Illustrious Corpses, 1976. Perhaps Francesco Rosi’s most pointed and incisive social examination of the widespread instability, scandal, injustice, and corruption of (then) contemporary postwar politics, Illustrious Corpses opens to the image of a somber, elderly judge named Varga (Charles Vanel) as he walks pensively through the catacombs of a church, observing in painstaking detail the recesses and contours of the rows and rows of mummified corpses that curiously line the eerie, dimly lit passageways before emerging from the church entrance into the sunlight to continue his leisurely, routine morning walk. This silent communion between the judge and the ominous, seemingly endless succession of scattered, mummified corpses appropriately prefigures the evolution of the film’s dark tale of conspiracy and murder as well when, only moments later, Varga is felled by a single rifle shot to the head as he reaches up to pluck a flower from an overgrown courtyard tree. No sooner has Inspector Rogas (Lino Ventura) installed himself within the cadre of pall bearers for Varga’s funeral in order to conduct a low-key surveillance of potential suspects when he learns that a second assassination of a federal judge bearing a similar signature of calculated precision has taken place in another city, an implicit, high profile connection that immediately brings the country teetering ever closer to the brink of instability as word of a serial political assassin working to disrupt the justice system – and ultimately, the very fabric of society’s sense of law and order – begin to grip the nation with inconclusive, often conflicting news of the victims and the progress of the investigation. Operating under a theory that the murders may not be politically motivated, but instead, connected by a personal vendetta carried out by someone who had been jointly prosecuted – perhaps unjustly – by the judges in the same court, Rogas begins to follow a tortuous, often unpredictable trail culled from a list of wrongfully convicted former defendants and exonerated prisoners that would inevitably bring him into the nebulous company of a genial, but politically savvy Security Minister (Fernando Rey) whose insinuation into the company of left-wing political leaders betrays his own unscrupulous ambitions to retain power and weather any potential shifts in the political tide, a potential third target named Judge Rasto (Alain Cuny) who had transcribed some of the proceedings of the trials and now shutters himself in his home in constant fear of the faceless assassin, an enigmatic socialite named Madame Cres (Maria Carta) who may have planted incriminating evidence in order to frame her own husband for her attempted murder, Rogas’ trusted friend and scientist (Paolo Bonacelli) who begins to question the simple motive of vengeance for the murders as the logical realization of a sophisticated, ever widening (and deepening) level of conspiracy becomes increasingly inescapable, an ideologically rigid magistrate (Max von Sydow) who summarily rejects the intrusion of humanity or compassion into the dispensation of the law, even as he arbitrarily breaches it with illegal wiretaps and surveillance of those whom he deems to be a threat to social order. Incorporating familiar elements that have come to define Rosi’s cinema – elliptical narrative, estranged perspective, and illuminating dream sequences – Illustrious Corpses encapsulates the volatile, often incestuous relationships between the government, organized crime, political opposition, religious authorities, radicals, terrorists, and the media that have irreparably shaped the murky, turbulent landscape of 1970s Italian politics, a climate of protracted instability that would culminate with the kidnapping and murder of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade in 1978 (the subject of Marco Bellocchio’s penetrating docu-fiction, Good Morning Night). In its unflinching depiction of the abuse of power, heavy-handed governance, egregious alliances, and Machiavellian sense of justice and privilege, the film serves as a trenchant, contemporary, and relevant exposition into the ingrained political culture of corruption, arrogance, tenuous ideology, and delusive righteousness.
Christ Stopped at Eboli, 1979. In 1935, a distinguished artist and intellectual turned escorted political prisoner from Turin named Carlo Levi (Gian Maria Volonté) arrives at the railroad terminal station at Eboli for further transportation – first by a series of public buses, then by a waiting automobile dispatched by the regional mayor Don Luigi (Paolo Bonacelli) – into the remote district of Lucania (now Basilicata) in southern Italy where he is turned over to local officials to serve out his sentence of monitored confinement in the desolate town. After receiving a brief and informal (and highly irregular) orientation on the local customs and expected behavior – along with a healthy dose of village gossip – from Don Luigi (who seems more eager to make a good impression on the prominent detained “guest” than to enforce state regulation), Don Carlo is released into the population where his privileged life, medical degree, and progressive thinking seem at odds with the townspeople’s stubborn observation of ancient superstitions and outmoded, feudal customs. Resigned to an uneventful and leisurely existence, Don Carlo spends his empty days wandering aimlessly through the provincial town and spending quiet evenings at the boarding house. However, the seemingly predictable rhythm of his idyllic (if not idle) routine inevitably begins to be disrupted when a group of desperate mothers visit him one evening to seek out medical assistance for their ailing children, and soon, word of the non-practicing physician’s competency (and above all, willingness to help the destitute villagers) spreads through the insular village. Further motivated out of his inertia by his devoted sister Luisa (Lea Massari), a conscientious physician who witnesses first-hand the inadequacy of health care in the region, Don Carlo moves into his own home, and with the help of his diligent housekeeper Giulia (Irene Papas), begins to occupy his time in his studio and makeshift infirmary, in the process, finds renewed purpose in his state-imposed isolation.
A faithful adaptation of artist, physician, and author Carlo Levi’s autobiographical novel chronicling his detention and house arrest (confino) in Lucania as a political prisoner during the Abyssinian War, Christ Stopped at Eboli – a figurative expression for the local population’s enduring mysticism (that continues to exist despite the peasants’ respectful assimilation of the Catholic church) and sentiment of profound spiritual and moral desolation – is a thoughtful and sensitively realized portrait of isolation, resilience, and humanity. Francesco Rosi illustrates the region’s austere topography and natural environment through direct and unintrusive camerawork, capturing the author’s socio-political meditation on Lucania’s isolation and seemingly anachronistic coexistence between ancient and contemporary civilization that (perhaps deliberately) serve to estrange the population from the rest of the nation and, consequently, results in their perennial marginalization (if not, exclusion) by ruling governments. Exploring similar themes of isolation and rural depopulation (specifically, village men who immigrate to America, often abandoning their families) as Theo Angelopoulos within the objective framework of Levi’s experiences and observations during his confinement in the remote region, the film transcends the humanist tale of personal redemption to create a haunting, melancholic, and incisive commentary on cultural oppression and indigenous exile.
Three Brothers, 1981. Three Brothers opens to an oddly sterile medium shot of a building wall (made even colder and more impersonal by the black and white photography) as the amplified sound of a heartbeat discordantly accompanies an elegiac melody, before a jarring chromatic shift focuses the camera in extreme close-up at the center of a littered, derelict vacant lot amid a pack of rats scavenging for food. The strangely primal image serves to wake the pensive and introverted Rocco (Vittorio Mezzogiorno) from his discomforting sleep, who then subsequently opens his door to reveal the bustling sight of rambunctious, troubled adolescents in their sleeping quarters at a juvenile reformatory facility in Naples. An early morning visit from the local police seemingly reinforces his own sense of crisis over the efficacy of his selfless efforts to rescue the children entrusted to his care as their investigation into a series of petty thefts has been traced back to several unidentified young delinquents who have devised a means to scale the walls of the institute at night to sneak into town, then return to the facility unobserved by morning, and have asked Rocco for his assistance in identifying the perpetrators. The theme of protective and isolating walls carries through to the image of Rocco’s elderly father Donato (Charles Vanel) as he leaves the gates of his remote mountainside villa in southern Italy and, while walking through an open field, has a surreal encounter with his wife Catalina as she attempts to recapture an errant rabbit that had escaped from the kitchen. Donato’s subsequent arrival at a telegram office in town reveals the source of the old man’s melancholic bewilderment over the unexpected rendezvous as he initiates a series of telegrams to his grown children informing them of their mother’s death. The eldest son Raffaelle (Philippe Noiret), a successful, often publicized judge in Rome who has presided over a series of high profile cases involving organized crime and domestic terrorism, has been asked to assume yet another volatile (and consequently, potentially dangerous) case from a retiring, disillusioned judge. Weighing the entreaties of his apprehensive wife (Andréa Ferréol) to reject the proposed judicial appointment out of safety concerns with his own moral imperative to dispense law fairly in the belief that the simple (but often courageous) act of upholding justice reinforces the nation’s underlying fabric of democracy, Rafaelle seizes his unexpected trip to his ancestral home away from the familial pressures of his own wife and son as an opportunity to reflect on what could become a fatal decision. In contrast to the well-established Rafaelle, the youngest son Nicola (Michele Placido), estranged from his northern-born wife, leads a near transient life as a factory worker in Turin, constantly championing the cause of the working class by participating in worker strikes and management intimidation. Bringing along his warm and affectionate young daughter Marta (Marta Zoffoli) home for the funeral, his life has been defined by the instability of his personal and professional relationships. Brought together by tragedy, the three ideologically dissimilar brothers are compelled to reflect on their own personal direction in the gravity of their profound, shared grief.
Loosely adapted from Andrei Platonov’s novel The Third Son by Francesco Rosi and renowned screenwriter Tonino Guerra, Three Brothers is an elegantly muted, thoughtful, and provocative observation of the sociopolitical climate of 1970s Italy, as the national struggle with widespread corruption, economic disparity, organized crime, delinquency, and domestic terrorism (by the young radicals of the Red Brigade) seemed escalating and interminable. By integrating extended dream sequences into a naturalistic, social realist framework, Rosi illustrates the underlying idealism and sense of human decency that pervade the seemingly conflicting actions and divergent life calling of the three brothers as each strives to improve social conditions through dedicated service. Rosi further incorporates recurring imagery of life in the bucolic southern village through dreams and flashbacks in order to reflect a timelessness and perpetuity of Donato and Catalina’s simple, unhurried life in the country: Donato’s dissemination of the tragic news through outmoded telegrams (in the absence of a telephone in the house) that is inferred in Rocco’s memory of the delayed arrival of Allied soldiers on a lone tank into town (and into the sight of an puzzled, surrendering village) to announce the end of war; Marta’s oblivious playing at a grain storage barn that mirrors a flashback of a newly married Catalina (Simonetta Stefanelli) burying her feet in the sand on a beach and subsequently losing her wedding ring; the couple’s joyful outdoor wedding celebration despite the interruption of rain that is contrasted against constant reminders of their sons’ fractured (Nicola), voluntarily separated (Raffaelle), and nonexistent (Rocco) families. It is this sentimental incongruence that inevitably defines the seeming cultural irreconcilability between the rooted Donato and his emigrated children – an understanding of one’s humble sense of purpose within the unpredictable and disillusioning chaos of his environment – the patience to carry out the minutiae of life’s forbidding, existential task, diligently sifting through the metaphoric sands of time, to recover an irreplaceable piece of one’s soul.
Acquarello 2004-2006 [reprinted]