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June 28, 2009

Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film by Dina Iordanova

other_europe.gifIn Cinema of the Other Europe: The Industry and Artistry of East Central European Film , Dina Iordanova proposes a reframing of Eastern European cinema (and by extension, film culture studies) away from conventional, western-centric paradigms that tend to evaluate post World War II cinema from the "other Europe" within the context of cold war politics and chauvinism. Intrinsic in Iordanova's thesis is the prevailing notion of a shared, distinctive Central European ethos that continued to gain momentum in 1970s cultural studies as a means of distancing the region from a Pan-Germanic evaluation of twentieth century history that provided the catalyst for two world wars and the division of Europe, as well what H. M. Hughes describes as a nostalgia for a democratic and more culturally diverse pre-1918 Habsburg Empire (note the embodiment of this sentiment in the image of a multi-ethnic paradise lost in Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Austeria that is also directly correlated with the experience of World War II in the fate of displaced Hassidic Jews on the outskirts of Poland). More importantly, the idea of differentiating Central Europe as a bridge between East and West was also a way of reasserting a regional identity that was separate from the complex dynamics of the Balkan region as well as the cultural cross-pollination of an imposed Soviet hegemony. In essence, the idea of a shared cultural identity provided a means of aligning (or rather, realigning) regional interests closer to the illusive ideals of a democratic West with the eventual objective of breaking with Russia (and with it, chauvinist attitudes that being "non-West" was analogous with backwardness and underdevelopment) and "returning" to Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union (Ironically, it is Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Sokurov who would capture this sense of isolation from "old" Europe and return to a shared cultural history in Russian Ark) - what Iordanova describes as a "remapping" of Eastern European films into redefined national cinemas that reflected the cultural amnesia of a post-Soviet landscape (most notably, in the absorption of East German films into a broader category of German cinema that glosses over the distinctive qualities of DEFA studio productions, and also the reassignment of a collective Czechoslovakian cinema into separate Czech or Slovak film cultures).

The second part, Film and History, Ethics and Society examines the role of history in the shaping of national identity as reflected in Central European cinema, creating a sense of impotence against the tide of history that, in turn, manifest as forms of escapism, whether through the romanticization of heritage epics (such as Andrzej Wajda's Pan Tadeusz), elements of surrealism (such as Wojciech Has's The Saragossa Manuscript and Juraj Jakubisko's The Deserter and the Nomads), or magical realism (such as Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels and Pharaoh). In each case, the encounters with history are rooted in personal - rather than collective - memory:

The people of Central Europe look at history from a specific angle: they come from small countries which are usually powerless to make developmental decisions, yet need to react to whatever political shifts and advances occur (usually at the instigation of a neighboring great European power). So the stories told here are not so much those of people heroically influencing the course of history but of those who cannot do much more but stand by and witness events; they are stories of the vulnerable and the powerless, the small and the weak, the pawns and the underdogs. The actions of these protagonists are marked by the overpowering consciousness of their own limitations.

...The key concern of East Central European cinema is the interplay between historical and social processes and the personal experience of these processes. It is within this relationship, tilted towards the individual, where most identity issues and existential insecurities are played out. The never ending identity quest is often accompanied by an underlying frustration; there is an ongoing friction between objective historical events and their critical appropriation that limits the range of choices available to the individual. This is part of an eternally unresolved process of identification where all subjective moves are ultimately determined by the dialectical interplay with history.

Iordanova further examines the toll of "historical burden" through a survey of postwar trümmerfilms (films of the ruins) such as Wolfgang Staudte's The Murderers Are Among Us (East Germany), Géza von Radványi's Somewhere in Europe (Hungary), and Aleksandr Ford's Five Boys from Barska Street (Poland), as well as Andzej Wajda's war trilogy (A Generation, Kanal and Ashes and Diamonds), which are thematically connected by a sense of tragic inevitability as ordinary soldiers fighting on the losing side of the war. Conversely, Iordanova cites Andrej Munk's Eroica and its ne'er-do-well, accidental hero as a foil to the trümmerfilm paradigm, underscoring the arbitrariness of siding with history. Similarly, Miklós Jancsó's The Round Up and The Red and the White also reflect this dynamic in the ambiguous framing of partisans and collaborators, the victors and the vanquished.

