Category: Melodrama

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (US 1955)

Here’s a film that’s lovely to look at and which features an ear-worm song cleverly stitched into the score by Alfred Newman. But in some ways it’s the production itself and the stories behind the script which make it a significant film. Let’s take the production first. It was released in August 1955 as one of the early Fox ‘CinemaScope and DeLuxe Color’ films. At this point, ‘Scope prints were still being released in their original 2.55:1 aspect ratio with a separate stereo soundtrack. The film must have looked and sounded fantastic – as long as you were in a big and refurbished Fox theatre. Director Henry King was nearly 70 when the film was released. He was arguably the most reliable director at 20th Century Fox, responsible for major features for nearly the whole of the studio period and completing over 100 films in his long career. King’s forte was literary adaptations but as soon as he finished work on this film, he started on Carousel (1956).

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is indeed a literary adaptation of the novel of the same title (but with British spelling) by Han Suyin. It is set in Hong in 1949 as the Chinese Civil War is coming to an end and the Korean War is about to begin. One of the most striking aspects of the production is that much of the film was shot on location in Hong Kong, offering some amazing coverage of the city, its waterfront and the hills above. The shooting of these scenes was the responsibility of Otto Lang who appears to have worked as a 2nd-unit director on several Fox productions. As far as I’m aware Leon Shamroy, like King, a Fox stalwart throughout the studio period, shot the whole film including the Hong Kong and California sequences (and the studio-set material). One of the concerns about early ‘Scope was the suggestion that the need for more light by the anamorphic lens would reduce the depth of field available and that the difficulties of composition would mean a reliance on relatively static medium shots. In this film Shamroy seems to deploy many long shots on the Hong Kong locations and even to some extent in the studio interiors. This is what makes the film so spectacular and a perfect advertisement for what ‘Scope could do. In many scenes he composes using the full width of the screen and includes several charcters in medium long shot (MLS).

William Holden and Jennifer Jones

The story is relatively simple. Han Suyin is a doctor specialising in paediatric medicine in a Hong Kong hospital. She’s a widow with an extended family in Chungking. She meets and falls in love with Mark Elliott, an American war correspondent. He is married but separated from his wife who lives in Singapore. Mark struggles to get a divorce and Suyin goes back to her family to get their approval for remarriage. With war still in China and coming to Korea, Mark could be sent to cover action at any point. Though they love each other Mark and Suyin know that because she is ‘Eurasian’ (that’s the term used in the film’ for a person with a European and an Asian parent) they are likely to face prejudice whether they are in East or West. Suyin faces prejudice at home in Chungking and in Hong Kong from the racist wife of the hospital’s funder.

The story behind the script is that it is highly auto-biographical. Surprisingly though, Han Suyin (1916-2012) became a supporter of the People’s Republic of China, even though her first husband died in 1947 fighting for the Nationalist Kuomintang. In reality she fell in love with an Australian journalist rather than an American. Presumably she still had some control over the material and it’s interesting to find a Cold War film (with memories of Korea only a few years earlier) in which the Chinese CP is not completely denounced. Suyin’s family in Chungking reming me a little of the household in Springtime in a Small Town (China 1948 and 2002) – much larger, but clearly affluent despite the Civil War. In the hospital in Hong Kong, one of the senior doctors who admires Suyin urges her to return to China and offer her services to the new government. The real Han Suyin did return to China and also later wrote a novel in support of the Chinese-led rebellion against colonial rule in Malaya (she had then married a British officer in Malaya).

The couple travel to Chungking

The casting decisions on this production will prompt comment today. William Holden plays Mark Elliott and he’s always reliable actor. He seems to have caused a stir in Hong Kong since the fandom that he provoked is a feature of the classic Hong Kong film Comrades: Almost a Love Story (HK 1996) in which Aunt Rosie one of the older female characters claims to have spent the day with Holden in his hotel during the shoot of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. The same actor who plays Aunt Rosie (Irene Tsu) supposedly had an uncredited part in William Holden’s other (British) picture made in Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong (1961). The controversial casting might now be seen as Jennifer Jones to play Han Suyin. As a bi-racial character I’m not sure how that casting would be seen today. Is it a case of ‘yellow-face’ casting – a Caucasian actor playing a bi-racial character? Chinese actors, including Chinese-American actors were severely under-represented in Studio Hollywood films. Jennifer Jones had form in this regard. In 1946 she starred opposite Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten in (her husband) David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (popularly known as ‘Lust in the Dust’) in which she played a bi-racial character as a ‘mestiza‘ – with Caucasian and Native-American parents. Jennifer Jones is convincingly made-up and has the poise to carry the costumes as Han Suyin – but of course that in no way detracts from the arguments about how such casting decisions should be undertaken today. Both Jones and Holden are convincing in their roles and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a romance well worth watching.

