Tuesday, June 27, 2017

1964 Winner, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Director:  Vittorio de Sica

Distributed by:  Embassy Pictures Corporation

Released:  December 1963

Country:  Italy

Plot, photography, acting—among other things, those are the cornerstones of a great film.  But star power in a movie should never be underestimated.  And Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, the 1964 Best Foreign Film from Italy, has three stars that make this film pure entertainment. 

First, there’s Sophia Loren.  I’m 50, and to me, Loren has always been more of a name from the past than an actress, one of many women in past cinema that might have been fun to watch years ago, but held no interest for me.  But in this film, you really see that not only is she great Italian eye-candy, but a very funny actress who knew exactly how to get an audience to like her.  Then there is Marcello Mastroianni, one of Italy’s best known actors, who does a great job supporting Loren as a straight man.  And thirdly, Vittorio de Sica, Italy’s lesser known (to Fellini) legendary director, usually filming more heady subjects, shows his talent for making a colorful and entertaining popcorn flick.

Mastroianni and Loren the Adelina of Naples section
And that is exactly what this is—a popcorn flick.  In fact, it's pretty much three popcorn flicks in one.  There are three separate stories, with Loren and Mastroianni playing different characters in different parts of Italy, like three sitcoms in a row.  The parts are named as the characters Loren plays and where the part of the film is set.

Part One, my favorite of the three, is called “Adelina of Naples.” Loren plays Mastroianni’s wife, who sells black market cigarettes in order to support her impoverished and growing family.  And her family does grow.  Italian law, it seems, prohibits a woman from being incarcerated if she is expecting.  So when the polizia come to arrest her for her illegal activities, she simply provides a doctor’s note, which forces the authorities to have to wait until after she has her child.  But once the baby comes, the only way for Loren to stay out of jail is for her to get pregnant again.  And Mastroianni’s character is happy to oblige.  Several times.  But sooner or later, he has to run out of energy, both to raise the many kids and to do his part in making them.

The famous striptease scene
The second section, “Anna of Milan,” has Loren as a Rolls Royce-driving wife of a rich absentee husband, picking up Mastroianni, her presumed lover.  She handles the car about as well as Apolonia in The Godfather ("It's safer to teach you English!"), and Mastroianni has to figure out whether her driving and personality are worth the effort.  In the final part, "Mara of Rome,” Loren is a high-class prostitute and Mastroianni is her impatient client.  Loren’s neighbor is a pleasant young man about to go to the seminary to study to become a Catholic priest, with Loren unintentionally being a convincing argument for him to change his plans. The section includes a memorable strip scene ending in frustration for Mastroianni.

Matthau and Loren, Grumpier Old Men
Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow was a fun movie to watch.  Between 1961 and 1964, DeSica would make three movies with Loren and Mastroianni, with Loren winning for Best Actress for Two Women in 1961, and nominated for the same award in 1964’s Marriage, Italian Style.  Maybe she shows her acting chops more seriously in those films, but in Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, with help from Mastroianni and her director, she shows why she was such a star.

The Title:  Ieri, oggi e domain.  Good Italian titles seem to come in threes, with my favorite being Sergio Leone’s Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (a.k.a., The Good, the Bad and the Ugly).  I just wish whoever translated these titles into English had learned to use the Oxford comma properly!

Please use Oxford commas!
The culture:  De Sica shows Italy in three forms:  Small town Italy, where the poor couple lives; glamorous Milan, where Loren unsafely tools around in her luxury automobile; and urban Rome, where future priests and current prostitutes can live next door to each other.  I especially liked how the director transitioned the segments of the film by panning out of the locale and allowing to camera to drift to the next locale.

Agenda danger:  There’s no agenda with a film this fun.

Best Picture that year:  My Fair Lady.

Rating:  It’s refreshing when the Academy rewards good comedy, which is to say, it doesn’t reward it enough.  Loren and Mastroianni, who starred in the previous year’s Best Foreign Film by Fellini, (to be reviewed next week), seem to be made to act together.  For me, Loren is no longer just the old Italian lady who was in Grumpier Old Men (1995) with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.  She is a real star.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

1965 Winner, The Shop on Main Street

The Shop on Main Street

Directors:  Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos

Distributed by:  The Criterion Collection (in U.S.)

