The Films of Valerio Zurlini

Feb. 17 to March 17 at

the National Gallery of Art

and Paul Weitz

There are several reasons why the name Valerio Zurlini is less known in the United States than those of such near contemporaries as Rossellini, Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Pasolini, and De Sica, whose The Garden of the Finzi-Continis Zurlini co-wrote. Zurlini directed only eight features in 22 years, though he made nine short documentaries before his 1954 feature debut, The Girls of San Frediano. Unlike the more celebrated Italian postwar directors, he never established a paramount theme or singular style—or at least I don’t think he did. I’ve seen only three of the films in the National Gallery of Art’s complete retrospective of Zurlini’s features, none of which suggest that “Zurliniesque” would be a useful adjective. Still, they’re enough to indicate that the director has been unjustly forgotten. If nothing else, he knew how to move.

The Girls of San Frediano (Feb. 18) opens with guys on motorcycles driving toward the camera. The sequence isn’t flashy, but it is remarkably fluid for the period. And the shot is apt, because the film tells the story of a 22-year-old garage mechanic who’s always on the move—from woman to woman. Called “Bob” because he’s of the caddish type identified with Hollywood actor Robert Taylor, the young man is juggling the affections of Gina, his neighbor; Mafalda, a dancer; and Tosca, the daughter of a very protective actor father. (Onstage, the guy is playing jealous Othello.) Bob’s the kind of guy who, when offered a rare chance to spend the evening with Tosca, gets distracted by two other women, including Silvana, a night-school teacher. Sexually, Bob is most successful with Bice, an imperious fashion designer who’s older than he—and who treats him almost the way he treats the young women of San Frediano, a working-class precinct of Florence. This is a minor film filled with gentle laughs, but it is remarkable for the subtlety with which Zurlini treats situations that could have devolved into broad farce (and, in other Italian comedies, often have). This film also establishes two hallmarks of Zurlini’s style: his kinetic but graceful camera movements and his light touch with material that could easily have become strident.

Made six years later, The Girl With a Suitcase (March 10) takes a darker view of young love. The title character is Aida (Claudia Cardinale), a lovely chorus girl lured away from her troupe by upscale rogue Marcello, who then dumps her at a garage while she’s getting a drink. The resourceful Aida soon locates Marcello’s home, but there she encounters not her seducer but his 16-year-old brother, Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin). Appalled when he realizes what Marcello has done, Lorenzo becomes Aida’s protector, providing her with money, a hotel room, and a new wardrobe. Of course, he falls in love with her, leading his aunt (who controls the wealthy family’s finances) and his tutor (a priest who ultimately confronts Aida) to intervene. Both central characters are innocent in a way: Lorenzo seeks to be chivalrous to a woman who’s encountered little gallantry in her life, and Aida—the more worldly of the two—is astonished to discover that Italy has such things as black bathtubs. The final section is choppy, perhaps because of cuts (the version being shown at the National Gallery is listed as 22 minutes shorter than the original), but throughout the film, both the characterizations and the camera moves are deft.

The last of the Zurlini films I was able to preview is from another era altogether: the late ’60s. Black Jesus (March 11) fuses the story of Congo rebel leader Patrice Lumumba (assassinated in a CIA plot) and the passion of Christ. African-American actor Woody Strode, who’s best known for his cowboy roles, plays the iconic Lalubi, a nonviolent revolutionary in an unidentified country that’s clearly the Belgian Congo. Arrested after a long and ruthless search, Lalubi is imprisoned with a thief who briefly becomes Lalubi’s follower and helper. (The Italian title, which translates as “Seated at His Right,” reveals that this relationship is central to the tale.) The film has a self-important solemnity that’s very much of its time, but, again, Zurlini’s discretion serves him well. Black Jesus isn’t nearly as sanctimonious as many ideologically similar documents of the era, and the juxtaposition of colonial barbarism and Christlike dignity still has much of the power it must have had in those politically charged days.

The series opens Feb. 17 with the director’s final film, The Desert of the Tartars, a 1976 adaptation of a reportedly Kafkaesque novel about life at a remote Middle Eastern military outpost; it stars Max von Sydow, Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and a grown-up Jacques Perrin. (Just the cast lists for his movies show how mainstream Zurlini once was.) The other films include 1959’s Violent Summer (Feb. 18), a drama with both coming-of-age and anti-Fascist themes; 1962’s Family Diary (Feb. 24), a tale of two brothers, told in flashback, that some consider Zurlini’s best film; 1965’s Le Soldatesse, in which an Italian officer in occupied Greece is ordered to round up local women (including Anna Karina) to serve as prostitutes for the troops; and 1972’s The Professor (March 18), with Alain Delon as a newly arrived high school teacher whose presence upsets everyday life in a provincial town.

Supporting roles in such misfires as Dogma and Nurse Betty didn’t exactly make Chris Rock a movie star, but his first top-billed role is a star turn of the worst kind. Acknowledged as a remake of 1978’s Heaven Can Wait (itself derived from 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan), Down to Earth is largely a showcase for Rock’s own stand-up material. Its most destructively self-aggrandizing aspect, however, is Rock’s unwillingness to cede the screen to another performer.

Stretching as little as possible, executive producer and co-scripter Rock cast himself as New York bicycle messenger and aspiring comedian Lance Barton. Lance is hit by a truck while distracted by dream girl Sontee Jenkins (Regina King) and summoned to the afterlife by a bumbling Angel of Death (Eugene Levy). Once he arrives in heaven, a Vegasy joint overseen by oily Chazz Palminteri, Lance learns that a mistake has been made: His soul doesn’t expire for another 40 years.

The abashed angels agree to send Lance back to Earth, but his previous body can’t be reactivated. Instead, he’s given temporary custody of the form of Charles Wellington, who was just murdered by his wife and her lover. Lance simply wants to return to telling jokes and pursuing Sontee, but there are complications: Wellington happens to be fat, 50-something, and white. He’s also a millionaire—which is useful—and an antagonist of Sontee, who opposes Wellington’s plan to do something bad—who cares what—to a hospital in Brooklyn.

Now animated by Lance’s street-level soul, Wellington shakes up his penthouse life, bonding with his butler and maids and delivering a rousing speech in which he promises to do something good—who knows what—to that hospital. Like Rock, Down to Earth doesn’t really have anything to say about issues such as the American class divide and the politics of medicine. The film is about impressing Sontee, who looks into Wellington’s eyes and sees a soul she could fall in love with. (This moving tribute to romance’s metaphysical power was directed by Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz, who are best known for their depiction of love between man and pie.)

Rather than reduce his screen time, Rock takes most of Wellington’s scenes himself. (The actor who plays Wellington is glimpsed only occasionally, and he isn’t even billed.) Much of the film’s putative humor is based on the idea of a middle-aged white guy suddenly digging Snoop Doggy Dog and delivering old Chris Rock material about the difference between “the white mall and the mall white people used to go to.” The culture clash doesn’t clang, however, when the fat 50-something white guy is played by a skinny 30-something black guy.

Comedians supposedly feed on applause, and Rock serves himself several ovations in the course of Down to Earth. As both a crusading millionaire and a stand-up guy, he’s a hit. As such scenes usually do, these moments feel forced and cheesy. Still, they probably contain the loudest cheers Rock will get for this narcissistic retread. CP