Disappointing... yet brilliant

Random and not-so-random thoughts about movies


Inside Llewyn Davis

Directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen Stars Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake USA/France 2013 Language English 1hr 45mins Colour

Splendid character study set in early 1960s bohemia from the Coen brothers

A few days in the life of folksinger Llewyn Davis in New York City, 1961. A few days that should be enough to extinguish any romanticism about the bohemian life, about the freedom from commitments of the chronic couch surfer, the refusal to be tied down being in practice the wearying obligation every other night to find some friend who you haven’t hit up for a favour recently.

And Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) is a bad guest, a terrible guest. Maybe because he is so tired, as he says, or maybe because he is, as his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) says, a dick and an asshole, Llewyn consistently pisses on the laws of hospitality. Pretty much everything wrong you could do to people who have taken you in, fed you, given you endless never-to-be-repaid loans, he does. And yet they still try, still they forgive.

Why? Because Llewyn has his charms, because he is (somewhere underneath it all) obviously hurting, and not least, because he’s a good singer. That’s one of the big choices that the Coens have made here – Llewyn’s professional struggles are not because he’s deluded about his talent. As with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens are serious about the music – you don’t get bits of songs to illustrate the scene, you get them the whole way through. And the songs, the serious folk songs (all stuff that would have been around at the time) and a novelty possible hit one of them comes up with (written for the film), are all excellent.

Llewyn is heading for trouble in other ways, whether you are mystically inclined – almost every opportunity to generate good karma is spurned – or not – every time he has to make a small decision that might affect his future in a bigger way, he seems to get it wrong.

If that seems an awful of talking about one character, well, that’s the way the film works. I don’t think we ever leave Llewyn’s side – if he’s not in shot, he’s still in the room (or, for a long stretch of the film, in the car). And as such, the film rests substantially on the shoulders of previously none-too-famous Oscar Isaac*, and he’s just terrific, making sure that Llewyn is compellingly screwed-up rather than unbearable. The rest of the cast do a fine job, too – Mulligan, Justin Timberlake (oddly sounding a bit like Joe Pernice when singing folk songs) as Jim, her partner on and off stage, and a whole bunch of superb Coens minor characters (I loved the secretary at Llewyn’s record company, as played by  Sylvia Kauders). Not to mention the cat.

As films made by Joel and Ethan Coen go, Inside Llewyn Davis is fairly straight. It’s very funny in places, some (OK, most) of the characters are indeed fairly eccentric, but compared to say, O Brother or Burn After Reading, this is restrained stuff. That’s not a value judgement – I know there are people who hate what they regard as the excesses, the overstylisation of some of the Coens’ movies, but I’m not one of them. That said, the only weakness of this film is too much of one of their staples, the menacing John Goodman bit. Here it goes on far too long, for no obvious reason other than it’s John Goodman and they love him.

That aside, Inside Llewyn Davis is pretty much immaculate – perfectly cast, perfectly timed, full of great lines, brilliantly shot (by Bruno Delbonnel) to make New York in 1961 look exactly how you’d imagine it from old record sleeves, and beautifully sung. I think it’s the best film the Coens have made since, oh, at least The Man Who Wasn’t There**, and I can’t wait to watch it again.

*As far as I can gather, he’s basically best known for not being David Krumholtz.

**There’s the Oscar voters’ view that puts Fargo and No Country For Old Men far above the rest of the Coens’ work. I like both those films, but neither would be in my favourite five of their movies.

I saw Inside Llewyn Davis at the 2013 London Film Festival


The Chase

Director Arthur Ripley Stars Robert Cummings, Steve Cochran, Peter Lorre, Michele Morgan USA 1946 Language English, Spanish 1hr 26mins Black & white

Delirious film noir set in Miami and Havana

So here’s a man with the whitest name ever conceived, Chuck Scott, and he’s just started working as a chauffeur for suave Miami gangster Eddie Roman. Roman has a little gag he likes to play on his drivers – he has an override for the accelerator and the brakes in the back of the car. He floors the pedal and the car passes 100mph seemingly on collision course with a speeding train, before Roman brakes at the last possible moment. Scotty? He’s completely unflustered. Which one of these men is crazier?

