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Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

Story of Sin

(1975, BD release March 28)
The life of a beautiful, young, and pious woman is thrown into chaos when her parents takes in a dashingly handsome lodger. Having embarked on a torrid affair, the lodger goes off to Rome to seek a divorce from his estranged wife. Unable to live apart from her beloved, our hero leaves home, only to fall prey to the infatuations and lusts of a band of noble admirers, unsavoury criminals, and utopian do-gooders…(From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Following Blu-ray debuts of Walerian Borowczyk’s cult classics Immoral Tales (1973), and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) (among others), Arrow Films is delving into one of the director’s more ‘mainstream friendly’ pictures (and the only feature film he ever made in his native Poland, instead of France) The Story of Sin (Polish: Dzieje grzechu). Released between two of his most outré movies, Immoral Tales (French: Contes immoraux, 1973) and The Beast (French: La Bête, 1975), The Story of Sin plays it comparatively safe, in that no one pleasures themselves on a bedpost or bathes in the blood of virgins. Rest assured, there’s still plenty of salacious and surrealistic content to behold. Most importantly, this film is every ounce as visually rich as those more bizarre period pieces. Borowczyk continues to contrast melodrama, unhinged sensuality, and the almost grotesquely baroque qualities of the production/set/costume design. The director’s screenplay was based on Nobel Prize-winning author Stefan Zeromski’s book of the same name and was actually the third adaptation, following Antoni Bednarczyk’s 1911 version and Henryk Szaro’s 1933 version. As per Borowczyk’s usual modus operandi, a surprising amount of the story is told with images and editing, but, as the classy reputation of the source material may suggest, there is quite a bit of narrative to contend with. This leads to a pretty intensive 130-minute runtime that may scare off any viewers who are not already invested in seeing all of the filmmaker’s work. While I can verify that it does, indeed, feel like a long movie, I never found myself bored or the subject matter particularly listless; rather, the length fits the epic scope of the story.

Story of Sin was released on UK PAL DVD from Nouveaux Pictures. It included some extras, but was marred by hardcoded English subtitles, and is now very much out of print. If there ever was another digital home release between it and Arrow’s Blu-ray debut, I am unaware of it. This 1080p, 1.66:1 (the intended aspect ratio) transfer was taken from a brand new restoration, produced by Fixafilm in Warsaw specifically for TOR Film Productions, not Arrow. The original negative was scanned in 4K using something called the 3-Flash HDR mode (perhaps some technophiles can fill me in on what that process entails), then the footage was graded and cleaned up at 2.5K resolution. The included booklet says that the flicker caused by the deterioration of the footage was mitigated, but not completely ‘fixed.’ The restoration was approved by cinematographer Zygmunt Samosiuk and supervised by some of Borowczyk’s co-workers and friends, so I think it is safe to assume the grading and colour-timing is pretty accurate. The only real problems I can see with this transfer is the pooly blacks, which absorb finer texture and lead to some minor edge enhancement (the aforementioned ‘deteriorated’ footage is often marked by a graying of these blacks). A few scenes are so dark that you simply can’t see what is happening. Otherwise, grain appears accurate, given the purposefully soft qualities of Samosiuk’s photography (though not nearly as foggy as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne), details are tidy, and the colours are neatly separated. The bulk of the palette is defined by browns and subdued purples and blues, but there are also some incredibly lush outdoor sequences to keep things lively.

Story of Sin is presented in its original Polish mono sound and 1.0 LPCM audio. According to specs, the soundtrack was apparently not in great shape and Fixafilm went through considerable effort to restore what they could from the optical negative. Their efforts were worth it, because this is honestly one of the richest and cleanest mono mixes I’ve heard in some time. Dialogue is consistent and the subtly exaggerated sound effects have a pleasant roundness to them. The musical soundtrack is made up of established classical motifs, which are either playing live in the context of a sequence or blasting over events and drowning out other noises. However, the contrasting noise of the liveliness of nature and the mundane silences of indoor sequences create a musical quality as well.
 
