Church Folk

Tony Pipolo on “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema”

Claudio Giovannesi, Fiore, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 109 minutes.

IT’S A PLEASURE TO REPORT that at least half of this year’s selections in the Open Roads series of New Italian cinema would make any film festival worth attending.

Edoardo De Angelis’s Indivisible is a flashy opening feature, with its tale of twin teenage girls physically joined at the hip, but it also underlines the powerful forces of church and family that remain critical elements in Italian movies. Both themes are as inextricably bound in this film as the twins themselves (played by Angela and Marianna Fontana), whose condition is exploited by a father who parades them around Naples to sing in public and by the local priest who refuses to endorse the surgery that would give them independent lives because it would deprive his parishioners of a cheap source of inspiration.

An altogether different and more compelling take on church and family is Federica Di Giacomo’s mesmerizing documentary Liberami, one of the juicier morsels in this year’s lineup. The driving idea is that the Father of Lies—aka Lucifer—has gone viral. Endnotes inform us that we are in a global crisis: In Spain, the archdiocese of Madrid is short on exorcists, while the United States has more of them than ever, and in Italy the situation is so acute that Milan and Rome have emergency hotlines. (The devil, it seems, can be talked out of his mischief by cell phone.) Liberami is a cross between Living Theater and a Neorealist, if sardonic, romp through horror-movie conventions—but don’t expect The Exorcist (1971). No elevated beds, revolving heads, or spewing bile bedeck the film. The afflicted Sicilian souls who flock to Father Cataldo whenever they sense imminent take-over provide enough acting out—screaming obscenities, rolling eyes to the back of the head, and convulsing on the floor—to suggest that their behavior is more about the urge to purge forbidden desires and suppressed rage than it is about demonic possession. We know more today about autism and the mental conditions that once seemed alien, so even Father Cataldo recognizes that those who keep showing up claiming possession have psychological disorders or are in desperate need for attention. (No doubt, the presence of cameras did little to quell their fervor.) Nevertheless, he sympathizes as he bestows soothing, forgiving comfort on these “victims.” One young lady, aware of the fine line between natural drives and supernatural forces, refuses to surrender certain aspects of her “possession.” And we understand when a young man, enraged by his girlfriend’s taunts, complains that unless he rolls around the floor he’s not getting the help he needs. As fascinating as it is compassionate, the film avoids cheap shots and condescension in its effort to shed light on a grossly misunderstood phenomenon.

Though less blatant and more slickly attired, the devil’s work is more nefarious in Roberto Andò’s The Confessions, a moral allegory about global capitalism and corporate greed. The action, set in a luxurious German hotel, concerns the plans of eight international bankers and economists, each a minister of the world’s superpowers, gathered at a summit meeting by their leader Daniel Roche (Daniel Auteuil), whose suicide throws a wrench into the affair. They suspect that Roberto Sallus, a strange priest, has something to do with it, since he was invited by Roche and was the last to speak to him. Sallus’s vow of silence, however, prevents him from revealing the man’s final confession, perpetuating the mystery. As played by the charming Toni Servillo, whose ability to project serene detachment is especially effective, Sallus carries the moral force that hovers over the summit and sustains the film’s air of metaphysical something-or-other, but the secrecy that binds him also lets the movie off the hook, allowing its moral agenda to remain both vague and predictable—a denouement further compounded by the inexplicable turn in the behavior of a large hound and a last-minute hint that Sallus may be something other than mere mortal.

Federica Di Giacomo, Deliver Us (Liberami), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Far more earthbound, Fiore is a sober look at teenagers whose lives seem forever shadowed by prospects of imprisonment. The film provides neither easy answers to the social problems that led them there nor sentimental speculations about a brighter future. Though every character and actor strikes a credible note—prison guards, visiting parents, and the adolescents themselves, the film is driven by Daphne, played by winning newcomer Daphne Scoccia. A tarnished angel whose face registers every emotion, confused and real, and every desperate but futile hope, Daphne veers from hotheaded impulses to promises to rein them in with a sulky conviction both palpable and pathetic. But Scoccia, whose face the camera loves, never sinks to cloying appeals for sympathy. We cringe at her hardness when she robs people at knifepoint, but when she delivers a cynical goodbye to Josh (Josciua Algeri), the young convict she’s fallen in love with, we note that she sees through more illusions than any young person should have to. Director Claudio Giovannesi, who cowrote the screenplay, allows neither attention-grabbing camerawork nor sermonizing to undermine the extraordinary natural appeal and unnerving veracity of his female lead. She bears watching.

Seasoned auteurs Marco Bellocchio and Gianni Amelio are represented by fine new work. The latter’s Tenderness, set in Naples, is a moving character study of Lorenzo (Renato Carpentieri), a tough-skinned former lawyer recovering from a recent illness. As we learn from the opening scene, involving his daughter and an immigrant trying to make his case, knowledge of the “other” seems to be a running motif and lies behind the event that disrupts the film’s initial composure. When Lorenzo’s friendship with the couple next door and their two children is cut short by tragedy, he is forced to confront his estranged relationship with his own children. More telling of the film’s dark, melancholy mood is the title of the prize-winning novel on which it is based, _The Temptation to Be Happy, by Lorenzo Moreno. Yet nothing prepares us for the genuine shock of the film’s key episode, which proves how little we know about the inner torments that drive people to act against their own well-being.

Bellocchio’s Sweet Dreams, based on Massimo Gramellini’s best-selling autobiographical novel, is a compelling study of the lifelong effects of a troubling symbiotic relationship between a depressed mother and her son. Massimo (Valerio Mastandrea) has been lied to for forty years about his mother’s suicide when he was nine. Juggling a confused myth about her, he alternates between unhealthy idealization and anger, suffers panic attacks, and has problems with women. The film’s shifts between past and present embody the sense that, while Massimo’s career as a journalist moves from one event and place to another, his psychological reality is frozen in time. Attuned, as always, to personal and social pathology, Bellocchio captures the abandonment any child feels when his mother leaves inexplicably, forcing him to conclude that he was at fault. But the director adds an astute touch in the final sequence—and especially the final shot—that has even greater impact than the novel, brilliantly fusing the love and terror of a child’s dependency on a disturbed mother while empathically telegraphing the mother’s despair.

The daily grind of a working-class family is the focus of Daniele Vicari’s Sun, Heart, Love, a sober, touching, ultimately tragic tale. But where classic Italian cinema would focus on the husband’s plight, here, Eli (Isabella Ragonese), the breadwinner, is our barometer. Despite a predawn two-hour bus ride to Rome, where she’s on her feet all day at a busy café before the ride home to her husband and children, she maintains a cheerful spirit, ignoring even serious health issues. Her friend and foil is the sexually confused Vale, whose erotic performances at a nightclub are tinged by her barely suppressed masochism and deep unhappiness. Vicari’s convincing humanism and unflashy style make the concluding scene, in which these contrasting portraits of contemporary Italian women are unexpectedly crosscut, nothing less than heartbreaking.

“Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” runs June 1–7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.