Nowhere to Run
Paul Verhoeven has always been a provocateur. His Hollywood output has varied between sci-fi action pics like Robocop and Starship Troopers, which mixed bitter satire with cheap thrills, and outright trashfests like Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Returning to Holland, he now gives us a World War II spy epic called Black Book. It’s headier and more interesting than any of his American pictures, but it still has some of that extravagant Verhoeven style.
Carice van Houten plays a young Jewish woman named Rachel, a former cabaret singer, who sees her whole family gunned down by the Nazis in 1944, and barely escapes alive from the ambush. She joins the Dutch resistance and is given a new name, Elis, and hair color, blonde. After some members of the group are captured, she is given the task of smuggling a surveillance device into Gestapo headquarters, which she does by insinuating herself into the bed of a handsome Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch). Her assignment will uncover a series of deadly betrayals and double-crosses, and when the Allies liberate the country in 1945, her troubles are not yet over.
Verhoeven doesn’t attempt a sober, realistic depiction of the resistance. This is a thriller with plot twists coming fast and furious, and they’re often rather implausible. If you can accept the melodramatic premises, the essential artificiality of Verhoeven’s approach to the material, the movie will work for you. The production values are superb, with amazing period detail, and the pacing guarantees that there’s never a dull moment.
Yet there’s more depth here than one might think. Black Book sustains an emotional atmosphere of grief, loss, and regret from its very first scene, and this undertone, mixed with gut-churning suspense and fear, is always present. The director and his co-screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, spotlight the forces of greed and raw hatred at work—not just with the Germans, but with the Dutch, including the supposedly good freedom-fighters. Elis is constantly navigating a world of moral ambivalence. Instead of the usual good guys vs. bad guys World War II scenario, the film depicts a world without moral compass, in which destructive forces play with humans like toys, and the greatest virtue is sheer endurance.
The remarkable young actress Van Houten, who is in almost every scene, incarnates a vision of free-spirited 1940s womanhood. Verhoeven injects his characteristic fascination with sexual decadence into the film, but the affair between the beautiful spy and the German officer ends up, surprisingly, to be more about loyalty than lust.
The story takes its heroine through an inconceivable series of ordeals, and we experience how total and unending the trauma of war must have been. With a sly nod to the present, Verhoeven has his Nazis refer to the resistance as terrorists, and there’s even a waterboarding torture scene. The film conveys a sense of horror that shakes you even as you’re seduced by the slick surface. Black Book combines the excitement of an adventure film with the darkness of historical awareness.
Two of the best films I’ve seen recently on a big screen were made over 40 years ago, which says something about the quality of film these days. Rialto has followed their release of Melville’s Army of Shadows with a revival of an Italian film from 1962, rarely screened in the U.S., called Mafioso. It’s not the kind of movie you might expect from the title, but a brilliant and ferocious dark comedy about a moral no-man’s land that even the best intentioned person could end up in.
A white collar factory supervisor in Milan named Antonio (Noni for short) takes his family on vacation to his little home town in Sicily. Noni, gleefully played by Alberto Sordi, is a boisterous, cheerful family man, the kind who makes friends with everyone he meets. He has a beautiful blonde wife, played by Brazilian actress Norma Bengell, and two blonde little daughters. When they arrive in the tiny Sicilian hill town, they are regaled with kisses and huge meals, while the suspicious, illiterate family looks askance at their long lost relative’s chic northern wife. Meanwhile, Noni regresses into an hysterical version of his old self, overcome with joy at his homecoming. Nothing seems to faze him—not even an absurd knife fight between his elderly father and an obstinate neighbor who insists on raising the price on a piece of land for purchase. But a meeting with the local mafia boss, Don Vincenzo, has unintended consequences. Noticing that Noni, who has always loved to hunt, is still a crack shot, the Don decides to recruit him for a certain delicate job. The recruitment scene, in the back seat of the Don’s luxury car at night, is punctuated by a series of grotesque close-ups conveying the power relations involved better than any words ever could.
The film was directed by Alberto Lattuada, a seriously underrated filmmaker who started as one of the leading figures in the neorealist film movement, a good friend of Fellini’s (they co-directed Variety Lights) and an artist of remarkable range in his own right. Here he has a lot of fun spoofing the contrast between the pseudo-sophistication of northern Italians and the crude, impulsive culture of Sicily. When the family passes a funeral on their way in, Noni asks the cause of death. “Two bullets,” is the answer. The dry, biting humor complements the mounting tension, as the genial main character finds his situation spinning out of control, his desire to please ultimately only working against him. The story veers from light comedy into a very disturbing social commentary, where you have to laugh in order to keep from crying.
Mafioso is a wickedly clever little gem, puncturing any glamour you might associate with organized crime. A decade before the Godfather films, Lattuada had already done the math.
©2007 Chris Dashiell