My Brother Jonathan (UK 1948)

My Brother Jonathan was a major commercial success for ABPC, the only meaningful rival for the Rank Organisation as a vertically integrated British film studio in the late 1940s. Its stars Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray later became a fixture on the British stage and one of the best-loved husband and wife teams in UK films and TV. Denison returned from war service in 1946, but Gray had continued to enjoy a film career with several major films since 1944. It isn’t difficult to see why the film was a success. It was adapted from a popular novel by Francis Brett Young (1884-1954) who had become a successful writer after being invalided out of military service in 1918. Young had been a doctor from a family of doctors in the West Midlands and he wrote about what he knew. My Brother Jonathan tells the selfless story of loyalty and courage shown by a young doctor in 1914 and the years following. It is particularly effective in presenting the class divide in medical care in the early 20th century, especially in the great industrial towns. The film adaptation was released a few weeks before the National Health Service was officially launched in the UK.

The film was another of the treats on Talking Pictures TV and the print used is in very good condition. Experienced director Harold French and DoP Derek Williams (with only a few, but prestigious, credits) are supported by some excellent set design and use of locations in depicting the contrasting worlds of the Shropshire/Worcestershire countryside, the industrial Black Country and society London. The narrative has a familiar structure. It begins at the end of the war in 1945 when Tony, a young RAF doctor played by Pete Murray (later known as a radio/TV DJ), returns home to find his father Dr. Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) in pensive mood. When Tony tells his father that he is thinking of leaving the medical profession, Jonathan begins to tell him about the story of his family. The main part of the narrative is then presented in flashback. The film’s title is slightly confusing in that it suggests that it is told by Jonathan’s younger brother Hal (Harold) played by Ronald Howard), but he disappears as a narrator part way through the narrative. In outline, the film starts with the two young Daker boys from a lower middle-class family in a rural town in the 1900s who wander into a cricket match at the ‘big house’ where Hal will display his cricketing prowess and Jonathan will become smitten by the beautiful young daughter of the house, Edie (Beatrice Campbell). Several years later, Jonathan is training to be a surgeon at the ‘North Bromwich Hospital’ (novelist Young’s version of Birmingham) when a family crisis forces him to give up his ambitions to be a London surgeon and instead join an ailing general practice in industrial ‘Wednesford’. He has also to support his younger brother at Cambridge and his struggle to win Edie gets tougher. It’s a story with elements that readers and film audiences would recognise in 1948 from A. J. Cronin’s The Citadel in 1937/8. I won’t spoil any more of the plot, though you will notice Dulcie Gray hasn’t appeared yet!

Dr. Jonathan Dakers (Michael Denison) with his partner’s daughter Rachel (Dulcie Gray) who acts as the surgery manager of the practice

I wasn’t sure about the film for the first 10-20 minutes, but it grew on me and I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. I think a great deal depends on Michael Denison’s performance. He has to age dramatically from a young man in his early 20s to a father in his late 50s (a little overdone, I think so that some reviewers refer to him as ‘elderly’). Denison was then 32 and he appears very ‘polished’, bright, alert, slim and full of vitality. He’d been at Harrow and Magdalen College, Oxford and his confidence shines through. Many of the British films and their male stars of the late 1940s were dark and brooding. It’s not difficult to see Denison as appealing to a significant segment of the female audience. Denison as Jonathan is perhaps too noble in the early part of his role in the industrial community, but he comes into his own at a public meeting of the hospital board where his charisma and eloquence is displayed very effectively. This scene (reminiscent of Henry Fonda in a John Ford courtroom) also works because of the calibre of the supporting players such as Stephen Murray as the corrupt Doctor Craig and Finlay Currie as Doctor Hammond the older doctor whose new partner is Jonathan Dakers (Dulcie Gray plays Hammond’s daughter, Rachel). Bit players include Wilfred Hyde White on the hospital board, James Robertson-Justice as Jonathan’s father and Thora Hird, inevitably, as a servant.

