An epic mosaic on the theme of a small-scale exodus, the magnificent new Italian movie "The Night of the Shooting Stars" doesn't fool around.
The film, which opened Friday at the K-B Janus, offers the rare gratification of seeing a potentially great movie subject actually realized. The fraternal filmmaking team of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani (there's a two-year age difference, and the brothers, who have completed 11 features over the past 20 years or so, are now in their early fifties) never lose their grip on an exceptional opportunity. The result is one of the greatest human documents and emotional odysseys ever contrived for the medium.
In its distinctive way, "Shooting Stars," which follows a group of Tuscan villagers who flee their endangered town in the tense interval between the retreat of the Germans and the arrival of the Americans in the summer of 1944, duplicates the cumulative power of last year's gut-level German classic "Das Boot," an account of World War II submariners. Add the Tavianis' picture to the list of indispensable, indelible moviegoing experiences, and try to be understanding about the members of the foreign language committee at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, now open to merciless ridicule for blowing the chance to honor this beautiful achievement with even the token gesture of an Oscar nomination. (The fine new Hungarian film "Time Stands Still" was similarly snubbed, making it quite a year to forget in the Old Committee Room.)
The Tavianis had an extraordinary personal as well as artistic stake in "Shooting Stars." The movie evolved out of autobiographical experience: When the filmmakers were boys, their native village, San Miniato, was caught in the middle of deadly intrigues, animosities and betrayals as the occupying German army prepared to depart at the approach of the American Fifth Army, leaving the community to convulsive internecine battles between the local partisans and fascist militia.
The Germans facilitated reprisals as they left by mining a number of dwellings and one presumed sanctuary, the cathedral. The Tavianis began their collaborative directing career (evidently, they have such a symbiotic relationship that no one can detect a change in approach or emphasis when the brothers interchange scenes) in 1954 with a documentary short about the massacre at the cathedral. "Shooting Stars" incorporates that infamous episode into a comprehensive fictional re-creation of the community's ordeal.
The village is called San Martino in the movie, which is framed as an act of remembrance by the youngest member of the refugee party, Cecilia, a spunky 6-year-old in 1944 who is convinced at the start of the trek that she's having the time of her life. Cecilia the narrator is a gravely reflective woman, unseen until the concluding sequence. She sets the story in motion, purporting to recall the harrowing but avidly embraced adventure of three decades earlier for her own child. But when the scene shifts to the past, the Tavianis scarcely pretend to wed themselves to Cecilia's recollections, which are acknowledged to be heightened and exaggerated by the processes of memory anyway. The point of view fluctuates with deceptively random purposefulness from one character or set of characters to another. The vivid, heart-rending variety of impressions ultimately attains an epic magnitude, documenting a consistently astonishing, revealing range of human reactions to mortal danger.
The American artillery has been getting closer and closer. The immediate threat facing the noncombatants in San Martino is a rumor that the Germans plan to pull out in the early hours of the coming morning, setting off their explosives as a farewell gesture. The village priest, a fine figure of a man played by Dario Cantarelli, counsels taking refuge in the cathedral, trusting false assurances that it will remain a sanctuary. A grizzled farmer named Galvano (Omero Antonutti, the harsh and brutal peasant father of the Tavianis' "Padre Padrone," now embodies this benign, apprehensive Tuscan Moses) fears that the town is in for catastrophic reprisals. He persuades a small group of kinsmen and neighbors to defy the martial law restrictions and sneak out of town in the dead of night, trusting to find concealment and shelter in the countryside until they can locate the Americans.
The body of the movie consists of the events that happen to these fugitives, to the relatives and friends who elect to remain in town, and to the neighboring villagers, hostile and friendly, encountered by them over the next few days. The episodes are orchestrated to reach terrifying climaxes at two points--the massacre at the cathedral and a deadly skirmish between partisan and fascist neighbors that erupts in a hilly wheat field ready for harvesting.
After the first climax you fear that the Tavianis may have shot their narrative bolt prematurely, but there's no slack in the scenario. "Shooting Stars" resumes its confident episodic development, and the climax of Act Two proves far more dreadful than its predecessor. In fact, this brilliantly detailed and sustained sequence of sudden, furious communal violence in a serene pastoral setting leaves you profoundly stunned and impressed. It's indisputably one of the most intense battle spectacles ever filmed.
Even before the fugitives arrive at this unforgettable impromptu battlefield, the urgency of their situation gives every scene in the movie, the disarming comic moments conspicuously included, a heightened suspense and vividness.
The Tavianis have mastered a distinctively raw, direct acting style. They seem to work from very deep within an intuitive understanding of elemental emotions and an equally deep attachment to this rural landscape. None of the characters is better than he should be, but "Shooting Stars" illustrates how stirring it can be to see human impulses portrayed accurately.
Their alertness to the instinctive never seems forced. For example, the grief-stricken reaction of the fascist militiaman when his whimpering son is executed or the lyric image of Galvano's former sweetheart Concetta (Margarita Lozano), estranged from peasant habits for years thanks to a profitable marriage, suddenly dropping her genteel reserve by plopping down in the shallow part of a river for a cooling bath.
After the devastation of the wheat field, the Tavianis begin the healing process in a totally unexpected way, reuniting Galvano and Concetta in a brief interlude of exhausted, consoling romance that is surely one of the most affecting love scenes in movie history. Despite this inspired epiphany, you may still worry that they might not have the clincher to finish this movie on the ultimate note of exaltation it deserves. But they have.
Having waited a lifetime to celebrate this haunted chapter of their childhood, the brothers know exactly what they want and close with an ironic echo calculated to complete the experience with no less than a benediction.