A Talking Film; Buongiorno, Notte; Sylvia

 A Talking Film

A Talking Film is one of the many directed by veteran Manoel de Oliviera. He was 93 when he made this film. However, it shows the perspective of a man much younger in vision, looking back over the culture of Europe, trying to understand something of Portuguese culture, yet very much in the aftermath of 11 September and terrorism.

The film is set in the summer of 2001. A professor of history at Lisbon University (Leonore Selveira) takes her daughter on a cruise of the Mediterranean, eventually to go to Bombay to meet her airline pilot husband. The film gives the opportunity of having a journey and a quest, to see the places of European culture in the Mediterranean and experience them. There are explanations of Portuguese discovery as the ship leaves Lisbon, a glimpse at French culture in Marseilles, a look at Italian culture, especially the destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius, a visit to Greece and the Parthenon and the Acropolis, a visit to Turkey, Istanbul and Sancta Sofia, a visit to Egypt, looking at the Suez Canal, the pyramids and the sphinx, eventually a glimpse of Aden and then disaster strikes.

The film is a talking film and the talk is very interesting: the mother explaining history to her child, the child asking innocent questions, guides, an Orthodox priest, an actor all giving explanations of the culture. There is a transition then to conversation on board the ship with John Malkovich as the captain (at first unctuous flattering the three women) giving a strong performance and enabling Catherine Deneuve, Irene Papas and Stefania Sandrelli each to speak in their own language but each of them understanding the other so that they could talk about Europe, culture, the role of men and women, politics and civilisation and each reflect on language and their own heritages. The film is very strong in content although there is no mention of Asia (where, in fact, the boat was going). There are side mentions of Africa and the Pacific with some condemnations of America.

This work is timely, a film from a 20th century movie-maker at the beginning of the 21st century reflecting on the past and some of the seeming hopelessness for the future.

Buongiorno, Notte

Good morning Night is a quotation from a poem by Emily Dickinson, indicating the paradoxes of her life, her solitariness, her being a recluse. It is applied here to the fate of the Italian prime minister in 1978, Aldo Moro.

The Moro case was famous around the world. Moro was a fine-living man, a sound politician, interested in finding some kind of rapport between left and right in Italian politics. During the 70s, student groups from the 60s exercised their authority by terrorist activities. One of these groups was the Red Brigade. They abducted Moro in June 1978, keeping him for almost two months in an apartment in Rome. They finally killed him. Instead of the uprising that they had anticipated, people turned against them and Moro was seen as a martyr.

Marco Bellocchio comes from a long Italian tradition of great cinema and of directors from the Left. Making films from the 1960s, he has a great variety of films including, in 2002, L'ora Della Religione. It was an interesting look at the church at the beginning of the 21st century and the way that the church was used for their own purposes by aristocratic Roman classes.

Bellocchio has reconstructed the abduction of Moro and his imprisonment. However, he focuses principally on the four Red Brigade members who keep charge of Moro. While there is a great sense of realism, there is also an atmosphere of exploration of symbols and of imagination. The young woman of the group, who speaks against imagination, experiences a change of heart as the days go on and she experiences the reality of Moro's presence, his beliefs, his letters to his wife and to other people, including Paul VI.

In her dreams she imagines herself saving him and his walking free. She is also influenced by a book of letters from partisans executed by the fascists (and these scenes are visualised from old Italian films).

The film is very well acted, the figure of Moro emerges as a very decent man, aware of his plight, partly bewildered, a man of great faith, able to explain to the Red Brigade how strict their ideology is, even compared with the history of the Catholic Church.


Over the decades, Sylvia Plath's reputation as a poet has continued to increase. Her posthumous book of poetry was edited and published by her estranged husband, Ted Hughes and her novel, The Bell Jar, became a bestseller and a film in the 1980s. This is her story.

Most audiences will know that Sylvia Plath killed herself with gas from her oven in February 1963. They will also know that her more celebrated poet husband, Ted Hughes, was blamed for her depression and death and kept silence about his relationship until a book of poems in 1998, shortly before he died of cancer. He had been Poet Laureate since 1984.

This film takes us back to Cambridge in the mid-1950s when American student, Sylvia, first met Ted, won over by his poetry and swept off his feet by his manner (after he had reviewed her poems unfavourably). It shows their courtship and marriage (despite the hesitations of Sylvia's mother) and their living in the US for three years while they both taught. Already Sylvia was affected emotionally by the women who flocked around Ted. On their return to England, they started a family but Sylvia's feeling she could not write creatively and Ted's infidelity led to her despair.

It is not so much a film where we want to know what is going to happen next. We know that. Rather, we are continually asking why it happened, trying to understand characters, the tension of personality clashes, situations of love and betrayal.

Director is New Zealander Christine Jeffs (Rain) who brings an un-Hollywood seriousness and plainness to her treatment of John Brownlow's screenplay. She re-creates the period effectively both in England and in the US so that we enter into the drama rather than merely observe it. Gwynneth Paltrow is intense as Sylvia and her interpretation of a difficult woman who makes life even more difficult remains in the memory. Daniel Craig's Ted Hughes is a rough and ready poet who exercises charm and gets entangled by it, loving Sylvia but wearied by her emotional demands and easily succumbing to relationships with other women.

The basic nature of the plot is commonplace but, when it is a look at public figures, it is intriguing and puzzling.
LONDON - 2 February 2004 - 1,124 words

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