Two connections to other films suggest something about the way in which British film culture worked in the late 1940s. Dulcie Gray played the youngest of three sisters in They Were Sisters (1945) abused by James Mason’s character. They Were Sisters was also adapted from a popular novel and has a similar time structure with a prologue in the years just after the First World War and then a story played out up to the late 1930s. It also has some unusual ‘family arrangements’. It too was very successful as a film and like My Brother Jonathan became one of the top British films of the year. The theme of families re-uniting during and after wartime was, not surprisingly, important for audiences. Another similar film was The Weaker Sex (1948). A second kind of connection comes through the original author Francis Brett Young who had gone to school at Epsom College and who in later life became a close friend of Hugh Walpole, living close to him in the Lake District. Walpole wrote the novel on which Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill (1948) was based and used Epsom College, where he taught, as a model for the school in the film. I think this kind of connection tells us something about what has been called ‘middlebrow culture’ in the UK in the 20th century. My Brother Jonathan is a good example of that culture. It is available on DVD from Network in the UK.

The Lady Without Camellias (La signora senza camelie, Italy 1953)

Clara (Lucia Bosè) as she appears in her first film.

What is the status of Michelangelo Antonioni today? In the 1960s he was in some ways the archetypal figure of the European art director. His three English language films, Blow-Up (1966), Zabriskie Point (1975) and The Passenger (1975) then transformed him into a new kind of celebrity artist. For older cinéphiles his great works might be the trilogy of ‘alienation’ films from the early 1960s, L’avventura (1960), La notta (1961) and L’éclisse (1962). But what about the 1950s? Antonioni was born in 1912, making him roughly a contemporary of Bergman (b. 1918) and Kurosawa (b. 1910), but unlike those two prolific filmmakers who were active in their film industries by the early 1940s, Antonioni’s progress is more hesitant. He co-writes A Pilot Returns with Rossellini in 1942 and directs eight documentary shorts between 1947 and 1950 before making his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (A Chronicle of Love) in 1950. Penelope Houston, editor of Sight and Sound from 1956, made the observation that unlike the Cahiers du Cinema writers who became filmmakers in La nouvelle vague or the Free Cinema directors in the UK who formed part of the British New Wave, Antonioni had no clear beginning, no celebrated first film and no clear ‘film movement’ identity. She quotes an interview in 1959 for Positif in which Antonioni explains that in 1943 he was directing a documentary about fishermen on the Po River – the same location used by Visconti for Ossessione, often quoted as the first neo-realist film in 1942. “Today, perhaps I would be cited in a discussion about the birth of neo-realism”, Antonioni suggests. (In Cinema: A Critical Dictionary Vol 1: Aldrich to King, Richard Roud (ed) 1980, Martin, Secker and Warburg.)

A typical neo-realist long shot of a street scene

What then of La signora senza camelie?, one of three films that Antonioni directed or part-directed in 1953. Neo-realism was still a recognisable influence in Italy in the early 1950s and it certainly informs some of Enzo Serafin’s cinematography in the film. (Serafin worked continuously from 1942 and in 1954 shot Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.) The narrative is familiar. Clara (Lucia Bosè) is a shop girl from Milan, an outstanding beauty who has been snapped up by a pair of film producers. They have put her into a mundane exploitation film and when the narrative of La signora senza camelie begins she is waiting in the street outside a cinema where her debut is being previewed in a public screening. These opening shots seem to promise distinctive location shooting. What follows certainly has neo-realist moments, especially because of the cinematography, but it is primarily a melodrama and in generic terms, a film about the film ‘business’ rather than about filmmaking per se – though there are some direct comments about performance. There are ‘pre-echoes’ of certain well-known films. It’s difficult not to think of Godard’s 1963 Le mépris (1963) in which an American producer wants to put Brigitte Bardot into a ‘classical drama’. In La signora senza camelie, Clara marries one of her producers, Gianni (Andrea Checchi) who installs her in a beautifully furnished by soul-less apartment and then casts her in a version of Joan of Arc. She goes to the Venice Film Festival and is humiliated when the film fails. In the meantime she has linked up with another hopeless lover, a diplomat who is not prepared to risk being seen with her publicly. She would be better off with the experienced actor Lodi played by Frenchman Alain Cuny, who in one scene teaches her how to make love for the camera. The film’s title presumably refers to The Lady of the Camellias or simply ‘Camille‘, a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, an opera, La traviata, by Verdi and then a film made famous by Greta Garbo. Poor Clara has none of the mystique of Camille (though possibly all of the beauty).

Clara watches herself as Joan of Arc in the disastrous Venice screening of her ‘art’ film. Her would be lover, Nardo (Ivan Desny) is in the row behind, third from the right

La signora senza camelie is very much a film about mise en scène – the apartments, the beautiful clothes – and the cinematography. I’m sure there is music too – Clara sings in her début, but I didn’t really notice the music. Cinecitta, the great studio complex in Rome plays a role in the closing stages of the narrative, as do the paparazzi of Rome, ever-present in the studio canteen. Earlier, the two producers (the other one is much more pragmatic) first find a beautiful house belonging to the aristocracy and then fail to make use of its possibilities. Overall, I found the film beautiful to watch (and that includes the luscious Lucia Bosè, who I realise was in the Spanish film The Death of a Cyclist a couple of years later – she married a Spanish bullfighter). The narrative is in one sense quite cynical and in another an exposé of the celebrity culture of Italian cinema and what eventually came to be known as ‘Hollywood on the Tiber’. Fellini’s films make much more sense when you’ve seen this film and perhaps Visconti’s Bellissima (1951) the more ‘neo-realist’ film that traces the story of a mother’s attempt to get her child into the film world. I feel I appreciate Antonioni’s skill more than I did before, but he still feels a bit like a ‘cold fish’.

Clara with the producer who will become her husband on the night of her screen début

Like all Italian films of the period the dialogue is dubbed. I was surprised that this is very badly done at one point.

Clara in the bar at Cinecitta with the paparazzi

I watched the film on MUBI. It is currently available on a Masters of Cinema dual format DVD/Blu-ray. In the clip below (no English subs) we see Clara and Lodi playing the love scene in her second film. The director is the man in charge, though both the producers are also on set. What are those extras, seen through the window, doing outside?

Dead End (US 1937)

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Tough guys

It was a real treat to revisit Dead End as it was a reminder that Hollywood, via independent producer Sam Goldwyn here, didn’t always ignore working class poverty. Adapted by Lilian Hellman from Sidney Kingsley’s hit play, Dead End focuses on a day in the life of a poor neighbourhood in New York. It melodramatically mixes poor and rich; road works necessitate the latter using the service entrance for their ‘high end’ apartments. While the focus is on the ‘dead end kids’, teens who are already delinquent (played by members of the original Broadway cast), the generation before them is where the real interest lies. Joel McCrea and Sylvia Sydney are the leads playing decent folk being worn down by the lack of opportunity; the Depression was still causing economic ruin. Humphrey Bogart and Claire Trevor play the gangster returning to his roots to see his old girlfriend.

Goldwyn often employed William Wyler to direct and Dead End is also graced with Gregg Toland’s cinematography. There are scenes of chiaroscuro lighting that suggest film noir – years before the genre started – and a few years later he was photographing Citizen Kane. The film has quality everything: script, stars, direction, cinematography and great set design by Richard Day. Kudos to Sam Goldwyn for pulling it all together.

Although we unsurprisingly get a hopeful ending it’s not exactly happy and the rich are shown for the heartless leaches that they are. If McCrea and Sidney are a little too nice there’s no missing the menace of Bogart’s wanted man who’s found a life on the run is not good enough despite his wealth. The brief scene where he and his old flame are reunited is electric; Trevor easily matching Bogart’s understated brilliance. She’s had to become a prostitute and has one of those coughs that signify the character is dying. The joy they feel at seeing one another again after many years shows what might have been but their poverty ‘insisted’ instead that they lead lives of degradation. The scene is cinematic brilliance.

Apparently there’s some deep focus cinematography in the film, which Wyler was to become well-known for, but that didn’t strike me. The shootout between McCrea and Bogart, the chiaroscuro I noted earlier, is brilliantly done. They don’t make ‘em like this any more. Film noir was about to enter Hollywood and became the darkness on the edge of its town.

The Wound (Inexba, South Africa-Germany-Netherlands-France 2017)

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Outside tradition

The screening was preceded by brief talking heads, the director John Trengrove and lead actor Nakhane Touré, giving some insight into the film. Interesting though this is, I don’t want ‘insight’ into a film just before I’m watching it; I prefer sometimes to see films with no preconceptions. I’m not sure what the point of this preface is, A Fantastic Woman had one also, because it’s not selling the film as the audience are already in place.

Whilst I’m on a moan: I understand cinemas need to show adverts and trailers for economic reasons but it’s always a relief to see the BBFC certificate as that means the marketing messages are over. Except before this film after the certificate another promo – for Selfridges – appeared. Unlikely as it may be, if any marketing person for this shop is reading: the effect of this on me is to make me think ‘fuck off’ to the company that is further delaying my pleasure of the film!

I knew nothing of The Wound before sitting down in the cinema other than it was a South African film. The number of producers in the credits indicated a heavy European involvement which is presumably why the film has managed to get distribution in the UK. It’s a good film so deserves to be seen but I’m sure there are many good films from Africa that we never get a chance to watch. The fact that The Wound won best first feature at the London Film Festival also would have helped.

Although it is an international co-production this seemed an entirely African film; it focuses on the initiation rites of the Xhosa people where boys become men after being circumcised and spending a week on a mountain tended by a carer. The portrayal seemed authentic to me and there’s an ethnographic (to an ignorant westerner) fascination at seeing a portrayal of this rite. But there’s more to the film because the protagonist, superbly played, is a closeted homosexual and so he fails to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense. Another outsider is the ‘city boy’, a place that is defined as effeminate by the rural tradition that the ceremony derives from. At the same time, it’s clear the ‘country boys’ envy urban wealth.

There’s plenty of melodramatic conflict in the narrative and it is shot in the beautiful ‘cradle of life’ World Heritage Site in Eastern Cape. Trengrove tends to keep his camera close to the men and boys which makes for some vertiginous wobbling when they are running but there are some artful compositions to enjoy too.

Trengrove’s introduction tells us the film was controversial because of its depiction of gay Africans; homophobia is, it seems, a traditional value too. Touré stated he had to withdraw from a film because of death threats. Hence The Wound is a brave film as it confronts a taboo subject and it does it with style.

When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair (Yang Niu Dao Wo Jia, China 2014)

Natalie (Gianina Arana), Su (Chen Jianbin) and Pipi (Chen Yinuo) out together.

This film was screened in Bradford as part of the UK’s ‘China Film Week’. Bradford was the first UNESCO ‘City of Film’ and is now linked to the similar UNESCO City of Film in Qingdao. The screening was introduced by David Wilson, Director Bradford City of Film and then by the film’s writer Li Chunli. I wasn’t sure what to expect but after watching it, I think When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair was in some ways the right choice, but in other ways an unfortunate choice.

Ms Li told us that this was a ‘family film’. It was advertised as a comedy and it came across as a family melodrama with a strong comedy element. I’m not sure why a film from 2014 should be chosen, but the film’s theme is certainly contemporary and, perhaps surprisingly, it is shared with Jia Zhang-ke’s Mountains May Depart (China-Japan-France 2015) and has a long history going back to Clara Law’s Farewell China (HK 1990) and earlier. I’m referring to the aspiration of many middle-class Chinese families to emigrate to the ‘West’ for various reasons – and in particular to think about taking their children (or more likely ‘child’) with them to receive a ‘good’ education. This desire has been caught by Qin (Xu Fan), who after fifteen years of marriage to Su (Chen Jianbin), decides that she must prepare to get a job abroad and that her small daughter Pipi (Chen Yinuo) would benefit from the presence of an au pair who speaks English – help with Pipi is also needed because both parents work long hours. Interviewing candidates from around the world she selects Natalie (Gianina Arana), a bubbly young woman from Colombia who speaks good English and passable Mandarin. The problems begin soon after Natalie arrives.

Pipi is being brought up like a little ‘princess’ who is only allowed out in taxis, never public transport. She has organic fruit and her soup is filtered to remove fish bones – and so on. Natalie is a free spirit who likes to play with children and to ‘set them free’. Qin is a make-up artist for film and TV. Her husband (who often sides with Natalie) earns less than his wife as a producer of traditional Peking Opera. Together their salaries can barely pay for the extravagant style of Pipi’s upbringing. It gets worse when Qin signs on with an agency that promises to find her a job abroad (for a substantial fee). At one point Qi meets an old friend who is briefly home after migrating and who tells Qin of the stress she suffers.

Qin (Xu Fan) and Natalie have an emotional reconciliation.

The comedy comes from the clash between Qin and Natalie and their ideas about how to raise children – and the mayhem that Pipi is capable of creating as a result. Dad remains in the background but the marriage is clearly suffering and this provides the drama alongside some of the dangerous consequences of the au pair situation. As Natalie points out, if Pipi is always wrapped in cotton wool, she won’t be able to survive in the real world outside. Shu does however chide Natalie at times, pointing out that there are reasons why Chinese families do things that she doesn’t understand. Natalie is a ‘typed’ foreign character and mainstream Chinese films suffer from this kind of typing in the same way as Hollywood and European films. It’s useful, I think, that UK audiences are able to reflect on this. As well as the migration issue, the film picks up on other topical issues like the traffic jams in Beijing, but overall this is the tourist view of affluent China which says little about the rest of the country. It also demonstrates how Chinese comedy films exaggerate awkward situations to develop broad comedy potential with forms of slapstick. I didn’t notice any reference to Natalie’s racial difference but she is typed as being materialistic and individualistic in her approach to life – wanting to be the richest and most successful. Qin acts as if she wants to be the same but recognises that this might be unacceptable. There is an interesting set of questions about ideology here.

But while the content of the film may be a useful insight into aspects of the lives of the Beijing middle classes, the presentation of the film might be more of a shock for UK audiences. I’m familiar with DVDs of Chinese and Hong Kong films and the practice of subtitling in English and Simplified Chinese and I’m used to subtitling generally. But in this case, the very rapid cutting between characters speaking quickly was at first difficult to follow. Overall, the editing in the film seemed to struggle to hold the narrative together. This is odd because as far as I can see the film’s editor, Zhou Xinxia, is the only really experienced head of department in a crew working with an inexperienced director and writer. Perhaps it is the use of music which underlines all of this. Every scene is scored to underline the changes of mood from comedy to romance to drama. The non-diegetic music is relentless and the abrupt changes of musical style are jarring. I’m afraid that the film doesn’t represent the high quality of much of the mainstream (and arthouse) cinema produced in China today. Perhaps the industry has just grown too quickly? We were told that the film featured many well-known Chinese star actors. As far as I can see, most of them are in minor roles. The exception is the lead pair Xu Fan and Chen Jianbin as the parents in the family. Xu Fan has a thankless role as the mother but I found the father to be the most interesting character. Chen Jianbin once featured in Jia Zhang-khe’s 24 City (China-Japan-France 2008). When a Peking Family Meets an Au Pair has shown twice now in the UK and I found another screening advertised in Belgium. I’m assuming that the Chinese cultural agencies have sanctioned these screenings for the China Film Office whereas an independent Chinese film would not have been deemed suitable. (Ironically the music recording in the film was listed as being carried out in Singapore and Taiwan.) We might at least have been offered a Feng Xiaogang film (in which Xu Fan has played leading roles in the past) or something from another mainstream director of standing. Still, I’m glad I attended the free screening and I hope for good things from the Bradford-Qingdao partnership.

Here’s the Chinese trailer (no English subs):

A Fantastic Woman (Una Mujer Fantástica, Chile-Germany-Spain-US 2017)

Marina (Daniela Vega) – a fantastic woman

A Fantastic Woman won the Oscar for Foreign Language film earlier this month. The award is usually reserved for either a complex art film from an acknowledged auteur or a more conventional film that deals with a subject with which Academy voters can readily identify. A Fantastic Woman leans towards the latter in terms of its narrative. The voting seems to reflect a change in the constituency of Academy voters, so that a film focusing on a transgender woman receives support in the same way that a film about a gay African-American boy growing to be a man won Best Picture in 2017. Having said that, the director of A Fantastic Woman, Sebastián Lelio, had already won recognition for his earlier film Gloria in 2013 which was nominated and won prizes at many international film festivals. He also invests his new film with melodrama symbolism that wouldn’t appear in a mainstream film. I make these observations because when a film makes a splash in the global market place like A Fantastic Woman it becomes subject to a different range of critics and reviewers as well as general audiences and I’ve noted a few odd reactions in this case.

