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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (15/3/2024)

(Reviews from the Donne di Mafia Film Festival)


CinemaItaliaUK is holding its annual Donne di Mafia Mini Film Festival, with screenings in London and Bath. There are three films on view: Francesco Rosi's La sfida (1958); Nunzia De Stefano's Nevia (2019); and Pippo Mezzapesa's Burning Hearts (2022).


LA SFIDA.


Easily the pick of the trio is Francesco Rosi's feature debut, La sfida. As a native of Naples who had been Luchino Visconti's assistant on La terra trema (1948), he knew all about filming in southern locations. Moreover, his apprenticeship experiences on Luciano Emmer's A Sunday in August (1950), the underrated Raffaello Matarazzo's Torment and Nobody's Children (both 1951), Michelangelo Antonioni's The Vanquished (1952) and Mario Monicelli's Proibito (1955) had taught him how to structure a story, develop characters, and use neo-realist techniques to make socio-political points.


However, Rosi was also a keen student of American cinema and the influence of Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) and Thieves Highway (1949) and Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) can be seen in this crime drama that was co-written by Suso Cecchi D'Amico and Enzo Provenzale and based on the lives of Neapolitan gangster, Pasquale Simonetti (aka Pascalone 'e Nola), and his beauty queen wife, Pupetta Maresca. However, the story stops short of the incident that saw the latter hit the headlines.


Vito Polara (José Suárez) lives in an impoverished part of Naples that still bears of the scars of war. He makes a living selling contraband cigarettes with oppos Gennaro (Nino Vingelli) and Raffaele (Decimo Cristiani). But, when they buy a consignment of courgettes and pumpkins during a trucking strike, Vito sees how they can make bigger bucks.


Renting a car, he tries to persuade some of the farmers in the outlying countryside to sell him produce. However, they are committed to dealing with Camorra siblings Ferdinando (José Jaspe) and Salvatore Ajello (Pasquale Cennamo) and, when one does agree to supply Vito, he is promptly abducted until he welches on the arrangement. Vito is furious and the short-fused Salvatore pulls a gun on him for showing such disrespect. Tempers cool, as a religious procession passes, and the wily Ferdinando informs Vito that he can have a share of the market, providing he remembers his place and plays by the Ajello rules.


Suddenly flush with money, Vito attracts the attention of Assunta (Rosanna Schiaffino), a tenement neighbour who makes sure that he catches her eye while she hangs out the washing. Following a terrace seduction, she becomes Vito's girl and, when her mother (Elsa Valentino Ascoli) makes a fuss about her being underage, he promises to marry her. His mother (Tina Castigliano) has misgivings when he rents the biggest apartment in a new condominium, but he enjoys playing the big man on the block and wants everyone to know how important he is.


Getting cocky, Vito goes behind the backs of Salvatore and Ferdinando to cut a deal for three truckloads of tomatoes with wholesaler Califano (Ubaldo Granata). When the Ajellos decide that the harvest needs another week (as a ploy to raise prices), the farmers refuse to help Vito meet his deadline. Fearing ruin after spending a fortune on his wedding day, Vito leaves Asunta at the reception (which the Ajellos have pointedly spurned) while he finds vehicles to make his delivery. When the farmers refuse to leave their homes, he rams the doors of a storage barn and coerces the drivers into helping him load up. Worried that her husband is in trouble, Asunta rushes to the vegetable market and arrives in time to see Salvatore emerge from behind an iron gate and gun Vito down.


Photographed with a stark sense of sun-searing authenticity by the great Gianni Di Venanzo (who had just come off Mario Monicelli's hilarious crime caper, Big Deal on Madonna Street, 1958), this is noir-realism at its most uncompromising. There's little to like about Vito, who has a chip on his shoulder to match his ego, as he treats his sidekicks with contempt and is forever seeking to get one over partners and rivals alike. Even his romance with Assunta reeks of chauvinism, even though she quite clearly sets her cap at him even before the mesmerising terrace scene.


But, while Rosi captures the brash bustle of the inner-city tenements, he also conveys the meagre existence of the country folk at the mercy of mobsters and truckers alike when it comes to shifting their produce. Vito treats them no better than the Ajellos and, thus, Rosi denies Spanish actor José Suárez the chance to play him with the kind of underdog charm that had epitomised so many of James Cagney's upwardly aspiring ne'er-do-wells.


Compatriot José Jaspe also cuts a cunning figure as Ferdinando, while Pasquale Cennamo glowers as the hot-headed Salvatore. Slipping between girlishness and sensuality before realising she's powerless to control her man, Rosanna Schiaffino is somewhat marginalised by the direction the story takes. But she poignantly conveys the wedding day realisation that she is out of her depth and it's hard to see how Assunta would follow the pregnant Pupetta Maresca in shooting her husband's killer in broad daylight. Despite the efforts of her lawyer to block the screening, La sfida won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and launched Rosi on an undervalued career. As for Maresca (who acquired the nickname `Lady Camorra'), she died at the age of 86 in 2021, having played a version of herself in Renato Parravicini's Delitto a Posillipo - Londra chiama Napoli (1967).


NEVIA.


The influence of producer Matteo Garrone is readily evident in Nevia, the debut feature of Nunzia De Stefano, who worked as an assistant on Gomorrah (2008), Reality (2012), Tale of Tales (2015), and Dogman (2018). However, the spirit of Federico Fellini also infuses this gritty drama, which draws on De Stefano's recollections of the decade she spent in the Marianella container park outside Naples following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.


With her mother dead and her father in prison, 17 year-old Nevia (Virginia Apicella) lives with her grandmother (Pietra Montecorvino) and mischievous younger sister, Enza (Rosy Franzese), in the Ponticelli trailer park. Aunt Lucia (Franca Abategiovanni) resides nearby and Nevia brings in cash by collecting rubbish for their elderly neighbours. She dislikes the fact that Nanà seeks to pay off her son's debts by hiding contraband for local crime lord, Peppe (Gianfranco Gallo), whose thirtysomething son, Salvatore (Simone Borrelli), keeps making unwelcome advances. Moreover, she resents sleepovers with her aunt because Nanà is hosting clients for Julia (Lola Bello Durojaiye), the prostitute who rents the spare room.


But Nevia understands the grim realities of a situation that prompts Lucia to opine that the worst luck anyone can have is being born a girl. So, when Enza steals an iguana when they sneak into a visiting circus, Nevia sees a chance to escape when Guido (Pietro Ragusa) opts not to press charges and offers her a job working with the animals.


Bonding with the horses and donkeys, as well as a hippo named Pippo, Nevia is touched by the welcome afforded by Guido's family and feels concerned when she discovers medical equipment in his caravan. Excited at helping him rehearse a comic chase, Nevia gazes at herself wearing clown make-up and feels more at home in the chapiteau than she does in the trailer, where Nanà keeps hoping she will transform their fortunes by responding to Salvatore's clumsy flirtation.


However, Guido orders Nevia to leave after she bursts in on him unannounced and she and Enza have to move in with Salvatore after Nanà is arrested shortly after cutting strands of her granddaughter's hair. As Lucia is not a blood relative, they put up with the situation until Nevia's 18th birthday, when she takes exception to Salvatore pawing her at her party. When she sees him involving Enza in a shady deal, she knocks him out and flees. Lucia gives her money for a bus ticket to Rome, but they spot the circus from the road and ask to be dropped off.


Although full of inscrutable symbolism and unanswered questions, this may not be the most narratively complex debut. But De Stefano and co-scenarist Chiara Ridolfi certainly leave the audience with plenty to think about relating to the status of women in Neapolitan society, the cloying intractability of poverty, and the pernicious pervasiveness of criminality.


Clearly familiar with the milieu and aided by Guido Michelotti's inquisitive camera, De Stefano captures bustling hardscrabble ambience of the Ponticelli settlement and deftly contrasts it with the homey camaraderie of the chapiteau camp. There's an element of sobering predictablility about Nevia's plight and something rather melodramatic about the notion of running away to join the circus. But the final close-up of Nevia's beaming face in her clown costume can't quite allay the fears that, no matter where the nomads may go, Peppe and Salvatore will still have a long reach.


Making her screen bow, acrobat-turned-actor Virginia Apicella impressively slips between vulnerability and pluck, while Pietra Montecorvino and Franca Abategiovanni capably suggest the alternative routes that she might be forced to take if she remains in Ponticelli and continues to spurn the boss's son. It might have been interesting if Nevia had someone of her own age to confide in, as her isolation feels a little contrived. But who has time for friends when making money for the family is all that matters?


BURNING HEARTS.


A couple of weeks ago, we reviewed Abel Ferrara's Padre Pio and the Church of San Pio in San Giovanni Rotondo lies somewhere in the hinterland of Pippo Mezzapesa's Burning Hearts. Inspired by journalists Carlo Bonini and Giuliano Foschini's book about rising crime rates in the southern peninsular region of Apulia, this is a sombre variation on the Romeo and Juliet story that is made all the more compelling by the fervid nature of the performances and the lowering lustre of the monochrome photography.


Five decades after being the sole survivor of the 1960 massacre of his Gargano farming family by the rival Camporeale clan, Michele Malatesta (Tommaso Ragno) presides over an uneasy truce. He has committed several revenge murders and tensions still simmer, even during bidding to carry the Madonna in a church procession.

The auction, however, brings mother of two Marilena Camporeale (Elodie Di Patrizi) to the attention of Michele's son, Andrea (Francesco Patanè). With her husband hiding in a cave in the mountains, she is free to meet with Andrea at the salt flats after he had cornered her in a department store changing room and begged for a date. She insists this will be the first and only time, but they keep meeting, even after Michele finds out and orders Andrea to stay away.


Marilena's menfolk also get wind of the affair and she is told to stay away from her children. Her in-laws demand recompense and Vincenzo Montanari (Michele Placido) and his son, Potito (Brenno Placido) agree to mediate. When Michele warns them that a blood feud will prevent them from sleeping at night, they accept cattle as a peace offering. But Teresa (Lidia Vitale) is afraid for her son, in spite of Michele's reassurances.


In fact, it's Michele who is murdered by Marilena's husband, after he is lured into the woods to find a lost sheep. Son Paky (Giovanni Trombetta) and henchmen Trippone (Michele Pereira Da Paz), Semolino (Arturo Severo Cano), and Zigo Zigo (Giovanni Anzaldo) want immediate revenge. But Teresa insists that Andrea has to do the killing and reluctantly allows the pregnant Marilena to live on the farm, where daughter Immacolata (Letizia Pia Cartolaro)befriends her, although she misses her children.


When the Camporeales slaughter every sheep but the youngest lamb, Giovannangelo (Francesco Di Leva) tells Andrea that it's time to start acting like a wolf, as Teresa sneeringly asks Marilena which of her brothers-in-law they should kill first. It turns out to be Graziano (Dino La Cecilia) who catches Marilena collecting her kids from Damiano (Gianni Lillo) and Andrea is so pleased with himself for gunning him down and pistol-whipping him that he licks the blood off his fingers as Marilena drives them home.


Getting a taste for killing after letting his cattle loose in the cemetery during Graziano's funeral, Andrea promise Marilena that he will spare Damiano, as he has been protecting her babies. When an uncle recently released from prison is murdered while changing into a Santa costume during a Christmas celebration, however, the stakes are raised and Andrea guns down two farmhands who had the misfortune to witness Arcangelo Camporeale (Nicola Davide) being dispatched. He takes out his sense of guilt on Paky and Marilena threatens to leave him when he turns on her.


When Paky is ambushed in his car soon after Andrea has shot Renzino (Cristiano Cela) in a prostitute's caravan, he accuses Zigo Zago of betraying his brother. He forces him to eat manure from the stable floor before handing a gun to Semolino to off him. Shortly afterwards at an outdoor family roast, Andrea is threatening Giovannangelo over his romance with Immacolata when Marilena's son rides up on his bicycle. Andrea bundles him into a car and tells Marilena that the only child that should exist for her is his.


He returns from killing Damiano to meet his newborn son and inform Marilena that she will accompany him when he confronts her coward of a husband. The Marian procession comes around again and Andrea watches Vincenzo carrying the statue. Suddenly, he sees his father's lion ring on his finger and it dawns on him that the Montanaris have been behind the entire feud. They shot Marilena's husband and Michele in the woods and have allowed the Malatestas and the Camporeale to destroy each other at no risk to themselves.


Andrea lifts the black veils of the women in the procession to find Marilena. But she has fled and, as he searches for her, he is ambushed by Giovannangelo and Trippone, who have gone over to the Montanaris. As Andrea lies in an oozing pool of blood, we see Marilena playing with her three children, as a caption informs us that she was based on Rosa Lidia Di Fiore, the first informant on the organisation of the Ciavarrella and Tarantino clans on the Promontorio.


The final shot shows young Michele turn to the camera and make a firing noise after making a gun with his fingers. It's one of the few missteps of a relentlessly gripping drama, although Mezzapesa does occasionally suffer from the same repetition problem that Hans Petter Molland had on another brutal revenge saga, In Order of Disappearance (2014). The other issue shared by this Norwegian film and Ti mangio il cuore (which translates as `I'll Eat Your Heart' which is a much better title) is the sketchy characterisation of the victims. The Camporeales may have colourful nicknames like 'Pomodoro', 'Il Mostro', 'Fru Fru', 'Benzino', and 'Cartavetrata', but these don't offer much insight into their personalities or modus operandi.


The Apulia-born Mezzapesa and co-scenarists Antonella Gaeta and Davide Serino also tell us little about the worshippers at the Madonna procession and how the war impacts upon their insular rustic community. Indeed, it's only when the loosed cattle head towards the cemetery and Andrea runs through the deserted streets in the final sequence that we get any sense of the town layout. And there's no sign of anyone foolhardily attempting to maintain any semblance of law and order.


All of which makes this sound more like an Apulian Western than a Fourth Mafia thriller. Yet, while the vigilante focus falls on Francesco Patanè's neophyte gunslinger, the tensions between Elodie's femme fatale and Lidia Vitale's black widow are much more intriguing. In her first leading role, Elodie (who is best known in Italy as a singer) now and then appears to have been lit to resemble Sophia Loren. But she struggles for chemistry with Patanè, whose moral disintegration as he transforms from squeamish milquetoast to coke-snorting psychopath isn't always entirely convincing. Nevertheless, the climactic twist is well disguised, while Michele D'Attanasio's inky cinematography and Teho Teardo's swirling score are exemplary.


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