Monday 22 February 2021

The Feather Fairy (1985)

Director: Juraj Jakubisko
Writers: Ľubímor Feldek and Juraj Jakubisko
Stars: Giulietta Masina, Petra Vancíková, Tobias Hoesl, Sona Valentová, Pavol Mikulik, Milada Ondrasíková, Valérie Kaplanová and Eva Horká

Index: 2021 Centennials.

One of the unwritten rules of cinema is that, if you want to see a fairy tale on film done properly, you go to Europe, travel east and keep on going. There are many good countries where you could stop to see good fairy tales, but most of them are on the other side of where the Iron Curtain used to be. This one is a multinational production that’s nominally Czechoslovakian and primarily in the Slovak language. I’m guessing that my grey market copy was taped from an Italian TV channel, because the few sections in Italiano are not subtitled but all the Slovak is. It doesn’t matter that much, because it’s clear what’s going on, except that I find myself a bit in the dark about the circus troupe that’s our focus as the film begins and which returns to the story later. It’s easy to see why they would be watching it in Italy, though, because the one cast member I recognise is the one I’m watching for. That’s Giulietta Masina, the magical clown of European cinema, who would have been a hundred years old today.

This is a late film for her, but she’s just as much fun to watch here in 1985 as she was in La Strada and Nights of Cabiria in the fifties or Juliet of the Spirits in the sixties. Apparently she was talked into doing this by her husband, the director Federico Fellini, who was a friend of this film’s director, Juraj Jakubisko. I’m very happy that she agreed to do it, because she remains a bundle of energy at 64 years young and her quirky charm is utterly perfect for a fairy tale. However, I also enjoyed the eastern actors, none of whom I had seen before. Most of them are women, because that’s just how this story rolls, with only one male character of real substance. That is another worthy aspect of eastern fairy tales, where female characters can be anything, rather than merely the two opposites the Disney adaptations polarise: the beautiful young peasant girl or princess and the ugly and evil stepmother or crone. Those clichés are here too, though with some serious caveats, and they’re not all there are to be found either because there’s also Perinbaba.

She’s the lead character, the title character—because The Feather Fairy is the English language title for what was originally Perinbaba in Slovak—and Masina’s character. She’s a character explored in a Brothers Grimm story, who goes by Mother Hulda, Frau Holle or Old Mother Frost. A widow has two daughters, one by blood and one by marriage. She favours her own, who is ugly and lazy, over her stepdaughter, who’s pretty and industrious. She tasks the latter with sitting by a well every day and spinning until her fingers bleed but the girl loses her spindle, climbs into the well to retrieve it and ends up in a beautiful meadow. Being an industrious soul, she does what needs to be done, and is taken in by Mother Hulda, who has her shake her bed linen, as sending the feathers flying is how snow is generated in the world. She does well and Mother Hulda is grateful, coating her in gold when she decides to go home. Her stepmother promptly sends her daughter to get the same reward, but being lazy, she fails and returns covered in pitch.

This is kind of that story, but heavily re-written. Mother Hulda in the story is Perinbaba here, who looks human but isn’t. She lives in a magical cave, where she never gets old but spends her time making it snow wherever it should. She has a sister who also takes care of one of the needs of the world, being Old Lady Death herself or Stará Zubatá, which means Old Toothy, because of her silver teeth. Actress Valérie Kaplanová has fun with this role, hamming it up as a pantomime villain, though at points she transforms into a young beauty, Mladá Zubatá or Young Toothy, portrayed by the lovely Eva Horká with the same set of silver teeth. As we expect, the two sisters who represent life and death don’t always agree and the film starts with a magical disagreement that sets the stage for young Jakub to continue to cheat death throughout, for himself and for Alžbetka, the girl with whom he falls in love. This is one of the primary themes of the film: man’s arrogance in continuing to outwit Death so he can live and love as long as he wants.

That initial disagreement is glorious. A circus troupe is fighting their way through the snow when Stará Zubatá shows up to wave a scythe and explode their caravan, sending everyone tumbling down a snowy bank. It seems that she’s after young Jakub, who’s just a wee thing here but arrogant far beyond his years. He escapes using his crib as a sled, even pulling the nose of Death as she leans in to take him. Of course, he’s aided to no small degree by Perinbaba, who’s watching all this unfold through a telescope from a tower above her cave. The Feather Fairy calls up the winds, so the laughing Jakub whizzes hither and thither through the snow in his crib sled, almost like a magical bull teasing a deadly toreador with a scythe. It’s a hoot to watch, though it’s fair to point out that, just as Jakub is literally running rings around Death, the circus performers he was travelling with are buried in the snow, perhaps dead or dying. He’s blissfully unaware of this because, presumably to him, death has no meaning yet.