The Chase is dizzying, deranged movie – not a great noir, but a lot of fun. Smiley Bob Cummings is unusual casting as Scott, just out of the navy after the war* and penniless. Ostensibly, he’s the hero of the story, but as he lacks any sign of a moral compass, maybe not. Anyway, he soon makes himself at home in the Roman household ruled over by sadistic Eddie (Steve Cochran), his ever-present lieutenant Gino (the great Peter Lorre) and Eddie’s wife Lorna (poor Michele Morgan, star of some classic films back in France but here looking someone is constantly prodding her to say, ‘We told you already, more like Ingrid Bergman!’). Lorna is unhappy, because although Eddie keeps them all in some style, he is a psychopath, but also possibly because he would rather hang out with snappy dresser Gino than with her.

That’s the set-up, but things soon get a whole lot stranger, as we head down to a very long night in Havana.

There’s some terrific set design in this sequence, as well as a lot of untranslated Spanish (Breaking Bad-style), including lies only a bilingual viewer would grasp.

The seriously, WTF? plot**, plus a great double act from Cochran and Lorre (just Lorre handling cigarettes in this film is worth seeing), makes this a valuable curiosity. One thing: if you do watch this and haven’t seen Michele Morgan in anything else, don’t write her off. Like so many foreign stars, she was poorly used by Hollywood. Definitely see her in the tremendous Le Quai Des Brumes.

*You could pair this in a double bill with The Master.

**For instance, you’ve got to love a shrink who takes his thoroughly unhinged patient to a loud and busy nightclub.

I saw The Chase, beautifully restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, at the 2013 London Film Festival



Vi Ar Bast! (We Are The Best!)

Director Lukas Moodysson Stars Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne Sweden 2013 Language Swedish (with English subtitles) 1hr 42mins Colour

More punk rock than you will ever be

I once saw a short film in an art gallery that consisted of kids in a room with some guitar effects pedals, which they used to make the biggest, messiest noise possible. It might sound like a terrible idea but it was was funny and thrilling and uplifting.

We Are The Best! reminds me a lot of the spirit of that piece, but shaped into a beautifully made feature film. It’s a thing of rare joy.

That this film was made by Lukas Moodysson both isn’t and is a surprise. Isn’t because it shares much with his debut, the sharp and funny coming-of-age story Fucking Amål (aka Show Me Love), and his second film, Together, a comedy set in a 1970s commune that was wise, sad, hilarious, life-affirming and (I think) one of the best movies of the past 20 years.

Surprising, because after that Moodysson’s work got very grim fast, culminating in A Hole In My Heart, watching which basically felt like someone was throwing shit at you. His most recent film before this, Mammoth, starred Michelle Williams, which suggests that his cinematic depression hadn’t lifted.

But it seems to have done now. We Are The Best! (based on a comic written by his wife, Coco) is set in Stockholm in 1982, and is about Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Karla (Mira Grosin), two 13-year-olds determined to prove punk isn’t dead. As a result of a stroppy accident (but of course!), they become a band, eventually recruiting Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne), unpopular and Christian but unlike either of them, a skilled musician.

The girls are terrific, particularly bossy, self-selected leader Karla. She comes from a hyper-progressive family very much in the spirit of Together, unembarrassable and thus endlessly embarrassing to her. Her dad (David Dencik) is wonderful, one of my favourite characters in the film along with the two desperate-to-be-onside-with-the-kids guys who run their youth centre and become somewhat ambivalent and obviously unappreciated mentors to the band.*

Along the way, conflict arises, caused by the usual stuff that stirs up problems between teenage girls and between people in bands (fancying the same person, petty power politics). Enough to stop the film being unrealistic and trite, not enough to drag it down.

Because the truth is that films that earn, rather seek to impose, a warm glow in their audience, are incredibly rare. This seems to do it effortlessly. I hope the gloom-free Moodysson is back for good.

