Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Giuseppe Tornatore | 2hr 53min

Cinema Paradiso bleeds the sort of pure, unassuming love of film that greater movies may have tackled with keener self-reflexivity and more ambitious visual artistry, and yet Giuseppe Tornatore’s majestic coming-of-age tale nevertheless inspires an intoxicating sentimentalism which erodes all traces of cynicism in even the harshest critics. The childhood of his surrogate character, Salvatore Di Vita, is partially defined by those moving images that flicker across the giant screen in his tiny Sicilian town, ranging from the Hollywood westerns of John Ford to the arthouse fare of Federico Fellini. Within that darkened movie house, virtually every facet of his identity is born – the vibrant cinematic worlds that inspire his imagination, the communal gathering of odd townsfolk in the audience, and even his first sexual experiences on the floor of the theatre make the establishment a landmark for many personal milestones. Most significantly of all though, it is the friendship that he forms with Alfredo, the middle-aged projectionist, that marks his sentimental memory most deeply, evoking a nostalgia for the days they spent in his tiny room up the back playing movies for the village of Giancaldo.

In the present day, Salvatore is a famous film director, emotionally cut off from his hometown, though still affectionately remembered there as Toto, the sweet but troublesome projection assistant. Cinema Paradiso’s extended childhood flashback dominates the film like a more innocent version of Once Upon a Time in America, as Tornatore sweeps us into a long-gone era similarly distinguished by Ennio Morricone’s light, fantastical score of flutes, eventually swelling into a full, grand orchestra. Much like the movies that Toto joyfully escapes into, Cinema Paradiso’s narrative becomes a fable of escapism, drifting along on waves of vignettes that progressively reveal the pieces of history intrinsically embedded in the man he is today. Some romantic flourishes of style in Tornatore’s dreamy camerawork gliding across packed audiences and the fantastical roaring lion head sculpture through which movies are projected do well to carry a delightful charm through these scenes, though for all its sentimentality, this is not a film that possesses the same cinematic grandeur as its artistic inspirations.

Still, this is not to suggest that Cinema Paradiso lacks emotional punches in its epic, decade-spanning narrative or rich characterisations. The town square that the theatre sits on is frequented by one raving homeless man who claims the territory as his own. Light tension builds in scenes highlighting the local priest who sits in the theatre ringing a bell at any sign of intimacy, forcing Alfredo to censor the reel of its lewdness. Most movingly of all, Alfredo himself is revealed to be a truly selfless character, paying back Toto’s entry fee to save him from getting in trouble from his mother, and eventually teaching him how to work the projector itself.

A slick transition of the older man running his hand over a young Toto’s face smoothly slips us a decade into the future, revealing the features of an adolescent still helping behind the scenes. In the years since the fire that burned the theatre to the ground and its reconstruction as Nuevo Cinema Paradiso, he has taken over the duties from his now-blind mentor, and yet their friendship does not fade. Just as Tornatore will often shoot Toto centre-frame from low angles as he gazes in awe and delight at the cinema screen, so too does he carry a similar reverence for the movie house itself in exterior shots, letting it dominate symmetrical compositions like a monument to human imagination.

As Cinema Paradiso floats along with teary-eyed wistfulness, super-imposed images of black-and-white films over their captivated audiences continue to settle us into the mind of the young projectionist, drawing a direct connection between his work and the emotional impact it has on large crowds. That feeling that he is the one making them all forget their troubles is one that is evidently passed on from Alfredo, and above all else, it becomes the most rewarding part of the job.

The next step that Toto takes when he finally grows old enough to leave home is only logical – the film industry waits for him beyond the borders of Giancaldo, and Alfredo realises better than anyone that this is where he belongs. The meagre pay and scanty life of a projectionist is not one he wishes upon his young, bright-eyed friend, and neither does he wish for him to ever look back to where he came from.

With Alfredo’s passing and Toto’s return though, Tornatore begins tying back in those remnants of childhood memories that have aged and matured over the years. The girl he never quite worked it out with is still there, though given how much has changed, rekindling those old flames does not come easily. Similarly, Nuevo Cinema Paradiso is now nothing but a derelict remnant of the town’s past, sitting on the verge of demolition. As Toto re-enters the site of his childhood wonder for the first time in decades, Tornatore continues to consume him in its architecture, though the effect is now entirely different. While he has moved into the future, his childhood has simply been left to gather dust, and that joyful nostalgia is now overwhelmingly melancholy.

