Tuesday, April 4, 2023

"The March on Rome" and "Eastern Front": the first two films I've viewed at the 2023 Hong Kong International Film Festival (Film reviews)

The 47th Hong Kong International Film Festival has commenced!
The March on Rome (Italy, 2022)
- Mark Cousins, director and co-scriptwriter 
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Reality Bites program
It has Rome in its title and is an Italian production but this documentary about the rise -- and fall too, but to a lesser extent -- of fascism in Italy is primarily in English and narrated by its Northern Irish helmer, Mark Cousins -- whose brogue and speaking style some might find calming but I must admit to thinking was at odds with a lot of material presented!  With a far-ranging script co-written by Cousins and Italians Tommaso Renzoni and Tony Saccuci, it splices together such as archival and contemporary film footage, historical photographs and scenes in which actress Alba Rohrwacher playing an Italian mother who's enamoured by fascism before falling out of love with it to advance its arguments; some of which are more compelling than others.   
Known for his works on film (notably the 15 hour The Story of Film: An Odyssey), Mark Cousins' The March on Rome discusses the role of cinema as propaganda in supporting the rice of fascim -- particularly by way of a close analysis and dissection of sections of a 49 minute work by Umberto Paradisi (1878-1933) entitled A Noi! Dalla sagra di Napoli al trionfo di Roma that mythologised the titular march of black shirts on Italy's capital in 1922 that led to Benito Mussolini becoming prime minister of the country.  But, actually, I found such as its shorter -- but sharper? -- discussion of fascist architecture, a surprising amount of which is still extant in Italy, to be more on point (along with "Il Duce" and his fellow fascist leaders' proclivity for making speeches from balconies)!
Benito Mussolini first appears in The March on Rome as a head floating in, and peering out of, the darkness.  There are scenes in the film in which he appears all powerful but also ones in which he does not appear in control -- and it is interesting to see that this was so even when he was supposed to be approaching or at his peak as well as after he had been sacked in July 1943 by the same monarch, Victor Emmanuel III, who had, Neville Chamberlain-like in 1922, allowed Mussolini to take command of the government.
After seeing so much of what Mussolini looked like in life in much of the film, how he looked in death can come as a shock -- even if one's seen the infamous photos of his corpse and that of his mistress hanging upside down in Milan. Seeing a small photo on one's computer screen or (history) book is inadequate preparation for seeing the same image on a big theatrical screen.  But all this is no where as chilling as seeing images of Mussolini and Italian fascism's victims in Ethiopia and Libya, which also appear in The March on Rome, along with horrific statistics of the numbers of people killed there, and by the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese military that Mussolini's Fascists were -- lest we forget -- in an axis of evil with during World War II.
These images, more than the footage from A Noi! ("Us!" in Italian), speak to the power of film for me.  Speaking of which: while The March on Rome has visuals which are hard-hitting at times and arresting at others, I must admit to thinking the overall work would have been better served with better audio -- including a narrator with a less laidback-sounding voice than its helmer!        

My rating for this film: 6.5
Eastern Front (Ukraine-Latvia-Czech Republic-U.S.A., 2023)
- Part of the HKIFF's Auteurs program
"I'm sorry but I feel like throwing up!" Those were my first words to two friends after we got out of the screening of Eastern Front. It's not just that this documentary about the first six months of the still-ongoing war in Ukraine has harrowing footage along with motion sickness-inducing ones filmed by an iPhone of a man running in a battlefield; it's also that it is a psychologically intense watch.
This being said; I still want to highly recommend this amazing documentary work, one of whose co-directors, Yevhen Titarenko, is a volunteer paramedic whose battalion, the Hospitallers, have indeed served in the Eastern Front of the war.  (More than by the way: the film's other co-director, Vitaly Mansky, is a veteran Russian director who has spoken out against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and and has been placed on a Kremlin wanted list for slander.
A good part of Eastern Front takes place at, as its name suggests, the Eastern Front.  We see footage shot from: inside a makeshift ambulance rushing patients to a hospital; inside homes where medics await to be called to duty and from where explosions can be seen and gunfire heard; from trenches that look like something out of a World War I movie (except they are real, and exist in 2022-2023) and where people have been recently killed; and muddy battlefields where the wounded lie and wait to be evacuated.  And we see bravery and caramaderie but also blood, destruction and lots of pain.

But Eastern Front also features talk as well as action, which helps to balance things and also contextualise events and stories.  Some of the conversations take place within war zones but many more take place over in the western part of the country, where there are opportunities for people to relax with a swim in the lake, hanging out with friends, see a comrade's child getting Christened, have dinner with relatives and relatives.  

It may seem strange but the peaceful, "normal" sections of the film actually strengthen it overall.  I think this is not least because it serves to remind the audience that few, if any of the people seen in Eastern Front in military gear and at the battlefront are, in fact, careeer soldiers or even paramedics.  And that they are human beings who have loved ones who care and worry for them and, also, people who they wish to protect -- which is why they are in the situation they are shown to be in but also hope will end before too long, in victory for their nation.
My rating for this film: 8.5    

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