In the mid-1940s, in the first blush of Italian neo-realism, films like Rossellini’s Rome Open City mixed professional actors with amateur cast members, alternated studio sets with location shooting, and jumbled together melodramatic episodes and gritty realism. Taking these films as a starting point, that more recent outcrop of films that have come, for better or worse, to be grouped under the neo-neo-realist rubric, have striven to ape the earlier films’ rawer qualities, while largely forgoing the variety of approach that was so characteristic of the original movement.
A neo-neo-realist offering from the homeland, Italian-based filmmakers Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s La Pivellina seems to owe much of its aesthetic approach to the Dardenne brothers, while using it for decidedly non-Dardennian purposes. Like the Rosetta auteurs, Covi and Frimmel rely heavily on handheld shots to track characters’ movements, employ super 16mm stock, and film their marginal characters in grittily authentic locations. But La Pivellina, which follows a couple of Roman circus performers who find and take in an abandoned baby, lacks the immediacy of the Belgian duo’s pictures, the electrifying sense that anything might happen, while also avoiding their penchant for redemptive resolutions.
Largely a non-narrative piece, the film follows the central trio, along with a 14-year-old neighbor boy, as they care for the child, leave town to perform odd jobs, practice a knife-throwing routine (the only time we see them plying their trade), and visit a wax museum. The film benefits in no small measure from its sense of intimacy with its marginal locations (parking lots at the edges of housing developments where the couple set up shop, trailer camps) as well as the performances of the nonprofessional actors, not least the young child (Asia Crippa) who’s just cute enough trouncing through mud puzzles in oversized rubber boots but whose preciousness the directors never overemphasize.
Still, after awhile, the film’s rather sparse array of material begins to point up an essential thinness to the project. It’s one thing to eschew narrative, but it’s another to lack sufficiently compelling characters and situations to fill out the work, a state of affairs that eventually transforms La Pivellina into little more than an exercise in time marking, papering the cracks until the film’s ambiguous, vaguely unsettling conclusion.