Revolutions, Large and Small

April 30, 2015

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The Russian Revolution, and the Italian Risorgimento:  two different revolutions.  One, cataclysmic; one, not so much. Transforming Russia from a backward agrarian society into a totalitarian industrial giant.  Transforming the Italian peninsula from a motley of states into a unified “modern” nation.  I indulged my abiding interest in Josef Stalin by watching The Inner Circle (1991) by Andrei Konchalovsky, and I’m prepping for a trip to the Piedmont region of Italy, where The Risorgimento originated, by watching Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) again, and re-reading the novel by Lampedusa on which it is based.

Konchalovsky, who was quite successful within the Soviet cinema world, relates that he offered a bottle of brandy to a projectionist if the man would tell him the opinions of the state censors for whom he was screening his latest film.  The man revealed that he had lots of stories to tell about what Stalin used to say about films!  He was the Kremlin projectionist for years:  Konchalovsky was ready to listen, and The Inner Circle is the story of this Kremlin functionary.

The film has some odd things about it, including a score that seems to grow loud and sentimental at the worst moments, and the fact that all the dialog is in English spoken with Russian accents.  Seems a bit hokey at times.  The problem of subtitles and translation was handled more creatively in The Hunt for Red October, about the only good thing I recall from that film.  Tom Hulce plays the projectionist, and he holds onto his pure country-bumpkin good-Ivan characterization a bit too long, but to anyone familiar with Russian history, he’s still believable.

There is a scene where the film breaks during a screening for Stalin, and the projectionist explains that the projector is a poor copy of an excellent German machine – the head of the Cinema Bureau, responsible for these  things, is standing right there – and has an inferior spring part that caused the break.  Stalin uses the incident to indulge his sadistic bent, lightly bandying with the bureau chief who is sweating profusely, while Beria – head of the secret police – notes sarcastically that someone wasn’t doing their duty.  This is the sort of thing that can end with a bullet to the head administered some random dead of night.  It’s a chilling set-piece of Stalin’s daily modus operandi.  If you want a sense of the brutal moral degradation imposed on the Soviet citizenry by Stalin, apart from the mass murder itself, this is not a bad film to see.

Meanwhile, back in Sicily, The Prince is speaking dubbed Italian in Visconti’s adaptation of The Leopard.  Panned at first, it is now highly rated:  Martin Scorsese, not surprisingly, rates it among the greatest of all films.  Why no surprise?  Because Scorsese, as one critic noted, is no great sociologist, and naturally he is entranced by Visconti’s lush nostalgia for a period of elegance decayed.

Starting to read the novel again, I noted right away that the author’s tone is sharper, more harsh, than the elegiac sentiment of Visconti.  The film is an aesthetic response to the politics of the Risorgimento.  You can say that Visconti was a Marxist (he joined the Communist Party after WWII) but how much of one could he be having made this film?  He loves those aristocrats, their clothes, their nobless oblige, and he loathes the upstart middle class.  He was, of course, the scion of a hugely important Italian aristocratic clan.  And in the end, the film is an adaptation, not a copy of the book – he chooses to emphasize the theme of the Prince dealing with his own mortality, as well as the end of his era, a more personal story. A fine film, a wee bit too long, and I think his talents were better suited for Senso.

The Leopard is often referred to as Italy’s “Gone With The Wind,” a comparison that is an insult to Visconti’s considerable talents and highly developed sensibility.

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Dream Sequence: Ivan meets Joe

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Dream Couple: Delon and Cardinale

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We are in the 21st century, no?

September 19, 2010

I saw this bumper sticker ahead of me on a van this morning.  I’m no expert on Marxist sociology, but I believe the idea is that ideology is determined by material circumstances, i.e., the means of production determine the dominant ideas of an era.  Okay, so how come this fellow, and he’s in good company, is espousing ideas that are right out of Saint Augustine’s City of God?  Clearly, this driver is a citizen of that heavenly city, not the city of the world.

Or, are we to assume that all the significant elements of society are not much changed today from what they were in the early 5th century A.D?  How else to account for the incredible staying power of these ideas?


Before the Revolution…there was the word.

March 6, 2010

It’s good to keep in mind that Bertolucci was in his early twenties when he made Before the Revolution, and that the protagonist, Fabrizio, is only twenty himself.  The film is bursting with ideas and cinematic effects like somebody besotted with the art, and his talent – it even satirizes the archetypal super serious cineaste in one scene!  There are times when it might even seem to some like a parody of the serious European avante-garde film – Woody Allen’s spoof was mentioned by my wife – but it is, in the end, a fabulous movie!

A movie, but the texts have it!  A film about people obsessed with words and texts.  Who can take them seriously, especially if you’re an American, raised in a culture where politics is a corrupt circus for grasping old farts that means nothing to anyone?  Especially a generation (or two) after the revolution, or at least after the revolution that never was, the 1960s?  Who watching this film now can relate to Fabrizio’s intellectual predicament, his desire to be more radical than thou, while also being one with the people and hating his family background, while loving his aunt, Gina…?  What a mess!

Fabrizio is the son of a Parma family of bourgeoisie – the kind that lives in a creaky old palace filled with 19th century furniture and chandeliers.  It’s stuffy as hell, so he is taking lessons from a serious fellow with glasses, the local school teacher who also tutors young men in the ways of communism.  He’s smart, but tough – he tells Fabrizio that he “talks like a book,” but the student is only trying to be good, spouting the words of his tutor’s masters.  When Fabrizio brings Gina, his aunt and lover to meet the teacher, they all duel in quotations read from books on the shelves.  Who does Gina quote?  Oscar Wilde.  My favorite socialist.  ( How Oscar would have laughed at the pretentious statements by Fabrizio’s friend about the relative morality of this over that shot in cinema!)

Marxist texts, Proust, Wilde, and finally, Moby Dick, of all things.  Fabrizio buckles under to history and family, and decides to get with the bourgeois program:  He marries his very pretty, but supposedly dull, childhood sweetheart.  A perfect match.  As Fabrizio gets a wedding send off – he’s only seen from the back – and moves off into middleclass embalment, Gina furiously kisses his younger brother’s face and hair in an agony of displaced and frustrated love.  The teacher recites to his young students the speech of Captain Ahab in which he makes clear to his crew the nature of the absurd and furious quest to which they have signed on…  Is it Life?

Some scenes:

During an outing, Fabrizio and Gina visit an old friend of hers, Puck.  He is a dead-end aristocrat.  In an operatic speech, he bewails the destruction of the old order natural and social, as the camera soars over the landscape, soon to be bulldozed by progress

Fabrizio and his tutor check on the the People at the annual Festival of Unity.  They seem to be out of step with the masses.

The wedding seals Fabrizio’s fate, and Gina’s.

No revolution.  Not for Fabrizio.  Not for the schoolkids

Certainly not for Gina.