Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Foreign movie-fest: The Golden Coach, Rome - Open City, Rocco and His Brothers, Faust, and Cairo Station

Roberto Rosselini's Rome, Open City (1945) was made in impossible circumstances: work began on the script just two months after the Germans had been forced from the city, the modest funds ran out almost at once, as did film stock, and the production soon ground to a halt. Then an obliging American soldier provided Rossellini with various odds and ends of US Signal Corps film stock, which had been discarded because it might be damaged, and thereby got the whole thing rolling again. Which is fortunate, because it's a truly compelling movie - in large measure due to its necessarily low production values. The vast majority of the actors were amateurs, the production was extremely rough, and it had to be shot on location because Cinecittà Studios weren't functioning. Like Rossellini's Germany Year Zero (1948), shot in the heap of rubble that Berlin had been reduced to, Rome, Open City feels extraordinarily real:

The amateur actors do a great job, but the acting honours go to two of the professionals - Anna Magnani, who's about to marry a resistance fighter, and Aldo Fabrizi, who plays a priest who agrees to help the resistance by passing on money and messages. Not only did the movie kick off the Italian neo-realist film movement (despite the fact that it initially failed to excite the home audience, which hankered for escapism), but it led to some major American productions abandoning the studio for the streets of New York (The Naked City, parts of The Lost Weekend) and New Orleans (Panic in the Streets).

Elements of neo-realism (and communist sympathies) were still evident in Luchino Visconti's 1960 film, Rocco and His Brothers, shot on location mainly in the grimy, industrial parts of Milan, the city to which a dirt-poor family - a mother and her five sons - decamp from the rural South after the father dies. The city offers possibilities - two of the sons become boxers - but the pressures of existence, the hostility of the locals to "lazy" peasant incomers, and the myriad fleshly temptations on offer result in the family tearing itself apart: one of the brothers becomes an alcoholic and murders his former girlfriend, a prostitute, while the unbelievably saintly brother (Alain Delon) finds that everything he does to help his family actually makes things worse. It's grimy and gritty and, with its frank treatment of prostitution and predatory homosexual behaviour, it goes further than American and British films were allowed to at the time. Being Italian, there's an awful lot of shouting and wailing and emoting (Katina Paxinou as the mother is the worst offender - the brothers all give decent performances, but Paxinou is a walking/screaming/collapsing cliché):
I watched it with my son, and assumed he'd slope off quite quickly (I wasn't convinced I'd last the course either) - but he stayed for the full three hours, and evidently enjoyed it as much as I did. I could have done with more Claudia Cardinale, though - a waste of utter gorgeousness, if you ask me.
I saw Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach (1952) for the first time last night, and what an uplifting treat it proved to be. An Italian commedia dell'arte troupe arrives in a remote town in Spanish-controlled 18th century Peru. That flashing-eyed, wasp-waisted, big-bosomed force of nature, Anna Magnani (the troupe's Columbine), soon finds herself being pursued by three randy swains - the local viceroy, the region's top bullfighter, and Felipe, who is travelling with the players. The floppy, effete viceroy - played superbly by the English actor Duncan Lamont - who later specialised in peasants, innkeepers and policemen in Hammer films - has squandered public funds on a golden coach as a present for his mistress, but, then falls in love with hot-blooded Anna, and gives the coach to her instead. This arouses the ire of the local aristos, who threaten to have him removed from his post unless he gets it back. On paper it's very much not my sort of film - and yet I couldn't take my eyes off it, and I was sorry when it ended: partly because it's so visually gorgeous, but mainly because its essential sex-farce silliness is so benign, so good-hearted. There are Italian and English versions in existence, but the English version is the official one (when I say English, I don't mean it's badly dubbed - as far as I could tell, all the actors are speaking in English). The clips available on YouTube are poor - this is the best I could do:

Talking of pleasant surprises, I watched my first Egyptian film this morning - Cairo Station (1958), directed by Youssef Chahine, which featured in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. I agree with the book - it's excellent. A seriously sexually-frustrated newspaper seller (played by the director), who cuts pictures of scantily-clad girls out of magazines and pins them on the wall of his squalid hut, fantasises about marrying one of the young women who clamber aboard departing trains and illegally sell soft drinks to travellers. But he's no oil painting, he's lame, he hasn't got any money, and he's not right in the head: besides, the sexy minx is engaged to the big, charismatic chap who's trying to get the station porters to set up a union. After stringing him along for a bit, the girl rejects the newspaper vendor's advances, and calls him a gimp. Prompted by a news story about a female torso found in a trunk at a nearby station, he buys a very large knife and sets about luring the girl he loves to a deserted warehouse...

The location shots are fascinating, religion is only mentioned in order to poke fun at a group of purse-lipped Islamic fundamentalists who disapprove of lively young Egyptians of both sexes in Western clothes flirting and dancing to pop music, the pace is fast, the rapidly unravelling gimp becomes genuinely scary, there's plenty of tension and heaps of background colour and social commentary and sexual frankness, the ending is a nail-biter... and I loved it. (Naturally, it was banned in Egypt for either 12 or 20 years, depending on which website you believe.) I can't find any decent clips, so here's the whole film:

The silent German film Faust (1926) was the last movie directed in Germany by F.W, Murnau, who had made the horror classic Nosferatu in 1922, and would create another silent cinema masterpiece, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, in America in 1927. Faust is another silent film masterpiece. Yes, Emil Jannings, who plays Mephisto as a sort of porky, sadistic, bullying boy, is a bit OTT - but, after all, this was 1926 - while Gösta Ekman, as both the young and the old Faust, and Camilla Horn as Greta, the charming girl whom Faust falls in love with, are both very good. The film was produced at the famous UFA film studios, and the special effects were beyond cutting edge for their day (although they would be superseded for the studio's production of Metropolis the following year). Unfortunately, Faust proved so expensive it recorded a huge loss - but that doesn't alter the fact that it was one of the three undoubted masterpieces produced by Murnau (who, sadly, died at the age of 43 in a Santa Barbara hospital the day after the 14-year old Filipino servant boy driving a Rolls Royce hired by the director wrapped it around an electric pole.) Here's the whole film (the early scenes in which Mephisto - in the form of a vast black bat - casts plague upon Faust's home town as the opening gambit in his attempt to capture this righteous man's soul are particularly impressive):


  1. There's something about post war European movies up to the 1960's which I can't quite put my finger on.
    I remember we all felt ever so sophisticated watching directors like Fellini work their surrealist magic into the very fabric of cinemaphotograhy and then it all disappeared as suddenly as it had arrived.
    Thanks for reminding me.

    1. I agree, Southern Man. Any suggestions as to why that should have been? British films which followed did not seem to take up the baton.

  2. I don't know Helen you'd have to ask the experts.
    Supermac took the nation's pulse and declared "you've never had it so good."
    Even Steptoe (the younger one) debated Fellini's Eight and an 'arf.
    There was something in the air call it what you will - a yearning for the exotic which Bond and other films like it managed to fulfil. Steptoe's wistful hopes of self improvement would have to be put on the back burner.