Category Archives: Now Showing

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD

Producer:  Andrew Macdonald and Allon Reich
Director:  Thomas Vinterberg
Writer:  David Nicholls
Stars:  Carey Mulligan, Mattias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge, Juno Temple and Jessica Barden
Studio:  Fox Searchlight Pictures

B-

Classic novels understandably invite screen adaptation, and Thomas Hardy’s have proven no exception. Thomas Vinterberg’s is the fourth version of “Far from the Madding Crowd,” Hardy’s 1874 tale of Bathsheba Everdine, an independent-minded young woman determined to make a go of the Wessex farm she inherits from her uncle while attracting the attention of three suitors—Gabriel Oak, the shepherd who proposed to her unsuccessfully even before she became a person of property; William Boldwood, the older neighbor who’s recently been jilted; and Frank Troy, a dashing army officer with a penchant for gambling and a pregnant former girlfriend, Fanny Robin.

In the most famous previous adaptation, John Schlesinger’s 1967 MGM film, Julie Christie played Bathsheba, Alan Bates Oak, Peter Finch Boldwood and Terence Stamp Troy. It was an elegant, slow-moving, even somewhat ponderous retelling that Pauline Kael called a “misconceived…botch.” At nearly two hours Vinterberg’s version, as edited by Claire Simpson, certainly doesn’t rush, but it’s considerably shorter than Schlesinger’s 171-minute film (or a 216-minute 1998 Granada Television production shown here on PBS). Still it’s reasonably faithful to the book, though as refashioned for the screen by David Nicholls it necessarily cuts and abbreviates for dramatic effect, as well as reasons of time.

It’s also very handsomely made, made in gorgeous locales that receive painterly attention from cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen and with predictably thorough attention to period detail from production designer Kave Quinn and costumer Janet Patterson. Some of the individual widescreen images look like they might properly be framed.

The casting, too, is mostly very fine. It might be argued that Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba in rather too modern a vein—the word “spunky” comes to mind, though Hardy would never have countenanced it. Yet she’s so vibrant as to dispel criticism. Michael Schoenaerts is an appropriately sturdy Oak, positively oozing devotion and love, and Michael Sheen captures Boldwood’s desperation and false hope with genuine poignancy. Tom Sturridge certainly looks the part of Troy, splendid in his red coat, but despite his demonstration of a swordsman’s skill (in a scene that’s one of Hardy’s most memorable), it’s difficult to credit how quickly and completely Bathsheba melts to his advances. As for Juno Temple’s Fanny Robin, the part has been so truncated in Nicholls’ streamlining that she’s able to make only a fleeting impression, a pity as the character proves so essential to the dramatic turns in the narrative’s last act. Lesser roles are all skillfully filled by folk who certainly look their parts.

Of course, there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface of Hardy’s novel—concerns with fate and the realities of country life—that any cinematic treatment would find it difficult to handle with much depth, and to be honest Vinterberg’s doesn’t much try. It’s content with hitting the high points of the plot as a solid Masterpiece Theatre presentation might do, in particular emphasizing the vaguely modern them of a feisty woman seeking to make her way in the world without submitting to male domination, in the end not altogether successfully.

But though this “Madding Crowd” is a fairly superficial rendering of Hardy, which doesn’t exhibit the same degree of wrestling with the source material that Polanski showed in “Tess” and Michael Winterbottom has repeatedly demonstrated, not only in his underrated “Jude” but in his more innovative takes on “The Claim” (based on “The Mayor of Casterbridge”) and “Trishna” (based on “Tess”), it nonetheless works on that more mundane level. Devotees of the novel will be disappointed that Vinterberg has chosen to opt for such a fairly conventional condensation, but better that than the extravagantly misguided approach that Joe Wright, for example, imposed on his recent version of “Anna Karenina.” Vinterberg at least treats Hardy’s work with respect, if not a lot of imagination.

