Anthology films (also known as compendium or portmanteau films) tend to be viewed with diffidence by critics, but being a life-long fan of the format (from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life to the excellent Monicelli/Fellini/Visconti/De Sica vehicle Boccaccio '70), I had very high expectations when I first heard of this Spanish-Argentinian gem being shown at Cannes last year.Read More
The Robber is Filmhouse's third foray into film distribution. After the brilliant, but tragically under-exposed The Stoker and Vivan las Antipodas! , their latest offering comes in the shape of a recent Austrian thriller dealing with a daring criminal who also happens to be a bit of a national sports hero.
Director Benjamin Heisenberg was inspired by real-life bank robber Johann Kastenberger (also known as 'Pump-gun Ronnie' after his penchant for wearing a Ronald Reagan mask), but this film is nothing like your average cine-biopic.
We first meet Johann (Andreas Lust) as he is about to leave prison: we see him training, running on the treadmill he has been allowed to have in his cell. His counsellor encourages his sporting aspirations, but at the same time he warns his that running won't pay his bills. We don't wonder about what the protagonist will do once he is again a free man for very long - in quick succession he successfully robs a bank and unexpectedly triumphs at the annual Vienna marathon. The viewer is not offered any explanation on why Johann would so blatantly risk his newly-found freedom: his motives are never made clear, there are no easy explanations for any of his decisions. Is he so dependant on the adrenaline that only running can supply him with? Maybe. In a way, our robber is portrayed as something of an 'existentialist' anti-hero. As he says to his love interest Erika (Franziska Weisz) as she attempts to change his ways, 'What I do has nothing to do with what you call life'. Conjoining running with a certain kind of rebelliousness is certainly nothing new: in a way, Johann is reminiscent of Colin Smith, the disaffected protagonist of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Ultimately, though, there is nothing obvious about this man, as Heisenberg always keeps the viewer's at arms' length, making his character almost inscrutable. Even the relationship between Johann and Erika is never injected with the kind of romantic fervour (read: emotional manipulation) we are so accustomed to, their intimate, but ultimately awkward encounters making the viewer feel like a distant observer. The film could certainly be seen as 'cold' and calculated, almost an attempt to scientifically dissect its lead - a distinctive directorial choice that will inevitably alienate some casual audiences.
This is not to say that The Robber lacks immediate cinematic pleasures. Andreas Lust offers an outstanding lead performance in a role that is extremely demanding from both a physical and emotional perspective. The film is almost flawlessly paced (only the third act loses a bit of steam), with the action sequences shot with accomplished skill; robberies and ensuing chase sequences have a raw, almost visceral energy that knowingly sustain tension and keep the viewer enthralled until the film's predictably bitter end.
The Robber will be at the Filmhouse from Friday 21st March. Tickets are available here.
After his patchy US excursion, This Must Be The Place, Neapolitan director Paolo Sorrentino returns with The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), a portrait of the Roman haute bourgeoisie, a particularly irksome strand of the idle rich often satirised by Italian cinema and television.
Jep Gambardella (Sorrentino's regular Toni Servillo) is a journalist and one-time writer who is both bemused and somewhat terrified by turn his life has taken in the Italian capital. Early on in the film, we witness an opulent party given for his 65th birthday; he is surrounded by well-preserved and not-so well-preserved Botoxed society types, strippers, pseudo-intellectuals and wannabe 'artists'. Jep glides through life, seemingly untouched by his surroundings, observing reality with a sharp eye that becomes increasingly blearier after he begins realising that he is not getting any younger. His interior struggles are slowly revealed in the strange dichotomy that characterises the film; part lavish widescreen essay on what beauty really means, part criticism of contemporary Italian society. Sorrentino juggles these grand ideas with dexterity for the most part: we laugh as Jep verbally takes self-satisfied artists down a notch or two, and we are left almost breathless by accomplished cinematography as the camera caresses a variety of Roman locations and monuments. It's almost as the director had it in mind to create a perfect art house film for non-Italian audiences, that works both as a satire of the post-bunga bunga Italy and as a sophisticated 'postcard' of the 'Eternal City'. In a way, it is rather satisfying seeing the decline of this writer's home country brought to the big screen – not many directors have attempted this in recent years. As it is rather well-noted, one of the most repulsive aspects of Italian popular culture is the questionable treatment of women on television, film and the press. Sadly, Sorrentino fails to address this issue as all his females characters are borderline idiotic 'objects of desire' (Ramona, the stripper who brings Jep back in touch with reality is hardly a bright spark), vacuous egotists (Stefania is a radical writer who is only successful because she slept with the leader of a political party), or reassuring and desexualised mother figures. Riddles of The Sphinx it ain't.
