March 16, 2011


COSMONAUT (Cosmonauta) (2009)
starring Claudio Pandolfi, Sergio Rubini, Mariana Raschilla, Pietro Del Giudice
screenplay by Susanna Nicchiarelli, Teresa Ciabatti
directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli

Susanna Nicchiarelli's Cosmonaut (Cosmonauta) opens with little Luciana fleeing Holy Communion, shedding the accoutrements of the ceremony on her sprint back home. She seems a little young to be throwing off the shackles of religious conformity, younger even than her alleged onscreen age of nine, but the punchline's priceless in its precociousness: "Because I'm a communist!" she barks when her mother asks why she left church. There's actually a bit more to her rebellion than that. With their dad gone (having died a "true communist"), she looks to her geeky older brother Arturo for guidance, and because it's 1957 and the Soviets are about to launch Sputnik, he favours the godless world of communism as well. From a North American perspective, the movie is interesting in that respect, as very rarely do our history books stop to consider the excitement that Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin must have engendered in Europe on their way to depicting America's mad rush to win the space race. Even propaganda footage showcasing the likes of Laika the Russian dog--which forms the basis of transitional montages similar to but less operatically intense than the ones that constitute a good portion of Marco Bellocchio's Vincere--was mostly new to me. In fact, when the moon-landing cropped up in the finale, I breathed a sigh of disappointment, though it's worth noting that it may not be such a cliché in Italy.

Arturo is diagnosed with epilepsy. Cosmonaut flashes forward to 1963, the year Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman--moreover, the first civilian--in space: Luciana's now a surly, chain-smoking fifteen-year-old (she doesn't appear to inhale, which may have been actress Mariana Raschilla's own squeamishness but suits a character who's all affectations just the same), a heavily-medicated Arturo is a social liability to her, and their mother has remarried, mainly for stability's sake. Following in her late father's footsteps, Luciana joins the Italian Federation of Young Communists, implicitly out of childhood nostalgia. While Arturo mysteriously hoards match-heads, headstrong Luciana establishes herself as a promising addition to the party, but her efforts are clearly designed to attract the attention of her handsome branch leader, who, somewhat hypocritically, has his eye on the seemingly better-heeled Fiorella. Luciana's actions then become strictly jealous and petty; proving the wisdom of a voting age, her raging hormones trump her allegiance to any political cause.

The movie has its charms, including an enticing, Almodóvarian palette and an intriguing juxtaposition of Cold War iconography and old-world architecture. Raschilla's humourless, almost joyless performance is decidedly disengaging, though, and I lost patience with Cosmonaut as it became an increasingly pro forma coming-of-age flick. Nearly every beat in the film's second half, down to Luciana's cruel rejection of Arturo's advice and Arturo subsequently running away from home without the identification he needs in the event of a seizure, finds its origins in genre convention rather than in organic storytelling. (Although Nicchiarelli elicits sympathy for Arturo by showing others marginalizing him, she ultimately marginalizes him as well (a Catch-22?), making his theatrically self-destructive gesture feel arbitrary.) And what to make of the picture's historical irony? Luciana and Arturo cling to doomed concepts (socialism, rocket ships), allegorizing the youthful ignorance of us all, yet the smartest, most humane characters are arguably a pair of middle-aged Communists, one of whom is played by Nicchiarelli herself. I haven't seen Nicchiarelli's companion piece, Sputnik 5, an animated short about the veritable Noah's Ark that was the titular satellite, but without all that narrative baggage perhaps it has a chance to fulfill Cosmonaut's aesthetic promise.

Cosmonaut begins a one-week engagement at The Royal in Toronto on March 18. Visit the filmswelike website for more details.


Anonymous said...

they should screen brand upon the brain instead.

jer fairall said...

RIP Michael Gough

Justin B-H said...

Nice review Bill.

Noticed the mothersite now allows direct entry of comments on reviews to coincide with Paul's one-star review-throwing down the gauntlet to the genre fanboys??

Kyle Puetz said...

Just read Alex's review of The Black Power Mixtape and was kind of surprised by its score (but, also, kind of not). I liked it but I thought the constant historical contextualization and voiceover kind of sapped its power. I was wondering whether he'd seen Adam Curtis' It Felt Like a Kiss, which — while reductive — strikes me as more powerful and dangerous.

Alex Jackson said...

I have not. Bookmarked your link though.

My pal Jer Fairall lists Curtis' Power of Nightmares as one of his favorite movies, but as of yet I've put off watching his stuff.

Kyle Puetz said...

It Felt Like a Kiss strikes me as the Curtis movie that is most up your alley. Easily the most cinematic of all his stuff: Basically the distillation of the '60s into 50 minutes of sound and image.

renfield said...

"..the bludgeoning, ass-baring, gay-defenestrating fever dream of a megastar who yearned to be stretched on the rack in imitation of his Lord..."


Rick said...

Walter, Bradley Cooper lists The Conversation in his five favorite movies on Rotten Tomatoes. (Didn't really expect that)

O'JohnLandis said...

Troll troll troll.

With little surprise, the star of the Hangover is impressed by a film that is incabable of making a film about audio surveillance, just as The Hangover was incapable of making a film about a Vegas misadventure. The key in both cases is a simple test--could any moderately clever group of people come up with the same story in about an hour in the early 70s?

True, a random group of moderate credibility wouldn't have Murch around to lend gravitas, but whatever gravitas Murch had expired about 20 years before Coppola stopped being better than Adam Sandler's hack-of-the-week finger-quotes "director." I mean really, in my lifetime, why should I pretend that there's much of a difference between Dennis Dugan and Francis Ford Coppola?

The Godfather? The Conversation? Apocalypse Now?
(I was born two years after Apocalypse Now.)

What's the worst movie Quentin Tarantino had anything to do with? From Dusk Till Dawn? The Godfather's better than that. And with that, I'm out of compliments for any era of Coppola.

Tarantino's worst screenplay--a screenplay in which Cheech Marin talks about pussy for about an hour--is definitely worse than Coppola's only triumph. If we could stop fellating the 70s for ten seconds, we might be able to figure out American film history.

Rick said...

Troll? Um, ok.

I was just saying an actor like him who has shown nothing of depth in any performance, you would think his top 5 would include movies like Fletch or something.

Alex Jackson said...

I hate to pile on and give Bill or Walter any more grief, but I never really got the appeal of The Conversation either. The crack about how any moderately clever group of people could come up with the same premise within an hour in the 1970s has some sting to it.

But you think that From Dusk Till Dawn is worse than Four Rooms? In fact it's worse than anything that Tarantino had anything to do with!!

I haven't actually seen Curdled, Destiny Turns on the Radio, or, ahem, It's Pat; but are they all actually better than From Dusk Till Dawn?

Patrick said...

Rick: I think O'John meant himself with the troll comment, since he was writing against "perceived wisdom" of The Conversation.

Rick said...

Oh ok, read that wrong.

Rick said...

Four Rooms or It's Pat, that would be a brutal choice if you had to pick one to watch.

DJR said...

I'm not sure how the ending for Source Code is less of a sentimental wash than any given Spielberg cop-out. Granted, it poses some hypothetically ambiguous questions, but the film doesn't give any suggestion that it is posing those questions, instead playing everything as much to the rafters as possible. Sorry Walter, I think you're giving Jones and his DTV-Species writer too much credit here. The ending that makes the most sense, and is the most satisfying both intellectually and emotionally, occurs at the freeze frame.

Dan said...

Ooh, ooh! The banner image is from Being John Malkovich. I hope there's a prize.

Kyle said...

DJR - As much as I, too, love the "freeze frame", you missed a glaringly obvious detail in one of the film's final images - Gyllenhaal's reflection in the Cloud Gate. Seems deliberate enough to me? Hell, an old couple walked up to me right after the film to ask my thoughts on it.

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