*Because this is a Swedish story, the girls play on municipally owned instruments that belong to the rehearsal rooms of the youth centre. It’s not a big theme, considering these are kids, but this film does share with Together an interest in the complicated nature of left-wing rebellion in a country as avowedly socialist and also outwardly tolerant (while deeply conformist) as Sweden was in the ’70s and ’80s. Ominously, though, the early rumblings of an anti-tax-and-spend backlash at a dinner party are heard over the opening credits.

I saw Vi Ar Bast! at the 2013 London Film Festival


Night Moves

Director Kelly Reichardt Stars Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard USA 2013 Language English 1hr 52mins Colour

Taking on The Man, Oregon-style

In some ways, Night Moves is a classic thriller. It’s about the execution and aftermath of an audacious crime, about timing and the unexpected hitches that threaten a good plan and the fear and paranoia that follows. It’s got all that, and it does it well, if not at the pace that, say, Jason Statham fans would expect.

But this isn’t a crime of greed (or material need) – it is an act of terrorism designed to raise ecological awareness. And if you believe what mainstream science tells us, that we are sleepwalking towards an environmental crisis, then you probably won’t agree with what the characters are doing, but might be left wrestling with what could be done instead.

And the film is also about a place, director Kelly Reichardt’s cinematic patch, the US’s Pacific Northwest, the final American refuge for 1960s idealism. It is this atmosphere that fuels the characters’ radicalism, but it’s easy to read from the film (although this is never explicitly stated) that this dropout lifestyle is reliant on the affluence of those prospering from consumer capitalism – who is buying the pricey organic vegetables, going to the new-age spas?

We don’t learn much about the characters – Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), who lives and works at a co-op farm; his old buddy Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard); and Dena (Dakota Fanning), who works at a spa. Josh is tense and taciturn from the start, Harmon seems like the dangerous one and Dena the most vocally idealistic. We get only the tiny hints of backstory, and no explanatory speeches about what got them to this point.

Which is a good thing. Reichardt leaves the audience with plenty to work out for itself, without ever being wilfully mysterious. The friend who I saw it with talked about the movie solidly from Leicester Square to Crystal Palace.

Dakota Fanning is good in the first half – including in a crucial extended sequence – but much less so later on. Eisenberg gets to do a lot of his trademark nervous nod and little of his characteristic gabbling. And he looks significantly older than he did a couple of years ago (but not in that freaky, what-the-hell-happened-to-you? DiCaprio/Ethan Hawke kind of way). Sarsgaard fits his part nicely.

But what I am drawn back to is the sense of place – the huge piles of pumpkins, the supposedly healing crystals, the hoedowns, yurts with solar panels, and the mixture of people who have struggled to create a stake for themselves and the discontented nouveau hippies passing through… That’s what balances the unforthcoming script – this is a very rooted story.

(PS: I love the explanation for the title).

My review of Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy is here


2 Automnes 3 Hivers (2 Autumns 3 Winters)

Director Sébastien Betbeder Stars Vincent Macaigne, Maud Wyler, Bastien Bouillon  France 2013 Language French (with English subtitles) 1hr 33mins Colour

French romcom that’s playful in the manner of a hyperactive puppy

Let’s begin not with the story, but how the story is told. In very short chapters, with titles in small, scrawly, typeface, narrated by alternating characters standing head-on to the camera in front of a still backdrop, as if they were in an American TV reality show. All of which is distancing, fussy, postmodern and a little too cute.

For the time frame specified in the title, we’re with Arman (Vincent Macaigne), trying to get his life on track at 33, Amelie (Maud Wyler), who he bumps into (literally) while jogging, and his best mate, Benjamin (Bastien Bouillon). Stuff happens, some of it fairly serious. The question is can the light, whimsical format and the sporadically dark subject matter peacefully co-exist?

It can be done, of course. Brilliantly so in the case of the American novelist and poet Richard Brautigan. Rather more worryingly in this film, Arman and Benjamin enthuse about Judd Apatow’s dreary cancer and comedy shambles Funny People.

This is a better film than Funny People, and it is a better film than (500) Days Of Summer, to which it also bears a resemblance. There are good bits – I liked the minor character whose sporadic suicide attempts are each modelled on a famous rock death. And I guess you might feel there was something at least unusual about a romcom in which the hero is hefty and balding, something emphasised by his long hair. I’m not sure though it doesn’t topple off the tightrope between frothy form and moodier content.

I saw 2 Automnes 3 Hivers at the 2013 London Film Festival


Note: Have you seen the film? No? In which case,  my advice is don’t read this or any other review yet. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but to some extent, anything you read about this film is a spoiler. 


Under The Skin

Director Jonathan Glazer Stars Scarlett Johansson UK 2013 Language English 1hr 48mins Colour

Genre-dissolving alien-in-Scotland drama

One of my recurrent thoughts about films is how easy it is to write a one or two-line summary that would make two utterly different movies sound similar. So it’s true that like the trashy 1995 sci-fi horror Species, Under The Skin is about an alien who picks up men with what appear to be unfortunate consequences for them. But that would get exactly nowhere towards the texture of a film in which shopping at Clare’s Accessories and moments that could have come from 2001: A Space Odyssey co-exist happily.

I’ve been rude about Scarlett Johansson’s acting in the past, but her strange (yet beautiful) and often impassive face is just the ticket here. The film plonks her unnamed, unexplained extra-terrestrial character right in the middle of real Scotland using hidden cameras – real streets, real shops… And real people, some of whom she approaches in her serial killer-style white van, asking (in a perfectly serviceable RP English accent) for directions and maybe something more. She seems to do better than most actual English people would at understanding the locals. 

Scotland here looks cold and untempting here – its urban spaces grotty, its rural ones spectacular but bleak and dangerous. It seems to have a surplus of disused properties the aliens (and their helpers?) have all mapped out. A terrific near-white noise score adds to the outsider’s-eye view of our strange world of relentless shopping and drinking.

Then there are the other bits, the bits that don’t happen in a grimly realist setting. I won’t describe them, only to say that they are a) effective but b) in some senses more what you would expect from a director like Jonathan Glazer who made his name with minimalist ads and pop promos. 

Little is explained, which is a good thing. A great thing, even. The film does change gear in the second half as the alien appears to drift away from her mission and grow interested in other things, raising questions like, would an alien find Tommy Cooper funny? 

Glazer, who made an electrifying start to his feature career with Sexy Beast and then seemed to go missing after Birth, has come up with something unique and strange and unsettling  and original – not necessarily in its individual elements, but its stunning combination of them. And thus hard to convey to anyone who hasn’t seen it.

And Scarlett Johansson, who has basically had a decade of truly lousy movies and brief appearances in Marvel blockbusters, finds redemption in a part in which much of her dialogue is asking the way to the M8 and that requires her to wear an unflattering black wig, the nastiest faux-fur jacket you’ve ever seen, spray-on mottle-effect jeans, a pair of the kind of ankle boots they used to sell in Miss Selfridge in 1984. That’s dedication for you. It’s all worth it.


Los Ilusos (The Wishful Thinkers)

Director Jonás Trueba Stars Francesco Carril, Aura Garrido, Vito Sanz Spain 2013  Language Spanish (with English subtitles) 1hr 33mins Black & white

De ilusión también se vive*

Madrid. Wintery Madrid. Some people in their twenties are hanging out, playing party games, staying in bars after closing time, sleeping all day. One of them is León (Francesco Carril). He’s a filmmaker, having vague ideas about his next project. It’s probably going to have a suicide in it. Nobody seems that keen.

The plot is minimal to say the least. León loafs with his mates, stumbles to the end of one relationship, starts another. Spends time in a bookshop, spends time in a DVD rental place. A band sort of like The National or The Triffids plays in someone’s flat. And that’s about it. Meanwhile, the film keeps reminding you it’s a film: the director tells you what he’s doing with a shot, we see the clapperboards starting or ending a scene. An actress talks about what it is like making this film. The result is somewhere between the US microbudget indies critics call mumblecore and post-nouvelle vague European experimental cinema.

