The Fast Forward Revue


Film Review: Luchino Visconti’s “Lo Straniero” (The Stranger) by E. Sempé

 

Fast Forward Rating: FFFFF (5 out of 5)

 

I will always remember the first time I read Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Details of where I was, who I was with, what I was doing, what my life was like at the time – all are embedded now in those pages of the battered Gallimard paperback. And similarly, I can also say I will always remember the first time I watched Italian maestro Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation, Lo Straniero

 

Starring Marcello Mastroianni as Meursault, it is difficult at first to imagine such an engaging, charming and brilliant actor in such a dispossessed and emotionless role as that of Meursault. But then again, one might argue that only an actor of Mastroianni’s brilliance would be able to understand such a part, and ingeniously portray a man devoid of genius. Upon watching the film, it was easy to be convinced that the latter claim is true: Mastroianni is passive but firm, a follower but independent; he is an outsider.

Playing opposite Mastroianni as Meursault’s love interest Marie is Anna Karina. Intoxicatingly beautiful and yet disconcertingly distant, she is reminiscent of Michelangelo Antonioni’s quintessential female leads, most notably immortalised by Monica Vitti in L’Eclisse. In fact, this is not the only parallel with Antonioni’s work: Piero Piccioni’s score for Lo Straniero holds the same dysphoric undertones as the work of Giovanni Fusco, who worked with Antonioni on several of his films. It is not surprising that these parallels arise, since both bodies of work deal so heavily with the themes of the characters’ alienation and their futile existential struggle against indifference.

As an adaptation, Lo Straniero is extremely faithful to Camus’s novel. The only major perceptible differences are in the introduction, in which we see Meursault in prison in the very first scene, which works as an instigator for the telling of how he came to be there. Of course, there can be no comparison between this opening and Camus’s calmly indifferent first line “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte” (which figures immediately after the prison scene in the film); however, this discrepancy is understandable from the point of a director, and lends to the film a coherent direction, a visual target to work toward in the film’s otherwise thematically disconnected scenes.

 

 

Although Meursault’s relationship with Marie, his colleagues and neighbours is beautifully captured in scenes from the beaches and streets of Algiers, the strongest and most fascinating scenes of film appear in the second half, after the climax in which Meursault shoots the Arab. Most notable are the court scene – inwhich the weighing of Meursault’s crime and guilt resembles a circus act, as favour swings from one fat sweating lawyer to the other – and the final exchange between Meursault and the priest. In this scene, Mastroianni fully demonstrates the extent of his powers as an actor, as he chillingly expresses the supreme anguish of having no anguish at all in the face of committing murder and his own imminent death.

The only problem I can perceive in the film is the fact that it is impossible to find. It has rarely been seen since its release in 1967, and has never been released on VHS or DVD. As part of this season’s screenings at the Cinematheque Ontario, I was lucky to have the chance to watch it: this is only the third time it has been screened in Toronto for the past two decades. The reason as to why this is the case remains a mystery.

However, there is no doubt that adapting L’Étranger into a film was perhaps one of the most ambitious cinematic undertakings in film and literary history, but Visconti has proven he was worthy of the task. The film is by no means a substitute for the novel, but it is a masterful rendering of Camus’s L’Étranger into the medium of film, done with the utmost sensitivity and adherence to the atmosphere and development of the original. Five out of five.

 

 

Pertinent Links

  • Video: Marcello Mastroianni, François Truffaut and Roman Polanski discuss the casting and direction of Lo Straniero by Luchino Visconti (Français)
  • Video: music from Lo Straniero by Piero Piccioni
  • IMDb: Profile and information on Lo Straniero on IMDb
  • Luchino Visconti.net: Information and detailed summary of Lo Straniero with photos from film and shooting (Italiano)
  • Cinematheque Ontario: For more screenings in Toronto this season (including Visconti, Resnais, Robbe-Grillet)
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