“The Wedding Director,” Michael Powell

"The Wedding Director," Michael Powell (photo)

Turning 70 this year, Marco Bellocchio has finally attained old-guard respectability, in light of the...

Turning 70 this year, Marco Bellocchio has finally attained old-guard respectability, in light of the ironic, seasoned, historically quizzical mastery of “My Mother’s Smile” (2002), “Good Morning, Night” (2003) and now “The Wedding Director” (2006). Notorious here as a mere provocateur (largely thanks to Maruschka Detmers’ half-hearted blowjob in “Devil in the Flesh”), Bellocchio has always seemed young and ready to rumble ever since his 1965 debut “Fists in the Pocket,” fashioned, when he was 26, as a sneak attack on all things Old World Catholic, provincial, late-baroque, aristocratic and traditional. Now, after many darkling family tales and adaptations of Pirandello, Bellocchio has mellowed into a ruminative, absurdist autumnal mood, and “The Wedding Director” is his most sheerly enjoyable film in years. The movie has a pleasantly Rivette-like dimension to it — however much we see, we’re always aware of something unmentioned and mysterious going on at the fringes of the story.

The opening is typical: Elica (Sergio Castellitto) is a famous and successful director in preproduction of yet another adaptation of Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed,” and the scenes are full of quiet gotchas, actresses acting out their auditions with such abrupt conviction that Elica doesn’t know if they’re “real” or just talented. Then a woman begs to see him, as she’s being chased by police agents of some type; Elica is suspected, but of what? Looking for an escape, Elica flees to Sicily, where his movie-movie world seems to follow him: along with meeting a supposedly dead director who’s hiding out so he’ll receive prizes posthumously, Elica meets a wedding videographer who has the intimidating task of making “a real film!” from the upcoming wedding of a homicidal aristocrat’s daughter. The job defers to Elica, who embraces the unreality of the assignment, as well as the daughter, with whom he falls instantly, movie-ishly, in love…

01062008_weddingdirector2.jpgThough it’s a thoroughly contemporary comedy, Bellocchio beautifully engages that juicy, Godardian-Rivettian slipperiness we’ve come to love so much as a film culture, so that his movie feels less like an objective story we must follow than a wistful conversation we’re having with the director over drinks. Bellocchio winks at us, but gently; we’re never sure how much Elica is “directing,” or how much he’s being directed by the bride’s father (the surveillance at the villa is non-stop), or how much the whole thing isn’t a fictional concoctive window onto Elica’s creative process. (In fact, it’s not unlike a modest, unstructured variation on “Synecdoche, New York,” and a brother film to “My Winnipeg.” In any case, Bellocchio feels free to fold in scenes from the 1923 version of “The Betrothed,” and once you discover that there have been no less than nine adaptations of Manzoni’s book between 1909 and 1990, Elica’s “serious” project seems even more hapless than the private wedding film he opts to make instead — “à la Visconti!” someone cries.) The scenario flirts with Hitchcock, too, but it’s wisely, doggedly funny, and full of ironic character. An actress needs only three seconds of close-up in a Bellocchio film to limn a 3-D character, giving the movies a distinctively inhabited quality. Bellocchio’s primary partner in crime, though, is Castellitto, whose dog-eyed, rumpled, Richard Lewis-y watchfulness is terrific reactive fuel to the film’s absurdities, and, therefore, to the nonsensicality of our own presumed omniscience as film viewers. “The Wedding Director” is, we sense, only a partial record of its own narrative, and the joke’s on us for expecting the messiness of life, or of weddings, or of movies, to be wrapped up into a neat package without secrets.

01062008_amatteroflifeordeath.jpgCertain varietals of grandly gestured cinema inspires crazed, indecipherable, passionate devotion among cinephiles: the films by Welles, Ophüls, Sirk, Leone, Scorsese and Wong, for example, tend to magnetize our nerve endings more than our frontal lobes, and such infatuations often last a lifetime. Of course, Michael Powell belongs on the list; it’s not a question of whether you’re in love with a Powell film, but which one. Cultists stake their ground all over (although how to measure the amperage provided by Emeric Pressburger’s often perversely odd screenplays remains a nagging question), but the more romantic of them steer toward “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), or “Stairway to Heaven,” as it was titled in the U.S., because it actually involves a stairway — actually an escalator — to Heaven, taken up in the third act by WWII aviator David Niven, who somehow survives his parachute-free mid-battle disembarkment, arrives in England to fall in love with his American radio contact (Kim Hunter), and therein argues with the bureaucracy of Elysium that they should own the cock-up and let him live. As lovely a homefront British movie as was ever made during the war years, the movie strikes a special note of beleaguered, noble stubbornness; Niven’s persona could be read as London-can-take-it pridefulness boiled down to a savory cosmic-love reduction. This release has its eager audience waiting in the wings — an out-of-print 2002 DVD release can be only had on Amazon for $129 or more — as does Powell’s never-DVD’d swan song “Age of Consent” (1969), a surprisingly cheesy riff on the life and work of bohemian artist Norman Lindsay featuring the debut of a relentlessly nude 23-year-old Helen Mirren.

[Additional photos: "The Wedding Director," New Yorker Films, 2008; "A Matter of Life and Death," Universal Pictures, 1946]

“The Wedding Director” (New Yorker Video) and “Michael Powell Double Feature: Age of Consent & Stairway to Heaven” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment) are now available on DVD.

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