Blu-ray Review: Mark of the Devil

Starring: Herbert Lom, Udo Kier, Olivera Vuco
Director: Michael Armstrong
Rating: 8/10

As has often been pointed out, it’s not at all easy to say where and when Mark of the Devil (1970) is set. All we really know is that it’s some little town where Tyrolean fashions and low-cut bodices are all the rage, where everyone is dubbed and where if you’re a fit bird the chances are you’ll be catching the eye of the local witch hunter, a ferret-faced bloke who goes by the name of Albino (Reggie Nalder). Heaving her bosom more than most is Vanessa (Olivera Vuco), a comely tavern wench. Inevitably she stirs Albino’s lustful interest, but she finds a temporary protector in the handsome form of Count Christian von Meruh (Udo Kier), assistant to Lord Cumberland (Herbert Lom), the great witch hunter who is due to arrive at any moment. Hopefully Lord Cumberland will clear her name. Will he ever!

The script is at pains to draw a distinction between Christian, who hunts witches because he thinks it’s his, er, Christian duty, and Albino, who does it for kicks. As for Cumberland, we quickly discover (and how it is that Christian hasn’t?) that he’s running a racket. Diedre (Gaby Fuchs), who gets the brunt of the torturer’s attentions during the movie – yes, that girl, the one who has her tongue ripped out – is simply a poor, innocent nun who has only been accused because a bishop has gotten her in the family way and it has fallen to the witch hunters to hush up the scandal. Similarly, a young baron who has his bottom shoved on a bed of nails is only suffering this indignity because the church is eager to swell its coffers with his inheritance.

No doubt this sort of thing did so on, but it’s hard to take the film seriously as a hard-hitting exposé because the plot has so obviously been cobbled together on the back of an Austrian beer matt. And yet Mark of the Devil achieves its own kind of crude vitality. The movie teems with the sort of feral, grotesque characters who would be right at home in a spaghetti western, especially the splendid Albino and Herbert Fux’s Jeff Wilkens, executioner, torturer and deliverer of sinister leers. The trial scenes apparently drew on contemporary documents for some convincingly cracked-sounded allegations and testimonies. Visually, the film consistently holds your attention. The cinematographer Ernst W. Kalinke employs extreme angles and looming close-ups, tilting the camera 360 degrees during a stylized rape scene. The use of locations in and around Salzburg and Lower Austria (with priceless antiques in situ) gives the film a rich texture than draws you in almost against your better judgement, and the same goes for the torture scenes, which benefit from all kinds of authentic-looking contraptions that were apparently lying around on set just begging to be put to use. Even the rather choppy editing works to the film’s advantage, giving it a roughness which feels like sincerity.

Fans will be delighted with the HD transfer. The film stock is very much of its time but, bar a scattering of grain here and there, it has buffed up to be impressively bright and gaudy. Reggie Nalder looks amazing, his red tunic clashing violently with his chorizo-brown skin tones. When Christian goes for a walk beside the river, his azure trousers are almost blinding. The scene where Lord Cumberland’s coach arrives at the castle is beautifully clear and fresh, as are many other shots throughout.

Another piece of extremely good news is the presence of the German audio. It’s a definite improvement over the English version. Although everyone still looks as if they’re dubbed, it’s altogether less jarring, with much better voice acting, and the script seems that little bit more subtle and intelligent too.

The Blu-ray comes with a whole mass of extras. There’s a 47-minute documentary looking at the New Wave of British horror films of the ’70s, With contributions from Norman J. Warren, Michael Armstrong and others, and with a good section on Peter Walker, it’s a very welcome introduction to an era that’s still comparatively neglected.

