Embracing the Melodrama Part II #92: Stealing Beauty (dir by Bernardo Bertolucci)


Stealing_Beauty_PosterI love Italy.

Some of that’s because I happen to be a fourth Italian.  And a lot of it is because many of my favorite filmmakers are Italian.  However, Italy is also place of which I have a lot of wonderful memories.  I spent the summer after my high school graduation in Italy and it was amazing.

Venice was full of sensual mystery (and, to be honest, some pretty obnoxious tourists as well).  Naples was dangerous and exciting.  Pompeii made me feel like I was living history.  Rome was full of handsome men and temptation.  When I walked through the Vatican, my inner Catholic girl suddenly woke up and I just had to stop and stare.  And Tuscany — oh my God, Tuscany!  That summer, as far as I was concerned, Tuscany was the most beautiful and romantic place on Earth.  I can still remember standing in the street of Florence and seeing the dome of the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in the distance and, for a minute, I almost felt like I was in a painting.  And I actually started to get light-headed and dizzy, I was so overwhelmed by it all.

(That’s right.  Stendhal Syndrome isn’t just a Dario Argento film.)

At it’s best, the 1996 film Stealing Beauty made me think about that wonderful summer that I spent in Italy.  And, at its worse, Stealing Beauty made me happy that I made that trip with my sisters and not Lucy Harmon.

Lucy Harmon is the main character in Stealing Beauty.  Played by a young Liv Tyler, Lucy is the teenage daughter of a poet who has recently committed suicide.  Lucy is a poet herself.  Among her poems: “The dye is cast/ The dice are rolled/ I feel like shit/ you look like gold” and “I wait/ I wait so patiently/ I’m as quiet as a cup/ I hope you’ll come and rattle me/ Quick!/ Come wake me up.”  That’s right — Lucy writes the same type of crap that I used to write when I was 17 and trying to impress everyone with the depth of my mind.  The only difference is that Lucy is rich and privileged so her poetry doesn’t actually have to be any good.

Anyway, Lucy comes to Tuscany for three reasons.  First off, she wants to be sculpted by one of her mother’s friends, who lives in a villa.  Secondly, she wants to lose her virginity to an Italian boy who, years before, kissed her.  And, finally, she wants to learn the identity of her father, who she believes to be one of the residents of the villa.

The film’s great when it concentrates on the beauty of Tuscany.  It’s a beautiful film to look at and, as its best, it captures the romance of being young and having your entire life ahead of you.  In that way, the film brought back a lot of good memories and it made me want to revisit Italy.

But then, whenever I was fully content to just enjoy the sight of Tuscany, the film had to try to focus on Lucy and the other people living in the villa and … bleh.  For all of their talk about art and political posturing, they all basically came across as being a bunch of self-righteous fakes, the equivalent of the millionaire with a Che poster in his office.  In the end, there are only two adults that you end up liking.  You like writer Alex Parris (Jeremy Irons) because he’s dying and, as a result, doesn’t feel the need to try to impress anyone.  And, despite the film’s intentions, you end up liking the local fascist, Carlo Lisca (Carlo Checchi), because he doesn’t apologize for or try to rationalize his narcissism.  You like Carlo because all of the other characters dislike him.

In the role of Lucy, Liv Tyler is obviously beautiful and gives as good a performance as the script will allow.  At the same time, as a character, Lucy got on my last nerve.  Judging from what we see of her work, Lucy is not a particularly talented poet.  In fact, Lucy appears to often be an amazingly vapid person.  (Her much-commented on virginity only serves to confirm that Lucy is largely meant to be a male fantasy.)  But, at the same time, she’s rich and she’s got a famous mother and, as a result, the film seems to be telling us that it’s not important that she’s not really that interesting.

So, plotwise, Stealing Beauty did not really work for me.  But the scenery was truly beautiful.

Review: V for Vendetta (dir. by James McTeigue)


“Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot. I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”

Alan Moore’s decision to want his name off the final credits for the film adaptation of V for Vendetta now makes sense. Moore has had a hate/hate relationship with Hollywood and the film industry in general. They’ve taken two of his other works in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. and bollocks’d them up (to borrow a term used quite a bit in V for Vendetta). Outside of Watchmen, Alan Moore sees V for Vendetta as one of his more personal works and after reading the screenplay adaptation of the graphic novel by The Wachowski Brothers his decision afterwards was to demand his name be removed from the film if it was ever made. Part of this was his hatred of the film industry for their past mistakes and another being his wish for a perfect adaptation or none at all. Well, V for Vendettaby James McTeigue and The Wachowski Brothers is not a perfect film adaptation. What it turns out to be is a film that stays true to the spirit of Moore’s graphic novel and given a modern, up-to-the-current news retelling of the world’s state of affairs.

V for Vendetta starts off with abit of a prologue to explain the relevance of the Guy Fawkes mask worn by V throughout the film and the significance of the date of the 5th of November. I think this change in the story from the source material may be for the benefit of audiences who didn’t grow up in the UK and have no idea of who Guy Fawkes was and what his Gunpowder Plot was all about. The sequence is short but informative. From then on we move on to the start of the main story and here the film adheres close enough to the source material with a few changes to the Evey character (played by Natalie Portman) but not enough to ruin the character. Caught after curfew and accosted by the ruling government’s secret police called Fingermen, Evey soon encounters V who saves her not just from imprisonment but rape from these so-called Fingermen.

