1970s, Drama, Italian cinema

La Luna (1979)

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Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

By Roderick Heath

Bernardo Bertolucci’s career took some peculiar turns in the 1970s and 80s, after the tremendous international success of The Conformist (1970) and Last Tango in Paris (1973) made him a cinema artist of worldwide reputation. He courted an international audience and utilised Hollywood money and stars whilst avoiding becoming a Hollywood director, producing ambitious oddities like 1900 (1976) and La Luna, one of his least-known and -regarded films. The fact that Bertolucci came from a cross-cultural background—his father was Italian, and his mother Australian—perhaps indicates why he was increasingly eager to portray characters trapped between two worlds, feeling like strangers within their own milieu, and meeting other lost souls across great divides. Simultaneously, his recurring obsessions with sexuality and family dynamics dovetailed in La Luna, a rich, intriguing, but also sprawling and diffuse film.

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One of Bertolucci’s core gifts is his ability to take on seamy and taboo subjects whilst not making a show of his own daring; instead, he conjures an intelligent, muted beauty, as if to say, “This, too, is humanity.” He was, therefore, primed to find rich expression in the tale of a mother who, eager to save her son from drug addiction and eddying in a vague space of grief after the death of her husband and his adopted father, distracts him with incestuous grappling. The mother, Caterina Silveri (Jill Clayburgh), is an American opera star with roots in Italy, where she had an affair with a young man, Giuseppe (Tomas Milian), that produced her son Joe (Matthew Barry). At the very opening, she’s playing with her young son, but then distresses him by leaving him aside to dance to sugary pop music with Giuseppe, while Giuseppe’s mother (Alida Valli) idly bangs away on the piano in their seaside house. Later, Caterina travels the deserted road back to Rome under the moonlight with her son perched in the handlebar basket.

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Some 15 years later, Caterina’s living in New York with her manager husband Douglas (Fred Gwynne). As Caterina and Douglas prepare to go to Italy for a series of engagements, Joe doesn’t want to be left alone, first pleading with his mother to come with her, and then with Douglas to stay behind. Douglas, however, dies from ambiguous causes just before departure, and both Caterina and Joe attempt to put the death behind them immediately. Joe accompanies her to Italy, where she throws herself into her singing, achieving new heights of acclaim for her performance in Il Trovatore. Joe, on the other hand, spirals downward, hanging about with a motley collection of school friends; at his birthday party, Caterina comes across him shooting up heroin with the aid of his girlfriend Arianna (Elisabetta Campeti). Joe and Caterina have an explosive argument, and he leaves to wander about Rome purposelessly, only to then collapse in sickness when he returns home. Caterina, deciding to save her son by any means necessary, tracks down Joe’s supplier, a young, disarmingly philosophical Muslim boy, named Mustafa (Stéphane Barat), to buy some heroin and tend to Joe as he recovers at home.

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Caterina travels to Parma to seek the advice of her former mentor, now that Joe’s addiction has made her want to give up singing, but she finds him decrepit and senile. Joe follows her to Parma. Caterina is inspired to try to find a house where she and Douglas once lived, and also shows Giuseppe Verdi’s house to an uninterested Joe. After a spat and a busted tyre, Joe drives off with the car and leaves Caterina stranded, but she soon gets a lift from a good-natured, self-declared Communist (Renato Salvatori). She has him stop at a small inn when she spies her car parked out front, and she and her benefactor lunch and flirt as a glowering, pensive Joe looks on. But she quickly rids herself of her new friend to resume her efforts to keep Joe on a hook, renting a room where they have a brief, violent clinch before he loses his temper at her and goes to shoot up instead. Caterina eventually seems to determine that the best way to help Joe is to fill the hole left by the loss of Douglas by offering him the chance to see his true father, Giuseppe.

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Bertolucci essays the incestuous encounters not so much as manifesting true sexual desire, as much as a plunge back into the infantile physical intimacy of mother and son. He depicts that kind of intimacy in the opening when Caterina playfully smears honey over baby Joe and herself (one of their later, frantic encounters sees Joe licking his mother’s face). The instinct toward such physical communion is the only tool Caterina has for helping Joe through a calamitous phase in his life: she, in essence, endeavours to raise him again by reverting their relationship back to basics, as Caterina tries to obey her best intuitions after a life of being coddled and rewarded for childish behaviour. Bertolucci had explored the same idea through different motifs in Last Tango in Paris, with the womb of the apartment, lack of names, and sexual communion a rejection of adult identity and attempt through regressive states to reconstitute the self following calamity. On the other hand, Caterina theorises that Giuseppe’s inability to support her wish for singing career and adapt to her character was due to his actually being in love with his mother.

