Salvo_Poster_FM7Gangster movies are often defined by plot twists and duplicitous schemers that are hard to trust and sometimes feel for. These movies sometimes feel hard to keep up with, and their characters are often defined by their flaws. The darkness in their motivations and the inevitable double crosses speak to plot and hopefully propel character development. Heart hardly ever comes to mind when one thinks of a crime film. But Salvo, the new gangster film by Italian directors Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza has heart. That it hardly sacrifices suspense for its soul is testament to the strength of the filmmakers, here making their feature film debut with international distribution.

Salvo is a collaborative work between Grassadonia and Piazza not only in directing but also in writing. For much of the film, their storytelling feels compact and graceful. The film has a patient quality, and there’s hardly any dialogue, but it is hardly languorous. The movie opens with a tense chase scene that lasts nearly 30 minutes. Though the directors allow the scene to unfold with patience that does not mean it lacks suspense. The life or death danger is established early on with an intense shootout on a walled-in street in the seaside city of Palermo. It’s refreshing to watch motorcycle-mounted assassins, sinisterly dressed all in black, fail, and it speaks to the intimidating skills of the film’s protagonist (Saleh Bakri), a mob boss’ (Mario Pupella) deadly protector, who does not reveal his name until nearly the end of the film. Obscuring him further, the camera mostly focuses on his eyes either in a rear-view mirror or in close up. When the chase turns into a foot pursuit with the hunted becoming the hunter, the camera maintains its distance or only offers shots of his back. It adds to the scenes’ intensity.

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Throughout Salvo, the directors show a smart understanding of camera placement, which was revealed by their award-winning short “Rita,” a film about a blind girl who goes off for a swim at the beach with a young thief who had sneaked into her home to hide from his pursuers. In the short, the directors used no reverse shots, as the camera focused solely on the cherubic-faced lead who could not see, so there was no need to show anything from her POV. This technique creates empathy from the audience and a visceral sense of suspense. With Salvo they take it up another notch, as the chase comes to a slow close, and the killer enters a house where a blind young woman, also named Rita (Sara Serraiocco) counts money. Once again, the lack of reverse shots is employed. A sense of suspense is allowed to draw out, as Rita tries to act unawares of the stranger in her presence, who is often reduced to a shadow in the background that follows her around the house.

For much of the film there’s little dialogue. The directors are clearly more interested in creating a story that relies more on visuals than literal explanations. The movie therefore demands striking visuals, and the directors deliver with a strong sense of composition. From landscapes to interiors, the film has a vibrant visual vocabulary. It never feels ornate, but it does feel vivid. Cinematographer Daniele Ciprì uses mostly deep focus, which allows scenes that are blurred from the perspective of Rita to stand out. There are some drawn-out scenes of the mundane, bSALVO blind woman hands in front of faceut the directors keep them interesting with the composition of shots. The colors of the film gives it a high contrast tone that recalls similar films of the ’70s. Its deliberate pace also feels like this film belongs to an earlier era, not to mention the fact that today’s technology means little to the movie’s cat-and-mouse story. The tools of these people is violence, after all, so it’s all about cars and guns, though these devices are never allowed to overshadow the characters. Sometimes the violence occurs off-screen, which only enhances the film’s thrills. The directors also stage varied shots that are filled with surprise and atmosphere, recalling a well-laid out comic book. This is narrative through visuals in the best way.

The tone is true to the film’s theme as well. It’s about a gangster given a chance to restore his humanity, personified by a seemingly helpless blind girl who generates great sympathy but also a respectable tenacity. For much of the film, the drama does not feel forced or contrived. It’s allowed to unfold organically. But sometimes the film’s theme is too heavy-handedly laid out, especially toward the end, and then it ends on a sentimental note of mysticism and tragedy, which was never necessary from the film’s start. The contrivance betrays the film’s earlier astuteness and feels like hokum compared to its first 90 minutes. Still, Salvo is a strong debut that’s stylish and evocative by a pair of new filmmakers from Italy worth keeping tabs on.

Hans Morgenstern

Salvo runs 104 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (of course there’s gangster blood shed). It opened in the Miami are exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided me with a screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

me_and_you_posterWith its drama mostly unfolding in the cellar of a high-rise in Rome, Me and You (Io e te ) probably stands as legendary Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci slightest drama. But, beyond setting, the film is also slight in another way: it will not stand as one of his great films. Maybe it’s the many years waiting for the film’s arrival (his last was 2003’s The Dreamers) or the fact that this was supposed to be his first experiment with 3D film, which he later reneged on (Variety article). It all feels a bit anti-climactic, though the film is by no means a waste of time.