Still, there is one final gift left behind for him by Alfredo. Among the late projectionist’s old possessions is an unlabelled film reel, splicing together all those censored shots the town priest used to ask him to remove from romantic scenes. In those missing pieces, Alfredo finally creates a film of his own, relishing a love of life and art that has unconsciously guided Toto in all his endeavours, and which now overflows with overwhelming passion. Only an ending as profoundly in tune with film editing processes as this could tie off Cinema Paradiso’s tribute to the artform with such affectionate catharsis, as Tornatore wistfully closes the semi-autobiographical book on his first, great love.

Cinema Paradiso is not currently available to stream in Australia.

A Short Film About Love (1988)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 30min

Much like Dekalog: Five, the sixth episode of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Ten Commandments-inspired series was expanded into a feature film, giving us A Short Film About Love. The Hitchcockian setup is very familiar – a man with a telescope spying from their apartment into a neighbour’s unit, developing an unhealthy obsession with their life – and yet in place of a suspenseful mystery leading our young voyeur along, Kieslowski instead absorbs us in a compelling morality play. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” is the commandment upon which this instalment is based, though by the end it is evident that his sights are set on the more intricate distinction between sex and love, and the complete denial of the latter.

Before nineteen-year-old Tomek has even spoken to the much-older Magda, he already has a good idea of her life and routine. A series of men come in and out of her apartment looking for sex, and though he admits he used to pleasure himself to the sight, recently he has chosen to turn away. Perhaps he considers this a form of respect or even love, but his stalking continues to take on other forms of harassment – calling her phone without speaking, sending fake postal notices so she visits his workplace, and taking on a job as milkman as an excuse to go to her apartment.

Magda’s face caught in the glass at Tomek’s work, hanging over him like a spectre.

Inside, her unit is shrouded in deep reds, from the hanging artworks and stained windows to the bed sheets and telephone. It isn’t just eye-catching, but entirely beguiling and seductive, capturing the mind and heart of this young man whose experience of the world has largely been confined to this cold, blue corner of Warsaw. As Tomek finds himself being drawn into her burning red orbit, Kieslowski remains composed in his development of both characters, meticulously revealing two opposed yet equally twisted perceptions of love.

A commitment to red decor all through Magda’s apartment, setting her apart from the rest of Tomek’s cold, drab world.

When the two finally converge in that beautiful scarlet room, Kieslowski puts these two ideologies head-to-head – the romanticisation of one-sided affection, and the denial that there is no such thing as love, but only sex. That Magda chooses to engage with Tomek at all after discovering his secret is not just a surprise to us, but to Tomek himself, who completely freezes up after being confronted with a woman significantly more experienced and confident than himself. His fantasy of admiring one from afar cannot stand actual reciprocation, and when he finally experiences an orgasm, she simply leaves him with a crushingly cold statement.

“Love… that’s all it is.”

With that pivotal meeting, Kieslowski begins to set in motion an inversion between both parties. As a devastated Tomek goes home and slits his wrists in a tub, he is now the one surrounded by the red of Magda’s world, with clouds of blood floating through the water. Meanwhile, she finds herself plagued by the guilt of what she has done, and from afar begins to develop her own sort of affection for him. It may not be sexual or romantic, but it is a moving, profound compassion comparable to that of a maternal figure or perhaps a friend, filled with genuine care and a heavy dose of shame.

The red from Magda’s world finding its way into Tomek’s in a violent, bloody narrative turn.

Now in Tomek’s place, longing after another from afar, she visits his apartment. Just as he entered her world and understood her better, now she is entering his to look through his eyes, and in turning both journeys into mirrors of each other Kieslowski finds remarkable narrative form. Through his telescope, she imagines what he might have seen, most significantly the sadness and pain that few others have recognised in her. And then, fully submitting to the fantasy of her love, she envisions him there as well, comforting her at her lowest, and bringing A Short Film About Love to its poignant, hopeful end.

A Short Film About Love is currently streaming on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

A Short Film About Killing (1988)

Krzysztof Kieslowski | 1hr 24min

When Krzysztof Kieslowski created his Dekalog series with the intention of making ten one-hour episodes reflecting each of the Ten Commandments, he was pushed by TV Poland to expand two into full-length feature films. Dekalog: Five thus became A Short Film About Killing, as well as the strongest instalment in the series, disturbing our senses in both style and narrative while taking on the Fifth Commandment as its focus: “Thou shalt not murder.”

Though set around the same apartment block as the other episodes, A Short Film About Killing couldn’t have taken a more distinctive aesthetic approach. Kieslowski’s intent to use a different cinematographer in each story often leads to small variations in the aesthetic, but his collaboration here with Sławomir Idziak stands out among them like a grotesque pimple on an otherwise attractive face. This vision of Warsaw is a barren wasteland of mud and shadows, strained through a jaundiced yellowish-green filter that seems to permeate every image with a sickly pestilence. He also lays a vignette effect over virtually every shot of the film, narrowing our field of vision to the characters surrounded by a thick, oppressive darkness. Beneath it all, a chamber ensemble of strings drone with sustained, dissonant chords, heavy with foreboding and a creeping, existential horror.

These characters are often captured as pitch black silhouettes, a hollow emptiness filling their outline.
Thick, mustard colouring pervading this film like a sickness. Though A Short Film About Killing is part of the Dekalog series, it has its own distinctly grotesque aesthetic, and is all the more artistically remarkable for it.

From the opening frames of dead cockroaches, a drowned rat, and a hanging cat, an aura of death immediately settles over the film. We see a group of children running away from the animals, perhaps struck with a guilty realisation of what they have done, though these characters will not our focus. A taxi driver (Waldemar), a young lawyer (Piotr), and a mysterious wanderer (Jacek) are the subjects of our fascination here, each one a stranger to the others, yet unknowingly interweaving their individual paths in a braid of plot threads tightening until they collide over a single incident.

Foreshadowing right from the start. As always, Kieslowski is very purposeful with his symbols, here comparing the disregard of human life to the sadistic torture of animals.

Kieslowski is patient through all of his setup. We know what is coming, if not from the film’s title, then at least from Jacek’s sadistic and bizarre actions. Stand atop an overpass, he throws stones down on cars below. He attacks a stranger in a bathroom who makes a sexual advance. He carries around a metal stick and a rope, waiting for the opportunity to put both to use. Waldemar doesn’t seem all that different, as he leers at young women from his driver’s seat and exerts petty control over who he decides to give rides to. Piotr may be the sole bright light in this desolate landscape, asserting his views against capital punishment during his bar exam and later celebrating his success at a café where he fatefully encounters his future client, Jacek.

When the murder does finally take place, it lands almost exactly at the film’s halfway point, and is dragged out for eight gruelling minutes. Kieslowski doesn’t falter here, using every shot to set in the torture that seems to lack any purpose beyond one man’s instability. In a close-up, Waldemar’s foot hangs limp on a car seat. Below a sickly mustard sky, the taxi lifelessly rolls to a stop. From within the car, we watch Jacek pull the body down to a river through a claustrophobic frame created by the open door, before the wind blows it shut. Still, Waldemar is not yet dead, and with his final breath he begs for his life before a rock is slammed down on his head.

Kieslowski is methodical – eight minutes of torture, watching the murder of this taxi driver with very little dialogue, and every shot contains its own acute depiction of suffering.

That Kieslowski is able to find any shred of pity for Jacek after this point is astounding. It is evident he is not a skilled murderer, as it doesn’t take long before is caught, charged, and sentenced to death. Recognising him from that day in the café, Piotr holds some remorse that he didn’t do something to prevent it, though of course he cannot shoulder any blame for the outcome here. The best he can do is sit down with Jacek and just understand what could have possibly motivated such a disturbing act.

There is a backstory to do with his sister’s death which he feels partially responsible for, but we are not asked to offer him redemption through this alone. It is what comes after that is truly chilling, bringing yet another layer to the Christian commandment against killing. Jacek’s murder at the hands of the state is just as brutal as the one he committed, as he screams and struggles against the firm hold of the guards – and all for what? In the way that Kieslowski presents the complete destruction of two human beings mirrored in both halves, it is tough to reconcile them as being all that different, besides the state considering one abhorrent and the other righteous. Like the rat left in running water and the cat hanging from a noose, these humans are victims of a malevolence that will try to justify the destruction of life, and in the sheer distortion of Kieslowski’s artistry here compared to the other Dekalog episodes, he unnervingly finds the true horror in such a sacrilegious transgression of nature.

