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SEQUENCE 1 (DVD Chapter 1: 8 min’s)
Let the film roll until Michele returns to the old house
Once the production credits have played the picture fades in and the camera tracks quickly from left to right revealing a damp rocky surface. It then rests on the title which seems to be scrawled in chalk or scored on a dark rock face. Drops of water are heard on the soundtrack and a simple piano theme starts up. It resembles the sound that might come from a child’s toy piano or music box. To the sound of something rustling, the camera tracks back from the title which consists of a phrase that might be used by a scared child who is trying to convince him/herself that they are not afraid. The screen fades to black as the camera continues to the right. It passes over a barely discernible grey blanket which might pass for rock before craning upwards out of what, it is now clear, is a cave or a hole in the ground. Insects can be heard and a crow sits above the opening of the hole cawing ominously. Its black colour contrasts starkly with the rich golden tones of the corn that gleams in the brilliant sunlight beneath a clear blue sky. This scene is shot in one sweeping camera movement. The first cut in the film comes when the camera follows the girl running through the corn. This is the starting point of the action of the film.
What the credit sequence has presented us with, apart from the details of the main companies and individuals involved in the making of the film, is a dark, foreboding underground hole. The way the title is written and the piano theme have associations in our minds with childhood. Likewise with the title phrase itself. This scene has also introduced the motif of contrasts: above and below, darkness and light, inside and outside. The dark palette of blacks, greys and browns that make up the colour scheme of the hole are in sharp contrast to the rich gold and blue of the outside. The theme of fear has been introduced and the echoes of the horror genre are not far from our mind: the cawing of the crow suggests evil and the world of darkness.
A girl, Barbara, runs towards the camera. Her facial expression is ambiguous: is she running scared or just tired out from the exercise? An energetic musical theme is introduced that contrasts sharply with the simplicity of the opening one: it has an urgency that has a touch of panic to it. The camera follows Barbara at the height of the corn, establishing a pattern that will continue throughout the film as the action is presented from the point of view of a child. Another shot from a higher angle shows more children running and the great expanse of corn stretching to the horizon. The subtitle “Southern Italy 1978” gives us the setting for the narrative in time and place. Italy is still largely divided into the industrialised North and the poorer, agricultural South, the Mezzogiorno. The seventies were not a peaceful time in Italy. There was a lot of unrest and some criminals and political factions took to violence in furthering their cause. There were many kidnappings with a view to extorting a ransom from the rich. The Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, himself was kidnapped by the Red Brigade and eventually murdered in Rome when the conditions of the kidnappers were not met. This subtitle could be pointing to the history of Italy at the time and suggesting that the action of the film is in some way a retelling of aspects of this civil unrest or is acting as a commentary of some kind on it. The camera tracks through the corn at the eye-level of the children and its sweeping movement adds to the excitement of what may be a chase. As it tracks after the boy in the orange top, Michele, we hear a girl’s voice off-camera calling him. He immediately stops: the call takes precedence over whatever it is he is involved in. A black crow sweeps up out of the corn in front of him as he turns around, reminding us of the first scene. One of the children, without breaking his stride, asks him where he is going. When Michele gets to the little girl, his sister Maria, we find that she has broken her glasses and it is clear, when Michele takes her by the hand, that she cannot see properly without them. Michele’s childish game has been interrupted by a call to act like an adult by taking responsibility for his younger sibling and another of the film’s themes is introduced: the contrast between childhood and adulthood.
As they follow the other children Michele and Maria come upon the horrific sight of a bloody hen hanging upside down. Maria’s horror is reflected in the music which stops dead. Blood is still dripping from the hen’s beak. Michele reads it as a sign that they are on the right track and not far behind the others. The cruelty of killing a hen and leaving it like this points to the presence of casual violence in this world. The reaction of the two children is a mark of the learned acceptance of this cruelty: Maria is young enough to be horrified by it, Michele is old enough to accept it and read it as a simple sign. As the film progresses, Maria will become a symbol of childhood and all that Michele is leaving behind as he travels onto the road of adolescence. The scene ends as the pair walk away from the camera. The music, which introduced the scene, now acts as a cue to signal its end.
As Michele and Maria follow Salvatore down to the house we can see flowers that correspond to the clothing of all three children: the purple ones to the left and orange ones to the right. These colours will appear again and again over the course of the film. They add to the bright palette that make up the colour scheme of Michele’s world and act as a counterpoint to the darkness of the hole that will soon enter the narrative. The orange poppies are also growing on the wall as Michele enters the ruined house. He learns that Teschio/Skull has won the race. He stops in a ruined doorway as a crow calls harshly once again. A long shot introduces the next scene in which Skull claims the house for himself because he saw it first. The childish boast of the title might come into our minds on hearing this piece of bravado. In a series of shot/reverse shots Skull is presented to us seated above the other children, looking down on them. This reflects his status as he sees it himself and as the others perceive it. He treats them in a desultory way. When he claims the ruined house as his, Michele asks why and relents immediately when Skull says “Because I saw it first.” Barbara tries to bully Michele into paying the forfeit for coming last in the race. (There may be a slight problem with the translated sub-titles here. Michele says something like “Chi fare la penitenza/Who has to pay the forfeit/penalty?” but that is rendered as “Who is the rotten egg?” Later he asks Skull “A chi tocca fare la penitenza?/Who has to pay the forfeit?” which is translated as “Who has to pay up?”) Barbara shows no such belligerence though when facing Skull: rather, she adopts a defeatist, whingeing attitude knowing that he will get his way eventually. Her worst fears are realised when the others acquiesce in her humiliation at the hands of the leader. She says “Non è justo. Tocca siempre a mi/It’s not fair. It’s always my turn!” and calls for a vote to solve the impasse. This is the first in a series of differences between characters in the film: this sentiment and these very words, “Non è justo.”, will be repeated in different contexts in the course of the narrative. The notion of doing something because one is being forced into it will be contrasted with acting in a certain way because one feels it is the right thing to do: specifically the imperative on Michele to act in a certain way which comes from outside will be contrasted with one which comes from within himself as his conscience develops. This is one of the main themes of the film. Barbara’s pleas are useless because Skull controls the group and when he votes that she should pay the forfeit the other children all sheepishly follow his lead.
When Skull asks“Visto/See?”the cawing of a crow is heard almost in mockery of Barbara. The camera tracks towards him increasing the sense of his power over the group as he annunciates the forfeit. In an ironic touch, Maria asks Michele what Barbara has to show them. This is another indication of the difference between herself and her brother: she is still a child whereas Michele is at the stage at which he is becoming aware of the broader world beyond childhood. A short series of shot/reverse shots shows the balance of power as Skull faces Barbara down and slaps her face viciously. (This movement of characters within the frame to take up positions of e.g. superiority, equality or subordination can be referred to as choreography and be read as part of the imagery of the film.) Close-ups of Salvatore and Michele emphasise their sheepishness in acquiescing to Skull. Resigned to her fate, Barbara begins to pay the forfeit by unbuttoning her skirt. The cawing of the crow and the hissing of insects seem to make them complicit in the judgment increasing Barbara’s sense of shame. The camera shows her and her actions in big close-up. Likewise with the reactions of Michele and Skull: the one becoming more and more uncomfortable, the other glorying in the humiliation of the weakest of the group. The noise on the soundtrack increases in a crescendo that reflects Barbara’s shame and Michele’s growing unease. The source of that unease is not made explicit. It may be that this incident strikes him as vaguely voyeuristic and it may reflect his awakening awareness of his sexuality. It may be a nagging sense of guilt, of not wanting to be part of this ritual humiliation. Then Skull’s enjoyment of the spectacle is cut short by Michele’s cry of “Ferma!” His logic is simple “I’ll pay up. I came last.” Something has stirred within him and he is not willing in this case to give in to commands from outside himself. We know that he is capable of self-sacrifice, because he gave up his place in the race earlier to go back and help Maria. So he puts an end to this act of casual cruelty. The killing of the hen and humiliation of Barbara are part and parcel of the world of these children. Michele accepts this but something in him is beginning to see beyond the slavish subjection of oneself to the injunctions of others.
Michele is framed in the doorway after he breaks into the old house which is clearly in a state of dilapidation. Skull determines the forfeit: Michele must walk across a beam on the first floor of the house. The camera is set at a low angle to emphasise the danger Michele faces. The music starts up as he takes his first tentative step. He walks carefully and our sympathies are with him. Skull enjoys Michele’s discomfiture when he almost stumbles on a broken tile that lies on the crossbeam. Michele resorts to his imagination for courage as he tries to convince himself that he is a lizard man who can walk on any surface without falling off. Then he tries to bolster his courage by picturing himself as a glass man: he has no option but to make it across because a fall will result in his annihilation. Dissatisfied with Michele’s successful crossing of the beam, Skull adds another part to the forfeit when he orders Michele to come down by way of the tree outside the window. Michele obeys without question. He knows what he is doing is dangerous, but he has been ordered to jump and he feels he must obey. He crosses himself for good luck as the camera frames him in the window. Earlier he paused in the doorway of the ruined house and then we were presented with him in the doorway of the upstairs room. This might form a pattern of imagery that shows him at a stage in his life at which he is moving through portals from one part of his life to another: from childhood to adolescence.
As he perches in the window frame preparing to jump the camera frames Michele in a low angle shot inviting us to empathise with his fear. In a reverse shot we are shown the view from the window. At the foot of the tree lies a sheet of corrugated iron with stones at its corners to weigh it down.
On the way home Maria stops and asks Michele for her glasses. He discovers that he has lost them. She tells Michele that their mother will be mad with him. He tells Maria to wait there and heads back to the ruined house. This develops the theme of what it is that motivates Michele. He is at the stage where his motivating principle is staying out of trouble. The forces that influence him as a moral being are outside himself. The camera reprises the corn-high shot of the opening scene as Michele makes his way back to the house accompanied by a tentative musical theme on plucked strings. We hear the cawing of the birds as he reaches the house and searches for the glasses. So the repetition of camerawork and the sound effects round off the first movement of the film in which Michele has taken responsibility for his little sister, saved Barbara from embarrassment by paying her forfeit and, finally, returned to look for Maria’s glasses to avoid a beating from his mother. Sometimes he performs an action because he feels inside himself that it is the right thing to do; at other times the motivation for his action comes from outside himself. The movement of the film will see him developing towards adulthood by taking his motivation from what he feels inside in himself to be the right thing and rejecting the childish stance of doing things just to stay out of trouble with adults.
Read the following questions and then let the film roll until Michele returns to the old house
What is the first sound we hear as this film opens? When does the musical score begin? What impression do you form as you listen to this musical theme? How is the film’s title written? What kind of a person might use a phrase like this? Describe the camerawork after the title disappears off the screen. Where is the camera? At what point does the title sequence end and the action of the film begin? Freeze the frame at the shot of the crow’s head. Describe the colour scheme of thiscomposition. What is on the soundtrack as the action begins?
When does the musical theme change? How does this theme compare with the first one in the title sequence? Describe the composition when the date 1978 appears. Find out what you can about the state of Italy in that decade. Why are the children running? How is the camera being used in this scene? What kind of an atmosphere is built up in this scene? How is this done? Why does the boy in the orange top, Michele, turn back? What happens after he calls out “Maria”? What has happened to the little girl? How does this affect her?
How long has the hen been hanging upside down and dead? Who left it here? How does this image fit in with the action of the film so far? How is Michele’s reaction to the sight of the hen presented to us? What does Maria think of it? How would you explain the difference in their reaction? When does the music stop?
Freeze the frame as Michele starts to follow the other boy, Salvatore, down to the house. Describe the colour scheme in the composition. Who won the race? Why does Michele stop? Where does he stop? How is Teschio/Skull presented to us? What does he say about the old house? How does he treat the other children? What do you think of Barbara’s treatment of Michele? How does she react to Skull? How does the group treat her?
What comes on the soundtrack when Skull asks “Visto”? Why does Maria have to ask Michele what the forfeit is? How is Skull presented to us as he approaches Barbara and demands that she pay the forfeit? How does he react to her resistance? How are we being invited to view Michele and Salvatore after Barbara asks them if they have anything to say? Describe the camerawork and editing as Barbara pays the forfeit. How is Michele feeling? Why does he offer to pay the forfeit? Is this the first time he has acted like this?
How is Michele framed when we first see him in the house? What state is the interior of the house in? When does the music start up? Is Michele afraid? How is he coping with the forfeit? How does Skull react to the incident involving the loose tile? How are we, the audience, being positioned to view him? Why does Michele refer to “The Lizard Man” and “The Glass Man”? How does he react to Skull’s command that he must come down by way of the branch outside the window? What do you think of Michele at this point? Freeze the frame and describe the composition just before Michele jumps. Have you seen him framed in this way up to this point in the film? Can you suggest a metaphorical reading for this pattern?
Why does Maria stop on the way home? Why does Michele decide to head back to the old house? How is he feeling as he runs through the corn? How is the camera being used in this scene? Has it been used like this before now in the film? Describe the musical theme that plays through this scene. What else is on the soundtrack as Michele reaches the house?
ORDINARY & HIGHER LEVELS - COMPARATIVE MODES:
SOCIAL SETTING/CULTURAL CONTEXT
This mode refers to the world of the text:
- what kind of people live in this world?
- what sense of place is built up and how is this achieved?
- in what period of history is it set (time)?
To re-read the film in this mode you should choose a number of key moments (i.e. scenes or sequences) that feature the world that the characters live in. You need to examine the power structures, attitude and values, rituals and customs of the people who inhabit this world - the ethos of their society. There are two worlds in this film: the world of childhood and the world of adulthood. There are many parallels between the two: Skull is the child bully and Sergio the one who talks down to the adults; Filippo is a child who comes from the north, Sergio an adult; Salvatore is a child who finds it difficult to deal with things he learns as the story goes on, Anna almost breaks down on two or three occasions as she talks to Michele. On a wider scale there is the impoverished south of Italy and the industrialised north. The caption “Southern Italy 1978” points to this and to an era that saw a lot of kidnappings of people from the north who were brought south in the expectation of getting a ransom. Family values are strong in both parts of Italy. Concentrate on the adults and children of the village and Michele’s dealings with them.
* Choose three to five key moments (i.e. scenes or sequences) that highlight features of the world Michele lives in. Examine them by asking yourself what we learn about them under various headings, e.g. values, manners, morals, lifestyle, occupation, attitudes etc.
* Get familiar with the key moments you have chosen by watching them again and answer all the questions in Stage One that relate to the social setting/cultural context in these key moments.
* Consult the notes in your Response Journal for your chosen key moments.
Look at the people in Michele’s world who have power. Start with his family then move out to his community and then to Italian society.
For each key moment ask yourself questions like:
Who has power in this world? How is this power used?
What is the main concern of the people in this world?
What values do the people of this world see as important?
How do the people in this world behave towards each other?
Do all the people in this world think and act in the same way?
What quality of life have the people in this world?
Do the people in this world have a sense of responsibility?
What expectations have the people of this world?
What is the attitude of the people in this world to Michele?
List the main locations we see in this film. How are these settings presented to us? How are we being invited to view them?
For each key moment ask yourself questions like:
What are the main features of the locations in this key moment?
Is this the children’s world or that of the adults?
Who has power in this world? How is this power used?
What is the atmosphere like here?
How is this location being presented to us?
Would you like to live in this world? Why?
Does anyone move between the worlds in this key moment?
In the key moments you have chosen what indications are there that this film is a contemporary realistic drama based in the Italy of the seventies?
How is the mise en scène, costume, camera, dialogue and editing (Page 29) used to get the world of the film across to us?
How are we, the film audience, positioned by the camerawork, lighting and sound to view this world?
Do aspects of the setting act on a symbolic level in this key moment?
Do any of the props take on a symbolic role in this key moment?
How is the lighting used in this key moment?
A director may repeat dialogue, actions, composition (Glossary, Page 45), music etc. for a number of reasons. What examples of repetition can you spot in the key moments you have chosen? Do they form a pattern? What is the director’s purpose in such repetition? What effect has it on our view of the world of the film?