Zeffirelli ahead of Fellini (8½) and Antonioni (La Notte) on a trip to the countryside and back, after some measure of doubt, to Rome.
A Jack Lemmon comedy, an English comedy, a Jacques Tati, entirely Italian, exhibiting perfect technique from the start.
Jack Gold’s Ball-Trap on the Côte Sauvage picks up the camping turistico internazionale amidst the other misadventures.
The Taming of the Shrew
Zeffirelli’s model is Kazan’s Baby Doll for the initial rencounter, a detailed and deliberate emulation. Indeed, it can be said that Kazan’s frankness in its tacit way figures as the key and inspiration of the work.
The very play to measure these actors, who take it in measured strides.
Lucentio swiftly picks up the theme of Love’s Labour’s Lost.
Petruchio holds the mirror up to Katherine’s nature, she subsides.
The pretense of the schoolman and the lute-plucker costs them dear.
Romeo and Juliet
There has been some sublime preparation here in the great labors of Cukor and Castellani, leading to this point, Zeffirelli begins there with another set of labors, achieving what you may call a grand analysis of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, the three films are nevertheless co-equal, to be sure.
Lubitsch has Romeo und Julia im Schnee, Taylor & Bologna Love Is All There Is, for the comic side.
Again the very strong analysis is by way of Poe.
A wind of Botticelli breathes freshets forth, just to clear the stage of stage fustian, or what you will.
brother sun sister moon
He is larks, Saint Francis.
The structure is plainly derived from Michael Curtiz and the silly song the brothers sing in Francis of Assisi.
But the point is opposition and the Pope, who sees the light as God gives him.
Assisi’s best are astronauts and cosmonauts in their medieval attire, which puts the whole thing on a basis of Otto e mezzo (Francis on the roof with a sparrow, waving his arms).
Zeffirelli’s grandest inventions are in this film, San Damiano in the fields, poppies and grandeur around the ruins, then snow over all as the building continues into Spring, the great steps of the papal throne describing abstract parallels across the screen Pope Innocent descends.
Jesus of Nazareth
A film for television, three features long, on the survenience of spirit and the establishment of a right relationship with God in the world as it is, expressly divided by the sword of Christ into flesh and spirit for the purposes of analysis. “It is spiritually discerned” more than most films on this subject, rational analysis is largely left behind for the intuitions based on experience that form a personal testimony of limitless largess from heaven at the time of dire need. The penalty is paid, something entirely new is upon the world, the mind of God turned to speech and direct human utterance. The mysteries and parables have all their say confronting the ill as medicament, the miracles are tokens, “signs and wonders”, Lazarus dead and risen on the way to Jerusalem, a man blind from birth given sight, and not a way out of the dilemma.
Unity is Emmanuel, the lesson from the cross where Psalm 22 is reckoned. The texts are fulfilled in every jot and tittle. The cinematographic panoply takes an intimate view for the small screen, not lacking in scope but displaying distance for an inverse relation to the garden of Gethsemane and the ground covered on foot or rarely by donkey, the light of oil lamps at night or the marmoreal luster of the temple at Jerusalem.
Christ’s prank on the road to Emmaus is omitted, but he gives the Magdalen a box of ointment for his burial and is not there to receive it. “Noli me tangere,” he says in her recounting.
The Baptist is molded out of necessity, the call to repentance arises from the sin of Antipas. Jesus receives his formal baptism accompanied by a fugato first played at the return from Egypt and again at the temple, before the doctors, and one last time in Jerusalem.
Ustinov’s Herod has risen to high station as a man of the world by crushing underfoot “like scorpions” such things as prophets and messiahs, he is a touchingly sensitive man to slights on his tribal origins, with a witty mind. And so it goes for all the leading performances, as for all the scenes primarily in the first third, concerned with the Annunciation (cited from Leonardo) and so forth, intricately detailed as they are, before the ministry of Christ takes on quite another aspect. The stand or deliberate stance in every scene is to do “my Father’s business” in a series of points that lead to an articulation of many matters. False piety and worldly folly killed Christ, Dreyer the film critic would say, but he is risen.
