Monday, March 21, 2011
A St. Joseph's Day Italian Movie Marathon
Poor St. Joseph always seems to get the raw deal. And this year, I'm guilty too, of ignoring the March 19 commemoration.
Last March, a year ago to the day, I posted some interesting and amusing facts about the Feast Day of St. Joseph, which occurs soon after St. Patricks Day, and often gets lost amid the Irish festivities. It's like having your birthday on Christmas. (St. Joseph's Day---Food, The Color Red, and Real Estate--March 21, 2010).
But in the more traditional Italian communities, St. Joseph's Day is still celebrated by wearing the color red, and cooking special delicacies like St. Joseph's Pants (cookies filled with sweetened ground fava beans).
So to give St. Joseph his cinematic due, and to give a nod to the Italian festival, I give you an Italian movie marathon. It will be shorter than last Thursday's Irish film festival (because the holiday has already passed). Also, I am leaving off the list a lot of extremely popular Italian-themed films like "The Godfathers" and "Goodfellas" because this is a celebration. Good as these films may be as cinema, they have become a tired cliche of an Italian way of life that, frankly, isn't worth celebrating.
What follows is a more representative sampling of films that are closer to my experience growing up with my Italian relatives. Sentimental? You bet. But that's how we were....
"Moonstruck". Of course. A warm homage to the extended family, and the comedy of the loud-talking, hard-eating, hand-waving joy that rises naturally from these humorous characters with hair-trigger tempers and love to spare. The old man with his dogs is the quintessential grandfather, the one that gentle Italian men eventually become. Olympia Dukakis is the cynical wisecracker who knows who she is, and suffers through lovers complications and Vicki Carr records. Vincent Gardenia is the perpetual bad boy who imagines he runs the household but knows he has to answer to his loving wife. Danny Aiello is the superstitious mama's boy who believes in miracles. Cher and Nicolas Cage are the impetuous lovers with the matching bedroom eyes. Intoxicating, and not as exaggerated as one might think!
"Amarcord". Federico Fellini's look at boyhood in a small Italian town during the reign of Mussolini. Broader in scope than "Moonstruck", Fellini orchestrates a symphony of an entire town's antics, lusts, fantasies, and characters, all tinted with the forgiving light of memory. More caricature than character, the movie still zings us with surprising emotion. We are moved by the magical appearance of a peacock in the snow, or an impromptu dance of lonely schoolboys to the wonderful melodies of Nino Rota. Laughs are plentiful, and so are the family arguments, naturally.
"Life is Beautiful". A fairy-tale-turned-horror-story, few films in memory gave us a character with a head so full of opera and romance. He exudes the best of what I have noticed about the Italian spirit: an almost naive happiness, and a fierce determination to protect his loved ones during bad times. While Don Corleone protected his children by having the family "enemies" murdered, Roberto Benigni's Guido helps his little boy survive a concentration camp, no less, by reducing it to a game of survival. Narrated by the boy as a young man, it is a lovely tribute to the love of a parent.
"Marty". Paddy Chayefsky had a perfect ear for the banalities of everyday Italian conversation, the automatic references to the Catholic Church, to family loyalty, and a kind of guilt that, combined with love, cements families together. The butcher Marty is surprisingly eloquent (a "professor of pain"), which is a humorous counterpart to his friend Angelo, whose constant refrain of "So, whaddaya wanna do?" neatly sums up the modest aspirations of a particular community. If you want to eavesdrop on one of those bungalows with the lace curtains and the constant aroma of tomato sauce, drop in on this film.
"8-1/2" and "Nine". These must be seen together for full appreciation. Fellini's complex exploration of creative and romantic dissipation is nicely captured in Rob Marshall's contemporary musical vignettes. Nothing can replace the depth of Fellini's dreamlike visions, but Marshall's musical has been unfairly reviled by those who either are unfamiliar with the original, or who are closed off to any re-interpretation. "8-1/2" is Fellini at his most ambiguous and breathtaking, and the film is almost too fast-paced to catch it all in one viewing. "Nine" I think accurately recognizes the Italian character, and is remarkably faithful to the idea of movie director Guido's macho dilemma and creative roadblock.
Feel free to bring a print of your own favorite "Italian" film to my marathon....