You would hope that you are past the worst of it once the first murder is done at the halfway mark, but this ending is just as brutal.

A Short Film About Killing is currently available to stream on Mubi and The Criterion Channel.

Dead Ringers (1988)

David Cronenberg | 1hr 55min

It isn’t always easy to commiserate with this tragically co-dependent pair of twin gynaecologists, Elliot and Beverly Mantle, whose inhuman eccentricities prove to be far more than simply character quirks. The steely greys and blues that make up their ice box of an apartment in Dead Ringers effectively ward off such open displays of sensitivity, and if that wasn’t enough, the shockingly aggressive punctuations of red in the mise-en-scène finish the job, creating some truly jarring visual compositions. Given the relative scarcity of Cronenbergian body horror to be found here, it is often these extreme hot and cold colours which end up serving the same purpose that the director’s famously grotesque imagery might usually stand in for, mirroring the twins’ own psychological duality in a striking visual dissonance.

Angry reds puncturing Cronenberg’s chilly mise-en-scène.

Right from the start of the film, there is an acute discomfort expressed by both Elliot and Beverly towards the human anatomy. Perhaps it comes down to the personal uneasiness they feel with their own bodies, which do not reflect the unity of their souls and psyches. In their minds, the splitting of the zygote in their mother’s womb should have never happened, as the result has created an imbalance in their individual identities – the smooth but cynical Elliot, and the shy, sensitive Beverly. The point and counterpoint in David Cronenberg’s characterisation of these twins makes for a stunning formal achievement, right down to the feminine naming of Beverly reflecting his softer traits in opposition to the callousness of the more masculine Elliot.

Magnificently austere mise-en-scène creating these clinical environments that close around Beverly and Elliot, and a notable use of canted angles tilting their worlds just slightly off centre.

In the physical world the twins share virtually everything, from sexual partners to living spaces, and in public they fluidly swap identities like two parts of one man. Visually, it is difficult to tell them apart, though it is remarkable that through Jeremy Irons’ duelling performances we gradually key into the subtle distinctive mannerisms distinguishing them from each other. It might be strange speaking of chemistry between two characters performed by one actor, and yet Irons is utterly convincing in this connection, letting their opposing differences balance out each other to deepen this eerie, spiritual bond.

Indeed, the Mantle twins are two puzzle pieces that fit together almost too well, and in one dream sequence this is literalised in a fleshy bodily protrusion joining them together through their navels, like an overgrown umbilical cord. This harmonious albeit disturbing symbiosis only starts to deteriorate when it is interrupted by a third, exterior force – a woman, who Beverly starts to fall for. It is a transgression beyond the brothers’ boundaries that attacks their minds like a disease, and begins to erode the very foundations of their sanity.

Ice cold imagery in the blocking and colours, always examining the formal point and counterpoint between Elliot and Beverly.

And yet in this wedge being driven between them, there is also an inverse, almost subconscious reaction to counter it. As their dissatisfaction with being separate entities grows stronger, a general frustration with the natural human body similarly intensifies. It has been teased since the very first scene set during their childhood where the two brothers consider the possibility of asexual human reproduction, thus erasing the complexities of sexual intimacy, and maintaining their relationship as a self-contained unit. In the present as Beverly continues to mentally decline, once again does he begin to imagine alternate, mutated versions of the human body.

Such a pointed use of this frame within a frame, all part of Cronenberg’s astounding achievement in both form and style as he paints out a picture of mental decline and isolation.

The bizarrely warped contraptions which he fashions from metal and dubs his “gynaecological instruments” are all part of this delusion, as he conceives of mutated female bodies that he considers more natural than the more regular alternative. As he prepares to operate on an unsuspecting woman using these devices, his red-clad assistants dress him in similarly bright red scrubs, visually transforming him into a pagan priest ready to sacrifice an innocent to some dark god of science and blood. It is in this operating room-turned-chapel that he believes he possesses the power to twist carnal flesh into whatever image he desires, though fortunately for his patient he is torn away before causing any long-lasting harm, maniacally proclaiming his firm belief in the anatomical flaws of the human body.