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Joe and Caterina are a peculiar and far from instantly empathetic pairing. Caterina’s a diva in the technical and familiar senses of the word, not really feeling guilty for finding fresh artistic inspiration after her husband’s death. She takes over Joe’s birthday party as a spectacle for herself, dancing energetically and offering up self-important nostalgia: “Back in the Sixties we believed in…things!” Joe, for his part, seems generally forlorn, needy, and emotionally bereft, but has moments of familiarly noxious junkie self-pity and showy self-destruction. Their battle/affair/treatment begins when she, after trying to be calm and pleasant after discovering his habit, asks him if Arianna, his “fat-assed little hippie friend,” is his supplier, and he, irritated beyond words, struts over to the TV and kicks it in with deliberate fury.

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La Luna sports barely any firm narrative, as characters flounder in trying to find a way out of their no-man’s-land. In this way the film is composed like a mosaic of vignettes, some funny, some revealing: Joe catching Douglas drinking in the middle of the day; Caterina rebuking Mustafa for selling “poison” and demanding to know why he doesn’t get a real job, and then snorting in derision when he explains he doesn’t keep any alcohol because it’s against his religion; a junk-addled Joe entering a Roman bar, playing the Bee Gees’ “Night Fever” on the jukebox, and commencing a disco jive, only to be grasped in an enthusiastic embrace by an apparently gay spiv (Franco Citti). The woozy rhythms of the lengthy scene between Caterina and Joe after her discovery of his habit are memorably etched, swinging from moments of nervy companionship, like when he begins to beat out a boogie on her newly delivered piano, to physical brawling.

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Likewise, some of Bertolucci’s images are affecting in their almost musical flow, like the surreally beautiful glimpse of the moon through the opening skylight of a movie theatre that reminds Joe to attend his mother’s premiere, or the flotilla of dreamily gliding skateboarders he and his friends pass in their car in the streets of Rome, a moment which anticipates the richly aesthetic visions of youth culture in Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, a work that shares other affinities with this film. A smart framing early in the film separates Joe and Douglas by the frame of a doorway as the young man appeals for companionship, and Bertolucci conjures a weird moment in which, after Douglas’ funeral, Joe and Caterina, conversing in the back of the limousine that brought them, realise they’re being stared at by onlookers like some starfucking edition of a zombie movie.

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Bertolucci often returned to the theme of the peripatetic man at the mercy of wayward sexual and emotional impulses, in desperate search for an effective paternal figure, and the script he wrote here with his brother Giuseppe Bertolucci and Clare Peploe is no exception. The final half-hour portrays Joe’s tentative approach to Giuseppe, who’s now a schoolteacher much beloved of his young pupils: Joe, dissembling, misinforms him and his mother that his son by Caterina has died of an overdose. Giuseppe demands this weird visitor leave, but he follows him to the Baths of Caracalla where Caterina is rehearsing for an outdoor performance, and family—Caterina, Giuseppe, Joe and Arianna—are reunited still sporting bruises real and emotional. Bertolucci’s amused insight into the processes of creation and the solipsism of artists, which he aimed at filmmakers in Last Tango, finds some further scope here in the glimpses of the tack-and-tinsel world of opera, noting the clever illusions used in the staging of Il Trovatore whilst the singers wield their very real talents, and such bizarre moments as when the singers rehearse at Caracalla draped in masking muslin to protect their costumes, and somehow evoking the chrysalis from which the characters must soon rip free.

If La Luna remains a minor film in Bertolucci’s career, finally, it’s because the project as essayed seems somehow misconceived. For all the fascinating elements and moments of marvellous humanity throughout, it never gains shape or compulsive force, as if Bertolucci wanted to tell two different, irreconcilable varieties of story. His expansive, experimental approach to realising this tale, which could too easily turn either sentimental or repulsive, is brave, but the concussive hysteria inherent in the central plot conceit is only occasionally realised. Bertolucci’s desire to contrast the languorous beauty of the Italian campagna and the soaring aspirations of high art against down-and-dirty truths of human existence remain opaque and lack force, in large part because the characters never entirely materialise: what each person means to themselves and to others and what others mean to them remains strangely ill-defined.

