Post-Festival Report 2010, Part 2:
Unearthing Precious Treasure

FILM, Film Festivals
Out of the past, the Film Foundation selection delivers.

There were four Film Foundation films in this year’s New Zealand International Film Festival programme, all beautifully restored classics well worth the price of admission. But I must confess; despite the glorious restoration, I simply couldn’t bring myself to revisit Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes. I may regret that decision in years to come, but this year I simply had to look away. In past years, I may have felt similarly about Senso, but this year I was up for it, and Luchino Visconti’s operatic fever-dream totally delivered.

I’ve only seen a handful of Alida Valli films, so I can only assume that her performance in Senso must be one of her very best. There is astonishing depth to her portrayal of ‘wanton Contessa’ Livia Serpieri, in which she expertly modulates between rigid aristocratic reserve, the flushed ardour of youthful amour, and the severity of despair. It’s an impressive, fully committed performance, and perfectly appropriate for a melodramatic tale of obsessive and destructive passion. Farley Granger negotiates his way around Valli admirably, teetering only in the highly charged final confrontation. His performance as the dashing self-serving cad, Lieutenant Franz Mahler (what a name!), nicely underscores Livia’s feverish self-delusion.

Apparently, Visconti intended Senso to be a more forthright criticism of the Austro-Italian War of Unification, depicting it as a cynical exercise staged for the benefit of the aristocracy. While his original vision may have altered, the critical subtext is still very evident within the sweep of romantic fatalism. The cinematography is magnificently expressive, and the mise-en-scène beautifully mirrors the art of the period. Visconti’s framing stressed the precariousness of the individual in relation to the intransigent weight of the prevailing order, and the staging of the Battle of Custoza (after which the film was originally going to be named) is nothing less than masterful. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that this sequence (in fact, the entire film) had influenced Stanley Kubrick’s superb Barry Lyndon (1975).

As in most of Visconti’s work, the theme of betrayal is central to Senso. Although betrayed by her lover, one senses Livia’s willing submission to Franz’s (sadistic?) humiliations, suggesting an implicit (masochistic?) self-loathing within the ruling class. By prostituting himself to a woman he despises, Franz also suffers humiliation and self-loathing. However, his betrayal of Livia is nothing compared to her betrayals—to family, class, principles, country, and finally her sanity. Parallels can be drawn between Senso and other Visconti films, especially Conversation Piece (1974), in which an aging professor (Burt Lancaster) is drawn to a young hustler (Helmut Berger, who incidentally was Visconti’s final lover), so there may well be more to the tragic tale of heterosexual anguish in Senso than there is room or time to consider here. In any event, the opportunity to see the film in such splendid condition was simply wonderful.

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West is widely accepted as the last masterwork of the Western genre. The long opening sequence alone is enough to rank it among the very best, but this terrifically entertaining epic also boasts an extraordinary career-topping, film-stealing performance from the great Henry Fonda. Playing against type as one of the most memorable villains of the genre, Fonda is totally mesmerising as psychotic killer, Frank. Charles Bronson played against him with confidence, barely moving a facial muscle in a pre-Botox performance of Mount Rushmore-like stolidity. Claudia Cardinal had a few good moments, but she seemed content to lend her youthful assets to the modest dictates of the role. Jason Robards was, as always, exceptional, Ennio Morricone did Ennio Morricone better than any Ennio Morricone wannabe, and Bernardo Bertolucci flexed his screenwriting muscles. The impetus for the film came from Leone’s desire to make the ‘ultimate Western’, a film constructed from a careful scrutiny of American Western classics. The result proved to be a fitting conclusion to Leone’s Western series. This particular print looked good (although the audio could have been better), but frankly, a well-projected, high-quality Blu-Ray version might just give it a run for its money. Sacrilege, I know, but there it is.

Of the four Film Foundation films programmed this year, I expect that Leone’s epic attracted the largest turnout, and that more modest numbers attended the best film of all, The Night of Counting the Years. One can see why the English title differs so markedly from the Egyptian original, Al-Momia (The Mummy), a title guaranteed to send the wrong signal to Western audiences. The English title complements the astonishingly poetic qualities of the film, and to see it screened in such pristine glory was an absolute privilege. I’m grateful that my first encounter was as fine a presentation as I’m ever likely to see, thanks to Bill Gosden and his team, and of course Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation.

Set in 1881, Shadi Abdelsalam’s magnificent film tells the true story of the Horabat clan, an Egyptian tribe who worked as guides and custodians of the tombs of Theban Pharaohs. They also engage in a centuries-old practice of robbing artefacts from the tombs and selling them to black marketeers (which may have been sanctioned by the highest level of Egyptian society). Following the death of the head of the clan, his sons are shocked to learn about this tradition of plundering, and refuse to take part in it. This puts them at odds with clan elders and those who profit by the pillaging, and sets in motion a drama about moral responsibility and the loss of Egyptian national identity.

I presume that this profoundly cinematic tale about the protection of ancient artefacts is now an Egyptian cultural treasure, but that it also ranks as one of the great works of world cinema. That it was ‘unearthed’ by a film preservation organisation is entirely fitting. It looks amazing. Every frame has terrific compositional balance, rich in golden hour colours, textures and shapes. The acting is solemn and hieratic, and the camera moves with a purposeful gravity that gives the film (as Matin Scorsese put it) a stately and poetic harmony. The deliberate pace and measured formalism could test the patience of some, but others will be exhilarated. Scorsese went on to call it a great work of art that, among other things, considers the urge to conquer death, and our debt to the past. Nice.

It’s no small irony that this luminous account of treasure stolen from the Pharaoh’s tombs by people with custodial responsibility should be circulating at this particular point in time, and equally fitting that it was programmed in a year when ‘plunder’ was a recurring thread. While there were many great films in this year’s line-up, this rarely seen masterpiece was one of the undisputed knockouts. If you have the chance to see it—go.

The New Zealand International Film Festival 2010 continues throughout the country until November. For regional dates, programme details, and screening times, visit nzff.co.nz.