Jaws in space

jaws in space

This is the 4th of twenty-one lessons for design students, gathered from the combined experience of being a student, and teaching students. I will published one lesson each weekday until they’re done.

4. Jaws in space

It is rumoured that big Hollywood film studios have the attention spans of goldfish. When pitching a film therefore, a director is required to distill all its majesty, nuance and complexity into a single soundbite. It is also rumoured that when Ridley Scott did so for his 1979 classic, he said:

“Alien will be like Jaws in space.”

What I love about this story, true or not, is how evocative it is. Think about Jaws for a second: the terror of a great white shark coming for you while you’re stranded in the water. You’re in his domain, and he’s purpose-built for killing. There are grizzled surfer types who are called upon to save the world, there are screaming bystanders, outrageous action sequences and plenty of gore. Is there any idea more terrifying than the unexplored depths of the world’s oceans?

Well yes, it just so happens there is. All you need to do is swap the cold, deep waters surrounding the island of Amity with the colder, deeper vacuum surrounding the metallic hull of Nostromo.

Jaws in space tells you everything you need to know about Alien, not the plot or the characters or the detail, but the big picture, the sweeping gesture. With extraordinary frugality, Scott capitalised on the recent excitement of Jaws (released just four years earlier), then vividly promised something better. Jaws in space was really another way of saying Jaws only more dangerous, more exciting, more lucrative.

This is a lesson I impart to my students repeatedly, so much so that I’m certain they grow sick of it. I ask them to begin every feedback session with their own Jaws in space project description. It forces them to distill their ideas to their essence, and to do so both efficiently and vividly. If a student can’t reduce all the complexity of her project into a few words, then it means she don’t understand it yet. And if she doesn’t understand it, then how can she develop it?


Image source

  1. Jaws in space, author’s own image.

Gravity

gravity breakaway

What is it?

A film by Mexican director, Alfonso Caurón, that explores the fragility of human inhabitation of space. Gravity begins 600km above the Earth’s surface, where a NASA Explorer shuttle is docked to the Hubble space telescope. Civilian scientist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), is retrofitting the telescope as part of a scientific grant, employed we imagine to replace NASA’s dwindling government funding with private investment. Despite her determination, she is nauseated by the zero gravity, slow moving and clumsy. Floating with contrasting ease on a compressed-air thruster pack is Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut whose cheerful countenance masks reassuring capability.

This is to be the last spacewalk for Kowalski, who will retire upon returning to Earth. His only disappointment is that his cumulative time in space will be 75 minutes short of the (correctly referenced) world record held by Latvian cosmonaut, Anatoly Solovyev.

Easy chatter between Kowalski and Houston is interrupted by a matter-of-fact announcement that a Russian test missile has accidentally struck a nearby satellite. The announcement feels commonplace and unthreatening, a scholarly observation. But it soon evolves into a mission abort order when shrapnel from the collision causes a chain reaction of further satellite impacts, flinging a cloud of high-speed debris towards the Hubble. As the cloud destroys satellite after satellite in its path, communication with Houston is lost. Within minutes, the cloud reaches them and rips telescope, shuttle and astronauts to shreds.

The boom to which Stone is tethered is sheared from the shuttle and both are flung away from safety in an uncontrollable spin. Stone manages to untether herself, but is unable to slow her spin and quickly loses all radio contact. The scene, of a tiny white figure alone against the vast backdrop of the Milky Way, personalises the devastation of the collision. For long seconds, the camera focusses only on Stone’s face and the panic written all over it: the tiny gap between life and death in space is made all too clear.

When minutes later (though it feels like hours) Kowalski locates and retrieves her, the feeling of relief that floods us is palpable. He is non-plussed, almost casual in his demeanour. Despite the extreme fragility of their circumstances, he calms both Stone and the audience, more reassuring than ever. Illogical as it may seem, we feel certain that both will survive this ordeal. Dear readers, we strongly encourage you to see Gravity for yourselves to discover how the rest of it unfolds.

gravity impact

What do we think?

Gravity is extraordinary, the simplicity of its story rendered perfectly by the grandness of its setting: a scientist is retrofitting a sensitive piece of equipment, a soldier is on hand to ensure she can do her work safely. Disaster strikes, and both scientist and soldier must struggle to survive. This trajectory could have easily been set in Afghanistan, out at sea or next to a volcano, but none of these would have matched the power and majesty of space.

It is a disaster film, as much about its magnificent use of computer generated imagery as anything else, but it nevertheless manages to convincingly flesh out the personalities of its characters. Caurón treats both Stone and Kowalsky with endearing tenderness: he makes us understand that they are good people, remarkable for having been selected to travel into space, but not superheroes. They are grounded by their own histories and aspirations, backstories that make sense of the actions they take under extreme circumstances.

Bullock is excellent. Her long conversations with American astronaut, Cady Coleman, have resulted in a character that is both physically and emotionally convincing: the way she gulps in air to calm her early nausea; her helplessness after she untethers from the shuttle; her swimming movement through the International Space Station. How she managed, in normal gravity, to film the motion of her limbs so they portray a person in zero gravity is beyond us.

But most arresting is the film’s unerring faith to the limits of reality. Caurón chose not to invent new spacecraft with which to tell his story, “why invent when we have the most amazing technology already up there?” He has anchored it instead in scientific fact: the shuttle, telescope and space station feel familiar and contemporary. The bulky suits, modern materials and micro-gravity of space travel are as close to the real deal as he could possibly make it.

Sound is critical in conveying this quality: the disembodied voices of fellow astronauts, pilots and ground base; the intimate sound of Stone’s breathing, and the way it changes when she is scared, exerting herself or low on oxygen; the low-tech crackle of radio chatter and the strange vibrations of tortured metal; and throughout it all, the uncanny silence that accompanies even the most horrific of explosions.

Poetic licence has been taken only with the positioning of the various satellites and space stations that comprise the film’s sets. In reality, it is not possible to travel from the Hubble to the International Space Station, nor from the space station to China’s space lab, Tiangong 1. Caurón acknowledges that these craft are carefully choreographed specifically to avoid the sorts of catastrophes that drive his film, but says “we had to put them in a similar orbital plane because otherwise we would not be able to tell the story.” An early script that attempted to stay true to every facet of the space programme was towering and soon discarded, “everything was just about explaining to the audience about all that stuff, so we had to try to create a balance.”

There is only one scene that strays from the strictures of reality, a scene that David Stratton argues “should never have been included.” We’re in two minds: on the one hand, it is the weak link in a film otherwise firmly anchored in, and made plausible by, the physicality of modern space flight; on the other, it is an understandable segue into the inevitable psychological distress that the preceding catastrophes would establish. Either way, by providing a framework for the bulk of Gravity of such convincing realness, Caurón has crafted an environment in which the most extraordinary of events are unimpeachable.

We watched the film in 3D at the IMAX cinema in Melbourne Museum, easily worth the extra $6 ticket price. If there were ever a film to convince us of the benefits of 3D cinema photography, this is it: its spectacular imagery of both orbit and collision are breathtaking. Where the perception of depth is constrained in other films by horizons and buildings, here there is only hundreds of kilometres of empty space.

Gravity is a tense film, not for the faint-hearted, and unexpectedly difficult for a parent to watch. But it is mesmerising throughout. 4.5 stars.

gravity dangling

Django Unchained

jamie foxx

What is it?

The most recent film by cult director, Quentin Tarantino. Set in southern American slave country in the late 1850s, Django Unchained is one in a long line of loose reinterpretations of 1966 Italian western, Django.

The film’s title character, played enigmatically by Jamie Foxx, is a black slave who is freed by German bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz, played by Christoph Waltz with his usual articulate charm. The first half of the film develops the relationship between the two against a backdrop of increasingly bloody violence. As Schultz schools Django in the arts of his trade, Tarantino’s trademark gore flies thickly and quickly.

The second half of the film steps up its inevitable tension with the introduction of slaver and mandingo “breeder”, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). A mandingo is a black slave who, for the sport of his owner, fights bare handed against other slaves to the death. While we were of course put in mind of Rome’s gladiatorial contests, Tarantino substitutes the colosseum’s theatricality with the harrowing intimacy of Candie’s parlour. And though there is little historic evidence to suggest mandingo fighting actually existed, its stomach-churning plausibility amplifies its on-screen power.

In addition to his disturbing taste in sport, Candie also owns Django’s wife, a house slave with the surprisingly German name, Broomhilda. Fascinated by this coincidence, Schultz assists Django in his attempt to free her with the ruse of an interest in purchasing one of Candie’s fighters. As Schultz explains, Django is the Norse hero and maiden mythology’s Siegfried, setting out to rescue his wife from her captor.

What do we think?

We love Tarantino’s films and Django Unchained is no exception. It is political, violent, funny, meaningful and entertaining: Foxx, Waltz and DiCaprio are joined by a high quality cast who all give outstanding performances; the plot is characteristically simple yet masterfully woven; the western genre is exploited brilliantly; and the subject matter is serendipitously poignant given the concurrent release of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

franco nero

Tarantino explores his usual richness of cinematic references and oddball character placements, starting with a cameo by Franco Nero, the notably well-preserved actor who played the original Django. The hilarious and disturbing scene of a Ku Klux Klan mob storming a hill echoes a similar scene from Seven Samurai (1954); there are songs from the musical scores of 1960s Italian westerns; rolling text that recalls Gone With The Wind (1939); and our favourite, a small part played by Tarantino himself doing a remarkable rendition of a broad Australian accent.

We are pleased to see him working again with some of his favourite actors: Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson. In fact, Tarantino goes a step further, developing not only a character but an entire story arc for the German and French speaking Waltz. It is clear that Tarantino has an uncanny gift for rewarding unrecognised talent: a brief survey of their filmographies reveals that Waltz has shifted into Hollywood stardom since Inglorious Basterds (2009), as has Michael Fassbender. John Travolta is another prominent benefactor, his career receiving Tarantino’s kiss of life with Pulp Fiction (1994).

Given the degeneracy the tabloids constantly insist defines Hollywood, it is satisfying to see glimpses of professional and personal integrity at work here. In this and other ways, Tarantino is one of only a few contemporary Hollywood directors whose creativity and unique voice stamp an undeniable energy on a film. In our opinion, matched only by Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers, who have also nurtured lasting relationships with particular actors, Tarantino justifies his cult following.

But what is most striking about this film is Tarantino’s dedication to revisionist history. Much like Inglorious Basterds, which (spoiler alert) saw Adolf Hitler shot repeatedly and gratifyingly in the face with machine guns, then exploded and then set on fire, Django Unchained re-imagines the dark slave era as a place where a black man can have the guts, skills and luck to take down an entire plantation of white slave owners.

We all have that innocent schoolboy within us, the one who dreams of beating to a pulp one of history’s many evil legends. Tarantino however also has a Hollywood studio and considerable budgets at his disposal to turn these idle dreams into cinematic realities.

We heard recently that Tarantino doesn’t just make films, he has an entire imaginary world inside his head, one where contract killers do have bloody accidents in the backs of Chevrolets, where Hitler and his henchmen are assassinated to end World War II. Django Unchained rests comfortably in this world, a place where black slaves rise up and forcibly obtain their freedom. Herein lies Tarantino’s true genius: his ability to make films may be unique but the imagination that spurs him is common. It resonates with all our imaginations: his films touch that deep chord within us that constantly asks, “Wouldn’t it be great if…?”

One of Tarantino’s best: 4.5 stars.

kill shot

Analysis of the Dark Knight

Who is he?

Batman, a comic book superhero created in 1939 by DC Comics artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger. Most recently (and in case, dear reader, you have been living under a rock the past few years), he has been the protagonist of a now-concluded film trilogy by director Christopher Nolan. Played by Christian Bale with an intensity unmatched by previous renditions, the trilogy is easily Batman’s best, and darkest, incarnation.

Note: the following article includes a number of spoilers.

What do we think?

Like the three acts of a soaring opera, Nolan’s three films progress through a recognisable sequence of introduction, evolution and conclusion. Each act focusses on a distinct theme central to the mythology of Batman, and is tightly tied to narrative and character development. Nolan has exercised great discretion with his trilogy, crafting a powerful series of films that redefine the Batman franchise, (thankfully) overcoming Joel Schumacher’s embarrassingly garish Batman and Robin (1995), and significantly raising the bar in the superhero genre.

The opera opens with Batman Begins (2005). As the title suggests, it introduces us to the  origins of Batman and the unusual combination of events that lead Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s richest man, to don mask and cape and hunt criminals in the night. Fear is the theme that drives this film and its nuanced exploration of Batman’s motivations: fear of his past drives him to flee his privileged existence, to seek out the darkest fringes of society; fear of bats leads him to select a cave inhabited by a colony of them as his subterranean lair; this fear also causes him to choose the bat as his symbol, to instill his lingering childhood phobia into the hearts of his enemies; finally, fear is the psychoactive effect of the narcotic agent employed by those enemies and the weapon they attempt to use on the populace of Gotham.

These cinematic elements are so tightly woven they are impossible to unravel. As Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson) observes to Wayne: “You must journey inwards, to what you really fear. It’s inside you.” We learn that fear is the origin, motivation and method of Batman. He is an agent of it, inspired by it and inspiring it.

The second act arrives in the form of The Dark Knight, much-lauded in no small way thanks to Heath Ledger‘s excellent and final role as the Joker. Duality is the theme that shapes this film and its detailed exploration of the conflicting forces of Batman’s psychology. This is revealed most significantly in the characters of Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) and the Joker. Dent is Gotham’s White Knight, a district attorney determined to bring down organised crime from within the system; the Joker is a sociopathic agent of chaos – a man who pursues destruction without motive, “who just wants to watch the world burn”.

In terms of narrative, Batman is caught between these two forces, yet in terms of psychology, they both exist within him. The duality of hero and agent of chaos are epitomised by Batman’s intervention with the criminal underground of Gotham: he does good, but he does so outside the law. Dent’s lucky coin is a significant indicator of the shifting patterns of this duality, both within the separate characters of Dent and the Joker and within Batman himself.

Ultimately, Dent’s honourable ambitions are spoiled by the Joker, and the Joker’s destructive ones are foiled by Batman. Batman comes to understand that he must take on both roles: he saves Gotham from the Joker but to protect Dent’s legacy, casts himself as the villain. Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) observes at the conclusion of the film that “Batman is the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now”. He accepts both roles, becomes a combination of hero and anti-hero.

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is the conclusion of the cinematic opera. Here, Nolan explores questions of humanity and the superhero, what unifies them and what separates them. The central theme that shapes this final instalment is an examination of the role of transformation in the identity of Batman.

The film returns to the origins of Batman and the sacrifices Bruce Wayne made in becoming him. Batman cannot be corrupted – he is a symbol, so can be any man. But in creating the symbol Wayne willingly became it, shedding his humanity in pursuit of a higher good. Indeed, his joke at the masked ball that he has come as Bruce Wayne yields more than a grain of truth. Wayne is now the mask, Batman the true persona.

Throughout the trilogy, Wayne speaks of a time when he can do away with the cape, once again become the man. In Batman Begins, he extracts a promise from Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes) that they can be together once Batman is no more. In The Dark Knight, he is convinced Dent will allow him to achieve this. Only in the final instalment does he come to accept what he must do to achieve this transformation. This film encapsulates Wayne’s reawakening, stepping back from the impossible humanity of the symbol and reclaiming his humanity. As Batman, he fears nothing, not even death, but to become Bruce Wayne again, he must re-find his fear. When he is trapped inside The Pit by Bane (Tom Hardy), a fellow, blind prisoner asks him: “How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?”

The message here is clear: only a man who fears death can extract every promise from life. In escaping The Pit, Bruce Wayne re-finds his fear of death and uses the strength it gives him to overcome Bane. But he discovers he can also use it to overcome the inhumanity of Batman.

Thus Nolan’s trilogy reaches the conclusion of its story arc, exploring with extraordinary thoroughness the many complexities of the Batman mythology. We have seen both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight many times and found that they improve with each viewing, revealing fractal detail with every iteration: 5 stars. The Dark Knight Rises is most certainly a worthy conclusion, but having seen it only once we will reserve final judgment until subsequent viewings: 4 stars.

The Oscars

What are they?

An awards ceremony this Sunday afternoon (Pacific Standard Time) conducted by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that recognises excellence in film making over the past 12 months. Separate awards are bestowed upon the best film, best director, best actor, best actress and a host of other individuals. The Oscars is recognised as the most prestigious awards ceremony of the year and rounds out a season of similar ceremonies that include the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Golden Globes and the British Academy of Film and Television Awards.

What do we think?

We love the Oscars season, when the world’s film studios put their best feet forward in a collective effort to win one of the coveted golden trophies. Irrespective of the controversy that often surrounds the Oscars nominations (entire sites are dedicated to the discussion of films that should have been included), the important and undeniable outcome is that film lovers are spoilt with a great choice of high-quality cinematic experiences. With The Artist, The Descendants and Hugo, Moneyball, The Help and Midnight in Paris, this year has been no exception.

Together with a small group of friends, we will be attending a winner-takes-all Oscars night wherein we bet upon fifteen of the most important categories. Some of our nominations, and the reasons for them, are as follows:


Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist

There has been a lot of hype surrounding Michel Hazanavicius’ enigmatic film, The Artist, and for good reason. Set at the simultaneous death of silent cinema and birth of the “Speakies” era, and revolving around the emotional turmoil of one of the former’s most prolific and celebrated stars, this film is an example of a simple idea executed to perfection. It is a silent film about the death of silent cinema that exploits this long-forgotten cinematic technique to great effect. The performances of both Dujardin and Bejo are outstanding, imbuing vast life without the crutch of their voices. Part theatre, part historical recreation, this film deserves its hype, the overflowing bounty of awards it has already collected, and the swag of Oscars it is sure to claim Sunday afternoon.

We have nominated The Artist for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Costume Design: 4 stars.

Shailene Woodley, George Clooney, Amara Miller and Nick Krause in The Descendants

Nominated in almost as many categories as The Artist, Alexander Payne’s film, The Descendents, is an engaging tale of family, love lost and survival. George Clooney puts in a magnificently subtle performance as a man who learns that his recently comatose wife was having an affair. He must step up as the parent he never had to be with his wife awake, whilst also taking care of the family estate and holding himself together. The relationship he has with his eldest daughter, played by Shailene Woodley, is fascinatingly complex. Each character is rendered with utterly convincing personality and nuance, imbuing this film with great feeling. The Descendants does what films do best: it tells a story about ordinary people in interesting circumstances.

In any other year, we think The Descendants would claim far more Oscar nods, and indeed it is our preferred film, but up against The Artist, a film about the history of films, we think it will play second fiddle in most categories. We have nominated it for Best Adapted Screenplay: 4.5 stars.

Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz in Hugo

We must admit to being both surprised and curious when we learned that Martin Scorsese was making a children’s film. However, despite being marketed this way, we suggest that Hugo is anything but. It has all the hallmarks of a Scorsese film – great attention to detail, period immersion, a real passion for the art of film making – and succeeds in layering an adventurous plot over a sophisticated exploration of  the life and works of a seminal early film maker, Georges Méliès (played by Ben Kingsley). Butterfield and Moretz are good and the comic interludes of Sacha Baron Cohen are fun, but all are overshadowed by the mesmerisingly intricate clockwork that fills both set and story. Here was a period in our history where mechanical ingenuity was expressed in all its notched and ratcheted glory.

Our big regret with this film was not taking the advice of the inestimable Margaret and David and seeing it in 3D. The naivety of the first cinema audiences may be forever lost, but with Hugo, Scorsese has attempted to recall that innocence, hoping to use old tricks in new ways to transfer his passion for cinema to young audiences.

We have nominated Hugo for Best Cinematography: 4 stars.

Warrior

What is it?

New film by Gavin O’Connor starring Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as mixed martial artists, Tommy and Brendan Conlon. The two are entrants into a world MMA championship, Sparta, for which the winner-takes-all purse is $5m. More importantly, the two are also brothers, estranged from one another and from their father, Paddy, played with great feeling by gravel-voiced Nick Nolte.

