Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 01, 2018 4:30 pm 
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A virtuoso life in film

What do we know about Valentina Cortese? Perhaps not a lot compared to contemporaries like Anna Magnani and Alida Valli. Begin with her supporting role, Oscar-nominated, of the alcoholic movie star in François Truffaut's Da for Night. Ingrid Bergman beat her for a performance in Murder on the orient Express and, properly, said in her acceptance speech that the Oscar should have gone to Cortese. Bergman's award was honorary, and for an insignificant part; Cortese's performance was striking and selfless.Truffaut acknowledged his debt when he got the Best Foreign Oscar: "It is easy to win an Oscar if Valentina Cortese is involved," he said. For a short review of highlights of Cortese's career see the biographical summery on IMDb. The filmography below covers a fifty-three-year period and also included work with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Terry Gilliam, and William Dieterle. It was a theatrical career too, burnished by a romantic and professional relationship with Italian theatrical legend Giorgio Strehler.

I watched this film at 4 pm on 1 June 2018, in the Lincoln Center series, Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, with the director, Francesco Patierno, present. He said this was an idea suggested to him by the producer that started as "un film piccolo, piccolo, piccolo che è diventato grande, grande, grande," "a little, little movie that became a big, big one." And it is an enveloping experience to watch it with its mixture of elements. This is a phantasmagoric collage and immersive biography based on Cortese's own autobiography Quanti sono i domani passati ("How Many Are the Days Gone By”), but with the information rearranged. She began with the fact that she was born of someone wealthy and immediately given away to be raised by contadini, peasants or country people. She attributed to the orphan feeling this gave her her desire to become an actress and play glamorous parts.

Patierno pointed at the screening to various instances when Cortese wound up playing roles that closely paralleled her own life.

Central to the film, which skillfully blands clips from a mind-boggling list of movies Cortese played in, is Patierno's use of no fewer than eight beautiful contemporary Italian actresses, all dressed to the nines, to recount times from Cortese's life in her own words, impersonating her but not mimicking her. Note, they are speaking in her voice, not "enacting" the moments they describe. They are: Barbora Bobulova, Anita Caprioli, Carolina Crescentini, Silvia D’Amico, Isabella Ferrari, Anna Foglietta, Carlotta Natoli, Greta Scarano.

Diva, which clearly is an exercise in inhabitation, a film that possesses and embodies its subject, skips around in time intentionally, partly to surprise the viewer and catch her off guard. It too begins with the performance of Cortese in Day for Night, which is so good it fools you into thinking it's clips of Truffaut trying to get a scene out of an alcoholic actress. The secret of the actress' abandonment as a baby, Patierno saves for late in his film, as a late bombshell. Before that are accounts of her experiences outside Italy, and especially with Jules Dassin (he and she were drawn to each other) and Darryl F. Zanuck (he played the Harvey Weinstein role).

Patierno goes back from Dassin's Thieves' Highway and Robert Wise's House on Telegraph Hill and later in the great era of Italian film performances for Antonioni and Fellini, to earlier, more conventional Italian films. Often clips from these films serve to illustrate moments from Cortese's own life recounted by one of her on screen avatars. Sometimes the music is conventional, surging, sugary; sometimes it is modern and electronic.

The latter recalls Patierno's biggest bombshell at the Lincoln Center screening Q&A: when asked if he had gotten to meet Valentina Cortese in person, he said Divd just opened in Milan three days ago, and the 95-year-old Valentina Cortese had come for it. You can imagine the emotion, he said, for him and for her, to witness his film together - and if he could only project footage he shot that night on his iPhone, it would make an incredible supplement to Diva. This immersive film is so full of aural and visual information one should see it multiple times, preferably after reading Cortese's autobiography and other books about the directors she worked for. This is a rich gem of cinematic history, but it's greatest interest is in its inventive ways of recreating a film actor's life. It exists chiefly as a tour-de-force that may inspire similar efforts (as one can't help wondering of the multiple-voice narration wasn't inspired by Todd Haynes' inventive Bob Dylan biopic I'm Not There) - while outside of specialized Italian cinephile circles its actual subject matter may not be of enormous interest.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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