Film reviews: Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet | Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger | La Chimera

Murray Grigor’s newly restored film about Billy Connolly’s 1975 Irish tour shows both why the comedian mattered then and why he’ll continue to matter for a long time to come, writes Alistair Harkness

Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet (12) *****

Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger (12A) *****

La Chimera (15) ****

Billy Connolly in Big Banana FeetBilly Connolly in Big Banana Feet
Billy Connolly in Big Banana Feet

Rarely seen in its entirety since the late 1970s, Murray Grigor’s newly restored Billy Connolly tour film Big Banana Feet is one of those incredible lightning-in-a-bottle cultural artefacts that demystifies and re-mystifies its subject in fascinating ways. Shot just as Connolly was breaking into the mainstream (one punter references the Michael Parkinson appearance that Connolly has since said changed his life), the film follows him as he flies to Dublin then Belfast for a handful of shows at the height of the Troubles, the realities of which he at one point describes – in typical Connolly fashion – as “the greatest laxative known to man.”

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He’s kidding, but he’s not. Casual mention is made of the musicians murdered by paramilitary forces shortly before his arrival, and, in retrospect, it’s hard to comprehend the nerves of steel he must have had to not only go through with the shows, but also improvise jokes about the violence – like the extraordinary, tension-shredding moment on stage in Belfast when a woman in the crowd gives him a rose and he pretends it’s a bomb (“Oh, that’s lovely … boom!”). But Connolly – all of 32, thin as a whip, goatee and hair in full flow – nonchalantly shrugs off any such exceptionalism, telling one reporter that he sells records there so he feels duty bound to come and perform.

What’s remarkable too is the degree to which we can see his fierce intelligence at work, particularly as Grigor cuts between scenes of Connolly (already a phenomenon in Scotland) dealing with various pre- and post-show media engagements, and scenes of him on stage being hilarious and, at times, surprisingly poignant, all the while decked out in a black leotard and those gloriously silly custom-made banana boots. Inspired by D.A. Pennebaker’s direct cinema approach on Don’t Look Back, which a decade earlier had followed Bob Dylan on his 1965 tour of England, Grigor’s film provides an unvarnished portrait of the greatest British comedian of the last 50 years in embryonic form, when it wasn’t yet clear if he was a stand-up, a professional raconteur or a folk singer who told funny stories. Watched today, though, it also provides crucial context for why Connolly mattered then and, more importantly, why he’ll continue to matter for a long time to come.

There’s no greater guide through cinema history than Martin Scorsese. Following similar cine-essay projects tracing his deep love for American and Italian cinema, Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger sees Scorsese turn his attention to the revered, then forgotten, now revered again filmmaking partnership between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, whose most famous films – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes – showcase a creative ambition not seen before or since in British cinema outside of Hitchcock. That Scorsese was responsible for rescuing their reputations after Britain shamefully turned its back on them is one of the bigger ironies of their gradual re-emergence, and a reminder too that all kinds of cinema feed a nascent filmmaker’s imagination (Scorsese guides us through all the ways their films influenced the likes of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Age of Innocence).

La ChimeraLa Chimera
La Chimera

The title, too, is drenched in irony. Pressburger was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who began his career in Weimar-era Germany; Powell apprenticed in France at the dawn of the silent era; and neither felt limited by anything as mundane as a border, shooting films in Canada, France and, of course Scotland, Powell’s favourite country to visit and the place where he shot not only his breakthrough film The Edge of the World, but also – with Pressburger – the classic romantic fantasy I Know Where I’m Going! Rare archival footage offers insights into the duo’s working relationship, though mostly director David Hinton allows it to function as a generous act of cinephilia – a chance to revel in Powell and Pressburger's startling images via Scorsese’s own love-struck gaze.

Set amid the fringe dwellers of her native Tuscany in worlds that often seem unmoored in time, the dreamy films of Italian director Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazzaro, The Wonders) defy easy categorisation at the best of times, but her latest, La Chimera, may be her most confounding yet. That’s not so much a criticism as an acknowledgment that it’s worth submitting fully to its shaggier, metaphysical impulses, even though her use of a character literally pulling on a thread clues us into the fact that she’s not above having a little fun with all her obfuscations.

Mischief and mystery are certainly at the heart of her protagonist Arthur (Josh O’Connor), a dishevelled, penniless, British ex-con who has immersed himself in the world of the “tombaroli”, Italian grave robbers who scrape together a living pillaging Etruscan tombs and selling their wares on the black market. He’s also haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his girlfriend, Beniamina (Yile Yara Vianello), whose mother (played by Isabella Rossellini) tacitly approves of his criminal activity, believing that his divine talent for unearthing treasure will somehow help him find her daughter. Set in the 1980s and shot using a mix of aspect ratios and film stocks, La Chimera looks like a historical artefact in its own right. Yet as the moral cost of plundering the past gradually takes its toll on Arthur’s psyche, Rohrwacher transforms the film into something else with an extraordinary ending that manages to be both wrenching and oddly hopeful.

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Billy Connolly: Big Banana Feet is in cinemas from 10 May and available on DVD & Blu-Ray from 20 May; Made in England: The Films of Powell and Pressburger is in cinemas from 10 May; La Chimera is in cinemas and available on demand from Curzon Home Cinema from 10 May.

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