Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mediterranean Madness

Charm is a rare commodity in today's world. It's something that conveys a fragility of moment, a delicacy of character, a lightness of being, a dryness of wit and last, but certainly not least, a gentility of the soul. When a genuinely charming person enters your life, their presence can be wonderfully uplifting in the way they can elevate your spirit with a simple smile or rock your world with a mere twinkle of the eye. 

Genuine charm is not something that can be practiced, studied, or purchased. It is a gift so rare, a talent so natural, and a character trait so light and precious that it stands out like a daisy in a field of weeds,

Films may charm an audience in a variety of ways. The storytelling format of The Princess Bride has some wonderful moments when Peter Falk is reading to his grandson. The fluttering nervousness of Maggie Smith and Judi Dench in Ladies in Lavender holds a special place in my film memories. So, for that matter, does the bravura performance of Asanee Suwan in Beautiful Boxer.

Two films seen this week at the 2009 San Francisco International Film Festival were so thoroughly imbued with charm that, from their very first moments, the filmmakers had the audience eating out of their hands. It's rare to see an audience so willing and eager to embrace a film that you can sense them rooting for the characters because of the tenderness they see onscreen. 

It is equally rare to see an audience cackling with delight because, even before a dramatic moment occurs, a character has so clearly telegraphed a moment of incipient humanity that everyone in the theater feels like family. Such shared moments are few, intoxicating, and one of the precious benefits of attending a film with an appreciative audience.

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Small Crime is a lovely new movie by Christos Georgiou that starts small and stays that way. Starring Aris Servetalis as Leonidas, a young policeman assigned to an island in the Aegean Sea where there is little chance of battling big-city crime, the film captures the quirks of life in a small, isolated community whose stubborn inhabitants offer plenty of comic fodder. The film opens with Leonidas trying to give a traffic ticket to young Orestis (the hilariously good-natured and appealing Panagiotis Mbenekos). When the body of Zaharias (the wonderfully comic Antonis Katsaris) is found at the bottom of a cliff, Leonidas refuses to believe the death could have been an accident and, with the zeal of a rookie, convinces himself that a crime has been committed.

His growing romantic involvement with Angeliki (Vicky Papadopoulou) may, to some people, seem like the focus of this film. But the real challenge for Leonidas is coping with the eccentricities of the people under his jurisdiction. The program notes reveal that: 
"To check the material the Director of Photography (Yiorgos Yiannellis) asked for a 35mm test, and since there was no cinema in Thirasia, we had to go to Santorini to check it. There the film was first put on the big screen, and it was very gratifying to hear the projectionist laughing while watching Leonidas trying to arrest the young Orestis.  After the test he came to us and said, 'That is so true, all new policemen assigned to the islands -- we make them suffer.'"

Small Crime is blessed with some beautiful cinematography by Yiannellis, who captures the natural light of the Mediterranean and frames his evening shots with great skill. Whether dropping Zaharias's corpse into a tavern's ice cream freezer for storage, or unveiling an idiotic plan to build an amusement park on the island that could draw tourists, the ensemble glows with vitality. According to the program notes:
"Small Crime started out of a passion for the Greek islands which made Christos Georgiou determined to find a story to set in one of them so as to take advantage of this unique micro cosmos and incredible landscape that the islands have to offer. On their first visit to Thirasia (an island off the coast of Santorini), Christos and Michalis Samiotis (the film’s Production Designer) knew they had found the perfect location. The island had all the wild beauty the film required, and the perfect cliff overlooking the stunning sea of Caldera (where the Santorini volcano had erupted at the start of the century). The script was adapted for the location and Production Manager Thalis Stathopoulos started working on the practical need of making the island work. In some respects the island was perfect, it combined the feeling of an island in the middle of nowhere while being 10 minutes away from the very busy Santorini airport. In other respects, the lack of petrol and of accommodation on the island meant the production had to bring in petrol once a week for the generator and convince various locals to open up their houses to members of the crew and cast. The shooting took almost two months, during which time the locals provided -- sometimes for free and sometimes through serious bargaining -- wine, cheese, fish, themselves, and their livestock as extras, thus giving the filmmakers a once-in-a-lifetime experience and the film a color and a reality that is completely unique."
Following its premiere at the 49th Thessaloniki International Film Festival the character of Leonidas was compared to Jacques Tati's wonderfully bumbling Mr. Hulot. However, I think Leonidas and Small Crime have sufficient charms of their own to carry this film's gentle appeal to audiences around the globe.  Here's the trailer:

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With its coy, teasing accordian-based soundtrack, its tenderness and intimacy, it probably took less than three minutes for the audience to fall head over heels in love with Gianni di Gregorio's 75-minute tribute to feisty old women entitled Mid-August Lunch. The inspiration for his film came from an experience he "almost" had several years ago. 
"As the only son of a widowed mother, for many long years I had to tackle my mother – a person with an overpowering personality – on my own (my wife and daughters had fled out of an instinct for survival), and live surrounded by her world. Even though it was a trying experience, I got to know and love the richness, vitality and strengths of the elderly. But I also saw their loneliness and vulnerability in a world that moves on quickly, without knowing where, because it has forgotten its history, has lost its continuity over time, and is afraid of old age and death, unaware that nothing has any value except the quality of feeling. In the summer 2000, the condominium manager (knowing that I was behind with my payments) really did ask me to look after his mother for the August bank holiday. In a show of wounded self-dignity I refused, but since then I've often wondered what would have happened if I had accepted. This film is the result"
Mid-August Lunch takes place on August 14th and 15th, during Italy's celebration of the Ferragosto bank holiday. It is a time when many people flee the heat of the city to enjoy a day off with friends and family. Di Gregorio's film focuses on a group of elderly widows who are left behind (and the poor soul who is stuck caring for them). The film captures, in beautiful detail, the rebellious nature of many senior citizens, the loneliness they battle, their yearnings for foods which have been denied to them by their doctors and their children, and the feistiness of older women who are simply not ready to die.

Written, directed by, and starring Di Gregorio, Mid-August Lunch features Valeria De Franciscis at Gianni's mother (an aging, vain and nearly cadaverous aristocrat covered with liver spots who nevertheless still manages to dominate her middle-aged son's life), Marina Cacciotti (as the fiercely independent mother of Luigi, the condominium's administrator), Maria Cali as Luigi's stern and somewhat confused Aunt Maria, and Grazia Cesarini Sforza as Grazia (the mother of Gianni's physician). Most of the men in the cast are portrayed by long-time friends of the director, including Luigi Marchetti as Viking.

The film's honesty and tenderness is, in large part, due to the brilliant casting. As Di Gregorio explains in his production notes:
"I played the leading role because when we were preparing the film, while I was explaining to the crew that we needed to find a middle-aged man, more or less an alcoholic, who had lived for years with his mother, I realized that all eyes were turned to me. After talking to some professional actresses, in the end I chose women who had never acted before, on the basis of their strength of character, and since they lacked any formal preconceptions. During shooting they swept me away; the story changed on the basis of their mood, but their contribution in terms of spontaneity and truth was crucial. I even did some takes without them realizing."
The joys of Mid-August Lunch lie in its honesty, intimacy, and the laid-back lifestyle of a middle-aged bachelor who, after coping with a vain and egotistical mother, must feed and care for a quartet of old women who are as easy to manage as a group of feral cats. One sneaks out in the middle of the night to smoke and drink at a local bar, another leaps at a chance to eat the foods she is constantly denied. One tries to exert her superiority and territorialism by limiting access to her television; another unwittingly drops one stinging barb after another.

Whether you choose to think of it as "Old Crones Gone Wild" or a rare moment of togetherness for a group of lonely old women, I guarantee you will quickly, willingly, and happily succumb to the magical charms of Mid-August Lunch. Resistance is futile. Here's the trailer:

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