Better Acquainted

The latest exhumation by Rialto Pictures, in glorious black-and-white, comes not from France, as has been the rule, but from Italy, and not from so familiar a figure as Godard, Malle, Melville, Franju, Sautet, or Clouzot, but from Alberto Lattuada. Mafioso it is called, dating from 1962, playing for the next week at the Ken Cinema.

Scarcely an unknown name, Lattuada (1914-2005) had a long career, rooted in the neo-realism of the Forties and extending (one can't say flourishing) into the Nineties. While I have often enough come across his name in print, linked with De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, Zampa, Zavattini, et al., as one of the standard-bearers of wartime and postwar Italian cinema, I have come across his name on screen but seldom. He was the co-director of Variety Lights, albeit overshadowed by its other director, Federico Fellini. Together with Fellini, Antonioni, Lizzani, Risi, and Zavattini, he contributed a segment (in my memory the best one) to the omnibus film, Love in the City. And when I was doing the most voracious moviegoing of my life in the late Sixties, in the banquet hall of New York City, his name would crop up on English-dubbed international co-productions such as Matchless, a James Bond knockoff with Patrick O'Neal, and Fraulein Doktor, an espionage period piece with Suzy Kendall. Too, his name was on the otherwise unnotable 1978 screen debut of Nastassja Kinski, Stay As You Are. None of those three would be seen as a feather in anybody's cap.

Still, he is a name, and in 2003 when I went to the Cannes film festival, I gravitated to a restoration of his I Dolci Inganni, 1960, a sparsely attended screening which for me proved to be one of the highlights of the festival. At any rate the opening sequence was a highlight, the fifteen-year-old Catherine Spaak, in her first major role, waking up in a gossamer nightie from a manifestly erotic dream, and consciously coming to grips with its import. I remarked on it at the time in these pages, but what I didn't say, and what I feel safer in saying after a lapse of years, is that this struck me as one of the great opening sequences of any film in history. You can keep your Citizen Kane, your Touch of Evil, your Sunset Boulevard, your Once upon a Time in the West. I am a little sorry to have been so autobiographical, but my purpose is simply to illustrate the larger point of the elusiveness of Alberto Lattuada, even after half a century of diligent movie watching, and the impossibility of having an informed assessment of him. The long and the short of it is that I was primed for Mafioso.

Another point of attraction, if I may add another brief chapter of autobiography (skip to the next paragraph if I may not), is the presence in it of Norma Bengell, the unsettlingly intense, ardent, and dramatic presence, to be specific, of those close-set wide eyes and straight strong dark brows, those full peaked puckery lips, those built-up cheekbones and scooped-out cheeks, that teardrop beauty spot, that flat broad forehead proudly shown off beneath brushed-back hair, a presence that would not look out of place, say, on Mount Olympus. I had a big thing for Norma Bengell circa 1970-79, after which time I lost track of her. The press notes from Rialto tell me that she is still active today as an "award-winning" documentary director in her native Brazil: well, I never figured her for a lightweight. They also tell me that her full birth name was Norma Almeida Pinto Guimarães d'Area Bengell. I would not expect one film buff in a hundred to recognize simply the first and last names. The likeliest path-crossing would have been Mario Bava's sci-fi and horror hybrid from the mid-Sixties, Planet of the Vampires, justifiably a cult classic, in which she was completely sheathed in black rubber, and substantially more flattered in that spacesuit than her paunchy co-star, Barry Sullivan. (When I later saw this again at the Museum of Modern Art, Susan Sontag took a seat in the row ahead of me.) Around that time she showed up as well in an early and not bad spaghetti Western by Sergio Corbucci, The Hellbenders, starring Joseph Cotten. But my big thing did not fully develop until I saw her for the first time in a Brazilian film (it wouldn't be the last), and accordingly, away from the dub-happy Italians, heard her own voice for the first time, in the very obscure A Noite Vazia, literally Empty Night, or as it was called in New York, Eros... Pursuit of the Bizarre, about two after-hours professionals who pass an unrestful night in the company of two prostitutes, the foursome paired off in every conceivable carnal combination save male homosexual. A gradual steady crescendo of degradation and disgust, in an affluent Antonioni ambience, this little chamber piece made two Top Ten lists that I know of: mine, unpublished, and, in Cahiers du Cinéma, Alain Robbe-Grillet's. (Under a spell, I signed up to study Portuguese in my last semester at Columbia.) One of the two men in the film was for a time her off-screen husband, the Italian Gabriele Tinti, who will be better known -- to perhaps two film buffs in a hundred -- as the mate of the Eurotrash sex goddess, Laura Gemser, the Black Emmanuelle. The director, Walter Hugo Khouri, will be known, if at all, as the man who, in Love Strange Love, recorded the nude scene of the future kiddie TV hostess and pop singer, Xuxa.

