Gilbey on Film: Bobby bland

Will the real Robert De Niro please stand up?

I don't have any New Year resolutions, but I do harbour a vague hope: that Robert De Niro will return to acting in 2011. And please don't tell me that he never gave it up -- those would be the words of a person who had escaped the misfortune of seeing Little Fockers, the third and most gruesome in the Meet the Parents trilogy. Perhaps you noticed that De Niro also had a small part recently in Machete, Robert Rodriguez's exploitation homage (yes, another one). His failure to make much impression on screen was in stark contrast to the days when a Robert De Niro walk-on part was a cause for celebration, as in his Al Capone in The Untouchables, which amounted to little more than a few menacing scenes and a lot of Armani. Alternatively, a cameo might reveal a side of him we had never glimpsed, like his charming silliness as a renegade plumber in Brazil. Terry Gilliam told Ian Christie (for Faber's Gilliam on Gilliam book) that De Niro "approached this small part as if he was doing the main part."

He kept flying to London and spent months arguing over every piece of costume and every prop. He was going to brain surgeons he knew in New York and watching operations because I'd said that this character, although a plumber, was like a surgeon . . . We actually built a mock-up of the set just so he could practice. It was as if we weren't making the main film; the special effects, props and costume people were going crazy because they had so much other work to do, but every time Bobby came in, everything would stop and we had to deal with him preparing for his role. He's just not aware of anything else in the world and he makes the most of whatever it is he has to do. He's very serious, very earnest and very hard-working, but it drove everybody else crazy.

If he applies this degree of rigour to his performance as Jack Byrnes, a tyrannical father-in-law, in the Meet the Parents films -- and I find it hard to believe he does -- then something isn't working like it used to; the old alchemy has fizzled out. De Niro the clown is such an odd proposition that there was mileage in it in the beginning; and by the beginning I mean his turn as a Mob boss in therapy in the 1998 comedy Analyze This. Of course, he was funny way before then: he's a riot in Mean Streets, he's dryly hilarious in Midnight Run and Jackie Brown. (In the latter he has all the grunting, un-self-conscious absurdity of a caveman who has accidentally invented the world's first "Knock, knock" joke.)

But the idea of De Niro as a deliberate goofball has its roots in New York, New York, where his attempts to be light-hearted or charming in the presence of Liza Minnelli provide one of the purest examples of horror outside a Universal monster movie. I'd wager that someone involved with Analyze This was channel-surfing late one night when they saw De Niro trying to woo Minnelli in a nightclub at the start of that movie, and realised that the actor has a mesmerising knack for blurring comedy and menace without ever quite throwing in his lot with one or the other.

De Niro being funny involves none of the traditional levity of comedy. In both Analyze This and the original Meet the Parents film, he brings with him the expressions and body language which had served him so well in straight parts -- the shoulders hunched so they almost touch his ear lobes, the mirthless laugh, the grimacing smile where the eyes disappear into the creases in his face. And it is no coincidence that both these parts call on him to be intimidating even as he is gunning for laughs. If any Hollywood casting director ever conceived of trying to get De Niro to be funny in a non-threatening role, the poor sap is probably stacking shelves or holed up in a padded cell by now.

I think comedy has given De Niro a breather that he probably needed. (That said, it's still no excuse for sending up his own "You talkin' to me?" routine from Taxi Driver in The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.) But it's time he took on some more roles that are worthy of his range. What he's lacked recently are great directors. The last decent filmmaker he worked with was himself -- he made the undervalued CIA thriller The Good Shepherd, and gave himself a minor part (he was the only disappointment in it). I maintain that David Cronenberg must have a role for De Niro, somewhere up his sleeve. Can you imagine such a thing? Failing that, I'll just settle for De Niro swearing off any future Fockers. But I'll need it in writing. And in blood.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism