Hope Against Hope

Claudio Giovannesi, Piranhas, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes.

LINCOLN CENTER’S ANNUAL “OPEN ROADS” SERIES, now in its nineteenth edition, is a precious opportunity for New Yorkers to see new Italian cinema. Over the years, my experience has been that, even when the quality varies, this national cinema rarely avoids pertinent subject matter, and in the case of narrative films, consistently provides stellar performances. One anxiety that emerges loud and clear this year is the lack of hope and dismal future faced by working-class Italian youth. Given the conviction and heart of these films, it’s hard to conclude that the concern is the obsession of just one or two filmmakers. It’s an umbrella theme that covers social issues as varied as immigration, gender stereotypes, and the ever-present threat posed by the Camorra.

Throughout these films, a pervasive sense of ennui spills over into ordinary lives. The opening night feature, in fact, is the overture for what follows. That entry, Claudio Giovannesi’s Piranhas, exhibits the same primal appeal as the director’s earlier Fiore (2016). Based on a novel by Roberto Saviano, it’s a disheartening tale that seems to confirm the generational pull and endless cycle of gangs and neighborhood violence endemic to contemporary Italy—in this case, Naples. Blue-collar teenagers are drawn to the easy power of the Camorra, pushing their way into working for the local thugs until they learn that all they need to replace them are guns and guts. We follow fifteen-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli), more of a Robin Hood than the others in his cohort, as he aims to relieve his mother and other local merchants from being forced to pay off the mob, displaying a gentle side also seen in his love life. While viewers are saved from what might have been a climactic bloodbath, the film’s doomed endnote—Nicola riding away with his gang to avenge his young brother’s death—is no relief.

Claudio Giovannesi, Piranhas, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 112 minutes.

Exploring similar territory, Agostino Ferrente’s wonderfully unpretentious Selfie eschews the narrative arc that drives Piranhas for a freer documentary-like approach. Also set in Naples, Selfie is essentially a self-portrait, shot on a cellphone, of two sixteen-year-olds who live in the Traiano area of that city. The director traveled there several years after the killing of an unarmed teenager named Davide Bifolco precisely to capture something of the life of young people in the region. Though haunted by that death and the same atmosphere that hangs over the teenagers in the fictional Piranhas, Alessandro and Pietro, as we come to know them, seem less likely to  enter the criminal underworld. Best friends until Pietro is lured by an uncle to leave Naples, the two go about daily routines, filming friends, neighbors, and relatives with directness and simplicity. The sweet-natured Pietro is devoted to his grandmother and cooking; his main worries seem to be his weight and ability to attract girls. The poetic realist Alessandro tries to communicate with his absent father via the video he is making and visits a memorial to Giacomo Leopardi, Italy’s greatest nineteenth-century poet. While they muse about career prospects—Pietro might be a hairdresser and Alessandro a bartender—they hardly seem prone to the illusions that hold many teenagers in thrall. So strongly do their personalities affect us that the viewer hopes against all odds that their inherently good characters will see them through. Not to be missed.

Agostino Ferrente, Selfie, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 76 minutes.

An equally intriguing work of nonfiction is Adele Tulli’s Normal. In a series of simply framed vignettes, the film moves from the puncturing of a child’s ears—so she can wear earrings like mom—to the manufacture of toys and violent video games aimed at young men, rites of courtship, pastoral sermons on the joys and responsibilities of marriage, and so forth, concluding with a wedding where two men tie the knot. Because the trajectory is so straightforward and follows what passes as the “natural” course from birth to adulthood, Tulli wisely avoids preachy commentary. In fact, the very sense of what constitutes the natural is the director’s target. Often she lets the material speak for itself. At other times, she opts for wittily calculated visual compositions—as when she frames a finalist beauty contest from behind skimpily clad young women as they face the panel of judges, exposing the lewder focus underlying questions about their personalities and ambitions. By the end of Tulli’s film, however, the viewer is struck by a disturbing reality, of which gender issues are only a symptom: When the marketplace mirrors cultural norms that are perpetuated by the church and the education system, where does one look for alternative viewpoints?

Ciro D’Emilio, If Life Gives You Lemons, 2018, DCP, color, sound, 88 minutes.

While new Italian cinema may not compare with such directorial giants of the golden age as Antonioni, Fellini, and Rossellini, the quality of its actors remains undiminished. And judging from many of this year’s offerings, the number of  bright new talents is limitless. An outstanding example is Giampiero De Concilio, who plays seventeen-year-old Antonio in Ciro D’Emilio’s touching but grim film from 2018, If Life Gives You Lemons (a not-so-graceful translation of Un giorno all’improvviso). A promising soccer player devoted to his demented and drug-addicted mother (Anna Foglietta), Antonio tries desperately to function under increasingly desperate circumstances until tragedy inevitably strikes. His sad story is one of several that suggest the failure not only of one great country, but also of the contemporary world, to offer its youth more realistic opportunities to live decent lives.

The film whose title explicitly declares the absence of hope—Il vizio della speranza (The Vice of Hope, 2018)—ends up as the most life-affirming and among the strongest featured. Set in circumstances that could not be more cynical and despondent, the story of Maria—played by the astonishingly gifted young Pina Turco—is as unsettling as it is unsavory. As if being stuck in the family business of trafficking babies for the black market were not enough, Maria’s life is further endangered when she herself becomes pregnant and, because she was raped as a young girl, faces the possibility of dying if she gives birth. The ominousness of this threat is signaled by the film’s opening image: an overhead shot of her floating on a river, traumatized and near-death, still in her communion dress—the scene, as we learn later, that followed the rape years earlier. One of the film’s most admirable characteristics is its Dickensian cast of characters—from Maria’s world-weary aunt (the “Madame” of the operation); to her pathetic, enfeebled mother; to a number of unforgettable women trapped like Maria; and finally to the outsider who becomes her only hope. Every one of these characters and the actors who portray them ring distressingly true—a tribute to the film’s director, Edoardo De Angelis.   

Edoardo De Angelis, Il vizio della speranza (The Vice of Hope), 2019, DCP, color, sound, 96 minutes.

A significant measure of the bleakness of these works is their open-endedness. Since no easy solutions seem possible, no film suggests otherwise. Another instance is Laura Luchetti’s Twin Flower (2018), which follows the wandering path of two immigrants—Anna (Anastasiya Bogach) and Basim (Kallil Kone)—as they try desperately to stay one step ahead of the law and of those who would exploit their situation. Though the film leans too much on the contrived and predictable situations that both obstruct and ultimately unite them, its principle characters are affecting. Their ultimate fate remains unknown as they walk into a dense forest in the film’s closing shot.

But no series is perfect. All of the films mentioned here, qualitative differences aside, display more conviction and charm than the bloated, misguided Loro (2018), Paolo Sorrentino’s strained caricature of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who became Italy’s prime minister in four different governments. Analogies to the career of Donald Trump notwithstanding, as a portrait of a corrupt politician, the film is a lost opportunity, when it might haveprovided a powerful and necessary context for the miserable lives chronicled in the other films. And while the last-minute confrontation between the protagonist and his wife over the vacuity of his character and their marriage is effective, it arrives too late. The energy of that scene not only belongs to another movie but is also buried under the fluff that consumes much of the film’s two and a half hours of outtakes in search of a design. Even the always-winning Toni Servillo is forced to contort his face into a frozen mask somewhere between the farcical and the pathetic—no doubt someone’s idea of a reincarnated Mussolini.

Adele Tulli, Normal, 2019, DCP, color, sound, 67 minutes.

As is usually true of “Open Roads,” a nod or two to the past is always a treat. In addition to Bernardo Bertolucci’s striking 1962 debut, La commare secca, the series offers Fabrizio Corallo’s documentary Sono Gassman! (2018), a worthy follow-up to the two docs on legendary figures of Italian cinema presented at last year’s “Open Roads” (one on director Marco Ferreri by Anselma Dell’Olio and the other on actress Valentina Cortese by Francesco Patierno). As an adolescent, I was familiar with Vittorio Gassman’s name, mostly from the Hollywood melodramas he made in the 1950s and Italian potboilers like Bitter Rice (1949) and Anna (1951), where his pairing with the seductive Silvana Mangano left an indelible impression on a teenage boy.

But few people knew that Gassman’s biggest claim to fame was his work in the Italian theater and in the film comedies he made after losing interest in making what he called “horrible dramatic movies.” The most invaluable aspect of this documentary is that it introduces American audiences to the amazing versatility of the actor few knew then or now. Born in Genoa in 1922, Gassman first walked on stage in 1943 and fell in love, working with such giants as Luchino Visconti and Charles Laughton and proving himself in both classical and modern theater. He did everything from Aeschylus, Seneca, Ariosto, Alfieri, and Shakespeare to Ibsen and Tennessee Williams—playing Stanley Kowalski in the Italian version of the latter’s Streetcar. As for film comedies, Gassman hit it big with directors Mario Monicelli, Dino Risi, and Ettore Scola. Playing opposite the inimitable Marcello Mastroianni, Ugo Tognazzi, and Alberto Sordi, he became known in Italy as the King of Comedy.

But though some of his best work in that genre—e.g., Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958)—is known to audiences outside of Italy, there are clips of many films that remain unknown, including the Italian version of Scent of a Woman (1974), remade in America with Al Pacino in 1992. Gassman appeared in over a hundred and twenty-five movies, playing himself in his last, the 1999 Luchino Visconti. Though Gassman married (and later divorced) Hollywood actress Shelley Winters and we see glimpses of him on Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s sets with Elizabeth Taylor and others, the film is less interested in the Hollywood Gassman, most likely because he was hardly given challenging roles. Instead, there are invaluable interviews with his sons, Alessandro and Jacopo and his daughter Paola—the latter two working in film. Alas, while our appetite is whetted for the Gassman movies we’ve yet to know, it is sad to realize that we’re unlikely to see records of his stage work. One good memory I have is of Gassman’s minor but moving turn as the Christian who meets Anthony Quinn in the slave mines in Barabbas (1961), deterring him from his vengeful path. It was a role that revealed what many of those interviewed in this documentary assert was Gassman’s gentler, sensitive side.

“Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2019” runs June 6 through June 12 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.