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Film Series Roundup: Open Roads—New Italian Cinema 2023

The Hummingbird
Open Roads—New Italian Cinema 2023
Through June 8, 2023
Film at Lincoln Center
165 West 65 Street, New York, NY
This year’s edition of Open Roads, Film at Lincoln Center’s annual survey of the latest films from Italy, includes the new feature from one of our greatest living directors, Gianni Amelio, along with a drama that imagines the genesis of the best-known play by one of the greatest 20th-century playwrights.
The Hummingbird
Francesca Archibugi’s adaptation of Sandro Veronesi’s prizewinning eponymous 2019 novel follows the decades-long relationships, triumphs and tragedies of several generations of a large family, either sentimental or melodramatic by turns. Archibugi films it all with her usual sophistication, and her superior soap opera owes its jumbled-chronology, everything-is-connected structure to the films of Julio Medem. Best of all is the acting: Nanni Moretti, Laura Morante, Kasia Smutniak, Sergio Albelli and, in the leads (and, at the end, pretty wretched old-age makeup), Pierfrancesco Favino and Bérénice Bejo, both adept at being attractive and exquisite no matter what’s happening. 
Lord of the Ants
Along with Marco Bellocchio, Gianni Amelio is a true living master of Italian cinema, with such memorable films as 1982’s A Blow to the Heart, 1989’s Open Doors and 1992’s Stolen Children. His latest, intelligently told, is the true story of Aldo Braibanti, a homosexual poet and author who ran afoul of Italy’s repressive laws in the 1960s, put on trial and jailed for “grooming” younger men. Although at times it’s simply a conventional courtroom drama, there’s a quiet urgency to Amelio’s filmmaking as well as Luigi Lo Cascio’s sensitive turn as Braibanti.  
In Paolo Virzì’s apocalyptic drama set in Rome, a variety of characters, from billionaires to scientists, unemployed actors, Uber drivers, hospital workers and prisoners, must deal with a severe water shortage—no rain for three years!—government rationing of available water and a mystery virus that might be from the roaches infesting the city. Shuttling among these people (and letting some come together at the end to wrap up loose ends), Virzì has made what amounts to an Italian Crash but without the surfeit of bludgeoning, ham-fisted pronouncements. Although it loses dramatic momentum, Dry is saved by a uniformly excellent cast that’s led by Sara Serraiocco as a heavily pregnant nurse whose absent father has inadvertently left jail and Claudia Pandolfi as a famous actor’s wife who’s reduced to working as a cashier to make ends meet.
The life of Saint Claire, first woman follower of St. Francis of Assisi, is illuminated in Susanna Nicchiarelli’s steely period drama, which depicts the rough-hewn Middle Ages as no film has since Bertrand Tavernier’s 1987 Beatrice. Anchored by a beautifully unadorned performance by Margherita Mazzucco as the eponymous heroine who turned her back on her family to enter the convent and found the Order of Poor Ladies in homage to Francis (a fine Andrea Carpenzano), Nicchiarelli’s transfixing film intersperses musical numbers that add unexpected nuance and flavor to the story of this humble young woman’s eventful life.
Like Turtles
When her beloved husband Daniele decides to move out, humiliated mom Lisa decides to move in—to the bureau that’s now empty after he took all his clothes. Monica Dugo wrote, directed and stars in this often perceptive but equally one-note study about how a “perfect” life can crumble in an instant despite the support and love of our heroine’s teenage daughter, young son and judgmental mother. Actress Dugo is understatedly poignant as Lisa, but director Dugo seems to sense that there’s not much here: the movie lasts a bare 80 minutes without making a big impression, despite Dugo’s and her talented costars’ efforts.

A startlingly realistic look at marginal people barely noticed in Italy—Ethiopian sex workers barely scraping by, dealing with awful potential customers and the possibility of police chasing them (on horses yet)—director Roberto De Paolis’ drama follows a proud young woman, Princess, who finds kinship, and maybe more, with a charming misanthrope she meets while he’s picking mushrooms in the woods where she plies her trade. Skirting melodrama, De Paolis’ film is buoyed by its healthy sense of humor and the spellbinding discovery, Glory Kevin, who makes Princess’ plight compelling and humane.
How did Luigi Pirandello come to write his seminal play, Six Characters in Search of an Author? According to Roberto Andò’s faintly silly movie, it’s when Pirandello returned to his hometown in Sicily while mired in writer’s block, and became friends with offbeat members of a local theater troupe. While entertainingly crammed with allusions to Pirandello’s play and characters, Strangeness seems kind of a lesser Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s infinitely more lively riff on Hamlet. Toni Servillo carries himself brilliantly as Pirandello, but his talent would have been better used in a proper biopic. The final segment of the Taviani brothers’ best film, 1984’s Kaos, is a far more memorable paean to Pirandello’s greatness.

Existential Dread Found Live on Stage at the Irish Rep in Samuel Beckett’s Challenging “Endgame”

Play: “Endgame”
Writer: Samuel Beckett
Director: Ciarán O’Reilly
Cast: John Douglas Thompson, Bill Irwin, Joe Grifasi, Patrice Johnson Chevannes
Run: Until April 16th (last four performances will also be live streamed)
Venue: Irish Repertory Theater
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage
132 West 22nd Street (between 6th & 7th Avenue)

In this world of upside-down values, Bizarro politics and contradictory social analysis, a viewing of any play by ultra-absurdist Samuel Beckett makes much more sense. So, when a new production of “Endgame, directed by Ciarán O’Reilly, opened at New York City’s Irish Repertory Theater recently, it became something one must experience. Previews began at the end of January with an opening date taking place on February, 2nd, 2023. Starring John Douglas Thompson as Hamm, Bill Irwin as Clov, Joe Grifasi as Nagg and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Nell, the production was originally scheduled to run until mid March, but thanks to audience demand, it has now been extended until mid April.

This stark, one-act tragicomedy is focused on a blind, partially paralyzed, dominating older man (Thompson) sitting at center stage, his harried, servile companion (Irwin) and his geriatric parents (Grifasi and Chevannes) in an ramshackle old house in what seems like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Two garbage cans sit to the left of Hamm’s wheelchair. Only two small windows at the back suggest there is a world outside.

Hamm references some unspecified “end” whether it is to be the end of their lives or death of the world in general or the end of the events which make up the actual play. Much of the content consists of terse, back-and-forth dialogue between the characters which alternates between bantering and whimpering. Along with trivial stage actions, we are forced to wonder just how they ended up here.

What plot there is held together by Hamm’s telling of a grotesque story-within-a-story that erupts from his mouth from moment to moment. He does this with sometimes bombastic outbursts and other times, a pathetic whining.

An aesthetically profound part of the play is the way the story-within-story and the actual play converge at roughly the same time bringing this skeletal drama to a close. With such skillful actors as these, they eke out humor despite the bleakness, often delivered not with dialogue but with the silent profundity of a head nod, their expressive eyes or awkward gestures.

Upon Hamm’s loudly modulated voicing of the lines, Clov reacts with a world-weariness that lets us know this is not the first time this dynamic between them or the foursome for that matter, has taken place. If anything, Beckett has set this up as if we have been allowed a glimpse into these final moments. The play’s title refers to chess and frames the characters as acting out a losing battle with each other or their fate. Certainly, it’s an odd set of moves that has awarded this play with praise and proclamations that it is the ultimate expression of the existential dilemma — we keep going on no matter how absurd that notion is.

Taken as a whole, much of the dialogue adds up to nothing but bit pieces — sutured together within the context of these 85 minutes, they provoke, prod and compel the audience’s emotional reaction to the infuriating plight of the characters — mostly driven by Hamm’s powerful presence. Though it seems thoroughly unrelenting in its darkness, Clov begins to see a light at the end of the tunnel so there is a glimmer of possibilities.

Originally written in French (“Fin de partie”), the play was translated into English by Beckett himself and was first performed in French on April 3, 1957, at the Royal Court Theatre in London. Written before, but premiering after his most well-known play, “Waiting for Godot,” “Endgame” is among Beckett’s best works and a crucial influence on so many young avant-garde playwrights.

Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom has called it the greatest prose drama of the 20th century, saying, “I know of no other work of its reverberatory power.” Though some might consider “Waiting for Godot” his masterpiece, Beckett considered “Endgame” the most aesthetically perfect, compact representation of his artistic views on human existence. But both plays require repeated viewings to fully appreciate them.

The Seasons & Shakespeare With The American Ballet Theater

Cassandra Trenary and Daniel Camargo in The Dream. Photo: Rosalie O’Connor.

At the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, on the evening of Saturday, October 29th, I had the especial privilege of attending a stunning program of mixed repertory featuring the marvelous artists of American Ballet Theater, in the final week of its fall season.

The first half of the event was a dazzling presentation of Frederick Ashton’s incredible The Dream, after William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set to Felix Mendelssohn’s wonderful incidental music to the play, arranged by John Lanchbery and here admirably conducted by David LaMarche with the assistance of The Young People’s Chorus of New York City, under the direction of Francisco J. Nuñez. George Balanchine was probably Ashton’s only equal in greatness from the last century as a choreographer and The Dream is a masterpiece—a worthy counterpart to Balanchine’s own setting of the same story and music—and one of the most beautiful productions in the company’s repertoire. The attractive sets and costumes were designed by David Walker and the superlative lighting by John B. Read.

However, the ballet’s success owed as much to its sterling cast of interpreters as to its creators. Cassandra Trenary, who has proven to be a very fine ballerina, excelled in the role of Titania while Daniel Camargo was superb as Oberon. Elwince Magbitang astonished as Puck while Blaine Hoven was a characteristically brilliant Bottom. The four lovers of the play were also remarkable, including Betsy McBride as Helena, Alexandra Basmagy as Hermia, Patrick Frenette as Demetrius, and Sung Woo Han as Lysander. There was strong support from the secondary cast while the superiorcorps de balletwas in perfect form.

The second ballet in the program was also fabulous: Artist in Residence Alexei Ratmansky’s magnificent The Seasons, set to Alexander Glazunov’s delightful score—originally written for the immortal Marius Petipa—sensitively conducted by Charles Barker. Ratmansky—whose exquisite Whipped Cream was presented the previous week—is probably the greatest living choreographer andThe Seasonsis one of his best works. The splendid, colorful costumes were designed by Robert Perdziola.

This ballet too featured a superlative cast. The first section, “Winter,” was danced by Jarod Curley as Winter, Zimmi Coker as Frost, Ingrid Thoms as Ice, Sunmi Park as Hail, and Zhong-Jing Fang as Snow. In “Spring,” Joo Won Ahn was exceptional as Zephyr, alongside McBride again as the Rose and Fangqi Li as the Swallow. In “Summer,” Hee Seo shone as the Spirit of the Corn, with Michael de la Nuez as the Faun, and Melvin Lawovi and Jonathan Klein as Satyrs. Finally, “Autumn” featured Courtney Shealy as Bacchante and Hoven again terrific as Bacchus. The members of the graceful secondary cast are too numerous to be cited by name while thecorps de balletwas again wondrous.

I look forward to the return of this fantastic company next spring.

"Microfictions Vol. 3" Blends Sci-fi Concepts & Classical Music

Jaap van Zweden conducts the New York Philharmonic with Roomful of Teeth performing world premiere of Caroline Shaw's "Microfictions, Vol. 3".Photo by Chris Lee

At the new David Geffen Hall—now aesthetically and acoustically enhanced—at Lincoln Center, on Sunday, October 23rd, I had the excellent fortune to attend a terrific matinee appearance of the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Jaap van Zweden.

The program reached its apotheosis with its first presentation , a sterling realization of Claude Debussy’s glorious Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, one of the greatest works in the history of music. The eminent vocal ensemble, Roomful of Teeth, then joined the musicians for a compelling performance of the US Premiere of Caroline Shaw’s impressive Microfictions, Vol. 3. About the composer, the note for the program states that: “In 2019 she was one of 19 women composers selected by the New York Philharmonic for Project 19, the commissioning initiative to commemorate the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which gave women in the US the right to vote; Microfictions, Vol. 3 is the result.” It adds that Shaw

told the Dutch newspaper de Volksrant, “in my music I try to create a garden, a space where you feel, even for a moment, the breath of existence.” Much of Shaw’s work remains centered on vocal music and string ensembles.

It also explains that the work “is part of a series that Shaw began in 2021, inspired by the Twitter microfiction of T.R. Darling.”  Shaw’s own comment on the piece is as follows:

Microfictions, Vol. 3 is part of a series exploring my personal, intuitive connection between image and music. When designing a piece, I often begin by thinking of an object, place, person, or any non-musical thing and ask: if that thing were music, what would it sound like? (An orange. A tree. A cacophonous conversation.) That initial analogy rarely holds as a rigorous compositional system, but it does guide my intuition: imagining unusual juxtapositions; playing with triads as if they are blocks to be broken and tossed around; finger painting with harmony and texture with the kind of wonder and joy I felt about music as a child; pushing against my own inherited expectations of form.

I began this Microfictions series inspired by the work of T.R. Darling and other writers of micro science fiction (within a tweet’s 280 characters). For each movement, I would keep a log of different images or narratives that came to mind, allowing words and music to shape each other along the way. The resulting movement titles are my crafted distillations of those logs into something vivid, surreal, and playful — a space where the impossible colorfully coexists with the utterly familiar. Ultimately there is no right way to hear or understand this music, but I hope that these (very) short stories can simply be a delightful frame for the experience of creative listening and imagination.

The narrative titles of the work’s five sections are:

I. A filament of rust threaded through the pixelated chord structure of an old-growth forest.

II. Anton Webern steered his blue pickup into a field where grasses grew ten stories tall and the wind carried the weight of suggestion.

III. The ground beneath chattered relentlessly, its hard edge tempered only by elastic intonation and parenthetical umami.

IV. Suspended in iridescent fog, the chimes congealed to form a hyaline tsunami.

V. Clocks glided by each other through the diaphanous din of last year’s song of the summer. Time divided work and rest.

After an intermission, the program concluded marvelously with a rewarding account of Florence Price’s engaging Symphony No. 4. Program annotator Imani Danielle Mosley, Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Florida, had this to say about the background of the piece and its composer:

The inspiration for her Fourth Symphony is unclear; we do not know if it was written for a contest, like her First Symphony, or some other occasion. Archival materials do tell us that Price was eager to have the work heard. In 1942 she wrote to Artur Rodziński, then conductor of The Cleveland Orchestra (and later Music Director of the New York Philharmonic), asking him to “examine some of [my] orchestral work .... I also have a symphony (D minor) which has not yet been performed publicly.”

Rodziński did not look over the work, and Price’s Fourth Symphony remained unperformed in her lifetime. It was one of her compositions that were found in her former summer home outside of St. Anne, Illinois, in 2009, more than a half-century after she died. This led to its premiere in 2018 by the Fort Smith (Arkansas) Symphony, which subsequently released the only current recording of the work.

The elaborate opening movement—animated by the theme of the beautiful spiritual, “Wade in the Water”—like the piece as a whole, is within the mainstream of American compositional style of the era in which it was written and contains some jazzy inflections. The ensuing Andante cantabile has some of the work’s loveliest music, with melodies also recalling Negro spirituals. The populist strain of the symphony is most visible in the Allegro, based on the African-American dance-form, the Juba, while the finale is the score’s most exuberant movement. An enthusiastic ovation elicited a fabulous encore: Antonín Dvořák’s delightful Slavonic Dance in G minor, Op. 46, No. 8.

I look forward to the remainder of the season.

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