Tipsy Turvy

Tipsy Turvy

Like a melodrama or a political tract–genres it sometimes resembles, in an honorable way–Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino has a villain you can hiss at.


Like a melodrama or a political tract–genres it sometimes resembles, in an honorable way–Jonathan Nossiter’s documentary Mondovino has a villain you can hiss at. In fact, there are three.

Chief among them is wine tycoon Robert Mondavi, whom Nossiter visits at his sprawling headquarters in California’s Napa Valley. Stone-faced and taciturn–he usually lets others do the talking for him–Mondavi is posed at a slight remove from Nossiter’s camera, in partial shadow, like a Coppola mob boss.

Cast in the role of Mondavi’s international hit man is dark-bearded, laughing Michel Rolland, a “flying winemaker” with clients in a dozen countries. Nossiter most often shows Rolland in the back seat of his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, talking on the phone and chortling over his own power as he prowls through the chateaus of Bordeaux. At each stop, he gives the same order: “Micro-oxygenate!”

Most ingenuous of the villains, though fully as dangerous, is the wine-rating journalist Robert Parker. Modest in demeanor compared with his friends Mondavi and Rolland, yet equally sure of himself, Parker enjoys making earnest speeches about the American frankness and self-reliance–no, the American democracy!–that he believes he has brought to the world of wine. Recorded at his home in Monkton, Maryland, he delivers the first of these orations beneath an autographed portrait of President Ronald Reagan.

If wine is the result of an age-old “religious relationship among human beings, the living earth and the climate”–so says Aimé Guibert, proprietor of a small chateau in Languedoc–then Mondavi, Rolland and Parker must be the satanic trinity. Through an alliance of entrepreneurial muscle, technocratic prestige and journalistic influence, they have built up an ever-growing international demand for a single flavor of “great wine” that can be produced regularly, in ample quantity, without regard for the idiosyncrasies of this or that plot of soil. First the Bordeaux were homogenized. (“Now Bordeaux worships only money,” Guibert complains.) Then came the Tuscans. (“These are all the same wine,” admits the owner of the Vinci wine shop in Volterra, waving at the multitudinous labels.) Now Rolland is advising winemakers in Argentina, Parker is scoring the results in the 90s and the Mondavi company is expanding into yet another territory.

It is a joke, but just barely, when one of the world-conquering Mondavis predicts that he will make wine on Mars. It is glib, but only a little, to call Mondovino the Sideways of antiglobalization films.

I must add immediately that Mondovino is itself a global product. Nossiter had financing enough to bring his video camera to four regions of France, to Tuscany, Sardinia, London, New York, Maryland, California, the northeast of Argentina and Pernambuca, Brazil. His intellectual capital was even more impressive; it taught him the connections among all these places and enabled him to converse fluently with the residents of each. Having invested these considerable resources in Mondovino, Nossiter is now marketing it internationally to an art-house audience made up of people much like himself. In terms of income, education and freedom of movement, they will surely have more in common with him than with his final interview subject, an impoverished Indian named Antonio Cabezas, who makes wine on a one-hectare property in Argentina. And given the consumerist tendencies of the art-house class, you can bet that some members of this audience will reduce the politics of Mondovino to a matter of good taste. From now on, they will turn up their noses at those bland Pomerols, preferring to seek out the rare and authentic wines of Antonio Cabezas.

Without a doubt, Nossiter is implicated in the problems he exposes–but I see no reason to dismiss him for it, any more than you would dismiss Archimedes for his failure to step off the earth. The lever worked, all the same. The main question here is, What works for Nossiter?

The answer, first of all, is family dynamics. On his tour through the world of wine, Nossiter learned that family proprietorship is still common; and this discovery allowed him to develop part of the film as a kind of found melodrama. In Volnay, in the Burgundy region, he spent much time with a proud and eloquent old winemaker named Hubert de Montille, who has passed on his vocation to his two grown children. He handed over the vineyard to his son, Etienne, who worries Hubert with his humorlessness and drive for efficiency. Meanwhile, Hubert’s daughter, Alix, took a job as winemaker for Burgundy’s biggest corporate producer. Can Alix remain true to her father’s principles? Will Etienne sell out to the globalists? Nossiter does not cue the organ music (his soundtrack is too hip for that), but he does turn the de Montille family into exemplary characters, whose story can be played off against the equally instructive tales of other clans: the Mondavis, the Staglins, the Frescobaldis, the Antinoris.

The aristocratic candor of the latter families is something else that works for Nossiter. Once he penetrates their milieu, he no longer has to hint at the political implications of his subject but merely needs to keep the microphone switched on. His subjects are perfectly willing to own up to their Fascist history, which apparently is not quite over. “Mussolini did some great things for Italy, which we’re still enjoying today,” says one Frescobaldi, speaking with the Duce’s own vehemence. Another, more polished in delivery, allows that, yes, the old marquis adhered to Fascism, “but for his own purposes.”

