Meaningful Images: "Antonia" and "Song of Songs"
by Eva Peydró
At the 50th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, two films presented in the Official Competition section are highlighted because they based much of their effectiveness on a studied and careful choice of aesthetic proposals. In both films, the directors chose images as the main vehicle to convey their point of view and transmit a unique work according to topic, plot and message.
Cinematography and color, scenery, atmosphere and mood, in terms of costumes and decor, as well as the careful staging, form an integral part of the strengths of Antonia and Song of Songs (Pesn pesney), giving meaning beyond pure aesthetic exaltation.
Antonia, directed by Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, depicts the adolescence and early youth of the greatest twentieth century Italian poet Antonia Pozzi, until her untimely death. She never saw her work published in her lifetime and suffered a painful personal misunderstanding, as did so many artists with extraordinary sensitivity, aggravated, especially, in the case of women. Life and work are inseparable for Antonia, who longed to feel free to live her inner commitment, from sexual choice to literary passion, as well as her rejection of the repressive Italian social morés of the early twentieth century (1912-1938), that made Antonia and her fine sensitivity the victim of narrow minded peers and parents.
Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, in his first feature film, takes a revealing and quite empathetic point of view on Antonia, without impairing the clarity of his accurate depiction or falling into the strictures of a standardized biopic. The director reveals the poet’s life in first person, rather than from an external, traditional and less interesting perspective and devotes a comprehensive look at certain characteristics of her personality and behavior to describe and show, as a logical consequence, an outstanding poetic work of extraordinary depth and maturity, despite the youth and inexperience of the author.
Through the physicality of the leading character, shown by means of her body movement, either slowly filmed at rest with long shots of her naked body, or in motion dressed with elegance and simplicity, walking or climbing, the director conveys the vitality and gracefulness, passion and awareness of her own being, with the valuable contribution of the powerful and elegant cinematography by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom.
If a scene symbolizes Antonia’s ability to enjoy life and art just through the use of her body, it is the lovely pizzicato dance that actress Linda Caridi plays with virtuosity, unfortunately soon stifled by a repressive mother. Antonia’s smile and her warm gestures toward others are expressions of the body, but also part of her work’s mood, enlightened by simplicity, spontaneity and reflection without affectation, like in “Modesty”: If a word of mine / pleases you / and you tell me / even just with your eyes / I open wide / in a joyful smile / but I tremble / like a young mother / who even blushes when / a passerby tells her / her little boy is handsome (Antonia Pozzi, 1933).
Moreover, the subtle and skilled color processing, soft and dominated by a palette from white to brown, and all shades of beige, reminds us of that organic component of Pozzi’s poems, in which the emotional life and the inability to adapt to hidebound social norms are predominant topics in a constant desire for freedom, to escape the painful patterns that prevent her from expressing a complex inner soul, beyond her writings.
Therefore, in a successful choice, the director presents the mountains almost as a life partner that protect and play a breakaway, a symbol of freedom to be climbed, allowing Antonia to lift over earthly misery, significantly presented as part of her own life.
The young and talented Cito Filomarino was assistant director in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (Io sonol’amore), one leading film for putting aesthetics at the service of the story.
The Ukrainian film, Song of Songs, is based on a story of Sholem Aleichem’s, and is also set in the early 20th century, this time in a Jewish shtetl. Apparently told by means of the classical scheme of children’s bedtime stories and shown through sequences reminiscent of tableaux vivants, “we are immediately transported into a traditional way of life characteristic of Jewish Ukrainian villages, socially hierarchical and marked by strict religious rules.”
As so Antonia, ten year old Shimek is a misfit who uses his imagination, not for poetric expression in his case, but to build a world of enchanted princesses and adventures where everything is possible. Director Eva Neymann, in her third film, uses the contrast between the real and the imagined, distinguishing the first by muddy, wintry, rainy scenery in streets, squares and humble homes, home-schools and the sway of the head Rabbi contrasted with the exaltation of summer and spring in the field, as well as by the colors of life, vibrant greens and reds.
The composition of the images includes a cast of characters who are all old people and children, no young people, only the parents of Shimek, prematurely aged by the lack of hope and opportunities for broadening their horizons or beliefs. By contrast, in the sequences where Shimek is happy, in the depiction of his private world, he is always accompanied by his beloved Buzya, the child adopted and raised by his parents as a sister, a teenager whom he adores and whom he makes the protagonist of all of his fantasies.
Youth and hope are represented by recurring images throughout the film, as are the golden tresses of his love, the green countryside, the lake water, a world where everything ethereal represents freedom, whether it’s the leaves and flower petals falling from the trees, or feathers. In contrast, the closed world without hope, musty and smelling of reheated food is symbolized by the Rabbi’s house, his clothes, his shoes and furtive naps while the children study.
The costumes and setting are hyperrealistically framed in chromatic ranges. The everyday tasks Neymann chooses for her characters are pure storytelling without words, creating a mood, which helps us to support Shimek in his dreams, the desire for him to be able to run away from that castrating life, based on repetition, memorization and resignation to life and fatalism. The people in the shetl speak with aphorisms, without generating new thoughts, choosing not to evolve, stuck in the tradition understood as synonymous with security and protection against the unknown. Shimek’s little rebellion is finally a success, proving that believing in your dreams is the first step to achieving them.
Edited by Pamela Cohn
© FIPRESCI 2015