Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Useful Life and Cinema Paradiso

In August, the Castro had a double feature about fictional movie theaters and the problems the theaters and their employees face.  I liked both films very much.

A Useful Life starring Jorge Jellinek; directed by Federico Veiroj; Spanish with subtitles; (2010)
Cinema Paradiso starring Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin & Philippe Noiret; directed by Giuseppe Tornatore; Italian with subtitles; (1988)

A Useful Life an Uruguayan film (the first I can recall seeing) set at a film archive.  There is, in real life, a Cinemateca Uruguaya and the main a characters are named after the actors who portray them.  Jorge Jellinek, a film critic, plays Jorge, the director of the cinemateca in the film.  Although a low key type of guy, Jorge is passionate about his job and the films archived and screened at his cinemateca.  The first part of the film is virtually a training video on how to run a cinematheque.  We see Jorge going through the minutia of tasks needed to keep the institution functioning.  His personality is such that we can't tell if it drudgery or eustacy for him; only hindsight does the audience realize what a gilded cage the cinemteca was for Jorge.

Budget woes force the cinemateca's closing and it has a profound effect on Jorge.  He doesn't so much having a breakdown as much he lets go of his inhibitions.  Long attracted to Paola, a law school professor, his uncertain status gives him a devil may care attitude; particularly w.r.t. wooing Paola.  In the most memorable scene, Jorge pretends to be a law school professor and gives the students an outrageous lecture which I have as being inspired by a Mark Twain essay.  If Jellinek is a film critic, he must have studied or learned acting through osmosis because Jorge's transformation is profound.

At just over 60 minutes, A Useful Life doesn't waste any time in laying out its story - a simple, personal story about a man facing a loss of identity and how he copes.  In the background is the loss of the cinemateca (which hit close to home given theater closings here in the Bay Area).  The choice of Twain was appropriate becuase viewing A Useful Life is like reading a very good short story.

Cinema Paradiso is modern day classic.  It's about a boy/young man who grows up in a small town and becomes friends with the movie theater's projectionist (Philippe Noiret).  His father having died dring the war, Salvatore latches of to Alfredo (Noiret) as a father figure but Alfredo sees something special in the young boy.  Intelligent and intrigued by movies, the two form a friendship as co-projectionists.  Most of the film takes place over 15 years or so.  Two different actors plays Salvatore - Salvatore Cascio as a boy and Marco Leonardi as a young man.  Most of the film is told in flashback so a third actor (Jacques Perrin) plays him as a successful, middle-aged film director.

The meat of the film (and the most satisfying part) involves the boy (and later young man) coming of age while Alfredo becomes a sagacious mentor after a nitrate fire blinds him.  As Salvatore begins experimenting with his own films, Alfredo counsels him to leave the small (and small-minded) town to fulfill his potential.  There is a love interest for Salvatore and some other subplots which I've skipped over.

The film is told in flashback. At the beginning of the film, middle-aged Salvatore is informed at Alfredo has died and returns to the town for his funeral.  The Castro screened the extended cut version of Cinema Paradiso which added much to the love story plotline and casts Alfredo in a different shade. We see that Alfredo urges the girl to let Salvatore go so he can achieve his greatness.  The bachelor Salvatore exhibits some misogynistic tendencies.  He hides a note from the girl so that Salvatore will not be able to contact her and will think she left him.  This misconception is corrected in the extended cut as middle-aged Salvatore meets the girl, now a mother of a teenager (whose resemblance to her younger self is how Salvatore track her down).  I thought this part was too contrived.  The most salient point in the extended was the Alfredo caused or contributed to Salvatore losing his first, and perhaps, only love.  This strains his love for Alfredo and makes their relationship more complicated.  Alfredo is responsible for this professional success and personal loss which must lead to conflicted feeling about the man which now Salvatore cannot resolve through direct conversation.

The most famous part of the film is a montage scene of kisses which have been censored out of the films which screen at Cinema Paradiso (the name of the theater in the film).  There is a priest who pre-screens every film in the town.  He rings a bell for objectionable parts which Alfredo and later Salvatore edit out.  Alfredo edited all the excised parts together and left the reel for Salvatore after his death.  This montage is made more powerful in the extended cut because they are visual representations of love which Alfredo conspired to deny him.

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