The International Lens: Il Divo (dir by Paolo Sorrentino)

Earlier tonight, as I watched the 2008 Italian film, Il Divo, it occurred to me that political corruption really is an international language.

The film is heavily stylized biopic of Giulio Andreotti.  Andreotti (who died five years after the release of this film) is nearly unknown figure in the United States but, in Italy, he spent several decades as a member of the country’s political elite.  He was a controversial figure, a man who served several terms as prime minister and was later appointed senator for life but who was also accused of being politically corrupt and affiliated with some of the worst elements of the Mafia.  People who threatened to investigate Andreotti or who could have contributed to his downfall had a habit of ending up dead.  No sooner has Il Divo begun then we’re treated to a lengthy montage of Andreotti’s associates getting killed in various ways.  Some are gunned down.  One is found hanging underneath a bridge.  One is in an exploding car.  The film also opens with a title card that informs us that, over the course of Andreotti’s long career, he was rumored to be one of the leading members of the P2, a masonic lodge that counted among its members some of the most powerful men in Italy.  P2 is one of those organizations that conspiracy theorists love to obsess upon.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, Il Divo is an Italian film that deals with the life of a prominent Italian political figure and, needless to say, it was made for an Italian audience.  For an American viewer like me, it was often impossible not to get confused as I tried to keep up with who was working with who and who had just been killed.  In short, this film was made to be viewed by people who already know who Guilo Andreotti was and who are familiar with the details of his long career.  It was not made for someone like me who is still struggling to wrap her mind around the fact that Italy has both a prime minister and a president.

But, in the end, it really didn’t matter if I occasionally struggled to follow every twist and turn of Andreotti’s career.  Il Divo may technically by a biopic of Giulio Andreotti but, on a larger scale, it’s about how power corrupts and the banality of evil.  Those are universal themes and you certainly do not have to be any particular nationality to be familiar with the fact that people who dedicate their lives to accumulating political power often turn out to be, at the very least, willing to cut some ethical corners.  I may not have always understood every detail of Il Divo‘s story but I did understand exactly what the film was ultimately about.

As played by Toni Servillo, Andreotti does not come across as being  particularly charismatic politician.  With his hunched back and his bat-like ears, Andreotti almost seems like a caricature of a corrupt leader.  In the film, one immediately sees that Andreotti hasn’t held onto his power because he’s particularly loved by the people.  Instead, he’s held onto power by being smarter than those who would try to defeat him.  No matter how determined his enemies may be, Andreotti is always just a little bit more ruthless.  Andreotti succeeds because he’s willing to do what he has to do to succeed and he’s willing to ally himself with people who have a stake in his continued success.  While the film never comes out and says that Andreotti was personally responsible for ordering the deaths of any of his enemies, it does suggest that he purposefully surrounded himself with men who would do anything to keep Andreotti in power, if just to protect their own fiefdoms of corruption.

There’s an early scene in Il Divo where Andreotti’s allies all arrives for a meeting with the prime minister.  Most of them are politicians.  One of them is a cardinal.  Another is simply identified as being a “businessman.”  They pull up in their expensive cars and then we watch as they walk across the screen in slow motion, arrogantly confident in the fact that they’re above any and all legal or ethical considerations.  They’re all wealthy men and they all seem to understand the importance of keeping Andreotti happy.  Carlo Buccirosso plays Paolo Cirino Pomicino, who was one of Andreotti’s chief allies.  Buccirosso plays Pomincino as being glibly hyperactive, a cheerfully corrupt ball of energy who seems to be having all of the fun that Andreotti denies himself.  Because Andreotti denies himself an interest in anything other than wielding and holding power, he is invulnerable to attack and prosecution but sometimes it’s hard not to wonder if he would have rather have been Pomincino, dancing at parties and sliding across tiled floors.

Indeed, Andreotti begins and ends Il Divo as an enigma.  How deeply involved is he in the murders occurring around him?  Is he ordering them or is he just turning a blind eye?  What makes Andeotti tick?  By the end of the film, his main motivation seems to be bitterness.  Death may be inevitable but he’s not going to go until everyone else goes first.  That is a motivation that many politicians across the world probably share.  Corruption is universal.

Tarzan in Manhattan (1989, directed by Michael Schultz)

An evil businessman named Brightmore (Jan-Michael Vincent) abducts Cheetah the Chimpanzee from Africa and takes him back to Manhattan.  It’s up to Cheetah’s best friend, Tarzan (Joe Lara), to rescue him.  Tarzan goes to New York where he meets a cabbie named Jane (Kim Crosby) and her father, a tough private investigator named Archimedes (Tony Curtis).  Tarzan is also briefly detained for being in the country illegally but he pulls the bars out of his cell window and escapes.  Presumably, so does everyone else in the jail.  Way to go, Tarzan.

Lisa and I discovered this playing on the Z-Living Channel last night and we watched it because it was either watch this or start binging the Police Academy films on Netflix.  That’s what this damn pandemic is leading to.  We know we’re probably going to have to watch the entire Police Academy franchise at some point but we’re trying to put it off.  So, we watched Tarzan in Manhattan.  Damn you, COVID-19!

It was bad.  It was really, really bad.  It was obviously meant to be a pilot for television series but I guess it didn’t happen.  The timing was off.  If Tarzan in Manhattan had been made in the 90s, it probably would have led to a syndicated series that would currently be airing on H&I, next to episodes of Renegade and Sheena.  It came out in 1989, though, too early to cash in on the wave of syndicated crap that was unleashed after the success of Baywatch proved that you didn’t have to produce a quality show to find success in syndication.  Because it came out too early, we were spared annual Tarzan in Manhattan conventions.  Let that sink in and be happy.

Plus, it’s just really, really bad.  Did I say that already?  It’s true.  There’s nothing consistent about Tarzan in Manhattan.  It wants to be a comedy, it wants to be a drama.  It wants to be an updated version of Tarzan but it still wants him to be confused by the modern world.  The movie also doesn’t seem to know if Tarzan is famous or not.  It seems like he must be because Brightmore went through a lot of trouble to kidnap his chimpanzee.  But, in Manhattan, no one seems to know who he is.  The movie also doesn’t get Tarzan’s famous jungle call right, either.  This Tarzan just yells, without any special inflection to let the world know that he’s Tarzan.  Instead of It’s like he’s not Tarzan at all.  Jan-Michael Vincent and Tony Curtis both seem bored while Joe Lara has the right look for Tarzan but not much else to recommend him.  The chimpanzee survives without being used to test makeup or whatever it was Brightmore was planning on doing with him so at least the movie has that going for it.

Film Review: King of Kings (dir by Nicholas Ray)

The 1961 film, King of Kings, was the final biblical film that I watched on Easter.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it tells the story of Jesus from the Nativity to the Ascension.  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s an epic film that was directed by a renowned director.  (In this case, Nicholas Ray.)  Like The Greatest Story Ever Told, King of Kings also has a huge cast and there’s a few familiar faces to be seen, though it doesn’t really take the all-star approach that George Stevens did with his telling of the story.

Probably the biggest star in King of Kings was Jeffrey Hunter, who played Jesus.  Hunter was in his 30s at the time but he still looked young enough that the film was nicknamed I Was A Teenage Jesus.  (Some of that also probably had to do with the fact that Nicholas Ray was best known for directing Rebel Without A Cause.)  But then again, for a man who had so many followers, Jesus was young.  He hadn’t even reached his 40th birthday before he was crucified.  As well, his followers were also young while his many opponents were representatives of the establishment and the old way of doing things.  It makes perfect sense that Jesus should be played by a young man and Hunter gives a good performance.  As opposed to so many of the other actors who have played Jesus in the movies, Jeffrey Hunter is credible as someone who could convince fishermen to throw down their nets and follow him.  He’s passionate without being fanatical and serious without being grim.  He’s a leader even before he performs his first miracle.

King of Kings is one of the better films that I’ve seen about the life of Jesus.  While remaining respectful of its subject, it also feels alive in the way that so many other biblical films don’t.  Perhaps not surprisingly, Nicholas Ray focuses on the idea of Jesus as a rebel against the establishment.  Ray emphasizes the casual cruelty of the Romans and their collaborators.  When John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) is arrested by Herod (Frank Thring), it’s not just so the filmmakers can have an excuse to work Salome (Brigid Bazlen) in the film.  It’s also to show what will happen to anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.  When Jesus visits John the Baptist in his cell, it’s a summit between two rebels who know that they’re both destined to die for the greater good.  When Pilate (Hurd Hatfield) makes his appearance, he’s smug and rather complacent in his power.  He’s not the quasi-sympathetic figure who appears in so many other biblical films.  Instead, he’s the epitome of establishment arrogance.

As a director, Nicholas Ray keeps things simple.  This isn’t Ben-Hur or The Ten Commandments.  The emphasis is not on grandeur.  Instead, the film is about common people trying to improve the world in which they’re living, while also preparing for the next.  Jeffrey Hunter gives an excellent performance as Jesus and, all in all, this is one of the better and more relatable biblical films out there.

Film Review: 40 Nights (dir by Jesse Low)

The 2016 film, Forty Nights, opens with John the Baptist (Terry Jernigan) baptizing a surprisingly mellow Jesus (DJ Perry) while John’s followers watch.  After Jesus is baptized, the voice of God echoes through the land and, once again, the thing that struck me was just how laid back God sounded.  It’s rare that we ever see either Jesus or his Father portrayed as being so calm and easy-going and I have to say that I found it to be a somewhat nice change of pace from the more intense approach the most actors tend to take.  Of course, I don’t know if that was intentional or just a happy accident.  It was probably the latter.

After getting baptized, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights, fasting in the Judaen desert and proving his own faith.  During that time, Jesus was tempted three times by the Devil, who appeared in various guises and tried to convince Jesus to not only break his fast but to also wantonly display his power.  The Devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread.  He tempted Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of a temple so that the angels might break his fall.  Finally, he offered to give Jesus all of the kingdoms of the world in return for Jesus worshiping him.  Not surprisingly, this confrontation between Satan and Jesus has proven popular with both writers and filmmakers.  For instance, The Greatest Story Ever Told featured Donald Pleasence as a smug Satan.  The more recent Last Days In The Desert featured Ewan McGregor playing both Jesus and Satan.

Forty Nights takes a no-frills approach to the 40 days and nights that Jesus spent in the wilderness, alternating between scenes of Jesus being tempted and flashbacks to Jesus’s youth.  Sometimes, the low-key approach is effective and sometimes, you find yourself longing for the more over-the-top approach that other films brought to the same material.  For a battle between good-and-evil, there’s not really much of a battle to be found in this film.  Over and over again, Satan appears, taunts Jesus, and then Jesus tells him to go away.  While that may be faithful to the narrative, it doesn’t quite work in the film because, at no point, does there seem to be any risk of Jesus giving into Satan’s temptations.  Because Jesus, in this film, never seems to be truly tempted, there’s less triumph to him refusing to give in.  Instead of being about Jesus showing strength and faith, Forty Nights often seems like it’s more about Satan’s inability to take the hint and go away.  The film is at its best when Satan and Jesus are debating each other atop of the temple and oddly enough, the effectiveness of that scene is largely due to how badly the film’s green screen effects are integrated into the film.  It gives the entire scene an otherworldly, almost dream-like feel.

Anyway, Forty Nights is a film that will probably be best appreciated by those who already agree with the film’s viewpoint.  This is not the faith-based film that’s going to convert unbelievers and ultimately, it fails to maintain any sort of real narrative momentum.  Still, the temptation in the wilderness is still an effective and intriguing narrative and one to which filmmakers will probably continue to return.




Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)

The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.