“There’s nothing the matter with the instrument! It’s the body! The woman’s body was all wrong.”

A natural dissolve in this window reflection, binding together the scientist and his subject.
A priest, his acolytes, his religious tools, and his chapel – heavily religious imagery in the operating room with these dominant reds.

Such alien contraptions were simply not meant for ordinary humans. The bodies they are designed for are those which are not reflections of the minds trapped inside – some may even call them mutants, as this is certainly how Elliot and Beverly begin to perceive themselves in their deep-seated dysphoria. Together they ponder legend of Siamese twins Chang and Eng Bunker who died mere hours apart, serving as a devastating ideal towards which they fatefully strive. In turning his surgical instruments on his brother, Elliot is by proxy turning them on himself, and begins to manifest their mental deterioration upon their physical bodies.

Dead Ringers may be a uniquely Cronenbergian film in its visual style and psychological drama, and yet its roots in such literary horrors as Frankenstein and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde provides a strong foundation in Gothic storytelling. Here, the fatal flaw is an inescapable co-dependency, and the result is as tragic as any of its literary influences. In a montage of long dissolves across the Mantles’ chaotic laboratory of bloody instruments and machines as it comes to an end, Cronenberg finally settles on their cold corpses, lying in each other’s arms. In death they are inseparable and indistinguishable, and for the first time since they shared a womb, they are well and truly one.

An inevitably tragic ending in these perfectly blocked compositions.

Dead Ringers is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988)

Terence Davies | 1hr 25min

Memories flow like water in Distance Voices, Still Lives, swirling around in the basin of human thought, gliding from one to the next through intuitive connections and tangents. Its plotlessness should not be mistaken for a lack of form, as Terence Davies effectively builds visual and thematic motifs based around cultural tradition which run through almost every scene. Chief among them is his use of tableaus, many of which bear striking resemblance to those composed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, in which groups of characters stand or sit in structured formations without making eye contact. This lack of connection hints at an isolation between them, yet the flashbacks these images segue into illustrate the equally traumatic and nostalgic memories which bind them all together.

A rigorously formal work in Davies’ use of tableaux, bringing a photo book quality to the film. His blocking is stark and minimalist, but also exactingly precise.
It is also a perfect marriage of style, form, and content in the tradition-heavy lives of these characters.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is also heavily autobiographical for Davies, who paints a moving portrait of a working-class family in wartime and post-war Britain. In troubled times, their community gathers at the local pub to savour the few scraps of escapism that they can conjure. Alcohol is an important part of this, especially beverages such as ‘rum and pep’ and ‘mackies’, names which almost seem as if they belong to an entirely foreign dialect.

Even more important than the drinking culture is the songs they sing in moments of quiet reflection and boisterous joviality, ranging from folk to jazz standards. As many of these characters lack formal education they are not especially eloquent with their words, and so it is rather through their soulful renditions of popular, period-appropriate music that they communicate their deepest feelings, even as they hear the bombing of their city outside.

Songs and drinks binding this community together through the best and worst times. A distinct sense of setting established through these tiny details.

Though the quaint mannerisms and habits of these characters belong to a different era, there is a universality to the complexity of their pain. The first half of this film, titled Distant Voices, opens on the funeral of the Davies family’s patriarch. While his wife and children grieve, they simultaneously recognise the conflicted emotions that come as a result of their loss.

In flashbacks we see dimensions of the man who could not possibly be captured in a five-minute eulogy. He was troubled, angry, and abusive, clearing preferring one of his daughters above his other children. But at times, there was a sensitivity that shone through when he thought no one was watching. The children would climb up to the stable loft just to get a glimpse of him content, singing to himself as he brushed the horses. It is the small moments like these that linger decades later, leaving the impression that these memories aren’t long forgotten tales, but are rather just as vivid as the present day. The cumulative effect of each recollection continues building to form a nuanced, poetic impression of the Davies family as a whole.

The children spying on a happier version of their father from the stable loft, bringing depth to this troubled, complicated man.
Davies’ use of doorways and windows continues to be integral to the form of the piece all throughout, conveying so much information within these narrowed frames.

The second half of the film, Still Lives, was filmed two years after the first and moves past the funeral, opening with the baptism of Eileen’s baby girl and ending with Tony’s wedding. While the rest of Distant Voices, Still Lives is made up of small, seemingly insignificant memories, the events that are considered truly consequential are religious ceremonies, emphasised further by their placement at the start, midpoint, and conclusion of the film. These Catholic traditions are the bedrock of the family’s faith, giving them a sense of stability through life’s harshest trials. Towards the end, a gorgeous composition of black umbrellas huddled together in the rain reflects the Davies family’s own ethos in a single image, collectively keeping the woes of life at bay through their tight formation.

Religion a constant presence in Davies’ thoughtful imagery.
Long dissolves bringing an organic, flowing feel to the film, truly a memory piece motivated by intuition and emotion above all else.

Distant Voices, Still Lives moves so seamlessly with match cuts, long dissolves, and fades to white that it is easy to wind up lost in its timeline, not realising where the past stops and the present begins. This smooth editing, paired with Davies’ immaculate frames, brings a photobook quality to the film, blending the family’s memories to the point that we stop caring about their chronological order. Instead, all there is left for us to do is lose ourselves in this nostalgic, poetic ode to the love and struggles of Davies’ old-fashioned, working-class family.

A wonderful final shot paying off on the many tableaux throughout the film, the characters’ backs turned as if closing the book on this photo album.

Distant Voices, Still Lives is currently available to stream on Tubi.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

Charles Crichton | 1hr 48min

What looks at first glance to be a reunion of sorts between two members of Monty Python only delivers on that promise in the final act, and in a relatively brief moment. The restraint is admirable – John Cleese and Michael Palin may be two of the greatest British comedians of their generation, but A Fish Called Wanda is far from a rehash of the chemistry which launched them to fame in their younger years. Top billing here is also given to Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline, both of whom display a pair of comedic acting chops that see them go toe-to-toe against Cleese and Palin, and often come out on top. This blend of dry English humour and the brazen smarminess of American comedy makes for a delicious mix of character interactions, setting up the patriotic egos of both countries and then knocking them down a few pegs purely through their hilarious, bitter distaste for each other.

Kevin Kline often lurking in the background, setting up some great visual gags.

When a plot to rob a bank quickly devolves into treachery and back-stabbing, the four thieves at its centre find themselves in direct competition with each other to recover the stashed diamonds. Finding himself mixed up in this chaotic sequence of events is Archie Leach, an attorney who falls for one of these felons, Wanda Gershwitz, while defending her co-conspirator in court. The cultural clash is evident – in an early scene we watch the two Americans, Wanda and her lover, Otto, getting hot and heavy in bed, comically intercut with Archie’s own dull, dispassionate nightly routine of clipping his toenails, getting undressed, and then slipping into his single bed, separate from his wife. Charles Crichton is clearly a much better director of actors than he is a fully-rounded filmmaker, but in moments such as these he clearly delights in manipulating our perspective of the characters and their relationships, finding rhythms in the comedy beyond what is already present in the performances and screenplay.

Crichton’s creative camerawork literally turning this scene on its head.

And then there is the plotting, so formally intricate in its farcical construction of lies, secrets, and MacGuffins, but never letting these characters stray from their idiosyncratic pursuits of clear-cut objectives. Through the frequent pairings of characters who haven’t yet met, there is a freshness that is kept alive in the emerging dynamics. What sort of friction will we see when the insecure, Anglophobic thief Otto rubs up against Wendy, a posh, judgmental Brit? What about when the usually-patient Archie needs to extract important information from Ken, who possesses an intense stutter? How far can Otto’s jealousy be pushed when his scheme to recover stolen goods necessitates his girlfriend seducing another man? What A Fish Called Wanda ultimately delivers from this delightfully ridiculous onslaught of petty conflicts is an ensemble of Americans and Brits frustrated by the obstinance of those who stand in their way, not realising that they too possess the exact same qualities, and eventually being driven to the brink of sanity in their dogged, selfish pursuits.

A Fish Called Wanda is available to stream on Stan, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.