Indivisible (2016) / Mademoiselle Paradis (2017)

Director: Edoardo De Angelis / Barbara Albert

2018 Chicago European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Coming-of-age stories are regular staples in the film industry, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one quite as original as Italian director Edoardo De Angelis’s Indivisible. Angela Fontana and her identical twin Marianna Fontana play 18-year-old singers Dasy and Viola, known as “Indivisible” and literally joined at the hip. They travel locally in their branded van with their huckster father Peppe (Massimiliano Rossi) and alternately stoned and drunk mother Titti (Antonia Truppo) to parties and gatherings of immigrant worshippers who make up the flock of Father Salvatore (Gianfrano Gallo). Considered good luck and said to have inspired miracles, the sisters must put up with people touching them; the fascination with their “juncture” is particularly irritating to them.

As with a lot of show biz films, the children are the breadwinners, and their good looks, great pop singing, and curious disability put them in demand. The money Peppe has set aside for them goes to feed his gambling habit, so when they learn from a physician that they can be separated, Peppe’s failure to cough up the requisite €20,000 to pay for the surgery sets them on a desperate road to freedom. It’s one Viola, devoted to her sister and to being a part of her, isn’t so sure she wants to take.

The Fontana sisters are remarkable in creating completely individual characters who are both comforted and annoyed by the compromises they must make because they can’t get away from each other. Viola is religious and cautious, Dasy eager to explore life. In what seems like an obligatory scene these days, Dasy masturbates; it is Viola who feels pleasure. Viola also complains that she gets a stomach ache when Dasy eats too much. It’s something to see how they manage to ride on a motor scooter and try to get to their feet after taking a tumble. It’s one thing to imagine how conjoined twins negotiate their lives and quite another to get a realistic look at it.

The influence of Tod Browning is apparent, as director De Angelis named the sisters after Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins in Freaks (1932). De Angelis also quotes from Fellini in a freak-filled party scene on the yacht of a promoter (Gaetona Bruno) with a foot fetish. Indeed, the sideshow appeal of Dasy and Viola is lost on no one, least of all them. The desperation Dasy has to be normal brings a poignancy and shocked understanding to the actions she takes to make it so. The moving final scene of the film honors the depth of feeling the entire cast, but especially the Fontanas, bravely explore.

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The Age of Enlightenment set the stage for reason, religious tolerance, constitutional government, and other principles based on reason that persist to our day. Among the things it did not do was free women from exploitation and servitude. Mademoiselle Paradis reveals the sad lot of women—even women of noble birth—who could not fit into one of society’s prefab slots.

Maria Theresia von Paradis was a blind musician, composer, and teacher who was born in Austria during the 18th century and performed throughout Europe during her lifetime. The film covers the months in 1777 and 1778 she spent having her blindness treated by Franz Anton Mesmer, best known today for his theory of animal magnetism, a forerunner of hypnosis.

We first meet Maria (Maria Dragus) as she performs beautifully on the harpsichord for a gathering assembled by her father and mother (Lukas Miko and Katja Kolm). Her sightless eyes move haphazardly while the guests agree that while her playing is divine, her appearance is less so. To try to help her claim a place in society her parents have pushed Maria through a series of painful treatments to restore her sight. When news of the success Mesmer has had reaches them, they hand her over to his care. He breaks down her aristocratic reserve, gives her treatments for her infected scalp, and begins to pass his hands through her magnetic field. Miraculously, Maria begins to discern objects and colors. Vienna society comes to witness her in a dog-and-pony show put on by Mesmer to win favor at court.

In her sumptuous, beautifully lit film, director Barbara Albert rapturously visualizes the sensations Maria experiences through music and nature. In an understated way, she also shows how Maria is used by Mesmer and her parents to forward their ambitions, even as her ability to play starts going south as sight shares space with sound in her brain. Agnes (Maresi Riegner), maid and companion to Maria, is included realistically as a representative of the serving class with whom the gentry took liberties and who were thrown away when they became too visible. A fine cast, a fascinating story, and a stand-out performance by Dragus makes this a must-see film.

Indivisible screens Thursday, March 15 at 8:15 p.m. Mademoiselle Paradis screens Sunday, March 25 at 3 p.m. and Wednesday, March 28 at 8:15 p.m. Both films show at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Catch the Wind: Loneliness drives a textile worker to reject a severance package and move with her company to Morocco. Sandrine Bonnaire superbly captures the emotional life and resilience of her character as she struggles to adapt to a new way of life. (France)

The Miner: Economic uncertainty and an uncovered war crime collide in this powerful drama about a Bosnian miner haunted by the loss of his sister in the Bosnian War who must decide between exposing a crime and keeping his job. (Slovenia/Croatia)

Hitler’s Hollywood: A comprehensive and probing look at the films Germany made during the Nazi era highlights the ideology offered by Minister of Propaganda Josef Goebbels to the German people in support of Hitler’s agenda. (Germany)

Song of Granite: An experimental biopic of Irish folk singer Joe Heaney offers the sounds of his world while somewhat obscuring his life story. (Ireland/Canada)

Happy Birthday: A fictional look at the confrontations between police and students during the 2008 Athens riots highlights the difficulties of reconciliation, as riot cop and his rebel daughter try to reconnect at during a weekend in the country. (Cyprus/Greece)

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