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This article was written on 04 Feb 2020, and is filled under Film & TV, Media.

Illusions perdues, 2019: “Dolce Fine Giornata” by Jacek Borcuch

No sooner does “Dolce Fine Giornata” plant you in an utterly rich, tawny Tuscan landscape than you realize that you’ve been here before—many times. Throughout its duration, the film’s landscape remains the Mediterranean “homeland” of New Wave European cinema. We’ve danced on a strand not terribly far away with a band of misfits during the closing apotheosis of Fellini’s “8 ½.” Jean-Pierre Melville (along with Hitchcock) has taken us on perilous sports car chases along the unmistakable hairpin curves of the Mediterranean coast. In “L’Avventura,” Antonioni invited us along for the Angst-provoking road-quest for the missing lady–over the same terrain. Over the border in Provençe, we’ve hunted and guarded precious water-bearing springs in several screen adaptations of Marcel Pagnol’s regional novels (and remakes of his earlier films). Éric Rohmer, from early on in his oeuvre, deployed the very same coastal environment as a surround for existential unrest and moral deliberation during an age bereft of clear moral boundaries. Notably, in “La Collectionneuse,” “Pauline at the Beach,” “A Summer’s Tale,” and “Autumn Tale.” And the impact of this lush, sometimes steamy eco-subsystem upon Jacques Rivette’s arresting Balzacian allegory of painting, “La Belle Noiseuse,” is palpable.

This distinctive ecology, and the film literature it does so much to encompass and define, has everything to do with “Dolce Fine Giornata’s” human drama, the tale of a highly accomplished Polish expat, a Nobel Prize-winning poet, no less, and donna of a tri-generational family, at a certain age both of achievement and self-indulgence. On several grounds, at this time-point, she seems, however slightly, to be slipping off the rails. Having been boosted into a local prodigy, she now speaks with the authority of international acclaim. Her voice, still in 2019, is the house organ of post-World War II aesthetico-political liberalism. Its openly espoused core values include creative autonomy and disinterest, social liberation, universal human enfranchisement and empowerment, and constitutional aversion to totalitarian thinking and processes. (Maria Linde is the Polish-born daughter, in 1955, to two Jewish Holocaust-survivors.) She and her Polish-Italian family reside in an admirable villa near Volterra. She is played by the veteran actress, Krystyna Janda, memorable for her roles in the Andrzej Wajda classics, “Man of Marble” and “Man of Iron” and for her collaborations with other distinguished directors including István Szabó (“Mephisto”) and Krzysztof Kieslowski.

We are aboard a small boat as the film sets out. It’s early in the morning, but the atmosphere’s already edgy. This might be, from what we’ve learned from available publicity, one of those leaky vessels filled to the gills with refugees. Have no fear, the narrative quickly reassures us. This is a local fishing boat, and its initial customer of the day, upon docking, is Maria. She banters in the most cordial way with the proprietor, from whom she’s purchased a plump catch, and his “ragazzi.” She is a community mainstay. At her birthday celebration, staged just a few scenes later, the local police commissioner, Lodovico (Vincent Riotta), stops by to offer her a bouquet. Her evolving rapport with this local official–he is by no means relegated to doltish belligerence or oversimplification–becomes a barometer of the tensions and antagonisms set off, in the context of 2019, by her impeccable bearings and deeply-held convictions.

The contemporary timeframe in which Maria’s gut reactions to things, including to the persecution of ethnic minorities (most notably, Arabs) and refugees, may no longer win her the approbation formerly generated by her poetry. The new, hyper-polarized atmosphere in which her aesthetics-nuanced judgments come to be taken as political positions, or even worse, actions, is reminiscent of the new conduct of public debate and political deliberation in the U.S. and most of Europe. Maria, like her counterparts among U.S. intellectual celebrities, has survived into a moment of revived racism, ethnic bigotry, and xenophobia—particularly, in Italy, as leveled against the refugees. Their temerity has included traversing the very same Mediterranean that has bequeathed Europe’s most cherished and time-honored landscape.

The scandal that explodes around Maria is, as might be anticipated, of a polymorphous variety. She is launched on an infatuation with Nazeer, a much younger Egyptian Copt immigrant (Lorenzo de Moor), who purveys food for her family and operates a small café–even while her husband services her practical needs and as she plays the strong mother to her (likely single) daughter, Anna, and her children. In keeping with the prerogatives of the high-achieving bon vivant of late middle age, whether cougar of the male or female persuasion, she has furnished herself with a high-performing sports coupe. As Maria drives it with abandon along the local hairpins, it is cinematographically spliced onto the other sharp chasses of Mediterranean film history. Maria has, in short, in oblivion to current events, arrived at a stage of general flaunting of the rules: romantically, connubially, even the ones enforced by traffic cops (belligerently, she ignores a roadblock).

What brings Maria into irremediable conflict with her long-standing community, is, however, less the gradual dissolution of conventional mores than a speech she delivers, following upon her Nobel distinction, in Volterra’s town hall. With its tapestries and original sculpture, this setting encompasses the full span of European history and culture. And in the act of disarming her audience, Maria embraces Europe as the crowning exemplar of human development, even while identifying herself as a child of the Holocaust, its consummate horror. Yet all else she espouses proves incendiary. It is just days after a terrorist has killed scores of people, detonating an explosive device in a crowded Roman square. And yet, through an unreflected assumption of the iterability of her long-held beliefs, she excoriates public concern regarding terrorism and potential negative ramifications of the influx of substantial new populations. The film does a splendid job (because left undecided) in orchestrating the dissonance between the overarching rectitude of Maria’s dismissal of persecution, repression, and “selection” in any form and the apparent lack of empathy that Maria manifests to the concerns set off in the public sphere within current events. Maria has gone so far as to comment on the aesthetics of the explosion. She is utterly exemplary in her zero-tolerance policy toward official and unofficial acts of persecution and repression. (The stage for such acts has been set on the local scene, and they will mount and encroach, ever closer, as the film develops.) While the film “resolves” itself in a series of pitched encounters between Maria, local officials, and in the end, family, she never relinquishes or turns back on her beliefs. Given what we know of her, this is completely à propos.

With his exquisite attention to landscape, terrain, and setting, and by coordinating the requisite cinematography, Polish director Jacek Borcuch has placed this allegory of post-War liberal values and ideology held over to 2019 in the very cinematic site of post-War European aesthetic celebration. In multiple important respects, New Wave cinema was the consummate expression of the ethos and the sensibility that Maria, both to her credit and notoriety, holds over. This is the fulcrum to the powerful convergence that Borcuch achieves between the film’s staged melodrama and its existential quandaries and the cinematic idiom, space, and retrospective history that it configures. And it is a matter of wonder and delight that the film’s meta-critical retrospective on aesthetic, socio-political, and moral ideals and values that were being forged largely in Western Europe and the U.S. throughout the second half of the XXc.—and whose current dismissal is alarming to say the least—issues from contemporary Poland.

In its fullest implications, “Dolce Fine Giornata” is a dual requiem. For one, to the socio-political and intellectual values and ideals by which the post-War West set about reversing unmitigated, calculated, and attenuated, “becoming death” as systematically executed on a global scale, 1914-45. But also to an aesthetic constellation of measures, extending from cinematography and editing, to directing, film-narrative, location, and even acting fitting the international film-language of the New Wave into the very haven for a decisive mega-act of reparation at the level of cultural invention.

“Dolce Fine Giornata” issues its discouraging status report on current conditions of socio-political polarization, xenophobia, and the surround of unabated public fear in which they germinate on a foundation of exquisite historical sensibility, even in a cinematic medium that delights in citing itself. And indeed, the film’s historical scenario is undergirded, first and foremost, by its acute referencing of prior cinema—evoking auratic scenes as well as events. We are early on cued into to this particular framework of the film’s coherence by a dance-parade wandering outdoors in the aftermath of Maria’s birthday celebration. To specify and reinforce the cultural grounds on which we currently stand, Borcuch has willy-nilly teleported us into the above-mentioned, carnivalesque finale to “8 ½.” When Anna’s (Kasia Smutniak) son and Maria’s grandson, Savatore (Wiktor Benicki) goes missing, it is Nazeer who comes to the rescue. But until the situation is resolved, we are launched on a sequel to the missing person’s quest that animated “L’Avventura,” with its motifs of roaming and sexual transgression. (Nazeer may be the hero of this predicament, but this does not prevent Lodovico from bringing him in for questioning.)

And then there is Maria’s hot new sports car, the film’s strongest candidate as a telling, symptomatic “objet a.” In addition to Nazeer, this acquisition brings Maria closest to whatever jouissance she experiences in the film. As its owner, she drives it freely. When she brings it to Nazeer’s café to show it off, she allows him to drive it in rapid circles in the parking lot—this asymmetry in their relationship is duly marked. But as this vehicle courses through the Tuscan hills, it drives as well through the history of memorable cinema set in Provençe and Italy. By the film’s well-established logic, the automobile is a vehicle into a cultural constellation or episteme that may be currently compromised, if not quite yet at a dead end.

Early in the film, another Polish émigré, an artist (Dominik Wojcik), explains a cage-installation he has erected in Volterra’s principal municipal square. It is an evocation of the aporias surrounding Ezra Pound as the War ground to a halt in Italy. Pound was at once a consummate poet and avatar of Modernism, whose achievement, according to the visiting artist, could not be completely effaced by his ill-considered and most unfortunate political allegiances and acts. And Pound was, beyond doubt, a traitor and collaborator with the Mussolini regime. At War’s close, Pound was confined to a cage in Pisa; this punishment would be succeeded by protracted hospitalization in St. Elizabeth’s, a major mental facility in Washington, DC. Through a series of ironic missteps, at the end of the film, Maria Linde finds her way into the aesthetic recreation of Pound’s humiliation constructed in the Volterra square. Only in 2019, what is incarcerated and subject to public censure is not fascist ideology, repression, and all-pervasive crime. Easily expendable in 2019, rather, are the remains of a post-War liberal ideology running counter to perceived current limits on resources, financial as well as natural; perceived as pushing an existing comfort zone, socio-economic as well as material, to the brink. The impulse to extend human rights and social services, such as basic healthcare, to the broadest possible constituency has become a liability, not a widespread social aspiration. The turn has come for this intuitive liberal impulse to do its time in the cage. Trump’s wall along the Mexican border is the tangible outgrowth of the incarceration simulated on the Volterra square.

Drawing on the full palette and resources of cinema, Jacek Borcuch marshals image, location, editing, acting, and even the prior history of film in an unusually concerted and coherent way. In so doing, he has furnished a devastating turn of events with an account, at once politically compelling and allegorically rich and complex.

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