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Past Perfect 

Wednesday, Nov 27 1996
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
Directed by Vittorio De Sica. Screenplay by Cesare Zavattini, Vittorio Bonicelli, and Ugo Pirro, from the novel by Giorgio Bassani. Starring Dominique Sanda and Lino Capolicchio. At the Embarcadero Center in S.F. and the Albany in Albany.

Point Blank
Directed by John Boorman. Screenplay by Alexander Jacobs, David Newhouse, and Rafe Newhouse, from the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark (pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake). Starring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, Lloyd Bochner, and Carroll O'Connor. At the Castro, Dec. 19.

For people who grow up loving movies, returning to old favorites can be as jarring and illuminating as blowing the dust off a family photo album. Even if our judgments about the films are identical the second time around, our emotional reactions, if we've grown at all, change or deepen. Rediscovery becomes self-discovery, and the sparkle on the screen casts a mysterious tunneling light.

Two wildly different "new" reissues have snared me in that mesmeric spell: Vittorio De Sica's requiem for Italian Jewry, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (now playing at the Embarcadero), and John Boorman's dazzling crime melodrama, Point Blank (which returns to the Castro Dec. 19 after a two-day run at the Roxie last week). When I saw Finzi-Continis in 1972, I admired it, but didn't succumb to it; this time its depiction of a middle-class Jewish boy-man in Mussolini's Italy, obsessed with the cultured, wealthy Jewish clan of the Finzi-Continis, had a hypnotic impact. The movie provides an incomparably intimate account of an overly literary adolescence -- something I had been struggling to escape from back in '72. Similarly, when I saw Point Blank in 1967, it thrilled me without moving me. This time its bold expression of the bruising (and bruised) power of its star, Lee Marvin, filled me with a two-fisted melancholy. I realized that Marvin may have been the real Last Action Hero: the last one to pack an experiential punch -- not the stylized slam-bang of Eastwood, Stallone, Schwarzenegger, et al. -- and thus the last to embody fantasies that could make a fan want to grow up to be big and savvy as well as big and strong.

In the opening minutes of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, the friends of the family's grown children, Micol (Dominique Sanda) and Alberto (Helmut Berger), take a sylvan bike ride to the Finzi-Continis' tennis court. De Sica invests even this expository scene with psychological acuity. The sun-dappled color photography, which couldn't be further from the unblinking black-and-white of De Sica's neo-realist milestones (Shoeshine, The Bicycle Thief, Umberto D), conveys the butterfly evanescence of these aristocratic Jews and the tremulous point of view of Giorgio, the hero, who's been smitten with Micol since they were children. The way De Sica handles the semi-autobiographical 1962 novel by Giorgio Bassani, we, like Giorgio, are caught in the sensuous music of the Finzi-Continis' life.

At one point in the novel, Giorgio, who narrates, describes his young heart as a "lazy ember." De Sica and his lead actor, Lino Capolicchio, bring us close enough to feel its warmth. Inside the Finzi-Continis' estate, the dire pressures beyond the gate appear distant and abstract, even when Giorgio, the sickly Alberto, and their muscular, Marxist gentile pal Malnate (Fabio Testi) debate the prospects of the impending war. This rising generation won't get a chance to rise, and at some level they know it; their dreaminess meshes, disastrously, with fatalism. They're stuck in a prolonged pre-adulthood. Alberto listens to a sentimental big-band tune, basks in the overcharged affection of his sister, and fades away. (Berger and Sanda are delicately attuned, like felines from the same litter.) And if Giorgio recognizes that by lingering in Fascist Italy he courts annihilation -- especially after he learns about Dachau -- what gnaws at his gut is Micol.

It's an ache we understand, thanks to Sanda's silky, tantalizing star presence, and her instinctive grasp of Micol's lordly character. She's a literature student, too (her thesis is on Emily Dickinson), and is herself a work of poetry -- the final wild flowering of the Finzi-Continis line. As a child, she had a crush on Giorgio, though compared to her he was a commoner. But once the crisis of anti-Semitism relaxes the class barriers among Jews and she welcomes him inside her estate, she sees that in essence they're too similar to be lovers; he's too sensitive to "overwhelm" her. Micol says that to her and Giorgio both, memory is more important than possession, and she's right; what De Sica shows us is that Giorgio still hungers for life, even if it is to feed his memory. Capolicchio has an observant vibrancy that keeps his character from melting into dew, and Sanda tingles in the eyes of her beholders. As a love object, she's crystalline and impervious; Micol bends sight, sound, and emotion to her own private frequency. Taking the climax a step beyond the book, De Sica hands the pair a devastating moment of truth that caps Giorgio's obsession and seals Micol in memory as a taunting, unattainable Venus.

Focusing on men and women who adopt regal gestures even in the synagogue (there's a poignant flashback of the congregation's fathers gathering their children under their prayer shawls), this movie has few surface connections to De Sica's early films. But De Sica did cast an ex-professor to play his debt-ridden retired civil servant Umberto D, and the man brought the character a tattered bourgeois hauteur more harrowing than any plaintive shows of emotion. Micol's father has the title "Professor"; he no longer writes and doesn't teach, and he's so refined he's already like an elegant wraith. Yet when he signals Alberto's death to his family, or subtly waves farewell to Micol and her grandmother, he displays a valiant dignity. He won't profane his style, even when he knows that the final garden of the Finzi-Continis will be a concentration camp.

Point Blank is based on The Hunter, the first in a series of Donald E. Westlake novels (published under the pseudonym Richard Stark) about a criminal loner named Parker. In his introduction to a 1981 reprint of the novel, Westlake wrote that Parker was "as American as Dillinger," and that what the novel did was strip the "romantic bunkum" from a figure out of war and crime stories and westerns: "the silent, morally neutral fellow barely visible in a dark corner of the setting, who suddenly and inexplicably helps the hero out of a tight spot." In The Hunter, Parker helps no one but himself.

Westlake said the inspiration for the book was a walk he took across the George Washington Bridge in New York City; he imagined a character "whose own speed and solidity and tension matched that of the bridge," who was walking across it because he was "cold angry. Because there are times when tools won't serve, not hammers or cars or guns or telephones, when only the use of your own body will satisfy, the hard touch of your own hands." The moviemakers renamed this anti-hero Walker, and, after a busted caper on Alcatraz, set him down in Los Angeles -- a city notoriously hard on walkers. Then they got one of the best walkers in movies to play him.

With a rugged but never hulking torso, a shock of white hair, and a slablike face marked by a mashed nose and piercing eyes, Lee Marvin was a startling, wired big-screen presence. He tears through the movie like a silver bullet. He has a sure-footed, leopardlike stride that resembles a stripped-down, tuned-up version of John Wayne's. All Walker wants is to collect for a heist that ended with his wife and best friend double-crossing him and leaving him for dead. The whole movie consists of Walker marching through inhuman '60s settings (a garish nightclub, gleaming corporate offices) and confronting Organization bigwigs. The joke is that none of these honchos carries money. He's a Hemingway hero tossed into a credit-card universe, and I don't use the phrase "Hemingway hero" lightly. Wounded in body and soul, he's a man who can hold himself together only by obeying a code, albeit a basic one: For services rendered, cash on demand.

Director Boorman's virtuoso modernist style -- full of flash and fragmentation -- is an ideal counterpoint to Marvin's dynamic simplicity. The movie has classic, jolting scenes, like Walker venting his frustration by shooting a telephone. Angie Dickinson plays Walker's sister-in-law, who helps him get to John Vernon, his traitorous buddy. There's a unique mixture of passive sadism and slapstick in the way Marvin just stands there and allows Dickinson to pound herself against his rocklike frame. She ends up slapping herself silly. Sometimes, Walker's violence is all business; sometimes, though, it's personal. In its juxtaposition of a violent, principled renegade with hollow men in suits (Lloyd Bochner, Carroll O'Connor) and coldblooded assassins (notably James Sikking), and its metallic hues and kinetic use of the wide screen, this movie prefigures Peckinpah's The Killer Elite (it was shot by the same old-pro cameraman, Philip Lathrop). In his first Hollywood film, Boorman employs the editing table as well as the camera with exhilarating freedom, cutting back again and again to the initial catastrophe on Alcatraz to show the persistence and the aftereffects of betrayal and pain. Even the sparest staging is original; Boorman creates weird crosscurrents within realistic scenes, so that when Marvin confers with a shady figure on a ferry they inhabit a universe separate from the other passengers. But the director's master stroke was building the film on the eddying emotions within Marvin himself.

When I spoke to Boorman a few months after Marvin's death in 1987, the director wanted to put his gratitude on record: "When Lee fought in World War II, when he was 17, he was brutalized. ... He was war-wounded. He had this compulsion toward violence, but he also had, at the same time, a horror of war and violence. This tremendous conflict is what I was exploring in Point Blank. There's a scene where he persuades Dickinson to go to bed with John Vernon -- it's a setup -- and he surprises Vernon there and drags him out of the bed wrapped in the sheet. In this awful struggle Vernon is flung off the edge of the building. You watch him fall. The point of the scene is that Lee is getting his revenge and yet he's getting no satisfaction from the revenge. So Lee, who had the sheet in his hand, said, 'Can you blow some wind, you know, at the sheet?' So now, as he looks down, the sheet blows back and tangles around him, and he pushes it off. Instead of just a shot of him looking down, the shot became a dialogue with the sheet. What was wonderful about Lee was that he was able to externalize, to find a method of expressing the inner feeling in an act, a movement. And that was necessary to make the movie -- to make it cinema.

About The Author

Michael Sragow


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