Marina and Orlando (Francisco Reyes) together on the dance-floor

I saw A Fantastic Woman in a preview screening a couple of weeks before its UK release. I deliberately avoided reading about the film before the screening. All I knew was that the woman of the title was transgender. I was then surprised that the film screening was preceded by the director introducing his film direct to camera. The screening was in Picturehouses’ ‘Discover Tuesdays’ slot so I wondered if this was a satellite transmission to Picturehouses cinemas around the country (the sound levels were very high). If so, I was bemused to discover that A Fantastic Woman was distributed in the UK by Picturehouses’ rival Curzon Artificial Eye. Anyway, I tried to ignore the director’s statement because I wanted to experience the film ‘cold’. My cool response soon warmed up. As the star of the film, Daniela Vega is indeed ‘fantastic’.

I enjoyed the film very much. I haven’t seen many of the growing number of recent films that feature transgender characters and I’m not particularly aware of transgender issues, so my response to the film is mainly based on my reaction to the prejudice displayed towards Marina and the character’s strength and determination to live her life. I’ve seen some criticism that the prejudice seems to be simply ‘too much’. Would people really act like that? But perhaps this view doesn’t take into account the situation in Chile?

Marina is not allowed into the emergency room where Orlando is dying

The narrative structure of the film is straightforward. We watch a couple – a younger woman and an older man – out for a celebration of the woman’s birthday. They return home and make love but early in the morning the man becomes unwell and then dies in hospital. When the woman brings her lover to the hospital she is treated with suspicion – the hospital won’t accept her name, ‘Marina’, because it must be her nickname, not her ‘real’ name. What follows are a series of humiliations for a woman who has just experienced the death of her lover. From here on in, the narrative follows the logic of a neorealist film. Marina is barred by her lover’s family from attending his funeral and his cremation. She must try to assert her right to be there and to physically make her presence felt. That’s the story, with a coda when we discover how she acts once the cremation has taken place.

The level of distrust of Marina (is she a gold-digger?) added to the prejudice of ignorance about her sexual identity might seem excessive but Chile appears to be a country with a great contradiction at the centre of its modern society. The legacy of the Pinochet years of fascist repression lingers in a country which also seems visibly caught between the sparkling new modern architecture of parts of Santiago (where the film is set) and other parts of the same city which represent earlier times. Marina is a ‘new woman’ faced with her lover’s family who reveal the prejudices of a traditional society with young men who display machismo and Orlando’s ex-wife  who displays her class hatred for Marina (which is arguably misplaced anyway). Not everyone in Orlando’s family is so aggressively anti but the vitriol and violence of the younger males is the most disturbing element. Outside the family, it is the response of hospital and police staff (‘following orders’) that most invokes the Pinochet years. I won’t spoil the narrative further, but there are conscious humiliations designed to unsettle and throw into doubt personal identity.

Sebastián Lelio presents Marina’s story as a melodrama, which is fine by me, but risks alienating some modern audiences. He himself declares that

” . . . It’s a romance film, a ghost film, a fantasy film, a film about humiliation and revenge, a document of reality, a character study (from the Sony Classics Press Notes).

It is all of these, but its presentation is via melodrama. The film uses music carefully and its score is by the British electronic music composer Matthew Herbert (see this webpage to listen to the main title). Marina herself is a singer, training to sing operatic arias such as Handel’s ‘Ombra mai fu’ from his 1738 opera Xerxes. It was written for a castrato but I’m not sure how to classify Daniela Vega’s voice in the film’s version of her performance – it is presumably some form of soprano voice? There are several fantasy sequences but the most obvious melodrama symbolism is in the repeated ‘mirror shots’, some of which are very inventive. The mirror image, especially when Marina looks into the mirror and sees her ‘split’ identity.

One of several ‘mirror image’ shots

Daniela Vega, who ‘transitioned’ when she was an older teenager, was originally approached as a transgender ‘consultant’ for the film’s production before taking up the role of the central character. I’m so glad she got the chance to perform in this role which I suspect will go down as a highly significant role in global cinema. Go and see the film – you won’t be disappointed. And if you don’t have a tear in your eye when the scene below plays out, I’ll be very surprised:

If you need any more persuading, here’s the official trailer:

GFF18 #7: A Ciambra (Italy-US 2017)

Pio with his young nephews in Ciambra

Ciambra is a small settlement in Calabria in Southern Italy (close to Gioia Tauro) with a large extended Roma family involved in various ‘marginal’ and ‘illegal’ activities. The youngest son in the family is 14 year-old Pio (Pio Amato). Not much older than his own nephews and nieces, Pio is conscious of needing to grow up quickly to be like his much older brother and to get away from the scrutiny of his mother, the matriarch of the family. This sounds like it will be a conventional coming-of-age story, but there is more to it than that. This isn’t a Mafia/Cammora/’Ndràngheta story. Ciambria is an isolated community – more like an isolated encampment than part of a city. Pio goes into the town or to other small communities but avoids mainstream criminals. The Roma boy is concerned about territories and identities. (The real Gioia Tauro is only a small town but it has been associated with ‘Ndràngheta and it has the largest container port in Italy.)

The isolated community

Writer-director Jonas Carpignano (born & schooled in New York, lives in Italy) made a big impression with his first feature Mediterranea (Italy 2015) about the problems of two African migrants coming to Italy. His reward was to be selected as one of the first to benefit from Martin Scorsese’s fund for younger filmmakers and a subsequent offer of support from Sundance. His starting point was to go for the ‘authenticity’ of non-professionals and the whole Roma family appear to be playing themselves if the credits are to be taken at face value. Fairly early on it becomes clear that Pio is not quite like the older members of the family – though he may be a throwback to his grandfather, the man who established the community in the area and who is still around at the start of the narrative. After the screening and after researching Mediterranea (which only got a DVD release in the UK and which I haven’t seen), I realised that Pio and his African friend Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) feature in both films, though whether as the same characters I’m not sure.

A Ciambra was screened in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and was chosen as the Italian entrant for the Foreign Language Film Oscar so it has clearly made an impact. A good starting point might be to consider the extent to which the film refers back to neorealist studies of specific communities. Carpignano himself refers in this interview to his childhood memories of De Sica and Rossellini and the kids in their films. Jonathan Romney has referred to Visconti’s La terra trema (1948) because of that film’s similar focus on a tightly-knit community in Sicily. Many critics have tried to place the film in relation to that Italian tradition and more recent approaches. The Dardenne brothers post Rosetta (1999) is one touchstone but I’ve tended to see them as slightly removed from classic neorealism. Carpignano uses his non-professionals filmed on authentic locations and he inserts some traditional neorealist ‘lacks’ (problems) that need to be sorted. This mainly means finding sources of money from increasingly ambitious petty crimes to solve various problems faced by the extended family. Unfortunately, Pio’s education is in stealing credit cards and copper wire and trying to grow up to be like his brother. He has to get another young person to read the messages on his phone because he hasn’t had time to learn to read. There isn’t a great deal of plot but Pio’s ‘coming of age’ comes in a final sequence which I found very distressing. But as my viewing partner pointed out what we were offered is a reality in Italy.

Ayiva and Pio

Jonas Carpignano has an Italian father and an African-American mother. This may be a reason why he began his feature film career with a story about African migrants and why in his second film he shows both the mixed race children in the Roma family and the African community in another small community that Pio is drawn towards by his friend Ayiva. The Africans are mainly from Nigeria and Ghana and they speak English as a common language, that is also used by Ayiva from Burkina Faso. The reality is that in the pecking order in Calabria, the Roma come below the Italians and the Africans are below the Roma. Neorealism can be developed as melodrama and this true to a certain extent in A Ciambra which has plenty of music on the soundtrack and a range of emotional relationships. But it also has its own element of ‘magic realism’ in the hallucinations that Pio experiences concerning his grandfather. I thought at first these came from heavy dope smoking – when Pio first sees the horse I thought of a similar moment in La haine (France 1995) when Vinz sees a cow in his housing estate. But then it occurred to me that the fantasies came because of the pressure suffered by Pio. There is a sense that Pio is his grandfather re-born and that he could rise above his misdeeds. I hope so. It’s very difficult not to warm to Pio as a character. He’s 14 years-old and frightened of travelling on a train – he’s not a gangster.

A Ciambria is photographed by Tim Curtin who also lensed Mediterranea and was in the camera unit on Beasts of the Southern Wild (US 2012), another film I haven’t seen. I mention it here because Jonas Carpignano was an assistant director on that film which also included in its crew the film editor and music composer of A Ciambra, Affonso Gonçalves and Dan Romer. I’m pleased to report that Peccadillo Pictures has picked up A Ciambra for a UK release in May. It’s well worth a watch. IFC/Sundance Selects released the film in the US in January: