One Up, One Down and One in the Middle

Of the handful of films I managed to see in the first two weeks of screenings for the New York Film Festival, Manoel de Oliveira's latest offering, Belle Toujours, a sprightly sequel to Bunuel's Belle de Jour, is by far the most satisfying. At slightly over an hour in length, the film is compact, funny and elegantly crafted by the soon-to-be 98-year-old director, at once a loving tribute to his fellow Iberian master and a slyly humorous meditation on memory and desire. Michel Piccoli reprises his role as the avuncular yet sinister Husson, while Bulle Ogier, suitably coiffed and dressed, stands in for Catherine Deneuve as the self-tortured hooker/housewife. Ogier spends most of her screen time glaring resentfully at Husson, who is downright gleeful in his wallowing in the past. Piccoli relishes this role which, paired with his more somber turn in Oliveira's I'm Going Home, must stand as one of the best double acts any actor has ever been offered so late in his career. You needn't have seen Belle de Jour recently (or, I suppose, at all) to appreciate Oliveira's delightful little jokes, but it couldn't hurt. Besides, one should revisit Don Luis at every possible opportunity.

Tian Zhuangzhuang has been as embattled in his rather more brief career as Luis Bunuel. After his magnificent 1986 film The Horse Thief attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, his 1993 film The Blue Kite just pissed them off completely. It would be nine years before he was allowed to direct again, but his lovely remake of the classic Springtime in a Small Town was both a very handsome chamber drama and politically neutral. His new film, The Go Master, is also highly circumspect in its political implications and, in several sequences, quite an accomplished work as well. But for too much of its rather 107 minute-running time the film seems strangely detached from its subject, a Chinese-born go champion whose decision to live and and work in China throughout the turbulent period between the 20s and '50s is never really explained and whose life is filled with incident but not with drama. The film never finds a balance between the intimate and epic, Wu Quingyuan, the protagonist, never becomes a rounded character, and even his persecution as part of a fringe religious sect seems strangely bland.

Alberto Lattuada is one of those Italian directors whose work is clearly worthy of greater exploration. His 1962 black farce Mafioso is one of those strangely bitter comedies that Italy seemed to turn out in quantity in the early '60s, with Alberto Sordi excellent in the type of role that made his career, the pushy bourgeois dope, good at his mediocre job but utterly without self-knowledge or ambition larger than the next pay raise. In this case, he is a quality control manager in a large factory who takes his wife and kids with him on an ill-advised vacation in the small Sicilian town where he was raised. He immediately falls back into old habits and haunts with predictably disastrous results. The film is aided immeasurably by Armando Nanuzzi's inky chiaroscuro cinematography and the new print struck for the film's eventual re-release by Rialto Pictures, is sharp and clear. The film is entertaining and worth seeing for Sordi in particular, but some of its humor is pretty dated and most of it is pretty obvious.

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