Category Archives: St. Louis International Film Festival

FILM REVIEW: Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST

Posted by Larry Gleeson

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast from Focus Features tells a humorous, tender, and intensely personal story of one boy’s childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s in the city of Branagh’s birth. Belfast is an impeccable work based on Branagh’s own upbringing in Belfast in the late 1960’s.

The soundtrack features a plethora of Van Morrison’s greatest hits, including a newly written song for the film, adding joy and optimism to the challenging circumstances a young couple is facing with their young children. Their nine-year-old boy must chart a path towards adulthood through a world that has suddenly turned upside down. His stable and loving community and everything he thought he understood about life have changed forever but joy, laughter, music, and the formative magic of the movies remain.

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as “Ma”, Jamie Dornan as “Pa”, Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy”, and Lewis McAskie as “Will” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. (PHOTO Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features)

The cast includes Golden Globe nominee Caitríona Balfe, Academy Award® winner Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and introduces the ten-year-old Jude Hill. Dornan and Balfe play a passionate working-class couple caught up in the mayhem, with Dench and Hinds as the quick-witted grandparents. The film is produced by Branagh, Laura Berwick, Becca Kovacik, and Tamar Thomas.

Caitriona Balfe (left) stars as “Ma” and Jamie Dornan (right) stars as “Pa” in director Sir Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Exquisitely executed cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, Director of Photography, utilizes various camera angles reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma and is simply a visual delight. Befitting the 1960’s the production design from Jim Clay hit the mark with a splattering of classic 1960’s vehicles, urban sidewalks, and building facades to match. The hair, make-up, and costuming donned by the handsome and vivacious actors are a feast for the eyes. Wakana Yoshihara and Charlotte Walker handled the respective departments.

Actor Jude Hill (left) on the set of BELFAST, a Focus Features release. ( PHOTO Credit: Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

The beautiful and talented Belfast actors were cast by Lucy Bevan and Emily Brockman. Úna Ní Dhonghaíle (The Crown) nailed the editing as she managed to draw the viewer into the 1960’s world and keep them there with seamless continuity. And, as mentioned, the music is from the Belfast-born legend, Van Morrison.

Said Kenneth Branagh:

Kenneth Branagh introduced his latest film, Belfast, at the Werner Herzog Theatre as part of the 48th Telluride Film Festival, Thursday, September 2nd, 2021. (Photo by Larry Gleeson/HollywoodGlee)

“Belfast is a city of stories and in the late 1960s it went through an incredibly tumultuous period of its history, very dramatic, sometimes violent, that my family and I were caught up in. It’s taken me fifty years to find the right way to write about it, to find the tone I wanted. It can take a very long time to understand just how simple things can be and finding that perspective, years on, provides    a great focus. The story of my childhood, which inspired the film, has become a story of the point in everyone’s life when the child crosses over into adulthood, where innocence is lost…”


Belfast, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, has a perfectly directed runtime of 97 minutes,  a compelling storyline, and is so technically proficient that it appears to be an early favorite for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscar Awards for best film and best director. Highly recommended!

***Belfast began its theatrical release on November 12th, 2021, and recently screened November 5th, at Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre in University City, Missouri, as part of the 30th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival, November 4 -21, 2021.

FILM REVIEW: Joseph Puleo’s “America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill”

Posted and reviewed by Larry Gleeson.

America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill, directed by Joseph Puleo and based on Rio Vitale’s book, St. Louis’s The Hill, was a walk down memory lane for me as a history buff with family ties to the area around The Hill, an Italian enclave and the last remaining Litlle Italy in the United States. America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill explores the deep historic roots of the iconic St. Louis neighborhood and the Italians who immigrated to The Hill in pursuit of the American Dream of owning a home and starting a family.  This is a project I imagine the likes of Martin Scorcese making – only Marty tends to stick to his own neighborhood in New York City (Mean Streets, and The Oratorio). Nevertheless, when he sees this film, I hallucinate he’ll be beaming with Italian Pride.  America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill which screened at the recent St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF) is Joseph Puleo’s first feature and was the recipient of the Audience Choice Award at this year’s Cinema St. Louis Showcase. Rio Vitale is credited as the film’s Executive Producer.

