Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

Loose Cannons, (Mine Vaganti) and Ferzan Ozpetek in full bloom

The Italian film Mine Vaganti, (Le Premier Qui l’A Dit in French, Loose Cannons in English) has made its second entrance to Paris last night. This was billed as a “preview,” une avant-première, but in reality, even though the official Paris theater run begins July 21, the film has already been shown to sold out audiences at Les Halles in May, 2010. This time it snuck in as part of the mysteriously low-profile Paris Film Festival, and a half a theater full of informed people found their way in the July heat to the Gaumont Parnasse cinema, where they showed their appreciation by actually applauding at the end (never a given in Paris, even at festivals).

I had heard a lot of good things about this film, and was aware of its success in Italy, and I was not disappointed by what I saw. Ferzan Ozpetek has always been an idiosyncratic filmmaker, with stories that meander through an emotional terrain of unspoken desires and limitations, played out in settings of sumptuous beauty. An Ozpetek trademark is the proliferation of characters in his stories who reveal their inner selves in unexpected ways throughout the story, resulting in a teeming tableau of personalities that pull the story apart with their flourish. The key to success for Ozpetek is weaving these unruly characters together into a story that leads them somewhere better than where they began. He was almost there in his 2007 film, Saturno Contro, (Saturn in Opposition), but not quite. His 2008 film, A Perfect Day, adapted from Melania Mazzucco’s novel, was also not completely successful in this regard, if I can judge from the reviews and critical comments (I haven’t seen it). However, here in Mine Vaganti, Ozpetek seems to have hit his stride and found a way to let his characters unfold in ways that don’t crowd out the plot. Thus, the necessarily open ended final scenes are satisfying in ways that Saturno contro’s was not, because the resolution is to be found in the new equilibrium that this blossoming and growth have created. This is symbolized beautifully in the final garden scene where characters from different story threads and epochs dance together in perfect harmony and peace.

Ever since his directorial debut with Hamam (Steam) in 1997, the Turkish born Ferzan Ozpetek has earned a devoted following among audiences in Italy and elsewhere. His treatment of gay themes means an inevitable comparison with Almodovar. In fact, Ozpetek has an ironic style and a feeling for stories that reflect a very Mediterranean sensibility, in ways that parallel Almodovar, but whereas the Spanish director is steeped in the cultural iconography of Spain and Latin America, Ozpetek is part of an Eastern Mediterranean tradition that still feels the weight of millennial customs more than the anarchy of intercontinental modernity. This leads him to explore areas of classical beauty and wisdom, but also to confront the tragic limitations and inbred fears that still persist there. For this reason, Mine Vaganti, which is set squarely in Italy’s south, the Mezzogiorno, may seem anachronistic and unreal to many viewers in other lands. Tommaso’s father’s exaggerated response to his son’s coming out, the inarticulate longings of the young woman, Alba and the manipulative sensuality of just about everyone may be a bit hard to swallow for some people with a low tolerance for the self-indulgences of this ancient part of the modern world. Indeed, the film is set in an alternate reality that speaks the language of traditional Commedia all’Italiana (Sophia Loren or Alberto Sordi would be perfectly at home here) but to my mind, it does so very effectively, in the service of characters that touch us, despite their obvious theatricality.

As usual, Ozpetek has attracted some of Italy’s best actors to create an ensemble of unforgettable characters. Heading the cast are Riccardo Scamarcio in the role of Tommaso, the conflicted gay son, with kissing scenes that are courageous for an Italian actor with heartthrob status. Nicole Grimaudo plays the beautiful young woman, Alba, who is nursing a broken heart, Alessandro Prezioso is Tommaso’s older brother Antonio and Ennio Fantastichini his overwhelmed father.  Click on the poster, above, to go to the film’s official website, where you will hear the film’s delightfully retro theme song, sung by Nina Zilli. The soundtrack, unfortunately, is not listed on the website. That’s a shame, as it includes some great music, italianissima, but including one great Turkish song by Sezen Aksu at the very end.


July 7, 2010 Posted by | cinema | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Pulcinella: watching Massimo Ranieri fall between two stools

The film L’Ultimo Pulcinella was screened at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Paris on February 8, 2010 and was heartily welcomed by the very indulgent audience of Italo-philes. However, if this film is going to make it outside of the most uncritically sympathetic audiences it will need a lot of luck. The director, Maurizio Scaparro, was at the screening and he said in the introductory remarks that the film is based on a scenario by Roberto Rossellini, a script that was unfilmable because of the odd juxtaposition of plot elements, one day in Naples, next day in Paris. He was determined to see Massimo Ranieri in the lead role, and he eventually decided to adapt the story to modern circumstances. It is an interesting and fruitful exercise, however, the problems with the script are still quite evident, and may have even been exacerbated by the adaptation. What results is a film that is not really neo-realism, nor is it musical theater, but rather something lost in between.

Massimo Ranieri

The Last Pulcinella stars Massimo Ranieri, the renowned Italian singer and actor. His early fame in the 1960s was with pop songs in the style of San Remo, where he twice won the top prize. In the 1970s he started in a new direction with his album entitled ‘O Surdato Nammurato” a live recording of one of his theatrical performances of Neapolitan sketches. This album, with its cover photo of him dressed in the white pajama costume of Pulcinella, has become a classic and it established the future trajectory of his career. Today he is best known as an interpreter the classic Neapolitan repertoire, and he has come out with several more collections of Neapolitan standards, the latest one in 2009. Many of these songs are over one hundred years old and they have been interpreted over and over again by innumerable singers from the most talented to the ridiculous. His renditions are superb, as he uses his clear and sharp voice to bring out the bel canto qualities of these songs, while at the same time making them enjoyable for the modern ear. In this film Ranieri plays a custom made role, as Michelangelo, a Neapolitan actor who performs Pulcinella. His voice and abilities are as breathtaking as ever, but alas, the years have erased Michelangelo’s youthful good looks. This does not stop him, though, and he continues to evolve and when he arrives in working class Paris in search of his missing son, he wants to bring the theatrical traditions to a new generation of performers. Ranieri’s Pulcinella performances in the film are wonderful. His ability to become the Commedia dell’Arte character has been perfected over a long career and this shows. Unfortunately, it is not enough to make the film palatable.

One glaring problem is the lack of veracity. There are plot twists and little conflict-resolutions throughout that conveniently fall from the sky without rhyme or reason. All of the points of tension: Michelangelo’s son’s escape from Naples, the suspicions of the elderly actress toward the immigrant neighbors, and especially the belligerence of the police force and the glimpses of police brutality, are dangled for a moment in front of our eyes, then blithely forgotten. The discovery of an empty theater just waiting for the protagonist to arrive, and the impressive artistic talent of all the neighborhood characters who just happen to saunter in, are elements that would work fine in a Broadway musical, where the audience doesn’t really care about all the niceties of logic – just get to the music, but they are absolutely insulting to the intelligence of someone watching a film that is supposed to be “realism.” This story calls on Deus ex Machina contrivances so often that it hardly seems worth it for Deus ever to climb back into his Machina, God might as well just hang around on the set so that he’ll be right there for his cue. Or better yet, cut out all the stillborn subplots and concentrate on the performers. The plot would be tolerable if it led to music, for instance, something for the Colombina character (Margot Dufrene) to sing in explanation of her sudden infatuation with Francesco, played by a severely underutilized Domenico Balsamo. The story is a variation of the old “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” formula from 1940s Hollywood, and as such calls out pitifully for big finale performance, which never materializes. How about letting Francesco or one of the other young males share the Pulcinella character with Ranieri to demonstrate how this tradition will be passed on to the next generation. Massimo Ranieri, also at the screening, said that he saw a bit of Pulcinella in all of the immigrant youths. Unfortunately, this never comes across in the film.

The Last Pulcinella needs to decide what it is: a story about the problems of multiethnic youths in the housing projects of the modern European metropolis, or a celebration of the blending of traditional European (here Neapolitan) art and the arts of the newcomers. I think it is clear that given the talent of Ranieri and all the young actors, the second option is the one that holds the most promise, and the scene in which Ranieri performs a classic song to African accompaniment should erase any doubts. And incidentally, there was no need to come all the way to Paris North to find racial intolerance, police brutality and frustrated, unemployed African youths with talent – they could have found all that by the truckloads right back home in Naples. Perhaps it is too late to save the film, but it is never too late for the stage. Could this someday make a successful stage musical? It is one that I would love to see.


February 9, 2010 Posted by | cinema, music, theater | , , , | 1 Comment

Cabu, Paris and Vélib: a slightly bitter aftertaste

Cabu is the pseudonym of Jean Cabut a prolific cartoonist who has illustrated Parisian life for over 50 years. The city held a fine exhibit of his work this past winter. Here is a sample of his Parisian drawings from a website:
Cabu on Linternaute Paris

However, the drawing that Cabu has just done for an ad campaign recently appearing on kiosks and in print for the City is a bit less Joli-Paris than usual. It concerns the city’s Velib Program, a network of bicycle stations all over the city where Parisians and visitors can pick up bicycles, ride around the city and then drop them off. The program has hit a snag,.. the exact problem that would pop up in any New Yorker’s mind at the mere mention of such a scheme: a high rate of vandalism. According to this ad, 16,000 bikes have been vandalized and another 8,000 stolen. (The New Yorkers say, “Well, … duh!) The cartoon says, “It’s easy to destroy a Velib, it can’t defend itself,” hoping to shame those people who would damage the bikes just for kicks. Will such an appeal have any effect? Do such people have any shame? It remains to be seen.

This ad for the City of Paris admonishes those who have vandalized or stolen the city's free bicycles.

This ad for the City of Paris admonishes those who have vandalized or stolen the city's free bicycles.

June 24, 2009 Posted by | daily life | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Le Chanteur de Mexico has won over a reluctant Paris!

Le Chanteur de Mexico has won over a reluctant Paris!
July, 2007
It could have been a disaster. The decision of Théâtre du Chatelet’s new director, Jean-Luc Choplin to mount a production of this old chestnut, but he did it and it worked. “Le Chanteur de Mexico” is a well known French operetta from 1951, written by the now eclipsed composer Francis Lopez, and animated on the stage and screen by the dated matinee idol Luis Mariano, who aged in the part as that decade waxed and waned. For most Parisians, the very thought of this piece smelled of stale postwar cigarettes and grandmother’s lavender candies, so the challenge was daunting. It didn’t help that Choplin’s resume included a stint as artistic advisor “chez Disney” and at Galleries Lafayettes. They were smelling blood along the Seine. How did he turn it into a success?

The traffic stopping poster

The traffic stopping poster

He did it with a sophisticated gay friendly aesthetic that gave it a totally new spin, and a brash new appeal. The planning must have been mind boggling, but for the public, it began with the posters, the enormous Pierre et Giles posters that went up on Metro stations and elsewhere around the city in mid 2006. It stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I saw one. A nearly life sized, thoroughly charming young mariachi stands there, hand on hip in his black charro outfit so tight he seems to have been squeezed into it with a shoehorn and a jock cup, surrounded by a kitschy garland of plastic flowers and costume jewels. Kitsch is the operative word here, but a quality of kitsch that elevates it to the realm of true art.

The story has been modernized as well, with the use of a movie set story device and a touch of drag. The casting was also brilliant: Rossy de Palma, the earthy gay icon of Pedro Almodovar’s films is featured as the Diva, and Clotilde Courau, who plays a Montmartre flower vendor in the operetta but in real life is nothing less than a royal princess (of Savoia, as in the Italian royal family). The stunningly handsome Ismaël Jordi shines in the title role, with his clear, rich and powerful tenor voice that could be Roberto Alagna or the young Placido Domingo. In fact, it’s rumored that Roberto Alagna was approached about this role, but that he turned it down. No matter! Jordi, is brilliant and it is always exciting to see someone of such talent at the beginning of his career.

The staging is by Emilio Sagi, and is like a world of huge potted palms and Pierre et Gilles kitsch, a Carmen Miranda dollhouse come alive. The dialogs have been pared down to give more emphasis to the music. The music can be thin at times, and the services of a top rate orchestra are essential to win over the refined ears of this Parisian public, and this is accomplished perfectly by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio-France, which fills this magnificent hall with rich sonority.

It was Choplin’s inaugural production in 2006, and it was such a success that it was reprised for the month of June, 2007. Now it is over, but surely not for another sleep of fifty years. There will certainly be more productions and opportunities to see it, especially with all the modern technologies. Right now it is easy to find Luis Mariano on YouTube singing the great Mexico production number with his Desi Arnaz style. I don’t doubt that Ismaëlito will be far behind.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | theater | , , | Leave a comment

Fiesta de los Uruguayos

July 20, 200

On a dark sidestreet near Place de la Nation, in the eleventh arrondissement, a group of us knocked on the door of a public school and waited. Was this the right entrance? We were finally assured when a young man in cut off sleeves and jeans opened the door and let us in. We passed through the hallway where handbills announcing social programs and human rights demonstrations adorned the bulletin boards and entered a room that had obviously served its time as a school cafeteria. But tonight, in one of those tiny miracles that happen everyday all over Paris, it had become a little world of its own. In this case, Uruguay in exile.

Just as naturally as the flag that flies over the city hall, or the grass that grows in the park, exile groups spring up and thrive in this world city, and here the Uruguayans that have found themselves forced out of their homeland by successive ways of oppression, have found a home. Every Friday night the Asociacion Donde Estan? throws a party, a banquet of delicious food and first-rate music to tell the world that it doesn’t matter how small a country is, how redundant its language in a world of giant superstates and multinational cultural imperialism, in one place at least, Uruguay is the center of the planet, and its traditions of social activism and struggle for justice the most important endeavor in that world.

We were welcomed without the slightest hesitation, a numerous group that, although speaking loudly in Spanish had not a drop of Uruguayan blood between us. We sat down to salads and chorizos and chimichuri sauce ( a mix of parsley, garlic and oils) and listened as drummers got the beat going for the evening. As at exile parties the world over, the room was full of people of all ages, of all economic levels and all stages of estrangement: the older men with their grey ponytails and fu Manchu moustaches and jeans mixing easily with the ladies in tailored suits and the young couples holding infants in their arms, all celebrating their weekend at home. The walls and lighting were institutional in the extreme and the little Uruguayan motif wall hangings, with their naïve drawings and strident messages decrying impunity and dictatorship, were depressing, but the convivial atmosphere made this all fade to the background, and the food made it disappear. The asados and chorascos, made from both Argentine and French beef were cooked to perfection, and we sawed into our chunks of steak with pleasure, as the music got warmer and warmer. The drummers left the stage, leaving us to read the large letters that decorated the wall behind them: The disappeared of Uruguay: Where are they? A guitarist got up and sang a Cuban folk song with the soul and the intonation of the Rio de la Plata. It was a song I had only known as a commercial flamenco rip off in the “Azucar Moreno” version, now it took on real meaning for the first time. A whole group was soon accompanying him: his guitar and the drums were Uruguay, but the flutes and call and response rhythms were Caribbean, this may be Uruguayan Friday, but it is Uruguay in the world, and everything blended beautifully.

The talking, laughter and animation accompany the music incessantly, but everyone had one ear tuned and the room swayed to the rhythms and soulful singing. When an interlude was called for, to call thanks to the asador, the chef, and to call everyone’s attention to the business at hand, calm was only just barely attained. A short update was given about the campaign to have the law of “caducidad” annulled in Uruguay, and a petition to that effect was making the rounds of the community. This law states that any crimes committed by the military and the police during the dictatorship that lasted from 1973 to 1985 enjoy total amnesty. The speaker exhorted the diners not to forget, but he didn’t belabor the point. He soon ceded the stage to the music, which returned even more forcefully, with the addition of saxophone and steel drums, and the tilt toward the Caribbean given full vent. Onward everyone drank, Argentine, Uruguayan and Chilean wines disappearing one after the other, and once again, as on every Friday night, Uruguay grew ever nearer, just out of reach, way into the night.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | restaurant | , , , | Leave a comment

La Fête de la Musique

La Fête de la musique
Thursday June 21, 2007
It started in 1982 when the Culture Minister Jack Lang and the city of Paris invited amateur musicians to come out into the streets between 8:30 and 9 p.m. to improvise a celebration of the beginning of summer. It was an unexpected success, with the Paris Opera Orchestra playing on the plaza in front of the opera house and great numbers of musicians playing way beyond that little half hour.


It must have struck some primitive chord, some pagan need to usher in the new season, to witness the shortest night and the arrival of the warm summer sun. It has grown to an enormous popular festival. Melodies and riffs can be heard coming down every street and around every corner, intertwining into a great cacophony of ebullience and excitment. The crowds are everywhere singing shouting, dancing, drinking. The music dies down around midnight, but the crowds stay on, gathering in clumps of shouted laughter, in surging waves of rowdiness. This is Paris, and the youthful populace seems constantly on the verge of revolution, but somehow the energy is contained, controlled, the haphazard encounters curtailed just this side of chaos. Finally in the wee hours of the littlest night, fatigue and the surprising last remnant spring chill in the air set in and the kermesse is over. The crowds wander home, to sleep with the confidence that tomorrow will dawn that much warmer and sunnier than yesterday.

May 4, 2009 Posted by | happenings, music | , , , | Leave a comment