Porco Rosso [Kurenai no ButaPorco] (1992)

Bringing Home The Bacon

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Combining elements from CasablancaOnly Angels Have Wings and A Matter Of Life And DeathPorco Rosso is Studio Ghibli’s romantic, swashbuckling cocktail. Porco Rosso (Italian for Red Pig), real name, Marco Pagot is an ex-Italian World War I fighter pilot turned bounty hunter in the Adriatic Sea. Porco is a Bogartian figure with his cool detachment, political apathy and romantic distance, but his most significant character trait is that derived from his physical appearance. Porco has had a curse put upon him turning him into, well, an anthropomorphic pig. Why is the film’s protagonist a pig? The two most apparent interpretations being firstly a reference to the saying “when pigs fly” and the cultural perception in the west (as well as in faiths such as Judaism and Islam) of pigs being dirty animals (keeping in mind the film is set in a western country). A common reading is that Porco put the spell upon himself out of survivor’s guilt when the rest of his comrades died in battle. He views himself as swine – self-loathing and unworthy of living. It’s only through the validation and the friendship he shares with the character of Fio that comes to cure him of this affliction. How someone possesses the supernatural ability to turn into an anthropomorphic animal is never explained nor does anyone in this world question why there is a walking-talking hog existing among humans. Still, the film has enough going for it to overcome this suspension of disbelief (Porco is even a hit with the ladies despite his appearance so I guess looks aren’t everything). The film’s ending indicates the curse may have been lifted but ultimately leaves the question unanswered. 

Porco Rosso is one of the few films directed by Hayao Miyazaki in which the historical and geographical setting is clearly defined and gives the director a chance to indulge in his Europhilia with the film’s picture postcard scenes of Italy and the Adriatic Sea. Academic Chris Wood states in his article “The European Fantasy Space and Identity Construction In Porco Rosso” that the film can be understood as a representation of wakon yōsai (Japanese spirit, western learning) – a tendency, since the Meiji period, for Japanese artists to paint Europe in a spectacular manner, while simultaneously maintaining the distance necessary to preserve a distinct sense of Japanese identity. Chris Wood states, “[In Porco Rosso] Europe is tamed, rendered as a charming site of pleasurable consumption, made distant and viewed through a tourist gaze“. So yes, Hayao Miyazaki is a European otaku. If there is a scene in the movie which captures this beautifully then it has to be the flashback to a young Porco (or Marco as he would have been known before his curse) and his longtime friend Gina lifting an early seaplane into the air in this display of pure unabashed nostalgia which captures the human desire to fly (thanks in large part of the enchanting music score by Joe Hisaishi). Likewise, one of the film’s most striking scenes has to be the flashback to Porco’s near-death experience and the origin of his curse. In this otherworldly sequence following a battle near the end of the war, Porco found himself in what the film describes as cloud prairie (I can’t find any reference to this term outside the movie), in which fighter planes from other nations rise above him into the sky as if there are entering heaven. The scene has similar vibes to the stairway to heaven from Powell & Pressburger’s A Matter of Life And Death while the use of synthesizers in the music score really makes it all the more captivating and eerie.

Porco Rosso is set during the final days of the roaring twenties and upon the onset of the Great Depression (“Farewell to the days of fun and freedom in the Adriatic”). The film’s setting also partakes in alternative history in which the wider Mediterranean Sea is beset with air pirates (albeit highly incompetent air pirates as reflected in their comical, circus-like theme music). From a romantic point of view it’s sad to say that air pirates are not real bar one incident in 1917 in which a civilian Norwegian schooner named Royal was boarded and captured by a party flying a German Zeppelin L23 – is the closest we’ve ever come to having steampunk fantasy become reality? As far as coinciding with actual history, Porco Rosso takes place during the days of Mussolini’s Italy as marchers in the street wave blue & green flags with bankers wearing the same design as armbands (this flag itself is fictional and was never an actual historical Italian flag). Porco is put under pressure from a former WWI comrade to join the state’s military to which he responds with the line “Better a pig than a fascist”. More sinister is the scene in which Porco pays off a loan at the bank and the teller asks him if he will invest in a patriot bond which of course, is only voluntary (wink wink). Despite its backdrop, Porco Rosso remains a largely apolitical film but if anything it shows that even under authoritarianism, life goes on.

