The Seasoned Ticket #218

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Two revivals: Life Is a Feast: The Cinema of Federico Fellini, a centenary series (delayed by a couple of years, but who’s counting) at the Uptown, for which I resurrect a short take on I Vitelloni, written for a 2004 restoration release; the series kicks off April 12 with Variety Lights and Toby Dammit. Shohei Imamura’s gorgeously zany Warm Water Under a Red Bridge revives itself at the Beacon Cinema April 7-10. These two pieces are not exactly world-beaters, but maybe they’ll convey a bit of flavor; both were originally published in The Herald.

 

I Vitelloni

The movie that really set Federico Fellini onto the course to be “Fellini”—world-famous director, larger-than-life character, brand name—was I Vitelloni, a fairly humble 1953 film. “Its unexpected success,” said Fellini, “made everything that happened afterwards possible.”

I Vitelloni doesn’t have the pinwheeling scope of the maestro’s later works such as La Dolce Vita or 8 ½, but that’s one of the charms of this nostalgic comedy. It’s an autobiographical tale, and probably Fellini needed to make it before he set his goals higher. The title is apparently translated as “the big calves,” a phrase that might mean something closer to “the loafers” or “the goofs.” This is a group of young men who should be settled and working, but because of the economic climate of postwar Italy and their own self-indulgence, they’re at loose ends.

So they wander the streets of their seaside town, happy to not be growing up. Happy except for Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi), who has a tendency to wonder what would happen if he hopped a train to the big city. Moraldo’s sister Sandra is involved with Fausto (Franco Fabrizi), an incorrigible ladykiller. Much of the movie’s terrific opening section involves Fausto finding out that Sandra is pregnant, quickly trying to leave town, and eventually buckling down to accept his responsibilities. More or less.

There’s also Alberto, an overgrown baby, who memorably drinks too much while dressed as a woman at a carnival. He’s played by Alberto Sordi, who became one of Italy’s biggest stars, and who has one of the most naturally funny faces in all of movies. Also hanging around are Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste), a serious writer-to-be, and Riccardo (Riccardo Fellini, the director’s brother), a singer. I Vitelloni is somewhat uneven—some of its episodes, and some of its characters, are decidedly more intriguing than others.

Fellini seems especially drawn to the hopeless Fausto, who in two great sequences proves his inability to stay faithful. One is an ill-fated attempt at seducing his boss’s wife; the other is a sequence at a movie theater, as he becomes distracted by the woman sitting next to him (with his wife on his other side).

A lot of the movie seems to happen in the dead of night, or just before dawn—Fellini is awfully good at capturing the loneliness of the hour after the party is over. And yet the film is quite funny, too.

Fellini had a hard time raising money to make the movie—he’d directed only one previous film by himself—but I Vitelloni proved a success. It has been a touchstone for young directors: movies as different as Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Barry Levinson’s Diner were modeled on it. Fifty years later, it remains one of the cinema’s sweet, sad portraits of being at a loose end.

 

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

It is a given that when great film directors grow old, they are supposed to become contemplative and settled, surveying the world with the wisdom of age. Apparently Japan’s Shohei Imamura never got that memo. His most recent movie, made at age 75, is as outrageous as anything a young-punk indie has dreamed up.

The title, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, sounds like it might be a nice cherry-blossoms-drifting-through-blue-sky affair. Do not be fooled.

The main character is Yosuke, a salaryman whose life has come undone. He’s lost his job, his wife is bored with him, and the homeless man he befriended has just died. Yosuke is played by Koji Yakusho, the star of Shall We Dance and Cure. The dead man had told Yosuke a weird story: He said he left a treasure hidden in a house by a red bridge in a small seaside town. It’s probably nonsense, but Yosuke doesn’t have anything else going on, so he travels to the town.

While there, Yosuke spots a woman, Saeko (Misa Shimizu), shoplifting. She has been standing for some time in a puddle of water, too. He follows her…to the house by the red bridge, as it turns out, where she lives with her grandmother. Yosuke meets Saeko, and they instantly fall into each other’s arms. That’s where he learns her little peculiarity.

Let us see—how to describe this. During sex, or when she is unusually excited (shoplifting, for instance), Saeko exudes a torrent of water, drenching everything in the vicinity. The run-off goes down the drains of her house and into the river, where fish congregate. Yosuke takes this in stride. While still mindful of the hidden treasure, he decides to hang around town, landing a job as a fisherman. Despite his fascination with Saeko, doubts begin to creep in.

Imamura has long been a director of provocation. His films of the 1960s portrayed craziness and fragmentation in modern Japanese society, and his recent comeback films The Eel and Dr. Akagi were designed to keep the audience off balance. Warm Water never lets the viewer settle down. Its unpredictable story, its odd brassy music, its cluttered visual style, all combine to keep the film alive and cooking.

By setting the story in a picturebook town, Imamura invokes Japan’s past; yet the old houses sit near an otherworldly science lab where physics experiments take place.

This whole movie is a physics experiment. Imamura is testing the way different atoms collide, but he still wants to know how men and women are going to get along in the new millennium. The result is a weird and compelling experiment.

 

April 7, 2023

Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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