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DVD Review

DVD Review: The Secret of Santa Vittoria (Dir. Stanley Kramer, 1969)

Fermented grape juice is a special kind of elixir, even Shakespeare was a fan of crushing a cup and some, one could argue, might go to extreme lengths for a glass of vino, maybe even a bottle… or million. Stanley Kramer’s The Secret of Santa Vittoria opens with Fabio (Giancarlo Giannini) rushing home to deliver good news, il Duce has been ousted from the NFP. Sadly, the young man’s enthusiasm isn’t met in quite the way he was hoping as most of Santa Vittoria does not understand what the end of Fascism means for them but Mussolini has gone and the Germans are on their way, led by Captain von Prum (Hardy Krüger) and will take whatever they like.

The film is set in a generic wine-producing region of Italy (in approximately 1943 although made some 25 years later) where the men drink and their wives are seen but generally not heard, a real “Boys Club”. Bombolini (Anthony Quinn) is one man whose wife, Rosa (Anna Magnani) insists on being heard. She runs the inn with her husband and is at the end of her rope; she loved him once but cannot remember exactly when. He’s well liked amongst the other hard-drinkers and they encourage him to put “a fist in her mouth” mainly because “it’s a sad house when the cock is silent and the hen does all the crowing.” Ah, domestic violence is hilarious, isn’t it? Especially when a film normalises women hitting men but the threat against women is somehow more shocking. To be fair, in this film, neither gender comes off particularly well. Fragile masculinity is personified in Quinn’s Bombolini, he is – not to put too finer point on it – an idiot and the townspeople make him Mayor *because* he’s a fool which bodes well. Predictably, the title and gold medallion leads the clown to think he’s arrived, and Rosa will suddenly become obedient. Almost immediately, we realise this is not the case but he does cease drinking and successfully hides the bulk of the fruits of their labour/vinification.

There are a couple of subplots which largely deal with the love lives of three female characters: Signora Rosa, Caterina (Virna Lisa) – who returns to the village after the death of her Fascist husband but then falls in love with injured soldier Tufa (Sergio Franchi) who she nurses back to health, and who also happens to be a Fascist. However, as he’s a peasant from Santa Vittoria she’s willing to turn a blind-eye. Rounding off the trio is Rosa and Italo’s daughter, Angela (Patrizia Valturri). She’s in love with Fabio but is only interested in sex, not marriage.

One of the major niggles with The Secret of Santa Vittoria is it hasn’t aged well. Its politics are muddled and archaic, it never leads with a message or knows exactly what it wants to say, it does pick up pace – how the townspeople shift the million bottles of wine is quite something albeit disbelief suspending – and the jaunty and affable score is enjoyable but none of it is affecting, surprising or particularly spontaneous. It functions as a huge Hollywood production, structured to within an inch of its life. It isn’t a musical but would have worked very well as one.

The saving grace is Anna Magnani, in her last English-speaking role. Her powerful demeanour and beautiful imperious face never falters; it’s worth watching all the way through just to see that world-class grimace break into a grin. She was a stunning actress and here makes the most of the material given – by no means a stretch – she’s wonderful as the tough and feisty Rosa, the only downside is she’s not given nearly enough screen-time.

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is a pleasant, mostly entertaining fare; perfect Sunday afternoon viewing, with, of course, a quaffable glass of red.

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Review

Review: Sicilian Ghost Story (Dir. Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza, 2017)

Fabio Grassadonia and Antonio Piazza’s Sicilian Ghost Story begins dialogue-free as Luna (Julia Jedlikowska) follows the object of her adolescent affection into the woods which surround school. Giuseppe (Gaetano Fernandez) is a gentle soul who adores video games, football and horses – all the things that cement their burgeoning love. On this particular day, Luna’s ‘White Knight’ saves her from a rabid Rottweiler albeit in a crisp white shirt and grey trousers – as opposed to armour – but it’s a nice nod to Marco Mancassola’s short story in We Won’t Be Confused Foreverfrom which the film is derived.

The young couple’s time together displeases Luna’s strict and oppressive mother (Sabine Timoteo) who is framed as the Wicked Stepmother with her mild sauna compulsion, and made all the more severe by her 19th century-looking clothing. Mother and daughter relations are fractious at best therefore making it easier for Luna to rebel against later on. Her mother’s opinion means little to her, as she continues to skip school and spend her afternoons with Giuseppe. While this film has all the markings of a love story this aspect of the narrative never feels contrived nor does it overwhelm, it merely drives Luna in her quest to find Giuseppe when he suddenly disappears.

At its core, the film sets to retell the true story surrounding the kidnapping of Giuseppe Di Matteo in 1993 (the basis for Mancassola’s short story) yet does so in a completely unique way. It is steeped in mythology and fairy tale imagery – specifically reminiscent of Basile and the Brothers Grimm – as the symbolic manifests in Luna’s connection to Giuseppe, his abduction failing to ignite much concern among the adults around her. Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s fluid camera movement and expertise with low-angle shots and a distorted lens conveys the strange atmosphere and enforces the supernatural aspect of the young protagonists’ bond as they learn the cruelty of the world.

It is easy to compare Sicilian Ghost Story to Pan’s Labyrinth not least in the centring of a female protagonist fighting against a patriarchal force (here, the Mafia) and the juxtaposition of a childlike fairy tale fantasy with the harsher, violence realities of life, however, this has much more in common with the likes of Paperhouse (1988) and I’m Not Scared (2003). There are even aspects of the poliziotteschi genre despite the themes of innocence, experience, fantasy and reality explored through Luna’s point-of-view. She refuses to be silent and finds her voice, determined to locate what is lost. It’s a mature and assured central performance by the Polish-born Jedlikowska who carries this visually gorgeous feature more than capably on her shoulders.

There are not many pieces of work that can straddle so many genres but this allegorical coming-of-age-fantasy-romance-crime drama meditates on first love, rebellion, grief and tragedy. It takes elements of all those familiar genre motifs and fuses them so succinctly to create something unique and profoundly affecting; embracing the power of myth and philosophically laying ghosts to rest.

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Review

Review: Deliver Us (Dir. Federica Di Giacomo, 2016)

Cinematically, films featuring possession and the subsequent exorcism are ten-a-penny yet Federica Di Giacomo’s award-winning documentary Deliver Us [Liberami] deems to show how the ancient ritual is performed in a contemporary world. In the opening scene, which is chilling, a woman sits with her back to camera as a Priest anoints her with holy water. After he places his vestments on her head she wails and screams for the “bastard” to leave her alone and an almost secondary voice chuckles “she’s mine now.” Even if you stumbled across this documentary with little to no knowledge, it’s safe to say, this incapsulates the subject matter succinctly and effectively.

Father Cataldo Migliazzo is a sought-after Priest (and exorcist) in Palermo, people travel 150-200 km to attend his tiny Church and receive a blessing. Disturbingly, a lot seem to think they’re possessed – a child who refuses to go to school has parents who believe “a devil is inside of him”. A woman begins to cough and have, what appears to be, a panic attack and is taken into confession and, delivered from evil, and this is all before mass even begins. When it does, the “possessed” within the congregation hiss, spit and speak in tongues.

There is little doubt to these people’s beliefs, yet as they discuss what symptoms they present with, it becomes apparent that a lot can be explained away via human biology or medical tests. These vary from swearing, masturbation, seizures, drug addiction and depression to memories of child abuse. One even lists cervical pains, dizziness and exhaustion, another an unhappy marriage while one mentions schizophrenic episodes, and what could be epilepsy in a teenage girl. Yet, at no point are they directed to a medical professional – in shepherding their flock you would think that there is a duty of care. This is made all the more ridiculous (and hypocritical) when we see Cataldo’s medication spread across a table top for various ailments, right after he exorcises by telephone no less.

Unsurprisingly, almost all of those exhibiting signs of oppression are women. The patriarchal domination and control of women within the Catholic Church has almost become sacrosanct and this unspoken insinuation that women are weaker and the only ones susceptible to mental health issues leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Made all the more galling by a Father Carmine who tells a recently exorcised woman to laugh more, so to prevent another episode of oppression.

While Di Giacomo brings a neutrality to proceeding, there’s little judgement one way or the other and her film never strays into questioning faith or belief, there’s humour without ridicule and a melancholy as we follow these lost souls desperate to “cure” themselves. It is all too easy to condemn what is not understood, as ancient tradition and modern habits collide, which further plays on unnerving fear and delusion; the sacred and the profane, psychic and spiritual, disturbing and ludicrous.

However, it is in those last closing statistics which turns the fascinating (and somewhat infuriating) Liberami into a real-life horror – the increase of Priests who are now qualified to perform exorcisms within Dioceses across the world is staggering, and the indication that these numbers will continue to grow is absolutely terrifying. Federica Di Giacomo has produced a a stark work which fuses real-life with the absurd, proves that reality is more far more powerful than fiction, and leaves you with hope that all those lost souls are delivered from whatever ails them.

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Review

Review: Tale of Tales (Dir. Matteo Garrone, 2015)

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Long, long ago there lived a Queen (Salma Hayek); a desperate, seemingly infertile Queen who wished for a child more than anything. Her husband, the King (John C. Reilly) would (and does) do anything to make his love happy and provide her with the child she so yearns, and so begins Matteo Garrone’s (Reality, Gomorrah) first English language feature Tale of Tales. The tone of which is set from the very beginning as the King of Longtrellis wades into water to slay the sea monster and pluck out its heart thus providing his beloved with the bloody, and delicious, means to conception and the shortest gestation period ever. His untimely demise brings the neighbouring Kings; sex-crazed libertine Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) and sweet melancholic Highhills (Toby Jones) to the funeral procession, and all three kingdoms merge, intersect and ultimately influence the other as the triptych of tales unfurl, some sixteen years later.

Queenie is now mother to a teenage albino Elias (Christian Lees) – taking on the colouring of the sea beast – and who is spending a lot more time with his identical twin brother from another mother, Jonah (Jonah Lees). The Royal mother is overcome with envy as the two boys; one princely, one a pauper make adventures of their own.

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Strongcliff is a skin-crawling, somewhat beastly Don Juan-type whom women seem to grow tired of very quickly. Looking for another distraction, he hears a beautiful singing voice and follows it, mistaking an old crone (played respectively by Hayley Carmichael and Stacy Martin) for a beautiful Princess and so begins an obsessive courtship, of sorts, (through a door) chaperoned by her equally wrinkled sister Imma (Shirley Henderson).

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Highhills is a widower who as his only daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) matures becomes more attached to a flea than the fruit of his loins, and when said pet passes on (respiratory issues) provides a fun guessing game, the prize of which is the hand of Violet. Step forward the Ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) and the poor Princess is whisked away, under duress, to what essentially is a hole in a mountain.

While the majority of audiences – whether filmic and/or literary – will recognise the conventions, motifs, metaphors, plots and characters of the traditional fairy tale, they may even attribute to the Brothers Grimm. However, without putting too finer point on it; the Italians came first. Straparola inspired Giambattista Basile, upon whose tales –The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Old Woman Who Was Skinned– this film is loosely based. In his work, Basile, deployed the loquacious gifts of female storytellers while Garrone adapts to forefront the role of women in his carnivalesque cinematic tale for they all can be read as rebellious females manipulating their surroundings and fashioning their own fates.

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The film is a real feast for the eyes combining the Italian setting with baroque beauty, brimming with flamboyant metaphors which render Tale of Tales as sitting somewhere between repulsive and hilarious. Garrone clearly appreciates the richness, diversity and complexity of the fairy tale, especially those from his motherland. It intrigues, has much to say on the power of civility and transformation and is completely wicked and highly pleasurable. Not least due to its direction but the special visual effects (practical, digital art, props) and ageing prosthetics, provided by mAKINARIUm are outstanding, as is Massimo Cantini Parrini’s gorgeous and sumptuous costuming; fit for any Royal. Alexandre Desplat delivers a dreamy score, expressive in tone and timbre which really lifts and enhances those darker moments.

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Tale of Tales is a charming curio – dark, gruesome and mirthful; a transgressive grotesquery, thematically rich, irreverent and unctuous. Those fiabe that we hold dear as children are just as important to us as adults, and when they are as wonderfully made as this, even better.

And they all lived happily ever after…yeah right.