still demands adoration from her married lover and dumps him when he gives her one of his wife's necklaces. At the lido, she also ignores requests to keep her top on and enjoys irritating the prudes she claims are merely jealous.

When she is invited to sing at her sister's wedding, Olimpia asks beach attendant Maria (Silvia D'Amico) to drive her in the tour van of her old band, The Caprices. Needing the money, the reserved thirtysomething agrees, but soon discovers that her new boss is rather a handful, who has a few stops she needs to make along the route that will culminate in Zurich.

Having diverted to a cemetery to keep a promise to sing at an old fan's grave, Olimpia visits ageing devotee, Bruno (Duilio Pizzocchi), and urges him to resist his negative thoughts and remember that he has a family that depends on him. Her next port of call is Gimmi (Paolo Rossi), her onetime guitarist who now works as a fisherman. She confronts him with a letter from a woman accusing him of betraying her and Gimmi admits that he took money from her to fix his rotting teeth. However, he denies having forced himself upon her and acquiesces when Olimpia orders him to take a bath and apologise in person.

Maria is embarrassed at witnessing the contretemps. But she is grateful for Gimmi's tips on how to handle Olimpia (who changes wigs to suit her mood) and heeds his advice about not blaming herself for the regretted decisions that have shaped her fate. She's not surprised when he joins them next morning, but is dismayed when they take a diversion to play a prank on a rival band by putting sugar in their petrol tank. The Dinamici quartet forgive Olimpia over a roadside supper, but an impromptu session stalls when she breaks down after seeing a vision of her old flame, Enrico Danzi (Manuel Benati).

As Gimmi opts to return home, Olimpia and Maria travel on alone. She's still fragile when she wakes in a hotel next morning, but perks up when she tries to matchmake Maria with their waiter, Silvio (Diego Facciotti). Against her better judgement, Maria allows herself to be made up and loaded into a dress. Feeling hurt after discovering photographs of feet on her ex-boyfriend's phone, she lures Silvio into the van with prospect of reading some of Olimpia's wackier fan letters. But he rebuffs her advances because he has a girlfriend and Maria feels foolish.

Olimpia is unrepentant, although she needs a little boosting before she sings `The Happiest Days' for her sister, Clara (Luisa De Santis). As she waits in the van, Maria finds forms for an assisted suicide clinic and is aghast that she has been hired for what is essentially a funeral procession. She informs Clara of her discovery and she agrees to take Olimpia in. But she is so distressed by the prospect of suffering with dementia that Maria bundles her into the van in the middle of the night and they make their escape.

They take a side road to an abandoned resort, where The Caprices had once played. As they wander round, Olimpia coaxes Maria into dancing and they embrace. Back on the road, they pass along snowless roads into Switzerland, where Olimpia reassures Maria that her decision is final and that she is at peace with herself. As she meets the doctor in charge of her case, Maria finds a card in the van, in which Olimpia reveals that she is her grandmother and is glad to have had the chance to get to know her after seeing so little of her daughter after Danzi had forced himself upon her when she was 16. Touched by the news, Maria drives home and goes topless on the lido before wading into the water.

Despite springing a few too many surprises in the final reel, this is a genial first-time outing that provides Stefania Sandrelli with her best role since Paolo Virzi's The Most Beautiful Thing (2010). Switching deftly between being vivacious and vulnerable, Sandrelli conveys Olimpia's sense of imperious self-worth, while also hinting at her mischievous and melancholic sides. Whether flaunting sunbathing regulations, coming clean to a cuckqueaned wife, or settling old scores from her illustrious past, Olimpia says what's on her mind and hangs the consequences.

By contrast, Maria is more circumspect and curses herself for not finishing university and getting stuck in a dead-end job to be close to a boyfriend who had always been unworthy of her. She has an innate decency, however, which ensures she stands by Olimpia, even when she's out of line. As her lack of background makes her a reactive character, her fling with Silvio rings hollow. But Silvia D'Amico makes a perfect foil for Sandrelli, as both a guarded stranger and a steadfast guardian.

In addition to being structurally skittish, the screenplay co-written by Federico Fava and Valentina Zanella skimps on details about the extent of Olimpia's singing celebrity and what she has been doing since her heyday. The magnitude of the climactic revelations somewhat limits their options, while the nature of Olimpia's relationship with her sister is left vague so that it doesn't complicate the final leg of the journey. However, Bruno and Gimmi are ciphers who are used to emphasise how isolated Olimpia has become in her twilight years and shed little light on the fame that resulted in her feeling so obligated to those who sent her fan mail.

Ceron directs steadily enough, although he and cinematographer Massimo Moschin might have made more of the passing countryside than the odd drones shot of the van. Daniele Benati and Claudio Zanoni's score complements the rhythms of Davide Vizzini's editing. But special mention should go to whoever came up with Stefanelli's wigs, as the long, pinkish one she wears to the clinic adds more poignancy to her parting than her recipe for the perfect anisette.

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