The relationship between the three is complex and hinges on Paddy’s success as a wrestling coach but failings as a father. We discover early in the film that Paddy coached teenaged Tommy to multiple national wrestling championships, but did not extend the same mentoring role to older brother, yet underdog, Brendan. He is also a recovering alcoholic who neglected his sons and their mother terribly. This neglect has taken heavy tolls on them both, who have each excluded him from their lives. Three years sober, Paddy is now trying clumsily to reach out to his sons and rekindle the cold embers of their relationships.

For their part, the two brothers have not spoken to one another for many years. Tommy resents Brendan almost as much as he resents their father. He is a returned marine and war hero, but he is filled by an inexhaustible supply of anger at the world, whose source remains clouded until the final stages of the film. Brendan has no love for their father either, but this is the rational decision of a husband and family man who has been burnt by a bad bet one too many times.

Brendan’s feelings for Tommy are less readily resolved: love, forgiveness and guilt are all present in varying quantities. It is love however, that most clearly defines his character: he is as filled by it as Tommy is by anger, dedicating himself to everyone in his life – his wife (a small part played with verve by Jennifer Morrison) and daughters, his high-school physics students, his trainer.

What did we think?

Warrior appears at first glance to be a film about the popular brutality of mixed martial arts, but instead reveals itself as one of great depth and emotion. It explores the difficult lives of a fractured family with painful histories both individual and shared. These histories mix with present-day motivations to create tangibly real characterisations that utilise the fighting as a backdrop rather than the central theme.

The whole cast put in exceptional performances, with Hardy, Edgerton and Nolte each contributing great subtlety to their characters. We cannot help but feel deep compassion for them all, even for Tommy, whose spiteful anger at first renders him if not unlikelable then at least inscrutable.

These performances are expressed with care and devotion by O’Connor’s direction, who drip feeds us their stories so that we are forced to rely on their interactions and nuanced expressions to understand them. The film places rewarding emphasis on the evolving relationships of its characters instead of the mindless escalation of fight scenes that typically structure lesser efforts. Yes, the fighting is a big part of this movie, but with considerable background and buildup, we are furnished with more than sufficient context to make the fights mean more than just dollars in the bank. There is no bad guy here, no nemesis to vanquish or damsel to liberate.

Indeed, when Tommy and Brendan meet each other in the grand final match of the championship, we were momentarily worried a potentially great film would be let down by a soft ending. Thankfully, this is not to be, with O’Connor delivering surely the most emotionally powerful fight scene ever to make it onto celluloid. Set to an unexpectedly sophisticated and wonderfully stirring soundtrack, the final fight delivers a much-needed release to many of the tensions that build throughout the film. So fraught with overlapping waves of hopes and fears are some of its moments we almost cried. That’s right, cried during a fight scene.

This is easily the best fighting film we have ever seen: 4.5 stars.

IFF 2011

What is it?

The 12th Italian Film Festival that screened in Palace Cinemas across Australia over the past 2 weeks. We saw four films – Habemus Papam (We Have A Pope) by Nanni Moretti, Manuale D’Amore 3 (The Ages Of Love) by Giovanni Veronesi, Sei Venezia (Six Venice) by Carlo Mazzacurati and Benvenuti Al Sud (Welcome To The South) by Luca Miniero.

Typically, deciding upon which films to go see at an Italian Film Festival involves wading through a lot of movies with the word “love” in the title. This Festival was no exception, however it would be wrong to summarise the cinematic production of an entire country as forgettable rom-coms. There was a lot more on offer than that, with the above films investigating themes as diverse as the impossible weight of papal responsibility, the cultural divide between northern and southern Italy, the rich life of a city that endures despite the crushing influence of tourism, and the idea of family.

What did we think?

Habemus Papam is a quirky story that follows the election of a new Pope, exploring both the grand drama of this most public of events as well as the private troubles of the man in the white robes. The scene that opens the film, in which the College of Cardinals elects from among them their leader, is most telling. As the Cardinals sit in an isolated chamber, fountain pens poised over voting slips, the same thought runs through the minds of each and every one of them: “Not me, not me!” Indeed, the film that follows reveals the Pope elect to be a man of faith but nevertheless unable to rise to the position of voice of God. When even a specialist psychiatrist (played by Moretti himself) is unable to help him, he flees the Vatican and wanders the streets of Rome, searching incognito for an answer to his impossible predicament.

Moretti is renown for his investigations into the human psyche and Habemus Papam is no exception. Michel Piccoli, who plays the new Pope, is well cast – his is an endearing character in equal measures worldly wise and childishly curious, the collision of which lends him a gentle air more suited to entertaining grandchildren than wielding the vast power of the Catholic Church. The film has generous dollops of laugh-out-loud funny moments, but ultimately it left us wanting. Perhaps it was the apparent lack of focus in the plot and character development, or simply the decidedly un-Hollywood-like ending. Either way, we left the cinema feeling like we had missed something – 3 stars.

Manuale D’Amore 3 is our one concession to the iconic Italian love story. Starring Robert De Niro (speaking sophisticated if somewhat accented Italian) alongside Monica Bellucci and touted by New York Magazine as “Italy’s answer to [the excellent] Love, Actually“, we went into this film with considerable expectations.

Addressing the experience of love in the early, middle and final stages of life, Manuale D’Amore 3 does not unfortunately live up to the hype. Lacking the interweaving storylines that make Love, Actually so enjoyable, it is simply three short films back to back about couples falling in or out of love. The three stories are engaging to an extent, but they employ stereotypes Italian cinema has already done to death: the cheating husband, the cheating boyfriend, the stalker, the older man, the younger woman, the temptress. This predictability diminishes the humour of some of the film’s better scenes and begs the question: if art imitates life, is the Italian conception of love today really still so bitter and twisted? 2 stars.

Sei Venezia is an unusual documentary that attempts to reveal the beating heart buried within the hard-nosed tourist carapace of modern Venice. Told via six independent stories, the film explores this hidden Venice through the lives of an archivist, a chambermaid, an amateur archeologist, a painter, a thief and a young boy. Each mini-interview is handled with interest and compassion, revealing diverse individuals with real dreams and worries. The young boy is the most likeable of the six. His dreams outweigh his worries and the innocence his presence brings to the end of the documentary lend it an ultimately hopeful energy. In this, the documentary is successful, demonstrating that such things persist in Venice.

However, the other five interviewees – and thus the bulk of the film – are less compelling. They are no less real, but all somehow seem less hopeful, as though they are nearing the final stages of their lives: the archeologist whose best discoveries are behind him; the laissez faire young thief who is now old, missing most of his teeth, and scraping by on Italy’s equivalent of the dole; the chambermaid who never dreamed she would spend her life cleaning other people’s rooms. These less positive facets of Venetian life are like a series of small deaths, the end of dreams reflected in the waters of a city whose best days too are behind it.

We cannot help but wonder how these six particular individuals were discovered. We love Venice, and our own time in the city proved that optimistic, energetic and passionate people do in fact live there. Sei Venezia succeeds in revealing un vero popolo Veneziano, a real Venetian people, we’re just not sure they’re people we want to know – 1.5 stars.

Of the four films, Benvenuti Al Sud is the real rose among thorns, a fantastic little gem of a movie. When a northern Italian, Alberto (played brilliantly by Claudio Bisio), is transferred to the south to work in the post office of a tiny town near Napoli, he takes with him all the misconceptions the north has of the south. In a dramatisation (we hope) of these misconceptions, he makes the first drive to his new home in a bulletproof vest, crying uncontrollably. However, Alberto quickly falls in love with the south, revelling in both the sunny climate and sunny dispositions of the locals.

This transition feels very natural and is explored without labouring the point: no montage set to uplifting music here. The characters are fascinating, their relationships are all genuine, the food looks delicious and the landscape is glorious. Though the in-jokes would possibly be lost to those who don’t speak Italian, and lost even to those who do but don’t speak dialect, we found the ones we understood hilarious. In the wise words of the postman who first greets Alberto, “Uno strainere che viene al Sud piange due volte: una quando arriva e una quando parte“: an outsider who comes to the south cries twice, once when he arrives and once when he leaves. This is a highly enjoyable film we are looking forward to watching again – 5 stars.