Released:  October 1965

Country:  Czechoslovakia

Goals are important.  But sometimes it’s okay to go about your life without much ambition, existing day-to-day, enjoying what you do with a live-and-let-live attitude.  That’s how Anton Brtko, or Tóno as he is called, would prefer to have things, in The Shop on Main Street, the Czechoslovakian winner of the 1965 Best Foreign Film award.  He’s a good-natured carpenter who is willing to do the minimum amount of work and go home and soak his feet in the kitchen.  The problem is, his wife Evelina, has other ideas.  She is his Lady MacBeth, urging him to do more when he would rather stay content with what he has.  She sees that her sister is married to the town commander, Markuš, and she wants her husband to have similar ambitions.

The thing is, Markuš is the town commander in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, so his true identity is that of collaborator.  When the Nazis occupy your country, you have two choices:  go along with it or get crushed.  Markuš has chosen the former; Tóno would just as soon ignore the whole situation.  Markuš is a total blowhard, but he is able to secure Tóno an opportunity to move up in the world, and
Tono and his Lady MacBeth, Evelina
there is no way Evelina is going to allow him to refuse that opportunity.  Markuš has arranged it so that Tóno will be able to take over a little sewing shop—all he has to do is walk in and start running the place.

That may seem a bit odd, but this is part of the Nazis’ Aryanization program—in other words, the shop on Main Street already has an owner—a Jewish one—who by law has to give up ownership to a non-Jew.  When Tóno goes in on his first day, he is surprised to learn that the store is run by a kind old widow named Rozália.  Rozália is sort of deaf and slightly senile and never quite grasps the fact that Tóno is there to take the place away from her, not become her assistant.  Tóno, kind-hearted man that he is, allows her to think she is still running things, and the two of them soon form an odd but sweet friendship.

The Shop on Main Street is part of the Czechoslovak New Wave of the 1960’s, like Closely Watched Trains, 1967’s Best Foreign Film winner, though unlike most films in this movement, which were Czech, it was largely a Slovak production.  It ends up being a mostly dark film, yet is genuinely funny at times.  Jozef Kroner plays Tóno as incredibly likeable, and Tóno’s relationship with Rozália is unusual yet strangely romantic in a way.  She is the lovely woman that his wife is not.  Polish actress Ida Kamińska’s performance as Rozália is engaging and heartbreaking.

Tono and Rozalia
The way the mood turned in this movie snuck up on me—at first, it seemed almost to be a comedy, with broad characters and amusing situations, like Italy’s Life is Beautiful.  But as the story unfolds, we remember that a main character is a Jewish woman in the Holocaust era, and that makes this film a tragedy.  And The Shop on the Corner shows us an Aryan man who just wanted to live his life the way he wanted to, but inevitably is destined to become part of that tragedy.

The Title:  Obchod na korze.  The title may sound like, but is nothing like, Ernst Lubitsch’s 1940 comedy The Shop Around the Corner, set in Hungary.  If you haven’t checked that one out, you should!

The culture:  Director Ján Kadár actually was a professor in Prague, and taught many of the directors of the New Czechoslovak movement.  There are a number of Best Foreign Films (nine, by my count) that deal with the Holocaust in some way, and this one is among the most moving.  Especially emotional is the film’s final act, with the inevitably tragic ending, yet with optimism ultimately winning out in the end.

Agenda danger:  The film was funded by the Communist government, but they didn’t like Nazis anymore than anyone else did.

"Go ahead, blow your whistle, I dare you."
Best Picture that year:  The Sound of Music.  Another film about the Nazis, sort of.  This is completely off topic, but I always thought one of the most bone-headed moves in all of cinema was when Christopher Plummer goads Rolfe into blowing his whistle by telling him, “You’ll never be one of them.” A karate chop to Rolfe’s neck would probably have been the smarter move.

Rating:  This movie drew me in more and more as the story moved along.  It allows you to really get to know the characters so that you really begin to hope that what you think will happen won’t.  But in the end, I didn’t feel bad about the inevitable tragedy because the important thing is that these two characters found each other and established a true friendship despite of it.