The piety of Jews is their raison d’être, they are seen so well that St. Anne is a Jewish mother, Zerah a sharp, watchful intellect full of power, and Caiaphas the holiest of men. Cyril Cusack as the rabbi of Nazareth has a word with Joseph troubled by his wife’s condition, “there is the Law,” says the rabbi, only to be interrupted by a man at the door, “rabbi, may I?” This Hitchcockian moment (Rich and Strange) ends with the rabbi closing the door to continue speaking with Joseph. Zealots are described as “mad religious fanatics”, they seek to restore the purity of the State. Judas promotes Christ as King of the Jews, the Sanhedrin meets to consider the untenable claim of divinity.
Jesus robed in scarlet and crowned with thorns appears to Pilate exactly as Russell’s professor in Altered States to his future bride.
Olivier as Joseph of Arimathea gazes down at the camera whilst pondering Christ’s words, bouncing a reflection of himself on stage as Archie Rice addressing an audience member in character as though the theater were by the sea, “you don’t think I’m real, do you!” Richardson as Simeon is aped by Paul Newman in Scorsese’s The Color of Money, the one hears a baby’s cry and recognizes the Savior, Fast Eddie hears a propulsive break and remarks it.
The Slaughter of the Innocents bereaves Rachel, Jesus redresses the balance in Mary and John. Peter becomes the Rock when the foretold betrayal comes to pass, Thomas was there and doubting when Jairus’s daughter was raised. Salome is a king’s weakness, Nicodemus an old man’s strength.
Zeffirelli hasn’t the mind to go over ground gained by Stevens or Ray, hence his elisions and again the abundant feeling of good tidings. Half his work is done on the spot by actors such as Borgnine, playing the centurion who understands authority, or Cardinale as the adulteress, the canvas is set up for them to go. The Holy Land is very accurately gauged in North Africa because it is a thing seen and not imagined, photographically speaking.
The film is not addressed to Christendom (Stevens) or Christianity (Ray), as Kierkegaard the film critic would say, but to the working-out of settled problems for the satisfaction of those who, like St. Paul, have a mind to see impediments where none exist.
A private and ancient joke among the writers has Judas a scholar and translator (traduttore), son of a builder who put him through school. “Now,” says he, “I have never beaten copper, nor carved wood, nor caught fish as your men have, but I know your men.” Our Lord replies with, “the tree is known by its fruit.” The transmission of Jesus through the arms of synagogue and State is intended by Judas to acquit him as a man of parts, and by Zerah to demolish him. Pilate sees an ultimate threat to Roman authority in meek Jesus that his junior officers identify in fiery Barabbas. Judas is paid unexpectedly, almost as an afterthought, for his services to the temple. The thirty pieces of silver lie on the ground after he hangs himself like the coins of the Magdalen’s last customer.
The structure is a pun on the Church Militant and Triumphant, this is elegantly articulated by multiplying boxing into horse racing, with magisterial touches in the acting and the cinematography, which stretches Fred J. Koenekamp beyond the bounds of expectation into Vitruvian and Nerviesque delineations that constantly demand his complete attention during their operations.
A riposte to Pollack’s The Way We Were, if not a rebuke. Rebel Without a Cause figures very strongly in the imagery, and Buñuel’s El. A tinge of The Graduate gives you “that old-time religion”.
None of this seems to have been apparent to critics at the time. David Watkin achieves a good deal of the most minutely-brokered color cinematography ever.
Quiet countryside, serene village, prayers, la Madonna, and a knife fight to rid you of Turiddu, a rustic swain.
A happy filming, between stage and screen, of a work most congenial to Berg, whose piano sonata reflects H.M.S. Pinafore.
Verdi is just Rossini later on, an adequate scenic representation shows this, and the little drama is observable as well.
Zeffirelli represents Toscanini’s debut as a conductor in one of the greatest coups de cinéma ever filmed, the representation of a coup de théâtre. The curtain rising on daylight in Egypt, after the evening’s chaos, the overture conducted by a very well-trained actor and the quieting of the audience (he may be young but he’s Toscanini), is the accurate transcription of a successful stage effect. He follows it with a trumpeted procession (by way of a dissolve) adequately gauged to give a sense of grandeur exceeding the bounds of the stage. The ballerinas are weightier than we are accustomed to, the camera records the performance as such.
The Aida looks upon her captured countrymen, then at the Prince in his box. This also is a stage effect, rarely used but very effective. She then stops the show to denounce slavery in Brazil. The authenticity of the performance may thus be seen as preparing this final effect, which certainly recalls Reisz’ Isadora.
And so, Zeffirelli can’t be faulted for underplaying to his audience, that is to say, asking them to interpret as he goes along. What little critical notice the film has received seems to bear the stamp of rationalization, which is a polite way of saying it’s a poor excuse for antipathy. And yet this scene alone with its cellist rising at a pinch to take the baton, is certainly one of the grandest things to be seen anywhere, crowned with Cleopatra in blackface.
12 registi per 12 città
The city of Dante and David, a city of honest disagreements that go downstream.
Zeffirelli’s technique emulates Shakespeare, there is an Olivier, there is a Richardson, he “makes the turd” in a precise analysis.
The castle landscapes and interiors are no less precise. The children of Polonius, the wife of King Hamlet, Claudius the usurper, are very clearly seen, the engine of the play could not be better expressed, and so again the film stands with its predecessors.
Tea with Mussolini
To say that Tea with Mussolini is a really difficult film is enough to exonerate all the critics. It began as a memoir, and was subsequently expanded into a full-scale structure as this screenplay (with John Mortimer), then edited with exceptional rapidity, which has caused writers a great deal of embarrassment when they have to express themselves as to its significance and importance, which are of the utmost. Not that a film has to be as involved as this to flummox film critics as we know them, but they are given an excuse that is doubtless welcome to them.
The main structure is the opposition of æstheticism in the very strict sense of cold appreciation, to art in that of knowledgeable activity. Specifically, these English ladies who gather at the Uffizi for tea and copying are in no wise attuned to the actual work being produced in Italy at this time (Balla is seen), let alone Europe (Picasso), as collected by a wealthy American entertainer whom they know and look down on. Similarly, they are unaware of Il Duce except as patron of order and beauty, as these things are known to them.
Here we have come to the critical point faced by Zeffirelli in constructing this film. He must convey all that he knows now in its various stages of acquirement, without diminishment to any of them. The first stage is Englishness, Joan Plowright plays a secretary who would translate Florentine effusions into English prose on the spot. This is the lasting initial impression of strange foreign ways that he has never lost, and from there the stages may be observed progressively through æstheticism to understanding. All inviolate, within a narrative, which accounts for the editing.
The cocoon of English society held together by four o’clock tea was a kind of lens through which Florence could be looked at, and David Watkin’s cinematography gives plenty of views.
The acting is first-rate, of course, given in slivers of film interspliced to make a convincing impression of it, which is to say it’s precisely measured. The formal apparatus gives occasion for small local structures like the scene in the cathedral (an aperçu of “The Hunt” from The Twilight Zone with Arthur Hunnicutt as a countryman whose hound is debarred from heaven), and the sequence evoking The Go-Between to some effect in tight spaces.
There is another structural metaphor in a parallel youth disguised as a woman by the ladies, à la Achilles, to keep him out of the war. He breaks free of this to join the partisans, just as the hero discovers art. “Gotta bring home the bacon,” as Warhol tells us.
Stevenson and Mann refined to Dickens and Lawrence, cinematography by David Watkin, with the direct point made by Bergman in Fanny and Alexander.
An imaginary performance of Carmen, lip-synching for the camera.
A Tosca in view, no, it ends with “Casta diva”.
And so the moon, which cannot be brought down to earth by any rock promoter, however queer and punk in later years, shines according to its wont.
Fanny Ardant in English, Jeremy Irons.