Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Lyricism, Two Ways: Children of Paradise and Umberto D.

The Blu-ray release of the gorgeous Criterion discs of Children of Paradise and Umberto D. highlight the end of one era and the beginning of another in European movies. Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis), with a screenplay by Carné’s favorite collaborator, the poet Jacques Prévert, came out just as the Second World War was ending, and considering the restraints under which French filmmaking was confined – political, esthetic and financial – during the Occupation, it seems remarkable that these two men could have come up with a movie so lush and with such a broad narrative sweep. (It took two years to make.) Children of Paradise is a three-hour-and-ten-minute historical melodrama set in the Paris theatrical world of the 1820s and its subject is the line, easily blurred, between art and life. Carné’s bailiwick was the romantic-fatalistic vein of French movies in the 1930s, and though other directors worked it too – Julien Duvivier in Pépé le Moko and even occasionally Jean Renoir (especially in La bête humaine) – Carné was its undisputed master. That’s Carné’s Port of Shadows we see being unspooled in the movie house in the Dunkirk sequence of Atonement, while James McAvoy is wandering around behind the screen in a fever: Joe Wright, the director, is playing carefully against the romanticism of Carné’s movie, with its moody, doomed hero, to suggest that this kind of gesture is gone forever, that in the world of Dunkirk it’s become a mockery. Carné and Prévert reached the height of this irresistible style and mood in Daybreak (Le jour se lève), which came out just before the war. (Jean Gabin, the poster child for this genre, was the leading man in all four of these movies.) Children of Paradise, which has the good sense to slip it into a faraway historical period, is its last gasp.

Pierre Brasseur and Arletty in Children of Paradise
But though the movie definitely has its swoony side and centers on an ill-fated love affair, it’s too complex and too remarkable an achievement to be categorized so easily. Few films in history have provided so fascinating a glimpse of a theatrical era. All but one of the principal characters are performers, and three of them are based on historical figures. Jean-Louis Barrault, he of the sad eyes and bony, drooping face, plays Baptiste (inspired by Jean-Gaspard Deburau), the gifted mime who elevates the status of his father’s populist boulevard theatre, Les Funambules. Pierre Brasseur plays Frédérick Lemaître, the sensualist who becomes an actor by accident and a star by natural right; in the movie’s second half, he and Baptiste are the two most famous actors in Paris, performing in rival companies – Baptiste in poetically conceived mime pieces, Lemaître in newly minted vehicles as well as in Shakespeare. (We get to see him briefly as Othello, as well as in a scene from a play that he disdains so much that he sends it up, to the aggravation of the playwrights and the delight of his audience.) Marcel Herrand is Pierre-François Lacenaire, a thief and murderer with a highly evolved wit and a love of the theatre. Prévert wrote all three of these characters, but especially Baptiste and Lacenaire, as embodiments  of the playwriting of the Romantic age that produced their real-life counterparts. Romantic drama is full of flamboyant outlaws like Lacenaire, and it’s built on stories of the love that can’t survive yet never dies, such as the passion of Baptiste and Garance (Arletty, one of the most exquisite beauties who ever mesmerized a camera). At the beginning of the movie, Garance is a sideshow attraction who sits nude in a bath, with only her statuesque head and shoulders visible, admiring her own reflection in a hand mirror as gentlemen pay to walk inside the tent and gape at her. She isn’t really an actress, but she’s so magnificent a creature that she graduates to a featured role at Les Funambules.  Baptiste falls in love with her but, because he’s too shy to act on his desire, she winds up in bed with Lemaître. Only much later, after Baptiste has married his co-star Nathalie (Maria Casarès), who worships him, and Garance has become the mistress of a count (Louis Salou) who has saved her from prison but whom she doesn’t pretend to love, does she come to realize that it’s Baptiste who holds the key to her heart. And by then it’s too late.

Especially if you see Children of Paradise when you’re young enough – I encountered it first in college, which is, I believe, the ideal time – you’re unlikely to forget the scene where Baptiste, playing a scene with Nathalie, becomes so distracted by the sight of Garance with Lemaître in the wings that he forgets he’s on stage, and Nathalie, instantly understanding how he feels about Garance, breaks theatrical convention and intones his name in a horrified stage whisper. And the film ends with one of the great final shots in world cinema, where Garance says a final farewell to Baptiste and literally disappears in a crowd of carnival merrymakers as Baptiste struggles vainly to follow her through the boulevard. This image represents the apotheosis of French studio moviemaking in what’s known as the cinéma de papa period, which came between the golden age of French filmmaking in the thirties and the French New Wave at the end of the fifties. The French directors of the thirties had, like their Impressionist forebears, ventured out of the studio and into plein air; movies like Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning and his impeccable short film A Day in the Country capture the look and feel of Paris and the countryside, respectively, in a glorious epoch that the Occupation cut off unceremoniously. And audiences wouldn’t see the real thing again until Truffaut and Godard sallied forth into the heart of Paris to shoot The 400 Blows and Breathless. In between French filmmaking was locked in the studio, just as Hollywood filmmaking had been in the thirties (and continued to be until the post-war film noirs took advantage of the new shutter speeds and made shooting outside at night a viable alternative). Children of Paradise shows how lyrical and sophisticated movies could get that were arrived at by such artificial means.
What Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini were up to in Italy at the same time couldn’t have been more different. As the war came to an end, they invented neo-realism, which set stories of contemporary life against the social and economic realities of a struggling, bankrupt Italy. They were the Stendhals of their time – especially De Sica, who collaborated with the novelist and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini on four of the greatest movies ever to come out of Italy: Shoeshine (1946), The Bicycle Thief (1948), Miracle in Milan (1951) and Umberto D. (1952). The third of these was a satirical fantasy; the other three, like their first (neglected) foray into neo-realism, 1942’s The Children Are Watching Us, were startlingly authentic and profoundly affecting reinterpretations of the realist project. De Sica cast (mostly) non-actors whose faces seemed right to him for the roles Zavattini had penned and whom, with his gift for acting out dramatic situations, he could coach into giving flawless, unactorish performances. Carlo Battisti, who plays Umberto, the poverty-stricken pensioner wandering the streets of Rome with his beloved dog Flag, was a university professor in real life; Maria Pia Casilio, who plays Maria, the maid in his building and his only friend, was a fifteen-year-old from the provinces who showed up at a local audition with a friend, out of curiosity to see what real actresses looked like. She’d never been to a movie in her life and she had no idea who De Sica was. (Casilio recounts the whole story in a charming interview that’s one of the extras on the Criterion disc.)

