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Italy, 1957. Neorealism is the dominant cinematic style, and many of the most prominent directors are Communists. Yet something is beginning to shift, even in the work of Gillo Pontecorvo, who will ultimately become known principally for two political films, The Battle of Algiers and Burn!, made in the heat of the ’60s. Italian cinema is becoming personal, expansive, and dazzling.
This was not exactly Pontecorvo’s idea. The director intended to shoot The Wide Blue Road, his first feature, with nonactors and in black-and-white, as was the neorealist custom established by Rossellini and De Sica. But his backers insisted on full color and movie stars, and so this tale of an Adriatic fishing village is inhabited by such improbably overglamorous peasants as Yves Montand, Alida Valli, and Federica Ranchi. Even they, however, have difficulty competing with the blue seas and bluer skies of Pontecorvo’s widescreen compositions.
Like a lot of nearly forgotten films from the era, The Wide Blue Road has been recently refurbished. To American audiences, however, it might as well be a creation as a restoration, because the movie was never commercially released in the United States. The director himself was long unenthusiastic about the film, which takes a roundabout course to its communitarian message. Its charismatic protagonist, Squarcio (Montand, looking supremely poised despite not being able to swim), is king of the rocky local hill, yet he’s also an example of what not to do: He fishes with explosives, stunning tuna and sea bream with a blast and then sending his scrappy pre-pubescent sons, Tonino (Giancarlo Soblone) and Bore (Ronaldo Bonacchi), into the water to gather them. And he insists on going his own way, refusing to join his neighborsled by longtime friend Salvatore (Francisco Rabal)when they start a co-op to supplant the buyer who keeps them all poor. Squarcio ultimately sees the light, but only in a melodramatic final development that has less to do with his character than with the politics of Pontecorvo (a former Italian resistance fighter) and co-scripters Franco Solinas and Ennio De Concini.
Initially, Squarcio’s illegal fishing seems a sort of game, especially because his antagonist is a coast-guard agent who’s another boyhood friend. Then a series of developments threatens both Squarcio’s swaggering style and the relatively prosperous life he’s built for his wife, Rosetta (Valli), and their kids: A new coast-guard agent with a faster boat replaces Squarcio’s buddy, buying a new motor to increase the speed of his own boat sinks Squarcio into debt, and the fish-bomber’s activities threaten not one but two suitors of his lovely daughter, Diana (Ranchi). Squarcio still struts, but his desperation forces him to violate local codes of honor, take foolhardy risks, and embarrass even his fiercely loyal (and just plain fierce) sons.
If The Wide Blue Road is not a lost masterpiece, it’s nonetheless more entertaining than most recent American farein part because it respects the same verities Hollywood once honored. Although sometimes stagey and overstated, the movie wrings the maximum drama from primal conflicts, sweeping seascapes, and cussed individualism. Pontecorvo has to take a sudden left turn to reach the conclusion, but the rest of the film confidently follows the course of old-school populist melodrama.
In Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville depicted mean-streeted Montmartre as a sort of thug’s wonderland. Almost 50 years later, gentrificationand digital image enhancementhas banished the thugs, leaving only the wonderland. Its Alice is Amélie, the title character of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sorta comic, almost blithe ode to Gallic eccentricity, altruism, and serendipity. She’ll warm your heart, even if the film’s industrial-strength whimsy singes your shirt in the process.
Before going solo with the widely disliked Alien Resurrection, Jeunet co-directed two features with Marc Caro, Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children. Amélie returns to the comics-influenced visual style of those black-hearted romps, but with a lighter outlook. It’s a romanceand not just between repressed cafe waitress Amélie (Venus Beauty Institute’s Audrey Tautou) and porn-shop employee Nino (Hate director Mathieu Kassovitz). The film is also the director’s testament of true love to Paris, and especially Montmartre. Although Amélie features 80 locations, nearly all the action takes place within walking distance of Pigalle, Bob the flambeur’s old hauntand Jeunet’s current one. Saucer-eyed Amélie even works at the director’s local cafe, Les Deux Moulins.
There are hints that Amélie is set in late-’90s Paris, notably recurring references to the death of Princess Di (pronounced “Dee,” of course). Yet the film’s heroine also lives out of time, in a world of venerable French brand names, antique bric-a-brac, old-timey accordion music, and colors that suggest hand-tinted postcards. Jeunet, who shot all his previous films entirely on sets, took to the streets for this one, obviously seeking to recapture the verve of the early French New Wave. (The movie’s live-action-cartoon tricks recall Malle’s Zazie Dans le Métro, another heavily stylized tale of a willful gamin, and when Amélie goes to the movies, Truffaut’s Jules and Jim is playing.) Jeunet remains the exacting art director, however, so he altered the images digitally, removing some visual elements he found jarring and candy-colorizing others.
The director’s godlike manipulation is appropriate, because Amélie is the story of a woman who finds that she likes to pull other people’s strings. She’s initially inspired by finding a box of childhood treasures in her apartment, which sheafter dogged detective workanonymously returns to the former little boy who once lived at her address. Watching from a distance, she sees the man shed a tear as youthful memories flood back. Thus hooked on restoring strangers’ sentimental lives, Amélie sets out to (1) unite a brokenhearted cafe regular and a hypochondriac cigarette-counter operator, (2) persuade her building’s concierge that her philandering late husband actually loved her, (3) inspire her widowed father to take the international journeys he always postponed, and (4) help a brittle-boned painter perfect his copies of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (a little bit of Paris that now resides at the Phillips Collection).
Neither Amélie nor Amélie is altogether innocent. The film doesn’t neglect the explicit sex shows and tawdry sideshow attractions that made Pigalle famous, although it does ignore the many people of African and Middle Eastern origin who live nearby. (This aspect of Jeunet’s nostalgia became controversial in France, where the film was a box-office triumph.) As for Amélie, she indulges in righteous if mild-mannered vengeanceshe devises minor torments for the local greengrocer who’s mean to his childlike employeeand a bit of erotic self-interest. After deciding that she’s in love with Nino, who obsessively collects the photo strips he finds in, around, and under Métro- and rail-station photo booths, she leads him on an elaborate chase that solves a mystery, before propelling him to her.
If Amélie and Nino’s eventual rendezvous is less than stirring, it’s because they’re less than characters. Neither of them has as much dialogue as narrator Jacques Thebault, whose commentary is as conspicuous as Jeunet’s quick cuts, fast-mo, and breathless tracking shots. Indeed, with its split screens, X-ray vision, and other computer-generated artifice, Amélie looks as much like a recent Peter Greenaway film as a Looney Tune. The film is a marvel, but it’s more impressive than engaging: Jeunet’s celebration of the charms of Parisand sweet young Parisiennesis a technocratic simulation of joie de vivre. CP