If that makes it sound annoying or hopelessly slight, it’s not. It’s smart, it’s got some very funny bits and it has good stuff to say about movies. Then again, it’s one of those pictures – like La Vida Util – where it probably helps if the people watching it are as obsessed with film as the people who made it.

It was shot in black and white on Super 16mm film, like many of great low budget movies of the ’80s and ‘90s, and made over seven months in the cast and crew’s spare time, with a fair bit of input from the cast, and I think you could probably figure most of that out even if you weren’t told. Often films made under those circumstances (say, Clerks) star the director’s non-actor mates. In this case, though, most of the leads are indeed professionals (and very good-looking ones at that).

A film like this relies a lot on charm, on not feeling you’re trapped watching some kid’s pretentious filmic doodles**. Los Ilusos carries it all off with style.

*Spanish proverb that roughly translates as ‘You can also live on dreams’. Some Spanish-as-a-second-language speakers seem to believe it’s hopeful, but every Spanish person ever heard use it – especially my mother – deployed it with corrosive sarcasm.

**For instance Bernardo Bertolucci’s early Prima Della Rivoluzione, which I walked out of after 20 minutes.

I saw Los Ilusos at the 2013 London Film Festival



Director Ron Howard Stars Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Brühl, Olivia Wilde USA/Germany/UK 2013 Language English, German, French, Italian 2hr 3mins Colour

Boozy Brit vs Krazy Kraut

It’s hard to think of a director more American than Ron Howard, maker of big, well-crafted, redemptive tales. Of course, before that, as an actor Howard was the embodiment of the all-American kid as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show and Richie on Happy Days. So it comes as a minor surprise to find him making a film set in Formula 1 – a branch of motor sport wildly popular pretty much everywhere except the US – and about James Hunt, an Englishman, and Niki Lauda, an Austrian.

But Howard has also been consistently drawn to stories drawn from real life – Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man and Frost/Nixon. That last film brought him into partnership with British playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan, and it was Morgan who came up with the idea for this film and originally offered it to Paul Greengrass (another member of the based-on-a-true-story community).

And a script about the Hunt-Lauda rivalry makes sense in terms of Morgan’s fascination with duos: Gordon Brown and Tony Blair in The Deal, Blair and Liz Windsor in The Queen, the title characters in Frost/Nixon… and in his hands, The Damned United went from being about one man’s rage to the without-you-I’m-nothing love story of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor.

And so Rush is straightforwardly about the rivalry between two big contrasting characters set against the backdrop of what was then an extraordinarily dangerous profession*. Like many Grand Prix drivers, Hunt (played here by Chris Hemsworth) and Lauda (Daniel Brühl) came from affluent backgrounds, but that was where the similarity ended. Hunt was a party guy who arrived in F1 in the team owned by his mate Lord Hesketh, a champers-quaffing bunch attempting to bring the playboy spirit of the 1920s back to an increasingly corporate sport. Early-to-bed Lauda, according to the film, was a man who did his crucial work before the race by collaborating (in a rather authoritarian way) with his engineers to get his car running perfectly. Hunt was a charmer, Lauda a loner who didn’t care who liked him. It’s hate at first sight when they meet at a small-time race in Crystal Palace** in 1970 and the clash builds from then to the epic 1976 Formula 1 season, which provides the heart of the film.

Here’s the thing: by necessity, a substantial amount of the film takes place during races. And you check a lot of noise and close-ups of exhausts and axles. But I don’t think Howard has much of an interest in the machines or the sport. You’ll never get the feeling there is with John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix*** or Tony Scott’s Days Of Thunder that the director can’t wait to get away from the boring people talking and back to the vroom-vrooms (this film, by contrast, clearly believes, rightly, there’s more to life than cars). Despite what the quotes on the poster say, if you’re looking for heart-thumping thrills, I think you’ve come to the wrong place.

Which is fine, except for all that time is still taken up on the track. The race commentary is left to an awful lot of work, probably a bit too much – it’s a little too told for edge-of-the-seat action.

The paradox, as with a number of based-on-true-story movies, is that the notional ready-made audience already know the plot. Teenage girls coming to see it to sigh at Chris Hemsworth’s lovely hair – and there were a number when I saw the film – will mostly at least have the chance to be carried along by what is a dramatic story.

So with this essentially a character story, an I-can’t-stand-you-but-in-a-weird-way-you-complete-me fable (that being the core idea of much of Morgan’s work), both the script and the stars are left with some heavy lifting. And both leads do a decent job filling out characters who could otherwise just stand for Germanic efficiency versus bluff British amateurism (the spirit of World War I fighter aces hangs heavily over the whole thing). Aussie Hemsworth has occasional problems with the accent, but he does give Hunt a bit of depth, a touch of sadness amid the shagging, boozing, toking and snorting. My favourite scenes involve Hunt struggling – in one, without a job offer for the next season, he sits on the floor playing Scaletrix. In the other, Hunt is slumped on the far side of the room out of focus while the camera sits and watches the turntable as it plays Jimmy Cliff’s Many Rivers To Cross…

With more scenes like that, Rush could have been an excellent film. As it is, it’s more than decent – funny in places, period detail good but not overdone, and never lost in the details.

* BBC Radio 4’s excellent stats programme More Or Less concluded that although the numbers thrown around in this film are wrong, a driver competing in the late ’60s and the early ’70s had nearly a 50% chance of dying at the wheel during the course of a career. Just to reiterate, these weren’t - like, say, many boxers - poor kids with no other way out. On the contrary, a number of drivers were paying the teams, not being paid.

**Filmed, at least in part, in Crystal Palace Park. Sadly, easily the most exciting aspect of the film for me.

*** I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Grand Prix the whole way through… On paper, though, it’s an intriguing cast – James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Françoise Hardy, Toshiro Mifune!




A not-quite manifesto

(NB: It may not be obvious, but words in bold – apart from the headline – are links)

This is the 100th post on Disappointing… Yet Brilliant, so maybe the time has come to provide some suitably unstructured clues as to what manner of beast this is.

1) DYB is written by one (white/male/middle-aged) former professional film journalist from South London. It consists of movie reviews and (not often enough) features. The better features include examinations of whether Woody Allen secretly hates Londoners, the role of social-housing tower blocks in British film and TV, whether the people who fancy Ryan Gosling and those who see his movies are two entirely different groups, and the joys of seeing weird films in suburban multiplexes. Also, there are my lists of favourite films from 2011 and 2012, plus a two-part look back at 1998.

2) The reviews have no star ratings, Baz heads*, percentages, grades or any other shortcut to you knowing whether I think the film is any cop or not. You’ll just have to read them, or at least skip to the last line. The reviews won’t tell you whether the films are family-friendly or not. Nor will they won’t tell you if the movies discussed are likely to offend Christians, Marxist-Leninists or people with ophidophobia. Equally, they lack any useful information telling you at exactly how many minutes and seconds you can see half a nipple, a decapitated head or an A3 Pacific-class locomotive.

3) This blog doesn’t specialise in any particular type of movie. The criteria are: have I seen it recently, and do I think I have anything to say about it. I hope that without forcing it I’ll write about a fair range of films, although I’ll concede that you’re more likely to find a review of a crime drama from the 1940s here than of a 1990s Japanese post-apocalyptic anime, for instance. Don’t like movies in black & white? Think there’s something quaint and unwatchable about anything made before, say, 1995? You could be in the wrong place. Happy with both Ginger Rogers and films that are really violent? Right place!

4) If there is one central, essentially neurotic, obsession that runs through all the writing on this site, it’s with the running times of films. Gets a mention in practically every review. I’m clearly not capable of concentrating for more than an hour and a half. Of course, I’ve translated that into an ideological stance that at least 80% of movies have no acceptable reason for being longer than 90 minutes.

