The 2 or 3 good films from 2016, and “Sunflower”, a lost De Sica classic.



Don­ald Clarke is one of the few con­sis­tent­ly reli­able film crit­ics on these shores, so when in a recent Irish Times col­umn he described Arrived as one of the best films of the year, I trot­ted along to the cin­e­ma con­fi­dent­ly expect­ing to be wowed. A cou­ple of hours lat­er I came out scratch­ing my head. It’s all right, and it cer­tain­ly is one of the best Hol­ly­wood films of the year, but that sure­ly is set­ting the bar at an embar­rass­ing­ly low level.

So nat­u­ral­ly enough, I set about com­pil­ing my own list of the year’s best films. And do you know what, he was right, though not I sus­pect in the man­ner that he meant. 2016 was a dread­ful­ly dis­ap­point­ing year film wise.

Hero­ical­ly, the Guardian man­aged to find no few­er than 48 films to rec­om­mend as their films of the year here. Includ­ing: the com­ic book pair of damp squibs Cap­tain Amer­i­ca and Dead­pool, the Coen’s pedes­tri­an­ly con­ven­tion­al Hail Cae­sar, the lat­est unnec­es­sary film-by-num­bers from Taran­ti­no The Hate­ful Eight, Tom Ford’s there’s‑no-there-there Noc­tur­nal Ani­mals, reviewed ear­li­er here, and, yawn, Ghost­busters.

Love and Friendship.

Love and Friend­ship.

This being the Guardian they even man­aged to rec­om­mend a cou­ple of Irish films. The, whis­per it, hope­less­ly mud­dled Room – whose sto­ry is it, his or hers, and what do they want? If it’s to escape, then what’s the sec­ond hour about, and if that’s not what they want, then what’s the first hour about? And Sing Street, which would be fine in a TV list­ings for a Sun­day evening as a mar­gin­al­ly more live­ly alter­na­tive to The Antiques Road­show, but should nev­er have been allowed with­in a three hun­dred mile radius of an actu­al cinema.

And, inevitably, they warm­ly rec­om­mend­ed I, Daniel Blake, which is, frankly, lit­tle more than a Ken Loach film. I know I know, you’re right, that is harsh, but hon­est­ly, that’s real­ly all it is.

Son of Saul.

Son of Saul.

There were a hand­ful of mem­o­rable films. Whit Stillman’s charm­ing adap­ta­tion of a minor Jane Austen, Love and Friend­ship, Lás­zló Nemes’ har­row­ing Son of Saul, Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Ser­pent (reviewed ear­li­er here), and Mat­teo Garrone’s majes­tic Tale of Tales (reviewed ear­li­er here).

Tale of Tales.

Tale of Tales.

But if in ten years’ time you were watch­ing a screen some­where and you rec­og­nized a scene from one of the above, which one of them would make you stop what you were doing to think, I hope I have time to sit down and watch the rest of this? Tale of Tales, just about, so long as the screen was suf­fi­cient­ly grandiose to do it jus­tice. But there’s noth­ing there that would make your heart skip a beat at the thought of hav­ing the chance to see it again. What do I mean by that? Sun­flower.

Sun­flower was part of a last great hur­rah that the tru­ly great Ital­ian film mak­er Vit­to­rio De Sica enjoyed, but had the mis­for­tune to be the first of two films that he released in the same year, in 1970. And it end­ed up being very unfair­ly eclipsed by his sec­ond film, the exquis­ite and heart-break­ing The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis, which went on to win the Acad­e­my Award for best for­eign film that same year, which I reviewed ear­li­er here.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.

The Gar­den of the Finzi-Continis.

Sun­flower is every bit as emo­tion­al­ly dev­as­tat­ing though in a some­what dif­fer­ent way. Sofia Loren and Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni fall in love on the eve of the sec­ond World War and, despite their best efforts, he is even­tu­al­ly forced to do his bit and is dis­patched to the East­ern front. When he fails to return, Loren sets off for Rus­sia deter­mined to find out what has become of him.

Very much a com­pan­ion piece to Demy’s sub­lime The Umbrel­las of Cher­bourg, like that film Sun­flower takes an appar­ent­ly mun­dane, every­day sto­ry, and gives it incred­i­ble emo­tion­al res­o­nance and depth by trans­form­ing it into an impos­si­bly bold and daz­zling­ly bril­liant melo­dra­ma. Almost as rav­ish­ing­ly colour­ful as Cher­bourg, though not actu­al­ly a musi­cal, it effec­tive­ly feels like one, such is the pow­er of Hen­ry Mancini’s dev­as­tat­ing score.

Mastroianni and Loren.

Mas­troian­ni and Loren.

