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La Realtà -- Open Roads: New Italian Film Festival

by Megan Ratner

Film Quarterly

Fall 2014

 

 

The thirteenth edition of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema,

a collaboration of the Istituto Luce-Cinecittà and the Film Society

of Lincoln Center, showed a few encouraging signs for

Italy’s moviemaking future. Several fiction films dealing with

mid-to-late-twentieth-century Italy—Daniele Luchetti’s Anni

felici (Those Happy Years, 2013), Giovanni Veronesi’s L’ultima

ruota del carro (The Fifth Wheel, 2013)—or the more recent

economic woes—Gianni Amelio’s Felice chi é diverso (A Lonely

Hero, 2013), Sydney Sibilia’s Smetto quando voglio (I Can

Quit Whenever I Want, 2014)—indulged in what sometimes

seems a national tendency toward whimsy.  And, inevitably, the

looming shadows of the grand Italian masters, now available

on-demand in your own living room, up the ante for anything

new from the Bel Paese. While there was nothing groundbreaking

at Open Roads, the festival did reflect a country that

remains in difficult social and economic flux. The memorable

selections, an exceptional documentary and engaging semifictions,

focused on the peripheries—physical or social—the

marginal areas rarely seen by holidaymakers.

 

There is little question that the country continues to

reel from twenty years of Silvio Berlusconi’s bankrupt

promises and disastrous schemes, but an entirely different

spirit animated these films. Federico Fellini seemed to

hover everywhere and even popped up in an archival

cameo. For him, realism was, “[A] bad word. In a sense

everything is realistic. I see no dividing line between the

imaginary and the real.”1 Though far less flamboyant (after

all, modern reality has outdistanced much of Fellini’s

excess), each of these successor filmmakers brings something

of this idea to their work.

 

Emma Dante’s Via Castellana Bandiera (A Street in Palermo,

2013) zeroes inonanexistential confrontation inoneof the city’s

tiny backstreets. Fortyish Rosa (Dante) and partnerClara (Alba

Rohrwacher) are en route from Milan to a friend’s wedding

when they turn onto cramped Via Castellana Bandiera, nearly

colliding head-on with the overstuffed Calafiore family auto,

with octogenarian matriarch Samira (Elena Cotta) at the wheel.

In earlier scenes, Dante had set the tone, with each car already

seething:Rosa and Clara face a possible breakup, the Calafiores

bicker incessantly. In a street barely wider than the cars, private

spats become public fury. Neither driver will back up. Neighbors

and other drivers attempt negotiation to no avail. As the

afternoon wears on, the Calafiores, who live on the street, abandon

the car for their house, more talk and a meal. Only Samira,

who never speaks, remains at the steering wheel, eyeball to

eyeball with Rosa.

 

In this adaptation of her novel, Dante references perennial

Italian conflicts—especially and enduringly, the suspicion

between north and south. When Clara skips out for a

break on the back of Samira’s teenage grandson’s moped, she

tells him she is an illustrator. His incredulous “That’s not a

job” and Clara’s international hipster accessories (asymmetrical

haircut and tattoos) make them seem less like compatriots

than people of different eras.

 

The two cars snarled in pointless confrontation, their

bumpers just a few angry inches apart, make a surprisingly

versatile and effective set for the limited action. Rosa and

Samira remain mostly car-bound, other than exiting together

briefly for a Sergio Leone-style standoff. Of the two principals,

Cotta has the more riveting face, at times wounded, at

others feral. Despite lingering long past what would have

been a bracing end (artiness dilutes the considerable tension),

A Street in Palermo marks a notable debut for Dante.

 

Both Alberto Fasulo’s Tir (2013) and Gianfranco Rosi’s

Sacro Gra (2013) deal with life on the road. Each director

spent years in mobile research, logging kilometer after motorway

kilometer. These are not traditional road movies; instead,

they indicate a growing awareness of transiency, of the

diminishing importance of location to identity. Tir is the first

Italian film to take highest honors at the Rome Film Festival.

Using stories from the predominantly Eastern European

long-haul drivers, Fasulo devised a composite character

whose temporary truck-cabin is his only Italian perch.

Middle-aged Branko (Branko Zavrsan) swaps his teaching

post in Croatia to make three times his salary as a tir (tractortrailer)

driver in Italy. His sometime companion is the younger,

impulsive Maki (Marijan Sestak), also from the former

Yugoslavia; it’s strictly a co-working, “we’re in it for the

money” friendship. They spell each other at the wheel, catching

naps in the cabin crawlspace. They cook at the rear of the

trailer, their hurried breaks less a meal than refueling.

Branko, who is mostly in the truck and never more than a

 few feet away, seems almost a part of the machine, another

piece of rigging. Each man knows he is expendable, of far less

importance to his employer than the freight.

 

 

On the road for weeks at a time, Branko hears from his

wife and grown son by cell phone, aware that life at home

is proceeding without him. Dispatchers push the drivers to

fudge paperwork, to dispense with regulated rests. Despite

the sameness of the scenery—highway after highway—the

radio, its stations moving in and out of range, signals the cities

and countries outside the truck. Using a combination of

in-cabin angles and audio, Fasulo gives a sense of constantly

racing nowhere, of being no place other than between loading

and unloading points.

 

Zavrsan’s preparation included becoming a licensed trucker,

with months of on-the-road time before shooting began.

Bent over the wheel, his ursine body a combination of tension

and exhaustion, he is especially good in the scenes when his

wife calls. Always off-camera, her voice becomes a real presence

through Zavrsan’s expressions of frustration and very

occasional amusement. Hemakes us see the life that continues

even without him in it, his absences broken by short homeleaves,

largely given over, presumably, to sleep. His focus is

elsewhere, on the place he is not, whether personal or professional,

every arrival no more than a pause before the next

departure.

 

Tir pinpoints a new form of migration, money-centered

and impermanent. To Branko, Italy means work, an employer

rather than a culture. A brief sequence in which Italian

drivers try to rope him into joining their work stoppage

shows how the locals can turn on interlopers, the established

drivers still counting on a system of support that Branko

knows has crumbled. The only way to cope with this rootless,

isolating life is to be constantly on the move, the only certainty

ephemeral cash.

 

Gianfranco Rosi offers another untraditional view of Italy

life in Sacro Gra (2013), the first documentary to win the

Golden Lion for Best Film at the Venice Festival. The title,

a pun on Holy Grail, refers to the Grande Raccordo Anulare

(GRA), Rome’s congested 42.4-mile ring road, braved by

160,000 cars daily. Observational and without narration, Sacro

Gra is the result of Rosi’s two years riding the highway in a

van. His inspirations were Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and

an idea from urban planner Nicolò Bassetti, who walked the

length of the GRA. An epigraph describing the GRA as “enclosing

the capital like Saturn’s rings,” quoted from Fellini’s

Roma (1972), opens the film.

 

Sacro Gra begins in sound, the roar of the traffic narrowing

into the bleating siren of an Italian ambulance. Though

Rome does not appear in the film, Rosi links the GRA and

the city in a soundscape, constantly marking the symbiosis of

road and town. Rosi builds his story on somewhat Felliniesque

personalities, unusual characters for whom the ring

road is life and livelihood. Aristocrat Filippo Pellegrini, who

lives in a glammed-up palazzo funded by bed-and-breakfast,

ad shoots, and event rentals, devotes much of his life to ceremonies

to do with his ornamental nobility (Italy’s monarchy

and all that went with it was officially abolished in 1946). At

the other end of the spectrum is Cesare Bergamini, one of

the few eel fishermen who trawl the Tiber, beneath the

GRA overpasses. Each in his own way remains connected to

the more traditional rooted form of Italian life that has

largely disappeared.

 

Rosi explores the more modern state of limbo, including a

short sequence with two older prostitutes, snacking while

they wait for trade at their usual rest stop, and later, two

young women doing their first evening of bar dancing. They

could be anywhere, outside any big city. In another sequence,

Rosi stations himself on a balcony opposite a large apartment

house. As planes cruise low en route to Rome’s Fiumicino

airport, Rosi, with permission, eavesdrops on nearby flats.

Among the most engaging of these portraits is Paolo Regis,

highly educated and well spoken, chatting almost nonstop to

his computer-absorbed adult daughter. Tall and slim, with a

long, gray beard, he brings a Chekhovian melancholy to the

film, not least when, tending a few windowsill plants, he alerts

his daughter to the sliver of St. Peter’s dome just visible from

their window, the only person in the film to speak of seeing

the city.

 

Rosi repeatedly returns to Roberto Giuliani, a night-shift

EMS worker. Middle-aged and living alone, Giuliani lovingly

Skypes with his elderly mother and a girlfriend, supplementing

his daily face-to-face contacts that are restricted to colleagues

and accident victims. Of all the subjects, who

probably do not know each other, Giuliani is the one whose

path the others may cross. By cyclically returning to him, Rosi

reminds the viewer that the GRA is a loop, feeding into Rome

but not leading there, its function tributary rather than direct.

