Thursday, September 22, 2011

Of 'Carnage,' Tuscany and -- more importantly -- wine and fine food

For reasons having to do with things beyond my control, I'm in Italy at a time when some of the year's biggest - and purportedly best -- movies are opening. I'll have to catch up with the likes of Drive and Moneyball when I return, but for now I must content myself with eating indulgently, basking in the magnificent Tuscan scenery, and enriching myself with some of the most important art in western culture. Did I mention great food?

Of course, I did because if art is essential, food is more so.

In fact, eating is one of my favorite things, and Italy is one the rare places where you don't have to apologize for loading up on whatever regional specialty happens to cross your plate.

When in Florence, you eat (or should) like a Florentine. Should you find yourself in the tiny town of Bolgheri you, of course, would sample the baccala e patate (cod and potatoes mixed into a tasty paste) along with generous amounts of local wine, local in this case referring to one of the world's most important wine producing regions, home to vintners such as Antinori and Ruffino.

So how did all this come about?

As luck would have it (good for a change), I've taken up temporary residence in a refurbished farmhouse on the largest remaining intact estate in this crazy quilt of a country. I'm in the hills above Lucca, a small, clean and slightly standoffish city surrounded by an impossibly thick wall brought to completion in the 16th and 17th centuries. Among other achievements, Lucca is the hometown of Giacomo Puccini, who, as you no doubt know, wrote a few operas.

"Huh?" you may be saying to yourself at this point. Isn't this guy supposed to be writing about movies?

All right then, a little movie talk.

Before I arrived at this mountain retreat, I managed to see Roman Polanski's Carnage, which happened to be playing at the Odeon Cinema in Florence. The Odeon? Just ask someone to direct you to Palazzo Strozzi, and you'll be right there or, more reasonably, you could wait until Carnage shows up at a theater near you.

Well-received at the recently concluded Venice Film Festival, Carnage is the big-screen version of Yasmina Reza's play, God of Carnage. Originally written in French, the play caused quite a stir when its English-languge version opened on Broadway with James Gandolfini, Hope Davis, Marcia Gay Harden and Jeff Daniels.

Reza and Polanski collaborated on the movie's screenplay, which - like its theatrical predecessors -- takes aim at bourgeois pretensions, particularly those of the generation that has turned parenting into a profession.

Despite such contemporary relevance, Carnage does not feel entirely fresh. The movie can't help but evoke memories of Edward Albee's master class in sarcasm, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another look at two couples who find themselves at odds.

The story begins with two arguing kids. After a bit of playground pushing and shoving, one of the boys whacks the other in the head with a stick, knocking out two teeth and damaging a few nerves.

Parents of both boys agree to meet - sans children. The parents of the offending boy (Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz) visit the Brooklyn apartment of the parents of the "victim" (John C. Reilly and Jodie Foster). Reilly and Foster hope to resolve the matter amicably. Winslet and Waltz - sounds like a prestigious accounting firm, no? - aren't eager to admit their son's guilt. As the story unfolds, each of the characters becomes more revealed.

Waltz's Alan Cowan is a corporate attorney whose cell phone seems permanently attached to his ear; Winslet's Nancy Cowan does a slow burn because of her husband's refusal to focus on the matter at hand. Reilly's Michael Longstreet, a successful businessman, comes off as a nice guy - at least initially, and Foster's Penelope Longstreet seems to think of herself as a defender of important but threatened values. She's writing a book.

Cinematographer Pawel Edelman, who shot The Pianist and The Ghostwriter for Polanski, does what he can to keep the movie from feeling like what it is -- a play on film. The performances vary in quality with Reilly and Winslet acquitting themselves best. I'll save further comment for the movie's U.S. opening.

Instead, a few thoughts about seeing the movie in Italy.

As long as I've been writing about film, I've been encouraging people to embrace movies with subtitles, lest they miss some of the best work available on film these days. But I had a strange experience with subtitles while watching Carnage, which was shown in the original English with Italian subtitles.

Thank God, no Italian dubbing for this one - at least not yet.

Still, when I missed a word or line of dialogue, my eyes traveled toward the Italian subtitles in hopes of finding clarification. That might have made sense if I knew more than a smattering of Italian. Sure, I can order water (sparkling or natural) without missing a beat, but most of my Italian would embarrass all but the dimmest of Italian schoolchildren.

Not surprisingly, the subtitles did little to fill in the blanks. Still, my eyes were drawn to them. This made for a strange and disorienting experience: In the early going, I felt as if I not only couldn't understand Italian, but had lost the ability to comprehend spoken English. I'm not sure what besides lingering jet lag could have created such a bizarre situation. But there it was: I kept getting lost.

Eventually, I settled in, preparing myself for a much-discussed scene involving projectile vomiting, which (I'm happy to report) amused me while in no way deterring my pursuit of more fabulous meals.

I began by saying that I am in Italy as a result of circumstances beyond my control, by which I meant I'm accompanying my wife, who is teaching a painting workshop here.

Me? I eat. I drink wine. I read. I wander the thickly shaded roads that curl through Italy's largest remaining intact estate. I listen for the rustle of wildlife in the thick woods. I savor the aromas of still-green foliage as it teeters on the edge of a magnificent fall collapse, and I muse about the most pressing of matters. When, for example, will lunch will be served?

Of course, I'll catch up with movies when I return to the states. Meanwhile, Buon appetito, friends. See all the movies you want, but just as importantly eat often and eat well.

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