If the idea of realism is that it produces a surface so detailed and so convincing that we can look through it as through glass and perceive a universal truth, then no one has ever surpassed Umberto D. in achieving that end. (Others have done as well, though:  Renoir before De Sica and, in India, Satyajit Ray after him.) And no one has ever made a movie about the sorrows of old age as great as this one. The movie opens with a protest of old men over the inadequacy of their pension, and they’re a sad sight indeed; the cops disperse them because they don’t have a permit. De Sica moves from the general to the specific, introducing us to his protagonist, Umberto D. Ferrari. (De Sica calls him “Umberto D.” as if he were a case study – a nod, perhaps, to Zola and the naturalists.) Umberto’s pension is $25 a month and his landlady, Elena (Lina Gennari), charges him $17, so he owes her money, and she threatens to evict him. (She wants him gone; he’s in the way – she can get more for the room if she gets rid of him.) He tries to sell his watch to a man he meets at the protest, who isn’t interested, and since Umberto is a proud man, the moment is an embarrassing one. He breaks the rules, sneaking food to his dog under the table at the cafeteria where he cadges a cheap meal, taking Flag on the streetcar, asking the sympathetic nurse at the hospital, where he gets himself admitted for a bad cough, for a rosary to earn him points with her and an extra day or two on the ward, where he can be fed and taken care of. These actions are human, understandable; he’s just trying to live his life in the most dignified way he knows. De Sica doesn’t try to make a hero out of Umberto or romanticize his troubles. We love him because he’s human, a decent man trying to wend his way through a difficult life; we love him because of what he goes through, which makes us feel close to him; we love him because we know we could be this man. Umberto is a man of the old school: when he sees a man stop to beg on the street, he’s a little shocked at his forwardness and his lack of shame. He’s shocked to find that Elena is renting out rooms (including his own, behind his back) to couples who want a place for sex. When Maria tells him he’s pregnant, he replies, amazed, “And you say it like that?” “How should I say it?’ she answers. She’s from a different generation (and a different background);  for him pregnancy out of wedlock isn’t news that you just announce, without embarrassment.

Maria Pia Casilio and Carlo Battisti in Umberto D.
The movie is staggering from start to finish, but three sequences stand out. The first, which contains no dialogue, is a classic piece of neorealist filmmaking. All that happens in it is that Maria gets up out of bed, lights the stove, looks out the window onto the crowded tenement neighborhood, boils the water and grinds the beans for coffee, examines her stomach for early signs of her pregnancy, closes the door with her foot for a little privacy and then cries silently. It’s a textbook example of how De Sica’s technique works: he weds extreme naturalism (very precise realist details) with lyricism, which comes from the delicacy of the camerawork, the beauty of Casilio’s mandarin face, and the emotion that undergirds the scene and emerges, oh so gently, at the end. You feel that you’ve been drawn straight into this young woman’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, and yet because De Sica is so subtle and so respectful of the character – as he is of Umberto – you don’t feel he’s violated the character in any way in opening her up to us.

The second of these sequences begins with Umberto seeing a second man begging aggressively in the street. He runs into an old friend and tries to touch him for a loan, but the friend doesn’t bite. So Umberto tries begging himself, but he can’t do it: it takes all his resolution to open his palm, and when a passerby stops and reaches into his pocket for some change, Umberto, overcome with shame, flips his hand so that it looks as if he’s testing for rain. Then he coaxes Flag to stand on his hind legs with his master’s fedora in his mouth while he hides behind a pillar and watches. The scene breaks your heart. It mends just in time to get broken again when Umberto, having reached the end of his tether, decides to throw himself in front of a train with Flag clutched to his chest (he’s tried and failed to find a good home for the dog; he can’t stand the idea of leaving him to starve in the Roman streets) – but the dog, sensing danger squeals and wriggles out of his arms. This scene undergoes a masterly shift in tone that Fellini must have loved: he reproduced it, in his own style, at the end of his masterpiece, Nights of Cabiria, half a decade later.

Neo-realism came back into fashion, in both Italy and France, in the nineties, and there are still filmmakers, like Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who think that these are the movies they’re making. But they miss the point, which De Sica articulates in a documentary called That’s Life!, made for Italian television, that also shows up on the Criterion disc (and is indispensable for De Sica aficionados). Neo-realism, he explains, is “an altered reality. It’s a transposition on a lyric, poetic level, on a higher level. It must never be reality! Reality is the banality of current events.” No realist was ever less banal than Vittorio De Sica.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny ReviewThe Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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