Movie Review: SF Chron’s Mick LaSalle’s ‘Masterpieces Film Festival’

By David Romano

A reader asked San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle, “If you hosted ‘Mick’s Masterpieces Film Festival,’ what films would you include in your program?”

LaSalle replied in part, “As for what I’d include in a masterpiece festival, there’s a lot to choose from, but here it goes: “Upstage” (1926), “After Midnight” (1927), “Queen Christina” (1933), “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941), “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), “Umberto D.” (1952), “The Mother and the Whore” (1973), “Raging Bull” (1980), “The Role of Her Life” (2004), “Revanche” (2008). And those are just the first 10 that came to mind” – San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022; Section: Datebook

That list gave me pause. I think that I have seen quite a few films in the last 60 years, and I actually search out old and esoteric films, but I only knew Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” and “Umberto D,” a film from 1952 by the Italian master Vittorio De Sica, in black and white with subtitles. So, I thought I would try to find these films. One reason to have film critics is to find out about little-known masterpieces.

Now, I have to say, if these are just the first 10 that come to mind for LaSalle, he is indeed a scholar of the rare and obscure. Some enterprising person uploaded “Upstage” to YouTube, but otherwise, I searched Roku in vain to find it. I have to say thank you to LaSalle for introducing me to this quaint, charming, witty but somewhat silly and melodramatic, silent film starring Norma Shearer. A masterpiece it is not. It lacks the depth, breath and heft to qualify in that category. But I will say it held my interest enough for me to watch to the end, which rarely happens. There are dance sequences, particularly the Russian folk dancing, that are remarkable. “Upstage” would be worth watching for the dance numbers and the vaudeville onstage and backstage scenes, alone.

I will touch briefly on the other three films, mentioned by LaSalle, that I have seen: “Raging Bull”, “Revanche” and “Umberto D.” I saw “Raging Bull,” a portrayal of the life of boxer Jake La Motta, world middleweight champion from 1949 to 1951, decades ago.  As good as it is (I can still remember it vividly), I would not care to see it again. It may be a masterpiece, but it’s brutal. I found “Revanche” on YouTube after seeing it on LaSalle’s list and please, take my advice, and don’t watch “Revanche” at all.  I lasted about halfway through and wish I hadn’t seen that much. It is extremely violent and gruesome and there is no contrast or respite in this stark and pitiless scenario of murder, torture and revenge.  Do not see this film. “Umberto D” is an undoubted masterpiece and my kind of film; gentle, slow moving and brimming over with humanity. It is also very sad. I look forward to exploring the other masterpieces on LaSalle’s list and will report back.

In the meantime, if you want to talk masterpieces from the early days of cinema, I can recommend “Freaks” from 1932, directed by Tod Browning. This 64-minute film is so powerful and astonishing it will change your life. It is not light entertainment, and the ending is harrowing, but along the way you encounter characters of Shakespearean proportions in the little world of the traveling circus. A challenging film that raises more questions than it answers and makes you think about the human condition.

A still from the 1932 movie “Freaks.”

Another masterpiece of the black and white era is “Les Enfants du Paradis,” According to Wikipedia, the films was “produced under war conditions in 1943, 1944 and early 1945 in both Vichy France and occupied France.” Popular in the 1960s, this amazing film is seldom shown or talked about now. Don’t miss it. You will be transported to the world of the Paris theater in the 1830s and ’40s and see mime performed by an absolute master of the genre. This world is far more interesting than anything you will find in a film that takes place in outer space.

David Romano is a graduate of San Francisco State University and has lived in the Outer Richmond since 1992. When he is not watching films, he likes to attend the San Francisco Ballet and San Francisco Symphony, go for walks around the Richmond and practice Tai Chi in Golden Gate Park.

Movie Review: SF Chron’s Mick LaSalle’s ‘Masterpiece Film Festival,’ Part 2

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