Simian Substitute Site For July 2015: The Great Gorilla Run
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MOSTLY FILM: Live At Pompeii

To be honest, F Murray Abraham doesn't have a single line in this as good as "Chicken!" in Loaded Weapon 1Il gatto è fuori del sacchetto, I guess.

Last month, in the gap between this post and this one, The Belated Birthday Girl and I spent two weeks running around Italy. The holiday writeups always tend to suffer the worst delays on this site, so I can't make any firm promises about when you'll get to read about what we did there: hopefully, it should be soon.

But in the meantime, today you get a Mostly Film article that came out of the trip. The twentieth episode in my Monoglot Movie Club series, Live At Pompeii covers the two unsubtitled Italian films we watched over there: Mia Madre at the Cinema Odeon in Bologna, and Torno Indietro e Cambio Vita at the Cinema Modernissimo in Naples.

Notice I said unsubtitled there. We also watched a third film, The Mystery Of Dante, at the Odeon Firenze in what us monoglot types call Florence. It's an Italian film that's partly in English, and with English subtitles for the rest of it, so it couldn't really be covered in a Monoglot Movie Club piece. But I'm choosing to review it here as the Red Button Bonus Material for the original post. I have to. A film this bloody terrible deserves it.

In case you missed it, June 2015 marked the 750th anniversary of the birth of Dante Alighieri, author of The Divine Comedy. Florence was the city he came from (we'll quietly gloss over how they sent him into exile for the last two decades of his life), and a series of celebratory events took place there to mark the anniversary. One of these was at the Odeon cinema, sometimes known as Odeon Original Sound: their USP is that unlike the majority of cinemas in Italy, they screen movies in their original language with subtitles, rather than relying on an Italian dub. Throughout June, they held a month-long run of The Mystery Of Dante, throwing in a free glass of wine for all ticket-holders. It's a move that you suspect was aimed primarily at visiting tourists like us - a suspicion that gets even stronger when you notice that the cinema's magnificent interior is an attraction in its own right, with tour groups being guided straight in and out of the auditorium just before and just after our screening.

Louis Nero's film is actually a couple of years old, and is showing here in a mysteriously abridged version made specially for this cinema. Its basic premise is sound: it examines The Divine Comedy, and invites a series of talking heads to delve more deeply than usual into its themes. It's generally accepted that there are at least three levels of meaning to the Comedy - literal, allegorical and social - but this film is concerned with a fourth esoteric level of meaning, one which (as we're frequently told) the majority of readers will simply never be aware of because they don't have the knowledge.

This is, of course, the sort of snake oil that has lubricated all manner of scams throughout history, but the director and his interviewees put forward a series of arguments for this case anyway. We have to take these arguments on trust, as none of the interviewees are identified on screen at the time, which shows a certain degree of arrogance. Of the English-speaking ones whose identity I eventually managed to deduce from the closing credits, screenwriting guru Christopher Vogler looks at Dante from a Joseph Campbell-inspired mythic perspective, and manages to get through the interview without saying "I'm probably most famous for co-writing The Lion King," so good for him. Meanwhile, Hollywood director Taylor Hackford laughably tries to draw parallels between his own work and Dante's, the comparison losing all credibility by the time he reaches The Devil's Advocate. But for all we know, the credentials of the other interviewees may be just as spurious: we're never given enough information on their background.

Still, all snark aside, this could at least have been a dry but intriguing run through the themes of The Divine Comedy. Unfortunately, Nero can't simply leave it at that. One of the main theories discussed (although it's more or less rejected by the end of the film) is that Dante was the head of a Masonic cult called The Faithful Of Love, and the Comedy is an attempt to express its beliefs through complex literary symbolism. This results in a framing sequence in which the director is contacted by present-day members of the cult, and taken to a secret location for initiation into the mysteries. It's a huge misstep, partly because it reduces an apparently serious documentary to the level of The Da Vinci Code, partly because the sequence itself is so hamfistedly made. You have to understand that what I'm about to say next is totally devoid of exaggeration: literally five minutes of the pre-credits sequence is taken up with handheld shots taken by a pair of blindfolded cinematographers as they're being hustled through underground tunnels. The rest of the sequence requires Nero to act, in English, at which point we definitively discover which of his various functions on the film he's least adept at.

Can it get any worse? Actually, yes, it can. Nero has to assume that not everyone who's watching the film has read Dante, which means we need periodic extracts from the Comedy to set context. He does this with a series of CG re-enactments in which a tiny number of actors are clumsily superimposed onto appallingly designed backgrounds. Remember those turn-of-the-century FX-driven films, the ones like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow that were basically shot in soft-focus sepia because that's all the rendering budget would allow? Well, you can enjoy that look all over again.

The final capper is a series of short, garbled appearances by Dante himself, with F Murray Abraham getting top billing for a role whose total screen time is probably about the same as his cameo in National Lampoon's Loaded Weapon 1. It gives Nero just enough recognisable shots of the classical image of Dante to fit into a hilariously bombastic trailer and a gloriously deceptive poster campaign. It's one more con-trick in a film that's crammed with them. Most astonishing of all is the final caption, which invites us to go online and order the DVD, because it's 30 minutes longer. To be frank, all the components of the abridged version are so bad, I can't imagine which of them you'd want to see any more of.

Still, at least the free wine was nice. And inevitably, we drank quite a few other things on the Italy trip, ate even more, and saw even more than that. More details to follow soon.

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