K. V. Turley over at Crisis Magazine has a fantastic overview of the newly re-released film Roma, Città Aperta. Director Roberto Rossellini filmed his masterpiece in Rome a mere six months after the Nazi’s withdrew from the city and the effects of the war provided the harrowing backdrop. This particular movie introduced the world to Italian neorealism when directors used the streets and everyday citizens of the Eternal City as their studio, giving the genre its renowned grittiness and realistic feel.
As a film junkie, I was pleased that Crisis would cover what is arguably one of the finest movies to highlight the struggles of faith in the face of great persecution. Read Turley’s overview and then find the film on Hulu Plus or Netflix. It is worth your time.
As we are in the season of Lent, I tried to think of other great pieces of cinematic brilliance which lend themselves to contemplation and, one hopes, a touch of hope for redemption. Obviously, I could mention The Passion of the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, and a host of other biblical and religious flicks. However, let’s look at two more unexpected classics that will move and delight your senses while also setting your mind on the acts of Christ, who brought the world out of darkness. Because, hey, you need a good excuse to watch a fantastic film.
Nota Bene: These films are not child appropriate. I assume you’ll use all your discretion and not subject your children to the existential pain of great cinema too early.
La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is a film that gave the world an iconic phrase that few realise is abounding in irony. Oh yes, the characters are of the Italian capital’s social elite who enjoy a very fine life of wealth, celebrity, and corporeal pleasures up and down the posh Via Veneto. The imagery is so iconic I had trouble envisioning Rome without the black ties and sunglasses. It is only when one watches the film with an attentive eye that they see the irony of calling this The Sweet Life.
Marcello is the journalist who covers much of these debaucherous affairs for a sensationalist newspaper, often seen with his paparazzi while he cavorts with and charms the wealthy and glitterati of Rome. During the course of seven nights the depravity unfolds as if the deadly sins were each taking a claim to Rome’s famous hills.
While it may look attractive, due to the brilliant cinematography and the lushness of Rome’s physical beauty, Marcello’s life is revealed to be an allegorical tale of a man without a center who is aimless in his ambitions. He has little belief in anything outside of his ever changing passions and thus even his high life is unattractive to him and, eventually, to the audience.
This is a fine movie to reflect on how our ambitions and desire for wealth will bring us little happiness if we don’t ground them in something. The beauty of Rome and its art and architecture is often confronted with the monstrous, the lame, and the downtrodden; a human drama visually acted out like an old street pantomime.
Fellini was aware of religious symbolism, but was not a practicing Catholic and even had an anti-clerical streak in his imagination. Keep an eye out for what some have interpreted to be anti-Catholicism.
Akira Kurosawa is the master of the Samurai films and has inspired just about every action and epic movie trope that we see today. However, his eye for rich visual settings and powerful human tales have given humanity a rich treasure of cinematic art.
Kurosawa was 75 when he directed Ran, a fact that is hard to ignore in light of the fact that the film’s source and inspiration is none other than Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear is that figure of the “foolish old man” who is powerful and wise in the ways of the world but quite ignorant of the wickedness of those around him. Like Lear, Ran tells the tale of of a powerful war lord, Hidetora, who abdicates his throne to divide his kingdom among his children but still hopes to keep the trappings of kingly power.
No doubt, you fine readers know what will occur. The whole of the kingdom descends into absolute chaos and Hidetora is finally reduced to desperation and reduced to absolute desperation and madness; even a desire to take his own life by ritual seppuku—a last act to save his fleeting honour that is still denied. Through the use of colours and a fog of gun smoke, we see all order disappear into a nihilistic world where even the faintest glimmer of hope is smashed against the rocks.
This film is not at all shot with a Christian perspective in mind, but rather has a nihilistic view of the world after the horrors of the last century. I had read that Kurosawa had made this as a reflection of the “death of god.” Like King Lear, where so much of the drama is centered around the word “Nothing”, the action of the film is tending towards an apocalypse where little light remains.
Despite all that, Ran is a great image of what happens in a world without hope. The apocalypse witnessed by St. John speaks of hope for God’s children, but if one is lacking in such hope then surely the end is going to rip apart our previous foundations. In the end, all the power and wealth of a kingdom were undone by a single act of poor judgement. As we draw close to the end Lent, I think this film shows the desperation all were in before the Resurrection of Christ. I would not call this movie a good one to base your life on, but rather the characters serve as a warning for what awaits those who put their trust in the treasures of this life.
With that, may your Lent be a contemplative one in every little thing you do.
nota bene: The image is courtesy of Myrabella via Wikimedia Commons. This piece has been cross-posted on the Ink Desk of the Saint Austin Review.