But this is getting terribly esoteric, and Mafioso is a film that ought not to be esoteric. It ought to be known far and wide. It tells of a toplofty foreman at a Fiat factory in Milan, portrayed by that Italian national icon, Alberto Sordi (Fellini's The White Sheik and I Vitelloni, most prestigiously), whose balloon-like ego, perilously puffed up and easily pricked, stretches well across the border between comedy and drama, a necessary range for the present role. On an overdue vacation to his native Sicily, to introduce to his kith and kin his fashionable northern wife (Bengell, but how strange to see her as a blonde!) and their two small daughters, he is entrusted by his boss to hand-deliver a "valuable" package to the local Mafia lord, Don Vincenzo, an errand which will precipitate a crisis of identity: Is he now more northern or still more southern? (The family's embraces at their reunion could hardly be more violently passionate had their soccer club just won the European Cup.) The entire plot, spiralling downward from domestic comedy and social satire to underworld nightmare, might be described as an analysis of the distinctive, the unique, the ineradicable Sicilian character. That it manages this without pretension, and without pedantry, is a mark of its subtlety. The documentary-style credits sequence in Milan (Lattuada's hometown) momentarily reaffirms the filmmaker's neo-realist credentials, and throughout he sets a leisurely pace that enables him, even in the lighter early stages, to pile up circumstantial little verisimilitudes that will smooth the transition to darkness. And no matter how far the film veers from the documentary style, it remains a document, one for the time capsule. Some of the material is pretty routine (the unibrow and mustache on the hero's spinsterly sister or her unemployed dowry-hungry fiancé), but Lattuada's handling of it is never less than adept and often quite inspired. The hero's journey to the New World inside a shipping crate, capped off by the neck-snapping vertical urban vistas that await him on his arrival, is really wonderful. Needless to add, I would be much happier in my work if every week of the year I had to see a dusted-off reissue from 1962. Not a lot of them could be more rewarding than this one.

* * *

Please pardon the lack of particulars on the Latino film festival: over so soon. The entry I might most have wanted to talk about (despite drawbacks in its presentation: the video projection and the inadvertent repeat of an entire five-minute sequence) was El Aura by the late Fabián Bielinsky, but this, a noir-ish whirlpool around an epileptic taxidermist, seems a fair bet to have a commercial release later on. Daniel Burman's Family Law, apart from the Jewishness of its protagonist, did not suggest to me a "Latin American Woody Allen" as advertised, but was singularly sweet and touching. Marcelo Pavan's La Punta del Diablo had terrific landscapes and weather. These three, coincidentally or not, are all Argentinian. How did you do?

* * *

I appreciate the online commenters who plugged a gap left by my tenth-grade World History teacher and put me wise that "Come back with your shield," as heard in 300, was in fact a common saying in old Sparta, where a shield was valued dearly. Evidently they really did mean that if you lose it, you shouldn't bother coming back at all. Let that be a lesson to me. Just don't ask me in addition to accept the movie as history. Or as cinema.

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