Sunday, 21 September 2008

Stazione Termini (De Sica, 1953)

Jennifer Jones furrows her brow, Montgomery Clift flares his nostrils, and together they strive to breath life into the sterile romance that debilitates Vittorio De Sica's bizarre Stazione Termini (1953). Unfolding entirely inside Rome's titular train station, the accomplished director's English-language debut seems to draw clear inspiration from David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945), whilst anticipating his later Summertime (1955). De Sica embroiders an entirely different emotional fabric however: the romantic impulse is substituted for illicit carnality, and the tender, empathetic perspective that one associates with Lean's intimate dramas is noticeably absent. It remains unclear if this was De Sica's intention, or whether this is simply a byproduct of the execrable performances from his distinguished stars. Clift's brooding hyper-intensity is humorously undercut by his wavering attempts at an Italian accent, but all worst in show honours surely belong to Jones whose underwhelming "damsel in distress" schtick conveys as much human resonance as a brain-dead pig. With lipstick. And Dior.

Woefully misguided as the actors are, one must surely attribute some of the blame here to the film's creative team. A collaboration between screenwriters of such pedigree (Cesare Zavattini and Truman Capote are amongst the contributors) has no reason to feed the stars such laughably trite dialogue, nor should it facilitate such a conservative message (the maternal archetype is venerated beyond belief). And as for De Sica, Stazione Termini finds the filmmaker caught in perpetual limbo between the social documentarian of neorealism's heyday and the metteur en scène demands placed upon the Hollywood melodramatist. The ensuing awkwardness manifests itself in more than just the acting: the director lingers upon shots of ordinary people long after the stars have left the frame, evidently struggling to tailor his auteurial instincts to the conventions of continuity editing. His approach would seem refreshing if it refrained from painting its innocent bystanders as participants in an urban freakshow - what does one make of the vertically-challenged Kirk Douglas lookalike who drools over anything with a vagina and angrily clings to an orange? Or how about the gaggle of eccentric clergymen who overwhelm the screen at the most random intervals? And the crazed policeman-as-pervert who pulls "Fuck me!" faces at Jennifer Jones, of all women? De Sica may be attempting to represent the discomfort and shame felt by Jones's guilt-ridden adulteress, but he ends up creating a cross-section of Italian society that reveals a worrying sense of national self-loathing.

Like so many other entries in the genre of directorial missteps however, Stazione Termini has its merits. De Sica shows a mastery of visual style here that might surprise the viewer. The vibrant hubbub of the station is frequently wedded to expansive long-shots that revere the near-glacial beauty of its architecture. What ensues is an abiding feeling of disconnection from space and time (note the giant clocks that the director so often returns to) - and, given the iconic location, modernity. The director draws attention to this with the deftest of touches: shot/reverse-shots used during the lovers' conversations discreetly position each participant at opposite ends of the frame, highlighting the distance that separates them (and accentuating the moments of intimacy when they do share the frame). Moreover, at one point, Jones's face is filmed from a high-angle with toplighting, evoking memories of Dietrich, Garbo and the exoticized splendour of the fallen woman. The actress's ineptitude is advantageous here, drawing attention to both her characters' detachment as a clueless American in Italy, as well as her personal disconnect from the proponents of the shot's prototype.

De Sica's insinuations regarding the perils of modern life are admirable, going so far as to create an alternative narrative simply through the strength of his potent imagery. When the actual, contrived narrative - complete with its dour eroticism, simplistic orthodoxy and stultified emotional masochism - concludes with what is quite possibly the most elongated and laborious farewell in the history of forever, he might well have given the audience enough reason to wonder whether their feelings of nonchalance after ninety minutes of intensive "romantic melodrama" are intended.

But this is still a crock o'shit.

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