The Great Beauty has attracted comparison with a couple of Federico Fellini's masterworks, specifically La Dolce Vita and 8 ½: Whilst these might seem like obvious reference points, the episodic structure of the film, the male protagonist at a crossroad, and the surreal little touches all inevitably make us think of those milestones. It might be worth remembering that Fellini wasn't one for easy resolutions – unfortunately this is where Sorrentino lets us down. Towards the end of the film, we are introduced to a character, a 104-year-old nun who can apparently speak to animals and perform various miracles - she reminds Jep that 'roots are very important'. We are subsequently led to believe, albeit in a vague and semi-mystical way, that our protagonist can find solace in a return to the past/his home town. After 2-odd hours of philosophical (and admittedly, rather entertaining) meanderings, this almost feels like a betrayal - a rushed ending that leaves us very unsatisfied. Sorrentino has attempted something rather courageous with this film - a love letter to a city, a study on disappointment and death, a witty mockery of a crumbling world - but he doesn't have the discipline to hold it all together to the end. If you are unfamiliar with his work, perhaps you should start with the far superior Il Divo.
'The question is: how to give human life its historical importance at every minute.' Cesare Zavattini (writer of Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D)
Shun Li and the Poet is a 'small', ordinary, everyday story about people trying to connect with each other and with their surroundings. It's also one of the most arrestingly charming films the Italian film industry has produced in the last ten years.
Evoking the spirit of Neorealism, this film captures something about contemporary life by the Venetian lagoon (it is set in Chioggia, a coastal town 25 km south of Venice with a strong local tradition) through its attention to mundane details and the precision taken in depicting a place obviously close to the director's heart. It is not coincidence that the film-maker in question, Andrea Segre, has a background in documentary-making and sociology; he is also a 'local boy', and clearly knows his milieu inside out. This is not the Italy of postcards, of BBC food programmes: Chioggia looks misty, earthy, desolate. Its streets, even its pubs, get flooded. Its inhabitants are stoic, non-nonsense people who have an ambiguous relationship with the new, 'cosmopolitan' aspects of their everyday life.
The 'new' is represented by Shun Li, a young Chinese immigrant who is sent to work in a local pub by the traffickers who brought her to Italy. Osteria Paradiso is a typical small town Venetian pub, the kind of place where local fishermen have been frequenting for generations. The protagonist, a silent and rather introverted woman, is seen as isolated and hanging on to the more traditional aspects of her native culture through the figure of ancient poet Qu Yuan; at the beginning of the film she is even ridiculed by a fellow immigrant ("Why do you care about these things? We're in Italy now!'). This changes as she begins speaking the local language and understanding her customers' very peculiar and personalised drink orders, she appears to be building a tentative bridge with her new surroundings.
She finally makes a real connection with one of the fishermen, Bepi, a Croatian who moved to Chioggia thirty years earlier. He has integrated well in the locals (he is known as 'the poet' for his way with words and rhymes), but somehow he still views himself as an outsider. Their fragile and ephemeral relationship is portrayed with subtlety and is genuinely moving – the scene where she visits his fishing hut sticks out as one of the key moments in the film. It is also a chance for the subtle, but highly effective cinematography to shine in its full glory: for the first time we see the sun, and our eye lingers on the mesmerising beauty of the mountains on the horizon.
Predictably their friendship is looked at by the townsfolk with suspicion – what can this quiet Chinese woman want from the elderly Bepi? The Chioggians live side by side with the Chinese community, but it is taken for granted that the two shall never make contact. In the film, the lagoon takes on a powerful symbolic meaning. Chioggia is surrounded and often engulfed by waters that are effectively 'trapped' and separate from the sea; it is a place that is worn out by its own habit and resistant to any sort of change.
Despite its exploration of themes such as xenophobia and labour exploitation, Shun Li and the Poet never feels didactic or finger-waving: Andrea Segre has succeeded in waving together a film that will haunt this writer for a long time.
Shun Li and the poet is available on the Filmhouse Player.