Reminiscent of the Italian social realist films of the 1960s (and Pasolini in particular), Happy as Lazzaro is a beautiful yet odd allegory as the saintlike innocence of the young farmworker (debutant Adriano Tardiolo) – as with the film itself – initially charms but slowly grates.
An isolated tobacco estate (possibly in the 1970s/80s) sees the wealthy landowning family exploit its workers to levels of (illegal) feudalism, keeping them in permanent debt and ignorance of the world outside. Lazzaro forms an unlikely bond with the landowning son, Tancredi.
But a sudden shift by director Alice Rohrwacher (The Wonders, Corpo Celeste) sees her film head in a very different and unexpected direction. Lazzaro remains essentially unchanged – but the world around him is very different (to say more would give too much away).
The first half of an overlong film is gorgeously shot and socially real (the opening scene of virtual darkness with voices negotiating the use of the only electric lightbulb followed by an extraordinarily subdued wedding ceremony is stunning) that slips sadly into mundane obscurity.
Bombastic, MTV-style telling of the life and times of scandal-plagued Italian PM, Silvio Berlusconi (Toni Servillo – The Great Beauty, Consequences of Love) or at least a period in his career as his marriage to second wife Veronica fractures.
Nudity, raucous poolside parties, coke-snorting bacchanalia is the order of the day as director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, TV’s The Young Pope) controversially speculates on what may or may not have taken place behind both political and private closed doors as characters attempt to win the favour of the billionaire politician.
The Fellini-esque excess of debauchery, sex and depictions of unfettered wealth grate and ultimately bore – even if, unlike it’s two part release in Italy, the 150 minute international version switches at the halfway stage to a more in-depth, serious exploration of the corruption of power and money.
Sadly, too little too late – I’d switched off caring before then as Sorrentino delivers, once more, artifice rather than depth.
Languid telling, during a 1980s Tuscan summer, of first love where 17 year-old Elio (a gentle, nuanced performance by Timothée Chalamet – Interstellar, Ladybird) falls for his father’s archealogical assistant, the over-confident Oliver (Armie Hammer – The Social Network, The Lone Ranger).
It’s a bumpy ride for Elio – and for the audience. At times beautiful, at times stretching credulity as the all-American bumptious Jock purportedly falls for the skinny, bookish waif. Chalamet is pitch-perfect as Elio but a towering Hammer is less convincing.
Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) perfectly captures the nervousness of first love and its associated heartbreak but Elio’s relationship with his father, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, The Shape of Water) and peers highlights the shortcomings of the love affair.
A huge commercial and critical success in its native Italy, Perfect Strangers is a, mostly, laugh-out-loud comedy as seven best friends pool mobile phones around the dinner table. No secrets? Hardly.
Faltering friendships and relationships abound as texts and Messenger are shared, conversations placed on speaker. Discussions and arguments ensue as the friends-since-school discover they know very little about each other.
It’s a dark black comedy – raw nerves are touched and opinions can be challenging for audiences. The cast of seven give impeccable performances as director Paolo Genovese (Perfect Family, A Neapolitan Spell) keeps it contained within the claustrophobia of painful truths.
Here we go – first of my 2016 ‘best of’ film lists, limited to the films I saw during the year.
It’s reported that 2016 was a particularly fine year for high-profile female performances. But sadly, many are in films yet to be released in Australia. So no Natalie Portman (Jackie), Ruth Negga (Loving), Annette Bening (20th Century Women), Taraji P Henson (Hidden Figures), Viola Wills (Fences), Sandra Hueller (Toni Erdmann) and any number of films never seeing the light of day Down Under.
But my top 5:
5: Emma Stone (La La Land)
4: Amy Adams (Nocturnal Animals/Arrival)
3: Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
2: Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
1: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Like Crazy (La pazza gioia))
This list could have been made up from a number of performances featured in last year’s Oscars – yet Brie Larssen, winner of the 2016 Oscar for best actress for her performance in Room, failed to make my top five (I placed her sixth on the list). Of the nominations for last year’s Oscar, my vote would have been cast for the quiet, superbly nuanced performance by veteran actress Charlotte Rampling and 45 Years.
Other’s just outside the top five include Sally Field (Hello, My Name is Doris), Margot Robbie (Suicide Squad – even though I did not like the film) and veteran Japanese actress Kirin Kiki for An (known as Sweet Bean in the States).
Three of the likely 2017 contenders are featured in my top 5 for the year. Emma Stone and La La Land slips into my list – the last film I saw in 2016 – and she (just) steals the acting accolades from Ryan Gosling. Amy Adams also makes my list – and a little unfairly in a way as there are two superb performances to take into account (and which I saw on the same day!). It’s Arrival that’s winning the attention but my personal preference (just) is for Tom Ford’s sublime Nocturnal Animals.
Isabelle Huppert pulls off the challenge of the rape victim who turns the tables on her attacker in Elle, a so-called taut mystery which I personally found loathsome and offensive as a film. But there was no denying Huppert’s performance and she may well gain her first Oscar nomination.
But its Valeria Bruni Tedeschi who gets my vote for 2017 and her fabulous bipolar performance in the Italian comedy drama Like Crazy (La pazza gioia). She completely owned that role!
An Italian Thelma & Louise as Beatrice and Donatella escape a psychiatric facility deep in rural Italy.
It’s a fun ride with the well-heeled Beatrice (a magnificently loopy, constantly talking Valeria Bruni Tedeschi – Human Capital, A Castle in Italy) leading a suicidally-depressed Micaela Ramazotti (The First Beautiful Thing, Those Happy Years) in search of her young son.
Comedy and drama, pathos and elation are part of their journey as the two women develop a close friendship. Director Paolo Virzi (Human Capital, The First Beautiful Thing) avoids all the hospital stereotype pitfalls, allowing the narrative to follow the two central characters in their adventures.
An evocative (Sicilian) setting with quiet, graceful, almost motionless performances, The Wait and its longeurs of pauses and silences is a film of slow building emotions.
In her grief, Anna (Juliette Binoche – The English Patient, Clouds of Sils Maria) is unable to reveal the truth to Jeanne (Lou de Laage – Breathe, The Innocents) who arrives from Paris to spend the holidays with her boyfriend, Giuseppe.
Beautifully shot, it’s the nuanced performances of the two women and the underlying study of grief that carries an otherwise wafer thin narrative in this adaptation of two Pirandello short stories by first-time feature director, Piero Messina.
A film director is struggling to remain focussed on her latest feature with her mother seriously ill in hospital. Things are not helped by the leading man unable to remember his lines.
In its understated simplicity and slice of the everyday, Mia Madre is a beautifully observed story of loss and grief. Margherita Buy (The Caiman, His Secret Life) is superb as Margherita, a professional woman needing to be in control but who therefore struggles to give voice to her emotions. It is only with her brother Giovanni (Nanni Moretti) she can be herself.
A bombastic, almost caricaturist, performance by John Turturro (Quiz Show, Barton Fink) as the (loud) Italo-American film star upsets the quietness of Mia Madre. Instead of light relief, Turturro undermines its intimacy, ensuring the two ‘parts’ of the storyline are never fully integrated.
Ambitious, eccentric yet ultimately unpleasant, A Bigger Splash is, on the surface, a story of a rock-star generation growing old. But with its three Europeans and one American at the core of the story, holed up on a remote Italian island itself dealing with illegal immigrants, there’s more than a passing reference to colonialism.
Arrogant behaviour, no speaking the local language, a constant shift in allegiances between the ‘superpowers’ – all compacted into the menage-a-quatre unfolding in front of us. Not one of the characters is particularly likeable – with Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter, The English Patient) in fine fettle as a hugely annoying music producer/manager.
Director Luca Guadagnino is responsible for I Am Love, one of my personal favourite films of the last decade (and also starring Tilda Swinton). A Bigger Splash, sadly, is a miss.
Frustrating. At times, sublimely beautiful as the camera pans past half-submerged bathers perfectly lined up at the edge of the pool: other times completely art-house baffling – an airline stewardess standing in the middle of a Swiss Alpine meadow?
As with his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, Paolo Sorrentino explores the bizarre and surreal, reminiscent of Fellini, but without the masters’s wit or observational finesse.
In Youth, there’s lots of ‘moments’ but precious little depth. But Sorrentino certainly knows how to use music both in his narrative and as pure artifice.