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Showing posts with label Martin Scorsese. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Martin Scorsese. Show all posts

Friday, 20 December 2019

Frank, we did all we could for the man ~ Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2019 (17 to 24 October)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

20 December

Need we really consider Joker (2019) as some sort of Scorsese film – or The Irishman (2019) as Scorsese’s contribution to the film universe of Marvel ? :

Meanwhile, in some other universe (when it is Phillips who grossly steals from Scorsese's films, but not in any way to justify the theft), does someone seriously suggest that the indebtedness is the other way around, in 'Why 'The Irishman' Is Scorsese's MCU Movie' !


Postlude :

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 7 March 2016

Two now-celebrated film directors talk via an interpreter

This is a Festival review¹ of Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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6 March

This is a Festival review¹ of Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015)

Two film directors, both of whom later turned out to have been near the end of their careers (and lives), agreed to meet for week-long interviews, the younger man [François Truffaut] asking questions, via an interpreter [Helen G. Scott], of the older [Alfred Hitchcock] : the result of their meeting was not only deepening friendship, but also Truffaut's book Hitchcock², of whose existence and history Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015) is right to remind us.

Frontispiece of Truffaut's Hitchcock

Hitchcock / Truffaut is a documentary that is worth watching for what it tells and shows, though not always for how it chooses to do so (please see below). Also, more importantly, because one could easily tease out its various strands³ [which are identified in the end-note] and ask whether one or more could have been given more weight - with the others as subsidiaries, or not included at all.

Since Leeds International Film Festival asks one to rate everything from 1 to 5 (5 being the best), one agrees to slot into that snapshot way of thinking, and - as there had been better films – one eliminated giving it 5, but then it had to merit 4 (as it certainly was not 3). In fact, it is deserving of being scored as 4 just to hear Martin Scorsese talk with masterful intelligence about Vertigo (1958) and Psycho (1960), which, whatever its aims may have been, is the heart of film : his analysis makes us delightfully aware of the cinematic stature of both Hitchcock and of him.

What this Tweet says may, indeed, be what publicity for the film wants to tell us, and, in some senses, we do get a good feel for how all those interviews went – as well as how some of the ironic photography came about, including that used for the poster (in the Tweet above). (If we want to know what resulted from all that interviewing, though, one reads the book itself², of course [and the film does not much tell us how, or how much, the interviews - as conducted and recorded - were 'tidied up' for publication].) On other levels, hearing simultaneous translation prominently taking place at some length can, for those with some ability in French, be confused and confusing, just in the way that watching a film in, and with sub-titles in, one’s own language can be a distraction (even without any discrepancy between them...), if one is needlessly drawn to reading the latter, rather than listening to the voices and what they are saying :

As the whole point of using the footage was to give that sense of the interviews in progress, Helen G. Scott translating simultaneously into French needed to be audible, but it might have been better suited to Hitchcock / Truffaut’s purposes to adjust the volume of her voice, and that of the two men, for its English-speaking audience : relatively speaking, did we actually need to be able to concentrate on (a) Hitchcock and on (b) what Scott translated Truffaut asking or commenting to him (and less so on (c) her translating Hitchcock’s words for the benefit of Truffaut, and on (d) what he said for her to translate for Hitchcock) ?

Presenting the material, just as it was, and expecting the viewer to accommodate to it was one thing that deprived the film of being rated 5. Another, already alluded to (above), was that of director Kent Jones insufficiently deciding, and being clear about, the relative importance of the five or so strands within the film³ [identified in the end-note], and it has been said that Scorsese’s contribution is vital to its appeal and worth. (It does not quite fit in the last of these broad strands, as, unlike some of those interviewed (one just happens to recall Wes Anderson⁴), Scorsese was working in film at the time, and got to see Vertigo through being in film circles, since it was not available otherwise.)

The end-note⁴ has just mentioned that Hitchcock / Truffaut seems too keen to prove to us that it has people who make comments (under one or more of its strands) whose opinions actually matter, and (above) that it seems too undetermined, in what it ends up saying, about what is important : at the danger of overpraising Scorsese’s words, he was actually seeing films such as Vertigo alongside, and without needing the insights of, the Truffaut book. So the film has us stray, without being either sign-posted or having a justification, into valuing Hitchcock’s direction (and his work of preparation for a shoot) as if it is somehow just part of the thesis that the book importantly benefited both Truffaut and Hitchcock’s reputation.

Finally, no doubt it did, but that does not, in and of itself, prove to make a good reason to order the book, expecting from it a good filmic read. Historically, the re-valuation of Hitchcock that it achieved may have been overdue, but it does not mean that the exchanges between the men come off the page (as against in the live segments of interview that we see) with vivacity, or even that some of the territory into which either man wishes to take us may be of interest (except to them) : by contrast, in the Faber & Faber series that may owe it its origins (where film directors are interviewed about their work), a title such as Woody Allen on Woody Allen⁵ takes more time on each film, by usually devoting a chapter to one (whereas five or six are looked at in each of Truffaut’s chapters).

As the sub-title suggests, Faber & Faber's Hitchcock on Hitchcock : Selected Writings and Interviews (1995) offers something different

As against the Truffaut book, cinematographer Stig Björkman’s conversations with Allen have been more closely edited, for its chapters to be flowing and thematically arranged within them, of which one has far less sense with Truffaut's Hitchcock. Although Truffaut did produce a revised edition, Björkman and Allen have had the luxury, since the first UK edition⁵ (it originally appeared in Sweden, in 1993) of re-visiting the work with the passage of time and the appearance of new films. It survives the test of being readable and informative now, whereas – for all the significance of Truffaut’s – maybe it does so not have so much to say now... ?

Post-script :

To dilate, as an antidote to the above, on considering Hitchcock / Truffaut in wider terms [from ‘Actors are cattle’: when Hitchcock met Truffaut, Stuart Jefrries writing in The Guardian (@guardian)] :

'In the book of the interviews,' says [Kent] Jones, 'Hitchcock came over as stilted and formal, which you can hear he isn’t.

Thanks to critics such as Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette, Godard and indeed Truffaut (all of whom who would become the iconoclastic hipster directors of the Nouvelle Vague), cinema for the first time became, as director Olivier Assayas puts it in Jones’s film, self-conscious. For the first time, it reflected on itself as art rather than dismissing itself as mere entertainment. The Hitchcock-Truffaut interviews were part of that revolution.


¹ Seen, during Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest) 2015, at Hyde Park Picture House (@HydeParkPH).

² Hitchcock by François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen G. Scott : Secker & Warburg, London, 1968. (First published as Le Cinéma selon Hitchcock : Robert Laffont, Paris, 1966.)

³ * Contains spoilers * :

(1) How Truffaut (and his peers) came to esteem the films of Hitchcock, and for Truffaut to approach him with his request

(2) Their correspondence leading up to Truffaut’s visit

(3) The interviews themselves and artefacts of those sessions

(4) The resultant book Hitchcock / Truffaut** and the effect that Truffaut desired from it, i.e. for an appreciation of Hitchcock’s films as works of film-making, not merely as entertainment (not least of all what made them work as ‘thrillers’ in the first place)

(5) Plus some 'talking heads' - other directors, or writers or critics, few on the screen long enough for their contribution to amount to more than bulking out the numbers.

⁴ If, as one is glad to do, one knows films of Anderson’s, there is another form of distraction, but this time on the screen : not only do we have this director (or writer, critic, etc.) identified by a caption (which is always useful, and can easily be taken in), but, in another part of the screen, a short list of films, publications, etc.

The tendency, then, is is to wonder why this film has been mentioned, but not this one (rather than focusing on what Anderson is saying…). So who is this film for that, there and then (rather than built into the credits ?), it needs to be sure of establishing the credentials of those who are shown saying how important Hitchcock or this book of interviews is ?

Stylistically, there is a like tendency, which comes out strongly at times, towards having too much archive / documentary material in view at once : we do not simply have a text on the screen for us to be allowed to read [such as Hitchcock’s quite gracious response to Truffaut - although that actual letter was accepting, but short]. Rather, at the same time as highlighting passages in it, the visual-design of Jones’ team over-busily has it transit across the screen, as well as changing the focus, and shifting us on, by moving other pieces of original material into play : almost akin to some Harry-Potter-like notion of an interactive museum, where, as the Hogwarts portraits do, the exhibits have a life of their own – perhaps entertaining or enchanting, but not an aid to concentration (or low anxiety) ?

⁵ Faber & Faber Limited, London, 1995. (It was originally published as Woody om Allen.)

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Un cane e il cuore ?

This is a Festival review of Heart of a Dog (2015)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
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12 November (Tweets added, 19 December, 26-28 May 2016)

This is a Festival review of Heart of a Dog (2015)

This is a review, resulting from a screening at Hyde Park Picture House (@HydeParkPH), Leeds, during Leeds International Film Festival (@leedsfilmfest, #LIFF29)

Heart of a Dog (2015) is personal, but universal, and Laurie Anderson provokes us to examine our thoughts and feelings about the mortality of others, and that of ourselves. What we have to know in her film, we will - over time - be told, but we most need to give ourselves over to its visual aspects, which, for some, might be a testing fifteen minutes or so of confusion, unless they learn to be able to yield to the purely cinematic nature of what is to be seen*. For, although there is a narrative to this work, it is not just or even the one that we may take it to be, and images and words are allusive in ways at which we can only later begin to grasp, maybe not whilst still in the cinema.

Hearing excerpts of the soundtrack, through the ministry of Fiona Talkington’s (@fionatalkington’s) recent fortnight on Radio 3’s (@BBCRadio3’s) Late Junction (#LateJunction), had created a little apprehension about what watching Heart of a Dog (2015) - what might it be like, and was it going to be any good ? However, what had been heard was a pale shadow of the film itself, but it did usefully preview some of its meditative and authorial traits, as well as introducing the characteristics of Anderson’s composed sound-world. This film is in the league of complete works of art, which meant that what had been broadcast proved somewhat misleading about the strength of the whole : if one knows Psycho (1960), Herrmann’s score may be divorced from it and evoke its scenes with success (or, for that matter, the soundtrack could – as Scorsese suggests in Hitchcock / Truffaut (2015) – be removed without affecting the power of, and story contained in, Hitchcock’s shots).

Anderson’s principal presence is in a voice-over, which takes a while to materialize, and is sometimes silent for periods at a time. (Perhaps because of an issue with the DCP, or with the audio-system, that emanation did not seem altogether seamless ?) Again, it makes this film hers, but it does so quite without forcing it or her beliefs on us. Although she consults her spiritual teacher, and reports what her teacher told her, this is not even in the nature of confession, or of imparting immutable truth, but as one wanting to understand what it might be for another to die – and, thus, for Anderson herself to die – and to present that as a matter for consideration and enquiry.

That other may (initially) be a dog, and Anderson and others who know Lolabelle may have been guided to decisions with which some might take issue (i.e. as to what was right or clinically best for her), but we should not be put off by that : the question of this death and dying is not an isolated, maudlin one, but opens out to ask what we perceive of life, and what it and reality could consist in. When Anderson talks to us, she is gregarious in this role, and willing to share – whether it is through her wry humour, or by expressing her pain or uncertainty, that is what she wants to convey, rather than any claim to insight or to observations with which we cannot find a relation.

In some moments, where Anderson is choosing to be sparing with spoken words, she lets other aspects of the film talk to us : the richness comes through in a sort of surrender, in which one senses that she probably surrendered her own preconceptions about what this film was to be, along with artistic judgements of a highly conscious kind, to the organizational forces within memory, pattern, and illusion. The images, and recollections as to their shifting shape, colour, and formation, are what remain with us after this film – the strong sense of an artist engaging deeply with issues about our relations with each other, and what, in them and in us, make us who we feel ourselves to be.


* One can read, in the comments on IMDb, the horribly literal expectations of Leviathan (2012) that it is accused of having disappointed…

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child

This is a review of The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) (1964)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014
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31 May (updated, with Scorsese's comments, 1 June)

This is a review of The Gospel According to Matthew (Il vangelo secondo Matteo) (1964)

Faces (and what – whenever we look at a face¹ – we think / imagine about that person²) are central to this film, though we start, with nothing to tell us so beyond the narrative of Matthew’s gospel, with a medium shot of the pregnant Mary, a virgin whose husband then takes an angled path off into the distance, and at a pace from the humble dwelling where we see her. The contrast is with when we see faces of the disciples, and of Jesus and others, later on :

The casting has been said to have been, in many cases, from those whose families were rooted in Sicily, but the truth of that claim matters relatively little : the actors have been chosen with care, and Pasolini has the camera gaze on the variety of faces that we see. Yet not as if they were subjects for Renaissance portraits, but as the portraits themselves – in this film, which speaks in the language of bearing, attitude, and gesture, as well as with the intensity of the repeated challenge to ‘normality’ of Jesus’ words on the lips of Enrique Irazoqui (who plays him³), the striking feature is the vividness of human expression :

Indeed, we may have the impression that Jesus’ mother Mary must have spoken, but we probably only hear her crying at the foot of the cross, for that opening interaction with Joseph was wordless, as it is when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers have come, and it is in her presence and pose that she is fluent. (For the novice, a book such as Baxendall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy⁴ is an invaluable starting-point.)

By contrast with Mary, at times the film seems like a torrent of teaching from Jesus, with the familiarly gentle Sermon on the Mount (as it has come to be known) at a pace that challenges us to keep up with it, and thereby provokes us to see the innovation of this catalogue of assertions. Pasolini famously came at making this film not from the position of a believer, but supposedly having been struck by the story when he read Matthew’s gospel in a copy of the New Testament (i.e. the first gospel that he would have come to) , when waiting in his hotel for someone delayed by the attendant traffic of a Papal visit :

It is actually irrelevant how Pasolini came to the text, but crucial that he seeks to tell the gospel as it is written, and so effectively leaves us to determine – as we might with the credibility of many a film – what we believe, for, by showing it, he is really not slanting one way or the other whether this happened or who this Jesus was. (That said, IMDb makes this wayward suggestion to the contrary (as if Pasolini could / should have used the whole text) : Pasolini shows Christ as a marxist avant-la-lettre and therefore uses half of the text of Matthew.)

Saying that, his choice of music for the soundtrack is telling, because he builds on some cornerstones of Western tradition (as well as giving a spirit of otherness, in veneration, with the Gloria of the Congolese Missa Luba) with works such as Bach’s St Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and Mass in B Minor (BWV 232), in particular the Donna nobis pacem, as well as Mozart’s famous final Requiem in D Minor (K. 626) and – apparently when Jesus heals the two demon-possessed men (Matthew 8 : 28–34, but with no evil spirits entering into the pigs, perhaps for obvious practical reasons) in – Anton Webern’s Fuga (Ricercata) a 6 voci for orchestra (from Bach's Musikalisches Opfer (BWV 1079)).

Pasolini takes the grand sweep of the gospel, and gives it to us in a run-time of two hours and seventeen minutes. As observed above, when this film was clearly not attempting, ahead of its time, to be Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (from 1977), he inevitably omits things, but it is far harder than, for example, with some aspects of the relationship between Judas and Jesus in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), to say that there is a (potentially) revolutionary Jesus here – if so, the earthquake and darkening of the sun that Pasolini faithfully gives us are suddenly on a symbolic level, and represent the unstoppable force of history (as seen from the Marxist perspective)…

What, it is to be suggested, is that Pasolini makes a further gesture (to that mentioned above with The Sermon on the Mount) in the direction of challenging us with Jesus, and who he is and what he said, by making a remorseless montage : with tight editing, it has Irazoqui delivering saying hard on the heels of saying, not a few of them those that Jesus’ disciples might have called ‘a hard saying’ (John 6 : 60). Using different dress for Jesus, and immensely varying both the lighting (on Jesus and his background) and the scene, Pasolini might be hinting at the duration, over space and time, of Jesus’ ministry, as well as his claims that his kingdom is not of this world (reported in John 18 : 36), an evanescence of the world that we know in the monochrome juxtapositions of dark and light.

Sourced from Scorsese on Scorsese³ since writing the above :

[...] The biblical film that made the biggest impact on me, when I was at film school, was Pasolini's The Gospel According to St Matthew, which in Italy was just called The Gospel According to Matthew.


Pasolini's use of faces was marvellous. It reminds me of Renaissance art even though it's in black and white, and I love the music - the Missa Luba and Bach. Just compare his Christ with Jeffrey Hunter[⁵]. He doesn't act walking, he is walking; it's not self-conscious and yet it's very determined.


This European style [of early Rossellini], in its simplicity, gave me the key to be able to make
The Last Temptation of Christ. The images have to resonate and be very, very strong.


The strength of Matthew's language comes out very clearly, and it's purer because it doesn't try to make it a straight story from beginning to end. There are no transitions between scenes, characters come and disappear, then reappear in no dramatic way.


He's a very strong Christ, you're either for Him or against Him, and some of the sermons do give you the sense of being yelled at and beaten down. [...]

[p. 136]

Much of what Scorsese makes explicit in these quotations (last read in January, in the chapter on The Last Temptation of Christ) is alluded to in the response to viewing the film above (or in the notes below).

In conclusion, these are the principal way-marks from the silent opening (with Jesus yet in the womb), to the other side of death, tasking his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28 : 18–20, usually known as The Great Commission) :

* Joseph leaves the pregnant Mary and goes into town, where he encounters a group of boys, and, dreaming, sees the angel

* Later, after the unfussy visit of The Magi (alongside the spiritual Sometimes, I feel like a motherless child), the angel appears again, telling Joseph and Mary to go into Egypt

* Then, in a landscape like that of china clay mining, the angel returns, saying that the man who wanted Jesus killed is dead, and that it is safe to go back

* Roaming over the faces of the disciples

* Through to Jesus’ ministry – baptism

* Returning, again and again, to John the Baptist in prison

* The Sermon on the Mount

* The leprous man’s face is suddenly healed – the fig tree that Jesus curses is shown withering straightaway – a lead into the saying about the mustard-seed / mountain

* Crippled man also told not to tell anyone

* The demon-possessed men (Webern’s music)

* Montage of teaching

* Palm Sunday (Missa Luba)

* Before the Chief Priest in the courtyard – the mood is edgy at that hearing, and before Pilate, with the camera back and forth behind the heads

* More emotion on Judas’ sense of betrayal than that of Peter ?

* Focus on the (wordless) grief of the older Mary, falling over, being helped up - her face – leading the way to the tomb – the stone falls over and the grave-clothes are there, then the angel appears

* The angel – timeless – curls - vaguely masculine, though feminine ?

* During the blackout, our eyes and ears are on alert

* The Great Commission


¹ As we do all the time, but seldom as unfleetingly as in the fourth Godfrey Reggio / Philip Glass collaboration, Visitors (2013).

² As Kit Downes says, Cats are persons

³ According to Martin Scorsese, in Scorsese on Scorsese (one in Faber & Faber's excellent series, where directors have conversations that have been edited to be by film (or group of films)), Irazoqui was a Spanish law student (ed. Thompson, David and Christie, Ian, Faber & Faber, London, 1989, p. 136).

⁴ Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1974.

⁵ In King of Kings (1961) (briefly discussed by Scorsese, loc. cit., p. 131).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Via Tasso : No torture for you, just execution…

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
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25 March

This is a review of Roma, città aperta (Rome, open city) (1945)

This film has several things in common with both The Third Man (1949) and A Canterbury Tale (1944), in being in black and white, made shortly after (even during, in the case of Powell and Pressburger’s feature) the Second World War, and making a feature of the bombed city, as well as the fact that two cities are spiritual homes of Christian leaders. This observation is made not to confine the film to its epoch*, but to recognize that VE Day and The Allied liberation naturally led film-makers to dwell on the preceding five years, what had been lost, and at what cost regained, and to respond in ways that have gained credit for all three productions.

At the start, the title Roma città aperta is rendered in black capitals for ‘Roma’, on which the other two words are overlaid in white lower case, with a panorama behind : quite striking, in the ways that this film – not just visually – is throughout. Compare this with August : Osage County, where the focus on faces seems to be all over the place, and here the effects are subtle, gently putting Francini (Marcello Pagliero) into softer focus as if to give him a mystique, even sanctitude, as a member of the resistance : one almost feels that director of photography Ubaldo Urata would be taking Adriano Goldman, that of Streep’s film, aside, and telling him a few things, explaining how a film should look.

That aside, no wonder that Martin Scorsese recently listed Roma, città aperta as one of his 85 top films, for it is crisp, clear, and certain as to what it achieves, even if, as an audience, we have to work quite hard, at times, to keep up. In honesty, though the restoration looks grand, the lack, particularly towards the beginning, of subtitles for the German speech makes for difficulty.

(For, although one can infer, for example, from the direction in which the SS goons are sent what their orders have been when they are sent to search a building, the information in the other dialogue at that time is only available to those with a grasp of and ear for the language, which does not help. On another level, for anyone with any Italian, the general lack of synchronization between lips and speech is tiresome, because the film looks as if it has been dubbed, and one also does not have the immediate cue of a mouth moving to be sure who is speaking when it could be one of three men in a dark scene.)

We see the occupying German forces determining to divide Rome up into sectors for the purposes of carrying out searches more efficiently, we hear them grandly declare their ‘rights’ as occupiers, and we see them home in on Manfredi. Is this the meaning of città aperta (‘open city’), rather than some positive meaning (although, of course, we hear mention of Cassino, and we know the course of history) ?

Or does the significance lie in the sacrifices that we see made, by those captured, not to betray their comrades in the resistance to the arch Nazi, Major Bergmann (Harry Feist), who seems rabidly adherent to the idea of a master race**, and thereby to fight for the freedom of the city ? For we see a convoy, which is transporting prisoners, attacked and they are freed, and the film places at its centre the values of trust and protecting others, when, doubtless unfairly, Italian combatants have been given a reputation for cowardice, and the resistance in other countries has been given a much higher profile.

Aldo Fabrizi, as Don Pietro, is unassumingly at the centre of the film, but we have no appreciation of his eventual role when Pina (short for Giuseppina, played by Anna Magnani) sends her son Piccolo Marcello (Vito Annichiarico) to fetch him early on. As the Germans were not the ultimate victors in Europe, the film can, of course, make the locals knowing and skilled in their subversion of the activities of the occupiers. It appears (from what
says) that the reason for the film was, in part, that a wealthy, elderly lady initially wanted to finance documentaries, first about Fabrizi’s character, and then about Roman children who had engaged in combat against the Germans : Rossellini had already wanted Fabrizi to be the priest, and Federico Fellini and Sergio Amidei suggested a feature film to cover the two subjects.

Wikipedia item
, however, goes on to quote Rossellini as saying that it is A film about fear, the fear felt by all of us but by me in particular. I too had to go into hiding. I too was on the run. I had friends who were captured and killed. As portrayed, though the struggle is of a deadly nature and we see death, the zeal of Major Bergmann is amusingly undermined by one of his junior officers, Captain Hartmann (Joop von Hulzen), who is (by his own admission) the worse for drink, and who reports experiences with patriots in France that cast doubt on Bergmann’s faith in his powers of extracting information by interrogation and torture.

A sybaritic and, despite her apparent sympathy, even more ruthless figure is that of Ingrid (Giovanna Galletti), who would not be out of place as a Bond henchman (or even villain), in whom and whose environs Amidei (with the collaboration of Rossellini and Fellini) evokes the feeling of The Weimar Republic that we get from Christopher Isherwood via Cabaret (1972). Against such as Bermann and she, Pina and Don Pietro shine, which, despite our knowing that it is an artificial distinction, does not lessen the power of the story.

With a vibrant score by Renzo Rossellini, and its evocative camerawork, the tension that there is in this film is palpable. With the moral argument that the invaders invoke being against history, the resultant way in which courage and resignation can be shown on the part of those fighting back is the stronger : for some reason, between 1951 and 1960, the film was banned in the former West Germany (Bundesrepublik Deutschland).


* Another example is La Bataille du Rail (1946).

** Some critics, though, seem not to have been kind on Feist’s performance, and set it aside from that of the others.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Time-travel and temptation

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2013
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

25 January (Burns' Night)

* Contains spoilers *

Following on from Stale old arguments about Scorsese, here is the main act...

The Dean and Chapter of Wells Cathedral may have had screenings in the nave before, but, if so, never like that of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). For one, one's admission is not usually greeted by someone, without explanation offered, handing out what appeared to be a blank slip of paper (usually, the giving or showing is the other way around). It was later found to be a piece of folded A5, but, when asked, the giver said that it was 'an alternative view' (and appeared to be a reprint of a 2* review for the film, as if its existence proved something). For another, the quality of the projection, brought from Festival Central :

There were three introductions to the film, by The Dean, by Scorsese's editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who is also Michael Powell's widow), and (on film) from Scorsese himself for this 25th-anniversary screening, from which we gathered that he had started training for the priesthood, but had not got the necessary grades (and dyslexia was mentioned). The impact of Nikos Kazantzakis' novel on Scorsese became clear, and also the fact that the novel, and the film based on it, is not meant to be a direct Gospel-based account of Jesus' life, but a work of fiction that asks questions. We, too, were invited to ask questions.

The concern about showing a Scorsese film here might have been justified, if it had been Taxi Driver (1976), or even the very immediate Life of Belfont in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) - that would have been inappropriate (sacrilege ?), but there is no way on Earth that this film is blasphemous. It simply asks the question, based on Jesus being fully Man and fully God, what if temptation did not end with the forty days in the wilderness, but extended to the cross :

In essence, what if this Jesus of the film were tempted to believe that there is a parallel with Abraham not being required, having shown himself willing, to sacrifice Isaac, and that he, having abandoned wanting the comforts of a life with wife and children and been crucified, has done all that is needed of him, need not actually undergo death this way after all to save Man ? Scorsese imagines this temptation, which has been mentioned earlier, and shows us Satan peddle Jesus his lies that he is like Isaac, and another way has been found.

Theologically, we are thrown back on that moment on the Mount of Olives when Jesus asks Peter, James and John to mount watch and pray whilst he goes off a little way to pray alone (which happens twice in gospel accounts, but once here) : he prays that the cup that he is offered may be taken from him, if it is possible, i.e. that he need not undergo crucifixion. (He has already broken bread and shared a cup of wine with his disciples, saying that they are his body and his blood). The film shows Peter, although Peter is asleep with the other two, present the cup to Jesus for him to drink from (echoing the earlier scene, and invoking transubstantiation), which Jesus takes as his answer that there is no other way.

In the Miltonic vision of the early Books of Paradise Lost, between the Fall of Lucifer / Satan and the Fall of Man, a council in heaven has Jesus volunteer to redeem mankind from the consequences of his as-yet unperformed disobedience - being omniscient, God knows beforehand what will happen, whereas, in John's Gospel, we have 'The Word' being God and with God before the creation of the world (1 : 1), and God sending his only son to give eternal life to believers (3 : 16). Scorsese / Kazantzakis gives us a picture of a Jesus whose certainty as to his mission and messiahship is not constant, who has had Judas close to him before and in his ministry (suggesting that Judas (Harvey Keitel, with orange hair), not John, is 'the disciple whom Jesus loved' ?) and hired by the zealots to kill him, and who has asked Judas to betray him to the officers of the High Priest, which turns out to be just after that moment of prayer*.

The Jesus of this film already knows Mary Magdalene and has called his disciples before he goes into the wilderness, and, as carpenter, has provided the Romans with crosses for crucifixions - all of these things stress that this is not the exact Jesus of the Gospels, as well as the fact that Peter seems to have no very special role (unlike that of Judas), and that we are shown Mary both as an active prostitute, and as 'the woman caught in adultery', with no invitation 'to cast the first stone', because stones have already been cast. All of this alienates us from mistaking Willem Dafoe for the Biblical Jesus, as does our familiarity with the actor - he is not another Robert Powell, this is not Pasolini.

It is a subtle effect, for we have the necessary distance on Jesus come the purging of The Temple, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, and the further defiance to how The Temple is being run with the claim to rebuild 'this temple' (traditionally, following Paul ?, taken to mean Jesus' own body) in three days. We have seen the raising of Lazarus as a real and frightening struggle with the forces of death, not a casual opening of the tomb (despite the warnings that a body has been in there three days, which becomes a stark reality in this film) and calling to Lazarus to come out.

On the Mount of Olives, then brought before Pilate (David Bowie, before whose scene there is none with Caiaphas or the like), this is a Jesus who has not found it easy to discern his mission, and whom Bowie dismisses as just another to add to the 3,000 skulls on Golgotha. There, Jesus who provided the means to crucify others (and with distorted motives), is nailed up in just the same way, but beforehand, with the way of the cross, Peter Gabriel's soundtrack breaks through into its own, evoking the hubbub, mockery and jeers that we see on the screen - it is almost deafening, and there is a long moment when time stands still and Jesus is forever carrying the cross, being jolted and mocked, and it almost does not let up until Jesus is presented with the title's last temptation.

When this Jesus believes that there is another way, filmically and theologically, several things happen at once : we know that the Gospel accounts and the Christian churches say that Jesus died on the cross, we know that this sweet girl who claims to be his guardian angel must be lying (and that this is the temptation), and we will Jesus to wake up from the deception, which means that we are asking him to die for us, to be The Crucified Saviour, we ask him to give up for us the things in life that are shown desirable to him.

How curious is that, that we should want him to defeat this temptation and die ! A Jesus who even confronts Paul (whom we saw earlier as Saul (Harry Dean Stanton), and whose account of the blinding on the road to Damascus we hear), telling him that he did not die and that Paul's and the other apostles' testimony is false - neither believes the other. If the comparison is not trite, we have a celestial Doctor Who story, certainly a dream sequence, where the deceived Doctor / dreamer cannot spot the clues that he has been tricked, that he did have to die on the cross, that he cannot have what this temptation offered him.

Inevitably, we are thrown back to the temptations manifested as cobra, lion and fire that Jesus experienced in his Richard-Long-like dust-circle in the wilderness, to the doubts and hesitations to which we elsewhere see Jesus subject. Through Scorsese's film, Kazantzakis poses to us the possibility that Jesus could have been tempted on the cross, and the moment is placed when Jesus cries out (in English) words from The Book of Isaiah, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?. Some theologies want to say that, at this moment, Jesus is cut off from contact with God, and that it is in this aweful separation that the act of saviourhood consists. This film places the moment when Jesus is most human, when he most wants and is offered what everyone else expects in life, at this time.

As a theological argument about what that postulated separation means, if one accords meaning to Jesus as fully God and Man, this would not make a film**. However, led into the place of temptation by Gabriel's sweetest music, and in purely cinematic terms, seeing Jesus live our life, meet and reject Paul, and be tempted as we are is compelling film-making. This is not blasphemy or a source of challenge to Christian believers, but a heartfelt and carefully thought-through meditation, as a film, on what can otherwise seem the sometimes tired and unconsidered question of what it cost Jesus to go to his death. At the very end, as we looked up above the screen, a faint light was on The Crucifixion, Jesus on the cross and those at the foot.

All at the Cathedral and Bath Film Festival are to be commended for their determination to show this film, despite objection

More here on what Scorsese has written about the film (in Scorsese on Scorsese)...


* The accounts about Judas throwing the thirty coins of silver back at the officers of the High Priest, The Potter's Field being bought, or of Judas hanging himself have no place here.

** Surely, at its heart is Paul's Letter to the Hebrews (4 : 15), which says For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. The protesters (Wells Journal, 23 January) assert - baselessly, as far as I can see - that the film propounds that Jesus did marry Mary Magadelene (by citing The Christ Files), and seek to disprove the claim.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 24 January 2014

What does Rotten Tomatoes tell us about Wolf ?

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23 January is notorious for summarizing a critical review as 'fresh' tomatoes, a so-called glowing one as 'rotten' - one doubts that there is much human intervention in scanning the review, or at all beyond the star-rating and the closing words, and some would invoke what they have learnt to call an algorithm (even though all of computers and the Internet are algorithms at work).

That said, one can pretty quickly pick out some choice pieces of slating a film such as The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), or some pieces of enthusiastic endorsement that might be unsaid, if people had not embarrassingly already read them, and here are some quotations from the former category about this film :

By the way, the collector’s version of The Wolf of Wall Street, and if Scorsese gets wise the Director’s Version, will consist of just one scene. It is by far the best: it comes at the beginning and says everything crisply that doesn’t need to be shoutily repeated over and over. Matthew McConaughey, never better, has a shark-featured cameo as young Belfort’s first-day mentor. He is totally hilarious, a lean, airy-gestured, epigrammatic, mad-as-a-fox cynic and crypto-sociopath: just the man to ensure good order in Moneyville as the young striped shirts learn to get in formation with the striped coke lines.

Nigel Andrews, Financial Times

One can’t help but think the film’s early enemies were asking the wrong question. Scorsese and DiCaprio have argued that no approval of Belfort’s activities is implied. This is true enough. But both men are certainly experienced enough to understand cinema’s ability to allow decent people a little recreational paddling in vicarious immorality. Scorsese’s Goodfellas – whose grammar and rhythms Wolf apes – would not be nearly so entertaining if it concerned dishonest ice cream salesmen.


At times, the film seems almost Hobbitian in its inability to finish a scene that is already well past its natural lifespan. It’s not often one encounters a film that could, quite comfortably, lose an entire hour. But, clocking in at 180 minutes, Wolf is just that picture. It hardly needs to be said that it’s brilliantly edited and superbly acted – Jonah Hill is hilarious as Belfort’s slippery lieutenant – but the endless repetition would wear down even the most fervent Philip Glass fan.
Donald Clarke, The Irish Times ('fresh' for giving it three stars ?)

The Wolf of Wall Street, adapted from the autobiography by the disgraced stockbroker Jordan Belfort, looks back adoringly at the sort of cavalier corruption that precipitated the recent economic crisis. There is something intriguingly contrary, even foolhardy, about asking audiences to marvel at the high jinks and profligacy that have reshaped their world for the worse.


Scorsese frames Belfort like a rock god, placing the camera behind him as he delivers sermons to the whooping stooges who fill an office floor that stretches towards infinity. If the film aspires ultimately to be an indictment, then it is one with tiny love hearts doodled in the margins, which is no kind of indictment at all.


Any oxygen in the film comes from the softly electrifying Kyle Chandler as Patrick Denham, the FBI agent trying to bring Belfort to book.

Ryan Gilbey, New Statesman

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Who is this film about ?

This is a misguided review of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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22 January

* Contains spoilers *

This is a misguided review of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Maybe it’s the season of empty films – they have content and length, but all that they tell you is that : humankind can survive adversity; given long enough someone can be suckered in a huge way; and people can believe that they have rights over another person and his or her life [and that is not only slavery] : they are virtually the plot of platitude.

When it comes to The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), we think that Martin Scorsese might mix things up a bit and confuse, but he gives us Jordan Belfort (Leonardo diCaprio), a character whom, we might remember, we have no more reason to believe than when he tells us that, with the $5,000’s worth of stock that he is offering, we will kill ourselves that we did not buy more : we even have reality change before our eyes, as he tells us that his car was that model, but in white, not red, adjusting the pictures to what he says happened. (Yes, there is a tie to reality, because the credits tell us that the film is based on Belfort’s book, but that never means very much.)

If we skip that opening sequence, when Belfort is adjusting live action to accord with what he says happened, we are simply ‘buying’ what he tells us, occasionally by voice-over, but largely by people, things, events just being on the screen, and Scorese surely gives us a big clue that we should reserve judgement. If not, it is just Jordan’s way, all the way. Think about his first day at work : the film does not dwell on his being told that he is pond life, but instead on a man who can pull rank on the person using that description and, rather improbably, invite Belfort to a bizarre lunch on the strength of the fact that Belfort did something unusual to get noticed in his application. Is this objective reality, or the world of Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man ! (1973)?

The time between then (and the advice given at lunch, including to have hookers, snort cocaine, and jerk off twice per day) and Belfort becoming a broker is passed over, but with the big thump of 1987’s Black Monday to bring him down, though not for long. And then there is the core of people with whom he surrounds himself, one (Jonah Hill as Donnie Azoff) for little better reason as to whether he could sell parasols in Spain than that he provides Belfort with a really good high – yes, natural enough that Belfort should want to set up his own concern, but why with these people, foisted on us as his characters ?

Think back thirty years to Once Upon a Time in America (1984) – or earlier films about the world of organized crime – and that same coterie of those trusted with the innermost details. Scorsese does not just want us to watch what is happening and lap it all up – is that the approach that he intends with Taxi Driver (1976), just that we should go with what happens and think that the actions of Travis Bickle deserve to be celebrated ?

We have Belfort talk shaven pubic hair with his father (and the older man wish that he were younger, although he likes ‘the bush’), and we are suckered if we take him snorting cocaine off a girl’s rear as any more than a parody of possibility, of maybe what did happen all so often in the world of brokerage, but is not told us to prove that it could and did happen, but what it meant that it happened.

At the same time, Scorsese is playing with us, if we want to feel respect for Belfort for once giving a cheque for $25,000 to a woman now working for him who needed the money, if we want to be energized by Shakespeare’s Henry V, the speech that Kenneth Branagh lionized to stir and inspire his troops, or if we want to feel that there is humour in the scene where he learns that his phone is bugged (in fact, nothing comes of that) and, having ingested some arcane substance shared by Azoff and him (for reasons that are unclear), drives home to get Azoff off the phone.

Belfort is not a (submerged) narrator who tells everything to his advantage (e.g. reversing the car with his young daughter in it into a post in an effort to get her away from his wife, who wants a divorce and the children), but the broad thrust of things is how we wants to tell them, such as (seemingly spontaneously) not doing a deal that will remove him for his company, but ending up doing those who work for it far more harm as a consequence so that he ends up with just thirty-six months’ incarceration – grand, impulsive gestures, but just because he can, out of some sense of freedom, of who he is.

Amidst the glitz, the sex, the drug-taking, the nudity, taking what one can when one can*, ripping someone off because one can talk them into what, with reflection, they would never do, does one seek for something else, or feel that one might as well have done the same, if everyone else was doing so ? So is it a film about Belfort’s character-type, or about all of us, if we could, if we dared, if we admitted that we wanted to ? If we have just watched it on the surface, the answer is there : we have dreamed and lived the life with Belfont, and what is the challenge to being implicated ?
Maybe the whole film is a plea in mitigation to the judge, saying how he had never heard such language before he started working on the trading-floor, and showing how his behaviour became provocative, coarse, abrasive?


According to Matthew Toomey's review :

Brought to the screen by iconic director Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed), The Wolf Of Wall Street has generated controversy. Detractors believe that the film glorifies Belfort’s actions given its many comedic scenes and its lack of a moralistic conclusion. That was certainly not Scorsese’s intention. He didn’t want audiences to leave the cinema feeling better and thinking that the problem has been solved. He “wanted them to feel like they’d been slapped into recognising that this behaviour has been encouraged.” The film’s final scene is haunting in that regard.

See here what others reviews say...


* And yet Belfort, until Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) unequivocally offers herself to him in sex that he pulls no punches in saying lasted only eleven seconds (until he had something in reserve), is on the verge of going home to his wife).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Friday, 10 January 2014

Stale old arguments about Scorsese

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10 January

The Times (in an article entitled Cathedral defends showing ‘debauched film of Christ’s life’) reports as follows regarding Bath Film Festival's (@BathFilm's) screening of director Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the book by Nikos Kazantzakis (and with score by Peter Gabriel) :

Members of the congregation have protested that the 12th-century Gothic Cathedral is to be used for an “appalling film” that “tackles the theme of debauchery”

Are they thinking, maybe, of another Scorsese film, Taxi Driver, which certainly does 'tackle' that theme, and appals in its literal sense (from Old French appalir to turn pale) ? Have they seen it, or are they like the protesters (placards saying 'Down with this sort of thing') penned by Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan in Father Ted, who made more popular, through interest and intrigue, a film that they had not watched, The Passion of St Tibulus from 1995 ?

The appendix of the 1996 edition of Scorsese on Scorsese* (one in a Faber & Faber series to which The Agent is addicted) is devoted to the film. Here are some quotations from a statement that Scorsese made at a press conference :

When I read Kazantzakis's book, I didn't have the feeling that it would be deeply offensive to anyone, especially because I know of my own intent.


Among the boys who I knew when I was in the seminary, one is now the head of an order in Chicago called the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and happens to be a great fan of Kazantzakis's book. And I know that the book is used in seminaries as a parable to argue about and discuss. This is how I hoped the film would be received.


A black minister wrote a letter to the New York Daily News, saying he loved the film, was going to use it as a study guide in discussion groups, and that he felt most of the people talking about the film had not seen it. He said they adhered very much to the word of the Gospel, but not to the spirit.

After the event, read more here about it and the film, if you wish...


* Faber & Faber, London, 1996.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 17 June 2013

How Time views After Hours (1985)

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1 June

This story had to be told - one way or another, although it was written for New Empress Magazine's issue (number 10), with the theme of Time in cinema, it resisted inclusion.

Finished, it would have looked at Eraserhead (1977) and seen whether Brazil and After Hours (1985) were both indebted to Lynch, but had gone in different directions with it (a bit like particles flying out from a sub-atomic collision)...

In late 1983, there proved not to be the sustainable will – or, with it, the money – for Martin Scorsese to make The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which he had also insisted had to be shot in Israel (adding to the cost). As he says in Scorsese on Scorsese (Faber & Faber, London, 1996 (updated version)), he sublimated his rage at the studio for thinking Christ ‘not worth the trouble’ (as Barry Diller at Paramount told him, apologizing for not saying before that they were pulling the plug) : he looked around for another film to make.

Not being able to see himself make either, Scorsese turned down Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Witness (1985), and so ended up, again, in the world of independent film with After Hours and, ultimately, with Fassbinder’s cameraman, Michael Ballhaus. Before then, a few things happened on the way…

In New York, Scorsese got to see a script that he liked. It was owned (i.e. they had the film option) by Griffin Dunne (Dunne played Paul Hackett, the male lead) and Amy Robinson (who had appeared in Mean Streets (1973), and was, with Dunne, a co-producer of After Hours). In his own words, Scorsese started reading it and really liked the first two or three pages. I liked the dialogue […].

This is where things got interesting, because Scorsese had apparently been told that it had been written by Joseph Minion in a class at Columbia University (and been given an A in the Graduate Film Program), whereas that seems not to have been the whole story.

Even I, as a fourteen-year-old, learnt the basic rules of plagiarism : even if others had not also decided to lift material for their essay from the introduction to our edition of Julius Caesar, which made ‘the borrowing’ obvious, one could not simply pass off something as one’s own, and had to cover one’s tracks. (Either that, or acknowledge one’s sources, of course*.)

In this case, as blogger Andrew Hearst reveals (linked from the film’s Wikipedia page), there was a radio monologue called Lies, written, performed and broadcast by one Joe Frank for NPR Playhouse in 1982. On Hearst’s blog, it can be heard in full, and runs to around 11 minutes, providing the broad synopsis for around the first one-third of After Hours.

One might just about be able to listen to it and not be spot the relation to After Hours if one had not seen it recently: were it not, that is, that bagel-and-cream-cheese paperweights made of plaster of Paris are a bit of a give-away (even if a five-dollar bill flying out of the cash-cradle, and through the window, of a taxi and leaving Hackett without cash is not already). Where I cannot agree with Hearst, because what he writes does not take account of how screenplays get written and end up in production, is what he makes of the evidence.

Hearst writes ‘Minion’s IMDb credits are pretty thin after the early 1990s, so his career seems to have been really hurt by this, no surprise’. It is, of course, an easy assumption to make, but do we know that Minion was credited with the screenplay as the (willing ?) fall guy for someone else’s theft of the plot, because there appears to be nothing against which to check the story about the screenplay and the Columbia course ?

The real mystery is that anyone would attempt to pass off Lies in the guise of After Hours without changing some very significant details, some of the more obvious of which have been mentioned. Is it, so we are being encouraged to understand Minion, that we have to imagine him inexperienced and greedy, and so getting himself a bad name by miring the picture in the litigation that Hearst talks about ?

I have not looked for evidence of the court case, not just because it is so long ago (and I would not know where to look), but also since, if there had been an out-of-court settlement, only the fact of the case’s existence, which we probably suppose, would have been apparent. Scorsese, of course, makes no mention of the issue in interview, and even the injured Frank, according to Hearst, was being reticent to name the film that paid him off.

All that we have to hope is that he got a good settlement, because, comparing his performance and the film, it is all there, right down to the characterization of Rosanna Arquette (as Marcy), whom Hearst described as ‘interested and indifferent at the same time’. As for what happened to Minion, there seems to be a bigger elephant in the room than that :

Dunne makes a perfectly good, nervy Hackett, and the film gets good ratings on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, but, looking at Dunne’s career and judging it from IMDb’s page for him, he seems to have achieved more as director and producer than the rather bitty parts and t.v. work on the other side of the camera.

Yes, things happen - or do not happen - in a career quite unfairly, and maybe After Hours, as the Rotten Tomatoes figures show, had the critical appraisal, but insufficient popular appeal, to allow Dunne to move on from there.

Or maybe there was no moving on from a persecution-complex character such as Hackett, hounded by highly organized vigilantes within hours of visiting the area, giving off signals of being attractive to women, but dangerous, and ending the film dusty and dazed back at the office where he began it.

The all-too-often quoted opening words of ‘Burnt Norton’ from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – which lose significance out of context – have a place here, in looking at what, if I am not mistaken, is a film directed by Scorsese that made too little impact on its release :

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.

I have not seen Dunne in anything else, but I am grateful to him for wanting to get this film made and being Paul Hackett, and I am sure that others will be for what he has produced or directed since.


* Which I do not think that the film credits do with an even bigger theft, that of a story by Franz Kafka that he incorporated into the scene in the Cathedral in his unfinished novel The Trial (Der Prozess), where Josef K. is told a parable about the law, Vor dem Gesetz (Before the Law). The story is lifted straight into the film in the context of the bouncers to the club that Hackett needs to enter, and it feeds into the film's uneasy quality of persecution, witch-hunt and - although Dunne is not Jewish - maybe anti-Semitism.