Famous Genes and Amazing Grace at
Montreal Film Fest, 2001

By Jerry Tallmer


©Photo by Lois Siegel

Jerry Tallmer
New York City Journalist and Critic
 One of Founders of “ The Village  Voice”
 Created the Obie Awards (Off-Broadway Theatre) in 1956

                          "Francesca  e  Ninziata" 

If you want to know how to spell CLASS, sometimes you have to go all the way to Montreal. It is spelled S-O-P-H-I-A.

 
©Photo by Lois Siegel
Montreal World Film Festival

At the 25th Montreal World Film Festival - that open-eyed, wide-ranging annual
Off-Broadway of cinema roundups - the 400 entries long and short included three raffish stabs at the New York downtown scene and one Grand Prix of the Americas.

The three takes on downtown Manhattan are "Acts of Worship," a Lower East Side cinedrama of drugs and loyalties, written and directed (her first) by
Rosemary Rodriguez; "Chelsea Walls," set within the angst-ridden rooms and corridors of the Chelsea Hotel, where else, with direction (his first) by Ethan Hawke; and Leon Ichaso's "Pinero," a portrait of the difficult life and times of Miguel Pinero, the Nuyorican poet/playwright who gave us "Short Eyes."

The Grand Prix of the Americas? That was awarded mid-Festival to Ms. Sophia Loren at a press conference, or mob scene, or zoo, straight out of Nathanael West's "Day of the Locust."

The press, an ever-swelling rugby scrum several hundred strong at least, was kept cooling its heels at a glass barrier for upwards of 45 minutes until allowed to charge in like a herd of wild buffalo. In the next instant this pack of raging beasts would be rendered breathless at sight of  the serene, gorgeous Ms. Loren taking her seat at the head table beside her friend and colleague Lina Wertmuller.

Together, Loren as star, ultra-nonconformist Wertmuller as director and co-writer, they had made "Francesca e Ninziata," the 130-minute saga of an
Italian family pasta-factory empire ruled over by tough-tender Francesca, who, after she has disposed of the Prince her husband,
  and already the mother of nine children, cannot resist adopting one more: an 8-year-old orphan girl destined (of course) to become  mama's  favorite. The film was at Montreal in the category "Hors Concourse: World Greats. "Now, here they sat, facing the animals, this odd couple who have made three films together over the years:  short fiery Wertmuller with her shock of white hair against coal-black eyebrows and white trademark dime-store plastic sunglasses, next to tall, cool, exquisite Loren, in a trim coral pantsuit that magnificently understated her scarlet fingernails and bold wheat field of red hair.

"Miss Loren," came the first question. "Welcome. How long will you continue making movies?" Speak of blunt.

"I have really no idea," said la Loren in graceful English just barely touched by the accent we all know by heart. "I think this is my profession, and I would like to continue forever. But who knows?"  A shrug.  "In life, you never know."

The questioner had the grace to murmur: "You are fantastic!" before a shot was fired from another quarter: "Why did you make this film?"
"From the day I read the first pages of the book [a novel by Maria Orsini Natale], I became so involved in what this character [her role] was giving me emotionally and everything else. First of all, she comes from Naples," said Sophia Scicolone Ponti, the "Toothpick" (so skinny!) who, born and bred in Pozzuoli, a Naples slum, burst from the screen at age 19 as  the scrumptious, unskinny, laughing pizza vendor of "L'Oro di Napoli" ("Gold of Naples") opposite Vittorio De Sica in 1954.

"And then, she is the mother of nine children," said this mother of just one, Edoardo Ponti  -- who at 27 has now written and directed his own first film, "Between Strangers," starring, among others, Sophia Loren and Gerard Depardieu.

"My son wrote it, in English, and directed it, and everything. It is for me an earthquake of emotions, if I can say that," she said. "Listen, I think the role of the mother has always been something important for me, my role" -- a moment later adding, in answer to another question, that the performance of her own that she likes best is "maybe" her Oscar-winning mother in "Two Women," and the actor she's never worked with and would most like to is Sean Connery.

To a loud boorish Francophile demand as to why she didn't speak in French at this press conference in Montreal, she calmly replied: "When I am in a French
film, I speak French, yes."

©Photo by Lois Siegel
Montreal World Film Festival


Then came the ultimate dumb inquiry in, I am afraid, unmistakable American twang:  "You've been a star your whole adult life. How have you seen stardom
change over your long career?"

Loren drew a blank. "I'm sorry," she said. "I don't understand. What do you want to know?"

"Well, hasn't stardom changed?" the questioner persisted.

"I don't think so," Sophia Loren said. "Star means star," she said, each word a
separate drumbeat. "Either you become a star or you don't Nothing has changed
essentially. Nothing," she said.

And that, my friends, is why you have to go to Montreal to learn how to spell "class."

"Scheherazade"  

"Francesca  e  Nunziata" is a considerable achievement, but it is not all that adventurous as a movie. There were, this year as always, many adventurous films at Montreal, and the one I wish I could have brought home with me to New York was "Scheherazade," an incendiary bilingual (English and German) unpeeling of forbidden truths all taking place in 84 minutes of running time on a small private yacht in the middle of Lake Zurich.

Filmed  on that lake by two remarkable young Swiss  filmmakers - producer Simon Hesse, director Riccardo Signorell - it plunges more daringly and openly into father/daughter (plus  screwed-up brother) incest than even Roman Polanski's "Chinatown." (That masterful exile showed to full brilliance at Montreal in a 49-minute British ITV interview in which, among much else, Polanski informed his too-smart-by-half Scottish interrogator: "If 'Chinatown' had had a happy
ending, we wouldn't be sitting here talking about it.")

The daddy's girl in "Scheherazade," is played by luscious, sulky, golden-haired Zoe Mikuleczky,

and she and Hesse and Signorell are each a story unto themselves. Here's hers, as Hesse and Signorell tell it:

In May 1999, many months before the making of "Scheherazade," all Switzerland was blanketed by some 6,000 billboards  displaying a golden-haired unknown young woman and the legend "WHO IS ANGIE BECKER?" Perhaps inspired by a wonderful old Judy Holliday/Jack Lemmon film called "It Should Happen to You," it was actually just a campaign to promote the billboard company, and there was no Angie Becker, just a Zoe Mikulecszy who'd  posed as  her.

"The whole country was saying: 'Who the f--- is Angie Becker?' And then, when we started to cast our film," says director Signorell, "we wanted someone very sensitive and innocent to play the daughter. I was looking for a princess . . . "

"Then in came this girl from the model agency," says producer Hesse. "Full of attitude, carrying a beer at 11 o'clock in the morning, in boxer shorts, and
armed with" - he gestures a plenteous bosom - "God's gift . . . We thought it was the wrong person for the part, especially since the other four actors [Jurgen Brugger, Antonia Beamish, Philipp Stengels, Siegfried Terpooten]  were all our friends."

But they took her anyway. God's gift indeed, as the movie camera, and the movie itself, make clear.

If the name Hesse rings a bell, it should. Simon Hesse, born in Zurich on Dec. 8, 1972, is the great-grandson of Herman Hesse, the novelist whose works ("Siddhartha," "Steppenwolf," etc.) have spiritually nourished several generations of young Americans.


©Photo by Lois Siegel
Simon Hesse with Jerry Tallmer
Montreal World Film Festival


Simon's father is architect and city planner Silver Hesse, and Simon himself apprenticed for four years as an architect before coming at 21 to try his movie
luck in New York. "It was too fast, too lonely." He lasted a month. Now, of course, he wants to come back - preferably for a New York premiere of
"Scheherazade."

Yes, he has read some of his great-grandfather's writings. "The essential thing is I like it - but," the grandson says, wobbling his hand and warbling like a bird. "it's too flowery, a beautiful world." There is nothing flowery, be it said, in what happens between daddy and daughter and the others on that yacht.

Riccardo Signorell looks like a poet, an artist, a lithe, half-shaven creative soul,

Riccardo Signorell

but in fact this creative soul, for all his  no more than average height and weight ("exactly the size of Wayne Gretzky," he keeps saying),  is also, six months of the year, a champion European hockey player, left wing on the Zurich Grasshoppers. Immediately after the Montreal festival he would be heading back home for the start of the 2001 season. The places he has played include Moscow.

Son  of plumber Meinrad Signorelle and boutique owner Christina Signorelle, Riccardo was born March 5, 1970, in Chur, a Swiss provincial capital. He has
been playing hockey for 24 years now, since he was seven; has been a pro for the past 13 years.

He too was once an architectural apprentice, in an office where "this guy named Peter Zumthor showed me everything, music, books, how to write, how to paint, all those things I didn't know."  Riccardo broke into film work in 1993 as a "best boy," a go-fer job that he rates as "a kind of Teddy bear."

The Zurich Grasshoppers' left wing and the Herman Hesse great-grandson next hope to make a picture called "Le Canadien." It's based on the true case of a hockey player "who gets body-checked, and injured, and dies, and they send his body home with no brain and no heart, so that there can be no autopsy."

No flowers, no warbling birds, no incest, no yacht. And nothing like the mock-prison out-of-control sadism laid bare by another socko motion picture at Montreal 25,  Oliver Hirschbiegel's "Das Experiment," in which a Stanford University research disaster is transferred all the more terrifyingly to Germany. None of that. But if  Hesse and Signorell pull it off, it will be enough.


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