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Although both Clayburgh, one of the most accomplished actresses of the time, and Barry, an ingénue who did little else, both give fine performances, I could never quite shake the feeling they were miscast in their American niceness. Clayburgh doesn’t suggest the improvisational zeal that might have turned Caterina into as vivid a female counterpart to Brando’s grieving, aging wunderkind in Last Tango, though that’s also because her character just isn’t as detailed. That said, she’s got some terrific moments, her performance full of finite shifts of mood and intent. Barry, too, is terrific in moments like the barroom scene, his shaggy, boyish enthusiasm entirely at odds with his all-too-grown-up vices and eddying pain. The ambling, yearning structure, funnelling finally towards the unification at Caracalla, explains, but doesn’t entirely excuse, the rambling nature of the film. Nonetheless, the staging of the finale is some bravura work on Bertolucci’s part, as the characters meet amidst the flurrying performers, Giuseppe, upon realising that Joe is his son, roundly delivering him a slap in the face that Joe quietly takes as a fatherly beatification, whilst Caterina finds her voice again and the cast of the opera rise in unison. Life and art unite in a moment of fitting fulfilment.

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2000s, Drama, Korean cinema

Oldboy (2003)

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Director: Park Chan-wook

By Roderick Heath

Revenge is an ugly thing, and the violence used to accomplish it grotesque and self-consuming. Such is the truism nearly as old in literature as literature itself. Sophocles and Euripides evoked the theme. Shakespeare and the Jacobeans interrogated it in depth. Park Chan-wook stomps it into the ground. Many critics, discussing films like this, pass that notion around as if it’s something original and newly crucial. Of course, questions of revenge and films about it gained a curious urgency after 9/11 and the general atmosphere of the War on Terror. Suddenly, men and women were mercilessly ripping their way through hordes of bad guys, looking en route into their own hearts of darkness in films as diverse and tonally incompatible as Kill Bill, Man on Fire, The Punisher, Spider-Man and on and on, and schoolmarmish worry faces were made by critics and filmmakers like the excruciatingly boring Michael Haneke, pointing out that our love of onscreen violence is feeding into our general bloodlust and making us tools of political violence.

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The ethical problem that ought to be examined, and yet often remains unexamined is what is the difference between justice and revenge? If justice is not forthcoming, is revenge permissible? Do they not share the same philosophical roots in social theory? Is not the idea that what goes around comes around central to all notions of communal existence? What are our moral concerns anyway? What do we wish to defend? Do we wish to defend anything? Without gods to command us, how and why do we maintain standards of human decency? With gods to command us, how do we balance our duty to moral prescription with a merely human desire for evening the score and protecting the security of our lives? None of these questions will be answered by watching a Chan-wook Park film.

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Chan-wook is a fashionable figure, and Oldboy is currently sitting at #118 on the IMDb’s Top 250 list. His Vengeance trilogy—Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002), Oldboy (2003), and Lady Vengeance (2005)—are something like Stations of the Cross for their maker, a devout Catholic. But his films must not in any way, shape, or form be mistaken for ethical or theological investigations: they are sadomasochistic engines of masturbation for violence freaks pretending to be moral fables, each of them acts of unadorned savagery served out by ludicrous characters in ludicrous situations. Normally, I’d let that stand. To engage and work through our darker notions is one of the primal attractions of the cinema—and art in general. Art has no imperative to be moral or even fair. It’s all about context and balance. Of the Vengeance trilogy, the most bearable is Lady Vengeance, chiefly because the central character is the best-conceived avatar of Chan-wook’s concerns, a woman who balances saintliness and devilishness in equal proportions, lets each fight within her, and channels a century’s worth of onscreen feminine martyrs into her image in the process.

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Oldboy, at the other extreme, is one of the worst, most repugnant, pointless, and wrongheaded films I’ve ever sat through. Two hours of imprisonment, teeth-pulling, bone cracking, hammer beatings, stick lashings, incestuous couplings, tongue-slicing, and altogether merciless assault on all human nature could be withstood and even admired if any of it made a lick of sense. But the film’s Jacobean excesses are merely that—excesses. There’s no sense of rhythm or steady ground where the yardsticks needed to care can be planted. What any of this means in terms of society and the individual, which even in a play as bad as Titus Andronicus is still the vital question, is never suggested. Oldboy exists in a vacuum of cause and effect, meaning and imperative.

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Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-sik) is a tipsy, talkative businessman who, after being briefly picked up by the cops with his friend No Joo-hwan (Ji Dae-han), makes a phone call home to his daughter and then vanishes. He’s been spirited inside a strange prison cell that has been decorated like a normal apartment, where he spends the next 15 years being subjected to occasional gassings and hypnotism. With a television as his only friend, he learns a lot from it, endlessly imitating the fights he watches on it and becoming an adept martial artist. Right at the point when he manages to carve a hole in the wall, he’s released, awakening on a rooftop inside a suitcase. Stumbling through the world, he enters a sushi restaurant and encounters a pretty young chef, Mido (Kang Hye-jeong), and faints after consuming a live octopus and receiving an enigmatic phone call from his antagonist.