The film follows 14-year-old Lorenzo (Jacopo Olmo Antinori) who, after scamming his mother into thinking he’s on a school ski trip, secretly moves into the basement for a week. All he wants is to hide away from people, his only company being an ant farm. Then his 25-year-old half-sister Olivia (Tea Falco) crashes his party after stumbling upon him by accident. She thinks she has found the perfect spot to beat her heroin addiction and go cold turkey. He is upset with being bullied into sharing his solitude with someone he doesn’t care for much or even know that well. In their self-imposed purgatory, the two are forced to confront old grudges and come to terms with them and maybe leave their confinement with a sense compassion for one other.

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Antinori resigns to his role as a newly pubescent young man, channeling a natural teen angst heightened on a superficial level by his pimply complexion and virginal mustache. The emphasis on his appearance is enhanced by the fact that we first meet him with his face turned downward during a session with a psychologist. Meanwhile, Olivia first appears in the shadows of the basement in a giant, woolly black coat out of an Edward Gorey cartoon. These enigmatic introductions beg for the audience’s projection, but in the end, the two become stereotypes: the withdrawn, socially awkward teenage boy caught between childhood and adulthood and the beautiful aspiring artist who is never taken seriously because of her good looks and her drug habit.

These are difficult roles to flesh out with the nuance demanded of them, but Bertolucci still musters performances from the actors that at least do not make the characters feel obnoxious. Both Antinori and Falco are making debut lead appearances as virtual unknowns in the cinema world, which again adds to the characters’ relatable quality. But on the other hand, the story is so intimate it begs for stronger performances. It does not help that the script feels a bit rote, based on the novel by Niccolò Ammaniti, who is one of four other Io-e-tescreenwriters, including Bertolucci. The material demands a more personal hand, and though there are moments of conflict and reconciliation, it all feels so mechanical that it hardly leaves you with the haunting impression the film aspires to achieve. Some of it even feels forced and unconvincing, like a scene at dinner when Lorenzo asks his mother if, after some cataclysmic event happens to wipe out all of humanity except them, would she volunteer to re-populate the world with him (Bertolucci will never shake his penchant for incest).

Though the film is sumptuously shot, featuring outstanding art direction, the camera sometimes feels a bit aimless. You can almost imagine the swooping and twirling camera movements used during a few early establishing shots were conceived when Bertolucci was aiming to make a 3D film. Also, the manner in which the camera drifts and twirls around enhances a feeling that the director is acting without a sense of assured control, feeling out the film more that feeling confident about his shots.

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The film’s drama drives along with some close calls of the two being caught, Olivia screaming in the pangs of withdrawal and throwing up between moments of sharing her dreams and better times of living it up, as a rapt Lorenzo pays close attention and throws out casual questions that also speak to his fear of socializing. The climax of the drama comes with a David Bowie song, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola” (“Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”), which is actually the music of “Space Oddity” with Italian lyrics. Though Bowie sings the lyrics, they have nothing to do with his original lyrics inspired by the first moon landing. However, the Italian lyrics (by Italian lyricist Mogol) fit the film’s story better than “Space Oddity” ever would. As translated in the subtitles Olivia sings to Lorenzo:

Now lonely boy where will you go?
The night is a big sea
If you need my hand to swim
Thank you but tonight I would like to die
Because you know in my eyes
There is an angel, an angel that now does not fly any more

Yes, Me and You is a small drama, but it has some pretty moments. It just does not make for a whole, consistent experience. The most extreme action comes from scenes of Olivia throwing up. Still, she and Lorenzo eventually build a relationship where they can look beyond bitterness and accept their bond. It’s no surprise, but it’s also an example of how slight and indulgent art cinema can get. There’s a hint of suspense that nothing is permanent, and you are left hoping something will work out with these two, but then you’ll also just go on and forget this film soon enough. It probably would have been more interesting in 3D.