Perinbaba loves what she sees through her telescope: “I haven't met anyone who could break the bones of Death,” she tells the air. “I like the boy.” And, next thing we know, he’s in her cave, helping her make it snow by using her bed as a trampoline, sending her feathers flying as high as he can. Now, while Perinbaba herself is happy living in her cave not growing older, Jakub gradually starts to feel like he’s missing out on life. In particular, he sees one human being, Alžbetka, through Perinbaba’s crystal ball, as she grows from a baby being put to bed to a little girl playing in the springtime. Having fallen in love, he sneaks the key to the gate of the cave, climbs up to the tower and turns the ship’s wheel to open all the shutters. What a fantastic mountain view! But, just standing there on the balcony outside, he starts to age and, it isn’t long, at least from our perspective, before he gives the Feather Fairy a sleeping potion and sneaks on out, using Perinbaba’s voluminous bedcovers as a makeshift balloon to take him where his heart wants to go.

It’s here, half an hour into the movie that the lead actor makes his first appearance. He’s Tobias Hoesl and he plays Jakub as a young adult, because naturally he’s aged a few years during the flight. While he’s German and almost everyone else here is either Czech or Slovak, he’s a natural for the brash youth who loves life and outwits death and always tells the truth even though it makes him look like a fabulist. He finds Alžbetka in the barn, milling grain into flour, and leaps in to help her. When her new stepmother, unnamed but clearly selfish and cruel, shows up with her own daughter to eject the intruder, he actually dances around duelling them with a besom, a broom made of twigs. They’re in a sort of Cinderella story but he’s Douglas Fairbanks, leaping in like a swashbuckler not to merely save the day but to do it with bravado, as if that’s the only thing in life to be doing. Jakub is a force of nature, like life itself, a breath of fresh air in the daily torment that is Alžbetka’s existence under her stepmother’s control.

Of course, that’s the core of the Mother Hulda story that this is based on, so Alžbetka ought to be the lead, as pretty and industrious as her stepsister Dora is ugly and lazy, but that’s not quite how this goes: Jakub is the lead and Alžbetka his love interest. Dora isn’t a very nice person at all, a scheming little bitch in her mother’s image, but she’s only ugly inside, as Milada Ondrasíková is a beautiful young actress. Also, while Dora is lazy, she’s more entitled here, looking down on losers like her stepsister who do the actual work. Alžbetka’s father is the mayor of whatever town we’re in, so her mother is a golddigger and her daughter takes after her. They end up as literal golddiggers, scrabbling all the coins they can find together so as to remain rich as they have to run for the hills. I liked Sona Valentová as the wicked stepmother, haughty when on top and pitiful when not. She has many notable scenes, but the one I’d highlight most is the one where she seriously thinks about burning the sleeping Alžbetka’s face with a lamp.

But the film’s called Perinbaba and, while Jakub may be the lead, Giulietta Masina is the star. She continues to watch through her crystal ball as life progresses for Jakub. As in the Mother Hulda fairy tale, Alžbetka ends up in her cave, helping her out with the snow just as Jakub did and keeping an eye on him through the ball just as he kept an eye on her. And, as in Mother Hulda, the moral aspect to the story unfolds as expected: the good characters, after their troubles, get to live happily ever after and the bad ones sink into a lake of pitch, because there’s no easy way out in a proper fairy tale. While it wasn’t real pitch, Valentová and Ondrasíková did the stuntwork themselves, standing on a wooden board and being pulled down by a diver at the requisite moment. That makes me wonder about the various balloon flights because there wasn’t a gondola, just a giant sheet onto which the actors who played Jakub held as it flew through the mountains. Maybe they did their own stuntwork too. Certainly there’s no CGI involved here at all.

I appreciated how low tech this all was, because that helps ground the movie and make it feel as real as possible, even though what we see is often fantastic. Without digital special effects, which would look dated and obvious now in a 1985 movie, to take us out of the moment, we find ourselves on board with the internal logic of the story, however wild that is. Of course, Perinbaba can make it snow by the pyramids in Giza, just because Jakub wants to see how people would react. She’s the Feather Fairy. That’s her job. And, of course, it’ll happen because she’s bouncing on a giant bed to stir up feathers or playing a bizarre looking organ like a benevolent Phantom of the Opera. I think another reason that we buy into all this is that the set design is busy and engaging without being too outrageous. The stuff we see in Perinbaba’s cave, organ aside, isn’t that different from what’s in our houses, except in the quantity of animals and candles and feathers, which are, shall we say, unrestrained.