Right from the start the one thing McTeigue and The Wachowski Brothers got dead-on was casting Hugo Weaving as the title character. Voice silky, velvety and sonorous, Weaving infuses V with an otherworldly, theatrical personality. Whether V was speaking phrases from Shakespeare, philosophers or pop culture icons, the voice gave a character who doesn’t show his face from behind the enternally-smiling Guy Fawkes mask real life. I’d forgiven the makers of this films for some of the changes they made to the story and some of the characters for keeping V as close to how Moore wrote him. Once V and Evey are thrown in together by the happenstance of that nightly encounter their fates became intertwined. Portman plays the reluctant witness to V’s acts of terrorism, murders and destruction in the beginning, but a poignant and emotionally powerful sequence to start the second half of the film soon brings Evey’s character not much towards V’s way of doing things, but to understanding just why he’s doing them. This sequence became the emotional punch of the whole film and is literally lifted word for word from the graphic novel. This is the sequence in the film which should resonate the loudest for most people whether they buy into the rest of the film or not.

The rest of the cast seemed like a who’s who of the British acting community. From Stephen Rea’s stubborn and dogged Chief Inspector Finch whose quest to find V leads him to finding clues about his government’s past actions that he’d rather not have found. Then there’s Stephen Fry’s flamboyant TV show host who becomes Evey’s only other ally whose secret longings have been forbidden by the government, but who’s awakened by V’s actions to go through with his own form of rebellion. Then there’s John Hurt as High Chancellor Adam Sutler who’s seen chewing up the scenery with his Hitler-like performance through Big Brother video conferences (an ironic bit of casting since John Hurt also played Winston Smith in the film adaptation of the Orwell classic 1984). I really couldn’t find any of the supporting players as having done a bad job in their performances. Even Hurt’s Sutler might have seemed over-the-top to some but his performance just showed how much of a hatemonger Sutler and, in the end, his Norsefire party really were in order to stay in power.

The story itself, as I mentioned earlier, had had some changes made to it. Some of these changes angered Moore and probably continues to anger his more die-hard fans. I count myself as one of these die-hards, but I know how film adaptations of classic literary works must and need to trim some of the fat from the main body and theme of the story to fully translate onto the silver screen. The Wachowski Brother’s screenplay did just that. They trimmed some of the side stories and tertiary characters from the story and concentrated on V, Evey and Inspector Finch’s pursuit of both the truth of V and his own journey in finding that truth. This adaptation wa much closer to how Peter Jackson adapted The Lord of the Rings. As a fan of Moore I understood why he was unhappy with the changes, but then Moore was and still is an avowed perfectionist and only a perfect adaptation would do.

Critics on both sides of the aisle have called V for Vendetta revolutionary, subversive, daring to irresponsible and propagandist. All because the film dares to ask serious questions about the nature and role of violence as a form of dissent. But the granddaddy question the film brings up that has people talking is the question: terrorist or freedom fighter? Is V one or the other or is he both? Make no mistake about it, V for all intents and purposes is a terrorist if one was to use the definition of what a terrorist is. The makers of this film goes to great lenghts to describe throughout the film just how Sutler and his Norsefire (with its iconic Nazi-like imagery and extreme fundamentalist Christian idealogy) party rose to power in the UK. Partly due to what seemed like the failed US foreign policy and its subsequent and destructive decline as a superpower and the worldwide panic and fear it caused as a result. V for Vendetta also ask just who was to blame for allowing such individuals to rule over them. V has his reasons for killing these powers-that-be, but he also points out that people really should just look in the mirror if they need to know who really was to blame. For it was the population — whose desire to remain safe and have a semblance of peace — gave up more and more of their basic liberties and rights for a return to order. If one was to look at the past 100 years they would see that it’s happened before. There was the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, Milosevic’s Greater Serbia, and the king of the hill of them all being Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Inner Circle.

Another thing about V for Vendetta that will surely talked about alot will be the images used in the film. Not just images and symbols looking so much like Nazi icons, but images from the events of the past decade which have become symbols of oppression and censorship. The film shows people bound and hooded like prisoners from Abu Ghraib. The reason of the war on terror used time and time again by Sutler to justify why England and its people need him and his group to protect them by any means necessary. V for Vendetta seems like a timely film for our current times. Even with the conclusion of the film finally accomplishing what Guy Fawkes failed to do that night of November 5th some 400 plus years ago, V for Vendetta doesn’t give all the answers to all the questions it raises. I’m sure this would be something that’ll frustrate them some audiences. So much of people who go to watch thought-provoking films want their questions answered as clearly as possible and all of them. V for Vendetta doesn’t answer them but gives the audience enough information to try and work it out themselves.

In final analysis, V for Vendetta accomplishes in bringing the main themes of Alan Moore’s graphic novel to life and even does it well despite some of the changes made. It is a film that is sure to polarize the extreme left and right of the political pundits and commentators. But as a piece of thought-provoking and even as a politically subversive film, V for Vendetta does it job well. It is not a perfect film by any respect, but the story and message it tries to convey in addition to its value as a piece of entertainment mor than makes up for its flaws. Alan Moore and his followers might not love and approve of this film, but it doesn’t mean the film in and of itself wasn’t a good one. Sometimes calls for literal adaptations of beloved works or no adaptation at all also becomes a form of creative oppression and censorship.