ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST | Sergio Leone, 1968
One of the most anticipated treats of the annual New Zealand International Film Festival is the opportunity to see beautifully restored masterworks courtesy of The Film Foundation, and this year there were four classics to savour. I wasn’t able to see Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, but the other three were absolute delights.
Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is widely accepted as the last Western masterwork. The long opening sequence alone is enough to rank it among the best, but this entertaining epic also boasts a superb career-topping, film-stealing performance from the great Henry Fonda. Playing against type as one of the most memorable of villains, Fonda is totally mesmerising as a psychotic killer. Charles Bronson played against him with confidence, barely moving a facial muscle in a pre-Botox performance of Mount Rushmore-like stolidity. Claudia Cardinal had a few good moments, but for the most part she seemed content to lend her youthful assets to the modest requirements of the role. Jason Robards was exceptional, while Bernardo Bertolucci flexed his screenwriting muscles and Ennio Morricone did Ennio Morricone as only Ennio Morricone can. The impetus for the film came from Leone’s desire to make the ‘ultimate Western’, a film constructed from a careful scrutiny of American Western classics that proved to be a fitting conclusion to Leone’s Western series. The print looked good, but frankly, a high-quality Blu-ray might just give it a run for its money. Sacrilege, I know.
SENSO | Luchino Visconti, 1953
I’ve only seen a few films starring Alida Valli, so I can only assume that her performance in Luchino Visconti’s SENSO is one of her best. There is astonishing depth to her portrayal of ‘wanton’ Contessa Livia Serpieri, an expert portrayal of rigid aristocratic reserve, the flushed ardour of youthful amour, and the severe bitterness of romantic betrayal. It’s an impressive, fully committed performance, perfectly appropriate for a melodramatic tale of obsessive and destructive passion. Farley Granger negotiates his way around Valli admirably, teetering only in the highly charged final confrontation. As a dashing self-serving cad, Granger’s performance as Lieutenant Franz Mahler (what a name!) provides the perfect counterweight to Valli’s feral self-delusion.
Visconti purportedly intended Senso to be a more forthright criticism of the Austro-Italian war of unification, depicting it as a cynical exercise staged for the benefit of the aristocracy. While his original vision may have altered, the subtext is still evident within the romantic fatalism of the film. The cinematography is magnificently expressive, and the mise-en-scene beautifully mirrors the art of the period. Visconti’s framing stressed the precariousness of the individual in the face of the intransigent weight of the prevailing order (there’s something in that for us all), and the staging of the Battle of Custoza is nothing less than masterful. It wouldn’t surprise me to discover that this sequence (in fact, the entire film for that matter) had been an influence on Stanley Kubrick’s equally superb Barry Lyndon (1975).
As in much of Visconti’s work, the theme of betrayal is central to Senso. Although betrayed by her lover, one senses Livia’s willing submission to Franz’s sadistic humiliations, suggesting an implicit masochistic self-loathing within the ruling class. By prostituting himself to a woman he despises, Franz also suffers humiliation and self-loathing. However, his betrayal of Livia is nothing compared to her betrayals—to family, class, principles, country, and finally her sanity. Parallels can be drawn between Senso and other Visconti films, especially Conversation Piece (1974), in which an aging professor is smitten by a young hustler—played by Visconti’s final lover, Helmut Berger, so there may well be more to the tragic tale of heterosexual anguish in Senso than there is room to consider here. In any event, the opportunity to see the film in such splendid condition was wonderful.
THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE STARS | Shadi Abdelsalam, 1969
Best of all was THE NIGHT OF COUNTING THE STARS by Shadi Abdelsalam. One can understand why the English title differs so markedly from the Egyptian original, Al-Momia (The Mummy), a title guaranteed to send the wrong signal to Western audiences. However, the English title complements the astonishingly poetic qualities of the film, and to see it screened in such pristine glory was a privilege. I’m grateful that my first encounter was as fine a presentation as I’m ever likely to see, thanks to festival director Bill Gosden and his team, and of course Martin Scorsese’s invaluable Film Foundation.
Set in 1881, Abdelsalam’s magnificent film tells the (supposedly) true story of the Horabat clan, an Egyptian tribe who were guides and custodians of the tombs of Theban Pharaohs. They also engaged in a centuries-old practice of robbing artefacts from the tombs and selling them to black marketeers (which may have been sanctioned at the highest level of Egyptian society). Following the death of the head of the clan, his sons are shocked to learn about the tradition of plundering, and refuse to take part in it. This puts them at odds with clan elders and those who profit from the pillaging, setting in motion a tale about moral responsibility and the loss of Egyptian national identity.
I presume that this gorgeous cinematic tale about the protection of ancient artefacts is now itself an Egyptian cultural treasure. It should unquestionably rank as one of the great works of cinema—if it doesn't already. That it was ‘unearthed’ by a film preservation organisation is entirely fitting.
The film looks amazing. Every frame has terrific compositional balance, and the images are rich in golden-hour colours and textures. The acting is solemn and hieratic, and the camera moves with purposeful gravity, giving the film (as Scorsese aptly put it) a stately and poetic harmony. The deliberate pacing and measured formalism could test some viewers, but others will be exhilarated. Scorsese regards the film as a great work of art that (among other things) considers the urge to conquer death, and our debt to the past. Nice.
It’s no small irony that this luminous account of treasure stolen from Pharaoh’s tombs by people with custodial responsibility should be circulating at this particular point in time, as the world comes to terms with the global financial crisis. Its equally fitting that it should be programmed in a year when the theme of ‘plunder’ was shared by many films within the festival programme. While there were many great films in this years’ line-up, this rarely seen masterpiece was one of the undisputed standouts.
Originally published in The Lumiere Reader