Sunday, October 26, 2014

Salvatore Giuliano [dir. Francesco Rosi]

Like with Gabriel Marquez's engrossing short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Francesco Rosi's cinematic adaptation of Salvatore Giuliano begins with informing us of the death of the titular character, then spends the rest of its time in a non-linear exploration of the events leading to that point. But who is Giuliano really? It's not a question the film is too interested in exploring. This is no biopic, its "hero" almost a prop for all the personality he is imbued with. We hear about him from the conversations and accounts provided by the other characters. During the flashback scenes where he is alive, we never see him front and direct, only off-screen or from behind the shoulder views.
History tells us that Giuliano was a bandit conducting kidnaps and extortion from his mountain hideout in Sicily. He had the reputation of a Robin Hood, and the local polizia found heavy resistance from the poor locals in their attempts to capture / repress him. At one point he was allegedly hired by the Sicilian governing body to run a campaign to give Sicily independence from Fascist Italy. Giuliano was also supposed to have been in cahoots with the Mafia to crush the influence of communists demanding for land reforms. In the context of the latter occurred the incident that started the count for his downfall - the Portella della Ginestra massacre, in which his men allegedly fired into a crowd of hundreds of people attending a public address by the communist party.
Rosi's film covers the above ground with a surgically precise sequence of incidents and points of view. The script maintains a constant ebb and flow between the events of Giuliano's turbulent life and the immediate aftermath of his killing. In its way, the film shows us how the perception of Giuliano depended on who he was allied with at a given point of time - when he fought the Facists on the behalf of the local government and Mafia he was hailed as a hero, when he took on the communists for that same Mafia who wanted to guard their land holdings he was an infamous bandit. Even the suspicious manner of his death (was he taken in a gun duel with the army or shot by his own man) and the post-mortem efforts by various parties to squarely place the blame of the massacre on Giulano's men while severing all ties with them bring to mind the unholy nexus between people in power and people of violence to keep the masses in check. The significant use of locations and non-professional actors from Giuliano's home town of Montelepre greatly builds the immersion. It is to my view a cousin of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers. It is not as incredibly thorough as that film in presenting a documentary-feel, but its roots in the neo-realist film movement can definitely be seen here. Gianni di Venanzo's visuals carry more flair and a strong whiff of film noir in the composition and lighting.

P.S. I also remember reading a Mario Puzo novel called The Sicilian, a potboiler that mixes up the character of Giuliano with Michael Corleone during his time of exile in Italy.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Pioneer [dir. Erik Skjoldbjærg]

Last night I saw Pioneer on the Arrow Films blu-ray. The protagonist of the film, Petter (Aksel Hennie, who would never be given a lead role in a Hollywood film), is Norway's star diver in a joint test mission with an American group to install an oil pipeline at the bottom of the sea for offshore drilling. During the course, a freak accident occurs, which leads to the death of Petter's brother, also a diver on the mission. Fighting guilt over possible responsibility in his brother's death, Petter investigates the matter (and this is where the casting is brilliant, because the actor doesn't have the star charisma that make audiences automatically root for him - in fact early on one thinks he may be looking for someone to blame to assuage his own guilt). But he finds a lot of doors being closed in his face, and even some attempts on his life. The challenges he faces in trying to ascertain the cause of the accident form the major crux of the film. As the story deals with a Nordic-American collaboration, the film has a mix of Norwegian and American actors, and Avatar's beloved evil colonel Stephen Lang plays a pivotal role.

Pioneer is not exceptional as a suspense/noir, but remains fairly solid with some (heh) immersive moments in its diving sequences. The pacing is mostly measured and low-key, as are the performances. The underwater scenes are excellently shot and there is a lovely moody electronic score from the French duo Air.

Arrow Films' (which is apparently a different company than the one that handles the Arrow Academy and Arrow Video labels) blu-ray is very solid in the technical presentation. Underwater, with its limited lighting and inherent murk, is never a great showcase for video quality, but we have a very strong presentation here with nicely saturated deep colors. Audio-wise I am likely short-changing the 7.1 surround track by playing it through stereo speakers but it sounds strong, especially in the occasional action sequence and in Air's score. There are zero extras here, which is disappointing for a film which would have had some interesting shooting challenges.
Edit: More than 6 years later, I revisited the film, the first time after my surround upgrade couple years ago. While my current 4.1 setup is still not taking full advantage of the 7.1 mix included on the disc, the sound-field is vastly more immersive now, especially during the underwater sequences (in combination with the visuals you get a great sense of the depth and density of the water medium), and ones where the weather is stormy. Even in indoor scenes there's a good bit of collateral ambience in the rears. It made the film a little more interesting to me, although I'd say after a point its script becomes a little too muddled and vague for the film to be really great. One little peeve is that for a film that has both Norwegian and English dialog, there is only one set of subtitles, which even provides subs for the English dialog. It would have been nice to have the option of a subs track that only covered the Norwegian dialog. There are zero extras here, which is disappointing for a film which would have had some interesting shooting challenges.