I imagine this shamelessness must be contagious, because James Suckling, an American writer for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, soon joins in. Interviewed at a favored Tuscan winery, he loudly asserts that France is over. Italy is where things are happening now, thanks to Berlusconi. Look at how easy it was for Mondavi to come into Italy and buy Antinori. The French and their “ridiculous socialist government” would never have allowed it.

Nossiter clearly has a talent for eliciting such moments of self-exposure; but when he doesn’t get them, he can make a scene work by letting the camera wander. He will sometimes ignore the ostensible interview subject, leaving him to blather at one side of the frame, while the rest of the screen is taken up by the background image of a worker toiling away. At other times, without warning, Nossiter will zoom in at mid-interview for an extreme close-up, as if he had just noticed that his interlocutor has really scary eyes.

The seeming randomness of these gestures may be what works best of all for Nossiter. His camera is wonderfully distractible–any dog who trots into the frame gets immediate attention–and his sequencing of scenes can be deliberately giddy. (It’s enough to say that he begins the film by showing a coconut harvest in Brazil. “Hey!” he calls to the workers. “Can you make wine out of coconuts?”) There are no dull moments in Mondovino, but there are plenty to remind you that wine, apart from having an exchange value, is something that gets you drunk.

That’s a remarkable achievement. Mondovino gives you a buzz and at the same time sobers you up.

The extraordinary Italian actor Sergio Castellitto, whose work was the subject of a recent retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, took his first crack at directing in 1998 with a picture titled Libero Burro and has now come out with an impressive second effort, Don’t Move (Non Ti Muovere). Based on a prize-winning novel of the same name, which was written by his wife, Margaret Mazzantini, Don’t Move provides the many opportunities you would expect for big acting. Castellitto and his co-star get to cry, scream, make self-revelatory speeches and engage in rough sex. The good news is that, even more often, they make small gestures, in scenes that are focused not on outward display but on the inner lives of the characters and the stark differences between their social worlds.

The story, told mostly in flashback, plays out in the mind of a wealthy surgeon named Timoteo, whose teenage daughter has just suffered a terrible accident. As he waits at the hospital to find out whether she will live, Timoteo confuses his thoughts of his daughter with his memories of another young woman who was once in similar extremity: the isolated and impoverished Italia, with whom he had an adulterous affair.

They did not meet cute. Some fifteen years earlier, while Timoteo was on the road far from his fancy beach house, his fancy car broke down, stranding him in one of those sparsely populated outlying slums where you can’t find a mechanic or even a pay phone. It was a blazing summer day, and the only shelter to be found was in a cheap roadhouse. There, Timoteo first saw Italia–the fantastically gorgeous Penélope Cruz, who for this role has been transformed with a nasty, ratty hairdo, raccoon smudges under her eyes, a set of Jerry Lewis’s old false teeth and a dress made out of a discarded shower curtain. Italia looked beat-up even before she volunteered to let Timoteo use her telephone, back in the shack she inhabited in the middle of a deserted construction site. Once he’d visited her, she looked rather worse.

As the beginnings of relationships go, this was worse than unpromising. It was unforgivable. And yet through direction that is patient, fluid and sometimes dreamlike, and through acting that remains deeply committed to the characters, Don’t Move develops a credible love affair between these two. Cruz at first plays Italia almost like a sleepwalker. She is so powerless against the rich, authoritative Timoteo that impassivity is her only defense. (“What do you do for a living?” he asks at their second encounter, remembering at last to make a little conversation. In reply, she merely stares at him and chews her gum.) Her performance comes across as a slow awakening, as Italia painfully discovers her own possibilities for wit, anger and warmth.

Timoteo, by contrast, already has that whole repertoire, and more. But he’s not in command of it; he seems to be watching himself, with a mixture of alarm and curiosity, to see what he’ll do next. Since one of Castellitto’s greatest gifts as an actor is his apparent spontaneity, he carries you along through these fits of self-discovery, which are perhaps most exhilarating (and also most tortured) during his reckless bouts of public confession. Those are the moments when his big, dark eyes glint. His fast-talking lips pull back in a sardonic grin. With a bob of his head, a hunch of his shoulders, he signals that he’d throw in the towel, if only the invisible opponent would show himself, if only there were a referee to stop this match.

I note, for the sake of completeness, that the screenplay (by Mazzantini and Castellitto) sometimes dumps whole chunks of backstory into the viewer’s lap; that crucifixion imagery abounds; and that the choice of Italia’s name is woefully meaningful. These things, you can manage to ignore.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish every day at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.


Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy