Nanny, you shrank the kids

MARTHA & ETHEL Jyll Johnstone (U) BARNABO OF THE MOUNTAINS Mario Brenta (12)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
"If we misbehaved, she would give us a licking with the wooden spoon," recalls a former ward of the once-fearsome nanny Martha in the excellent new documentary film Martha & Ethel. Not a fashionable thing to do, setting about the young 'uns with cooking utensils. But this was 1950s America, and Martha was a German immigrant who had been taught that a child's will should be swiftly broken. The children of the Johnstone family, for whom she worked for 30 years, are grown up, but they seem nervous, barely moving their mouths to speak. Jokes are forced out like champagne corks, strained laughter echoes round empty rooms. They look petrified, the way they must have done when Martha wielded her spoon.

There's nothing very terrifying about her now. In a corner of her Queens apartment, she quizzes her teddy bears, playing ventriloquist the way you might to amuse a child. The doctor has said that the daily treks up and down the four flights in her apartment block will kill her. He's suggested a move to Oaknoll Villas, an "adult community". You look at this tiny ghost of a woman, giving a jolly wave as she blinks in the sunlight, and her fierce past and broken present simply refuse to tally.

Jyll Johnstone's film is light as a breeze, and there's a lot of bright, natural humour emanating from her subjects, but she raises dark questions. Many of them are made more pertinent by the fact that she and her siblings spent their childhood in Martha's shadow. Her friend and co-producer Barbara Ettinger, on the other hand, had it sweet. Her nanny was Ethel, a cool- headed odd-jobber from South Carolina, who had no formal training but plunged into caring for the Ettinger children. When they hit their rebellious phase, she was even out there on the porch, conversing with their hippy chums.

Johnstone refrains from setting Martha and Ethel up as diametrical opposites, but the tiny sadnesses of the former's old age speak for themselves. Ethel, meanwhile, is ensconsed in a peculiar part-marriage with Mrs Ettinger, her ex-employer. Nothing much has changed; she still needs the nanny to show her where she keeps the salt in her own house. But Ethel has security: someone still depends on her.

And she remains at the centre of other people's fond memories - the contrast between the Ettingers, with their loose, comfortable clothes and loose, comfortable camaraderie, and the sullen Johnstones, is palpable (and painful: what would Martha think if she had the faculties to absorb this?). Again, Johnstone's refusal to indict Martha's disciplinarian ways stops the movie short of being "Martha versus Ethel". It is, after all, a wholly affectionate portrait, yet, like every family album, it surrenders blemishes under scrutiny. There is real, resonating love for both women. But which family would you rather have been part of?

The near-wordless Italian film Barnabo of the Mountains is like watching three coats of paint dry. That isn't to say they're not sumptuous coats of paint, aesthetically speaking. The mountains of the Dolomites are an imposing presence, and it is there that the young forest ranger Barnabo (Marco Pauletti) works, until his commander is killed by poachers. Barnabo fluffs a chance for revenge, and is released from his job. Toiling away as a labourer, he broods on his cowardice. When he is invited back to the mountains, he knows it could be the last chance to silence his ghosts.

There's an aching despair about Mario Brenta's film - it's about the ineffectual ways we grapple with this life and death nonsense (there's no better way of making a man seem inconsequential than to shoot him against a mountain). The photography - wisps of fog curling around jagged peaks - leaves you breathless, but the funereal pace mirrors another effect of mountain air. It makes you want to sleep for ever.

n On release from Friday

Comments