The Night Of The Shooting Stars (12A.)
Directed by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. 1982
Starring Omero Antonutti, Margarita Lozano, Claudio Bigagli, Massimo Bonetti, Norma Martelli and Enrica Maria Modugno. Italian subtitles. 103 mins.
There is only one thing worse than living under occupation – the period when that is coming to an end. This is the situation facing the villagers of San Minato in the summer of 1944: the Americans are approaching and the remaining Nazis and Black Shirt collaborators are trigger happy and desperate. Rather than gather in the Cathedral as the Nazis suggest, a group of villagers decide to head off into the countryside and try to make their way to the liberating force.
There are many war films, many films about war and by now you may think you've got a measure of what you can expect of them but the Taviani's childhood reminiscences isn't quite like any of them.
For a start it's also not quite a black comedy. There is humour and absurdity in it and the humour is rooted in the horror of the situation but the normal purpose of black comedy is to lift the viewer above the horror of it. It is survivor's humour and there's something callous about it. In say, Catch 22 or Full Metal Jacket, the view of the war is that life has been so degraded by it that it has little value, and you laugh at the meaninglessness of it all. Here in the sun drenched Tuscan hills life remains highly precious and every time it is taken, even from a character that has just appeared you feel it and mourn it. At one point we are introduced to an eccentric figure who dies within two minutes of appearing, and when he keels over suddenly on the road it is a terrible wrench.
Then, it's not quite like a Fellini film. In man ways the recreation of village life is like the cast of Amarcord on a cross country jaunt, but although the villagers are larger than life figures, it is only to the degree that the situation is larger than life. This story is too precious and too extreme for drab realism, but it is still real.
And it's not quite magic realism. The story is framed as the reminiscences of a six year old girl Cecilia (Micol Guidelli) looking back over a formative week in her life, an adventure she couldn't quite understand, much like the young Christian Bale in Empire Of The Sun. The directors use this as leeway for moments of invention and fantasy, to free themselves from the restrictions of documentary reportage. The story has grown in the telling certainly, but it is still basically a true story and a true story that hasn’t been soften. Near the end (look away now) there is a remarkable scene of a battle in a corn field that is hectic, poignant and callous and it culminates in a chilling moment where someone has to decide if they are going to execute a young kid, and the audience has to decide if they are going to cheer for the execution of a young kid. There’s a lightness to this film, but it’s also as hard as nails.
In the included booklet, all of the original Pauline Kael (the legendary New Yorker critic) reviews are reprinted. Like many other film reviewers, she was an inspirational figure to me, someone who could really transcend the form. Her raves and rants were wonders to behold. She did though have incredibly wonky tastes; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat down for a film she had raved about only to be dismally disappointed.
I read her review for this probably a quarter of a century ago. Already wary, I imagined what a film would be like that was actually as good as the one described in her rave, because there was no way the film itself could be. Now I’ve finally seen it I would probably admit it isn’t quite, but so wonderfully close as to make no odds. It is very special.