Sunday, April 27, 2008

Film Review #156: The Night of the Shooting Stars
1982/DVD 2008
Directors: Paolo & Vittorio Taviani
Cast: Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano, Mauro Monni

As of last week, a colleague in Italy advises by email, the latest film by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, filmmaker brothers from Tuscany, had not yet been sold to a US distributor. Set in 1915 during the historic Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Turks, Skylark’s Farm premiered in February 2007 at the Berlin Film Festival, albeit outside the main line-up and greeted with “stony silence.” This was shortly after the sensational assassination of outspoken Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, during threats and even criminal charges in Turkey against Turkish novelists Orhan Pamuk, Elif Shafak and others. The growing movement there among artists, journalists and writers to speak openly about “the Armenian question” – something Turkey’s government has long officially denied – has been fanned by the issue of whether Turkey would join the European Union.

So making a film about the Armenian genocide – a project of artistic solidarity – would be right up the Taviani brothers’ alley. A year-plus after Berlin, Skylark’s Farm has opened in seven other countries and opens in Russia in late April. So the time is about right for Skylark’s Farm to show up state-side. Perhaps anticipating this, on April 1st Koch Lorber released a three-disc DVD set of three major Taviani films. Their signature film and certainly the best-known here, The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982) has screened for years in Italian cinema courses on US college campuses. Kaos (1984) and Fiorile (1993) took more hunting to find, the first a three-hour adaptation of four Pirandello stories tied by the flight of the ill-omened raven, the second following a family curse over several generations and starring Michael Vartan (well before his spy in TV’s Alias) as a Napoleonic soldier and two of his spitting-image descendants, a role reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ similar turn in the Hungarian Itzvan Szabo’s wonderful Sunshine.

It’s a good sign that Emerald City Video immediately got this set on their racks. Releasing these three films together – watching them in a row is a fine way to spend three evenings – refreshes familiarity with one of the most fruitful and enduring partnerships in movie-making, highlights the resonance of shared locales and actors over a body of work, and prepares us for what may be an important cinematic response to the long-festering political and ethnic impasse in Turkey.

Beginning in 1954 – a yeasty time for Italian cinema – Paolo and Vittorio Taviani made the first of over 20 films, most set in Italy. Like so much of Italy's art since World War II, the Taviani’s work has wrestled deeply and expansively with the process of Fascism’s growth and its echoing consequences across families and communities. Their own home village of San Miniato and a neighboring village, Sant’Angelo, in the northwest region of Tuscany, figure prominently in both Night of the Shooting Stars and Fiorile, while the three-hour-long Kaos is set in 19th century Sicily. In the DVD interview on this set, Vittorio Taviani relates that their parents took them to Florence to see a Pirandello play when they were barely ten or eleven. This would have been the early 1940s. Intriguingly, the crystallizing experience of performed drama, he says – as Fascism roiled on every side – “was the end of our childhood – discovering the world is not as it seems.”

Taviani films are always good yarns, many narrated by a storytelling character. In Night of the Shooting Stars, a grown-up character named Cecilia recalls to her own sleeping infant how San Miniato split during a crucial moment in 1944, when she was a child and one man decided he should not believe the assurances of authority, even delivered from his bishop’s mouth. At that time, US troops were fighting their way up Italy's boot and San Miniato tensely awaited liberation. Ordered by the Germans to gather inside the cathedral, the plain, poor, elderly Galvano (Omero Antonutti) instead proposes they flee and takes half the village with him by night. When the few injured survivors of those who remained stagger from the dynamited cathedral, the bishop and a townswoman briefly struggle in the square, their eyes locked in grief and anger, over the body of a young pregnant bride whose modest wedding opened the film. The rigors of the road allow Galvano and childhood sweetheart Concetta (Margarita Lozano), now far above him in means and status, a brief and lovely moment out of time when their hosts in another town mistake them for a married couple and offer them their own room for the night. And Night of the Shooting Stars offers one of cinema's most memorable and mythically charged battles, when partisans and Fascists clash over one bloody afternoon in a golden wheat field, as neighbors and brothers and friends battle one another, conjuring the very heroes of Troy. With moviemaking this good, you don't mind knowing the end.

This review appeared in the 4/10/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.