Italian Film Festival 2014 & Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

September 20, 2014
Eva Green in Sin City: A Dame to Kill for (2014)
Eva Green in Sin City: A Dame to Kill for (2014)

Masterpieces are by definition rare, and from what I’ve seen so far, this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival has nothing to match Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which launched last year’s festivities. Aside from that significant absence the mix of films is remarkably similar.

Last year we saw Mr. Volare, a feel-good bio-pic of the popular singer, Domenico Modugno. The 2014 Festival kicked off on Thursday with Marina, a feel-good bio-pic of the popular singer, Rocco Granata.

There’s the usual mix of drama and comedy, with this year’s classic feature being Vittorio De Sica’s Marriage Italian Style (1964), featuring the one-and-only Sophia Loren. This bombshell of the past bears little resemblance to current heartthrobs such as Nadir Caselli, who is the festival’s current celebrity guest. Signorina Caselli is pretty, but for an earlier generation Sophia Loren looked as if she were created in a laboratory to test the male sexual response.

The comparison might be extended to cover today’s crop of Italian films, which are slick but not as sexy as their predecessors. This year’s line-up of good-to-middling movies is a pale shadow of the classics that came out of Cinecittà in the 1960s. Sydney Sibilia’s comedy, I Can Quit Whenever I Want takes its lead from Breaking Bad, but puts an entire raft of retrenched professors into the narcotics business. It has a few good scenes, but won’t linger long in the viewer’s memory.

Those Happy Years, directed by Daniele Luchetti, is a drama about a self-indulgent, philandering artist, with the story being narrated by his son. It’s a bittersweet if slightly flimsy film, worth watching for its deadpan parody of a hero of the avant-garde who takes his career more seriously than his family. It confirms that artists can be sensitive people, except where other human beings are concerned.

Song of Napoli introduces us to a nerdy cop with a degree in music who is sent on an undercover mission to trap a Camorra killer. The movie is chiefly notable for the number of genres it manages to squeeze under one umbrella: being a comedy, a cop film, a musical, and a romance. It also has moments of genuine suspense, although one knows instinctively that nothing really bad will be allowed to happen.

The problem with Italian cinema is that the high points have been so stratospheric it’s hard to be satisfied with a crop of average movies. Something similar might be said about Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For, which has attracted a barrage of sour, disappointed reviews. Critics who profess admiration for the first Sin City film, of 2005, are now heaping scorn on directors Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez for delivering more of the same.

I can’t join the chorus of disapproval. I thought the first Sin City was sensational, and wasn’t let down by the sequel, which is every bit as stylish. The only obvious failure was the use of 3D, which adds almost nothing to the experience apart from the discomfort of a pair of tacky glasses.

The vignettes which make up both Sin City films are based on a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, which takes every hard-boiled, film noir cliché to the outer limits of credibility, then beyond. The flawed heroes are unbelievably tough and violent; the bad guys are irredeemably evil; the women are whores and killers, occasionally with a heart of gold. The violence in these films is so over-the-top it would be nauseating if filmed in technicolor.

Instead, every bit of Sin City 2 has been shot in a manner that provides a striking facsimile of Miller’s black-and-white drawings. An all-star cast is fitted with some extravagant make-up and fed through Rodriguez’s magic image duplicator to emerge as living cartoons. The monochrome dazzle is only interrupted by a flash of blue fabric, a smear of lipstick or blood. It’s as affected as anything Jean Cocteau might have dreamed up, if he had turned to action flicks.

When anyone is killed in Sin City 2, usually with extreme violence, blood splashes out in a white plume against velvety black. It is this constant visual invention that makes these films so mesmeric. Spellbound by the freshness of the images one can forgive the ham-fisted dialogue and a cast of characters that enact an outrageous spoof of the noir aesthetic. Familiar motifs such as the striped shadows cast by a Venetian blind are impossible to miss, partly because every cliché is so heavily underscored. It would be futile to complain that the plots lack realism – they are ridiculous.

Chronology counts for nothing in the Sin City universe. Despite being killed off in the first film, Mickey Rourke’s Marv is back, larger than life and more destructive than ever. Marv’s self-effacing charm and sheer love of killing typifies the productive contradictions of these tales.

Bruce Willis’s melancholy detective is also back, albeit only as a ghost. There is a second helping of the homicidal hookers from Old Town, led by Rosario Dawson’s Gail. Meanwhile, Jessica Alba’s Nancy is still dancing at Kadie’s strip joint, where she dreams of revenge on the evil Senator Roark, brought to leering life by Powers Boothe. The most prominent new character is Johnny, a cocky young card-sharp played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who pushes his luck too far.

Clive Owen, who was Dwight McCarthy in the first film, has been replaced by Josh Brolin in the second, but the character remains in just as much trouble. This time, all Dwight’s problems begin with Ava, a femme fatale who enslaves every man she touches. Eva Green has this plumb role, and she plays it to the hilt, using her body as an infallible, deadly weapon. Flashing green eyes, red lips, naked in front of the full moon – mere males don’t stand a chance.

It’s an old argument as to whether something can be both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Art historians invented the category of ‘the grotesque’ to cater for a type of fascinating ugliness, but Sin City 2 cannot be so easily anatomised. Everything about these stories, from the moral connotations to the excessive body count, is truly ugly, but the film is one the most beautiful things you’ll see this year.

Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For
Directed by Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez
Written by Frank Miller, from his graphic novels
Starring Mickey Rourke, Jessica Alba, Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Eva Green, Powers Booth, Dennis Haysbert
USA, rated MA 15+, 102 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th September, 2014.