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A for Art Criticism
Author: Francisco Lo
“A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at,” a supporting actor responds to the director’s dismay at an attempt to add a funny line to a serious play. It is the first of several meta-comic moments in this funny film. In truth, comedy has always been a second-class citizen in the world of cinema. Prestigious awards are rarely given to comedies. A movie with jokes is not serious art. Or so they say.
Comedy has a long and celebrated tradition in the history of motion pictures. The director of this film is one of the genre’s most revered innovators. Though he never won an Oscar other than an honorary one, his uncanny sensibility was compared to the golden touch of King Midas. And this audacious comedy is testament to his ingenious writing and pitch-perfect direction.
How audacious is this comedy? It was shot and released at a time when the United States had just joined the war against a terrible dictator (and his allies). Although it was fairly common for the film industry to support the war effort by creating moral-boosting entertainment, this film could not be any farther away from the propaganda type. It brazenly satirizes a monstrous regime and concentration camps—a scandalizing take on the war for the American audience at the time. But for the director, this was deeply personal. As a Jew whose former country had fallen into the wrong hands, the director saw comedy as his way to fight back against the world’s biggest megalomaniac.
The story centres on a theater troupe whose plans to stage a serious play about the great dictator has to be scrapped due to the impeding invasion. Josef, the leading man, is infuriated by a member of the audience who walks out on him during his performance of a Shakespearean soliloquy. It turns out that young patron is sneaking backstage to meet his wife Maria, the lead actress. She is delighted to get the attention of a fighter pilot who is not a needy attention seeker like her husband. Meanwhile, Josef is comically oblivious to Maria’s suitor because he is way too concerned with the walkout. Yet all that marital bantering has come to an abrupt pause when the enemy’s army marches in. This is when the film takes a somber turn. Under occupation, the theater troupe becomes an unwittingly participant in the resistance’s plans to foil an enemy spy. With the help of his colleagues, Josef—the self-proclaimed greatest actor of his country—has to rely on his thespian chops to get out of this conundrum alive. Only in the masterful director’s hands can this dire situation turn into a relentless circus of hilarity.
Aside from firing funny lines at breakneck speed, the greatness of this screenplay lies in its series of clever narrative manoeuvres. First time viewers will be amused by the unpredictable twists while repeated viewings will offer a chance to catch up on the many double entendres. At the center of it all is Jack Benny, who is a legend of the American radio. Yet Josef is perhaps the only film role that maximizes his comedic genius. Whether it’s his screwball chemistry with the flawless Carole Lombard, or his madcap double impersonation, Benny shines like a true star of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Because the theme itself is such a high-wire act, none of the comedic elements would have worked if the film did not possess a bona fide emotional core. Without an unflappable moral compass, the film would have become a cheap laugh for all the wrong reasons. In the midst of a memorable cast of characters, Greenberg (played by Felix Bressart) stands out more than anyone else. As the only Jew in the troupe, Greenberg dreams of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. At three different points in the story, the humble supporting man recites the famous Shylock speech to great effect. Each time, the context is different and the emotional weight varies. Yet his moving delivery embodies the film’s heart and soul every single time.
Such is the making of a perfect comedy.
* Text taken from the Surprise Film Festival brochure.
* Pre-screening sharing with guest
Speaker: Francisco Lo (Programmer, writer and lecturer)
Tickets are available from 10am on Saturday 16 March online and at Cinematheque．Passion ticket office. Ticket price is MOP$60. Full-time students and senior citizens age 65 or above can enjoy 50% discount. Each purchase of 10 regular tickets or more can also enjoy 20% discount.Book 4 or more tickets in a single transaction and get a 2nd anniversary ticket wallet. Souvenirs are subject to availability and on a first-come-first-served basis.