Anyone seriously hoping that this is a review of a Maxwell Smart movie might as well skip to the next article right now. Kaos is an Italian film by the Taviani brothers, an anthology film based on stories by Luigi Pirandello. The hallmarks of the film are sensitivity and observation. The Taviani brothers, barring Fellini, may be the finest Italian filmmakers still active (Olmi is right up there, too), and, while Kaos may not be their best work, it is a rich, representative film of their style: realistic, careful and caring, deeply felt.
Italian film has a tradition of tending towards either the starkly realistic or the weirdly fantastic. The Taviani brothers have always preferred an understated realism to the flamboyant grotesqueries of Fellini or the angry myths of Pasolini. Their earlier films, like Padre, Padrone and The Night of the Shooting Stars have focussed on simply country people and their problems, particularly those imposed on them by the outside world. Kaos draws on Pirandello's stories of peasants in his native Sicily. Pirandello is an apt source for the Tavianis, as he shares their concern and admiration for the poor, especially the rural poor.
Kaos is composed of a brief prologue, four separate stories, and an epilogue, all set in Sicily around the turn of the century. Except for a link from the prologue to the first story, and some common elements with the epilogue, each story is independent.
The first story is about an old woman whose sons have gone to America. Illiterate, she has had neighbors write letters to them for fifteen years, but they never respond. Meanwhile, her other son labors hard and wants to provide a home for his mother, but she shuns him. In the course of the story, we discover why.
The second story concerns a woman who recently married a man, only to find out that each month, on the night of the full moon, he becomes violently insane. An arrangement is made to have her mother and male cousin stay with her on the next full moon. However, the woman really wanted to marry the cousin, and still yearns for him, and he for her.
The third story tells of a rich landowner who commissions a local potter to repair a huge jar which has been broken. The potter inadvertently seals himself inside, and the landowner, for whom the jar is a pride and joy, refuses to allow him to break it again. This story is a typical tale of peasant cunning versus wealth and power.
The fourth tale also pits the peasant against the rich and their agents. A group of herders who have formed a village on the land of a wealthy noble years later decide that they must have their own cemetery up in the mountains where they live. The noble regards them as little better than squatters, and refuses their request. Again, the guile of the poor is matched against the force available to the rich.
Finally, in the epilogue, Pirandello returns, an old man, to his mother's house. The shade of his mother appears, and tells him again of an episode from her childhood, when she and her siblings were forced to flee from Sicily to Malta. This episode is rich with echos of a past which cannot be recaptured, even by Pirandello's pen.
The first episode is excellent, the second very good, the third good, and the fourth no better than fair. The epilogue is hard to judge objectively, as it is presented after one has already sat through two and a half hours of stories. The Tavianis certainly aren't typical Hollywood directors, and are willing to linger over a moment which they consider important, even if it slows the story down a bit. In their earlier films, which were of more usual length, this trait was a strength. Here, while it registers well in the early parts of the film, by the end one wishes for a little Spielbergian zip. Probably this film would be both better and more popular if one of the episodes were removed. (In fact, the Taviani brothers themselves suggested dropping an episode for the American release.)
The acting is first rate, by a cast not likely to be familiar outside of Italy. (Or, for all I know, inside of Italy, either. The Taviani brothers have a reputation for working with unknown actors and non-actors.) The faces are distinctively Italian, without being Fellini grotesques. All of the performers seem effortlessly at home in the seared fields and rough homes of Sicily.
The photography is typical of Taviani films. They favor fairly long takes, usually with rather static actions within the frame. Camera moves tend to be economical. They use action and movement to underline the important points, rather than to dazzle. The settings are humble and the Tavianis have wisely chosen not to make them any more glamorous or beautiful than they really are. Fields are generally dry and filled with stones. Homes often have dirt floors. Shadows exist because lighting is sparse, not because the cinematographer wanted to etch a face with patterns of dark and light. The photography in Kaos is a fine example of the restraint of individual virtuosity in favor of the overall good of the film. The cinematographer is given his reward in the epilogue, which is set largely on an island surrounded by an incredibly blue sea. Here, he is able to let loose with some really beautiful shots.
Kaos is certainly not a film for everyone. It is almost undeniably too long, and drags in spots. While Kaos has fine moments of horror, humor, and mystery, these are not its main business. Of course, it is in Italian, with subtitles, which rules out a major segment of the filmgoing public, right there. The audience for Kaos is composed of people who are interested in films about people, not necessarily the people that they live with and know, but people who are obviously and undeniably real. Kaos has major rewards for that audience, and should not be missed by those who number themselves among it.
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