My two most recent Netflix movies are supposed to be based on autobiographical facts: Tea with Mussolini on Zefferelli’s boyhood and The End of the Affair on Graham Greene’s adulthood. Both are “unreliable,” much filtered, and shaped by genre, but that little kernel of what was once fact gives them a strong anchor point which, if respected by the director and screenwriter, can give the whole story a strong spine.
For Zefferelli that kernel is the power of adult and even slightly overripe women, especially when remembered as part of the past of a little boy. His genre might be called “grande dame,” a set of conventions often British and often fulfilled by English actresses. In this instance, a bit of energetic spice is added by two Yankees we’re not so used to regarding this way: Cher as slightly incredible singer-star and Lily Tomlin in archeologist’s drag. The script and outcome is as predictable as Commedia dell’Arte, but why complain since the interpretation is so delicious? The women are wonderful to watch and Italy is just as softly seductive as the women. The background “old women” character actors are wonderful, too, and the wicked Fascists and Germans are not very scary, even Mussolini. Some of the images are irresistible, like the defiant old ladies who have wound themselves in dynamite fuses at the end, their gauze and chiffon embellished dresses making them look like willows with vines.
The End of the Affair, a Greene novel that has become a bit of a chestnut even though it is well-known to be based on an actual affair he had and to whom he dedicated the book, hinges on the nature of faithfulness, both human and divine, and what kind of love can survive even death. This Irish writer and director, Loren Dutton, has successfully renewed a rather period-bound classic. Maybe it helps that he was a major Graham Greene fan in his late teenhood, which has informed him over the years. This is one time that the director’s voice-over (as opposed to the plot voice-over) was VERY helpful as he went step-by-step through his decisions, explaining why he went the way he did and also frankly noting the objections and jokes of his friends while gently exposing them as shallow. The biggest change was converting the priest to a Christian believer, which is rather ironic, since Graham Greene projected his Christopher Hitchens side into what was, in his version, a “proselytizing Atheist.” Dutton’s point-of-view surrogate was more the naive and non-judgemental, big-eared, working class detective whose son was reassigned the port wine stain birthmark that Greene had put on the priest.
Dutton spends quite a bit of time discussing the difference between flesh in American films (vulnerable to violence) and flesh in European films (sensual and responsive). This film has the latter emphasis and Fiennes brings to it the same voracious, engulfing desire he did to The English Patient, even miming insertion. His pubis is flashed but not hers -- just her beautiful breasts. Julianne Moore’s costumes and acting are responsive, her dark hunter-green dresses with gussets behind skirt pleats that flare out orange. There was some concern about echoing The English Patient too much, but the decision was to ignore the concern. I don’t think the echoes hurt.
Dutton also had some interesting things about rain and mirrors, their usefulness in terms of making the lighting and cinematography interesting and -- in spite of symbolic possibilities -- how they are sometimes simply light and mirrors. Ordinarily, if the story is gripping, these aspects are not obvious.
But most interesting was another change he made towards the end when a shift of both book and movie goes to the relationship between husband and lover, a kind of faithfulness based on their love of the same woman. In English fashion, they are terribly civilized and accepting of reality, with a strong sense of justice for each other. The transcendence of the woman’s earthly love to the love of God is not emphasized but is there. The Fiennes character, who is defined as a novelist (and Dutton says he also is a novelist -- someone who draws on his own life and transforms it into writing) brackets the film with his typing, the sensuous act of imprinting fine paper with ink from the ribbon through the use of metal type. He turns the priest away and continues with his fierce hatred and rage. The woman has gone a place where he cannot follow.
I’m reading an interview with Stephen Toulmin, a thinker who constantly fascinates and provokes me, though I never really master what he’s said. This time what struck me was his claim that somewhere a few hundred years ago we lost our belief in the real existence of a world in which we are embedded and came to the idea that all that matters is our interior construct of it, our “little person in the head” who tells us what to believe. One might say “the inner novelist” who passes judgement all the time, imposing values on what is simply there -- or seems to be. This inner self is always agitating for things to be the way it wants them and is happy enough to impose these values on other people. It’s a seductive way to “be” in the world. In a movie director it’s almost a necessity. But when the movie director goes home, it’s best turned off. And Toulmin thinks it’s time to wake from the dream and see human consciousness in all it’s multi-layered, complex possibilities, while trying to understand this torrent of ambiguous bits we call the world.
Actually, I think the little person in my own head is a lot like Lily Tomlin’s character in Tea with Mussolini. Brisk, no-nonsense, tart, loving and protective. But I do remember the fierce hunger of a needy man. And I love even the sensuosities of my little white and crystal computer keyboard.