We also get a 12-minute piece on Hallmark Releasing, the movie’s US distributor, early purveyors of bad taste who specialised in confrontational material and flashy publicity gimmicks – audiences for Mark of the Devil were given sick-bags that have now become collector’s items. There’s a 7-minute featurette revisiting the movie’s Austrian locations, and a 24-minute interview with the film’s composer, Michael Holm, a charmingly camp character who gives his honest opinion of his own score and also goes on to tell some anecdotes which will be of great interest to aficionados of the German pop scene in the 1960s.

The shooting of Mark of the Devil was an unhappy experience for director Michael Armstrong, who was removed from the picture and replaced by producer Adrian Hoven (who also appears on screen as the ill-fated puppet guy). The remaining extras are fascinating for the differing accounts they offer as to how, why and when this happened. In a 10-minute interview, Udo Kier intimates that Hoven didn’t care for some of Armstrong’s ideas or for his slowness in making decisions. Gaby Fuchs says that the scene where her tongue was ripped out (using a calf’s tongue, none too fresh) was directed by Hoven, and a behind the scenes photo would seem to support that. During the course of a 23-minute interview, Herbert Fux – who seems very well informed – suggests that it was less a personality clash with Hoven than a loss of faith on the part of the production company, and then when Hoven took over (about a third of the way into the shooting schedule, according to Fux) he did his best to keep to the style that Armstrong had established. (He also claims that the big metal pliers, etc, that they used for the torturing scenes were authentic originals that happened to be in the castle where they filmed, and that the sword he wields to lop off a few heads had actually been employed in real executions.)

Michael Armstrong’s audio commentary paints a picture of an immediate clash with Hoven, who didn’t want to make the film in the first place, and he blames Hoven for the lack of a distinct period setting and the peculiar mix of British and Germanic names in the cast list which has caused much scratching of heads ever since. He also states that he shot the majority of the movie himself, with Hoven’s contribution being limited to post-production and some second unit and assistant director work. Sorry if you were hoping for a clear, definitive account of what went on, but at least there’s plenty more ammo here to keep the argument running and running.

Blu-ray Review: Salvatore Giuliano

 

Starring: Frank Wolff, Salvo Randone
Director: Francesco Rosi
Rating: 9/10

Salvatore Giuliano – the Sicilian Robin Hood, so-called – might give his name to the title, but in all other respects he’s an elusive figure in this classic docudrama. We see him mainly from the back, in a white dust coat and sporting cap, forever darting out of view. The only time we get a really good look at him is when he’s lying in the morgue. (That’s not a spoiler, the film opens with his death, shot three times in mysterious circumstances.)

But then this is no conventional portrait of a popular hero. It’s a demystification, a cool-headed inquest. And anyway, director Francesco Rosi is less interested in Giuliano as an individual than in what his rise and fall tells us about the nature of power in Italy in the post-war years.

The script is a model of clarity, moving around freely in time, following the evidence rather than the chronology, and explaining the situation so that even a non-Italian viewer can become versed in the subtleties at work. The film breaks broadly into two halves – the discovery of Giuliano’s body and the subsequent official proceedings, intercut with flashbacks to his infamous career, and then a trial concerning the involvement of his men in the notorious Portella della Ginestra massacre of 1947, when eleven peasants celebrating May Day were murdered. We learn how Giuliano, a mountain bandit, was recruited to fight for Sicilian independence, and how, once that was achieved, he was abandoned by his political paymasters and became a thorn in their side, taking to kidnapping and extortion. And we see the more and more extreme attempts made by the police and army to dislodge him, with the people of his hometown Montelepre caught in the middle. What emerges in a picture of a ruling elite where everyone is in bed with everyone else. “Outlaws, police and the Mafia – they are an unholy trinity,” says Giuliano’s second-in-command at one point. And there are questions – how exactly did Giuliano die? And were his men really involved in the Portella della Ginestra massacre, and if so, who put them up to it?

Throughout, the tone is cool, dry, dispassionate, unemotive, Rosi’s own undoubted fury held in check. Filming in the actual locations where much of this took place, using locals as actors, Rosi achieves a level of authenticity which isn’t just impressive for its own sake, it’s also highly revealing – looking at the town of Montelepre, with its gaunt, closed in houses, you instinctively grasp the psychology of a people who respond to representatives of centralized authority with stubbornness and silence.