I saw it a cou­ple of years ago on Sky Arts, but I notice that, in their efforts to make it a 24 hour chan­nel, in con­trast to, say, the likes of BBC4, they rotate a num­ber of their films and pro­grammes through­out the night and into the morn­ing. So you can still find it every now and then hid­den in their sched­ule. If you get the chance, watch it. And in ten years’ time, when you catch a glimpse of it on a screen some­where, you’ll have some­thing to look for­ward to.

See the unof­fi­cial trail­er to Sun­flower here:

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De Sica’s Lost Masterpiece “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis”.

Vit­to­rio De Sica began his life as a dash­ing Ital­ian mat­inée idol, waltz­ing his way breezi­ly through what came to be referred to sniffi­ly as their white tele­phone films of the 1930s.

But when he emerged as a direc­tor in the 1940s, he made some of the most influ­en­tial films in Ital­ian Neo-realism.

Films like The Bicy­cle Thieves, Mir­a­cle in Milan and Umber­to D are today seen as arche­typ­al exam­ples of the genre. They fol­lowed non-pro­fes­sion­al actors, in real loca­tions as they tried in vain to come to terms with life in a post-war and pover­ty-rav­aged Italy.

All seri­ous film mak­ers in Italy began in the neo-real­ist mode in the 40s, 50s and 60s. And they all of them almost imme­di­ate­ly aban­doned it in favour of their own per­son­al ver­sion of its exact opposite. 

So Felli­ni  moved to the mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, overt­ly the­atri­cal and glo­ri­ous­ly colour­ful arche­types of and Amar­cord. Vis­con­ti to the metic­u­lous­ly man­nered melo­dra­ma of Sen­so and Death in Venice. And Anto­nioni to the mea­sured for­mal­ism and the care­ful­ly craft­ed sculp­tur­al struc­tures of the Mon­i­ca Vit­ti trilogy.

Only Roselli­ni stayed the course, hence the some­what ossi­fied feel­ing to most of his lat­er films. 

De Sica sim­i­lar­ly aban­doned neo-real­ism and went back to the easy-going, feel-good come­dies that Ital­ians seem to need as a reward for all the seri­ous art they’re sub­ject­ed to. And by the 60s he was best known for films like Mar­riage Ital­ian Style, and Yes­ter­day, Today and Tomor­row star­ring Mar­cel­lo Mas­troian­ni and Sofia Loren.

Though both, it should be not­ed, are sig­nif­i­cant­ly more sophis­ti­cat­ed than they appear. And De Sica’s own colour­ful mar­i­tal arrange­ments, togeth­er with the need to fund his gam­bling habit, were at least par­tial­ly to blame for his return to the more com­mer­cial arena.

But as he neared the twi­light of his career, he once again felt the urge to pro­duce some­thing of a bit more sub­stance. And for ten years after it was pub­lished in 1962, he car­ried the Gior­gio Bas­sani nov­el The Gar­den of the Finzi-Con­ti­nis around with him, until final­ly he was able to raise the mon­ey to get it made.

The film stars Dominique San­da and Hel­mut Berg­er (who were con­trac­tu­al­ly oblig­ed to appear in all Ital­ian art-house films at the time) as the two chil­dren of an impos­si­bly wealthy and bliss­ful­ly cul­tured Jew­ish fam­i­ly in an Italy as it moved inex­orably towards the II World War, with all that that would mean for its pop­u­la­tion of Jews.

What it does so well is to mar­ry what script guru Eoghan Har­ris calls the pri­vate and pub­lic axes. Along the pri­vate axis, you have the Gior­gio char­ac­ter, as he tries for­lorn­ly to pur­sue the obscure object of desire that is la San­da. She is unat­tain­able on every con­ceiv­able lev­el. And yet clear­ly, there is a pro­found con­nec­tion between them. What is it that holds her back?

Whilst along the pub­lic axis, you have Gior­gio’s father, a hard work­ing Jew­ish busi­ness man and a loy­al Ital­ian. And, like so many oth­ers, all he wants is to fit in. So he joins the Fas­cist Par­ty. And he and the com­mu­ni­ty of Jews that he is a part of look on in hor­ror as the real­i­ty of the era into which they were born slow­ly begins to dawn on them.

Beau­ti­ful is not a word I use very often. I’m with MacLiammoir on that. Like love and genius, it’s been hope­less­ly debased from being over-used. But this is that rare excep­tion, a gen­uine­ly and heart-break­ing­ly beau­ti­ful film. 

It’s De Sica’s love let­ter to doomed youth. And it’s hope­less­ly and exquis­ite­ly beau­ti­ful. It’s out now, final­ly, on DVD. And you should also have a look at the inter­view with his son, Manuel, who com­posed its score. He cor­rect­ly laments the film’s one, minor flaw; the un-nec­es­sary mon­tage that the films briefly ends with.

But those few stray frames aside, The Gar­den of The Finzi-Con­ti­nis is a qui­et mas­ter­piece (anoth­er one of those over-used words), and it demands to be seen.

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