I’ve posted images and plugging the movie’s last screening at the Bloor Cinema. Finally saw it, and this is what I think of the movie.
The film’s about sexual fantasy. Really. The longer version is that the film’s about sexual fantasy and the male gaze in the context of a small Italian town in 1939 – I know it’s 1939 because of the “Beau Geste” references, but anyway. The film does start with the town’s air full of puffballs, a sign of springtime, which is itself a sign of youth and sex. I make it sound so dry. Don’t worry, boys, there’s a lot of well proportioned women in this movie, and there’s lots for the men to choose from. One of those women is Gradisca, the hairdresser in red. There’s Gina, a servant who gets touched in the behind by one of her old bosses. There’s the well stacked lady who own the tobacco shop. There’s Volpina, a prototype of the town crack whore, yet the men don’t reject her because she has the same energy as them. Not even the women are blatantly shown in telling her to slow down.
As Andrew O’Hehir writes, the film’s obviously sexist. It has the same, shallow comedian’s understanding of gender – men want sex and most women just wanna settle down and have children even if they have to entertain a million toads to find a prince. I know I’m gonna sound like an apologist by writing this, but the women come out better than the men because of Gradisca’s monologue.
Besides, promoting these sex-driven thinking also mean that there’s no guilt involved. Sexual fantasy is a communal experience, and a boy’s allowed to share his feelings to his peer group and to trusted elders, like a priest. By confessing to a priest, the boy technically feels like a sinner, but he doesn’t try to make the label stick and there’s no judgment nor hellfire. It’s in the typical Southern Catholic attitude when the average person has to do penance but he can totally party the night before. Conversely, Uncle Teo’s the only one who seems more perverse while shouting for his need for a woman atop a tree in a farm. The audience can blame his depravity to his isolation.
Speaking of fantasy and community, there’s also scattered twenty-five minutes worth of the film spent on portraying fascism. The film shows most of the town’s citizenry as optimistic under Fascist Italy, a country of hope and idolatry. Even Gradisca succumbs to fainting orgasms when talking about Il Duce. This lack of guilt nor remorse shown in the townsfolk is refreshing and realistic compared to other texts tackling the material. It is possible that the citizens of a country under dictatorship do not know about the oppression and cruelty that its government enacts towards minorities or outsiders until a later time. Sounds familiar. It’s something that they believed in even though they knew nothing about it. The depiction of the fascist element adds to the complexity and surprising maturity in Fellini’s later work.
The Merchant Ivory adaptation of E.M. Forster’s Howards End has its Murnauesque tendencies. A drama about property, class, and family, the film’s first four minutes have no dialogue, as Ruth Wilcox (Vanessa Redgrave), owner of the titular house, walks ghostly outside in the garden. She looks in while her husband Henry (Anthony Hopkins), the rest of her family, and a guest, Helen Schlegel (Helena Bonham Carter) are inside having a party. The film evokes a poetic atmosphere within the English suburbs, with the grass and wisteria and trees and the moon. Helen lightly blames the moonlight for her short engagement with one of the Wilcox son, Paul.
Helen’s poor friend Leonard Bast gets enthralled by his environment as well, and thus gets his silent sequences. They meet after a lecture on Beethoven’s Music and Meaning, showing his intellectual side despite his poverty. She steals his umbrella, he walks in the rain to get it back. He goes on walks because of a book he’s read, much to the chagrin of his wife Jacky. He also has a strange recollection of his first meeting with Helen, the gates close on him but she looks back, smiling.
Howards End is a movie of many tones, but I don’t mean that it’s uneven. There’s the comedy of errors tone, when the other Wilcox son Charles (James Wilby) drives the Schlegel aunt to the house. She confuses him for Paul and a row ensues. Helen and Margaret (Emma Thompson) are pretty funny characters themselves, calling themselves chatterboxes, the Schlegel children critical of their outspoken ways.
Then there’s the elegy, represented by Ruth. If you’ll indulge me in overreading, Ruth is also after a Biblical figure of unwavering loyalty and standing by her family. She was born in Howards End, Howard being a prominent name in some noblemen, a family plagued by tragedy. She’s kind of fragile, most of her children have grown up and married. and her husband tends to leave her in the house for business. She symbolizes permanence, shocked by the notion that Margaret has to move from the house where the latter was born. She has bursts of energy now and then, thanks to Margaret’s friendship, and there’s an implication that Henry and her family bring her down. This role’s part of the roles Redgrave has been getting in her later years, a woman haunted by her past.
There’s also a sense of urgency in the film’s drama, culminating in the forty minute mark, with Margaret becoming the protagonist. She’s like sunshine to this movie, her early moments especially with Ruth, we see her smiling and accommodating. Ruth’s last wish is that Margaret would inherit Howards End, Henry eventually asks Margaret to marry him. In Ruth’s last moments, she inadvertently passes the torch to Margaret, her silence replaced by Margaret’s protestations. Thompson made leading roles out of being the elder sister or friend with the voice of sanity, and her Margaret is still that archetype to Helen. But here in Howards End, she’s stuck between Helen’s idealism and Henry’s ruthless prejudice. Her last fight with Henry is one of the riveting arguments I’ve seen in a British period film and perfectly encapsulates Forster’s liberal stance.
There’s no need to say that Anthony Hopkins is amazing in this film. He plays his character with charm, ruthlessness yet repressed humiliation, opposite yet same from the cannibal that won him the Oscar. It’s reminiscent of other actors doing something different after their Oscar-winning or infamous roles. Like Marlon Brando dabbling in musicals after winning for “On the Waterfront,” or Denzel Washington becoming a sensitive shrink after becoming a psychotic cop, or Jack Nicholson playing a wounded playwright after playing a homicidal novelist, or John Wayne playing fatherly after playing racist.