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“The Night of the Shooting Stars,” “Diva Dolorosa”

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04082008_nightoftheshootingstars.jpgBy Michael Atkinson

A distinctive force in European cinema for over 35 years, Paolo and Vittorio Taviani achieved from their first films an eloquent stylistic bridge between Rossellinian stringency and Fellinian braggadocio. Their movies are often framed like friezes, but the chaos of human whim always muddies the compositions. Appropriately, the Tavianis began as political barnburners, fashioning absurdist parables and sometimes cosmic commedia from Italy’s lunatic flirtations with extreme movements. No European filmmaker has ever been as dedicated to their nation’s peasant legacy, and no one on the continent since the ’70s has made such potent and revealing use of their native landscape. Still, if the Tavianis’ penchant for old-fashioned narrative folkiness has grown tedious over the last decade or two, there’s still 1982’s “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” their premier achievement, and arguably the best Italian film of the ’80s.

Right off the bat, with its framing device of a fantastical war story told by a mother to a sleepy child as the stars fall in the sky outside the bedroom window, the movie has the cut-to-the-point grip of a grim fairy tale. The narrative is an extrapolation of a real incident, retold as history in the Tavianis’ first short, “San Miniato, Luglio ’44” (1954), in which the villagers of the eponymous town obeyed the Nazis, took shelter from their supposedly bomb-rigged homes in the village’s church and then were collectively massacred. In the brothers’ re-imagining, a small mob of the peasants, following a laconic patriarch (Omero Antonutti), disobey the Germans and set out on foot in the middle of the night in search of the American forces.

Of course, the eyes through which we witness this anti-Odyssean journey belong to the narrator, who in 1944 was an impetuous six-year-old prankster in a print dress. And so the story itself is imbued with a child-like lyricism and irreverence — death comes and goes without much ado, hiding in the forest with 30 adults feels like nothing so much as a great game, and every disruption of the ordinary is a bolt of magical living. The Tavianis’ details accumulate like special knowledge: the villagers shielding their ears against the pleading barks of their own dogs, left behind; the way the procession walks, arm in arm and chatting and free in the sunshine, the next morning; a dying girl’s daydream of meeting Sicilian soldiers from Brooklyn; the way the villagers all sleep jumbled in a bomb crater, like mass grave victims waking up and stretching. This poetry crests in the film’s climactic passage — a great, ironic battle of guns and pitchforks with Black Shirts in a vast wheat field, where no one knows who precisely the enemy is until they meet on their knees, nose to nose. “Even true stories can end well,” someone says, despite heavy tragedy and scores of corpses, and so the Tavianis make their case, with an unimpeachable observational style and sense of the gritty absurd. “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” defying genre but embracing comedy as well as horror, remains one of those rare movies that can inspire faith in living and history.

04082008_divadolorosa.jpgThe legacy of Italian cinema is the primary axe being ground in “Diva Dolorosa” (1999), making its long overdue appearance on DVD almost a decade after it dazzled authentic cinephiles at film festivals all over. Even so, it’s a Dutch film, a found-footage assemblage constructed by professional archive plunderer Peter Delpeut (“Lyrical Nitrate,” “The Forbidden Quest”) out of footage from a particular genre of Italian silent films: the Black Romantic melodramas of the 1910s, in which tragically willful, independent fin-de-siècle aristocratic women self-destructed, dramatically and hyper-tragically, in the name of love. The genre, which pervaded other mediums as well, might be the first and last word on the communion between sex and death, and the clips Delpeut uses are chockablock with swoony melancholy and suicidal ardor. Despite their age, many of them look remarkably accomplished as pieces of cinema; perhaps the archives will eventually DVD-up complete editions of “La Donna Nuda” (1914) and “Rapsodia Satanica” (1915) (both of which star the Black Romantic Garbo, Lyda Borelli). But Delpeut is crafting a found-object poem here, with a rhapsodic orchestral score and a sure sense of how so much weepy, proto-campy mega-sadness can collect in your head as a statement about its own culture, and also as a palpably beautiful, tragic spectacle despite the odor of antique cheese. But of course, “Diva Dolorosa” is really about cinema itself, and therefore about lost time, and therein lies in deepest and loveliest sorrow.

[Photos: “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” United Artists Classics, 1982; “Diva Dolorosa,” Zeitgeist, 1999]

“The Night of the Shooting Stars” (Koch Lorber) and “Diva Dolorosa” (Zeitgeist) are now available on DVD.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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