[1931/2] Arrowsmith

The thing about motion pictures before the widespread use of color film, morally ambiguous characters and multi-faceted story lines is that they were so bland. Often, as was the case with 1931’s Best Motion Picture nominated film, Arrowsmith, the entire film, characters, sets, dialogue – what have you – the motion picture overwhelms in pushing a particular message; or, as was the case with 1936’s San Francisco, a particularly refined film technique.

Starring Ronald Colman and a young Helen Hayes, Arrowsmith tells the story of young, pragmatic researcher (Dr. Arrowsmith) whose singular focus, and the focus of the movie, revolves around him “making something of his life.” First, he attends medical school, then he gets a wife, then he moves to a small town, then he takes a job at a prestigious research facility in New York, then he travels to the West Indies, then his wife dies, then he gives up. If that sentence seems tedious and overwrought with minutiae, that’s how this movie felt to watch. A singular conflict defines his every move and happenstance tends to take over the storytelling hand over fist.

Though the story’s plot plodded along a one-way track to a nebulous fin, we must not overlook the significance of this film in context. For any amateur film critic, movies crafted before a certain age – whether it be 1939’s Wizard of Oz or 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life – must come fettered with an overwhelming price tag. Before refinement of modern techniques and the consolidation of talent into studios and agencies made the barriers to entry too much for some filmmakers, the motion picture industry could have been the object of an entertainment-based Manifest Destiny. The sheer numbers of films made (and nominated for Best Motion Picture) before the mid-1940s describe this phenomenon without much digging. It’s also why we tend to lionize certain stars more so than we do today as “classic;” both contemporary and modern critics picked the brightest from a pool of talent that was either considered much smaller or much larger than it is today. Whatever the reason, these stars were ubiquitously recognized. Arrowsmith was neither memorable for its plot or its stars or its foray into uncharted themes or techniques. Continue reading

[1995] Il Postino

To use a clear black and white designation to describe a person’s character is antiquated and morally unjust. Very few, if any, people have a clear, dichotomous personality and even fewer have thoughts that are simply just or unjust. Moreover, the idea that a person – a thing even – can be purely good or bad is absurd. Surely even the most egotistical among us have a shred of humility; the most hopeless have a glimmer of promise; and the meanest have a sliver of altruism. As far as Il Postino is concerned, this concept is self-evident and its characters are shaped by this multifaceted and amorphous trait.

Magnificent in the lead, Massimo Troisi commands the screen with his characterization of our presumptuous and humble Mario Ruoppolo. Some might see this portrayal, which, unfortunately was Troisi’s last, as a masterstroke, a real brava performance whose weight can carry the plight of a real man desperate for his life. And it shows. Unhappy has a mere fisherman, Ruoppolo seeks his fortune delivering mail and messages to a lone resident, who happens to be esteemed Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. Ruoppolo is presumptuous in his solicitation of Neruda. He’s humble and eager to learn to turn a phrase, yet he’s scared to act on impulse. He’s harmlessly dishonest and unflaggingly passionate about the cause – whether it be courtship of his wife-to-be, Beatrice, or about a “new” government.

Neruda, on the other hand plays a wonderful foil to Ruoppolo. He’s demonstrative and proud to Mario’s meekness. Here, these characteristics add together for an enriching dialogue between the two men that jumps off the screen as authentic and warm. Neruda responds to Ruoppolo’s eagerness with patience and deference. Where Ruoppolo is impulsive, Neruda is calculating and learned. Unfortunately, as we learn, Neruda’s casual dishonesty brings with it unintended consequences. Neruda winds and spins through the atmosphere, where Ruoppolo slashes and whips. The additive beauty of the relationship is that both stay within their respective character shells and therefore we, as the audience, start to care what happens to each of them, both separately and together. Continue reading