The most philosophical character is Francesco De Santis, a

botanist and palm specialist. Carefully drilling into the palm

trees in the GRA verges, he catalogues colonies of rhynchophorus

ferrugineus or red weevils. He notes that insects are

organized and definitely “chat among themselves,” and that

the “shrieking larvae” will survive humans. Unassuming in

dress and demeanor, the sixtyish De Santis seems refreshingly

anachronistic as he deliberately makes the rounds of the palm

tree grove. His modest, crowded lab seems like a throwback

to a less frenetic time. And yet, like Roberto Giuliani, destruction

propels De Santis’s work.

 

Sacro Gra underscores the centerlessness of the ring road,

encircling yet distanced from Rome (and without any visual

similarity to the picture-postcard views of that city), the incessant

hum and traffic like a larger-scale view of the circularity

in Tir.  Both films, and even the more static Street in

Palermo, have a similar feeling of frenzied mobility, the

meaning of all this movement elusive at best.

 

Viva la Libertà (2013), a political fiction directed by Roberto

Andó, poses its own questions about meaning and value,

leavened with dark humor. Toni Servillo plays both of the

Olivieri twins: Enrico, a troubled leader of the opposition, full

of tapped-out proposals and ideas, and Ernani, philosophy

professor, writer, and frequent mental patient. Called out

publicly for shirking his responsibilities at a party conference,

Enrico vanishes, leaving explanations to his wife Anna

(Michela Cescon) and beleaguered assistant, Andrea Bottini

(Valerio Mastandrea). When Anna reveals the unreliable but

physically identical Ernani, a desperate Bottini finds him only

too willing to impersonate Enrico, “who has never been able

to be himself.”

 

Enrico surfaces in Paris at the apartment of his former

girlfriend Danielle (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), now married to

filmmaker Mung (Eric Nguyen) and mother to a ten year

old. Servillo plays the brothers so distinctly that for a while

Viva la Libertà feels like two films in one. Enrico’s story is

a bit less realized than Ernani’s, even with the complication

that Danielle was shared by both, but the film rarely lags.

Andò takes a risk on gimmickry to explore, in effect, one

man split in two.

 

While his brother rediscovers a cooperative, creative side,

Ernani charms even his brother’s worst enemies. He is reminiscent

of Chauncey Gardner in Hal Ashby’s Being There

(1979), as his simple truths—“Fear is the music of democracy”—

come as revelations to the jaded political operatives.

At press conferences, roundtables, and in private meetings, he

countermands his brother’s stringent conservatism. Ernani is

insightfully playful, diagnosing political life as living from one

catastrophe to the next, on the edge of an abyss.

 

Meanwhile, Enrico follows script-supervisor Danielle to

her set, moving props and flirting with a crewmember, but

most engrossing are his scenes with Mung, who is aware that

Enrico still adores Danielle but treats him simply as a peer.

For Mung, politics and movies are both full of “geniuses and

bluffers.” Mung shows him a clip of Fellini at a press conference,

noting that “he more than any artist fought to keep obscenity

from becoming routine. When the television crews

went to spy on his death, their mission was to announce the

end of one era, and the beginning of another. Politics as a

perpetual invention of reality, an imposture.” Fellini died in

1993; media magnate Berlusconi came into power in 1994.

To a guiltily unnerved Enrico, Mung notes that culpability

lies within all of us.

 

Throughout, Verdi’s La Forza del Destino suffuses the

soundtrack, rising particularly at the end. As the camera

pulls away from what appears to be Enrico savoring an election

landslide, Servillo flickers between his two roles and

transforms himself from one brother into the other, baffling

Bottini. Shown in half shadow, Servillo lets a smile play on

his lips, in his eyes, even to his ears. To the strains of the traditional

bad-luck opera, Andò implies that Italy’s political

fortunes will likely dim and darken.

 

Shadowing all of these films was a precariousness that is

both Italian and European. Italian identity was traditionally

subsumed to region, hometown, and family, but these days,

economics plays the major part. In each of these selections, the

festival organizers risked unflattering truths to reveal the fragile,

complex country that lies beneath the beguiling facade.

 

Note

1 . Federico Fellini, Fellini on Fellini,  trans. by Isabel Quigley

(New York: Delacorte, 1976 ), 152 .