The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino)
Paolo Sorrentino hits a career high with his incredible The Great Beauty. We follow Jep, an aging playboy writer who slides from party to party with a bemused smile on his face, and his coterie of friends and hangers-on. They spend the film discussing Rome, its people, its future, art, all while trying to convince themselves and each other that they lead important lives. The structure naturally causes comparisons to 8½, Rome Open City and the other classics, and Sorrentino doesn’t really hide from it; there are little throwbacks to those films sprinkled throughout, some obvious, some not so – but make no mistake, this is an original film not an homage.
Toni Servillo is an absolute delight. As Jep, he gets to do so much more than his tightly controlled work in Sorrentino’s Il Divo. Wearing the slicked-back hair of Berlusconi (no accident, I’m sure, as some of the parties in the film border on bunga-bunga), Servillo is a riot; everything from his voice to his face to his posture is exquisite… I could watch Jep at work for hours. And perhaps the film’s true strength is how it captures Rome itself. Anyone who has been there will be brought back to the sense of awe they felt upon seeing some of the city’s treasures up close. I absolutely loved this.
Gabrielle (Louise Archambault)
Louise Archambault hits a surprising home run with her film Gabrielle. Surprising, because the synopsis sounds painfully standard: a mentally disabled couple want to explore love while their respective families try to protect them from harm. The concept had me prejudging perhaps, but two things make the film work very well. First, the cast, headed by Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, are actually disabled, playing mirrors of their real selves; and second, they clearly worked with Archambault to make every aspect of the film authentic and honest. Sure, as soon as Gabrielle heads off into the city on a bus you know things are likely to go astray, and they do, but it all feels right.
Perhaps the best thing about Gabrielle is that it makes you put yourself in the shoes of the families… how would you handle these wonderful people who struggle to make toast, but who are in love and want to, to put it bluntly, get it on? The answers aren’t provided, and you’ll think about it for awhile.
The Gardener (Mohsen Makhmalbaf)
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener is a bit of a disaster, sadly. He declares in the opening scene that the film is going to explore the Baha’i faith, and Mohsen (along with his son Maysam) sets up his camera in the garden at Baha’i headquarters in Israel. The idea is pitched that father and son will each wield a camera and together find a film. But it all fails.
First, there is a sense of falsehood to the endeavour; there is a lot of banter between father and son as they frequently film each other filming other subjects. But then you realize that often both are in the field, both with their cameras, yet our scene is moving… in short, there is always a hidden third man working with them, making the spontaneous chatter untrustworthy. Is it all a script? Is it real? But most damning is that the film says nothing at all about religion in any way. Repeated shots of birds flying, or a Baha’i practitioner talking about how God is great, don’t convey anything. Perhaps I misunderstood the whole film. Perhaps that was the unspoken point, that understanding religion is impossible. Perhaps I’m trying to find an excuse where there is none.
Ludwig II (Peter Sehr and Marie Noelle)
Following in the recent parade of European royalty period pieces like A Royal Affair, Marie Noelle and Peter Sehr’s Ludwig II looks at Bavaria’s ruler and his struggles to bring peace, art and music to his people in a time of armament and war. For much of the first half of the film, it is wonderful; Sabin Tambrea is solid as Ludwig, and his earnest desire to bring the music of Wagner to the people is convincing, as is his reluctance to think of war and politicking. But around halfway through, the action shifts away from the Palace as Ludwig goes into exile and finds his sanity deteriorating. As a friend put it, it’s as if the film was suddenly directed by someone else, and since there are two directors… maybe it was? Everything from the pacing to the tone changes and becomes disjointed. The final hour feels like two, and strangest of all, as we shift 14 years into the future, all of the cast are given different facial hair and makeup to suggest time passing, but a different actor is used to play Ludwig. Tambrea is suddenly replaced by Sebastian Schipper, and the effect is a bit crippling.