Reviews: "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone"; "Mafioso"

Max Goldberg April 10, 2007

“I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” puts its melodrama and comedy within a Malaysian mattress.

It’s been a little less than a year since I got rocked by Tsai Ming-Liang’s abrasive wonder, “The Wayward Cloud,” and still it refuses to let go (the last, fully-cocked shot, especially). The film had the same players, slow pace, and baroque compositions as previous Tsai outings (festival hits like “Goodbye Dragon Inn,” “The River,” and “The Hole”), but swirled with watermelons, hardcore sex, and inescapable revulsion. One left the theater awed, but mostly in need of a good shower. Grime abounds in Maylasia-set follow-up “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” (much of the film is shot in a cavernous, sodden factory space), but there’s also a show of tenderness here that was missing from “The Wayward Cloud”‘s provocative spectacle. Even with a comatose sex scene that would make “Talk to Her” blush, bug-ridden mattresses, and (still) sticky, fluorescent fruit drinks, “I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone” seems gentle by comparison.

A yearning love triangle set in the city’s darkest corners, Tsai’s new film doesn’t unfold so much as billow out. Lee Kang-Sheng (Tsai’s primary player) has two parts here, though he doesn’t move much either way: as the prone, unconscious figure tended to by his café-owning mother and her employee Chyia, and then as Hsiao Kang, a street rat beaten up by hoods, saved by doting Rawang. When Hsiao is finally able to leave Rawang’s little cave (a mattress partitioned off from the dark dank by a thin gauze; Tsai has a unique gift for compositions teetering between beauty and ugliness), he encounters Chyia, and the triangle takes shape as a thick polluted haze settles over film’s the last act. The director’s painterly use of light and scale makes for colossal loneliness; his sharpened sense of pace and timing (many scenes unfold in a single, wordless take) simultaneously draws on melodrama and comedy, resulting in a richly varied, profoundly unsettling cinematic experience.

1962’s “Mafioso” may be the mob-chronicle genre’s ground zero.

Most so-called “black comedy” has more bark than bite, aiming for cheap laughs with nods to the sick and twisted. Alberto Lattuada’s “Mafioso” — originally released in 1962, back in circulation thanks to exemplary reissue label Rialto Pictures — is another beast entirely: disarmingly paced and sharply observed, this might be ground-zero for mob-chronicles from “The Godfather” up through “The Sopranos.” Italian favorite Alberto Sordi stars as Antonio Badalamenti, a country boy made good in industrial Milan. Badalamenti is a foreman with a cool beauty for a wife and two adorable daughters. A success to be sure, but once he brings the family back to his native Sicily, he’s back to being “Nino,” not just to his mother, but to the parades of aunts (he mistakes one for his mother at first), friends, and dons, one of whom seems to have played a part in securing Nino’s good fortunes in the north.

The beauty of “Mafioso” lies in the way Lattuada and screenwriting team Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli (also behind other major Italian realist-comedies like “Divorce Italian Style” and “Big Deal on Madonna Street”) allow small-town Sicily to unfold before us. They leave the details of Nino’s past unclear, instead implicating the dense weave of social hierarchies, which, taken as a whole, seem as ominous as they do ridiculous; everything is revealed in the askance look, and Lattuada’s impeccable timing means we always catch these telling gestures. The initial arrival, for one, is a riotous ballet, establishing relationships, family history, and potential conflicts in a few brief shots: Sordi just about jumps out of his skin hugging all the relatives, everyone “beautiful” or “handsome,” while his wife, Marta, looks uncomfortable trying not to offend local custom as giant platters of grilled swordfish and squid-ink pasta clutter the table. Already, sharp “home for the holidays”-style humor is shadowed by darker cultural tensions. Conversely, when the plot takes a turn towards brutality, the lightness of touch remains: always this delicate instability of tone, reflected so expressively in Sordi’s transparent countenance, upon which a broad smile is never far from a worried brow.