Hans Morgenstern

Me and You runs 97 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is not rated (it features mature language and drug references, however). It opens in South Florida as part of the on-going “Cinema Made In Italy” series on Wednesday, Aug. 13, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided a preview screener for the purpose of this review. It runs through Aug. 21 (see Calendar here). It opens a few days later at the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, on Aug. 15 (see dates and times). For a look at other theater dates around the world, visit this webpage.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

thegreatbeauty_posterIf there’s one thing coming to all celebrities, it’s death. But what could be worse than that for the famous? Irrelevance.

Paolo Sorrentino’s new film, the Great Beauty, Italy’s entry for the foreign language Oscar competition, follows Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) a celebrity writer learning to come to terms with his own irrelevance, as he reaches his 65th birthday. It has been decades since he wrote his only book, the pretentiously titled “Human Apparatus.”  People still ask when he will follow it up. Meanwhile, he stays busy with celebrity interviews and parties.

Early in the film, a motley crew of party goers gathers to line dance, drink and laugh to pulsing electro beats and perky pop dance songs in celebration of Jep’s birthday. Lorena (Serena Grandi of Tinto Brass fame) bursts from a cake in the shape of the Coliseum with a number six on her right breast and five on her left. When one party goer cannot recognize the aged, rotund and boisterous woman, another party goer explains, she’s “an ex TV showgirl now in full physical and mental decline.” Both young and old mix together with a unified aspiration to both live it up and cover up their inadequacies. A group tosses a well-dressed older, female dwarf in the air.

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Anyone familiar with the filmography of Federico Fellini will find it hard to resist comparisons. Many a surreal scene peppers the film, and the transitions between scenes feel associative, as if following dream logic. Jep could easily be seen as an older version of Marcello of La Dolce Vita, who travels circles of debauchery in Rome to come to his own sublime revelation at the end of that 1960 classic, which gave popular culture the accursed term “paparazzi.”

But as the Great Beauty moves along, a sense of humanity and even dignity overshadows the decadence. We soon learn the dwarf is the wizened editor of Jep, Dadina (Giovanna Vignola). Her short stature has only allowed her a better perspective for noticing the charms of life with humor and humility. Indeed, the Great Beauty in the title of the film is not so much a reference to the opulent imagery as what lies in the gaps. It’s a tremendous film rich not only in visual splendor but also existential angst.

Sorrentino has no interest in picking up where Fellini left off. He injects his characters with a raw yearning for fulfillment and purpose. His choice to focus on older characters is far from incidental. These people don’t only want to live. There is something much bigger at stake:  they want to matter.

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Ironically, the set pieces are vibrant with color and life. The ever-drifting camera of cinematographer Luca Bigazzi practically swings through the air, zooming in and pulling out, dancing to an unheard rhythm, as if it were the film’s virtual heartbeat. It does not hurt that the ancient city of Rome, where the ruins of the Coliseum make prominent appearances, is such an inherently beautiful site to see. On an intimate level, over his bed, the recurring image of Jep’s ceiling as a vast, undulating ocean stands as symbol of rebirth, as Jep’s thoughts often drift off to find memories to reconsider his life.

Jep drinks, parties and philosophizes with fellow sixty-something celebrities and sycophants. Along the way, he refines his appreciation for those he loves and those he loathes. All around him, time seems to creep along. Nostalgia for the past bubbles up and the pressure of following up his only novel haunts him. Cornered by both the past and the future, he must ultimately come to terms with loosening control of destiny so he might find the grace he pines for.

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Servillo does a splendid job harnessing Jep’s conflicting traits of jaded, free-wheeling and vulnerable, as the film trudges along across a dynamic two-and-a-half-hour runtime that ultimately earns one of the most significant end title sequences ever committed to film. As a celebration of the visual form of cinema, this unassuming final note achieves a moment of transcendence that should be savored to the last second of its eight minutes by anyone who has learned something from the film’s brilliant finale:  It is in the moments when we live, everything else is “blah, blah, blah.”

Hans Morgenstern

The Great Beauty runs 142 minutes, is in Italian with English subtitles and is unrated (there’s drugging, drinking, fucking, loving and living). It opens in our area at the Miami Beach CinemathequeBill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables, MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater in Miami and Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood this Friday, Nov. 29.

Note: The Miami Beach Cinematheque hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. The MBC’s screening marks the beginning of its Italian film series “Cinema Made In Italy” that continues into April. An opening night rooftop party kicks it off at Highbar (click here for more information, including how to get into the party for free). 

For screening dates of the Great Beauty in other parts of the U.S., visit the film’s official website and enter your zip code.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)