With a smooth opening black screen coupled with non-diegetic chimes, the film meanders in the darkness before it reveals an interview with Msgr. Salvatore Polizzi. Msgr. Polizzi, a Roman Catholic priest and former associate pastor of The Hill neighborhood’s St. Ambrose Catholic Church in the late 1960s and early 1970s, begins speaking about the general fear many Americans experienced going into an Italian community, “And we were kind of happy there was a fear also.” The film transitioned as introduction titles rolled and the historical documentary was off and running informing the viewer of the setting with home videos and a still photograph of the most recognizable landmark in St. Louis, Missouri, The Gateway Arch. The editing and soundtrack are seamless and spot-on as both aspects enhanced the film’s narrative.

With America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill Puleo provides an eloquent treatment of the Italian immigrant coming to America and settling into the area and becoming a part of the social fabric. Puleo utilized a plethora of black and white photographs, newspaper articles as well as a multitude of interviews with a wide-ranging assortment of Hill residents and extended family members sharing their experiences, strength, and hope. Fr. Polizzi arrived at St. Ambrose Parish in the late 1960s immediately immersing himself in the community. The early 1970s was a time of great social and cultural upheaval and brought changes to the area – think of Travis Bickle’s opening voice-over monologue in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Fr. Polizzi and the men of The Hill neighborhood took matters into their own hands to ensure the neighborhood was kept intact and the darker elements were kept out. The women did the same (and more), to keep their Italian heritage alive and thriving. The nearby Shaw neighborhood by comparison (a war zone) didn’t fare so well.

For me, growing up in the Metro-East area of St. Louis and being a long-time St. Louis Cardinal baseball fan,  my mother had friends on The Hill, notably Eleanor Berra Marfisi, a Berra family member, and author of The Hill: Its History – Its Recipes. Naturally, Mother informed me Lawrence “Yogi” Berra, a brilliant baseball player and manager, was from The Hill. Most baseball fans have heard of Yogi Berra and his Yogiisms as had I (“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”). However, I wasn’t aware of his 10 World Series Championships and the three Most Valuable Player Awards he earned while playing baseball for the New York Yankees. I was probably more familiar with The Hill’s Peabody Award-winning, and recipient of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Ford C. Frick Award for outstanding broadcasting achievement, Joe Garagiola. Garagiola broke into the MLB with the 1946 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals Baseball Team. Within a runtime of seventy minutes, Puleo covers all this and much more including how and why The Hill, named for its proximity to the highest point in St. Louis, is America’s last Little Italy today.

Viewing America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill brought back a lot of memories including the above mentioned. Others included learning about St. Ambrose from my dear friend Mike Cucchi (pronounced ˈko͝okē), a standout soccer player and local college soccer coach who made gossip fodder when he “finally moved off The Hill.” Niki Cusamano and  Alisa Santangelo remain and are a part of the new generation of Italian-Americans who want to be a part of The Hill’s St. Louis Italian traditions. I can tell you whenever I visit family in St. Louis, I visit The Hill and Cunetto’s House of Pasta. Last visit my oldest brother Jim introduced me to Frank Cunetto, who is featured in the film as one of The Hill’s restaurateurs, and to our server at Cunetto’s, Vicki, a Hill resident of Sicilian heritage.

America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill TV premiere is scheduled for Monday, November 30th, 7 PM, with a second showing on December 6th, 4 PM on Nine Network PBS. DVD’s are also available in limited quantities on the film’s Facebook page. I’ve seen a lot of films this year and America’s Last Little Italy: The Hill sits at the top!

Highly recommended!