Smultronstället [1957)

At some point during the viewing of this film I turned 39 years old.  That is significant because there is a moment in this masterpiece by Ingmar Bergman at which a character is described precisely as 38 years old.

And so a mostly unimportant question arises:  was I 38 or 39 when I heard that line?

To be sure, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Wild Strawberries, but seeing it on the cusp of my birthday as the world spits me back into the cosmic cuspidor makes a poignant movie absolutely devastating.

You must understand, by “devastating”…I don’t necessarily mean bad.  In my film lexicon I reserve the word devastating for films which reduce me to a weeping mess.  This, now, is one such film.

My memory of it was as a sweet film…wild strawberries…youthful love…summertime.  And indeed, all of those things are there.  But this film is more than just naïveté.  This film is about aging.  Old age.

I would never have made the connection, but Smultronstället bridges the gap (somewhat) between its comrades in simpatico:  Umberto D. (1952) and The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005).  In the former, Carlo Battisti set the gold standard for this micro-genre.  He was 69 when he portrayed the titular Umberto Domenico Ferrari.  In the latter, Ioan Fiscuteanu brought a razor-sharp accuracy to the likewise titular character Dante Remus Lăzărescu while being, himself, 68 years old.

And that brings us to the famed silent-film director Victor Sjöström.  For Bergman’s Smultronstället, Sjöström was invited aboard as an actor (in the lead role of Isak Borg).  Sjöström was, almost exactly with the two previous actors mentioned, 68 years old when he assumed this immortal role.

But there is something which Ingmar Bergman did (thanks to the magic of Sjöström’s performance) which is unique in this film.  Beyond the surrealism befitting of de Chirico, beyond the hint of road movie panache which predated À Bout de souffle, Bergman keyed in on an absolutely defining characteristic of old age (for many):  loneliness.

I recognize it because it is an absolutely defining characteristic of my own life.  Sometimes I wonder if anyone out there is as lonely as me.  I send out my signal.  I comb through the tags.  “Lonely” is a young person’s emotion.  “Loneliness” is a lifelong complex.  An articulate, stark reality.

And how does it happen?

Well, you will just have to see this film.  Really, there are few movies I could more strongly recommend than Wild Strawberries.  Everyone will see it differently.  For me it brings back memories of Sweden (and even Denmark [though I should probably wait for Dreyer before admitting that]).  Girls named Kaaren and Anna and Saaarah (ok, maybe not that many As).

That is the route of this unlikely road movie.  What could have been…  What might have been~~

Sometimes a dream rights our ship.  But these bad dreams…we are one credit hour short, she doesn’t remember us, we’ve forgotten the first rule of being a doctor…

In our wisdom we will think of the good times.  For me, it is as hard as breathing.  I don’t breathe well.  I think too much.  About it.  Everything.

Wisdom lets us go back to our old neighborhood…our old play friends…some ball in the street.  We must have some good memories somewhere.  Psychology urges this.  A safe place.  A mental image.  A way to calm down.

In the fray of life this often isn’t practical.  Indeed, we forget everything.  Is there or isn’t there a God?  I would say yes, but I’m not going to arm-wrestle you over it.

That is a bit of wisdom.  You can go home again.

 

-PD

 

 

Umberto D. [1952)

Unglamorous stories.

That is what Italy brought us in the post-war years.

And every “new wave” which has followed owes a debt to the masters like De Sica.

Perhaps you know Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves).

Don’t stop there, dear friend.

Because here we have the precursor to Dante Remus Lazarescu.

Sure.  There is some humor in Umberto D.  A very, very dark humor.

As with Moartea domnului Lăzărescu.

But mostly there is beauty.

Sadness.

Reality.

Cinema.

There is the little dog Flike.  Not Flicka, but Flike (rhymes with psych).  Or bike.

Flike.  Like Céline’s cat Bebert.

And then there is the stunning (STUNNING) acting of Carlo Battisti as Umberto.

There are few performances which can equal it.

Ioan Fiscuteanu did it as Lazarescu.

And that’s about it.

Rarefied air…these two actors.

Let me put it another way.  Umberto D. was Ingmar Bergman’s favorite film.  Do you know what I mean?

The director of Smultronstället and Sommaren med Monika.

Picked one film.  And this was it.

Appropriately, this was Carlo Battisti’s only film role ever.

As the star of Umberto D.

He wasn’t an actor.  He was a linguist.

God damn…

It’s just unreal how good this film is!

But we must also give credit to the indispensable Maria-Pia Casilio.

It is through her eyes that we see the ants…formica in Italian.

In English, we think of a hard composite material.  Formica.  A table top.

But a sort of false cognate brings us back to the archetype which Dalí and Buñuel so evocatively exploited in Un Chien Andalou.  That was 1929.  A film.  The famous eyeball which gets “edited”.  And then the ants were back in La persistència de la memòria.  A painting.  Soft clocks.  You know the one.  And the only differences between Spanish and Catalan in this case are the diacritical marks.

