Into the Labyrinth

Escapee Samantha with Dr Green


Dustin Hoffman and Toni Servillo in the same film? Into the Labyrinth (aka L’uomo del labirinto) is a properly intriguing prospect. Hoffman a madness-in-his-Method actor since his breakthrough in 1967’s The Graduate, Servillo the king of the hangdog deapan – or is that the deadpan hangdog? – and long-time collaborator with Paolo Sorrentino (in films like The Great Beauty and The Consequences of Love).

Before you get too excited, they share only one scene together, and that’s right at the end, an afterthought possibly tacked on to give the publicity machine more to work with (and I’ve obliged by using the resulting picture).

The two actors inhabit entirely different filmic universes, united only by the plot. In one Servillo plays dog-eared private detective Bruno Genko, more used to doing debt collection work, getting back on a case he dropped years before, of an abducted schoolgirl who has just resurfaced/escaped after 15 years of incarceration. The glory-seeking cops would rather he wasn’t involved, and Genko’s doctors have already told him his heart is about to give out, so… tick tock tick tock.

The girl, Samantha (Valentina Bellè), now a grown woman and in some distress, is being debriefed in hospital by the kindly Dr Green (Hoffman), a folksy, softly spoken man using a lot of carrot and a tiny bit of (psychological) stick to try and unlock the secrets of Samantha’s incarceration – the who and where, at least.

As I say, different filmic universes – Dr Green’s is all bright lights, calm, order, the burble of a hospital in the background, a drip on a stand, a cop posted outside the door. Genko’s is a David Lynch world of grotesque characters, surreal situations, lurid decor and lighting and bizarre plot turns, all set to a rinky-dink soundtrack (by Vito Lo Re) that’s inspired by Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtracks for Lynch.

Dustin Hoffman and Toni Servillo
Meet cute: Hoffman and Servillo


Green’s world is aseptic and clinical, Genko’s is diseased and fantastical. A heatwave is scorching the earth, forest fires are raging, the power keeps going down. As well as Lynch (there’s even a man with a rabbit’s head), there’s also more than a hint of Hieronymous Bosch in there, the colour red signifying the hell that Samantha has just escaped, or perhaps the one where Genko is imminently about to arrive. There is a lot of red, a lot.

Is it fanciful to imagine there is also an echo of Lars Von Trier’s first feature, 1984’s The Element of Crime? That was a neo-noir with a strong dreamlike and melodramatically Bosch-like quality, lit with similar bravado, and starring a charismatic deadpan actor (Michael Elphick in Von Trier’s case) who drives a distinctive cult car which seems also to have some significance beyond the textural – Elphick drove a bright yellow VW Beetle, Servillo has a convertible Saab 900. Both films are also set in worlds that are a future-retro jumble. In Into the Labyrinth people still use cassette recorders but also have up-to-the minute laptops, and when Genko visits a missing persons bureau (a crepuscular place known as Limbo) it turns out that it’s still using a card-file index system.

It’s a bit bonkers, and would be brilliant if David Lynch hadn’t been there before, or at least if writer/director Donato Carrisi had acknowledged that Lynch had been there before, not least in his decisions about pacing, which tend to the glacial. A 20-minute haircut wouldn’t do this film any harm at all.

The upside. Hoffman is always watchable, and though he isn’t asked to do an awful lot here, and you can guess which was his story is heading, he’s good. Servillo is the same. The dog eared detective suits him down to the ground. Few men smoke a cigarette so well these days. Or carry off a crumpled suit with such panache.

Into the Labyrinth – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021






The Great Beauty

Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella in The Great Beauty

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

21 April

 

Romulus founds Rome, 753BC

On this day in 753BC, one of the great capitals of world civilisation was founded, or so the story goes. Rome, city of the Caesars, was founded by Romulus, who along with Remus was one of the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa (present day Castel Gandolfo, where the Pope has his summer residence). The father of the twins was either Mars, the god of war, or possibly Hercules, the demi-god son of Zeus. Either way, Rhea Silvia’s sons become problematical for her once Numitor’s brother Amulius seizes power from Numitor, and Romulus and Remus end up abandoned on the banks of the River Tiber, where they are famously suckled by a wolf, until a shepherd finds them and rears them. According to this worldview, nobility passing along bloodlines, so the brothers are natural leaders and, once they discover the truth of their origin, they kill the man who abandoned them and set about founding a city of their own. The twins quarrel over the precise location of this new city and, heads being hot, Remus ends up dead. Romulus names the city after himself. This foundational myth, of Romulus and Remus, has always had to co-exist with another – that the city was founded by descendants of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan war. Recent archaeological evidence suggests the city may be older than either story implies.

 

 

 

The Great Beauty (2013, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

La Dolce Vita, Fellini’s 1960 film which The Great Beauty bookends, starts with the sight of a giant statue of Jesus being airlifted out of Rome. Message: godlessness. The Great Beauty starts with the firing of a cannon. Message: boom. Director Paolo Sorrentino then drops us into a rooftop party, the music pounding, the beautiful women dancing, buff guys strutting, people of all ages, heights, colours and degrees of comeliness. And all dressed fabulously, all glamorous, all moisturised. It’s a brilliantly co-ordinated display of moneyed, honeyed Roman excess set to a pumping Euro-house beat. And in the middle of it all, grinning like a man who has it all, is Toni Servillo as Jep Gambardella. This is Gambardella’s 65th birthday party and this is his night. He’s still virile enough to enjoy life, with enough money to paper over any cracks that time has caused. Smug.
The Great Beauty doesn’t make specific reference to La Dolce Vita, but in Fellini’s earlier film we have followed Marcello Mastroianni as a novelist who has become a celebrity journalist and lost his soul in the process. In The Great Beauty, Gambardella, we are told, is a novelist who has spent a lifetime as a journalist. He has never written a second book to build on the promise of the first. And over the two hours or so of Sorrentino’s film, we see why – the women, the soirees, the guiltless sex, the decadent art, the exquisite clothes and the endless gossip. There are even Botox evenings, when the wealthy line up to have evidence of their years injected away. I’ve been led astray by all this, he says in so many words to his cleaner, pretty much the only person Jep is honest with. And then suddenly he is at the funeral of a young man who really shouldn’t have died young. He’s helping carry his casket, in fact, when the emotional logjam breaks and he realises… actually we’re not quite sure what he realises. Perhaps that he’s been a fool. Perhaps that he just has enough time and energy left to work on something more meaningful than entertainment. In flashback we see young Jep – he looks remarkably like Mastroianni – and a lost love. Is she the Great Beauty of the title. Is Rome? Or is la grande bellezza like la dolce vita, a lifestyle so attractive that it has turned the heads of even the clergy?
Like the Devil giving Christ the “all this could be yours” tour while tempting him in the desert, Sorrentino doesn’t hold back when it comes to showing us the garden of earthly delights. This really is one of the most sumptuous films ever made, with every shot a display of deliberate cinematic excess. Why move when you can glide? Why track when you can whoosh into the air first? Even the Steadicam shots are balletic. The music, too, is gorgeous, a mix of the sacred (Tavener, Pärt, David Lang) and the profane (Bob Sinclar and Raffaella Carrà’s pumping Far l’Amore), and it does sonically what Servillo and Sorrentino are offering us on the screen – the sight a doomed man glimpsing redemption, as they did in One Man Up, The Consequences of Love and even to a certain extent in Il Divo. But never like this. If you haven’t seen it, prepare to be amazed.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Winner of the 2014 Oscar for best foreign language movie
  • The latest fruit of director Sorrentino and actor Servillo’s collaboration
  • Luca Bigazzi’s breathtaking cinematography
  • The soundtrack – in particular David Lang’s choral piece I Lie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Great Beauty aka La Grande Bellezza – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Consequences of Love

 

 

An easy film to recommend but a hard one to write about. That’s mostly because much of the power of The Consequences of Love derives from director Paolo Sorrentino’s playful decision to disguise what the film is all about. In fact it’s not even clear what genre he’s dealing with until a long way in. But a genre film it is, and the eventual realisation just which one director Sorrentino is toying with will either have you throwing hands up to heaven or kicking your legs into the air with joy. It starts as it means to go on – a long establishing shot of an empty moving walkway in an airport. Though this is beautifully framed, as the entire film is, the shot itself establishes nothing at all. Similarly there’s the film’s main character, the marvellously inert Toni Servillo who plays Titta, a name as stupid in Italian as it is in English. Titta is a long-term resident in an anodyne hotel in one of the world’s most antiseptic countries, Switzerland. He’s a man of few words, and those largely take the form of impenetrable or blindingly obvious aphorisms (“Shy people notice everything but they don’t get noticed”) whose unchanging routine includes a weekly delivery of a mysterious suitcase and his Wednesday morning ritual of injecting himself with heroin and blissing out. An initially incongruous element in a film which only declares itself fully as it heads flat out for the sort of ending Quentin Tarantino might deliver if he were mainlining Hieronymous Bosch. The Consequences of Love is a long cinematic joke, really, but a cool, dry, funny one.

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon