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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Around Europe

The Salt of Life


The Forgiveness of Blood

Italian film has done us another favor—it has sent us Gianni Di Gregorio again. Several years ago, it was Mid-August Lunch, his first film, although he was almost sixty. Now we get The Salt of Life, which, like his first picture, he wrote, directed, and stars in. What is factually extraordinary about Di Gregorio is that he trained as an actor but spent most of his screen life as writer and assistant director. What is also extraordinary is that his endearing screen personality has spent most of its professional life off camera.

Last time Di Gregorio, a man of plain but friendly features, played a character also named Gianni, who found himself spending a midsummer holiday taking care of his ninety-year-old mother and three other elderly ladies. This unpromising situation produced, in his hands and with his presence, a comedy that quickly embraced us. This time Gianni (let us call him by his own and his character’s name) creates an equally charming comedy out of an even less auspicious premise—a man his age who is persuaded that he needs a lover.

This year’s Gianni is sixty, Roman, retired, modestly well-off, married, with a grown daughter who is attended by a live-in boyfriend. He smokes constantly—lighting up before he gets out of bed—and sips white wine almost as constantly, though he never coughs or weaves. We first see him in a meeting with his lawyer and his adored nonagenarian mother. (She is once again played by Valeria De Franciscis, she of the marvelously antique face.) Here we get the start of the story’s minor theme: Gianni’s continuing contest with his headstrong and wealthy mother to keep her from business deals that will unwittingly shrink his inheritance.

The major theme is launched after this meeting when privately the lawyer, a close friend, convinces Gianni that he is giving up too soon on amour. (The fact that he is married is treated as irrelevant.) Gianni then attempts to take the lawyer’s advice, somewhat reluctantly at first. Family man though he is, he sets forth adventurously.

To list his misadventures would be like showing an X-ray instead of a portrait. The man himself would be missing, and it is he who makes them funny. He has a date with a woman, buys sharp clothes for the date on the advice of his daughter’s boyfriend, then finds out that his date has forgotten her singing rehearsal for that day and time. His attempt to reach a recommended bordello results in a traffic injury. (All this while his willful old mother, who lives in a mansion, is airily diminishing his inheritance.) His adventures are pathetic as well as amusing because of Gianni himself.

The very nature of the story makes us wonder how it will end. But we don’t know even after the finish. We see a closing sequence that may mean only that Gianni has seen and recalls a comparable sequence in Fellini’s .

Gianni—that is, Di Gregorio himself—is a vicarious actor. He seems to be representing us. Not that every man who sees him has the same needs and aspirations or that every female viewer recognizes him and chuckles. Gianni seems such a representative person—plus all the appeal we would like to have—that the idea of acting itself seems not to apply. Every film-making country seems to evolve such actors. Italy used to have Ugo Tognazzi. The United States had Walter Matthau. As soon as he appears, we know how he is going to respond, more or less, to every situation, and even when he makes mistakes, he somehow represents us in doing so.

In short, Gianni in this common-man role deepens one more mystery about acting. Every successful leading actor has a personality, but we rarely mistake it for the man himself. (Or the woman herself.) We know and relish the fact that the two are not the same. We believe that Jack Nicholson on screen is not the Nicholson at home. But with Gianni, as with Matthau and others, we feel that he finds a way to present himself as he is.

How did he find out, so late in life, that he had this gift? Anyway, thank heaven he discovered it and has, we can hope, more non-tricks up his sleeve.

HIPSTERS is truly odd. First, it is a musical from Russia, which would be unusual enough. But it also was made recently and is set in the Moscow of 1955 in order to show us that the repression of back then no longer exists. This purpose is not new in post-Soviet films, but to use a back-dated musical as the means is novel. What is even more wondrous, the chief repression that we see—and hear—is Stalinist hatred of jazz and American hip clothes.

Valery Todorovsky directed Hipsters with a script that Yuri Korotkov adapted from a novel of his own. Both of them quite naturally used American sources for their work. The story is a basic Boy-Meets-Loses-Gets-Girl item. (This familiar recipe is seasoned with a problematic pregnancy.) The directing shows a reverence for Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen. Also somewhat American is the fact that this film was exceptionally big-budgeted.

We are asked to believe that back then a wide avenue in Moscow was dubbed “Broadway” and was frequented by young men with Elvis pompadours and zoot suits, girls in blatantly sexy outfits. A stern Soviet youth troop, headed by a programmed female commissar named Katya (Evgenia Brik), raids a dance hall on Broadway. That is how a member of the troop, Mels (Anton Shagin), meets the Broadway singer Polly (Oksana Akinshina), falls for her, and changes his life. He becomes Americanized, so utterly that he learns to play the saxophone, which Polly appreciates.

Of course his family and friends object, though his barber supplies the pompadour and somehow Mels acquires the hip clothes. Even Katya shows a personal concern unlike her previous cool professionalism. But it is Polly’s response that Mels wants and gets, until the formulaic breach comes along and is finally closed—musically.

Throughout the film, which structurally is a series of musical numbers separated by short dialogue scenes, we can see—as we are meant to—camera angles, surprise cuts, close-ups of horns, splashes of dance that make us feel someone has unearthed a Hollywood B musical of the 1940s. This feeling is helped by the fact that, deliberately or not, the color of the film is postcard stuff.

At the end, when the lovers are reunited in the streets of Broadway—lyrically—the camera pulls back and up until we see an ocean of young people singing and dancing their way forward toward 1989, the ending of communism, and the liberation of hipness. Thus what starts as historical comment ends as satire of itself.

AN ALBANIAN landscape unrolls before us. Farmland. Peace, we think. A horse-drawn wagon pulls into view. A passage through a wall is blocked by stones. A man and a young man get out of the wagon and move those stones so that their wagon can get through, and in that rural landscape the drama begins.

The Forgiveness of Blood, directed by Joshua Marston and written by him and Andamion Murataj, is about overlapping eras. The wagon we saw belongs to Mark, and he was driving, insistently, through land that belonged to his grandfather but is now blocked off—by an older man named Sokol, who was given the land by the new government. At first the two men only taunt each other when they meet in a café, but tempers soon flare. Government rule has intervened in custom. At that point and elsewhere, what we come to realize is that we are watching a clash of eras as these two men argue about tradition versus new rule while they use their cell phones and occasionally speak of Facebook. In this town that consults ancient documents in its quarrels and soon calls in a venerable sage, a young man is planning a computer shop.

In a quarrel that we don’t see, Sokol is killed. The elders rule on the matter. Bloodshed must stop, a feud must not develop, but as punishment, Mark—the killer—may never leave his house again or he will be available for killing by Sokol’s family. And for the safety of all, Mark’s son must leave the town, although he is keen on a girl there.

The director, Marston, is—surprisingly enough—American, but in writing the screenplay he had the help of Murataj, an Albanian filmmaker. Most of the characters, we are told, were played by non-actors—Murataj helped particularly here, I suppose—but if the press notes didn’t tell us, we would not know. The film won last year’s Berlin screenplay prize, presumably because of its authenticity rather than its novelty or depth. Still, the film shows us trenchantly that law often lags behind deep-grained custom.

Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 15, 2012 issue of the magazine.