Extras include:
  • Commentary with Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger – The contributing editors of Diabolique Magazine and co-hosts of the Daughters of Darkness podcast discuss Borowczyk’s career, the changing critical view his movies, the careers of the film’s cast & crew, the film’s prevailing themes, and how it fits in with the director’s other movies. They also explore the historical context of Story of Sin and Borowczyk’s murky sense of feminism.
  • Introduction by poster designer Andrzej Klimowski (8:22, HD)
  • The First Sinner (23:33, HD) – Lead actress Grazyna Dlugolecka discusses her rather short career, being cast in Story of Sin, working with her co-stars, and the basic making of the movie. She also exhibits an impressive academic knowledge of Borowczyk’s entire catalogue.
  • The Music Box (19:00, HD) – Film critic and documentarian David Thompson analyzes the sound design and use of established classic music in Borowczyk’s films.
  • Stories of Sin (11:49, HD) – This video essay by the co-founder Friends of Walerian Borowczyk, Daniel Bird, concerns the director’s obsessive themes and repeating motifs.
  • Borowczyk’s Polish shorts – All three of these films have been restored in 2K restorations from the original negatives:
    • Once Upon a Time (9:11, HD) – The first short was co-directed by Jan Lenica and follows the existential adventures of an abstract illustration, which is crudely animated using cut-out techniques to match the childlike quality of the artwork and interspliced with black & white archive footage. It includes optional commentary with art historian Szymon Bojko.
    • Dom (11:27, HD) – The second short was also co-directed by Lenica and depicts a young woman succumbing to a series of surrealistic daydreams using a slick combination of animation techniques. Dom (which translates to House[/i) includes optional commentary with composer Wlodzimierz Kotonsk.
    • [i]The School (7:24, HD) – Borowczyk’s first professional solo film features a soldier as he is put through increasingly ridiculous training. It is animated almost exclusively using static photographs, rather than the cut-and-paste method, which is awfully close to live action filmmaking. It includes an optional commentary from Bird
  • Miscellaneous (7:06, HD) – A video essay (presumably by Bird?) concerning Borowczyk and Lenica’s contributions to newsreels and art history documentaries.
  • Street Art (11:34, HD) – A newsreel documentary about the history of Polish poster art co-written by Borowczyk.
  • Tools of the Trade (6:24, HD) – Juliusz Zamecznik, the son of photographer and graphic artist Wojciech Zamecznik, shows off the camera and stand used to film Once Upon a Time.
  • Poster Girl (4:05, HD) – The final new interview is with poster artist/illustrator/print maker Teresa Byszewska, who appears in Dom.
  • Trailer


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Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

The Assassin

(1961, BD release: April 18)
Dandyish, thirtysomething antiques dealer Alfredo Martelli (Marcello Mastroianni) is arrested on suspicion of murdering his older, far wealthier lover, Adalgisa (Micheline Presle). But, as the police investigation proceeds, it becomes less and less important whether Martelli actually committed the crime as his entire lifestyle is effectively put on trial. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Before he explored S&M relationships in A Quiet Place in the Country (Italian: Un tranquillo posto di campagna, 1968) or applied his satirical left-wing slant to Property is No Longer a Theft (Italian: La proprietà non è più un furto, 1973), Elio Petri developed his filmmaker’s voice with The Assassin (Italian: L’Assassino). Like many other Italian auteurs – Dario Argento, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, et cetera – Petri’s films as director tended to share specific themes, images, and storytelling patterns. The Assassin bares all of the director’s hallmarks, from comedically co-dependent sexual relationships, to a subversion of genre traditions and dream-logic soliloquies. In fact,   Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italian: Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto, 1970) – the film which won Petri the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar –  seems to have been developed as a companion piece to The Assassin, wherein the confused bystander is replaced by an authority figure who takes charge of his own Kafkaesque Möbius strip nightmare.

The difference is that, as the director’s first feature, these patterns are not yet firmly established. The Assassin appears subdued compared to the films that followed. This extends to the low-key humour and naturalistic setting, which forgoes elaborate and chic production/set/costume design in favour of black & white photography, stripped-down sets, and location-based neorealism. These choices were likely related to Petri cutting his teeth on documentary shorts in the lead up to The Assassin. Interestingly, the imagery still fits in nicely with the director’s more ostentatious work. Additionally, while this film isn’t as firmly rooted in leftist politics as Property is No Longer Theft or The Working Class Goes to Heaven (Italian: La classe operaia va in paradiso, 1971), Petri and his co-writers, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Massimo Franciosa, and Tonino Guerra, do weave antifascist politics into Alfredo’s backstory, in turn creating a pretty compelling political subtext. Superstar leading man Marcello Mastroianni’s patently constrained performance encapsulates and filters these conflicting tones as only he can, creating a character that is at once cavalier and insecure. I suppose this particular film could’ve worked without him, but it’s difficult to imagine the prospect. He and Petri worked together again on The 10th Victim (Italian: La decima vittima, 1965), which became a forerunner for the televised, dystopic combat of movies, like Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975) and Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man (1987).

The Assassin was first released on DVD in 2013 via Carlotta Films in France. Arrow’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release represents its first US and UK digital home video availability and its first HD availability in any region. This version of the film opens with an Italian language title card that tells us that this digital restoration was sourced in 2K from the original camera negative. However, that negative was missing the first and last reel, so they scanned those elements from a first-generation interpositive. The print version (which was held by the production company Titanus in the archives of the Cineteca di Bologna) was then used to assist with grading purposes. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is on par with the company’s other ‘60s black & white films (namely their Nikkatsu gangster pictures), which is to say it’s good, but limited by the quality of Petri and cinematographer Carlo Di Palma’s original footage and, of course, the fact that the first and last reel are somewhat compromised. Print damage has been mostly scrubbed with the exception of small white flecks, occasional vertical scratches, and some ‘pulsy’ moments. Grain structure has been preserved, though this and other textures are relatively soft. Since there are no colours, the key component here is the dynamic range and, in this regard, the restoration seems spot-on. Blacks are truly black, whites are truly white and rarely bloom, and the gradations between are eclectic.

