Sunday, August 15, 2010

Women in Love (Ondine and Vincere)

The early passages of Neil Jordan's Ondine (2010), the new Irish fairy tale from our contemporary Brother Grimm, are enchanting. A hardscrabble fisherman, name of Syracuse (Colin Farrell), finds a woman caught in his net. What could have been the start of a grim Stieg Larsson thriller becomes, in Jordan's hands, The Girl Who Sings to Fishes. Calling herself Ondine (ahn-DEEN), the mystery woman (Alicja Bachleda) brings Syracuse unexpected luck on his fishing expeditions and attracts the attention of his physically disabled daughter, Annie (Alison Barry), who comes to believe that Ondine is a selkie -- a mythological creature who can shed her seal skin and take the form of a human being.

An erratic filmmaker but never an uninteresting one (e
ven his misguided last film, The Brave One, had a repellent fascination), Jordan is an exceptionally skilled conjurer of the fantastical in the everyday. His best movies (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game), are romantically bighearted, tinged with menace, with secrets hidden in plain sight. For a while, Ondine comes close to matching them, its landscape a lyrically enveloping blend of water and mist. (Insert obligatory praise of DP Christopher Doyle here.) Unfortunately, the entire film pivots on a late twist into "reality" that's interesting to think about in retrospect (Jordan's sleight of hand is as cunning as ever) but is a bit like investing in the world of Snow White only to find out that the Seven Dwarves run a meth lab. And a couple of performances are problematic: Bachleda's presence barely registers; while young newcomer Barry's character is precocious to eye-rolling extremes. (Joining Ondine in a clothing store, she's forced to utter lines like, "This town is sartorially challenged.") The highlight is Farrell, whose recent experience working with Jeff Bridges must have done him a world of good. Between his fine cameo in Crazy Heart and stellar work here, Farrell has dropped the twitchy fussiness that's plagued his career and become a quietly magnetic star.

Vincere (2009), which tells the little-known tale of the secret wife and estranged son of Benito Mussolini, is one of those experiences that may say more about my blind spots as a viewer than what I perceive to be the flaws of the film itself. Many reviews were ecstatic, trumpeting the picture's entwining of history and myth-making, huzzahing the creative renaissance of veteran Italian director Marco Bellocchio, and repeatedly cross-referencing one of his early successes, Fist in the Pocket (1965). Having never seen anything by Bellocchio prior, I can only compare Vincere ("Win") to what I know; and to these eyes, the movie's awkward mishmash of lingering shadows and newspaper headlines popping across the screen resembles a bastard hybrid of Francis Ford Coppola and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The departure from biopic staidness is admittedly a welcome change of pace, as is the initial depiction of Mussolini (Filippo Timi) as the visual equivalent of Omar Sharif in his vital, smoldering Doctor Zhivago days. (After taking power, Timi vanishes and the character becomes the iconic, buffoonish Il Duce taken entirely from newsreel footage.) But the film is unwieldy and hyperactive to the point of distraction. It's so hellbent on eliminating the cliches of the genre that it forgets to put anything in their place.

In the central role of Ida Dalser, the woman who fell obsessively in love with young Benito, gave him financial and emotional support, then covertly married him and produced an heir, Giovanna Mezzogiorno gives a whirlwind of a performance that's been compared to the unwavering intensity of Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. (Unsurprisingly, since Bellocchio all but connects the dots for us.) Mezzogiorno gives her acting chops a full workout as Mussolini dumps Dalser on his climb to power and she spirals into madness. Both mother and child wound up in insane asylums, and Vincere becomes more involving once it slows down long enough to invest in Ida's desperate efforts to reunite with her son. Up to then, however, the overheated style and frenetic pacing of Vincere plays less like myth or history than a bad movie musical. An even more unflattering comparison comes to mind: Alan Parker, Evita-bad.

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