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Mido inexplicably takes this middle-aged weirdo in and aids him as he contacts Joo-hwan and sets about tracking down his enemy. He locates the imprison-your-enemy business run by Park Cheol-woong (Dal-su Oh), whose teeth he rips out to extract information about who had him locked up there before battling his way out through a horde of Park’s thugs. Dae-su never suspects that his quarry is a step ahead of him all the time, set on leading him and Mido into the most grotesque of traps. Dae-Su’s persecutor proves to be someone who went to the same school, Evergreen (their alumni homepage is called “Evergreen Old Boys”). He is one Woo-jin Lee (Yu Ji-tae), a tycoon who has sought to destroy Dae-Su’s life because Dae-Su had, in a youthful moment he had forgotten, spied Lee and his sister Lee Soo-ah (Yun Jin-seo) engaged in an incestuous relationship. He had told Joo-hwan, and rumours spread that resulted in Soo-ah’s suicide.

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In addition to the past 15 years of intolerable punishment, Lee has contrived an extra penitence in a twist I saw coming from, oh, about 40 minutes earlier: he had used hypnotism to make Dae-Su and Mido to fall in love because, yes, Mido is Dae-Su’s daughter. And so, rather than ripping out Lee’s windpipe, as would be permissible, Dae-Su is reduced to begging him not to reveal the truth to Mido, and he cuts out his own tongue as a totem of his apology for destroying Lee and his sister’s lives. Lee commits suicide, and Dae-Sun undergoes hypnotherapy to forget the truth, allowing him and Mido to walk off into the sunset.

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I doubt the Oldboy cult is really about much more than the visceral thrill of teenagers (of all ages) the world over cooing at the consumption of squirming tentacles and hammer-claw dentistry. Oldboy is undoubtedly strong filmmaking, in a kind of tricky, live-action cartoon fashion, down to the already famous and influential corridor fight, staged in a single shot that must have tested the mettle of its actors to the limits. But it lacks that cool, Kurosawa-influenced realism that made Mr. Vengeance drag me along to an equally nihilistic end, nor the fairly well-judged stylisation of Lady Vengeance, which helped me swallow a rather over-large horse pill of a conceit. Nor is the filmmaking actually radical enough in style and concept to assault the audience’s perceptions of the politics of power, gender, and society, as in, for instance, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967).

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Links that might have been fashioned between Lee’s position as a corporate captain and Dae-su’s status as a self-deluding victim of a TV-fed consumer culture just aren’t there. It’s possible that in Korean society, where many citizens have been kidnapped and held for decades across the border, this is a more vivid anxiety than anywhere else. But there’s no political context: this is pure rat-in-a-maze taunting. Lee’s a gothic supervillain with incest on his mind, hiding in his penthouse, just like Mason Verger, the alternate villain of Hannibal (2001). Rather than build up to anything chilling, or cathartic, or even trashily entertaining, it’s all an adolescent monument to asking what more the audience is willing to put up with. It contains dark humour, and yet totally lacks the playfulness and meta-narrative irony that made the often equally dark Kill Bill bearable, nor does it have Tarantino’s sense of characterisation.

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That it doesn’t know when to quit is the real problem, pushing to an unbearable finale in which Dae-su grovels, sings his old school song, and generally tries everything up to and including taking the scissors to his tongue to elicit an iota of relenting from the truly monstrous Lee Woo-jin, a sequence that completely used up any sympathy I had for Park’s films. It’s supposed to be crucial that Dae-su is willing to do anything to prevent his daughter know she’s in love with her father. But the cumulative effect is so viciously, unremittingly hateful that it directs my hate neatly at the people responsible for the movie. “A grain of sand or a stone, they both sink in a river” goes the maxim that Lee quotes to Dae-Su. “Don’t diddle your sister in a schoolroom and expect to get away with it forever,” is the apt response, but no one gets around to that. In fact, there’s very little sophistication to the narrative at all. The characters are flat and absurd, their emotions inflated and yet unconvincing; the visual storytelling is sometimes opaque, but only in an irritating way; the hero’s decisions and actions are often startlingly senseless; and, even for a film that knows it’s absurd, the plot is incredibly opportunistic.

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Park’s moral propositions are consistently, offensively stupid, from letting a bunch of hysterical parents cut bits off a paedophile murderer in Lady Vengeance to this nonsensical cavalcade of disproportion. Whatever commentary is supposed to be garnered is nullified by the total tone-deafness of nuance and scale. Much like the childish reductions of Old Testament brimstone and audience-taunting anti-climaxes in films like Se7en (1995), the endless Saw series, and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), where justice is cheated either through its insufficient or misdirected application, Park’s philosophical level never rises above the schoolyard, bullying his viewers into bending in reaction to his provocations and dulling their brains into stupefied nonresponse.

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