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.
True notebook this week: four thoughts on films passing through Seattle. Saim Sadic’s Joyland opens at the Uptown; Agnès Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes plays at Northwest Film Forum on 4/26; Léa Mysius’s The Five Devils opens at the Grand Illusion; and Greg Olson’s Fellini series continues at the Uptown.
I saw Joyland at the Palm Springs film festival earlier this year, where our FIPRESCI critics’ jury gave it the Best Actor award. My fest report for the FIPRESCI website included the following paragraph on this bold, beautifully acted film: “There is also a complex family dynamic in Saim Sadic’s Joyland, which took the FIPRESCI acting prize for Ali Junejo. The movie is about a Pakistani man, Haider, coming to terms with his sexuality after a) securing a much-needed income by becoming a backup dancer in an erotic stage show, and b) falling for the trans woman who headlines the show. But the film is also a dense portrait of Haider’s household; he is the second son of a religious, tradition-minded patriarch, and Haider’s long unemployment (and suspicious sensitivity) has long been a disappointment to the other men in the family. For a while it seems Haider’s place will be redeemed because his wife is pregnant with a male child, a measure of the misplaced priorities under this roof. Sadic takes care to survey how the various family members weather the changes that blow through the house, so that the film isn’t finally about one person’s journey but about an entire system being questioned and altered.”
Jacquot de Nantes
The Northwest Film Forum has showcased a four-film series of Demy pictures, quite a lovely gesture. The first three have already screened: the gorgeous Young Girls of Rochefort, the curious fairy tale Donkey Skin, and the fascinating musical Une Chambre en Ville. I saw the latter (originally released in 1982) at the 1991 New York Film Festival, where it was paired with a documentary portrait of Demy by his widow, Agnès Varda. Jacquot de Nantes is a touching memory-film, created as Demy was dying. Actors play the young Demy, the man himself appears on camera, knowing this was a final testament, and the whole thing is shot through with Varda’s clear-eyed, fond attitude, which so often flirts with a feeling for eternity. Lest that last phrase sound lofty, the movie is utterly grounded, which is also very Varda, and maybe less so Demy. A lovely film.
The Five Devils
I can only say I had an ideal situation in which to watch this movie: on a giant screen at a beautiful Montreal theater, pleased with myself for having delivered an award in fractured French during the closing-night film festival ceremonies a few minutes earlier, looking forward to the party after. None of it helped. I will say that The Five Devils is stunningly shot in Alpine locations, and gives a nice sizable role to Blue Is the Warmest Color star Adèle Exarchopoulos, and if that’s enough to get you into the theater, please go for it. But the escalating kookiness of the storyline, which mixes the magical potions of a witchy little kid with a time-traveling plot twist, was finally too much for me—maybe this would be palatable if the film had any sense of humor about this material, but it’s all rolled out with deadly momentousness.
Fellini: I’m a Born Liar
A 2003 review, originally published in The Herald, of a documentary about the maestro. La Strada screens at the Uptown on April 25.
The name Federico Fellini is beginning to recede into the history books—a sad passing for one of the most celebrated directors in movies. In the early 1960s, at least, he was probably the most famous moviemaker in the world, an impish ringmaster of his own gaudy circus. La Dolce Vita, released in the U.S. in 1961, was for many years the top-grossing foreign film on these shores.
A documentary portrait, Fellini: I’m a Born Liar, is a reminder of the man’s vitality. Fellini, who died in 1993, is seen in long interview excerpts, and in behind-the-scenes footage on the sets of his films. The director is frank about his tendency to live in his own imaginative world. He admits that his memories of Rimini, the seaside town he grew up in, have been erased by the Rimini he’s re-created on film.
Maybe even more valuable are the interviews with Fellini’s collaborators. These include the brilliant cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno and the irrepressible Roberto Benigni (who made a largely unseen 1990 film with Fellini). The most penetrating comments are offered by Donald Sutherland, who played the title role in a troubled production of Casanova in the mid-Seventies. Sutherland describes the first month of shooting on the film as “hell on earth”—Fellini was a puppeteer, and actors were his puppets. Sutherland couldn’t adjust to Fellini’s methods at first, although he clearly came to appreciate the director’s approach, which he describes as childlike.
Terence Stamp, who starred in Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, tells a hilarious story about begging Fellini for a little direction on his first day of shooting. Somewhat exasperated at actually having to provide motivation for an actor, Fellini nevertheless painted a vivid story for Stamp.
Like most Italian movies, Fellini’s films were shot without sound. So the puppeteer could talk to the actors even as the cameras were rolling—and Fellini apparently never shut up. He actually appears to be “giving” the performance, which the actor then mirrors. This includes a scene with his wife and frequent leading lady, Guilietta Masina. Their relationship—she was apparently a very forgiving woman—is left mostly unremarked upon. In fact, as interesting as this movie is, there’s a lot left unsaid. Much of Fellini’s early career, including such international classics as La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, is not referenced at all. We really don’t see much of Marcello Mastroianni, the marvelous star who played Fellini’s alter ego a few times. Rather than a biography, this might be described as a summation of Fellini’s spirit. As such, it will be terrific for fans, perhaps less so for the uninitiated.
Donald Sutherland gets to the heart of Fellini’s strengths, and his shortcomings. He suggests that Fellini created the myth of “Fellini”—and found himself trapped by it. This movie offers a look at man and myth.
April 21, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.