If Bikini Beach included fine Italian clothes, a bit of war and facism, taboo, and scads of hot Italian women, Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger imagines it would be something like this.
Our review of Girl With A Suitcase, published November 5th, 2004, is also available.
Is Zurlini ripe for rediscovery?
Even critics can't be familiar with every filmmaker, so I'm not ashamed to admit I know nothing of Valerio Zurlini. In fact, I had to get his backstory from a fascinating Village Voice article (linked in the sidebar). Fortunately, Zurlini makes a coherent, readily absorbed statement with these two films. His statement will probably thrill film buffs who have an inkling of romance in their souls. It is just as likely to alienate people who don't care to sit through an hour's worth of setup for one or two defining cinematic moments.
Facts of the Case
Violent Summer tells of the doomed love between a middle-aged widow named Roberta (Eleonora Rossi Drago, Camille 2000) and young Carlo (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Three Colours: Red). Though his friends and her social contemporaries disapprove, the two nonetheless spend inordinate amounts of time together until a violent air strike forces them to part.
Girl with a Suitcase tells of the doomed love between a middle-aged cabaret singer named Aida (Claudia Cardinale, Once Upon a Time in the West) and young Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin, Brotherhood of the Wolf). Though his aunt and priest disapprove, the two nonetheless spend inordinate amounts of time together until a violent street fight forces them to part.
In retrospect, it is obvious why NoShame has chosen to box together these two Valerio Zurlini works. They are strikingly similar in theme, tone, and execution. They do the same things well, and have the same failings. As a set, they make a potent case for Valerio Zurlini's aesthetic and directorial style.
The two films are really flip sides of the same story. In Violent Summer, the more satisfying romance of the two, the lovers are essentially equals. Roberta, the widow of a noted military man, is in some ways experiencing love for the first time. Her social status and responsibilities are almost as constraining as Carlo's rigid, upper class family. Both come from wealth and status, though both are viewed with critical eyes by the socialites that rule the city. He may be young, but he is confident and capable. Meanwhile, she has an innocent vulnerability that sells their relationship. Violent Summer thrives on a taboo that the audience can sympathize with breaking. In Girl with a Suitcase, the relationship is fundamentally unequal. Lorenzo is quite young, quite stricken, and has everything to lose, while Aida is not so young, not so stricken, and has nothing to lose. This isn't a romance so much as a game of sexual politics; a young man discovering the limitations of his youth, seething with frustration at the hands of a woman who will gladly take his offered gifts and give nothing back. Again, we are sympathetic to both characters.
There are stories here, but frankly they take a back seat to the cinematic elements. Zurlini is really building moments of pure cinema rather than building characters.
The backbone of both films is a strong Italian vibe. It is all here: beautiful coastlines, exquisite clothes on the men (and even more dazzling clothes on the women), fancy cars, grand marble mansions, cafes, and coffee. To hear Zurlini tell it, Italy means "the finer things" and he shows them off in high style. I was envious of the clothes worn by the leading men, the cars they drove, the food they ate, the wine they drank, and the women they slept with. Of course, Italy also means stifling tradition, overprotective matriarchs, strict societal rules, civil unrest, and violence. Zurlini leaves in the bad with the good, condensing Italy into an extract and wafting the scent from the screen to our senses.
Let's get back to those hot women for a minute. Maybe you thought Claudia Cardinale was attractive as a bootstrapping frontier woman in Once Upon a Time in the West. If so, she'll sear you under Zurlini's loving eye and Tino Santoni's lascivious cinematography. Her pout is pure, her smile dazzling. Her shifting eyes express shame, interest, disinterest, wanton lust, greed, and fear in turn. We won't even get into what the rest of her expresses. But Zurlini doesn't dwell only in the dusky depths of Southern-Italian women (or in Cardinale's case, Tunisia). No, he also gives us the blonde, aristocratic North (or in Eleonora Rossi Drago's case, Quinto al Mare—oh, just shift them both up a latitude so the metaphor won't break down.) Eleonora's uncertain widow Roberta, caught between the demands of her widow status and the lusts of her missed youth, vies with herself in body language, word, deed, and expression. Her buttoned-down desire threatens to burst forth at any minute. Like Carlo, we can't help but notice and respond.
Two critical elements sell this careful vibe of fine things, lust, and oppression: acting and cinematography. Tino Santoni's camera is acute and expressive. He makes ordinary scenes extraordinary, but with a minimum of fuss. The black and white imagery is perfectly combined for texture, angle, and contrast. The main characters are clad almost exclusively in stark black and white outfits with classic lines, striving against suitably cold, gray marble or warm, white sand. Throw in some shadow and some movement, and Santoni's camerawork becomes the stuff of cinephile bliss.
Meanwhile, Zurlini coaxes the best out of his young stars. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Jacques Perrin both went on to long, successful careers, but Zurlini got them at the peak of their youthful energy. Both men become archetypes of young, frustrated love. Their performances are categorized by lust, frustration, strife, and grand overtures. More importantly, they each get still moments to express their conflicted inner selves, and both actors pull it off. Perrin's is the more poignant performance because he is so young, while Trintignant has more animal magnetism.
Zurlini uses the elements of tone, setting, cinematography, and acting to craft perfect scenes in each film. In Girl with a Suitcase, one such scene is simple: Lorenzo watches, mute and impotent, while Aida dances suggestively in the arms of an older man. Zurlini intercuts Aida's dance with Lorenzo's litany of emotion, and we can only watch in stunned sympathy while the storm plays on his face.
Violent Summer's defining scene is more lengthy and more complex. Zurlini stages an illicit rendezvous between Carlo and Roberta when she agrees to go out with the gang of local tweens. They wind up in an empty manor and soon fill it with wine, song, and dancing. The tensions and taboos mount: an older woman partying with younger miscreants, a breaking-and-entering, taking shelter from an air raid, a jealous rival. The lovers' cloister becomes more and more laden with forbidden fruit, ever more inviting and pregnant with tension. Music and breathtaking use of camera angle and shadow delineate the character groupings while heightening the drama. When the final step is taken over the line, the resulting shockwave affects all of our senses and shatters the carefully crafted layers at once.
Scenes like this help explain why Zurlini is experiencing a recent rediscovery. NoShame has done their utmost to present him in a good light. The transfers are outstanding. They are rich in detail, with great contrast and little or no edge enhancement. Zurlini lives and dies with value and texture, and NoShame presents both in a fine light. Violent Summer has some grain and the merest hint of fluctuating levels, but neither detract from the presentation. In fact, Violent Summer is among the best black and white transfers I've seen. Girl with a Suitcase had a few bouts of moire and shimmer on my setup when finely woven lapels moved diagonally, but to be fair that is the most demanding of all motion tests and might not be reproducible on other setups. Otherwise, the transfer is as stunning as the first. The audio is also excellent. I had an issue with the volume being highly variable, but for all I know that was Zurlini's intention. Otherwise, for mono tracks, these provide surprising depth and detail. NoShame has also apparently interviewed anyone who worked with Zurlini. Collaborators from the lyricist to the assistant directors and Producer give monologues on their recollections of Zurlini. Now I'll be honest: they vary a lot in degree of interest, particularly for someone like me who had never heard of Zurlini before this DVD showed up on my doorstep. But the sheer effort of gathering these recollections is commendable, and many of the anecdotes are interesting even to someone with no exposure to the director.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sometimes, it seems like Zurlini forgot the drama and just left in the melo. Calling these films melodramatic is like calling sand scratchy. Violent Summer skirts the maudlin edge, but manages to pull itself back until the last few scenes. Girl with a Suitcase lacks even this scant restraint, diving over the edge and screaming "drama be damned!" whilst ripping her bodice to shreds, on her knees in the middle of the street—in a rainstorm, with crying doves looking on in sorrow. The melodrama is so thick that it undermines Zurlini's neorealist efforts. His indulgence makes otherwise compelling stories seem flat and tainted. Indeed, maybe Zurlini intended to emphasize the situations over the characters, consigning them to second-class. Maybe the potent scenes only work because they are set in melodramatic frames. I think the stories suffered, and became afterthoughts to the string of defining scenes. Ironically, the latter Girl with a Suitcase is weaker in this regard. Zurlini revisits his theme of doomed cross-generational love in less dramatic (therefore less compelling) circumstances. The narrative wanders when it needs to make a stand, which will leave less patient viewers cold.
The set is also, perhaps unfairly, affected by NoShame's history of lurid exploitation. I'm not conditioned to appreciate deft cinematic nuances when I pop a NoShame title into the player. No, I'm accustomed to making sure the shades are closed so my neighbors don't think I'm a pervert. Instead of anticipating thematic closure, I anticipate bared bosoms and lots of gory action. They don't help the cause by stressing the sexiest scenes in these otherwise modest pictures.
Whether you find these a couple of noteworthy melodramas from the height of Italian cinema or unearthed masterworks that have been criminally marginalized, you have to respect the effort that has been put into bringing these films to light. Cinephiles will probably find lots to like, especially those who think Italian women deserve an extra notch on the hottie meter. Just don't expect nudity or a cohesive plot, and check your intolerance for melodrama at the door.
Find Claudia Cardinale guilty? I couldn't do that to her.
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Scales of Justice, Violent Summer
Perp Profile, Violent Summer
Studio: NoShame Films
Distinguishing Marks, Violent Summer
• Introduction by assistant director Florestano Vancini
Scales of Justice, Girl With A Suitcase
Perp Profile, Girl With A Suitcase
Studio: NoShame Films
Distinguishing Marks, Girl With A Suitcase
• Introduction by assistant director Piero Schivazappa
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