Tag Archives: Neo-realism

55TH NYFF: THE FLORIDA PROJECT

THE FLORIDA PROJECT

USA
Director: Sean Baker
Runtime: 110 minutes
Language: English

Mostlyindies.com grading: A+

Do not let the garish color palette of Sean Baker’s new movie The Florida Project fool you; despite its Floridian setting, this is as neo-realist (and I’m talking about the kinds Vittorio De Sica, Luschino Visconti, and especially Roberto Rossellini produced in the 40s, 50s, and 60s) a picture as can be and for that, it is at a much higher level than the sea of indies being produced by the masses today. I’d even go to deny its inclusion in the genre; indie cinema can be a rather grey area where kitchen sink dramas and low budget stories get lumped together with tales of existentialism, horror, and romance.

Baker’s cinema, and I also include his breakthrough 2015 movie Tangerine which followed a pair of trans-women working the streets of an LA no one gets to see, fall under the former, Italian style. Subtract the colors in The Florida Project and you get something similar to The Children are Watching Us, or even Sciusia (Shoe-Shine), the latter filled with irreverent boys creating mayhem. The one thing separating these movies is this larger-than-life joie-de-vivre that carries these kids through their day to day. Their Italian counterparts emerge with their spirits crushed; here, Baker’s children are defiant to the very end.

The plot of The Florida Project is rather minimal in appearance only. In fact, it’s so minimal that it seems to be just a study of people in a forgotten little corner of the world as they go through their day-to-day activities. Set in the fringes of Orlando in what were at one time the equivalent of Choice Hotels or Best Westerns and have now devolved into weekly motels for people below the poverty line, We get introduced into its pastel universe via the three kids at the center of the story: Moonee (the superb Brooklynn Prince, who has arrived fully formed as an actress with a capital A), Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and Jancy (Valeria Scotto). Unschooled, they spend their days at play moving throughout the motels like a coven of mini-thugs looking for a thrill, causing all sorts of problems while their mothers scrape away just to bring food to the table. Moonees mother Haley (Bria Vinaite, also a force of nature, girlish, but a feral survivor), a waifish horror with shoulder-length blue hair and tattoos, is the least responsible, moving from hotel to hotel selling perfumes and scamming the unsuspecting. She has no sense of direction and could care less; she just wants a fix and will even use Moonee to get what she wants.

At the other end of this scenario, standing like an observer, is Bobby (Willem Dafoe) who might just be the only and closest thing Moonee will ever know as a father. Early scenes don’t seem to give him a lot to do; as a matter of fact all he can do is to nicely ask Haley for the rent money, or repair the AC that the kids blew out while keeping the place bright and colorful. However, if you look closely into Bobby’s face there is a worn-out sadness living there, magnified because we don’t know who the man is other than his part in the movie. We don’t know how he got here, what his private life is like. We just know and see him hovering protectively around the trio, chiding their mostly useless mothers, and acting like any father would do: stern, but clearly loving and warm.

So as I said, the story is minimal, but if you look closer, you will see an arc developing. The actions at the start look like a preview. The kids get into mischief, cause a problem, clean the mess, and move on. The next event is a little more brazen, as is the next. When they unwittingly (and innocently) cross the line into crime, the film takes a subtle turn: dynamics are broken, Haley finds out Scooty’s mother doesn’t want her son hanging out with Moonee anymore and denies them leftover food from the eatery where she works, which puts Haley in a bind and hell-bent on getting even, acting out even against Bobby who for a chunk of the movie has let her go scot-free. You can sense a pressure cooker building in the film’s final quarter, here, a noose tightening around the characters. Nothing — not even this delusion of endless summer and arrested development — and actions bring consequences. The way Baker handles this is again, a writer-director in full control of his story who isn’t unafraid of delving into a moment of fantasy even when it’s clear that the gig is up, and everyone has to get out of the pool.

The Florida Project opens in limited theaters October 6.

ON DVD: A BRIEF VACATION (1973)

Hooked on Film rating:

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

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People in Italian Neo-realism films don’t usually take vacations; they barely have any money to even get on by, and Vittorio De Sica’s next to last movie deviates only very slightly from his usual topic. While not as brutally draining of hope as his 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves (I Ladri di Bicicleta), and not quite as emotionally powerful as his 1970  The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini), A Brief Vacation is both a return to his his core topic, and a welcome departure as well.

The movie focuses on Clara Mataro (Florinda Bolkan), a woman working in a factory, providing for her disabled husband Renato. At the opening of this film, Clara is at her last rope. Nothing works properly in her house and on top of that she is expected to go to work under long commutes and still put food on her family’s plate. Things take a turn for the worse when she starts fainting at work; a visit to the doctor discloses that she has become tubercular and must cease work at once and get some much needed recovery.

This doesn’t bode well for her family, who view Clara as a money-making machine, and an exchange with a young man who is also at the doctors leads to accusations of infidelity bordering on spousal abuse from her husband. Still, against her husband’s wishes, she takes the decision and boards a train that takes her to the mountains of Italy far north to start a new chapter of mental and physical recovery.

Once there she befriends an interesting group of women: one, a famous singer (played by Adriana Asti) with an advanced stage of cancer who maintains a strong front while collapsing on the inside, a trophy wife (Teresa Gimpera), and a young woman who won’t eat. Clara, herself a victim of a hard life, slowly finds her footing in ways she could not have while living with her family. Somehow, these wounded women see a subtle strength that Clara herself probably didn’t know she possessed and come to depend on her for support when they themselves have to confront their inner pain.

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The one thing that lingers a tad plastic in the movie is that the young man she met at the doctor’s office also comes to visit for an indefinite stay. This seems a tad fabricated for the purpose of romantic drama, (and for some reason it made me think of how romance also happened to Cecilia, another lonely woman who escapes reality by via of a movie heartthrob in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo) However, this new man also works to Clara’s favor: she discovers passion, and with that, her own beauty. De Sica, however, doesn’t go the route of giving her a makeover, and Bolkan is marvelous in depicting the subtle nuances that she herself is perhaps more confident than she initially let on. Perhaps an actress with less presence may have required this treatment — typical of Hollywood — but Bolkan, it’s always there, flickering, like an inner light.

It’s because of this that Clara’s slow evolution from battered, sick housewife to a woman who is becoming more herself even when she may have to return home when her family comes to fetch for her, that one realizes just how strong and independent she really is. A Brief Vacation may not have all the answers into resolving her quandary as of what comes after recovery, but as a character study of a woman coming back from the edge of darkness, A Brief Vacation is a movie that while has its feet firmly entrenched in its Neo-realist roots also offers a core element: a glimmer of hope. You couldn’t ask for more evolution than that in a director.