By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Down to the Bone,” Hart Sharp Video]
As any goggle-eyed witness to Scorsese’s “The Departed” knows, Vera Farmiga she played the police psychologist who improbably slept with both Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon has a face that can haunt your dreams. We first saw her in the odious Richard Gere-Winona Ryder romance “Autumn in New York,” and Farmiga’s unusual aquiline visage, with its startling moon-blue cat eyes and a toothy smile that breaks like glass under pressure, made the rest of the film vanish from sight. She’s a formidable actress, too, as she proved last year in “Down to the Bone,” a raw indie in which she plays an upstate-New York supermarket cashier with a working-class husband, two kids, a small suburban house, and a jones for cocaine she thinks she can control. Farmiga’s Irene does, in fact, keep her habit under wraps most of the time hunting for inebriation opportunities with her looming eyes even as she dresses her boys for trick-or-treating and cooks dinner. As the season gets colder, Irene gets more desperate and then, surprisingly, and because she seems a little too smart to get lost in complete irresponsibility, checks into rehab (much to the chagrin of her co-snorting hubby).
Doper melodramas can be repetitious and dull, but Debra Granik’s movie stays so close to Farmiga you can hear her breath accelerate when cocaine is near. Irene’s plight is in any case far from a smooth ascent out of or descent toward junkiehood in the 70s style, the film respects the struggle between clean sanity and polluted self-satisfaction, and comes as close as any film in its strange subgenre to suspending judgment. (If you had Irene’s dire low-rent life, you’d want to get high, too.) Farmiga is a show onto herself and the suspense from here on in lies with what Hollywood will do with this brilliant, disconcertingly beautiful siren now that they have her. The new DVD comes with audio commentary by Granik and Farmiga, and Granik’s original 1997 short “Snake Feed.”
Another kind of clear-eyed essay on inequity, Francesco Rosi’s masterful 1963 “Hands Over the City” takes on an entire political system, Italian neorealist-style. A poison-pen rendition of a polluted urban bureaucracy, Rosi’s film comes off as a “Syriana” for the city of Naples, more interested in the textures of power and corruption than in individual psychology. It’s a tough kind of movie to make, and nobody has done it as well as Rosi his “Salvatore Giuliano,” released the year before, chronicles the career of the titular Sicilian insurrectionist-cum-bandit without ever making him a character in the film. Instead, the sociopolitical hellfire erupting around him, from both sides of the law, is documented and dissected. “Hands Over the City” begins with a rampaging developer (Rod Steiger) hawking the city’s northern ghettos for profitable gentrification to Parliament members. Then, on the eve of an election, a building in the project collapses, killing two and crippling a child. (Rosi shoots this cataclysm in a breathless montage that leaves you wondering how the cameramen survived.)
From there, a tapestry of molten social conflict is crafted, as Leftist politicians insist on an investigation and attempt to head off the backroom collusion between Steiger’s all-business moneymen and the government’s “center” faction. There’s nothing dry or pedantic at work here it’s feverish, vital drama with essential political morality at stake. (The Parliament sessions come close to blows.) Steiger’s presence may’ve sold the film in 1963, but he’s merely a single figure in an ensemble that sometimes seems to include all of Naples. The upshot is an expansive and tumultuous community portrait in which the lives and welfare of real people are decided by flabby, middle-aged men in expensive suits. (Rosi is not above cutting from the now-legless ghetto urchin on crutches to a rotund politician exercising on a rowing machine beside his built-in pool.) The film is fiction, but, Rosi tells us in an ending title, “The Context Is Real.” And universal, and timeless, he could have added. The Criterion supps include several new interviews with Rosi and several European film critics, and Rosi’s “Neapolitan Diary” (1992), a feature-length documentary about the city, the film and Rosi’s life making movies.
“Down to the Bone” (Hart Sharp Video) is available on DVD on October 31st; “Hands Over the City” (Criterion) went on sale October 24th.