In the wake of his disastrous turn as a romantic rapist in Don’t Move, Sergio Castellitto once again portrays a female-abusing prick in Paolo Virzi’s Caterina in the Big City, a fable about the cultural schisms of modern-day Italy that pusillanimously promotes disengagement as the shrewdest form of political participation. Castellitto is Giancarlo Iacovoni, a disenchanted accounting teacher who, after a hilarious opening tirade in which he labels his career at a technical school “the most depressing and useless waste of my life,” leaves behind his unsophisticated small-town home and his annoying extended family to relocate his wife Agata (Margherita Buy) and daughter Caterina (Alice Teghil) to Rome. Giancarlo is a man who blames the world for his personal failings, and his low self-esteem issues manifest themselves via rants against the country’s wealthy and powerful (who both exploit and marginalize the working class) and condescending insults toward Agata, a kind, dim-bulb homemaker loathed by her insecure spouse for being overly timid and dense.
Set against this abusive familial backdrop is Caterina’s coming-of-age introduction to contemporary Italy, a roiling urban center depicted by Virzi as being split between arrogant, hipper-than-thou socialists (embodied by Carolina Iaquaniello’s brooding outcast Margherita) and decadent, disgusting fascists (such as Federica Sbrenna’s popular Daniela). Both of these cliques try to co-opt the naïve Caterina, who casually tries on each ideology like a teenage girl shopping for a prom dress, and her country bumpkin status (one classmate dubs her former residence “hillbilly haven”) leads to a series of awkward situations in which Caterina receives a lesson in coldhearted classism. Teghil’s reserved, innocent shyness is significantly more persuasive than her shrill, one-dimensional, diametrically opposed girlfriends. Yet because Virzi’s script is concerned with Caterina only as the vehicle for a more wide-ranging sociological snapshot, the titular protagonist’s role in her own story is one of passivity, and her proclivity for reaction rather than action eventually sabotages any emotional investment one might have in her maturation.
Worse, the film’s schematic attempt to present both political extremes as equally repugnant and exclusionary—as well as its final, middle-of-the-road endorsement of withdrawing from urban meccas of artistic and political discourse for a quiet, serene, untroubled life in the sticks—is depressingly feeble. Caterina in the Big City‘s indecisive stance is at once leftist and isolationist, a rallying cry for the proletariat to stand up against the elites but one that also advocates wholesale retreat from (rather than rebellion against) the system it deems corrupt, and this position is married to a somewhat tacked-on feminist belief in the unreliability (if not downright despicableness) of the male sex. Despite its slightly overblown histrionics, Castellitto’s furious performance—melding unreasonable anger with a clear-sighted disdain for the privileged’s sense of entitlement—gives the film a welcome measure of righteous indignation. But there’s unpleasant irony in the fact that Giancarlo’s enlivening rage against the machine is ultimately quelled by his (as well as the film’s) embrace of spineless, silent acquiescence to the unjust status quo.