Dramatically, the story may be all shades of grey, but visually, Rosi plays with great slabs of light and shade. He shoots from low down, creating monolithic, mythical images. Sunlight pours down from overhead on stark landscapes and townships that seem to etch themselves onto the screen – monuments of permanence that people move across like shadows. In a way, the film conveys a contradictory message. Rosi’s documentary impulse suggests that all this can and must change; his bleak, scorching vision of Sicily suggests the opposite, that it will never be other than what it is. But those are the sorts of tensions that make a piece of art vital and fascinating.

This Blu-ray boasts a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with a restored soundtrack. It’s simply one of the best HD transfers of a black-and-white film you’re likely to see. Detail is fine-grained, the blacks of cars and umbrellas satisfyingly inky. The deep focus camerawork is pitilessly sharp. Throughout, the actors stand out in an almost 3D way against the rugged scenery. You’ll have your own favourite shots, but mine includes the early top-down view of the dead Giuliano, surrounded by police, reporters and gawpers. Another set-up that comes across very well is the one where the army draw up for a dawn raid on Montelepre, with the town on the hill ahead and the rocky skyline (Giuliano’s domain) beyond – three layers of the story caught in one telling image.

Turning to the extras, first up is a 55-minute Italian-made documentary from 2001. Filmed in his book-lined flat, Rosi talks about his early life, the start of his career in theatre and then working for Visconti, and he also airs his views on, in his own words, “the relationship between people and power.” He goes back to some of the locations of Salvatore Giuiiano and describes how he reconstructed the Portella della Ginestra incident with locals from nearby towns. Along the way there are some clips from his films, including a jarring one of James Belushi speaking dubbed Italian.

There’s also a more recent, 12-minute interview with Rosi, in which he explains why Giuliano is largely absent from the film. In addition, there’s a 14-minute featurette which revisits some of the movie’s locations; Giuliano’s nephew takes the opportunity to get a lot off his chest about Sicily’s ongoing grudges with mainland Italy. Finally, there’s a 10-minute piece in which a journalist roundly dismisses Giuliano’s reputation as the Sicilian Robin Hood and sums him up as a “Mafia hit man”, but also argues that his men were unlikely to have been responsible for the deaths at Portella della Ginestra. Given the recent Scottish referendum, there could hardly be a better time to rediscover a film which deals so powerfully with themes of local autonomy and a sense of disenfranchisement, and it’s well served by this excellent release from Arrow Video.

Blu-ray Review: The Wind Rises

Starring: Emily Blunt, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stanley Tucci
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Rating: 8/10

the-wind-rises 5The fact that The Wind Rises is almost certainly Hayao Miyazaki’s last film places a special burden of expectation on it. Even before the credits roll, you’re already a bit quivery, ready for a leave-taking. In some sense it does exactly what you would expect. It rehearses old themes and motifs – illness, the clash between idealism and militarism, funny-looking aeroplanes – one final time, and the mood of nostalgia in Joe Hisaishi’s score (his last score for a Miyazaki film – just think!) is almost palpable. But yet – and this is a real surprise – we also find the veteran director breaking new ground. Because who ever thought he’d have a go at making a biopic?

