Tuesday, 25 November 2014

UNDER THE SUN OF ROME - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Editing soars in neorealist film

In Italian neo-realism, beautiful women looking for romance have slim pickings amongst layabout man-boys who never want to grow up.
Gorgeous neorealist film
begs for proper treatment
from either Criterion or
Kino Lorber. Who will step
up to the plate first?
Under the Sun of Rome
Sotto il sole di Roma
dir. Renato Castellani
Starring: Oscar Blando, Liliana Mancini, Francesco Golisari, Maria Tozzi, Ferrucio Tozzi, Gisella Monaldi, Alberto Sordi

Review By Greg Klymkiw

At one point in Renato Castellani’s strange neorealist comedy-drama Under the Sun of Rome, the layabout teen hero Ciro (Oscar Blando) and his hard-working beat cop Dad (Ferrucio Tozzi) are sleeping not-so-soundly during the day for very different reasons.

Ciro busily toils day and night doing nothing – save for occasional forays into mischief with his equally lazy pals. Pops, on the other hand, is on perpetual night shift – patrolling the dark streets and punching in tediously at the requisite check-in points. Ciro's only genuine risk is getting caught for petty thievery. Pops, however, is at risk every night, keeping the eternal city as safe as possible.

One works, the other doesn’t – but as the sun of Roma beams through the windows of their tiny walk-up – both men on this particular morning, are getting no sleep. Roly-poly Mamma (Maria Tozzi) is multitasking like only a mother can and berating both of them – at the top of her considerable lungs. In a brief moment of respite from her justifiable haranguing (she works harder than the two of them together – multiplied, no doubt, to infinity), bleary Ciro calls out to his equally groggy Dad asking if ALL married women are like his mother.

Dad sighs with resignation and replies, “All.”

Ah, the eternal chasm twixt man and woman.

Luckily, for the not-so-gentle sex, they always have each other.

Under the Sun of Rome unfolds its episodic coming-of-age tale during World War II, but for a good portion of the picture, we’d never know it. Ciro and his buddies busy themselves with the fine rituals of doing nothing. Our hunky hero, adorned in a sporty new pair of white shoes and to-die-for shorts that outline the supple form of his delectable posterior and swarthy gams – Yes, GAMS! They’re that gorgeous – is supposed to be getting a presentable haircut for his new job.

Ciro has other plans. He rounds up his buddies for a day of slacking. Wandering through the crumbling Coliseum they come across Geppe (Francesco Golisari) a lad of the streets who makes his home there. Ciro and Geppe hit it off immediately and the new pal joins the layabouts for a dip in a secluded creek on railway property.

When rail company bulls show up to intimidate trespassers, Ciro loses his new shoes and the money Mamma gave him for a haircut. Nor has he bothered to go to work as promised. Terrified with the severe beating he’ll receive, Ciro does what any young lad would do – he doesn’t go home and instead, spends the night with Geppe in his magical little Coliseum hideaway.

This affords both young dreamboats the opportunity to gaze intently at each other’s fresh, lean man-boy perfection – replete with gentle digital gesticulations. Here Castellani directs veteran cinematographer Domenico (Ossessione) Scala’s camera in loving compositional directions to highlight the bountiful facial and physical attributes of both actors. (Larry Clark – eat your heart out.)

As time moves on, the picture recounts several entertaining incidents in the life of Ciro – stealing shoes from a shopkeeper (the great Alberto Sordi of The White Sheik and I Vitelloni fame), an on-again-off-again relationship with Iris (Liliana Mancini) the proverbial girl-next-door, dabbling in black marketeering once the German army enters Rome, dallying gigolo-like with the BBW-splendour of Tosca (Gisella Monaldi) a married-woman-cum-streetwalker and eventually crime that leads to the expected tragic ending.

Castellani’s storytelling technique and, in fact elements of the story itself, are delicately, delightfully odd.

The first-person narration is truly exceptional. It is both literary AND literal. Often the voiceover will describe a physical action just before or during its execution as well as describing characters whom we see as described during said descriptions. Further to this, we will often hear narration to the effect of “So-and-so said…” and we’ll then hear the character recite the line of dialogue. The basic tenets of Screenwriting 101 suggest you should NEVER do any of the above. This, of course, is why the self-appointed scenarist gurus the world over are so often wrong. If it works, it works and it does so splendidly here.

Some might find fault with Castellani’s perspective on his female characters. It's certainly not as deep and sensitive as it could and should be. Even in I Vitelloni, the pinnacle of all male layabout films, Maestro Fellini is able to render strong female characters without turning them into borderline harridans as Castellani does with Mamma or worse, Iris – a harridan-to-be. (The performances of the actresses are as good as can be expected within the shallow dimensions they’re given to work with.)

Strangely, the female character that seems the most well rounded and lavished with the greatest degree of sensitivity is that of the plump, whorish Tosca. Even Scala’s cinematography of the women is mostly workmanlike, lacking the loving detail and care so copiously drenched upon the young boys. One could argue this is intentional, but to that I say – argue away. Larry Clark rests MY case on this one – boys AND gals need equal cinematographic love. (In fairness though, there is ONE boner-inducing close-up of Liliana Mancini slowly opening the door.)

Blando’s performance as Ciro is infused with a variety of subtle layers. When he is at his most rakishly appealing, Ciro is a character we’re completely rooting for, but often he does and says things so abominable (for example, the way he continually professes love to Iris, kisses her passionately then hurls some invective that clearly hurts her feelings) that we turn on him violently. Ciro is an always fascinating character. His eventual coming-of-age, his redemption if you will, has considerable force. I also applaud Castellani’s brave choice in making such a bold series of moves within a leading character.

What I love most about this picture is the craft employed in the forward thrust of its episodic narrative. The movie never feels like it’s overstaying its welcome at any point and yet, very often, it has a rhythm not unlike that of a lazy day and as such, is easily in the same sphere attained by Fellini in I Vitelloni. In fact, the slicing and dicing of editor Giuliano Betti is not only exceptional, but at times it is utterly breathtaking. Among many spectacular cuts, the one that stays with me is a gorgeous cut to a foot-level shot on the stairs in the walk-up when Ciro and Iris go into the hallway from his flat. Not only is this a cut of exquisite beauty, but also it leads us into a shot that is equally stunning (followed by a camera move that’s richly evocative and romantic).

Many of the cuts are suitably "silent", but only when they need to be. On occasion they knock you completely on your ass and force you to almost re-focus your gaze IN to the action on screen.

I have to sadly admit to having seen only one Castellani picture before (a weird English-dubbed public domain VHS tape of Hell in the City during the mid-80s - issued I think, to capitalize on Chained Heat and other babe-in-prison flicks starring Linda Blair and rented pour moi to satisfy my babe-in-prison fetish. Because of my Castellani-deprived state, I couldn't begin to claim that these cuts are a trademark DIRECTORIAL style of his and assume they were made in collaboration with a brilliant editor. The credited editor is one Giuliano Betti. I have scoured the Internet quite extensively - including Italian sites, and found virtually no information about him. In fact, this appears to be his only editing credit (along with a bunch of assistant directing and continuity credits). Go figure. Whoever was responsible is a genius.

Under the Sun of Rome is a tremendously entertaining picture and even if it occasionally feels like a Diet Chinotto precursor to Federico Fellini’s I Vitelloni, it’s a worthy entry in the Italian neorealist sweepstakes - especially in the oft-tackled men-who-can't-seem-to-grow-up genre.


Under the Sun of Rome does not appear to be available on DVD other than as a non-subtitled Italian import. This must change. It sounds like a job for either Criterion or Kino Lorber. In the meantime, a gorgeous archival 35mm English-subtitled print pops up at cinematheques that can still screen real movies. TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto did, indeed, present this film a few years back. I, for one, would LOVE to own it on Blu=Ray. Criterion? Kino Lorber? Art thou listening?