This is the sort of juxtaposition that film critics gag for. On the one hand, we have Il Boom, apreviously unreleased satirical comedy from 1963, directed by Vittorio de Sica from a screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, the pairing that created such pillars of neo-realism as Bicycle Thieves and Shoeshine. On the other, The Journey, a new filmabout the negotiations that led to the Good Friday agreement bringing peace,more or less, to Northern Ireland, with Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, respectively. (Also at the IFC Center.) A half-century old film whose themes of greed and the fecklessness of the rising bourgeoisie are more timely now than they were when the film was made, and a period drama made topical by the outcome of last week’s UK elections that seem to be dragging the Democratic Unionist Party into a hard-right coalition with the Tories.
And three male lead performances that demand audience attention, even if neither film is an unalloyed joy.
I tell you, the job doesn’t get much easier than this: black (-and-white) to the future and a glossy heritage production that is newly relevant.
I don’t even feel the urge to resist the obvious because it’s also a totally logical pairing of films and themes and, in a screwball way, the complement one another.
De Sica and Zavattini were always men of the left, albeit a soft, humanist left that placed little faith in institutions or solutions. At the heart of their best films of the 1940s, there is a powerful intersection of family melodrama and liberal politics, groping towards some sort of class analysis but always caught out short by an overwhelming sense of despair. The motor that drives those films is their full-blooded embrace of the neo-realist ethos, a wholehearted commitment to working with non-actors, locations shooting with available light and the immediacy that comes from placing untried performers in situatins that are pretty close to their own daily reality. They are happy to embrace the downward spiral of their narratives and as a result, their films are genuinely “male weepies” as someone (I believe it was Raymond Durgnat) called the films.
An eye for a guy (Alberto Sordi)?
And they are overwhelmingly male-centered. Think of how quickly the female characters in Bicycle Thieves disappear from the narrative. Like most of the films that come before and after it, the film is about incompetent fathers, literal and figurative, and the weaknesses of masculine institutions like the Church, the police, the Communist Party.
Alberto Sordi, who stars in Il Boom, is made to order for this universe. Sordi is a paradigmatic tottering tower of male insecurities. From his early work with Fellini in The White Sheik and I Vitelloni, through his brilliant turns in Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso and Nanni Loy’s Why?, Sordi is the embodiment of the preening but ineffectual male, a twitchy, neurotic Babbit who swings between overweening, blustering pride and self-abasing confession in the face of failure. There is something weirdly Nixonian about him with his rapid mood swings, near-teariness and five o’clock shadow.
Sordi’s ingenious performance in Il Boom is ample reason to see the film. He is virtually never off-screen, and his unerring drive towards self-immolation is darkly funny, a sort of chaotic, perverse inversion of Harold Lloyd, all forward motion, much of it pointless, all of it self-defeating and destined for disaster.
In Il Boom, Sordi plays the sort of go-getter (or, more accurately, a go-not-getter) who infests the seamier precincts of the Italian “economic miracle.” His is a sort of quasi-corporate middleman, vaguely corrupt and always in debt, perpetually one deal away from wealth or catastrophe. Picture Sammy Glick played by Peter Sellers and you have some sense of the character. From the film’s outset he is so deep in debt that he faces losing everything, including his wealthy wife (Gianna Maria Canale). Desperately he turns to friends and colleagues looking for loans but he has built such a secure façade of success that no one believes he’s serious. Finally, he throws himself on the (non-existent) mercies of a textiles tycoon and his manipulative gorgon of a wife; they are prepared to make him a deal, swapping a large sum of cash for . . . one of his eyes.
It’s the sort of metaphor-made-horribly-real that Bertolt Brecht loved, and de Sica and Zavattini happily play it for a sort of black farce. The problem is that once this premise is finally brought to the fore, about halfway through the film’s brisk 88-minute running time, there really isn’t anywhere else for it to go. There are some particularly inventive moments of Kafkaesque wit in the hospital towards the end of the film, culminating in a doomed attempt by Sordi to blackmail his way out of the deal, but the end is signposted and foreordained, all but inescapable.
The film is on surer ground in the first half, with its mordant depiction of a “dolce vita” of staggering mediocrity, a vivid display of conspicuous consumption of every sort that is a bleakly funny reminder that having fun is an all too serious business. Il Boom feels more timely in the post-Cold War America of the ‘90s and beyond than it may have in ‘60s Rome. With its joylessly “happy” couples it anticipates the emptiness of Bret Easton Ellis and his ilk, except that its ironies and actually witty and Sordi is charming in a way that his American equivalents never are.
The timeliness of The Journey is more obvious, although not what the filmmakers intended I’m sure. The fiasco that was the Tory election campaign has ended with Teresa May desperately relying on Ian Paisley’s old party, the DUP to build a feeble coalition that will probably be short-lived. As a result, media attention has fallen on the Unionists, and the result has been to call attention to the fact – hardly news to anyone who knows the history of the Troubles – that the DUP lives by the worst sort of reactionary, fundamentalist ideology. They are anti-LGBTI, climate-change deniers, harshly opposed to abortion under any circumstances and, despite the changes brought about in the peace talks, still ardently nationalist.
World's worst road trip? Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall want to know "When will we be there?"
The premise of the film, directed by Nick Hamm from an original screenplay by Colin Bateman, is that during the 2006 negotiations Paisley must take a plane back to Belfast for his 50th wedding anniversary party. As part of the rules governing the peace talks, Sinn Fein’s lead negotiator McGuinness must accompany him as a deterrent to assassination. Mainpulated by British Intelligence (personified by John Hurt in one of his last performances as a Yoda-like sage), the two are confined to an armored limo that will take them to the airport while giving them an unexpected couple of hours alone together, with only a young driver (Freddie Highmore), who is actually an MI-5 op.
As you might expect, this becomes an opportunity for Meaney and Spall to show off their considerable array of acting tricks. Although he is crucified by large steel-rimmed glasses, false teeth and a Belfast accent this is at once impressively accurate and yet distracting, Spall manages to steal most of his scenes; Meaney has the less obvious toolkit but makes much of it and when the two are sharing the screen he holds his own, subtly and impressively.
The problem with The Journey is pretty basic. Bateman’s script attempts to boil down several hundred years of complex history and several years of complex negotiations into 95 minutes of rather oversimplified talk. Some of it is good talk. Bateman’s wonderful BBC series Murphy’s Law was a vivid calling card that introduced him to American audiences as a clever writer and deft constructionist. But apart from the lead performances there is something superficial and mechanical about the film, starting from the script. As a result, the film reduces its fraught subject matter to a pair of dueling foxy grandpas playing at comic one-upsmanship, and its climax to whether or not Spall’s Paisley can crack a joke. For someone who began his career in the London fringe scene before moving on to the RSC, Nick Hamm has a depressingly literal-minded approach to the film’s mise-en-scene, falling back on the overdetermined symbolism of an abandoned church and graveyard for key scenes of the film.
Still, there are those two clever vaudevillians to watch, Messers Spall and Meaney, and their charms might keep you from remembering who they are supposed to be and who the DUP really are.