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Economic Measures #5 | Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty (2013)

Economic Measures is a regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.

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By Michael Pattison

Paulo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, in cinemas now, is a mysterious beast of thematic ambition, formal precision and tonal complexity. Seeing it twice recently, I wondered if it might be the first film since There Will Be Blood (2007) or The Master (2012) to feel of a different period altogether. Whether that period’s in the past or in the future is difficult to say. To be sure, the Italian maverick’s latest – a flawed masterpiece that boasts the conviction of its own capacity to fail – seems to be unfathomably old-fashioned at the same time as being unfashionably ahead of its time.

Even as it drifts off in its third act, its energy zapped by a curious dream sequence (or is it?) involving big-titted dames paying exorbitant amounts for their latest botox injections, the film reeks of purpose and energy and old-school arthouse class. In discussing its multitude of problems, I’ve fallen in love with it: it satisfies my present need for excitement, for a youthful spirit, for a more lyrical and instinctive appreciation of things, for doing something when everything else about a situation (notably budget and common sense) seem to deny it. To quote a member of a message board I used to moderate, “I’d rather see an interesting failure than a dull success.”

Similar to that curious and temporary inability as an adolescent to recall a crush’s face, I was aware going into my second viewing of The Great Beauty that it has a prologue, and yet had forgotten exactly how it felt, what it looked like and what happened in it. As became immediately clear again, it’s a dizzying yet logical succession of wonderfully choreographed pans and tracks, their movement and sweep lending intrigue to a three-fold incident in which a female choir, a group of tourists and an amateur photographer are drawn together when the latter falls down dead.

I still don’t know its significance (“the tourists are the best thing about Rome”?), but the Hitchcock-like scream that concludes this sequence, ushering in a rooftop party scene to the tune of ‘Far L’Amore’ by Bob Sinclar and Raffaela Carrà, brought an immediate and sustained bout of shivers. The subsequent sequence, a superlatively edited and infectiously energetic passage in which Felliniesque grotesques drink and dance the night away, provides us with the most hedonistically pleasurable few moments in film this year.

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Down to it, then. Toni Servillo, already one of my favourite working actors, anchors this film with airs that are as elusive as his face is memorable. The man is 54, and without looking older than his years, he exudes an experience and even weariness that transcend them. Such experience comes to haunt the narrative just as much as it brings that opening party to life. In a key scene in which he berates a female writer for pretensions of superiority, Servillo’s protagonist betrays his own weaknesses: lazy, fond of one too many drinks, perhaps even beyond repair, and – tragically – aware of such vices. At several points, this host with the most has his otherwise assured façade shattered by the presence of an aloof neighbour to whom he aspires like a pathetic protégé.

Is there anyone who nails silencio e sentimento with such effortless charm, gravitas and vulnerability as Servillo? Who else can command the screen by doing so little as lying inert in a hammock? During both viewings of his latest collaboration with Sorrentino, I have longed for those scenes in which he gave Gomorrah (2008) much-needed purpose, and have also lamented the lack of theatrical distribution for It Was the Son (2012), in which he complemented the film’s caricature qualities by channelling the higher melodrama of a Pietro Germi film.

Like all the best film entrances (Welles’ in Kane, Kinski’s in Aguirre, the Marx Brothers’ in Duck Soup), Servillo’s in The Great Beauty is delayed. The party scene announces itself and introduces several characters in delirious succession, as if the camera is circling the vicinity looking to recruit a protagonist who can command it. Exhilaratingly – mirroring the structure of the Sinclar and Carrà dance mix that churns beneath – the scene seems to end at several points, or at least ventures into a quieter part of the shindig to eavesdrop on more private moments. Just when you think the scene has ended, it goes back to the heart of the party. Like some hideous homage to Kathy Selden, a woman shoots up from a giant cake and shouts “Happy Birthday, Jep!”

Cut to Servillo, for the first time, who shimmies 180 degrees to break the fourth wall, cigarette in mouth and a smile etched upon his wondrously craggy face. He is Jep Gamdardella. The gesture is aided by everything else that Sorrentino throws at us, of course, but Servillo, in this simple, declarative introduction, shows us that the film is his from here on out. That it’ll be his even when other characters threaten to steal it from him, when its tone shifts from exuberant to melancholic and back again, even when its director intrudes upon proceedings by viewing them from an upside-down angle. When the scene concludes with a collective dance-off between the genders, note Servillo’s ability to be in sync with a crowd and stand out from it in the same moment. And the involuntary movement merely of his fingers while dancing says more than Mastroianni ever did.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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Economic Measures #1 | Robert De Niro in Heat (1995)

[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]

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By Michael Pattison

As he drives to LAX to catch a one-way ticket to finer climes, professional thief Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) makes one last call to his fence and friend Nate (Jon Voight). All is as scheduled. The plane is in the air, Neil is on time, there are to be no hiccups. Nate tells Neil that he is home free. “Home free,” Neil repeats to girlfriend Eady (Amy Brenneman), who sits next to him in the car, all smiles and optimism. But something else Nate said continues to nag. An elusive traitor has been tracked down, checked in under a different name at a nearby hotel. Neil told Nate he no longer cares about said traitor, but from the moment he ends the conversation it’s clear that he does.

What follows is one of the many indelible moments in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995). McCauley enters a tunnel, whose lightning-white lights engulf the car. Illuminated in a sublime sheen of sustained mercury flash, Eady and McCauley share a momentary, wordless paradise. We see them in profile, against a sea blue that is not, sadly for them, a blue sea. Though Elliot Goldenthal’s becalming string score seems to prolong the moment, the light subsides as quickly as it had begun. Returning to reality, McCauley begins to mull. He enters that zone, of having to weigh up his options and make a split-second decision. The dilemma, we know, is whether or not to go after his betrayer – to continue on course for the airport or to make the detour and settle a score.

De Niro’s face straightens, intensifies. Just as his character’s driving becomes an involuntary mechanism, the actor channels energy and focus through his eyes and facial muscles. Stiffening up causes him to blink more than usual. Eady looks across at him. Feeling her gaze, McCauley adjusts his fingers that grip the steering wheel – to relax, to loosen up, to battle a nervous energy he’d rather not have. And De Niro twists his face. Is he about to cry or about to laugh? It’s difficult to say, but it recalls a similar register seen in The Deer Hunter (1978), when his character Michael Vronsky is forced to play Russian Roulette at gunpoint.

In that instance, an unimaginably distressing situation becomes so silly, so absurd (it’s a game after all) that tears and laughter become the dual face of anger, terror and everything in between. The dual face, because the two emotions co-habit the same instant rather than preclude one another. Indeed, that’s the absurdity of it. But in Heat, McCauley’s profession denies emotion. Throughout, he repeats the code he and fellow thieves must live by, that if you feel the heat at any moment, you have to make the decision to walk away in thirty seconds flat. “That’s the discipline,” he boasts to Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino), the cop who’s hot on his tail.

Discipline indeed: just as sentiment begins to take over him, McCauley seems to fight against it. De Niro contorts his mouth, licks, stretches and pouts away whatever complex simmers beneath. His knuckles re-tighten and his eyes lock once again into a zone of decisive action. In these small, combined gestures, we’re witnessing McCauley’s future bliss fall away from him. True to his word, he takes thirty seconds of narrative-time to make his decision, knowing fine well that he’ll live or die by it. And there’s something terribly accepting about his choice. Prohibiting emotion, he resigns himself to a fate more fitting than the quiet getaway he has temporarily allowed himself to humour – a resignation that might be, of course, just as romantic.

It’s less do-or-die than do-and-die. Because as McCauley told Hanna over coffee earlier in the film, “I do what I do best: take scores.” That a future with Eady is less easy to imagine than his next heist reveals the extent to which McCauley’s arc was doomed all along.

Contributor Michael Pattison can be followed on Twitter @m_pattison and runs the blog idFilm.net.

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