Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Of the two Italian filmmakers who came to prominence in the '60s -- Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni -- the former seems to be today's popular and critical favorite. Antonioni has mostly been relegated to the status of "important" (a kiss of death) or the product of his time.

Criterion, the company that does superb restorations of older films, has worked their magic on Antonioni's L'Avventura (1961). The movie is now on Blu-ray disc in a dazzling transfer. The image is crisper than you would have experienced it in most theaters when it was initially released, and the sound has probably been upgraded as well. 

If you've only seen L'Avventura in ill-focused, scratchy prints but found it worthwhile, you owe it to yourself to watch the Criterion Blu-ray version. The musical score doesn't strike me as particularly important in this work, but the black-and-white photography is a celebration of tones. And you get a good impression of Sicily more than half a century ago.

The knock on L'Avventura is that it's too long and under-dramatized. Long it is, about two-and-a-half hours, but except for a scene or two I found it captivating. The editing is more leisurely than is the norm nowadays, but the film is dramatic in its own idiosyncratic way. (And at least you can follow the story, which is more than can be said for many contemporary movies.)

The external action isn't particularly complicated, although what is going on beneath the surface is sometimes hard to fathom. A group of rich Romans go on a yacht trip in the sea off Sicily. Among them are Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti); his maybe-fiancée Anna (Lea Massari); and Anna's close friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). They explore a volcanic island. When it's time to leave, Anna has gone missing. After calling in the coast guard to no avail, all except Sandro and Claudia return to Sicily, and they soon follow.

The rest of the picture focuses almost exclusively on Sandro and Claudia. He seems unconcerned about Anna, but strongly attracted to Claudia. At first Claudia resists Sandro's attentions, then discovers a passion for her missing friend's suitor.

The movie is somewhat disjointed, like a puzzle where certain pieces don't fit. For instance, the transition between Claudia's rejection and acceptance of Sandro is abrupt. Maybe she has fancied him all along, but I didn't notice any signs of it. Whatever isn't entirely clear, though, this is a movie about grown-ups with grown-up emotions, not the adolescents of all ages that predominate in American films today.

Antonioni at this point in his cinematic career had his own style, far from that of the visionary Fellini. Antonioni was more subtle, but most of his film is beautifully composed without calling undue attention its its director. L'Avventura is replete with knowingly framed shots and backgrounds that offer value added.

(I suspect this artist envied the greater attention given to Fellini, and later let himself be "influenced," partly successfully in Blow-Up, disastrously in Zabriskie Point. His last major film, The Passenger, was a recovery that played to his strengths.)

The central characters are strongly acted. And Monica Vitti -- oh, my. An almond-eyed Byzantine Madonna with wild locks of golden hair.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Constant non-comment

My counter doesn't indicate any notable drop-off in readership.

How come hardly any comments anymore? Have I become too uncontroversial? I'm not trying to stir up argument, but it would be nice to get a few reactions.

Regular programming will resume shortly.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

The Zephyr

Tomorrow, Easter Sunday, I will not go to church. But this past week, I went to a church.

The azure sky and warm breeze (known to the ancients as Zephyr) hinted at springtime, still shy in these parts, but with signs developing day by day. On impulse, I stopped at the Salem Church, near my home, scene of one of the many battles in this part of Spotsylvania County during Lincoln's War.

On May 3, 1863 -- a few months after the more famous Battle of Fredericksburg -- it was a center of carnage.

I was the sole visitor. The church can only be viewed from outside, the interior through a lower-story window. It is a simple building. The mid-19th century congregation consisted mostly of people from widely scattered farms, who no doubt couldn't afford a highly qualified architect or artistic decor.

As all the guidebooks note, small craters in the outside walls and broken brickwork are still visible. They are a little shocking, as they must have come strictly from rifle rounds; this was an ad hoc engagement by two armies moving fast, and there would have been no artillery.

If rifle fire could shatter brick walls like this, imagine what it could do to your skull, your throat, your intestines. Many a soldier on both sides didn't have to imagine it; they found out by experience.

Following the battle (which stopped the Union army advance) the church became a field hospital. According to an eyewitness:
Hundreds upon hundreds of wounded were gathered up and brought for surgical attention. . . . After the house was filled the spacious churchyard was literally covered with wounded and dying.

The sight inside the building, for horror, was perhaps, never equaled within so limited a space, every available foot of space was crowded with wounded and bleeding soldiers. The floors, the benches, even the chancel and pulpit were packed almost to suffocation with them.

The amputated limbs were piled up in every corner almost as high as a man could reach; blood flowed in streams along the aisles and the open doors.
The surroundings today are calm, except for the traffic downhill on Plank Road (Route 3), which follows the path via which Robert E. Lee brought a detachment of soldiers from Chancellorsville during the fight. There must be suffering spirits of dead combatants around, but I didn't feel anything creepy. The atmosphere just had that "seriousness" I mentioned earlier.

After the war the worshipers repaired the building, apparently with no architectural changes. (Interestingly, there were -- still to be seen -- separate entrances for men and women, and a third for slaves.) Regardless of how anyone feels about Christianity, preaching, praying and all that, there is something touching about how the worshipers restored their house of God to much the same condition as it had been before the savagery of war engulfed it. (Eventually, as the Fredericksburg suburbs overtook the area, the congregation built a new and larger church nearby and donated the old one to the National Park Service.)

I listened to the moaning of cars and trucks on Plank Road. I listened to the Zephyr's whistle. The past was quiet.