BLACK SOULS (ANIME NERE)

Producer:  Gianluca Arcopinto, Luigi Musini and Olivia Musini
Director:  Francesco Munzi
Writer:  Francesco Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello and Maurizio Braucci
Stars:  Marco Leonardi, Peppino Mazzotta, Fabrizio Ferracane, Barbora Bobulova, Anna Ferruzzo, Giuseppe Fumo, Pasquale Romeo, Stefano Priolo, Vito Facciolla, Cosimo Spagnolo and Aurora Quattrocchi
Studio:  Vitagraph Pictures

B

Among the local Italian crime syndicates we’ve had plenty of films about the Sicilian Cosa Nostra and a few about the Neapolitan Camorra, but the southern organizations—the Apulian Sacra Corona Unita and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta—have gotten less attention. That’s somewhat rectified (if that’s the right word) by Francesco Munzi’s film “Black Souls,” set largely in the ancient mountainside town of Africo on the southern coast of the peninsula’s toe, where an effort to maintain the Carbone family’s role in the region’s criminal enterprises pits brother against brother and leads to death and despair.

The script, adapted by Munzi, Fabrizio Ruggirello and Maurizio Braucci from a novel by Giacchino Criacco, finds the clan’s paterfamilias dead and dour Luciano (Fabrizio Ferracane), the eldest of his three sons, preferring a life tending goats to engaging in drug-smuggling, even though he’s a hot-tempered fellow by nature. The slack has been taken up by his younger brother Luigi (Marco Leonardi), a swaggering guy with an entourage of thugs who enjoys traveling to Amsterdam to close a deal with a supplier or arranging an understanding with another family at a big outdoor meal. Meanwhile their owlish brother Rocco (Peppino Mazzotta), who takes care of the financial side of the operation and is a bit embarrassed by Luigi’s crude habits, lives the high life in Milan with his wife Valeria (Barbora Bobulova), a northerner who’s as much of an outsider to this family as Kay Adams was to the Corleones.

Luciano and Luigi see eye to eye about very little—particularly the future of the former’s son Leo (Giuseppe Fumo), who despises his father’s weakness and gravitates toward his uncle’s bulldog strength. When the teen’s tendency to act out gets him into trouble in Africo, he goes off to Rocco’s place, where he’s even more taken by the sophisticated things his family’s business can bring. But Leo’s intemperance has irked the Carbone’s rivals, the Barracas; and despite efforts to calm the waters, the tension continues to simmer until one brutal act of violence leads to others, and finally to disaster within the Carbone clan itself.

“Black Souls” is essentially a Greek tragedy—quite appropriate, since the very name ‘Ndrangheta is of Hellenic origin (as is Africo)—and Munzi suffuses it with a dark, ominous tone that signals an inevitably devastating outcome. He emphasizes the ostentatiously bellicose practices that are supposed to mark male behavior within the extended criminal family, and especially the Catholic rituals of grief that the clan—especially its women—continue to perform just as they have for centuries when death intrudes. The atmosphere of gloom is accentuated by the authentic locations—dreary despite the topographical splendor—and Vladan Radovic’s cinematography, which emphasizes the somber quality of the place.

The performances are excellent, with Ferracane, Leonardi and Mazzotta all getting to the heart of their characters’ very different personalities and Fumo etching a grimly bland portrait of a quietly angry young man prone to self-destructive recklessness. As is so often the case in such films, the women are relegated to the background, but both Bobulova and Anna Ferruzzo, as Luciano’s wife Antonia, make their mark, and Aurora Quattrocchi is unforgettable as the long-suffering family matriarch, who carries her sorrows like a heavy burden but is unafraid literally to spit at the police who burst into her house to search for evidence.

Unlike many mafia-related films, this one is unstintingly bleak in portraying a criminal society that’s nonchalant about its brutality, representing a mindless parody of the concept of honor that its name implies. (‘Ndrangheta literally means bravery, or manly virtue.) There are no heroes to be found here, only thugs, corpses and stunned survivors, and even the sequences of betrayal and violent death are presented so matter-of-factly that they emphasize the casual nature of the cruelty they express. The final impression “Black Souls” leaves is of a seemingly endless stream of misery in which retribution is the sole release, but one that merely leads to more pain. By deliberately eschewing the operatic grandiosity of the “Godfather” films and the narrative extravagance of “Gamorrah,” it presents the dismal reality of the Italian underworld culture without any flourishes that might make it in the least attractive. The result is a tragedy more like Miller than Shakespeare—a tough, sober portrait of a culture seeped in deadly traditions that perpetuate themselves, and in which any attempt to escape the cycle merely prolongs it.