5) I am baffled by the fact that Ewan McGregor still has a career in movies.


6) I have nothing but contempt for actors who believe that stage work is superior to cinema. It’s just one of the many reasons for rating James Mason, who always wanted to be in pictures, over Laurence Olivier.


7) My favourite Steven Seagal movie is Marked For Death. My favourite part of the Three Colours series is White. I’m fairly sure The Departed is the lousiest film Martin Scorsese has ever made. And the film I’ve hated most this decade, by a country mile, is Inception.

8) 3D sucks, dude. And if you’re talking about the CGI, the movie was rubbish.

9) As far as I’m concerned, the following tell you nothing about the quality of a movie: box-office performance, awards season success or whether a director has been given total artistic control.

10) Woody Allen’s Cassandra’s Dream is the worst film ever made by a major director. And that’s a fact.

*Ask @dannytheleigh



La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Director Paolo Sorrentino Stars Toni Servillo, Carlo Verdone, Sabrina Ferilli Italy 2013 Language Italian (with English subtitles) 2hrs 22mins Colour

Felliniesque whirl round Rome’s intellectual ‘elite’

'Is that the one with the parties?' someone asked.

Yes, this is very much the one with the parties. Sprawling, wild, frantic rooftop affairs packed with people – many of whom are well into middle age – doing the conga and this year’s equivalent to La Macarena. It’s also – not at the parties – the one with the giraffe and the flamingos.

Director Paolo Sorrentino, having established a big reputation with films like The Consequences Of Love and Il Divo, seems to have decided that now is the time to take on the heavyweights of Italian cinema: Federico Fellini and, to a lesser extent, Michelangelo Antonioni. The characters, Roman setting and the maximalist style are all firmly in the Fellini world. Our guide to it is Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo, even more central to Sorrentino’s work than Marcello Mastroianni was to Fellini’s), self-proclaimed king of the high life, author of one novel many years back, high-profile interviewer and resident of a flat overlooking the Colosseum.

Jep’s had a good time, a lot of good times. He’s still partying hard but aware he’s getting old. People keep dying around him. Real friends, as opposed to people he has bitchy exchanges with in fashionable places, are short on the ground. Everyone nags him about the fact that he hasn’t written another novel, including a 104-year-old nun on her way to sainthood.

It’s cavalcade of big characters and strange moments: the cardinal who speaks nothing but cooking tips, the strip club owner who can’t bring himself to retire his forty-something daughter, the performance artist whose act climaxes with her smashing her head against a brick wall, the aforementioned giraffe and visiting flamingos, the Botox clinic conducted (reception, waiting room and surgery all in one) in a Roman palazzo. All this Jep observes, part amused, part wistful, part mournful. At one point he asks one of his long-time fellow partygoers if they’ve ever slept together. She replies they haven’t. ‘Good,’ he says, ‘At least we’ve got something to look forward to’.

It’s beautiful when it isn’t (deliberately) grotesque, brilliantly filmed, well-acted, the dialogue sharply written (even if you’re not an Italian speaker, keep your ears open, because no translation can match the sonic impact of words like ‘stronzo’ and ‘sciocchezza’). But it is long. Incredibly long. It runs two and a half hours and felt like more because although it is packed with interesting things, it has almost no narrative drive.

Still, it’s absolutely worth seeing, and a film that gets people talking – I had dinner with friends the other night and we kept coming back to it, enough one of the people there hadn’t seen the film*. We all agreed on the power of the image making, and about how it captured the overwhelming beauty of Rome, and that it was funny and fascinating, but couldn’t agree on whether it was sympathetic to the main character, and what, if anything, it was trying to say about the state of Italy at what is hopefully the end of the Berlusconi era (Silvio’s media empire is, somewhat inevitably, one of the entities behind the film). Unless maybe that all it needs to say is that everything that was wrong when Fellini made La Dolce Vita is still wrong now.

*Sorry, Neil.

My review of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo is here