Years after the war, concentration camp survivor Lucia happens upon the hotel where former Nazi officer Max is now working and hiding. They are launched into memories of their prior sadomasochistic relationship, then rekindle it over themes of repression, passion, shame, and shamelessness. Liliana Cavani’s THE NIGHT PORTER refuses to meet expectation—I spent most of the film trying to understand the characters and being wrong. That’s partially due to the writing, which gives very little background to the two lovers or insight into what they’re feeling at any given moment. But it’s also the innate complexity of sexual power dynamics intersecting with historical power dynamics, and a film that’s more interested in provoking than analyzing. Weeks later, I’m still not sure I’ve formed any definite opinions on it. But the story is absorbing, the performances are electric, and the iconic half-nude-half-SS-uniform cabaret scene is worth it alone.
17. Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom
I’m back after a lengthy pause, and making up for lost time with one of Criterion’s most notoriously disturbing films. Director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film is a Marquis de Sade novel relocated to the final days of Fascist Italy. It depicts the kidnapping of eighteen teenage boys and girls who are taken to a remote villa to become sex slaves. If only sex were the worst of it. There is an entire section of the film aptly titled the Circle of Shit, and I can’t describe the horror of making it through those scenes only to discover the next portion is called the Circle of Blood. The four tormentors of the film do everything in their imagination to degrade and torture, which functions as a shocking analogy to fascism, and makes it impossible as a viewer not to feel guilty (or slightly nauseous). That being said, I find it hilarious that the DVD was a gift from my dad who didn’t want it in the house anymore. He claims it was given to him by a friend who felt the same way. Call it the Circle of Re-Gifting.
219. La Strada
Gelsomina, slow-witted and sweet, is sold by her family to the strongman Zampanò and learns to be a circus performer. In Federico Fellini’s LA STRADA, love and hate are closely intertwined, and play out in a series of poetic vignettes. To be honest, I had a difficult time getting past the abusive relationship at the heart of the film. There is a message of loyalty at any cost, even if it’s a tragic message. Still, I would not have been so invested in the characters if not for some incredible performances, especially from Fellini’s wife, Giulietta Masina, who plays Gelsomina. Her facial expressions, comic in their exaggeration and yet completely sympathetic, steal every scene she’s in. I spent the entire film wanting to know her character better, and wanting her to succeed.