Sisters (1969) ****

Erotically-charged, symbolically-heavy French drama of siblings trying to re-establish the intense relationship they enjoyed as teenagers. After a nervous breakdown and on the point of divorce, blonde translator Diana (Nathalie Delon) seeks respite at the home of younger sister Martha (Susan Strasberg), a brunette happily married to the wealthy and indulgent Alex (Massimo Girotti).

Initially, the more worldly Diana, the more flamboyant dresser, appears the superior but it soon transpires she is the more fragile. The apparently timid Martha allows her husband to control her life to the point of buying all her clothes and she confesses to feeling as if she is on “a perpetual cruise.” While on the surface, it seems as if she has given up too much, in reality she disapproves of disorder and seeks perfection. She comes across as needing protection, and believes the woman’s role is to sacrifice, but in fact has managed to arrange her life to her own satisfaction.

Their competitive streaks emerge in different ways, Diana in obvious fashion, seeking to beat her sister while out horse-riding, Martha in more subtle and sensual manner, flaunting her sexual relations with her husband, almost offering her sister to her husband, and having a lover (Lars Bloch) on the side. There is a sense of each attempting to impose their world view on the other. Diana gives her sister a make-over, a new look which Alex adores, Martha hates it. There’s a sense of a chess game, males the obvious pawns.

Sensuality is never far away. Diana nuzzles her sister’s neck to smell her perfume. Alex is photographed, encouraged by Martha, in almost intimate mode with Diana. Dario (Giancarlo Giannini) is brought in to tempt Diana. And a scene where the girls experiment with colorful scarves suggests libertarianism. 

But it is clear that both sisters live empty lives devoid of true love and equally obvious as the picture progresses that both have arrived at the conclusion that they were at their most happiest when together. There are subtle hints of incest, comforting each other in bed, the sensuality electric and the film begins to examine whether this taboo can be crossed and, if so, will it provide the necessary escape.

Despite Martha’s apparent subjugation, there is more than an inkling of feminism, the girls involved in a complicated scenario in which males are either rejected or made to look fools. While not fulfilled, Martha has turned as much as possible to her own advantage and Diana seems perfectly capable of taking what she wants.

Alex provides the symbolism. He cultivates rare plants in a greenhouse that need to hide from the sun, lengthy exposure to whose atmosphere would be fatal to humans. He endlessly photographs them because they won’t last long. And in similar fashion provides a haven for the apparently vulnerable Martha.

Nathalie Delon (When Eight Bells Toll, 1970), married at this point to Alain Delon, shows a subtlety of expression that is rare for someone appearing in just her third film, and effects a gradual character transition throughout. Susan Strasberg, daughter of famed acting coach, Lee Strasberg, inventor of the Method Style of Acting, was one of the boldest actors of her generation, appearing in drug pictures The Trip (1967) and Psych Out (1968). She delivers an excellent portrait of a woman who manages to keep her true personality hidden, and for whom sexuality has few barriers.

This is the puppy-fat version of Giancarlo Giannini (Swept Away, 1974), barely recognizable as the future arthouse superstar whose physical appearance relied on gaunt, angst-riddles features.  Massimo Girotti (Theorem, 1968) is good as the husband who thinks he has everything, not realising how little he has.  

Although this was an accomplished directorial debut from Roberto Malenotti, he only made one more movie. Perhaps he made enough from directing the famous Coke commercial I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (1971).

Always intriguing, revelations continually undercutting what we think we know of the characters, but delivered in subtle European tones rather than employing Hollywood shock, each of the four main people involved changing considerably due to their interaction with the others. While certainly skirting close to the borders of what was permissible at the end of the 1960s, it does so without exploiting the actresses.

Not an easy one to find, your best bet is a secondhand copy on Ebay.

The Brotherhood (1968) ****

Minimal violence and no sex was the wrong recipe for this Mafia picture – as proven at the box office – but this is an absorbing, underrated drama nonetheless.

It bears a surprising number of parallels to The Godfather (1972). Pure coincidence, extraordinary though that may appear, because The Brotherhood premiered in December 1968 while the Mario Puzo novel was printed in March 1969 (and delivered to the printers long before), so no opportunity at all for plagiarism.

The two films could be opposite sides of the same coin. For a start, both begin with a wedding. Vince Ginetta (Alex Cord), brother of Mafia kingpin Frank (Kirk Douglas), is marrying Emma (Susan Strasberg), daughter of another Mafia chief Dominick (Luther Adler). Like Michael (Al Pacino) in The Godfather, Vince is just out of the army, well-educated and primed for a life outside the business. And like Michael is called upon to commit an act of supreme violence. There’s even a hint of Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) in the relationship between the brothers, Frank having brought up the much younger Vince after his father’s premature death.

And just as Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) refuses to join the other Mafia families in a new business venture (in that case, drugs) so Frank bows out of an incredibly high risk (but amazingly prescient) scheme to invest in electronic firms involved in military work for the government, a deal that not only promises huge profits but a potential hold over the powers-that-be.

Frank’s wife Ida (Irene Papas) is like Don Corleone’s wife, not wanting to know anything about the business, but both Emma and Frank’s daughter Carmela (Connie Scott) are thematic cousins to Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) as initial implicit trust is wiped away. When Frank dances with Carmela at the wedding, that is reflected in Don Corleone dancing with his daughter at her wedding. Like The Godfather our first sight of the other Mafia chieftains – including Jim Hagen (Murray Hamilton) and Don Peppino (Eduardo Cianelli) – is at the feast where they are viewed with suspicion by Frank’s clan. And the scene where Frank uses a banana to tease his nephew will remind you of Don Corleone spooking his grandson with an orange.

However, the twist, if you like, is that, unlike Michael, Vince is desperate to join the Family and is instrumental in developing legitimate enterprises, which is echoed by Michael Corleone’s strategic shift to Las Vegas. In some respects, Frank is more like Sonny (James Caan), happy to assume personal command of murders which the other Mafia chiefs now scrupulously delegate to “mechanics” in Los Angeles. He is more old-school whereas the others act as respectable businessmen.

And then it becomes a question of loyalty. Which side the ambitious Vinnie will take is crucial to the story. Frank is under pressure on all sides, from the other Mafia leaders, a government investigation, Vinnie, and the need to exact revenge on the man who caused his father’s death.

There is authentic detail here as well – religious procession in Sicily, Frank playing boccia (the Italian version of the French boules) with his old pals, family dinner, canary stuffed in the mouth of a stool pigeon, but it is less spaghetti-drenched than The Godfather. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (The Fox, 1967), also listed as technical adviser, claimed to be drawing on his intimate knowledge of organized crime.

There are only three moments of violence – four if you count a shocking moment of someone spitting on a corpse at a wake – a pair of straightforward murders that bookend the film, plus a scene of Godfather-style brutality in which a man slowly strangles himself to death after being hogtied. Everyone is happily married, Ida very old-school to the extent of removing her husband’s clothes (and shoes) when he returns home drunk, Vince in a good relationship.

Kirk Douglas (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) is excellent in a difficult role that presents a fully rounded character, playful with his daughter, loyal to his wife, holding his own against the other mob bosses, enjoying the company of the old-timers who resemble his father, and the changing nature of his relationship with brother Vince. Alex Cord, whose work I initially dismissed (Stiletto, 1969), I have come to more fully appreciate, especially here, where, in a masterpiece of restraint, he makes the transition from adoring brother to threat.

The supporting cast is terrific, a rare Hollywood sojourn for Irene Papas (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), Luther Adler  (Cast a Giant Shadow, 1966) as one of the hoodlums exasperated by Frank’s recalcitrance,  Murray Hamilton (The Graduate, 1967) but, except at the start, Susan Strasberg (The Trip, 1967) is underused.

While director Martin Ritt (Hombre, 1967) is at times guilty of melodrama, his rendering of family life is much more nuanced than Coppola’s. There are very tender moments between Frank and his wife and Frank and his daughter, as well as moments where Ida plays a more maternal role.

For nearly half a century, The Brotherhood has lain in the shadow of The Godfather simply because they both deal with the Mafia. But this is an excellent movie in its own right.

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