Hope Against Hope

Tony Pipolo on “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema” at Film at Lincoln Center

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 a lack of hope, and the dismal future that working-class Italian youth face. 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 the 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, Piranhas is 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 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 the 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 Bifolco’s 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 their 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 his 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 we hope, 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 piercing of a child’s earlobes—so she can wear earrings like mom—to the manufacturing of toys and violent video games aimed at young men, rites of courtship, and pastoral sermons on the joys and responsibilities of marriage, and concludes with a wedding where two men tie the knot. Because the trajectory is so straightforward and follows what passes as the “natural” course of 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 beauty contest from behind skimpily clad young women as they face the panel of judges, exposing the lewder focus underlying questions about the women’s personalities and ambitions. By the end of Tulli’s film, however, the viewer is struck by a disturbing reality, of which issues around gender 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 that of directorial giants of the golden age, such 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 desperately tries to function under increasingly desperate circumstances, until tragedy inevitably strikes. His sad story is one of several that suggest the failure of not only one great country but also the contemporary world in offering 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 being 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 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 is further endangered when she herself becomes pregnant and, having been raped as a young girl, faces the possibility of dying if she gives birth. This ominous threat is signaled by the film’s opening image: an overhead shot of Maria floating on a river, traumatized and near death, still in her communion dress—the scene, as we learn later, that followed the rape. 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, a number of unforgettable women trapped like Maria, and, finally, the outsider who becomes her only hope. Every one of these characters, and every actor, rings 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 solution seems possible, no film suggests otherwise. Another example 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 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 principal 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 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 have provided 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 edition (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 such as Bitter Rice (1949) and Anna (1951), where his pairing with the seductive Silvana Mangano left an indelible impression on a teenage boy.

But Gassman’s biggest claim to fame was his work in Italian theater and the film comedies he made after losing interest in 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 Williams’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.

Although some of his best work in comedy—for example, 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 more than a hundred and twenty-five movies, playing himself in his last, the 1999 Luchino Visconti. 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, but 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 (Jacopo and Paolo work 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 recordings 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 12 at Film at Lincoln Center in New York.