The title card also tells us that “the sound was extracted from a 35mm negative and digitally remastered.” This sound is presented in uncompressed LPCM 1.0 and meets expectations for this type of film. Dialogue – most of which seems to have been recorded in post-production – is clear without any major tinniness or hiss on aspirated consonants. Sound effects are minimal and soft by design, but the low sound floor ensures that they can be heard. Piero Piccioni’s swaggering blues and jazz score is incorporated into only a few sequences, where it offers decent range and bass.

Extras include:
  • Elio Petri and L'Assassino (9:39, HD) – An introduction to Petri, the Italian films of the very early ‘60s, and The Assassin by Italian cinema expert Pasquale Iannone. It includes clips from Petri’s films as writer and/or director.
  • Tonino Guerra: A Poet in the Movies (51:15, SD) – A 2008 Italian-made documentary by Nicola Tranquillino concerning the life and times of the screenwriter, who co-wrote The Assassin as well as a number of Petri, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Federico Fellini films.
  • Trailer


 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

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 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up


Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

Three Brothers

(1981, BD release: April 25)
Three brothers return to their native southern Italy to pay homage to their late mother. However, their various professions – a judge in Rome (Philippe Noiret), a spiritual counsellor in Naples (Vittorio Mezzogiorno), and a factory worker in Turin (Michele Placido) – have a profound effect on their response to this reunion. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)

Now, we move from one famously left-wing Italian filmmaker to another with a classically neorealist approach to his work. As Arrow themselves say in the notes for this release, writer/director Francesco Rosi established himself as one of the greatest film chroniclers of Italy's postwar/post-fascist history. His most famous work included Salvatore Giuliano (1962), a portrait of the Sicilian bandit-turned-political hero, Hands Over the City (Italian: Le mani sulla città, 1963), and The Mattei Affair (Italian: Il caso Mattei, 1972). Three Brothers (Italian: Tre fratelli, 1981) was released later in his career and is a less incendiary view of the then-present-day political landscape. It also foregoes the faux-documentary style of Rosi’s neorealist classics and frames the social strife in the guise of a relatively standard-issue family drama. All of these aspects contribute to Three Brothers being one of the director’s most overlooked movies, despite plenty of accolades, including a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination, when it was initially released. I certainly wouldn’t consider it to be in the same league as Salvatore Giuliano, but then, few things are. Three Brothers fits better among other family dramas as it meditates on concepts that often coincide with midlife crisis stories, like regret, the banalities of adulthood, and nostalgia for a time when life seemed more simple – even if it really wasn’t. Three Brothers creeps along familiar lines at what fans likely refer to as a “deliberate” pace, but the specifically Italian conflicts and outspoken sense of social morality (not to mention some shell-shocking flashbacks and a fabulous dream sequence) do set itself apart from the era’s blander melancholy nostalgia trips. The film’s strangest attribute is the fact that the father and granddaughter’s relationship is more heartfelt than the title brothers. It even ends on their reaction to the events as the past and future of the country – a metaphor that actually renders the brothers rather moot in their own story.

Three Brothers was released on DVD via Surf Video in Italy, but it only included an Italian subtitle option, which makes Arrow’s Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack marks the first English-friendly release on either format. According to their specs, the ‘original film elements’ (that’s as specific as it gets) were remastered in 2K by the folks at Technicolor Rome. While it’s certainly not a neorealist feature, Rosi and cinematographer Pasqualino De Santis still aim for a raw overall look that depends on a lot of source lighting, so this remaster tends to be a bit ‘contrasty’ and perhaps grainier than some viewers may expect. However, the grain texture looks pretty accurate for an early ‘80s picture to me and the granules themselves are small enough to not distract from fine textures and patterns. Other artefacts are limited to a hint of fuzz throughout the brightest backdrops and occasional pulsing. Details are limited by the lighting and softish wide-angle focus, but still without any major edge haloes or sudden dips in clarity. The mostly neutral colour palette is nicely reproduced, if not a bit reddish.

The original Italian mono soundtrack (again, some dialogue was dubbed) has been preserved in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. Given the single-channel treatment, I didn’t expect a whole lot of range, but the sound design is so impressively structured and layered that I’m disappointed that Arrow wasn’t able to squeeze a bit more depth from the tracks. Between natural ambience and the use of dynamic variance, it’s just a bummer that Rosi didn’t spring for a stereo mix (which was common for big Hollywood movies at the time, but not foreign market releases). Piero Piccioni’s eerie, yet heartfelt score definitely suffers from the overall flatness of the soundscape. Still, there is little notable distortion (some hiss on the aspirated consonants) or anything else to imply that this isn’t what Three Brothers sounded like when it was first released.

Extras include:
[*]The Guardian interview of Francesco Rosi (1:21:11, HD) – This audio interview/Q&A with the director, conducted/moderated by Derek Malcolm, is accompanied by a slideshow and some scenes from Rosi’s films. The interview covers Rosi’s entire career, but was specifically recorded to coincide with the 1987 release of Chronicle of Death Foretold[i] ([i]Cronaca di una morte annunciata).
[*]Trailer[/list]

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

 Arrow Academy Review Round-Up

* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-rays, then resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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