June 24-30, 2004
The Road of Women: Voices of Irish Women Political Prisoners (Wed., June 30, 7:30 p.m., $5, Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., 215-569-9700) The more you know about the conflict in Northern Ireland, the less possible it seems to complete the picture. The irreconcilable differences between Unionists and Republicans became clear to me when I read once that both sides consider themselves an oppressed minority Protestants a demographic minority, and Catholics a political one and both are, from their own point of view, correct. The pseudo-colonial repression of the British government is clear enough, but Northerners also fear, justifiably, that they would lose some rights, like the right to abortion, if Ireland were to become unified under largely Catholic rule.
The sense of a centuries-old conflict founded on ingrained prejudices is almost entirely absent from The Road of Women. The film focuses on the abuses suffered by women prisoners in Northern Irish jails, which include horror stories of rushed, unsanitary abortions and the guards' refusal to empty their cells of excrement and menstrual waste. Though you don't expect a movie with "voices" in the title to pretend objectivity, the lack of context can be disorienting, particularly for audiences who aren't already well-versed in recent Irish history. But the stories of women like Martina Anderson and Ella O'Dwyer, who brought about major reforms in the English prison system, are inspiring all on their own.
The Leopard ($49.95 DVD) The fact that Luchino Visconti was both an aristocrat and a Communist is repeated so often that people rarely stop to think what it might mean beyond the obvious contradiction or, if you're less charitably disposed, hypocrisy. Salvador Dali denounced Visconti as "a Communist who liked only luxury," while David Thomson writes him off as a middlebrow darling. The climactic rape and murder in Rocco and His Brothers, Thomson writes in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, is "such as the bourgeoisie think necessary for "the point of the film': the momentous way in which Annie Girardot lifts up her arms to the crucifixion pose satisfies the plainest sensibility because of its predictability."
Thomson's onto something, though it's only half the story. True, Girardot's death is staged with symbolism blunt enough to make Paul Schrader blush. But as Girardot's arms reach their apex and the frantic Simone (Renato Salvatori) moves in for the kill, Visconti cuts away to the boxing victory of Simone's golden-child brother Rocco (Alain Delon), and when he returns, the scene has lost all pretense of order. Rather than portentously accepting death, Girardot's Nadia is grasping for life, flailing on the banks of a canal and screaming as Simone stabs her to death. A death susceptible to human, and artistic, understanding is replaced with a far more chaotic and discomforting sight: the last moments of a woman who wants, desperately, to live. If Rocco offers up Nadia's murder as a symbolic event, it's only to lure the audience into a trap.
To be sure, Visconti was as susceptible of falling into that trap as any of his audience. But what makes his best movies fascinating, and far more complicated than his detractors allow, is the constant battle between naturalism and stylization or, if you like, between neorealism and opera. The latter tendency is hard to miss. Born in 1906, Visconti said he came into the world "as the curtain went up at La Scala," and a love of spectacle and grand passions infuses even his humblest works. But if Visconti, the son of an Italian duke, was born into a love of luxury, his politics swung from far right to far left, as the rise of Italian fascism and a stint as Jean Renoir's assistant director opened his eyes to the plight of the less privileged which, in Visconti's case, was just about everyone.
In 1943, two years before Rome, Open City and five before Bicycle Thieves, Visconti fused noir and neorealism into Ossessione, turning The Postman Always Rings Twice into a veiled Marxist critique under Mussolini's watchful eye, and in 1948 he unveiled La Terra Trema, a story of Sicilian fisherman struggling against greedy merchants and unforgiving nature. As powerful as it is overwrought, the film's doomed-romantic vision of working-class life is an obvious godparent to the noble suffering of The Salt of the Earth. André Bazin wrote that Visconti filmed his well-built nonactors as if they were "Renaissance princes," but surely the ideal would be to film them as if they were fishermen.
In retrospect, it's clear that Rocco, for all its virtues, was a transitional film, an attempt to reconcile Visconti's early features with the stylized spectacle of intermediary films like Senso (which uses an opera house as a key set) and White Nights. The result of that reconciliation, released in 1963, was The Leopard, a splendid but exacting historical epic which encompasses the birth of a united, democratic Italy and the beginning of the end for its titled classes. Set during the Risorgimento, a period of Italian history sufficiently complex that it takes a 20-minute interview (with Penn's Millicent Marcus) to explain it, The Leopard is, like The Rules of the Game, both a melancholy valentine to the age of aristocracy and a clear-eyed acknowledgement of its fatal flaws. Saddened as Don Fabrizio (Burt Lancaster) is to see the torch pass to his opportunistic nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon), whose allegiances shift with the prevailing winds, he passes up a chance to be part of the country's first parliament. He's outlived his relevance, and he knows it.
The Italian preference for postdubbed sound can be a distraction, but Lancaster's physicality is such that you're rarely looking at his lips. Despite the flecks of grey in his mane of hair, Don Fabrizio is a man of a tremendous, if suppressed, vigor; the way Lancaster crosses a room, even the way he deals cards, suggests a grace belied by his imposing size. It's surely no accident that the men who are to surpass him, Tancredi and the spineless Don Calogero (Paolo Stoppa), seem so physically slight beside him. He's a giant, but the time of giants has passed.
Inevitably, The Leopard takes place in sumptuous banquet halls and gilded studies, but Visconti films his splendid interiors with the matter-of-fact air of a man to whom such luxury is unremarkable. Unlike most movies about excess, The Leopard is not itself excessive. Even at its full three hours, the movie never belabors a point (except, perhaps, in Don Fabrizio's climactic speech, which unnecessarily summarizes all that's gone before). Criterion's three-disc edition is another matter. While the transfer shows off Giuseppe Rotunno's cinematography to rapturous effect, and the second-disc documentaries shed welcome light, the inclusion of the movie's truncated American cut is something of a mystery: The excitement of hearing Lancaster's voice can't compensate for the missing 20-odd minutes of footage. When the original, available for the first time on home video, is half a DVD box away, it's hard to imagine anyone will want to do more than glimpse its bastard offspring.
Misc. Picks Combining social realism with dark comedy, the Chilean Taxi para Tres is the latest in the Cinema Tropical series (Fri., 8 p.m., International House). Reelblack drops in on North Third for a free tribute to faux-homeboy Ali. G and the wacky threesome short Aaron Willows in Cyberspace (Tue., 9 p.m.).