I’m sure there’s meaning to some of this too, that I’m not seeing because this isn’t my culture, as much as the magic inherent in it often prompts me to wish it was. For instance, there are animals everywhere in this movie. I understand that we’re in a particular historical period where animals are working creatures and wild ones too, which might provide meat or skins for clothing, but this movie reaches the point where there’s rarely a frame that doesn’t feature at least one species. And it isn’t only the dogs and horses we might expect in the village and wolves beyond it. Perinbaba’s cave is full of doves while Alžbetka has a pride of peacocks. Jakub conjures fish out of a frozen river with a flute and the mayor’s desk boasts mice liberally wandering around. I’m sure much of this proliferation of animals has meaning and representation and some of it’s clear, but it served as another form of grounding for me, directly connecting the wild and wonderful nature of fairy tale fantasy to the natural world. It made it all the more real.

Just in case you hadn’t guessed, I had a blast with The Feather Fairy. Sure, the story’s always pretty obvious, so we don’t really reach the emotional depths while the good characters are suffering or the heights while they aren’t, but we’re happy to go with the flow. Best of all for me was the way that we kind of watch this fairy tale unfold—the young man learning how to be a mortal being, with a whole variety of emotions to go along with that, love for a beautiful woman, sorrow as she’s taken away, despair as he struggles to go on without her, exultation as she magically returns alive and well—just as Perinbaba and Death do. In a way, we’re as immortal as they are too, as we only age ninety minutes in our modern caves while the other core characters age years and generations. We peek in at key points in Alžbetka’s life, just like Perinbaba does through her telescope, and learn her story. What we watch is weird magical stuff and, to be honest, we do so in a sort of weird magical way, down to the subtitles and the manipulations of pixels.

Maybe I’m just feeling extra magical because I watched another Giulietta Masina movie. She tends to have that effect on me, as I’m drawn to her pixielike energy and charm. She was born Giulia Anna Masina in San Giorgio di Piano, part of the city of Bologna, but she grew up in Rome with a widowed aunt because, even as a child, she was showing promise in the arts and she would likely have more success there. She learned voice, piano and dance at a convent school and initially acted on stage, moving to radio during the war as a voice actress, because it paid better and garnered more attention. It was while working on radio that she met her husband to be, Federico Fellini, who was a journalist at the time trying to become a screenwriter. She was known for her musical comedies, but also appeared in a serial Fellini had written for radio called Cico and Pallina, playing the latter. This was in 1942. They married a year later and remained so until Fellini died in 1993, a day after their golden wedding anniversary.

Of course, it’s difficult to separate the two artistically because Masina’s greatest achievements were also Fellini’s. Her first film was directed by Roberto Rossellini, 1946’s Paisan, but Fellini co-wrote the script. Her first credit was in Without Pity, an Alberto Lattuada picture two years later, but again it was co-written by Fellini. Fame came six years after that, when she starred alongside Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart in La Strada, playing a simple woman bought from her mother by a circus strongman. It took me some time to fully appreciate this film, but even on my first viewing I knew that Masina was magical in it, magic that was purest cinema, and Fellini clearly knew it too, as he fought for her to play Gelsomina against the objections of producers. La Strada won Fellini the first official Oscar for Best Foreign Film and it changed more lives than his. In a 1957 interview, he stated that Masina had received over a thousand letters from abandoned women whose husbands came back to them after seeing the film.

Frankly, Masina could have retired from the screen after La Strada and still maintained her place in cinematic history but, as far as I’m concerned, her greatest role was still to come, even though she’d technically introduced it two years earlier. The protagonist in Fellini’s The White Sheik comes to wander the streets of Rome at night and he runs into a couple of prostitutes, one of them Masina’s character, Cabiria. It’s a brief scene for her but a great one and it both helped Fellini persuade his financers to let her be Gelsomina in La Strada and directly inspired the creation of Nights of Cabiria. I reviewed it last year on Fellini’s hundredth birthday but it would be just as appropriate for Masina’s. I adore the quote by Janet Maslin in The New York Times that her final scene in this film is worth more than “all the fire-breathing blockbusters Hollywood has to offer” and it’s absolutely true. Even thinking about that scene has me welling up with tears and it’s as pure emotion as any scene in any film outside of perhaps Chaplin in City Lights or The Kid.

She made other films, but not a vast amount of them, and fully half were either written or directed by her husband. Maybe the best remembered that he wasn’t involved with at all is Rossellini’s Europa ’51, but that’s debatable. After all, she did make one film in the English language, The Madwoman of Chaillot in 1969 alongside Katharine Hepburn and Charles Boyer. What isn’t debatable is that her greatest successes were emphatically in Fellini movies. She won as Best Actress at Cannes for Nights of Cabiria. She won two David di Donatello Awards for Best Actress, an award given to those working in the Italian film industry, for Juliet of the Spirits and Ginger and Fred. And she won four Silver Ribbon Awards from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists, two as Best Actress, for Nights of Cabiria and Ginger and Fred, and two as Best Supporting Actress, for Without Pity and Variety Lights. Even by death they couldn’t be separated for long. She passed away in 1993, only five months after her husband. They’re buried together in Rimini.

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