L'humanité

A look at celebrated cinema raises questions about the purity of its essence

It's nearing the end of the Cannes Film Festival, and I'm fighting my way through a massive crowd gathered at the Variety Pavilion for a Roger Ebert-moderated panel discussion with American directors. The critic raves about the likes of Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Anniversary Party) and Wayne Wang (The Center of the World), saying, "They want to make the world a little better than it was when they started filming." Somehow, in this venue, I feel less than fully convinced of the purity of their motives...or my own.

And then I see the movie I was most excited about on the plane ride over: Il Mio Viaggio in Italia, Martin Scorsese's four-hour-plus work-in-progress doc about his love of Italian cinema. "If you ever have a doubt about the potential of movies to effect change in the real world," he says near the start (speaking directly to me, it seems), "study neorealism." True enough: Working with nonprofessional actors on minuscule budgets, in a nation ravaged by the Second World War, directors Roberto Rossellini (Open City), Vittorio De Sica (Shoeshine), and Luchino Visconti (La Terra Trema) captured an Italy in shambles, the way it actually was--saying "a prayer," per Scorsese, "that the rest of the world would look at the Italian people and see their essential humanity."

In other words, the postwar neorealist films tugged heartstrings--often through the stories of children--without resorting to undue artifice or convention, and without relieving us of our shared responsibility for real events. Though they're now more than 50 years old, Scorsese's chosen clips (particularly from Rossellini's unromantic war trilogy) appear as pictorially vivid and as emotionally wrenching as ever. And yet just as powerful is the director's simple description of watching these films as an eight-year-old in the company of his Sicilian emigrant grandparents, who wept at the stark black-and-white images of their homeland in ruin.

Cannes as sitcom: Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or-winner The Son's Room
Cannes as sitcom: Nanni Moretti's Palme d'Or-winner The Son's Room

If the lesson here would seem to be that human tragedy makes for great cinema, a more recent Italian film--Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room, a formulaic family-crisis weeper that ran away with this year's Palme d'Or--made it clear that many viewers (choosing what's familiar to them, perhaps) simply prefer to experience a less lacerating sort of pain. It's not just Moretti's total lack of visual imagination (his film could be a sitcom for how it's shot) that makes his work undeserving of honor at the world's most prestigious film festival. Worse still is his unconscionable view that there's no use trying to make a difference in the world, since we're all purely victims of circumstance.

For now, I've concluded that what is most gratifying about cinema is the feeling of engaging the world rather than escaping from it or consuming it. But then how to explain the narcotic thrill of Lynch's T&A thriller, Mulholland Drive? I imagine I'll still be grappling with such issues in Cannes next year.

 
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