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The French Go Gonzo Italiano in the Surrealistic “Let the Corpses Tan”

Co-directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani may be French, but they bleed Italian cinema. These two are responsible for the kaleidoscopic horrors in 2013’s The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears and 2009’s Amer. Both films drew heavily from the works of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, combining intrigue, surrealism, and mesmerizing imagery with plots that are merely narrow highways right into evocative Freudian nightmares.

Now the duo have returned with Let the Corpses Tan, constructing a stunning — even awe-inspiring — tale of double-crossing and unrepentant human casualty by employing the filmmaking methods of spaghetti-western director Sergio Leone, along with, of course, the lurid, exploitative blood-and-dagger imagery of classic Italian giallos. The story follows a gang of misfit criminals escaping to a hideout carved into the rocky Italian cliffside, where an eccentric, society-hating artist, Luce (Elina Löwensohn), and her guests sunbathe and make bullet-ridden art. Don’t pay too much attention to the plot. Just know that there’s a cache of gold bricks in a car, a cop who has stumbled on the hideout, an arsenal of weapons, and only one way in or out of the compound.

Cattet and Forzani play with a fractured timeline. Most of the story takes place within a tense 24-hour shootout among the ruins in the hills. Characters are split up into different bunkers and lookouts, and the story will often rewind itself to examine the same scene from a different character’s point of view. This method also allows viewers to gain a surety of space — the ruins are almost labyrinthine. Great credit must be given to locations managers Jean-Christophe Meneec and Stefane Tatibouet (or whoever found this magical cliffside spot), as it’s fitting that this story of endless death and greed play out in what seems to be the remnants of an ancient Catholic church destroyed by neglect and time. That’s also very Italian.

Traditional giallos and spaghetti westerns boast something like double the number of camera shots of most movies, as the genres demand quick cuts and extreme close-ups for a barrage of reaction moments. Here, the camera will in one moment push in like a gunshot for an ultra-close-up of Luce’s shifty eyes before swing-panning out to a glaringly bright ecru wide shot of the coast’s rocky expanse. Then it pushes in again on an object of interest, like a goat carcass swinging from a hook in the kitchen — Cattet and Forzani would prefer you not get too comfortable. One reason why those old giallos and spaghetti westerns were allowed to develop this aesthetic is because Italian cinema had created a sophisticated system of dubbing films. They could shoot more quickly, because no one was worrying about vocal performances, wind, or unwanted ambient noise — they could record it all back in the studio. Corpses mixes the ambient with some pretty unnerving pinpointed foley sound. Every rocking-chair squeak or eyelid closing comes to life in frightening detail.

But what matters most is that imagery, which is seriously made without taking itself too seriously. Think the psychedelic ascendency of early Alejandro Jodorowsky, films that, through an overt focus on primal elements, become both cosmic and comic. In Corpses, we see this in “dream” sequences: A beautiful naked woman stands in silhouette, the gleaming sun behind her back, while Christophe’s western-inflected pop anthem “Sunny Road to Salina” plays. The woman acts essentially as a goddess, her scenes intermittently breaking up the action of the main story. She interacts with four faceless men also in silhouette. At times, she is urinating on them; at others, they are lassoing her with ropes, squeezing what appears to be champagne out from her nipples. I swear to goddess this all makes sense in the story, that it’s art with a capital “A,” but it’s also quite funny. These directors excel at poking fun at the intermingling of sex and violence in cinema, taking it to its most logical illogical conclusion, as in a scene where a woman imagines bullets shooting off pieces of her dress until she stands naked and aroused. We’re certainly not supposed to take that seriously.

Even the carnage, here, is inspired. When one of the criminals attempts to make off with the gold bricks weighing down the trunk of the getaway car, we’re seemingly transported to a surreal landscape of pitch-black nothingness. We know the man’s body is being riddled with bullets because of the sound of incessant gunshots, but Cattet and Forzani present the scene as him being painted in iridescent gold as globules of the precious metal pour down around him. More times than I could count I had no idea what the hell was happening, and also just didn’t care that I didn’t know. Let the Corpses Tan is that strange and beautiful.

Let the Corpses Tan 
Directed by Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani
Kino Lorber
Opens August 31, Quad Cinema and Alama Drafthouse, Brooklyn

 

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San Carlo Osteria Piemonte Pushes Piedmontese Cuisine Into the Spotlight

If the first image that comes to mind when you hear the words Italian food is a red and white checkered tablecloth set with chicken parmesan and pastas doused in red sauce, you’re not alone. Authentic Piedmontese dishes, let alone entire restaurants dedicated to them, are difficult to find this side of the Atlantic, which is exactly why San Carlo Osteria Piemonte‘s (90 Thompson Street; 212-625-1212) Soho opening sticks out. Italy’s diverse regional cuisine, outside Campania, has revealed itself in recent years, with restaurants like Sessanta (Sicilian) and All’onda (Venetian) demonstrating that New Yorkers were ready to experience everything the boot had to offer.

The fifty-seat eatery has subtle undertones reflective of its homeland, the northwestern region of Italy that borders France and Switzerland. Here you’ll find food showcasing the area’s multifaceted culinary culture, all of it residing within a decidedly refined atmosphere. Outside the entranceway, a brass bull engraved in the sidewalk greets guests with a Piedmontese symbol for good luck; inside, the dining room is planning to feature an art installation depicting Turin’s Piazza San Carlo — the inspiration for the restaurant’s name.

“In Italy, we say kilometer zero. Everywhere you go, you can find something good,” says CEO Carlo Rolle, a Turin native who dreamed of opening a restaurant in Soho. Local is the only kind of source in Italy, which is why Rolle and chef Riccardo Zebro spared no expense in making sure the dishes on their menu could just as easily be found in Turin, Cuneo, or Biella. Grass-fed Piedmontese beef, perhaps the region’s best-known export, comes direct from Pat LaFrieda’s ranches in Montana, the only place allowed to raise and distribute the certified product in the United States. The restaurant is also working with Eataly to ensure that ingredients like Castelmagno cheese are always in stock.

Guests seeking to familiarize themselves more fully with Piedmontese offerings will find the region’s love of anchovies well represented — the fish was introduced there so that residents could get affordable salt. There’s also a fritto misto (made with sweetbreads, asparagus, and frog legs), among other lightly fried delicacies to choose from. The menu is made up of small bites followed by a traditional antipasti and first and second courses. Right now the restaurant serves only dinner, but it plans to debut a lunch and brunch menu in the coming weeks.

“I would like that when people go away, they can say, ‘Oh, nice. Italian is not only spaghetti. It’s not only meatballs. It’s not only pizza,’ ” says Rolle.

The six-seat bar is also offering guests a chance to acclimate themselves to the region’s infamous Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards by offering 10 wines by the glass as well as nearly 150 bottles. Spirits and cocktails — such as the Milano Torino (a riff on the negroni) and the French aperitif pastis — will round out the drink list.

Get a first look at San Carlo Osteria Piemonte right here:

Tonno di Coniglio: Rabbit marinated in olive oil
Tonno di Coniglio: Rabbit marinated in olive oil
Risotto with Castelmagno cheese and toasted hazelnuts
Risotto with Castelmagno cheese and toasted hazelnuts
Gnochhi with Piedmont cheese sauce, hazelnuts
Gnochhi with Piedmont cheese sauce, hazelnuts

 

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DANGEROUS GAME

In ancient Rome, gladiators fought in the Colosseum to sublimate war and quell a broader societal bloodlust. Today, in the U.S.’s many Colosseum-shaped stadiums, NFL franchises do the same, only in a way that’s a lot less . . . stabby. This might be what Steve Almond is getting at when he refers to America’s true pastime as “symptomatic of our worst and darkest impulses” in his latest book, Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto. Almond can clearly appreciate that a sense of national identity comes out of tossing around the ol’ pigskin as much as, say, rock ’n’ roll or candy bars (both of which he’s written about in past volumes), so we’re curious to hear this cultural critic make his case, as wildly unpopular as it might be in some circles. Tonight, he’s joined by Stephen Elliot, editor in chief at the Rumpus and author of The Adderall Diaries.

Mon., Sept. 15, 7 p.m., 2014

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PLAY BALL!

Maybe the only truly Italian tradition that The Godfather omitted was having the dons decide who would run New York with a game of bocce ball. Dating back to ancient Rome, bocce is played on a court eight to 13 feet wide and about 90 feet long. It involves bowling a bocce ball (round, about four inches in diameter) close to a smaller ball, called the jack. It’s kind of like horseshoes with balls, and players are skilled, serious, and armed with a number of tactics, including throwing the ball to move the jack over. One of several sporting events sponsored by Recess New York, the Recess Bocce Ball Tournament’s motto is “Participation is always voluntary…Passion, however, is mandatory.” This event is a great chance to grab the ferry and have fun watching the players. Plenty of aficionados are there to teach you the basics.

Sat., Aug. 23, noon, 2014

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NOBLE ENDEAVORS

The Frick — which this past year alone carried Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Goldfinch, arguably the two most famous paintings that inspired books which became (or will become) blockbuster movies — now brings us a masterpiece by El Greco, and an after hours event to complement it. Summer Night: Men in Armor is centered around a pair of 400-year-old paintings: El Greco’s Vincenzo Anastagi, painted during his brief period in Rome during which he tried to forge a career out of noble portraiture, and his less-remembered but more popular contemporary Scipione Pulzone’s Portrait of Jacopo Boncompagni. Curator Jeongho Park gives a talk on how their contrasts exemplify El Greco’s soon-after break from tradition into the haunting, elongated figures we know him for, while guitarist Celil Refik Kaya plays music evocative of 16th century Spain, and patrons (first come, first serve) roam the mansion and party like it’s 1576.

Fri., Aug. 15, 6 p.m., 2014

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The Great Immensity Is No Big Whoop

Nero fiddled while Rome burned. So who can blame the Civilians for singing about climate change? The theater company’s new show, The Great Immensity, purports to be the first ecology-minded musical. Among topics that lend themselves to entertainment, however, global warming and its cataclysmic consequences don’t jump to mind. Like the tree-hugging radicals they gently spoof, the Civilians give the concept everything they’ve got, but the show’s pitfalls begin with the idea itself.

The seriously researched, well-meaning production straddles a fine line between doomsaying and doo-bee-doo-bee-doo. Led by angel-faced Erin Wilhelmi as Julie, a less-than-cherubic teen Earth Ambassador, the seven-member cast croons about jet streams, U.N. spinelessness, and “charismatic megafauna,” while Jason H. Thompson’s projection design drapes menacing images of red-hot continents, plastic-strewn seas, and starving polar bears over Mimi Lien’s modular set.

Writer-director Steve Cosson’s storyline catapults from Panamanian rainforest to Arctic tundra, charting a predictable course through the missing-persons mystery genre while patly covering the bases of endangered species. The title, taken from a fictional Chinese cargo ship and a hugely obvious metaphor for the enormity of the problems that face us, sums up the production’s awkward mashup of science and lyricism, which an amusing incursion into hacktivist networks can’t save.

The only thing crazier than Julie’s sensational scheme to raise public awareness about our threatened planet might be The Great Immensity itself.

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Italian Modernists at War and Play at New Guggenheim Show

“For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.” So proclaimed Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti when he unleashed his Futurist Manifesto upon the world in 1909, further thundering, “We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman.”

Considering that a 1976 National Lampoon parody — “We Demand . . . to be recognized as geniuses by next Thursday, lest we vent our youthful artistic spleen in ways that make even us tremble with their imagining” — almost passes as a genuine Futurist polemic, why do we still care about this bombastic art movement?

Because Marinetti, who dubbed himself “la caffeina d’Europa” (“the caffeine of Europe”), was a soothsayer of the world we inhabit right here, right now. As early as 1913, he spoke of an “earth shrunk by speed,” meaning not only automobiles and airplanes but also such burgeoning communications networks as radio, which represented the triumph of information over distance. Marinetti’s first manifesto (many would follow — he would no doubt be a king-hell blogger today) included this homage to Einstein’s then recent, world-shaking theories: “Why should we look back, when what we want is to break down the mysterious doors of the Impossible? Time and Space died yesterday.”

This rhetoric underpins the stirringly dynamic, often beautiful paintings and objects in this Guggenheim survey (few exhibitions have felt more simpatico with Frank Lloyd Wright’s poured-concrete vortex). Futurism’s strident Italian nationalism was also the background against which a number of the movement’s early proponents, such as the sculptor and painter Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), met early deaths during World War I. In a 1913 letter to a colleague, Boccioni insisted, “We have to respond seriously [to Cubism] with our great strength: the wild beauty of color!” The young painter was as good as his word in The City Rises (1910–11), a large canvas striated by vertical scaffolding slashed diagonally with straining men and rearing horses (one of which, in gape-mouthed profile, could be mother to the agonized equine in Picasso’s 1939 Guernica). Atomized, brightly contrasting colors convey a sense of breakneck progress, yesterday’s sleepy town evolving into tomorrow’s vibrantly chaotic metropolis.

The Futurists proselytized through powerfully designed magazines, leaflets, and witty visual transformations of words, such as in Pasqualino Cangiullo’s 1914 watercolor The Train on the Bridge, in which girders, locomotive, and rail cars are all formed from letters. Futurist performances might include Dr. Seuss–like noisemakers, processions of dwarfs with grotesque hairstyles, sound poetry, untuned pianos, and other provocations that could engender “the pleasure of being booed,” as Marinetti put it. Their pugnacious politics arose out of a witch’s brew of aggression from both left and right: Futurism “is an anti-philosophical, anti-cultural movement of ideas, intuition, instincts, punches, kicks, [and] slaps,” one performance declared. After the First World War, such rhetorical thuggery was easily aligned with Benito Mussolini’s Fascism, and Marinetti agitated for Futurism to be proclaimed the national style. But Il Duce, no art lover, favored no aesthetic faction, caring only that none question his iron rule. Throughout the inter-war years, the Futurists refined their cocky style, including Fortunato Depero’s vivacious textiles and dashing graphics, and free-wheeling ceramics by Nikolay Diulgheroff.

Marinetti himself tamped down his misogyny — which he claimed was less about gender than a condemnation of outmoded notions of romantic love — long enough to marry the painter Benedetta Cappa, whose lovely vision of a speedboat slicing azure water surprisingly combines Futurism’s mechanical geometries with a lushly spiritual aura.

Despite his age, Marinetti served in World War II, and died of a heart attack while editing a collection of poems about an Italian combat unit, a fitting epilogue for both man and movement.

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Mark Greenwold Paints Public Nightmares

First it was slow food, the European social movement that made Ronald McDonald quit Rome’s Spanish Steps in the 1980s. Then came slow gardening, slow traveling, slow fashion, slow media, and slow parenting (Park Slope helicopter moms take note). Isn’t it high time we considered the possibility of slow art?

This is just one of the big ideas that springs to mind when exploring the tiny, perversely detailed paintings of Mark Greenwold. Other oddly compelling concepts to describe Greenwold’s disturbingly dream-like pictures include sex, shame, old age, self-portraiture, the discomfort of friends, and the nothing-left-to-lose freedom connected to figurative painting, which the artist describes as “a bad idea, a stupid idea, a failed concept.” Think Vermeer meets Curb Your Enthusiasm‘s Larry David.

A 70-year old painter who has long said meh to Jay Gatsby-like success, Greenwold became infamous in the 1970s after pouring years of his life into diminutive representational pictures of sex and violence. His first Manhattan solo show consisted of just one canvas; Village Voice critic Lucy Lippard loved it so much she pegged it “the item that made me maddest last season.” Another confoundingly obsessive work from the era titled Bright Promise (for Simon) featured explicit sex, a Better Homes & Gardens boudoir, and a bedspread with 1,200 precisely rendered chenille balls. “The biggest miniature in art history,” according to the artist, it took him four long years to complete.

Greenwold’s enduring weirdness is best captured in his own words: He struggled, he says about Bright Promise, “solidly for a year on those fucking balls.” A funny feeling echoes throughout his show at downtown’s Sperone Westwater gallery, where Greenwold’s comic discomfort as a painter gooses a raft of 15 new-ish paintings and drawings, which represents the entirety of his output from 2007 to 2013. Consisting of pocket-sized renditions of people in various states of undress occupying cramped interior spaces, they feature recognizable likenesses of the artist and his often famous friends mugging gawkily, even lewdly for the viewer.

In one painting, titled The Banker’s Daughter, Greenwold’s best friend Chuck Close appears as a grinning gorgon delivered straight from R. Crumb’s shit-eating universe. In another, As a Man Grows Older, Paul Simon sports a huge, liver-spotted head; like a lump of cold schmaltz, it looks like it could slide off at any moment. Elsewhere, the painters James Siena and his wife, Katia Santibañez, pop up in several canvases in their birthday suits—every fine-grained wrinkle giving new meaning to the term “swinging couple.” In these and other paintings, Greenwold marshals painterly put-downs, compositional jabs, and psychological insults like a roast master. The overall effect is 50 percent Jeff Ross and 50 percent Kafka. Short of looking like beetles (though the artist goes there in one self-portrait), Greenwold’s characters instead undergo a cruel Gotham metamorphosis—from respected members of New York’s intelligentsia, his figures mutate into a mini-me Mermaid Parade for the menopausal set.

The opposite of Eric Fischl’s painted idylls of genteel art-world types lording it over mere mortals on St. Bart’s, Greenwold’s scenes resemble common nightmares everyone has about being naked in public. A freak show of fictional inadequacies, closet apprehensions, and ambiguous revelations, Greenwold’s world wraps itself around his figures tightly, with narcissistic abandon. The off-kilter scenes also contain disturbingly crisp detail, the result of shifting perspectives brought about largely by Greenwold’s insistence on covering up large parts of his paintings while he works. His finished canvases enact a burlesque of intimist painting that uses precursors such as William Holman Hunt and Pierre Bonnard as straight men. Their paintings, we know, once found beauty in the observation of the near and dear. In Greenwold’s case—well, let’s just say it’s kind of awkward.

Which brings us back to the idea that Greenwold’s paintings need time to unpack their self-effacing digs. No shiny balloon tchotchke or one-line conceptual bomb, his canvases instead deliver a refreshing, Campari-like bitterness. Failure that turns into something else is to be savored slowly or not at all—it is, after all, success’ dirty little secret.

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A Little Francophone Corner at Cole’s Greenwich Village

For 30 years this space hummed along as Café de Bruxelles, occupying a West Village building shaped like a wedge of brie. Back then, the interior was stark white, decorated with jagged Constructivist artworks. Lace curtains hung in the windows, allowing customers at the bar to see a filmy version of passersby while downing a Duvel and savoring what was the restaurant’s most profound contribution to the neighborhood: the city’s best french fries. Served with homemade aioli and not quite crisp, they glistened in a shiny metal cone lined with white filter paper. The restaurant probably sold more of those wonderful fries than all the rest of the menu combined.

The short-lived Lyon Bouchon Moderne bistro followed in its footsteps, and now just one year later another tenant has arrived. Quelle surprise! The menu is again mainly Parisian, but with modernist Yankee tweaks. I approached Cole’s Greenwich Village with trepidation. Would the fries be as good?

I found a premises much changed from the original. The flatiron space still divides into three rooms, featuring a narrow bar with little standing room at the pointy end, a comfy central chamber with spacious booths, and a larger room with small tables jammed together before a long banquette, which creates the effect of a crowded railroad dining car in a Miss Marple movie (it’s all too easy to dash your neighbor’s food to the floor). Only the abstract art serves as a reminder that you’re in the Village of Mark Rothko and Helen Frankenthaler.

First, the fries. Not quite as good as Bruxelles’s, these are thicker and browner, but taste powerfully of potato, and come in a shiny dimpled cylinder instead of a cone. Now that’s progress. You might want to order them as an appetizer, but why not ramp up the enjoyment with the bistro’s excellent cheeseburger ($18), to which a glistening skullcap of pale white cheddar clings.

As at many bistros in this price range—where guests ordering entrées is a given, but the starters need to be sold a bit more—the appetizers outclass the main courses, and are more thoughtfully conceived, too. Topped with microgreens and resting in a buttery sauce dotted with salty ricotta salata, the kabocha squash ravioli ($11) are shaped like smashed colonial tricorn hats, with a thick noodle wrapper that accentuates the orange sweetness of the vegetable. The bistro standard of potato-leek soup has a welcome charge of chervil and smooth creaminess, but the lentils lurking in its depths only annoy. Most compelling are the pair of skin-on sardine fillets, perfectly sauteed and served on a bumpy carpet of tiny potatoes and split green grapes—though they may leave you wondering why you paid $15 for only three or four bites. Even the apple crostini, topped with two types of local apples and slathered with apple butter, succeeds by contrasting its overweening sweetness with the bite of strong blue cheese.

But then come the entrées: Despite being cooked crisp and brown and concealed in a thicket of mizuna, the plancha crisped chicken ($25) possesses fluffy alabaster flesh but little flavor; a special of duck breast one evening lacked seasoning and a proper sear. By contrast, a skin-on plank of salmon arrived nicely pink in the middle and perfectly cooked, though the mélange of beans and greens underneath provoked a yawn. Best among the entrées was a plate of strozzapreti, or “priest-stranglers,” from Calabria that immersed the long, twisted pasta tubes in a rich pork broth with spinach and slivers of pancetta ($21).

The wine list, mainly from Italy, California, and France, is pricey, with nearly all bottles of red over $45. However, there’s a very nice white Gravina Bianco blend from Puglia in southern Italy, near where the priest-stranglers originated. Dry and tasting faintly of peaches, it’s a bargain at $33. If you’re intent on red, a Côtes du Rhône from La Montagnette is offered by the glass with a generous pour for $9. But maybe you’d rather sit at the bar with a serving of fries, downing a Duvel and dreaming of the French bistro you’d open in this location.

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Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy Journeys the Fragility of a Marriage

As auteurist demigods go, Roberto Rossellini is still tough to nail down—there’s the neorealist Rossellini, the wrestling-adulterously-with-Ingrid-Bergman Rossellini, the kicked-out-of-India Rossellini, and the low-budget TV-historian Rossellini. Each has had his moment in the sun, but today the light falls on the Bergman years, and particularly on this melancholic 1954 heartbreaker, now recognized as a career-defining masterpiece. Inescapably, it’s a film about the fragility of marriage (Ingrid and Roberto had only been married for four years at this point, and wouldn’t last another four), in which a British couple (Bergman and George Sanders) descend on Naples to sell an inherited house.

It’s clear from minute one that the couple’s faith in each other is in free fall, and their distractions and dalliances in Italy, shared and separate, are only postponing the inevitable. The lost characters spend most of the film turning their anxious attention outward, as tourists and vacationers, so the film becomes a breath-holding study—an “investigation,” per critic David Thomson—of unhappiness on the verge of explosion. Instead, Rossellini takes the “action” to Pompeii, where the pair witness the plaster-casting of two entwined bodies incinerated by lava 2,000 years earlier, and metaphor becomes reality.

Always interested in the mystery zone between documentary and fiction, even when the “reality” in question was his own marriage, Rossellini shoots his anti-drama with impassive mobility, always maintaining a distance but constantly reframing, insisting that “real” environments impede on the characters’ perspectives. It’s a movie you have to hold on to as it wanders—it will not grab on to you—and it was loathed upon its original release, except by the Cahiers du cinéma gang. (Italian critics wowed by Fellini’s La Strada, released the same day, called for Rossellini’s retirement.) Laying the brickwork for Antonioni’s existential parables a few years to come, Voyage to Italy is close to watching actual strangers suffer loneliness despite being together. It can leave an aching bruise, but only if you’re paying attention.