The film’s protagonist is the aeronautical engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed many the-wind-rises 4WWII Japanese fighters, including the “Zero” – think the Japanese equivalent of R.J. Mitchell, inventor of the Spitfire. We follow him from childhood, a boy who longs to be a pilot but suffers from poor eyesight, through his student years and his early unsuccessful prototypes right through to the height of his career just before the outbreak of war. But there are complications, because Miyazaki seems to have morphed this historical personage into a portrait of his own father (who ran a company making parts for the Zero) – most particularly by giving him an ill-fated romance with a girl suffering from TB, as Miyazaki’s mother did.

the-wind-rises 2Unless you happen to be a particular admirer of the real-life Jiro Horikoshi, none of this is likely to trouble you, though. Whatever games it plays with the truth, the film’s portrayal of Japan in the ’20s and ’30s is persuasive. We start off in a landscape of steam launches, locomotives and wooden planes that to us seem enchanting, but to the young Jiro and his friend and fellow designer Honjo are signs of a backward nation decades behind its rivals. At the Mitsubishi plant in Nagoya where Jiro goes to work, oxen are used to haul prototypes onto a tussocky testing field. Surrounded by poverty, the young engineers are uneasily aware that they are being paid handsomely to build planes which the country can ill afford.

Animation is rarely used as a tool for social observation, or to chart the minutiae of the-wind-rises 3changing times, but that’s what Miyazaki and his team do impressively well here. In terms of historical reconstruction, perhaps the highlight of the movie is the sequence where Jiro and Honjo go to to Germany, to the gleaming Junkers plant, and the animators treat us to a loving recreation of the mammoth G.38 transport plane, with its huge wings where passengers could sit and gawp down at the passing landscape – it’s a triumph of accuracy (at least one assumes it is), and a gorgeous moment for plane buffs.

THE WIND RISESIf Junkers is an example of what can be achieved through industrial might, the sheer fancifulness and delight of taking to the air are embodied in the friendly, bowler-hatted figure of the Italian engineer Giovanni Caproni, who appears to Jiro in dreams which are among the most enchanting sequences in The Wind Rises, recapturing the carnivalesque excitement of the early Miyazaki of Laputa and Cagliostro . (According to Wikipedia, the real-life Caproni was responsible for the world’s first multi-fatality aviation disaster, but never mind.) These culminate in an evocation of Caproni’s Ca.60 Noviplano, his monstrous nine-wing flying boat, which looks like something straight out of Porco Rosso. (Miyazaki has such fun with these bits, you can’t help wondering what a Ghibli movie entirely devoted to Caproni would be like.)

One of the most appealing things about The Wind Rises is its emphasis on the role of THE WIND RISESthe imagination in engineering. Sitting at his desk with his slide rule, Jiro takes off into a world of ideas and pure forms, and it’s in these moments, as well as in those dream sequences with Caproni, that the film finds its high spirits. But the pull of reality, the knowledge that he is making planes that will be used in a ruinous war, is there too, and it reminds you of the divisions in earlier films, such as the one between the forest gods and the mining town in Princess Mononoke. Only, unlike Ashitaka in Mononoke, Horikoshi never makes a stand.

the-wind-rises 7Perhaps that’s why The Wind Rises is full, not just of a feeling of life flashing by, but of what is almost a sense of wistful futility. It’s a strange summing up for a director whose career is jam-packed with glittering achievements. But then, perhaps it isn’t meant to be a summing up, but rather the beginning of something new. A biopic, even a highly fictionalized one, is inevitably more episodic and scattered in its effects that the well-wrought fantasies for which Miyazaki is famous, but in its own way The Wind Rises is just as admirable – a fine demonstration of how to tell a subtle, grown-up story in animation.

The Blu-ray comes with a feature where you can look at the original storyboards in comparison to the finished film. There’s also a 1 hour, 27 minute round table discussion with Miyazaki and others. This feels a little awkward initially and it takes a while for the participants to warm up, but eventually some interesting details emerge as the director takes about the real Jiro and his hope that the project would signal a new direction for the studio. He also admits to crying when he saw the finished film – ah, the white wizard of anime is only human after all.

Blu-ray Review: Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari

Starring: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher
Director: Robert Wiene
Rating: 10/10

The Least Picture Show already aired its thoughts on Robert Wiene’s 1920 masterpiece when it was re-released in the cinemas recently (see here). In this review, we’ll confine ourselves to commenting on some of the features of this new Blu-ray edition from Eureka. Just as well, as there’s a lot to say.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari 3What we have here is a 4K restoration from the original camera negative, with new colour tinting and recreated intertitles. While it still retains some fine scratches and the occasional flicker and roughening of texture, the film looks altogether much fresher and livelier than it has seemed in previous incarnations. So much so, in fact, that you might find yourself rethinking some of your long-held notions about it. Whereas before the movie seemed dimmed by neurosis, exuding an atmosphere of exhaustion right from the outset, now it feels much more lively and robust. The actors playing Alan and Jane wear surprisingly little make-up, and their faces come across as cheerfully youthful, people you might meet in the street rather than figures from a nightmare, starved of light and oxygen.

All of the scenes with strong directional lighting, such as the one where we first cabinet-of-dr-caligari 6encounter Alan in his wonky-walled garret, or the one where the police puzzle over the dead body of the town clerk, now punch through with strong contrasts of brightness and shadow. The sequence where Jane visits the fair looks extremely clean and crisp too, as does the famous close-up of Cesare awakening. The newly applied yellow tinting makes his face look like an Aztec mask, so it’s all the more dramatic when he finally twitches into life, and you can see every flicker of his eyelids and the grain of his irises.

Turning to the extras, there’s a 52-minute celebration of German silent cinema that goes into a fair bit of detail about the country’s social history in the years before and after WWI. It talks about the rise and fall of Expressionism (already passé in other artforms when it became fashionable in cinema), and the way in which an unstable and inflation-beset society took solace in ever more lavish films. It paints a picture of the ’20s as a decade when German cinema changed with a speed akin to pop music in the ’60s.

There’s also a witty 15-minute video essay by David Cairns which examines the competing claims that have been made by various parties to be seen as the film’s auteur, and a nice-looking 8-minute piece showing the digital restoration of the film – including the reinsertion of missing frames and the repair of perforations – in a high-tech lab.

cabinet-of-dr-caligari 4The audio commentary by David Kalat goes over some of the same territory again in scholarly detail, sketching in the cultural context, patiently unpicking who among the film’s key contributors did what, and trying to reconcile the different accounts that have been left to us, namely by co-scriptwriter Hans Janowitz, the producer Erich Pommer and the set designer Hermann Warm. Along the way, he describes how the love triangle in the film reflected one that the two screenwriters had with a young actress named Gilda Langer, and he also mentions the various attempts at getting sequels off the ground, which didn’t bear fruit until 1962. All in all, there is much to chew over here for fans of Caligari, not least an HD transfer which leaves this silent classic seeming more vital and fascinating now than perhaps at any time since its original release.

Blu-ray Review: Lesson of Evil

Starring: Hideaki Ito, Fumi Nikaido
Director: Takashi Miike
Rating: 7/10

lesson-of-evil 5There’s a school of thought that says you have to be bonkers to become a teacher, but hopefully not as bonkers as Hasumi (Hideaki Ito), the twisted protagonist of Lesson of Evil. At work, he’s smooth and popular, but he lives in a semi-derelict house where, instead of getting on with his marking and a bit of lesson preparation, he wiles away the hours electrocuting crows. You sense that it’s only a matter of time before he extends his murderous urges to his pupils.

The first half of the film plays like one of Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptations. lesson-of-evil 2You get the same wet, brownish palette, the same overcast skies, the same stately pace and leisurely introduction to a mildly dysfunctional community – in this case Hasumi’s high school, a place which seems proper enough outwardly but is actually a nest of intrigue. Taking its time, the camera casts its eye over a large cast of characters, all with something going on, and we get glimpses into the strange lives of the pupils and the even stranger lives of the teachers.

lesson-of-evil 4The common thread running through these scenes is the eeriness (when you stop to think about of it) of institutions where people rub along together while really knowing very much about each other… and that means most institutions. Darabontish or not, it’s all very well handled by the prolific and versatile Takashi Miike (Crows Zero), and it shows how effective he can be when he eschews his usual showy tricks for a more slow-burning technique. But the film will undoubtedly be most talked about for its controversial second half, which is an extended gorefest as Hasumi finally flips on the eve of a school festival and chases the kids with a shotgun through tissue paper grottoes, shooting them like fish in a barrel, ribbons, balloons and coloured lights mocking the slaughter.

These two halves – the Frank Darabont-ish and the 13 Assassins-ish – aren’t easy to lesson-of-evil 1reconcile until you realize that Lesson of Evil isn’t actually a thriller at all but a disaster movie: Hasumi is like a typhoon that hits the school, and the children are helpless before it, as Miike tirelessly demonstrates by showing pupil after pupil blown backwards off their feet in a spurt of grue. Yet as in a disaster movie, there’s a touch of hokum to even the grisliest of proceedings, softening the impact of all that graphic violence. Having a teacher as the killer makes a symbolic point about the extent to which we take the educational profession’s goodwill for granted, but it’s less scarily real than if it were another kid doing it. You therefore watch the mayhem without any real emotional wrench, not unless you’re absolutely determined to get worked up over the film daring to take a school massacre as its theme. Which will be fine for those viewers who want to enjoy a bit of expertly choreographed carnage without having their deeper feelings unduly troubled. Lesson of Evil is a strange beast in many ways, as schizoid as its villain, but both halves show Miike at somewhere near his best.

The Blu-ray comes with a two hour long “making of” that is an absolute treasure trove lesson-of-evil 3for Miike enthusiasts. An intensive behind the scenes record of the 47-day shoot, it’s the next best thing to actually being on set with him. We get to see the director trying to get a decent performance out of some crows with the aid of a cawing bird wrangler, and shooting a murder on a real train packed with Miike product placements. An interesting sequence of his crew dollying the camera across a classroom on tracks and silently moving the furniture out of the way – or trying to – goes to show how much effort went into even the simplest of the film’s set-ups. Throw in cast interviews on location, and it’s a great insight into the Miike group at work.

DVD Review: Lilting

Starring: Ben Wishaw, Pei-pei Cheng, Naomi Christie
Director: Hong Khaou
Rating: 8/10

lilting 4If it hadn’t already been snapped up by another director, a good alternative title for this film would have been Lost in Translation. Junn (Pei-pei Cheng), a Chinese Cambodian woman, is stuck in a British nursing home, hardly able to speak a word of the language. She’s grieving the loss of her only son, Kai (Andrew Leung), and she blames Richard (Ben Wishaw), Kai’s “best friend”, for having kept them apart. What she doesn’t realize is that Kai was gay, and it was his own unwillingness to share this with his mother that caused him to hold her at a distance. Feeling responsible for her and unsure what to do, Richard plucks up the courage to visit Junn. Discovering that she is conducting a mild flirtation with another of the home’s residents, Richard hires a translator to help things along, and soon the two of them become deeply involved in trying to nurture this fledgling romance.

For a film that’s all about feelings of misery and awkwardness, Hong Khaou’s feature lilting 3debut has a remarkable sense of ease. It flows gently, cherishing its wounded characters. It drifts effortlessly into flashbacks in which we meet Kai, a handsome charmer speaking estuary English. Much of the dialogue sounds semi-improvised and off-the-cuff. It’s calming to look at too, shot in a palette of delicate beige and faded rose that speaks to its bitter-sweet mood.

lilting 2The first-time writer/director draws moments of wry comedy from the characters’ misunderstandings, clashes and comings-together. Vann, the translator (played with winning freshness by newcomer Naomi Christie) goes from observer to vocal participant, and the tall, tweedy Alan (Junn’s beau and the closest the movie has to a stock comic figure, but given a feeling of earthy truthfulness by Peter Bowles) throws in his own droll asides. But there’s toughness too, especially in the performance of Pei-pei Cheng – she’s stubborn, resentful, occasionally spiteful, but she’s not going away either: she’s a survivor. As for Ben Wishaw’s Richard, he’s perhaps the most telling and attractive character of all – a frail, sensitive figure barely holding it together at times, but someone who instinctively finds some relief for his feelings in acts of kindness and consideration towards others.

Warm, touching, surprising, expertly crafted, Lilting is an impressive debut by any lilting 1standards, and it seems all the more so when you discover that it was shot in just 17 days, on a budget of £120,000. This, and much more, is revealed on informative audio commentary with Hong Khaou which accompanies the film on DVD. There’s also a 16-minute behind the scenes interview with Wishaw and Christie, with the latter talking enthusiastically about how much she identified with the relationship between Kai and Junn in the movie.

DVD Review: Fading Gigolo

Starring: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone
Director: John Turturro
Rating: 7/10

fading-gigolo 1Fading Gigolo lives up to its name by being lazily seductive – you probably shouldn’t fall for it, but you do. The story won’t win any awards for gritty realism. New Yorker Murray (Woody Allen), bitter and strapped for cash after his beloved second-hand bookshop goes belly up, comes up with the idea of pimping out his friend Fioravante (John Turturro), a part-time florist, to his horny dermatologist (Sharon Stone). Against all the odds, Fioravante turns out to have a knack for this sort of work, and they soon have a thriving concern on their hands with an eager clientele. But when Avigal (Vanessa Paradis), the widow of a highly respected rabbi, starts benefiting from Fioravanti’s attentions, their activities arouse the suspicions of Dovi (Liev Schreiber), a member of an Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood patrol.

It’s a plotline that tilts towards wish-fulfilment for writer/director John Turturro. His fading-gigolo 3Fioravanti is an unworldly soul who has always eschewed the rat race, and who can only turn to being a male prostitute because he allows himself to be persuaded that comforting needy, depressed, insecure women is a noble calling. But pushing the film the other way are all the female characters, who are vividly individualized, with plenty to say for themselves, and dazzling cast – especially Sofia Vergara’s cougarish Selima, and Vanessa Paradis’ touching widow, hemmed in by her grief, her own beliefs and the expectations of her community: the rawness and realness of her situation is a reprimand to Fioravanti, who can only be so glib and smooth because he is so detached from ordinary responsibilities.

fading-gigolo 2Given that Woody Allen has a prominent supporting role, it’s hard not to think of this as in some sense a Woody Allen film, but actually it all feels much grimier and more hip than if Allen had helmed it himself. It’s even quite sexy at times (not in Allen’s scenes, perish forbid). Turturro’s direction shows a keen sense of place – this is a story that couldn’t occur anywhere else but within these few city blocks – and a brash way with New York’s multicultural melting pot, most noticeably in the fashion in which it makes the city’s Orthodox Jewish community a key plot-point and butt of mockery.

Whatever you think of it, his decision to do this undoubtedly vitalizes the film, as does fading-gigolo 4his handling of Allen, who is more consistently funny here than he has been in years, especially in a scene where he is strong-armed into a car with tinted windows by a bunch of heavies with sidecurls and scuttles straight out the other side – Allen, it turns out, can still do physical comedy. Unlike Fiorvanti, who has his scruples, Murray is all about the cash. You could wag a finger and say “Jewish stereotype”, but it doesn’t feel that way because Allen seems only too delighted to play the rogue.

Another of the movie’s saving graces is an ongoing theme that develops over time. We see Fioravanti arranging flowers with delicate hands, we see Avigal meticulously boning a fish. If flowers and fish are to be savoured, the message seems to be, there’s a correct way of doing these things, one that requires patience, and your whole life should be treated with a similar fastidiousness and attention to detail. Instant gratification is no gratification at all. Not a bad moral to take away from a movie about a male hooker.