The semi-love interest of Porco Rosso comes in the form of the pure feminine grace that is Madame Gina, of whom every flyer in the Adriatic is in love with as Fio claims. A longtime friend of Porco and his now deceased comrades, the film presents her as being “one of the guys” while not sacrificing any of her womanly demeanour. She will quickly run to a boat in a feminine stride but will make an epic and lengthy jump off the boat back onto the pier if required. Gina will dress to exemplance, even when in private and I do have to question if any particular Golden Age Hollywood actress is modeled after her? I am getting Mary Astor vibes myself. Gina occupies the island hotel known as the Hotel Adriano although it’s not made clear in the original Japanese version if she actually owns the establishment however, in the English dub, she refers to the place as “My restaurant” and the private garden as “my garden”. Regardless, the establishment is where all the hotshot flyboys of the Adriatic hang out where they kick back, relax and listen to Gina sing songs of lovers long lost. Like Rick’s Café Américain in Casablanca, there is an unwritten truce between all men. In the clouds, you may be enemies but at Gina’s place, everyone is your buddy. In her introductory scene, Gina shows little emotion in relation to having been told the news earlier in the day that her third husband had died in a flying accident, which as seen in films like Only Angels With Wings, was the norm in the early days of aviation. Porco and Gina share a “beauty and the beast” romance in which they never verbalise their feelings towards each other but you can tell there is a deep affection between the two. The other major female presence in Porco Rosso is the young Fio Piccolo, the counterbalance to Porco’s bleakness (and whose grandfather appears to be related to Hans Moleman). Porco doesn’t trust her to design him a new plane due to her being young and a girl says she understands this and doesn’t take offence. Rather Fio is aware that she needs to prove herself to him instead of just dismissing him as a sexist, well, pig (“Forgive my sins of using women’s hands to build a warplane”). However, it is somewhat odd the film concludes with narration from Fio’s point of view when this never happened at any other point in the film.

Porco Rosso does have one of the better Studio Ghibli English dubs, especially with the casting of Michael Keaton as the titular swine whose voice talents perfectly capture the world-weary cynicism of the character. I also enjoy Brad Garrett as the dopey pirate Capo while the announcer aboard the cruise liner as its being attacked by pirates adds some great deadpan humour to the proceedings. The sound mix of the dub is inferior when compared to the original while the lack of any reverb on the voices during the flying sequences is slightly jarring. Gina’s cover of the French song Le Temps Des Cerises is also re-recorded although there was no need to do so and I do consider the vocal performance on the original to be superior. Be that as it may, it’s Cary Ellwes’ southern drawl for the Errol Flynn-esque Donald Curtis which really add extra character to the dubbed version (in the Japanese version he is from Alabama whereas in the dub it mentions he is from Texas). The quasi villain of the picture, Curtis is a Hollywood actor who on his down time like Frank Sinatra, appears to converse with outlaws, while his delusions of grandeur thinking he will become President Of The United States with Madame Gina as his First Lady does make him somewhat endearing. Curtis does attempt to kill Porco by taking out his plane only to later discover his attempt was unsuccessful, eventually leading to the picture’s finale in which the two men sort out their differences through some mono e mono (in which Porco doesn’t even remove his glasses). I understand the psychological aspect of men making amends and even becoming friends after engaging in hand-to-hand combat, but Curtis did literally try to murder Porco earlier in the film, but I digress. Porco Rosso is another breed of artistic excellence from Studio Ghibli, you uncultured swine.


Cinema Paradiso (1988)

The Cinema Has No Boundary, It Is A Ribbon Of Dream

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso is the ultimate movie lovers’ movie. A film which perfectly captures the obsessive and domineering power cinema has over its dedicated fans and their lives. In the manner of how the picture’s protagonist Toto becomes enchanted and engulfed by the movies, Cinema Paradiso is a movie which succeeds in doing just that. Cinema Paradiso takes the viewer back to a time when the movie theatre was at the heart of a community, where people would even have sex in the middle of a crowded theatre and teenage boys would engage in acts of self-pleasure to what was on screen (must be a European thing), or alternatively, many would just go to enjoy a nap. Cinema Paradiso is my favourite Italian film but also my favourite film not in the English language, and what a rich experience it is. Even the Italian people’s over-the-top, histrionic nature is hugely entertaining – now that’s a good-a pizza pie! The music, scenery and vibrant architecture of the village of Giancaldo on the island of Sicily immediately draw me in with the stone buildings, fountains, cobblestone streets and wide open squares free of automobiles. This contrasts with the film’s latter scenes set in the modern day, where modernity has replaced a world in which the influence on Ancient Rome still lingered and instead with something more superficial and ugly.

Cinema Paradiso follows the relationship between the child Salvatore “Toto” Di Vita and his Freudian father figure Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), a projectionist at the local cinema. Alfredo himself is very much a mythical character; he has no back-story or even a surname (he does have a wife yet we only see her briefly), yet he succeeds in being one of the most unforgettable characters in film history. He is a man who appears to have never made much for himself in life yet to Toto, this cinema projectionist is the most fascinating man in the world – the archetype of a loser with a heart of gold. This is one aspect of the story which really punches one in the gut; Alfredo prevents Toto from going down the same road as he did but at the cost of moving to Rome and never seeing him again of his family again as the village would have a destructive influence on the artistic development of someone like Toto. The job of a projectionist is no path for a young man of whom the world is his oyster. Ultimately, this works, as we learn from the opening and closing of the theatrical cut of Cinema Paradiso (more on the director’s cut later) that Toto holds a job of some esteem in the film industry (possibly a director although it’s not made clear) and lives in a not too shabby Rome apartment, but only by the way the of great sacrifice imposed by Alfredo. The man may not have had much education, but it’s clear he had the wisdom of age.

The question has to be asked, is Cinema Paradiso the most tear-inducing film ever made? I recommend wearing a life jacket while watching this movie or you will drown in your own waterworks. This is one of few films that give me teary-eyed goosebumps even thinking about it or by listening to the music score by Ennio Morricone. The entire score is one of few I can listen to in its entirety, full of compositions of pure tranquillity to reminisce on days gone by. I hate to imagine how much of a nihilist one would have to be not moved by the scene in which Alfredo makes a projected image travel along the walls of the projection room and into the town square accompanied by the booming music score. Alternatively, take the scene in which or a lonely teenage Toto walks through the streets of Giancaldo just as New Years rolls in after being rejected by his love Elena. I also personally find it hard to retain a straight face at the utter soul-crushing scene near the film’s end as the adult Toto walks through the abandoned interior of the Paradiso on the day before it is set to be demolished to make way for a car park. However, it is the final scene in which Cinema Paradiso really does save the best for last, a conclusion which is movie magic of the highest magnitude. Aside from being a tribute to the 20th century’s greatest art form, Cinema Paradiso is full of emotions of nostalgia, youth, love and the losses we have to deal with during our lives. Like the stamp of any truly great film, Cinema Paradiso is a movie which you don’t want to end and the streamlined version of Cinema Paradiso is Cinema Perfecto. Oh yes, there’s more, with the director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso which adds not only so much more additional material to the film, but so much more depth and complexity to its characters which bares discussion.

For the original Italian release or director’s cut, Cinema Paradiso had a run time of 173 minutes and for the international release, it was cut to 124 minutes. The biggest difference with the director’s cut is the far greater examination of the relationship between Toto and Elena, transforming what is a subplot in the cut version into one of the main focuses of the story, especially during the picture’s third act. In the theatrical cut, there is only a hint that Elena’s middle-class parents object to her relationship with Toto but in this longer version, this objection is on full display. However more significantly, we learn in a crucial flashback scene, that it is Alfredo himself who worked to end this young love, viewing Elena as another obstacle to Toto’s artistic development. Toto and Elena’s contemporary reunion scene is an incredibly lengthy and talkly affair, outlasting by great magnitude any other scene in the film but its emotional payoff is satisfying and in the end, both characters come to accept that Alfredo was justified in his actions.

In the theatrical cut of Cinema Paradiso it’s merely hinted that Toto has become a film director but in this version, it that not only the case, but he is also famous enough that he is recognised by fans in a bar. In regards to other new scenes, that in which the film acknowledges the rise of television by having a game show projected in the Paradiso via a teleprojector much to Alfredo dismal is a nice addition, foreshadowing the eventual demise of the local cinema. Other scenes however I did find unnecessary such as adult Toto’s encounter with the street punks in Rome to Toto’s friend Boccia getting some action in the countryside. Although the one scene I really didn’t need to see was Toto losing his virginity to a cougar in an empty paradiso and just before meeting his later love, taking away from the character’s innocence. I have to say I greatly prefer the shorter, more streamlined version of the Cinema Paradiso. The additional material of the director’s cut greatly affects the film’s pace and takes away much of the mystery posed by the shorter cut. Likewise, the majority of the additional scenes are set in the modern day and stylistically do feel very distant from those set in the Sicilian village of the ’40s and ’50s, thus at times, it does feel like I’m watching an entirely different film altogether. That said, even though it is a flawed version of the film, I am glad this cut exists as it does contain its own merits turning the film into something of an epic and reminding me of another film with an Ennio Morricone score with similar coming-of-age themes, Once Upon A Time In America.