• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (4/3/2022)

Updated: Mar 6

(Reviews of the films showing in the Cinema Made in Italy weekend)


Cinema Made in Italy returns to the Ciné Lumière in South Kensington between 3-7 March. Organised by Cinecittà's Filmitalia department and the Italian Cultural Institute, this popular event spent last spring on the MUBI streaming platform. But patrons will relish the chance to see titles like Nanni Moretti's Three Floors, Jonas Carpignano's A Chiara, Gabriele Mainetti's Freaks Out, and Pietro Marcello, Francesco Munzi and Alice Rohrwacher's Futura on the big screen.


AMERICA LATINA.


Twins Damiano and Fabio D'Innocenzo have made quite an impression with their first two features, Boys Cry (2018) and Bad Tales (2020), as well as with their shared screenwriting credit with Matteo Garrone on Dogman (2018). Yet, while American Latina was selected to compete for the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival, its study of a surreal mid-life crisis is all style and precious little substance.


Dentist Massimo Sisti (Elio Germano) appears to have it all. His surgery is doing well, while he lives with wife Alessandra (Astrid Casali) and their two daughters, Laura (Carlotta Gamba) and Ilenia (Federica Pala) in a palatial pile outside the city of Latina, which was founded by Benito Mussolini's Fascists on land reclaimed from the Pontine Marshes. With its mildewed swimming pool and crackled walls, the house is showing signs of wear. But Massimo is very much at home, whether tearing up while listening to Laura inexpertly playing the piano or canoodling with Alessandra, who dresses her daughters in outfits that match her own.


One night, however, Massimo ventures into the cellar to discover a young girl (Sara Ciocca) bruised and tied to a pillar. When he removes her gag, she emits an ear-piercing scream. Rather than inform the authorities, however, Massimo opts to keep her presence a secret and conduct a quick investigation into missing persons and the symptoms of memory loss. He knows he can get pretty tight during his nights out with best friend Simone (Maurizio Lastrico) at the bar owned by the genial Roberto (Filippo Dini). But he can't believe he would have abducted and abused a complete stranger and forgotten all about it. Not even a visit to his father (Massimo Wertmüller) can unlock any clues.


This should have been the set-up for a fiendish noir along the lines of Sergio Rubini's La bionda (1992). However, the Brothers D'Innocenzo prefer to toy with the audience by keeping them as much in the dark as their protagonist. As a consequence, the attention drifts during the meander towards what passes for a denouement.


What makes this so frustrating is that Elio Germano commits so wholeheartedly to the role of the family man who convinces himself that he has a guilty conscience. Yet, for all the extreme close-ups inviting us to peer into Massimo's soul, he's so sketchily drawn that there's no great incentive for the viewer to invest in his ordeal.


Cinematographer Paolo Carnera seeks to disconcert with his skewed angles, while editor Walter Fasano tries to generate tension with the jittery cutting that is complemented by the disquieting score by the neo-psychedelic rock band, Verdena. At times, it's all very giallo, especially as production designer Robert De Angelis makes such stylised use of rich colours. But the D'Innocenzos seem more interested in making hip homages to Italian genre classics than in luring us into the murky depths of a troubled mind.


CALIFORNIE.


Having paired up on the 2018 documentaries The Things We Keep and Butterfly, Alessandro Cassigoli and Casey Kauffman make their fictional bow with Californie. Five years in the making, this spins off from the latter profile of Olympic bronze medal-winning boxer Irma Testa, as it brought nine year-old Khadija Jaafari to the attention of the film-makers, who have woven fictional elements into her own life story, with the aid of screenwriter Vanessa Picciarelli.


With her father back in Morocco and her mother working all hours as a clearner, 11 year-old Jamila (Khadija Jaafari) spends most of her time in the company of her older sister, Angelica (Ikram Jaafari). She would rather be with her boyfriend, which leaves Jamila isolated when she's not at the gym pursuing her dream to be a champion boxer.


Seeing no point in school, Jamila is prepared to stand up to the staff who try to teach and discipline her. She also has little time for her classmates in the Neapolitan town of Torre Annunziata, as they are very much aware that she's an outsider and Jamila is quite prepared to play up to the role.


As the family needs money, she starts carrying groceries for their elderly neighbours. However, she gets a much better offer from Jasmine (Maria Amato), a hairdresser who operates clandestinely out of her apartment and slips Jamila no questions cash in return for odd jobs.


If she had a choice (which she doesn't), Jamila would like to go back to Africa, where she lived until she was seven. But her mother can't afford the fare and refuses to allow her to travel on her own. However, this proves to be an incentive and, as she starts to neglect both the boxing and the boy who is keen on her, the 13 year-old Jamila starts bunking off school in order to work for Jasmine.


The authorities complain, but Jamila would rather do something useful and save up towards a mobile phone and a pedal scooter than learn things that have no connection with her everyday reality. It's not always easy. But, as she tells the kindly, but exploitative Jasmine when the signwriter misspells the salon name as `Californie', it's the imperfections that make life interesting.


Convinced from the moment they encountered her that they had found a forceful personality, Cassigoli and Kauffman followed the tactics employed by Ricard Linklater in Boyhood (2014) to capture Khadija Jaafari at key moments in her adolescence and tag on fictional complications to her real situation. She comes across as pugnacious and tenacious. But there's also a vulnerability about her, as she chases dreams that are almost inevitably doomed to end in disappointment.


There's a neo-realist feel to the way in which cinematographer Emanuele Pasquet locates Jamila within her confining environments, while the supporting cast contains its share of non-professionals who convey both the southern Italian spirit and the cultural clashes with those seeking to integrate in a highly parochial community.


Avoiding melodramatics, Cassigoli and Kauffman shape the action with finesse. Moreover, they are quite prepared for Jamila's rough edges to keep the audience at a remove, so that they have to appreciate her personality and the individual and wider socio-economic problems she faces in order to empathise. In consistently bouncing back off the canvas, Jamila not only learns how to roll with the punches, but she also gets to grow up in the full gaze of a camera that is forever on her side.


COMEDIANS.


Back in 1985, Gabriele Salvatores brought the hit Trevor Griffiths play, Comedians, to the Teatro dell'Elfo. In the cast were such future stars as Paolo Rossi, Silvio Orlando, Claudio Bisio, Bebo Storti and Renato Sarti. The production ran for three years and Salvatores took inspiration from it for Kamikazen: Last Night in Milan (1987), another study of stand-up in which the same quartet also starred.


When the pandemic forced him to park a proposed period drama, Salvatores persuaded a cast to spend two weeks rehearsing and another four shooting a new version of the Griffiths opus in strict chronological order in long takes staged on theatrical sets. The result manages to be both potent and frustrating in equal measure.


It's typical Manchester weather, as Eddie Barni (Natalino Balasso) welcomes the members of his stand-up comedy class. Samuele Verona (Marco Bonadei) is a club owner, while Michele Cacace (Vincenzo Zampa) is a brickie and Gio Di Meo (Walter Leonardi) is a metalworker. Now in their forties Filippo and Leo Marri (Alessandro Besentini and Francesco Villa, aka Ale & Franz) are brothers, with the former being an estate agent and the latter being a pizza delivery driver. The baby of the group is railway clerk Giulio Zappa (Giulio Pranno), who is also the most outré in terms of his act.


They are about to perform for Bernardo Celli (Christian De Sica), the president of the Agency for Artists and Managers who could make or break their careers. Barni can't abide him and urges his students to avoid racist and sexist humour, as it demeans both the comic and their audience. Zappa challenges him with a misogynist limerick and Barni is in the middle of proving why it's unfunny and hostile when Patel (Aram Kian) wanders in seeking a language class.


While Barni takes him to the office, Verona and Zappa argue, with the former being prepared to do whatever it takes to get on the telly. They fall silent when Barni returns and reminds them that the audience should be treated with respect. When the lights fail, he coaxes them into improvising and Leo Marri tells a poignant story about the night his son was born.


Just as Celli arrives to meet the contenders, Barni gets called to the office with Patel. Consequently, he's not there as Celli gives the class a pep talk about being funny by keeping it simple and cracking gags with a common touch. He concedes that Barni was once a great comedian, but he's now teaching while he is the gatekeeper to stardom.


This convinces some to change tack on stage at a nearby club and go all out for Celli's style of repartee. The Marri brothers fall out during their ventriloquism act, while Zappa dons clown make-up and does some aggressively surreal shtick involving a pair of mannequins in evening wear.


Back in the classroom, Verona and Zappa have to be separated after taunting each other. Di Meo tries to tell a few jokes to lighten the mood, but the rest are disappointed with him for cravenly changing his act. As the caretaker (Elena Callegari) chides them for being there so late, Barni with a hangdog expression, as Celli strides in to give his verdicts.


He berates Cacace for doing a southerner up north spiel and criticises Verona for sending up his Jewish roots. But he liked his attack on feminism and Di Meo's relentless barrage. The Marris get a baffled shrug, but Celli turns both barrels on Zappa for making the audience feel uncomfortable with his fury. Having offered contracts to Verona and Di Meo, he departs with a last dig at Barni. The students are more gracious as they disperse, with even those who missed the cut thanking him for his efforts.


Zappa lingers to ask Barni if he liked his set. He admits to having been baffled and questions why he needs to be so angry. But Zappa reminds Barni that he had raged against the world in his prime and suggests that he lost his edge after visiting a concentration camp near Weimar and seeing where wrath can lead. As he wishes Zappa well, Barni bumps into Patel, who tells him an Indian joke that makes him smile. He invites him to join the class next term, as the pair venture out into the downpour.


Analysing the theory and practice of comedy, Griffiths's text also provided a scathing critique of class, race and gender relations in mid-70s Britain. Many of the themes transfer satisfactorily to 2020s Italy, with the current vogue for cancel culture adding an extra sting. But the style of comedy has changed over the last five decades, with confessional monologues largely replacing the rat-a-tat delivery of jokes. Consequently, Salvatores's revisitation doesn't quite have its finger on the pulse of the nation.


It still makes for lively viewing, however. Rita Rabbasini's production design and Italo Petriccione's camerawork get the job done admirably, while Salvatores deftly keeps the viewer in the middle of the wisecracking crossfire. But this is all about the performances, with Natalino Balasso excelling as the purist, whether he's setting torchlight improv tasks for his pupils or trading barbs with the excellent Christian De Sica.


Italian audiences will doubtlessly be fascinated to see renowned double act Ale & Franz playing it straight. But Giulio Pranno steals the show, as the confrontational outsider with the Keith Flint devil hair whose venomous taunts rile his classmate before he unleashes a howl of vituperative anguish that flies over everyone's head. No one so much as titters. But comedy has always been far too serious a business for laughter.


THE PEACOCK'S PARADISE


Twelve years have passed since Laura Bispuri won the coveted David Di Donatello award for her short, Passing Time (2010). She has since produced two features, Sworn Virgin (2015) and Daughter of Mine (2018). This makes Cinema Made in Italy's programming of The Peacock's Paradise both a treat and a frustration, as there will seemingly be little chance of ever catching up with her earlier work.


Bispuri has an excuse for this feeling somewhat hokey, as she was planning another project when the pandemic hit and cobbled an ensemble piece together in a relatively short space of time with co-scenarist Silvana Tamma. Notwithstanding the echoes emanating from Henrik Ibsen's Wild Duck and Anton Chekhov's Seagull, one gets the feeling they had been watching Lulu Wang's The Farewell (2019) or had been given a sneak preview of the family gathering sequence in Paolo Sorrentino's The Hand of God (2021). Unfortunately, this congealment of contrivances doesn't come close to either.


Sixtysomething Nena (Dominique Sanda) lives with husband Umberto (Carlo Cerciello) in an apartment on the coast south of Rome. She is about to celebrate her birthday and steals a kiss with housekeeper Lucia (Maddalena Crippa), the clandestine lover who is busy preparing lunch while keeping an eye on her non-speaking daughter, Grazia (Ludovica Alvazzi dal Frate).


First to arrive are Nena's son, Vito (Leonardo Lidi), and his highly strung girlfriend, Adelina (Alba Rohrwacher). Their precocious daughter, Alma (Carolina Michelangeli), has insisted on bringing along her pet peacock, Paco, who doesn't like being left alone. Fortunately, the same doesn't apply to Joana (Tihana Lazovic), who merely shrugs at being asked to wait in the car while Manfredi (Fabrizio Ferracane) helps ex-wife Caterina (Maya Sansa) give her parents the impression that they are still an item. Also expected is Isabella (Yle Vianello), a distant cousin who arrives late after having failed to dissuade a beau from dumping her.


Much to Caterina's annoyance, Manfredi ingratiates himself with Nena and threatens to expose her lie if she ejects him. Meanwhile, Vito and Adelina (who has just recovered from a heart scare) have an agenda of their own, as they have decided to get married. But they don't have any money and intend touching Nena for a loan, while she's in a good mood.


But things don't work out that way. Nena is distracted by Paco's antics around her precious keepsakes, while Lucia seems aware that the atmosphere could be cut with a knife along with the birthday cake and withdraws into herself. As is always the way with such assemblies, it's not long before the secrets, lies and bones of contention start tumbling out and matters are already coming to a head when the train rattling Paco destroys a vase before taking a headlong plunge off the balcony in besottedly seeking to follow a flying dove.


No wonder, the silent Grazia feels compelled to make an utterance at the end of an impromptu burial ceremony in the dunes - by which time, frankly, there's nothing left to be said, as everybody's confidences and peccadilloes have come into the open.


Considerable credit should be given to the cast for doing its utmost to bring a semblance of meaning to this dilatory amalgam of arch symbolism, clumsy cliché and blatant outcomes. The presence of Paco tilts the picture towards absurdist kitsch, but the increasingly soap operatic nature of events proves insurmountably bothersome, especially as the import of each incident is underlined by the insistent strings in Nando Di Cosimo's mournful score.


Ilaria Sadun's production design is thoughtful, but Vladan Radovic's camera keeps catching the characters in tableaux mode, which does little for the tempo of the drama. Dominque Sanda vaguely recalls Catherine Deneuve in Arnaud Desplechin's A Christmas Tale (2008), while Maya Sansa is required to do little more than look pained into the middle distance as Alba Rohrwacher (in her third role for Bispuri) vacillates between fragility and timidity. Among the menfolk, Fabrizio Ferracane overplays the oleaginous charm in contrast to Leonardo Lidi's studied ineffectualness. There are affecting moments, but they get lost amidst the awkward conversations and meaningful glances.


THE TALE OF KING CRAB.


Having impressed on the festival circuit with the short, Belva Nera (2013), and the documentary, Il Solengo (2015), Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis complete their triptych about the oral tradition with The Tale of King Crab. Merging actuality and reconstruction, this two-part variation on a fin-de-siècle legend is related by a group of huntsmen from what was once the Tuscia region of central Italy.


The patron saint of what is now known as Vejano is name-checked in the title of the first chapter, `The Saint Orsio's Misdeed', which introduces us to Luciano (Gabriele Silli), a doctor's son who returns home after being treated for his drinking in Rome. Wild-eyed and full-bearded, he dismays farmer Severino (Severino Sperandio) by kicking open the town gate that had been locked by the local prince (Enzo Cucchi), who wanted the streets clear of livestock for a religious procession.


Luciano doesn't fear the prince's wrath and this endears him to Severino's daughter, Emma (Maria Alexandra Lungu), who offers him the chance to kiss him as they lie in the warm sun. He gives her the Etruscan amulet he found in the river and she tells him of a recurring dream in which they sail away for an adventure together.


Yet Luciano can't stop himself from drinking, even though Ercolino (Ercole Colnago) the tavern owner tries to stop him. Ignoring the gossip of the other customers, he asks Ercolino to sing something from Tosca. But he is recognised by a couple of soldiers at the bar (Domenico Chiozzi and Claudio Castori) and has a bottle smashed over his head when he toasts his rights and the republic. His father (Bruno di Giovanni) comes to fetch him and despairs of his antics. However, he feels sorry for Luciano when he professes his love for Emma, as he knows that Severino will never approve.


Severino is furious when he sees the pair skinny dipping in a woodland pool. However, they have an argument on the way home because Emma is not wearing the necklace Luciano gave her. He's dismayed when Severino informs him that Emma has gone to spend the feast day with the prince and Luciano criticises her for wearing a white dress and a garland to pander to the nobility. As he leaves, he also tells the prince what he thinks of his rule about barring the gate to the town.


Emma looks pained, as Luciano strides out of the palace. While she dons a red embroidered gown for the procession, he fights back tears in the woods, as he realises he has lost her. Severino accompanies the soldiers, as they admonish him for speaking to the prince. One shoots him in the side and Luciano collapses into the stream. But the troopers also lure Emma away from a rosary ring and imprison her in an outhouse.


As a folk song about her fate is heard on the soundtrack, Luciano wakes and staggers back into town. He firebombs the palace gate and hunters explain that he accidentally killed someone in the ensuing blaze and his father had to pull strings to keep him out of jail. In return, however, he was exiled to Argentina, which is described in the second chapter heading as `The Asshole of the World.'


Luciano takes up the tale in Tierra del Fuego under the name of Antonio María de la Vera, a Salesian priest on a mission to find a cachet of Inca gold buried on the godforsaken island of Bahía Aguirre by the captain of a Spanish galleon. On his tail are another skipper (Jorge Prado) and three pirates, Arce (Mariano Arce), Ventura (Daniel Tur) and Lennox (Darío Levy). The latter poisons the captain with contaminated river water and is highly sceptical when Fr Antonio reveals that he uses the large crab he keeps in a pail as his compass.


Antonio cuts a deal with Lennox to ditch the other two and they push on alone. As they rest in the hills, Antonio confesses that he found the real priest (Fernando Almirón) riddled with arrows and assumed his identity after giving him a Christian burial and taking possession of his diary and the crab, which can lead him to the lake in which the captain of the Janita hid his hoard.


The next morning, they are ambushed by Arce and Ventura. Antonio is wounded, but the crab is killed and Lennox picks off Ventura before winging Arce. He calls out to Antonio with an offer to split the booty, but he is gunned down when he emerges form behind a rock. Some time later, Luciano eliminates Lennox in the snow and staggers on alone in search of his goal.


He tries praying before shouting out angrily to God. When he collapses of exhaustion, Luciano laments that he had not known that Emma had been inside the building he had torched. But he appears to have been forgiven when he happens upon the Crab Lake and finds the gold. As he sees it glinting under the water, he thinks back to the day that Emma had told him that they would go on an expedition that would leave him richer than any prince.


Distinctive and impactful, this is very much a film of two halves. The first feels like a collaboration between Pier Paolo Pasolini and the Taviani brothers, while the Patagonian segment resembles a Spaghetti reworking of Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972). Rigo de Righi and Zoppis don't quite meld the elemental pieces into a whole, but there's much to admire in each chapter.


Simply, but effectively designed by Fabrizio D'Arpino, Fabio Ferrara and Marina Raggio to capture the grind of peasant life, the opening chapter benefits from Andrea Cavalletto's costumes and the way in which cinematographer Simone D'Arcangelo frames both the glorious countryside and the fascinating faces of the largely non-professional cast.


Visual artist Gabriele Silli makes an imposing impression as Luciano, with his piercing bright blue eyes shining from the depths of a furrowed brow and masses of beard. Maria Alexandra Lungu (the only professional performer in the cast) seems to have stepped out of a Renaissance portrait and there's a touching tenderness to the couple's bucolic scenes. However, as the second chapter is populated by figures in a landscape rather than characters, it becomes harder to identify with Silli and his overly familiar situation. Nevertheless, Vittorio Giampietro's percussive score gives the action a primal tension that contrasts with the wry wit and homespun wisdom of the a cappella folk songs that complement the recollections of the lunching hunstmen, who have lived long enough to recognise the truth of Luciano's lament that `we spend our time trying to find meaning, but deep down we know we are nothing'.


WELCOME VENICE.


Andrea Segre will be best known to UK audiences for Shun Li and the Poet (2011), but he has also racked up a number of documentaries since 2004. He returns to fiction following First Snowfall (2013) and The Order of Things (2017) with Welcome Venice. However, this drama set in a city at the crossroads owes much to Segre's background in actuality.


Brothers Pietro (Paolo Pierobon) and Toni (Roberto Citran) make a decent living catching moeche lagoon crabs on the Venetian island of Giudecca. However, with Covid-19 gripping the city, their younger sibling, Alvise (Andrea Pennacchi), is thinking to the future and wants to make big bucks by turning the family home into a tourist rental.


When Toni is killed by lightning, Alvise offers to buy the third of the house belonging to his impecunious widow, Elisa (Ottavia Piccolo). As daughter Lucia (Sara Lazzaro) is expecting a child with the wealthy Giorgio (Stefano Scandaletti), Alvise offers him a partnership in leasing the property. But Piero (who came to appreciate the value of home after being jailed for robbery) refuses to budge and he is supported by his daughter, Alessandra (Anna Bellato), even though she knows a windfall could benefit his beloved grandson (Mariano Amadio).


Convinced he can talk Piero round, Alvise signs the documents. However, he learns that he has gone behind his back and pours a glass of red wine over his head during a celebratory supper. Drowning in debt and with wife Teresa (Giuliana Musso) threatening to leave him, Alvise makes one last plea and has to be pulled from the lagoon after he falls out of his boat. Resigned to losing his home, Piero moves out so renovation can begin. But, when Alvise arrives with the first English guests, he finds that Piero has let hundreds of moeche loose in the living-room.


With cinematographer Matteo Calore alternating between postcard views of the major landmarks and grittier shots of the working waterway, this is a smartly directed study of Venice's split personality. Ernst Lubitsch hinted at it with the gag about the garbage gondala in Trouble in Paradise (1932). But Segre approaches the subject more seriously and stirs in a bit of post-pandemic reconstruction for good measure, as he explores the impact that lockdown has had on the tourist trade.


Andrea Pennacchi is presented as something of a rogue, even though Paolo Pierobon is the brother who's been to prison. Indeed, the narrative tilts in his favour in wanting to sustain an age-old tradition and Segre rather romanticises the activity of crab fishing and its locale, while making the holiday rental business seem cynical and grasping. It doesn't help that the secondary characters are so thinly and conventionally drawn, as the stand-off between the siblings steers the focus towards their contrasting personalities rather than the wider issues at stake in their feud.


The bearded Pierobon certainly makes an empathetically grizzled anti-hero as he battens down in Leonardo Scarpa's charmingly designed domicile. But there's something arch about him showing his fighting spirit by telling his workmates about scenes of rearguard action involving Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott's Gladiator (2000), Kirk Douglas in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) and Alberto Sordi in Mario Monicelli's The Great War (1959).



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