[1995] Sense and Sensibility

Of the 512 films nominated since 1927, only a handful exist that I have almost no interest in seeing. Sense and Sensibility was one of them: on my initial screen, I audibly cringed when I approached 1995 and saw that, along with Il Postino, I had yet to see Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel bearing the same name and the same tired, stepping-on-legos annoying people that plagued Ms. Austen’s novels and those of her contemporaries’, too. But it’s important to the blog and to my understanding of film history that I watch all the movies available irrespective of my aversion to them. I still find it crucial that the Academy chose each film based on specific criteria, and that each year’s winner exemplified some zeitgeist-affirming premise, or more likely, mood.

That said, it’s hard to argue against Sense and Sensibility for a nomination: the cast is impeccably English and Austen-esque, Thompson’s adaptation rightly (for film) exaggerates certain aspects about the Dashwood ladies’ wealth, and modernizes some of the male leads to better attract a more modern audience. Lee’s wide shots and modest cuts between scenes created, if nothing else, a beautifully filmed 2-hour adaptation. Really, though, nothing else: Austen, like the Brontë sisters, created this fantastical world where every sister or mother is clever and brooding and every man is either dashing or hopeless, but cruel nevertheless.

Thompson captured the essence of this story with fluidity and passion, but even with her sharp pen, the story suffers from a wanton ambivalence towards any of her characters and a waning clarity regarding the feelings of her moste brooding Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, sufferers of too many male suitors and not enough money to live in a gigantic estate, only a smaller one. At its core Austen’s novel and Thompson’s adaptation proxies Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, within which the brooding lover decides whether she will choose sense or sensibility, never bits of both, but in truth makes no choice, simply an acceptance of fate. Oh the cruelty of Mrs. Dashwood’s husband’s first ex-wife! Oh, my word Colonel Brandon, dashing and handsome, are you too gentle and too schooled on the harshness of the world to love? Are you too sensible for me you old man of 35? Do I sense that you, Mssr. John Willoughby, dashing and handsome, schooled in the fantastical currency of culture and a passion for the senses? Will you betray the poor(ish, not really), beautiful Miss Marianne? Ah Hugh Grant! Will you show up shape-shifted into another bumbling do-gooder who can’t do good right?  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