7/8/2021 1:00:00 PM

When Roberto Rossellini was making his film Francesco, Giullare di Dio, he cast non-actors in every role (with the exception of Aldo Fabrizi as the invader Nicolaio). Francis and his followers were all played by Franciscan friars and novices, one of whom told Rossellini that he was a poet. “I asked him what kind of poetry he was doing,” said Rossellini in a 1971 Film Culture interview, quoted in Tag Gallagher’s definitive critical biography, The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini. “He said, ‘I wrote a poem about a rose.’ I asked him to tell it to me. He closed his eyes and lifted his face toward the sky and said, ‘Oh, Rose!’ And that was the whole poem. How can you have a better poem than that?”

The story exemplifies the spirit of Rossellini’s cinema, and of this film, which Pasolini called “among the most beautiful in Italian cinema” and which Truffaut called “the most beautiful film in the world.” In 1963, Truffaut wrote: “I know it’s a dangerous thing to say, but I believe it is true that Rossellini doesn’t really like cinema particularly, any more than he cares for the arts in general. He prefers life…He is an inquirer, a man who asks questions, who is much more interested in other people than he is in himself.” In other words, the cinema was not an end in itself for Rossellini, but a means of inquiry, exploration…revelation, and love.

The simplicity and directness of Rossellini’s greatest films—of which there are many—can be disarming, even shocking. At any given moment, one can hold them up against everything else in cinema and measure the distance of our collective focus from humanity itself—at this moment, it feels like light years. Certain of Rossellini’s films are demonstrative of his charity and compassion as an artist and as a human being, perhaps this one most of all (along with the film that followed, Europa 51), which remained a favorite throughout his life.

“I believe that certain aspects of primitive Franciscanism could best satisfy the deepest aspirations and needs of humanity who, enslaved by its greed and having totally forgotten the Povorello’s lesson, has also lost its joy in life.” Rossellini, far from setting out to tell the story of Francis’ life, focused instead on the relatively brief interval between his return from Rome, where Pope Innocent III gave Francis permission to start a new order, to the moment when he sent his followers out into the world. Francis himself isn’t even at the center of the film, and there is no narrative to speak of but is instead comprised of a series of episodes that Rossellini and his co-scenarist Federico Fellini drew from the Little Flowers of St. Francis and other texts including the Life of Brother Ginepro. Francis and his band of brothers meet every circumstance with acceptance, compassion and joy, and thus freedom. All gestures are equal, from the brothers stomping with joy through the pouring rain to Brother Ginepro meeting every act of brutality from Niccolaio and his men with a gentle smile to the indelible sequence in which Francis hears the tinkling of an approaching leper’s bell and stands up to embrace him. “Saint Francis called himself a jester, a clown, a juggler,” Rossellini said to an audience of Yale students in 1974, “because he wanted to make fun of all sorts of pride, because the main point was that from a very humble position you can face everything and you can revise the whole conception of the universe.” And to quote Gallagher’s fine words: “Francis, with Zen-like calm, has only to raise an arm to move the universe.”

Like most of Rossellini’s work, Francesco, Giullare di Dio has always been rough around the edges, hand-crafted. It has also been in need of a serious restoration, the better to give those rough edges their proper presence. This has finally happened, a collaboration between the Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation, and it’s being presented in Cannes as we speak and later this month in Bologna.

- Kent Jones

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Restored by The Film Foundation and  Cineteca di Bologna at L'Immagine Ritrovata in collaboration with RTI-Mediaset and Infinity+. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation.


Robert Downey Sr., Filmmaker and Provocateur, Is Dead at 85

Neil Genzlinger

7/7/2021 9:55:00 AM

Robert Downey Sr., who made provocative movies, like “Putney Swope,” that avoided mainstream success but were often critical favorites and were always attention getting, died on Wednesday at his home in Manhattan. He was 85.

The cause was Parkinson’s disease, his wife, Rosemary Rogers, said.

“Putney Swope,” a 1969 comedy about a Black man who is accidentally elected chairman of a Madison Avenue advertising agency, was perhaps Mr. Downey’s best-known film.

“To be as precise as is possible about such a movie,” Vincent Canby wrote in a rave review in The New York Times, “it is funny, sophomoric, brilliant, obscene, disjointed, marvelous, unintelligible and relevant.”

The film, though probably a financial success by Mr. Downey’s standards, made only about $2.7 million. (By comparison, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” that same year made more than $100 million.) Yet its reputation was such that in 2016 the Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, an exclusive group of movies deemed to have cultural or historical significance.

Shelley Plimpton and Ronnie Dyson in a scene from Mr. Downey’s “Putney Swope” (1969).

Shelley Plimpton and Ronnie Dyson in a scene from Mr. Downey’s “Putney Swope” (1969).Credit...Cinema V


Also much admired in some circles was “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), in which a Christlike figure in a zoot suit arrives in the Wild West by parachute. Younger filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson (who gave Mr. Downey a small part in his 1997 hit, “Boogie Nights”) cited it as an influence.

None other than Joseph Papp, the theater impresario, in a letter to The New York Times after Mr. Canby’s unenthusiastic review, wrote that “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.” (Mr. Papp’s assessment may not have been entirely objective; at the time, he was producing one of Mr. Downey’s few mainstream efforts, a television version of the David Rabe play “Sticks and Bones,” which had been a hit at Mr. Papp’s Public Theater in 1971.)

Between “Putney Swope” and “Greaser’s Palace” there was “Pound” (1970), a political satire in which actors portrayed stray dogs. Among those actors, playing a puppy, was Robert Downey Jr., the future star of the “Iron Man” movies and many others, and Mr. Downey’s son. He was 5 and making his film debut.

That movie, the senior Mr. Downey told The Times Union of Albany, N.Y., in 2000, was something of a surprise to the studio.

“When I turned it into United Artists,” he said, “after the screening one of the studio heads said to me, ‘I thought this was gonna be animated.’ They thought they were getting some cute little animated film.”

Allan Arbus in Mr. Downey’s “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), of which the theater impresario Joseph Papp wrote, “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.”

Allan Arbus in Mr. Downey’s “Greaser’s Palace” (1972), of which the theater impresario Joseph Papp wrote, “Robert Downey has fearlessly descended into the netherworld and come up with a laughing nightmare.”Credit...via Photofest


Robert John Elias Jr. was born on June 24, 1936, in Manhattan and grew up in Rockville Centre, on Long Island. His father was in restaurant management, and his mother, Betty (McLoughlin) Elias, was a model. Later, when enlisting in the Army as a teenager, he adopted the last name of his stepfather, Jim Downey, who worked in advertising.

Much of his time in the Army was spent in the stockade, he said later; he wrote a novel while doing his time, but it wasn’t published. He pitched semi-pro baseball for a year, then wrote some plays.

Among the people he met on the Off Off Broadway scene was William Waering, who owned a camera and suggested that they try making movies. The result, which he began shooting when John F. Kennedy was still president and which was released in 1964, was “Babo 73,” in which Taylor Mead, an actor who would go on to appear in many Andy Warhol films, played the president of the United States. It was classic underground filmmaking.

“We just basically went down to the White House and started shooting, with no press passes, permits, anything like that,” Mr. Downey said in an interview included in the book “Film Voices: Interviews From Post Script” (2004). “Kennedy was in Europe, so nobody was too tight with the security, so we were outside the White House mainly, ran around; we actually threw Taylor in with some real generals.”

The budget, he said, was $3,000.

Mr. Downey’s “Chafed Elbows,” about a day in the life of a misfit, was released in 1966 and was a breakthrough of sorts, earning him grudging respect even from Bosley Crowther, The Times’s staid film critic.

“One of these days,” he wrote, “Robert Downey, who wrote, directed and produced the underground movie ‘Chafed Elbows,’ which opened at the downtown Gate Theater last night, is going to clean himself up a good bit, wash the dirty words out of his mouth and do something worth mature attention in the way of kooky, satiric comedy. He has the audacity for it. He also has the wit.”


Mr. Downey with his son, the actor Robert Downey Jr., at a Time magazine gala in 2008. The younger Mr. Downey made his acting debut in one of his father’s movies when he was 5.

Mr. Downey with his son, the actor Robert Downey Jr., at a Time magazine gala in 2008. The younger Mr. Downey made his acting debut in one of his father’s movies when he was 5.Credit...Evan Agostini/AGOEV, via Associated Press


The film enjoyed extended runs at the Gate and the Bleecker Street Cinema. “No More Excuses” followed in 1968, then “Putney Swope,” “Pound” and “Greaser’s Palace.” But by the early 1970s Mr. Downey had developed a cocaine habit.

“Ten years of cocaine around the clock,” he told The Associated Press in 1997. His marriage to Elsie Ford, who had been in several of his movies, faltered; they eventually divorced. He credited his second wife, Laura Ernst, with helping to pull him out of addiction. She died in 1994 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Mr. Downey drew on that experience for his last feature, “Hugo Pool” (1997).

In addition to his wife and son, he is survived by a daughter, Allyson Downey; a brother, Jim; a sister, Nancy Connor; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Downey’s movies have earned new appreciation in recent decades. In 2008, Anthology Film Archives in the East Village restored and preserved “Chafed Elbows,” “Babo 73” and “No More Excuses” with the support of the Film Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to film preservation. At the time, Martin Scorsese, a member of the foundation’s board, called them “an essential part of that moment when a truly independent American cinema was born.”

“They’re alive in ways that few movies can claim to be,” Mr. Scorsese told The Times, “because it’s the excitement of possibility and discovery that brought them to life.”

Mr. Downey deflected such praise.

“They’re uneven,” he said of the films. “But I was uneven.”




Karlovy Vary Film Festival to celebrate The Film Foundation

6/29/2021 2:00:00 AM

As part of its celebration of the return of cinema following last year’s temporary halt, the 55th KVIFF is delighted to celebrate the work of The Film Foundation (TFF) with a retrospective of movies restored by the renowned organization. Established in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, the non-profit is dedicated to protecting and preserving motion picture history, restoring to date over 900 classic works of cinema and hidden masterpieces from around the world.

This retrospective – the central program of the 2021 edition – is closely connected to KVIFF’s long-standing support of the preservation of Czechoslovak film patrimony; an impassioned journey that began a decade ago with the restoration of František Vláčil's masterwork, Marketa Lazarová.

Ten carefully selected films produced between 1932 and 1991 and traversing the U.S., Côte d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Taiwan and Morocco comprise our retrospective – a wide-ranging program that offers a glimpse of the scope and breadth of TFF’s exemplary work, which includes films preserved through TFF’s World Cinema Project (WCP) and African Film Heritage Project (created in partnership with UNESCO, the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) and the Cineteca di Bologna).

The retrospective ranges from the groundbreaking American independent film A Woman Under the Influence (1974, d. John Cassavetes); to the long-unavailable Asian masterwork A Brighter Summer Day (1991, d. Edward Yang); to a rare gem from Côte d’Ivoire The Woman with the Knife (1969, d. Timité Bassori), and many more.

“After being unable to gather together in theaters for over a year, I’m thrilled that The Film Foundation is partnering with the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to present 10 restorations to audiences on the big screen,” said TFF founder and chair Martin Scorsese. “This is an incredible selection that encapsulates the diversity of the films that have been restored through our support, spanning every era, genre and region. My sincere thanks to the Karlovy Vary team for making this program possible and for highlighting the work of The Film Foundation.”

Collectively, the films in this program show the impact TFF has had on global film culture over the past three decades by presenting classic cinema to new generations, while also illustrating its dedication to discovering and promoting lesser-known works to film lovers the world over. Through this program, KVIFF and The Film Foundation aim to celebrate the richness of film history and world cinema, and what better way to celebrate TFF’s work than sharing this remarkable group of films with our returning audience this summer.

"The passion Martin Scorsese has tirelessly exhibited in his work with The Film Foundation is a passion that informs our work at Karlovy Vary; a passion we're honored to share with the American master; and a passion we're now thrilled to share with our audience," stated KVIFF's artistic director Karel Och and executive director Kryštof Mucha.

More about the retrospective here.



6/25/2021 5:00:00 PM

Live long enough and you’ll see so many truisms accreting from the ether of that they will come to seem like a wall of barnacles at the bottom of a boat in harbor. In the world of cinema, for instance. We have “slow = boring” (tell that to fans of the Godfather films, There Will Be Blood or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). We have “people don’t like reading subtitles.” We have “people don’t like black and white.” Of more recent vintage, there’s “old movies are racist and sexist.”

And then there’s this one: “people don’t like to watch silent movies.”

A friend of mine told me that when he started showing silent movies to his daughter, her first reaction was: “What are they saying?” And then she got used to it. Which is unsurprising. But even when she was wondering what the people onscreen were saying, she was still interested.

My sons were entranced with silent films when they were boys. I remember my younger son asking me if we could see Metropolis again… the complete version! Their sister, almost two, is engrossed by Chaplin films. The only difference between my friend’s daughter and my children and anybody else is that we love the work, which means we know the work, and we want to introduce them to it.

Whenever anyone spouts any of the above truisms, always mindlessly (because they can’t really be spouted any other way), it’s because they haven’t had anyone in their life to introduce them to anything slow, subtitled, black and white, older than 2 years, or silent… or some combination thereof.

The Film Foundation has participated in or facilitated the restoration of somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 silent films. The fact that any of them has survived is a miracle. They are the source. They are vivid records of a world—many worlds—gone by. Many of them are astonishingly beautiful and spontaneously inventive, unencumbered by many of the conventions that solidified over the years. And when you really look at them, with your full attention, and maybe allow yourself to acclimate to them, you will enter a world of wonders.

- Kent Jones

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