In the chapter State Socialist Modernity: The Urban and the Rural, Iordanova argues that the conventional images of dour protagonists, mundane problems, and bleak industrial landscapes that characterize East Central European cinema are acts of subversion that would serve as fertile creative grounds for such seminal film movements as the Czechoslovakian New Wave and the Polish Cinema of Moral Concern:

Well aware of the excesses and dangers of totalitarianism, filmmakers saw the making of 'apolitical' films as a matter of priority. The films that they opted for would often be about disturbances of intimate relationships rather than heroic confrontations or class struggles; they would focus ordinary everyday life and thus, in the context of imposed excessive politicization of the personal domain, deliver a covert political statement.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 28, 2009 | | Comments (3) | Filed under 2009, Film Related Reading

June 11, 2009

Brave Men, 2008

bravemen.gifIn its tale of childhood friends who grow up to be on opposite sides of the law, Edoardo Winspeare's Brave Men is an all too familiar one. A prominent judge, Ignazio (Fabrizio Gifuni) returns to his hometown to bury his friend Fabio (Lamberto Probo) who died from a drug overdose, and, in an attempt to draw something constructive from the painful episode, joins a task force that is investigating local drug traffickers who helped feed his self-destructive habit. His immediate connection with the past is mutual friend, Lucia (Donatella Finocchiaro), an attractive, single mother whose seemingly strained relationship with her former lover, a local mobster named Infantino (Beppe Fiorello) makes her an obvious choice to mine for information. From the onset, Lucia proves to be far from the upstanding perfume salesperson she seems, using her nefarious connections to try to root out Fabio's supplier and intimidating rival gangs into forging an alliance with elusive crime boss, Carmine Zà (Giorgio Colangeli). But as the investigation converges towards Lucia's complicity in the escalating mob war, Ignazio is also forced to reconcile his own unrequited feelings towards her, only to lose his objectivity and sense of moral duty in the process. Actress Donatella Finocchiaro commented during the Q&A that the film strives to capture the drug war climate of the late 1980s Italy when low level criminals started forming alliances among themselves to consolidate their power as a means of challenging established organizations. However, far from insightful commentary into the psychology and mechanics of gangland power play, Brave Men devolves into facile characterizations, glossing over deeply rooted socioeconomic issues (alluded in the disparity between Ignazio's privileged upbringing and Lucia's poverty that would separate them) in favor of a conventional mood piece on loss, fear, and desire.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 11, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

June 10, 2009

Animated Passions: The Films of Ursula Ferrara

ferrara_match.gifDuring the Q&A for the screening of Animated Passions: The Films of Ursula Ferrara, Ferrara commented that her body of work reflects the conventional progression of her formal art school training, graduating from monochrome to color, simple sketches to more complex forms. The theme of evolution and transformation is also integrally connected to the metaphorical image of natural evolution in her early pencil drawing films, Lucidi Folli (Lucid Insanity, 1986) and Past Future (Congiuntivo futuro, 1988) - a penchant for metamorphosis that Ferrara describes as a logical way to represent the subconscious creative process. Playful and singular, these early films reflect youthful exuberance and irreverence in their organic illustrations of recurring life cycles - love, work, leisure, sexuality, and reproduction (the image of an infant in Lucidi Folli and an egg in Past Future) - that unfold against the familiar rhythms of everyday life (as symbolized by the incorporation of contemporary pop music).

Asymmetrical Feel (Amore asimetrico, 1990) and As People (Come persone, 1995) reflect a newfound maturity, distance, and restlessness in Ferrara's work. Vacillating between disparate modern art forms, in particular, cubism and graphic arts, Ferrara abandons the simple, flat space, line drawings of her early films to create more voluptuous and geometric forms. It is interesting to note that in the use of a violin adaptation of Recuerdos de Alhambra (traditionally, a guitar piece) in As People in lieu of seemingly random pop music that had accompanied her early films, Ferrara incorporates a more deliberate, tensile dimension to her work in this period, supplanting the brashness of her earlier films with a more introspective tone.

Almost Nothing (Quasi niente, 1997) represents Ferrara's adoption of oil paints on film, marking a transition from black and white to color, and also from singular lines to filled spaces. The shift towards volume, gradation, and texture is also reflected in Five Rooms (Cinque stanze, 1999) and The Match (La partita, 2002), where dimensionality is created through isolated framing that compartmentalize movement within the context of larger, overarching spaces (a house floor plan in Five Rooms, and spectators and players in The Match). Ferrara further experiments with faceting and layered compositions in her collage approach to the most recent film in the program, News (2006). Intriguingly, Ferrara's mixed media approach to News is also an integration of old (paper) and new (cel), combining found object (newspaper clippings) with hand-painted illustrations that insightfully convey the complex issues behind terse, often sensationalized newspaper headlines.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 10, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

June 8, 2009

The Sicilian Girl, 2009

SicilianGirl.gifMarco Amenta's potent, yet understated, tightly crafted first feature film, The Sicilian Girl is a fictionalized account loosely based on the life and journals of Rita Atria, the determined, 17 year old daughter of a slain mob boss whose death after her denunciation of the mafia would lead to her martyrdom as a symbol of the country's ongoing war with organized crime. Interweaving the detailed observation of a court procedural with the drama and intrigue of a genre crime film, the convergence of fiction and reality becomes a metaphor for the heroine's (also named Rita) metamorphosis from self-involved girl to social activist. Having once lived a seemingly idyllic life of privilege and respect as the coddled daughter of a well-connected, old world mafioso, Don Michele (Marcello Mazzarella), Rita's teenaged years would be consumed with the thought of avenging her father's death when he is gunned down in a public square at the orders of rival Don Salvo (Mario Pupella) during a power struggle to expand their reach into the drug trade. But when Rita's older brother (Carmelo Galati) is also slain when the all-too-connected Don Salvio is tipped off about his plans for retribution, Rita turns to a thoughtful, hard-nosed prosecutor (Gérard Jugnot) for help - a character based on magistrate Paolo Borsellino - lodging a full-scale indictment of Don Salvo's wide-reaching organization with the help of Rita's meticulously detailed, years-long surveillance diaries of their operations. Illustrating the ingrained culture of regional disparity, chauvinism, corruption, and disenfranchisement, Amenta underscores fundamental social issues between Roman central authority and the local Sicilian population that contribute to the deep-seated friction and enable the broad reach of the mafia and its own inviolable codes. Also worth noting is lead actress Veronica D'Agostino's compelling performance, navigating the complex trajectory of Rita's tragic life from headstrong daughter, to obsessed avenger, to passive victim, and finally, to altruistic crusader.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema

I Am Alive, 2008

sono_viva.gifVacillating between opaque social commentary on the inequity of conditional employment and idiosyncratic dark comedy, screenwriters Dino Gentili and Filippo Gentili's directorial debut, I Am Alive chronicles a day in the life of underemployed day laborer, Rocco (Massimo De Santis) who, faced with a stack of unpaid bills and mounting debt from his girlfriend's free-spending habits, agrees to take on an odd job from a disreputable businessman, Marco Resti (Giorgio Colangeli) to watch over his recently deceased daughter's body for the night in the empty family villa - having purportedly succumbed to a long illness earlier that day - while he makes arrangements for her funeral in the morning. At first, the film hews towards neorealism in Rocco's seeming redemption through work, evolving from desperate (and implicitly suicidal), unemployed worker to one determined to fulfill his obligatory vigil at all cost, making scattered home repairs to help pass the idle hours. However, the parade of eccentric visitors soon neuters the tone to something more akin to a comedy of errors - an unreliable co-worker, Gianni (Marcello Mazzarella) who leaves his post to go carousing, a playboy son, Adriano (Guido Caprino) who takes advantage of his father's absence to bring his friends home for a drug-fueled party, a former gardener, Vlad (Vlad Alexandru Toma) who has returned in order to force a resolution to the long-standing feud with his erstwhile employer - creating an uncohesive, all-encompassing slice-of-life portrait that, like its aimless protagonist, seems destined to sink in the gravity of self-inflicted, assumed roles, foundering without direction.

Posted by acquarello on Jun 08, 2009 | | Filed under 2009, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema