Once upon a time there was a masterpiece of Italian cinema, Fellini’s “Otto e Mezzo” (Eight and a half), in which a charming, confused, sexually obsessed, quintessentially Italian (in a good AND bad way) Marcello Mastroianni re-enacted Federico Fellini’s fantasies on films and women.
The title, Eight and a half, referred to several things. The simplest explanation and the “official” one is that the film was Fellini’s 8th and the half movie (half because one was a short). More symbolical explanations see in 8 and 1/2 the age at which the lead character, Guido Contini, first discovered women and sex thanks to an old, fat prostitute, Sarraghina, who lived in a hut metres away from his Catholic boarding school.
Guido grows up to become a succesful film director, and notorious womanizer – depite being regularly married. However, on hitting 50, the typically Catholic contrast between Holy and Profane, Sin and Virtue, the Mother/Wife type of woman and the Lover/Whore kind, leads Guido to a breakdown. His inspiration is gone, he can’t make films anymore, he’s stuck and all his women seem to leave him at once, unwilling to go on playing his game. In his mind past memories and present fantasies mix in an oniric sequence, while his real life falls apart. But eventually, when all seems lost, the idea for a new film appears.
Once upon a time there was my favourite musical, NINE, a simple, effective, musically inspiring, visually clever stage version of “Otto e mezzo” (NINE was an easier word to fit into music than eight-and-a-half, hence the extra six months)
I discovered NINE during my very first month in London, in late 1996, when the agent I went to see told me “Oh no, you should have come last month when they were casting for Nine! They were looking for 11 women and all with an Italian accent! You must go and see it, in case they re-cast it.”
I did as advised. NINE was a show produced by the Donmar Warehouse, at the time still under the guide of Sam Mendes – who had still to direct “American Beauty”.
It blew me away. The crazy, oniric spirit of the film was there, in all its complex paradoxes, but the dramatic structure of the show was simple: a Spa hotel in Italy, Guido barricated into a room – a press conference waiting in the hall, his old lover in the next room, his agent nagging at the door, his sexy new lover on the phone, his wife surprising him, the memories of his adoring mother and of Sarraghina the whore playing tricks in his mind. This colourful cast of incredible female characters twirled and span around Guido, singing beautiful songs like “Unusual way” and “My husband makes movies”, trying to seduce him with hilarious numbers such “A call from the Vatican”. They demand his attention, love, respect, work, while he sits on his chair unable to make sense of his life. A younger version of himself – a nine year old Guido – joins him on stage and takes him on a journey along memory lane. Sarraghina appears, together with Guido’s mother and an army of priests and nuns… Nine… If only he could be nine again and change everything…
In the Donmar version at some point Guido, forced by his producer to start shooting a film, any film, decides on a “period” piece set in Venice. The small stage filled up with a few inches of water, all actors wore 18th century wigs, and used chairs as bridges to move across the “Venice Lagune”. It was an incredibly visually effective scene, fiction within fiction within fiction. No need for special effects and expensive sets, some water, two wigs and a few chairs and Venice was there. Real theatre magic. Brilliant.
Once upon a time there was NINE the film, a movie that cost 80 million dollars, boasted a stellar cast of Hollywood stars, and a director, Rob Marshall, who had previously achieved the impossible task of turning one of the least cinematic musicals, Chicago, into a superb film.
But NINE the film is a flop. Nine the film is a bore. Nine the film is by far one of the least engaging musicals I’ve ever seen. Nine the film is a stellar confusion. Why?
Here’s my opinion.
Fellini’s 8 and 1/2 and Nine the stage musical told the same story but were not the same thing. In both cases the directors managed to achieve the best their specific MEDIA could offer. So Fellini’s used the oniric potential of cinema to play out his fantasies and frustrations, trusting Mastroianni’s ironic and melancholic charm and the power of images. The great virtue of Nine the stage musical was in taking 8 and 1/2 structural elements – a charming womaniser in a midlife crisis, the women of his life, a film that can’t be shot – and turning them into a quintessentially theatrical performance, challenging,entertaining and moving.
NINE the film doesn’t know what it wants to be, other than a soup re-heated 3 times. A great film it ain’t as it’s too packed with too long dance numbers and the story is so diluted it gets lost; and it fails to be even an acceptable musical, despite using 70% of the stage version tunes, as the best ones have either been cut, re-written or placed in the wrong scene. All the new songs – of which there was no need – are banal, long and tuneless. Nine the film isn’t a remake of 8 and 1/2 in music, and it isn’t the faithful film version of the stage musical. It’s a sort of mixbetween the two and in its inability to make the most of its medium fails as a film and is only a pale, worse version of the stage show.
Nine oozes glamour and money at every shot but it’s all giltzy frame and no content. Nothing could be more different from both the simplicity of the theatre version and the dream-like, naive fantasies of the original film than its superglam choreographies and its beauty-contest dancers. Fellini’s films told the fantasies of the post war Italian men, a men who dreamed about big tits and blond prostitutes improvising rumbas in the streets, not Kidman-esque anorexic actresses in immaculate design clothes.
Chicago was unrealistic, runchy, theatrical and grotesque. Nobody would have tried to spot in it the true 1920s Chicago. Nine isn’t theatrical enough to be unrealistic and grotesque and it’s not filmic enough to be realistic and believable. It’s like a TV advert, only two hours long. Glamourous women immaculately dressed, beautiful men on scooters, fine restaurants, elegant shops, and then glitter, glitter, glitter. It’s Italy through the eyes of a gay American tourist. I expected George Clooney coming up any minute advertising “Nespresso” coffee…
If Marshall had at least followed the structure of the original show, the story would have been clear. But by swapping songs round, adding characters that don’t mean anthing, changing locations he confuses the viewer who’s never seen the show and highly disappoints Nine’s fans.
Basically, after 30 minutes the audience that hasn’t seen the theatre show has no clue what the film is about, after 45 minutes they still don’t know but begin not to care and after one hour they think they’d have been better off watching AVATAR as this is boring like hell.
And the lack of irony!!! Nine takes itself increidbly seriously – which is another thing Fellini always avoided and the stage version never did. Everything that made the show light and enjoyable has gone. Forgotten is the great song “Italians at the Spa” with its sequel of awkward characters crowding the hotel where Guido is hiding. Instead we have Peneope Cruz singing “A call from the Vatican” totally out of context (the irony of Guido pretending to be on the phone with a Monsignore while being sexually provoked lost between the close ups on Cruz’s bum). With a total lethal choice Cruz’s character, Carla, is transformed from sexy, fun, no ties lover to married woman carrying a long term secret relationship with Guido who ends up commiting suicide in a dodgy pensione, where her ugly fat husband finds her almost dead… A cheap melodrama that doesn’t add anything and simply ruins the fun of Carla’s character.
From vamp to wimp.
But other characters have also been ruined. In the frenzic attempt to cram as many big names as possible into one movie – just in case they’d all die in 2010 – the delicate, complex, beautiful Claudia – Guido’s muse and great love – has been relegated to 5 minutes two third of the way into the movie. Then there’s Judy Dench, impeccable and amazing as usual, but playing the totally useless made-up role of a costume designer. Why is a costume designer doing on a set of a film that hasn’t been written yet, it’s not clear. Marion Cotilliard is a fantastic actress and singer, and probably the best performer in the movie. But she’s far too young for the role of Guido’s long term wife, who should obviously be his same age, since she sings about their past together. Of course the words of the beautiful “My husband makes movies” have been changed to accomodate such changes, and the fact that she’s now a Parisian actress who goes back to acting after leaving Guido. Useless to say, the original was a million times more powerful.
And it goes on. The hilarious role of the arrogant, middle aged, French film reviewer has disappeared in favour of a silly blond American journalist played by Kate Hudson who also appears for only 5 minutes to seduce Guido and sing an awful song dancing like a “velina” on Italian tv.
And can I point out that, for a film that has 10 Italian women as protagonists, there are NO ITALIAN ACTRESSES on sight except a superbotoxed Sophia Loren?
This is appaling! We do have good actresses in Italy, why do you need to cast a Spaniard, a French and an AUSTRALIAN WITH NO FACIAL EXPRESSIONS as Italian?? And what is it with Americans and Sophia Loren? Or is with gays and Sophia loren? Get over her! Ok, she was beautiful and sexy 50 years ago, but so was the Adriatic Sea, Queen elizabeth and Tom Jones, and nobody goes on and on about them. And even 50 years ago, she couldn’t act! Anna Magnani was the greatest Italian actress of that time, not Loren. Claudia Cardinale was a million times more stunning and still is, since she doesn’t have that orange glow that Loren now boasts thanks to fake tan!!! Sophia Loren… Oh dear me. If she’s believable as Daniel Day Lewis’ mother I want to be cast as Denzel Washington’s natural son.
When the original score WOULD have offered the opportunity for drama, tragedy and emotions, Marshall prefers to cut. So gone is “Simple”, gone is “The bells of Saint Sebastian”… “Unusual way”, one of the most beautiful songs written for musical theatre in the past 15 years, passes almost unnoticed, thanks to an editing that focuses on fountains and architecture rather than on the lyrics. Perhaps the director was trying to distract us from Nicole Kidman’s uninspiring singing… For sure Kidman couldn’t be more wrongly cast as Claudia, a role that requires a passionate, curvy and Italian actress, not an Australian icy queen whose face is paralized by botox.
The fact that Anthony Minghella interfered with the screenplay might have had a role in making a shamble of Nine. I hate talking idly of the dead, but Minghella directed the worst melodramas in cinema history, such as the English Patient, and the horrific Return to Blue Mountain. Minghella’s greatest ability was to take a good book (or show in this case) and turn it into a neverending, boring, over the top, unlikely melodrama, adding some incredibly camp touches on the way.
Another huge flaw in the film, that contribute to its “heaviness”, so unlike the lightness of its tow predecessors, is the lead actor, Daniel Day Lewis. In 8 and 1/2, despite his crisis, Guido was a charming, handsome, genial womanizer who never lost his sense of humour. Guido’s “block” in the film and the theatre show was, in Freudian terms, the result of the sense of guilt his Catholic mother has instilled in him. But it wasn’t seen as a world’s tragedy. More like the personal struggle of a supposedly “big” but in fact very small, middle aged man. Guido feels dirty, corrupted, but at the same time he loves his corruption and knows that somehow his art is linked to his dark side.
Nine the film takes Guido’s crisis incredibly seriously. Daniel Day Lewis is indeniably a great actor, but irony, self deprecation and lightness aren’t his forte. There isn’t one single light note in his Guido, as there isn’t a single Italian note in his odd, vaguely Russian, fake Italian accent. He might have spent months reseraching his role, but perhaps he would have been better off relaxing and having a glass of wine on a beach, as his trying so hard in this case is counterproductive. He just doesn’t GET it. Mastroianni was charming, funny, melancholic. Raul Julia, who played Guido at the Donmar, shared the same qualities. Antonio Banderas – who played the role on Broadway – was sexy, akward and cocky. DDL is such an annoying, self centred, miserable womanizer with no charm who hardly ever smiles.
In fact… George Clooney would have been much better, thinking about it. He could have winked at his love for silly, glamorous Italian women with big tits and sold Nespresso coffee at the same time! And I’m pretty sure his singing voice is not worse than DDL’s…
Really, somebody should have explained the film to poor Danny, pity everyone is apparently too terrified of him to actually speak to gim. Danny, Danny, why are you so impossible? I was told Marshall didn’t even have the guts to ask him to re-voice parts of his performances where the accent really didn’t work (and this isn’t gossip. This I KNOW. How do I know? I can’t say.)
Yes, DDL has played some great roles in the past but perhaps somebody should extract the huge pillar stuck inside his behind so he could start relaxing and realising he’s not God, just a performer.
What a pity, what a lost chance… Well, let’s look at the bright side. Since Nine the film will be soon forgotten, I can go on using A call from the Vatican and Unusual Way as audition songs, as they will remain fairly unknown.
For the joy of my friend Billy who always asks me to sing them.
who’s not wearing any clothes? I’m not!!! BAMBINO…