But she burns paper.  To chase the ants.  And the stray cat prowls the roof at night soft as a snowflake.  And the grated skylight is her canvas to dream stretched out in her bed.  And nothing is more morose than a contemplative face at the window looking out on a dingy world.

We sense it did not go easily for Italy.  After the war.  Because when you choose the wrong side you will be punished.

And though Germany was divided and Berlin was the most surreal example of this (being wholly within East Germany…like a Teutonic Swaziland–a Lesotho leitmotiv), Italy still suffered.  We see it in Rossellini.  And we see it here.

Neorealism.  A update on the operas of Mascagni and Leoncavallo.  A continuation of Zola.  A nod to Dostoyevsky.

Verismo.

The star is an old man.  He is not really a hero.  He doesn’t save the world.  There aren’t explosions.

But (BUT)

he does something most extraordinary.  He survives…for a time.  What a miracle!

Ah!  The miracle of everyday life.  We have survived another year.  Another day!

Do you think there will be a war?

[Shame.  The shame of having to ask for help.  Begging for the first time.]

When your bed is a joke.  Newspapers and dust.  And there is a goddamned hole in your wall.  Perhaps.

A missile.  Or The Landlord’s Game (which became Monopoly).

When you are cold with a fever.  As an elderly person.  All your glamorous days have passed.

And you need your coat just to provide a little more warmth.  On top of the blanket.  To make it through the night.

As long.

As long as this film survives, humanity has a chance.

Really.

-PD

Moartea domnului Lăzărescu [2005)

They say the British have a peculiar sense of humor.  [Or humour, rather.]

I am beginning to wonder whether Romania has its own brand of comedy which has yet to be fully appreciated by non-Romanians.

That to which I refer is a bit of writing on the Tartan Video box which encases this film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.

The line in question reads, “THE MOST ACCLAIMED COMEDY [sic] OF THE YEAR”.

Think of the saddest film you’ve ever seen.  Dying Young?  Schindler’s List?

Ok.  Now, tack on the above.  [the most acclaimed comedy of the year]

I’m beginning to wonder if someone at Tartan Films has their head screwed on backwards.

But let’s be fair:  Tartan Films released one of the most important films of the century so far (12:08 East of Bucharest).

Whatever the case may be, let me be clear that The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is (in my book) by no means a comedy.

When I first saw this film it struck me as that which I still regard it:  a sad, sad film.

However, I must point out that this mini-masterpiece from director Cristi Puiu has aged extremely well (unlike the lead character).

The reason this picture is so good is really the immense contribution of Ioan Fiscuteanu and Luminița Gheorghiu.

The late Mr. Fiscuteanu (God rest his soul) gives one of the finest performances in the history of cinema as the titular Dante Remus Lazarescu.  The symbolism of the names should be noted.  Rings of hell.  Ineffective medical systems at the state level.  Heartless bureaucracy.  Song of the South.  Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.  Mr. Bluebird on my shoulder.  And finally, Jesus wept.  Or Jesu swept.  Arise, Lazarus.

The smell…  Ugh.  Yeah…

This film packs a punch.  It is realism.  If you had a hard day at the office, don’t watch this.  Hard day at the coal mine?  Not recommended viewing.

But if you want to see the golden nugget at the center of humanity’s inextinguishable heart, then watch as Luminița Gheorghiu goes beyond the call of duty as nurse Mioara.  She is a paramedic with gall bladder problems.  She and the driver of the ambulance which carts around Mr. Lazarescu make “less than nothing” (to quote the subtitles).

Yes.  You will see the saddest shit imaginable.  You will see an acting tour de force by Ioan Fiscuteanu as what?  An ordinary man.  Age 63.  Headache.  Stomach ache.  Something is wrong.

And.  You will see the real eyes of compassion.  Not too much.  Not too little.  Luminița Gheorghiu.  The nurse who respectfully disagrees.  The nurse who takes insults all night long.  Just to save one man.  Lazarus.

She.  Has to go smoke a cigarette in the kitchen.  The paramedic.  In Russia, every part of the plane is the smoking section.  That was the quote from the inimitable Genghis Blues.  And so.  Romania.  We are not given a year.  A left-running TV offhandedly mentions Timișoara.  Is it the revolution?

What is the ambulance delay?  An hour response time.  In Bucharest!  Pre-Revolution or post-Revolution?

We don’t know.  I don’t know.

Maybe it is left vague on purpose.

In closing, this is a very (very) important film.  It’s like a slap of cold water in the face.  It ain’t pleasant.  This isn’t a fun movie.

But it is wholly worth seeing.  Lead actor Fiscuteanu would be dead within two years.  But you know what?  He did it.  He succeeded.  This is a timeless testament.  Line up Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman…all of them together (at this time) are shit compared to Fiscuteanu’s performance in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.  Only Hoffman has the chops to challenge.  Dustin, it would have to be even better than Rain Man.  Ready thyself if you want to compete with Ioan Fiscuteanu.  It’s gonna take every pitiful cell in your body.  You can do it.  It might do you in.

-PD