September 2013

Arts & Letters

Giuseppe Tornatore's 'The Best Offer' and Kim Mordaunt's 'The Rocket'

By Luke Davies

Giuseppe Tornatore wrote and directed Cinema Paradiso, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1989. It’s a movie about falling in love with cinema, and is alive and cheeky when focused on the friendship between wise, melancholy small-town projectionist Alfredo (Philippe Noiret) and cute, irrepressible seven-year-old Toto (Salvatore Cascio). It’s glorious, too, when it segues in and out of the old films being shown in the Cinema Paradiso. But once Toto becomes a teenager, Cinema Paradiso loses steam; Tornatore is a grand sentimentalist at heart. The film, viewed a quarter of a century later – and despite its soaring ending – suffers from an overload of treacle.

Tornatore’s latest film, set in the world of international art and auctions, is The Best Offer (in national release), marketed as a cerebral thriller of sorts. He is clearly doing his best these days to rein in the sentimentalism – The Best Offer seems to be aiming, tonally, for a kind of elegant aloofness seasoned with acidity.

You feel that Tornatore’s model here would be something like Kristof Kieslowski’s austere and brilliant Three Colours trilogy. But Red, White and Blue all contained, beneath their glacial surfaces, profound dramas of human emotion, vivid and real despite their repressions and bridled passions. You may want to peer deeper into The Best Offer, but you will only find, beneath its narrative surface of art-world treachery, a yawning void. What, you will ask, is this film trying to get you to care about? For a while it’s intriguing, and you’re willing to suspend disbelief. You want to stick around for the revealing of the film’s mysteries and twists, but when you realise that the engine of its forward momentum is grade-A preposterousness, it’s hard to care – and at two hours’ running time, you’re in for a long wait. (By deadening all subtlety, Ennio Morricone's cloying orchestral score doesn’t help matters.)

Geoffrey Rush is Virgil Oldman, a high-end art dealer – he runs his own auction house, too, a sort of boutique Christie’s – who masks his loneliness with a short temper, an avoidance of intimacy and a prickly reticence. (That might be a loneliness any of us could cope with if we lived in a house as luxurious as his – and that’s before you see the secret room, with its ten-metre ceilings, where he sits and gazes, in what passes for down-time, at the Old Masters that fill the walls.)

Virgil doesn’t just run the auctions. He’s a world-renowned appraiser, and this brings him into contact with the mysterious Claire Ibbetson (Sylvia Hoeks), who has inherited a villa full of antiques and artworks she wants to sell. So far, so Paul-Cox-with-a-budget.

It’s a once-in-a-lifetime find for a dealer: the villa is a trove of gems and masterpieces, and you know that Virgil, repressed though he may be, is drooling on the inside. There’s one small problem: Claire is agoraphobic, and conducts all her business from behind the door of a secret apartment within the villa. Hoeks is a model turned actor who has starred in mostly Dutch television series. Going by the sound of her English-language voice alone, the transition from modelling to acting has not been entirely successful. There’s a flat affect to her speech, and her unseen character comes across as mopey.

Things improve when we see her, as she’s easy on the eye. But, by then, we’ve waited 50 minutes, and it’s another 20 before she’s out of her room and sitting down to a meal with the hapless Virgil. Rush is a wonderful actor, and he gives a stellar performance talking intensely to a door for more than an hour. But this is an awfully long time and, in any case, when Claire finally emerges from the shadows, the unfolding narrative merely shifts gear from possibly to definitely ludicrous.

A parallel plot revolves around the mysterious Robert (Jim Sturgess), a kind of MacGyver for the antiquities set, who is helping to piece together a mysterious clockwork mechanism, rusty fragments of which Virgil keeps delivering to him. Gradually, we learn that Robert is constructing from the long-rusted Florentine meccano scraps nothing less than that rarest of birds, a Renaissance automaton. Every time the plot needs a new piece of clockwork, Virgil will stumble across it, where dozens of workmen have missed it in months of cataloguing and tramping through the villa.

The sin may be not so much that these improbabilities offend the cinema-goer’s senses, since there is, potentially, high-camp fun to be experienced among all the absurdity. (Vincent Price might have played Virgil in a cheap, schlocky, dubbed Italian horror version of this film in 1973, and you’d have seen it at the drive-in.) The transgression is rather that it’s all so lugubrious, stilted and overdone.

Rush’s doleful task is to deliver with a straight face lines like “You should have seen her. Pale – like a Dürer etching. She had the look of some creature terrified of the universe. And I would read my own terror in her eyes.” Yet the glimpses of the elusive, neurotic heiress fail to tantalise us; the conceit of the invisible Claire works against making the film gripping. We know what we’re meant to be experiencing here, but all the tension-building comes across as faux-erotic.

Donald Sutherland wanders through the proceedings with a similar I’m-trapped-in-a-silly-film-but-what-the-heck twinkle in his eye to Rush’s. Still, he has his own dialogue burdens to deal with: “Human emotions are like works of art. They can be forged. They seem just like the original. But they’re a forgery.”

There may be something entirely wrong with my take; there may be something huge and obvious that I’m missing. Perhaps the actors are loving every minute of it. Perhaps they believe they’re in an impeccably intellectual film that intrigues, delivers and pays off. The Best Offer, after all, scooped six of the top nods at the David Awards (Italy’s version of the Oscars), including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Music. Clearly someone loves this film. The ending goes a long way towards explaining much that has seemed improbable. But by then I had lost interest.

In a mountainous region of northern Laos, a mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), gives births to twins, one stillborn. An old Laotian legend says that whenever twins are born, one is blessed and one cursed. Mali’s mother, presiding over the birth, for some reason believes that Ahlo, the survivor, is the cursed one.

Jumping forward from the prologue, we’re with ten-year-old Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe), the energetic centre of Australian documentary-maker Kim Mordaunt’s low-budget film The Rocket (in national release). By following close on Ahlo’s heels to see just how cursed or blessed he’ll wind up, the film becomes also a modest meditation on the cursed country’s own blessings.

Per capita, Laos is the most bombed country on Earth. In 2007 Mordaunt made the documentary Bomb Harvest, which followed an Australian expert’s work in training a new bomb-disposal team. Mordaunt has put his in-country knowledge to work in crafting a film that touches on this theme of renewal in a ravaged land.

In Ahlo’s valley, a dam is being built by an Australian–Laotian consortium. (The actual dam that Mordaunt shoots is massive, extraordinary.) The entire valley will be flooded and there’s an exodus of local families. They arrive at the new “settlement” but the houses they’ve been promised are not yet built, and everything else is in disarray.

Ahlo’s little girlfriend, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), has lost her family to malaria and lives at the settlement with her eccentric, James Brown–obsessed Uncle Purple. Ahlo becomes determined to build a rocket, believing that if he wins the region’s annual Rocket Festival – the highest-flying rocket wins – he can buy land for his family. The motley band – Ahlo and Kia, Ahlo’s reserved dad and angry grandmother, and loopy Uncle Purple – set out in support of the boy’s possibly delusional quest.

The film, like the story, is slight, but its faults are easy to forgive. For every naff or obvious line – “We’ll have electricity, running water—” “And leave our traditions behind?” – there’s something sweet, or funny: when Ahlo cuts off power to the village, Uncle Purple says, “As of today, I’m the second-most hated person in this place.”

The Rocket Festival is about homemade fireworks, rather than anything technologically sophisticated. But the connections with all the unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War era – bombs that still wreak death and disfigurement in the tiny country – are quite overt.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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