Kaos

The oddest filmmaking method in the world may be that practiced by Italy’s Taviani brothers. The siblings, Paolo and Vittorio, write the screenplay together – then, when they’re on the set, they take turns directing: Paolo directs the scenes Vittorio wrote, Vittorio directs the scenes Paolo wrote.

I’m not sure how far we can believe this, but it sounds reasonable, because their films really do seem to be the products of a single, lucid consciousness. Their previous outing, The Night of the Shooting Stars (1981), is looking more and more like one of the strongest films of the decade.

Now they’ve come up with Kaos, which should enhance their reputation even further. It’s a three-hour collection of tales adapted from Luigi Pirandello short stories, all set among the Italian peasantry.

The first story, “The Other Son,” may be the best. It’s a stunning tale of an aging mother who yearns for word from two sons who have gone to American seeking work, while she ignores the grown son who still lives nearby, because he was the product of a rape.

It’s an amazing story, full of haunting details. By the end, when the woman rolls a pumpkin down a dusty road, the image has become charged with horror and bitterness. It’s a staggering moment.

The second segment, “Moonstruck,” is almost as good. It’s both a horror story and a love story. A newlywed wife learns of her husband’s terrible illness when the first full moon of their marriage arrives. He tells her to lock herself in their farmhouse, and ignore his cries outside.

It seems he became moonstruck when left outside one night as a baby, and ever since, has turned animalistic once a month. Having survived this first night, the wife decides on a unique domestic solution: When the next full moon comes, she will invite her former lover to stay with her in the house – merely as a protector, ahem – while the husband howls outside. This suggestive twist may seem to point the tale in the direction of a sex comedy, but the resolution is a surprise.

After these two stories, “The Jar” comes off as relatively trivial, a parable about vanity and proprietorship. Still, it’s nicely done.

“Requiem” is a stately story about an old man’s wish to be buried in his own ground, even though it really belongs to a strict landowner who refuses his peasants a cemetery.

The epilogue, “A Talk with Mother,” has Pirandello arriving at his hometown, where he remembers a story his mother told him about visiting a strange pumice island when she was a girl; the snow-white island, sloping down into the clear blue sea, is one of the movie’s most striking images.

In some poetic way, this memory allows him to say goodbye to his dead mother. It also reminds us about the power of storytelling, which is, after all, what Kaos as been about. Even within the stories themselves, the characters are always telling stories, and this is the ultimate value the Tavianis are celebrating.

First published in The Herald, May 2, 1986

Alas, the brothers’ next film was Good Morning, Babylon, an English-language misfire. I’d like to see this one again, especially that werewolf episode – speaking of which, has there been a more recent adaptation of the Pirandello story? I swear I have seen one, or perhaps the images from Kaos are still very fresh in my mind.

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