Monday Mayhem

If I told you I saw three great films in one day, would you believe me? And yet the riches reaped on Monday dwarfed the amount of rain that fell that afternoon.

The King of Laughter (Mario Martone, 2021, Italy/Spain, 133 min) — 12:30pm @ Uptown 1

Photo courtesy of SIFF

First we start with historical fiction and one of the most famous court cases of the early 20th century. Toni Servillo is magnificent as Eduardo Scarpetta, a late 19th/early 20th century Italian playwright whose famous plagiarism trial, brought forward by Gabriele D’Annuncio when Scarpetta parodied one of his works, was a landmark case in Italy.

Scarpetta is mainly known for creating a character called Felice Sciosciammocca. In Italian theater, characters are passed down from actor to actor. Scarpetta’s character was in reaction to an earlier character, Pulcinella, which came from the commedia dell’arte tradition. Sciosciammocca successfully replaced this character onstage. He also fathered several illegitimate children, while treating his legitimate son like crap. In fact, three of them — Eduardo de Filippo, his older sister Titina, and his younger brother Peppino — later formed the greatest theater troupe in Italy (as a title card tells us at the end).

But the main focus, besides Scarpetta’s prickly personality and his dealings with his wife, his mistress, and his children (legitimate and illegitimate), is the trial between him and D’Annunzio. Scarpetta saw Daughter of Iorio and wanted to parody it in a piece called Son of Iorio (except for the third act, which he felt was so perfect it couldn’t be parodied), but was worried, due to D’Annunzio’s popularity, so he went to his villa. D’Annunzio told him he didn’t need to give his consent for Scarpetta to write a parody. When Scarpetta pushed for assurances, D’Annunzio told him he could go ahead with the parody, and even laughed at one of the lines Scarpetta had changed.

On opening night, however, a group of writers were outraged that Scarpetta would parody such a serious work, and decided to make trouble in Act 2. It didn’t help that the play was under-rehearsed and one of the actresses forgot her lines. D’Annunzio later sued for plagiarism, stating that the work wasn’t a parody but a badly created copy of his play, and therefore was in violation of copyright law.

And yet, despite the trial being the focus of the film, it doesn’t overwhelm the sections focusing on Scarpetta and the people around him. The film also relishes in the details of the theater, from rehearsals to performances. The trial weaves in and out of the movie, but only near the end do we get any courtroom scenes. These final scenes, where Scarpetta makes the point that his work is a parody by acting it out for the courtroom, create a satisfying ending to a satisfying film about the theater and the right to make fun of the powerful. And yet, you won’t even find a mention of the trial on Wikipedia.

The King of Laughter is available for streaming on the SIFF Channel.

Bernstein’s Wall (Douglas Tirola, 2021, USA, 100 min) — 5:45pm @ Uptown 2

Photo courtesy of SIFF

One of my friends worked on this film, so I got to meet one of the executive producers and the director before the screening. Considering that we’re still in a pandemic and it was a rainy Monday night, the crowd was good, but nowhere near a sellout.

This movie reminded me a bit of Marlon: In His Own Words in that all of the material is archived; it’s the pulling-together that’s the achievement. Unlike that film, however, it’s not all about the main subject, but includes Bernstein’s thoughts on art, culture, and politics, plus letters dealing with his marriage and sexuality (put up on the screen with music graphics and photos dancing in time to the words). This documentary also includes some of his performances, including the first piece from his first concert with the New York Philharmonic (an incendiary performance of Schumann’s Manfred Overture) and his famous concert in Berlin of the “Ode to Joy” (in which he replaced the German word for joy with the German word for peace), which ends the movie.

His reflections on the Ninth begin the movie, as it makes him think of dates. And then we head back to some early ones, when Bernstein first touches a piano and his tumultuous relationship with his father, who didn’t want him to be a musician (and, according to Bernstein, “was incapable of showing love, affection, warmth”). He talks about his musical education at the Curtis Institute, where he had to audition on piano for Fritz Reiner (when he finished playing, Reiner merely said “You’re in”), and at Tanglewood, where he and Koussevitzky got along splendidly. We hear how he became assistant conductor of the New York Philharmonic with a fortuitous call on August 25 on his 25th birthday (Artur Rodzinski needed an assistant and didn’t know who to take, so he had asked God, and God said, “Take Bernstein”), and how Bruno Walter cancelled an appearance due to illness — something that never happened — which gave Bernstein an opportunity to conduct the NYPO in concert for the first time, and which sealed his fame, even though (as he says) he had three strikes against him: he was young, he was American, and he had a Jewish last name.

His letters to his wife Felicia and his mentor Aaron Copland reveal that they both knew about his homosexuality — Copland knew “which letters to burn” and Felicia wondered what would happen if she were to let him “be free” so he could pursue his sexual urgings.

Overall, the portrait we get is of an educated, caring, immensely talented man who wasn’t afraid to speak his opinions and push for causes he believed in, and if the end of his life was mired in tragedy and controversy (his wife died, his Requiem was ripped to shreds by Harold Schonberg and other critics, he was accused of hosting a dinner party for the Black Panthers), he had more triumphs that most people do in ten lifetimes. And I haven’t even mentioned his scores for On The Town and West Side Story.

Q&A

Director Douglas Tirola (on the right)

In the Q&A that followed, director Douglas Tirola said he got the idea for the movie after reading an E.B. White article about great moments in the 80s, as he was originally going to do a film about New York during that time. Instead, he came across Bernstein’s Berlin Concert and went down the rabbit hole, then told his producer he wanted to do a movie about Bernstein, instead, as a lot of what he talks about is relevant today, such as the role of the artist and the artist in society.

Originally, Tirola did a lot of interviews for the film, but then he realized he only wanted to hear Bernstein. They also got lucky with some of the footage, like with the Carnegie Hall concert, which had been filmed by the State Department.

Then the floor was opened to audience questions, and the first question was about the editing, which struck the questioner as very musical. Tirola was asked if he was musical by the moderator, but he said he only knew the drums. He then revealed that this movie is editor Zachary Obit’s first film, which is incredible. Tirola said the film is musical in that it has to have the same hits as a musical (starting off with a great song, having a few great songs in the middle, etc). He also made a conscious decision to have upbeat music play at the end of Bernstein’s life to counterbalance all the sad events that occurred.

Another person commented on the intimacy in the correspondences. Since Bernstein was a prolific writer, Tirola decided to use the letters only when discussing men and marriage. He also saw them as a cinematic “amuse-bouche” to give the audience a break from hearing his voice.

The final question was about when Tirola contacted Bernstein’s children. He said he worked with Craig Urquhart, who was Bernstein’s final assistant in Berlin, and he was the one who put them in contact with the children, who run the Leonard Bernstein Office. The crew were invited to one of the Bernstein parties (which Tirola said was incredible), and while he did share a rough cut with them, none of the children wanted to influence the creative output on the film. They also came to the film’s premiere at Tribeca.

Finally, just as Bernstein was a supporter of the arts, so Tirola wanted to give special mention to executive producers Linda and David Cornfield (David was who I met earlier) for their support of this film.

Sadly, Bernstein’s Wall is not available for streaming.

Superheroes (Paolo Genovese, 2021, Italy, 120 min) –8:30PM @ Uptown 2

Photo courtesy of SIFF

A couple is a couple if it lasts. Otherwise it’s just two people living together.

Superheroes

For almost ten minutes, I was the only one in the theater, except for the person introducing the movie. Even when the crowd came in, they were small in number and comatose in energy. Since the movie has played earlier in the festival, I thought I’d either stumbled onto a gem or the movie was gonna be awful (of course I forgot that people had to work the next day and so wouldn’t be out for a late movie on a Monday night).

Well folks, I stumbled onto a gem, and my favorite film of the festival so far, despite a slight wrinkle which I’ll give a spoiler alert for below.

This movie is the love story of Marco and Anna, together for 10 years (depending on when you define the beginning, as Marco says), and as it jumps from the present to the past, juxtaposing similar scenes at different times, it reveals itself as one of the most honest movies about couples that I’ve seen.

How does it do this? Certainly creating well-rounded, likable characters with lots of chemistry helps. But it’s the film’s attention to detail (and details) that makes this film stand out.

For example, the first time they meet, Marco explains how the probability of getting soaked decreases above a certain walking speed (he’s a physics professor), then buys Anna an umbrella and explains that buying an umbrella from a vendor decreases the probability to zero. When she asks what the probability is of them meeting again, he says very slim, but then we see his phone number on the outside of the umbrella when she opens it. Unfortunately, we find out it smeared when the rain hit it during their second meeting, where Anna (who’s a cartoonist) has a stand set up outside where she offers to draw people as they’ll look when older. Marco, however, wants her to draw him as he looks now.

When Anna first sleeps with Marco, she tells him she can’t stay the night, but she draws a picture of him as an older man, and then draws a picture of her as an older woman, looking at him. Marco complains about the fact that she’s drawing on a wall in an apartment that he’s leasing, but when he’s about to leave that apartment, he pulls a bureau in front of it to protect it from future tenants.

The film also deals intelligently with Marco’s ex-girlfriend, Pilar, who’s he engaged to and is supposed to be moving in with when he meets Anna. She doesn’t play a vengeful lover, and we can see why Marco wanted to marry her. Late in the film, she says she still has feelings for him, but this film is intelligent enough to understand that lingering feelings aren’t the same as present-day passion.

SPOILERS AHEAD

But then the movie decides to give Anna a terminal illness, which juxtaposes fantastically with Marco’s accident in which he almost dies, but is unnecessary. The way the material handles this cliche is so good, however, and works so well in the context of the movie, that I’m almost tempted to overlook it as a flaw. Still, it becomes less a movie about the usual hardships faced in relationships and more a weepy rom-com at this point. And yes, I bawled my eyes out several times at the end.

SPOILERS OVER

Despite my reservations about this plot point, the film is glorious and is filled with memorable characters and terrifically understated acting. Plus, it does what all great films do.

It makes you feel different coming out of the movie than you did going in.

Superheroes is available for streaming on the SIFF Channel.