The type of movies the Film Society at Lincoln Center show as part of their annual “Open Roads” program are representative of an unduly drawn-out transitional period in Italian national cinema. A typical “New Italian” protagonist, normally a twenty- or thirty-something year-old guy, is defined and confined in their identity by his/her differences. They spend the course of a film struggling to break out of the harsh, projected expectations of their social, primarily familial, responsibilities in order to satisfy themselves. They are both buoyed and overwhelmed by their communities and they love/hate it.
Subsequently, the identifying phrase “New Italian cinema” is synonymous with that type of socially realist bildungsroman for adults. Rather than represent a new generation of artists that are, like their protagonists, ready to move on to bigger and bolder projects, the majority of exported films meekly problematize that formula. Because we’re talking about Italy, this usually means children can’t satisfy their parents (Don’t Think About It, The Fever), parents can’t satisfy their kids (Days and Clouds, The Unknown Woman), friends and lovers can’t satisfy each other (His Secret Life, The Last Kiss), immigrants can’t satisfy natives (Billo, The Right Distance) and everybody has problems remembering the past.
Few filmmakers have succeeded in substantially transforming that staid series of communal conflicts* because of the Siren call of obligation and tradition. While Paolo Sorrentino should not be commended without serious reservations for how he divorces the later career of notorious former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti from any kind of intelligible historical context in Il Divo, he showed ingenuity in doing so. Though his ambition was not tempered with a fittingly grand vision, he did what many of his peers haven’t been able to—give up on the notion of characters who are desperately trying to live up to the expectations of others. Now he’s in outer space living on Planet Egomaniacal Auteur but hey, why the fuck not?
The same cannot be said of the new crop of “New Italian” filmmakers represented at this year’s “Open Roads.” Beginning with co-writer/director Edoardo Winspeare’s opening night selection Brave Men (or, Galantuomini), you see that the timid continue to serve as the cultural zeitgeist. In it, Lucia Rizzo (Donatella Finocchiaro) is a lady mob boss in rural, male-dominated Lecce and hence is an unhappy mob boss. As a woman and a thug, she’s alienated by the boys club atmosphere of her gang (i.e.: she doesn’t kibbutz with them about local soccer matches or which pin-up she’d like to screw first). She’s tough but not tough enough to show rival mobster Barabba (Marcello Prayer) who’s boss and inevitably falls into the compassionate arms of Ignazio (Fabrizio Gifuni), her former childhood sweetie and now the local district attorney.
Lucia’s story arc might not be so insulting if any her character traits could not be related in some way to her feminine delicacy. Like a typical “New Italian” protag, her decisions all stem from her periodic confirmation and repudiation of her gender: she’s tough enough to command the respect of (most of) her men, but not enough to kill a traitor, instead crippling him by shooting him in his calves. She’s the hard-ass that bawls after being shot at, the compassionate kingpin whose single motherhood is rarely shown, but is ever-present in the way she broods maternally in the foreground while her junk-grabbing, testosterone-fueled goombahs do her bidding. Try as she might to level the playing field by pretending to be distant, Lucia’ll never be able to harden her heart enough to be one of the big boys, er, bosses.
Lucia’s plight is typical of a “New Italian” protag because, as shocking as it may seem, it’s almost impossible to be different and conform to societal expectations at the same time. Even if it’s as wrong-headed as it is here, tradition is impossible to reject, but it has to be done in these unremarkable humanist fantasies. Dino and Filippo Gentili’s I Am Alive is even worse in how its finale ostentatiously rejects the stranglehold of family ties for the sake of a happier future. Though its unconventional plot sets it apart from the rest of this year’s program—Rocco (Massimo De Santis), a blue-collar factory worker in desperate need of money to pay his mortgage, takes a sketchy job babysitting a corpse—it’s just another variation on the “New Italian” formula.
Rocco is the ultimate honest working stiff. He’s so dedicated to his job, whatever that may be, that he’s able to tune everything else out—“I can’t go out tonight, I have to work,” he says in a note to his girlfriend, trudging off to do his solemn duty. He even becomes so attached to the girl whose body he’s watching over that he feels obliged to push Vlad (Vlad Alexandru Toma), her baby’s daddy, away from Marco (Giorgio Colangeli), her dissembling father. Through sheer force of conviction, Rocco simply knows that Marco is not as innocent as he seems. Accordingly, he then sagaciously warns Vlad to not take Marco’s money, but his instead and then fly away from the old man’s influence.
Rocco is a kind of guardian angel who could only come into being in this kind of “New Italian” drama. His intentions are so pure that the one time he strays and finds himself becoming seduced by a bartender at a local bar, his girlfriend phones him and he remembers why what he’s doing is wrong. Though this other woman tempts him, he ultimately leaves her at a nightclub and doesn’t look back. He has a job to finish and a false sense of catharsis to deliver.
Gabriele Salvatores’ As God Commands takes that level of righteous indignation and magnifies it exponentially in order to howl at the biggest patriarchal figure of all. While there are very few characters that do not ask Him to give them strength over the course of the film, it becomes abundantly clear by the end that God’s no longer taking our calls. Any bond or sense of community that exists is made and broken at His pleasure, making the abusive connection between Rino (Filippo Timi), an out-of-work racist, and Cristiano (Alvaro Caleca), his teenage son, something that an educated viewer should expect to be severed at any moment. Just as a gun must go off or a chandelier must crash, so too must their social worker’s threat of throwing Himmler Jr. into “an institute” somehow be fulfilled.
By the film’s logic, because the ties that bind father and son are unquestionably strong, even under the worst circumstances—they bond while Rino shoots at their developmentally challenged friend “Four Cheese” and then later forces Cristiano to beat up a school bully with a baseball bat—they have every right to be mad at God. So much of their lives’ myriad miseries and misfortunes are dictated by circumstance, from their relationship with “Four Cheese” to the way that it winds up dooming their own interactions, that they’ve earned the film’s trite momentary return to emotional stability, even if they can’t have normalcy. If only good intentions made for compelling drama.
Ferzan Ozpetek’s A Perfect Day thankfully not only resists that urge to provide an open-ended sense of closure but also serves up an ending that cannot possibly be smoothed over. The sexual and familial responsibilities of newly separated married couple Antonio (Valerio Mastandrea) and Emma (Isabella Ferrari) appear to be resolved midway through the film thanks to a violent but in no way shocking roadside confrontation, but then the film keeps going. Events look like they might keep going in that queasy state of tranquility until the ending, one that Ozpetek clearly means to have Tragic significance.
Ozpetek’s decision to continue well past the point that most of his peers would is admirable, but only to a point. The very last shot achieves all the poignancy that the previous two or three scenes fail to achieve, perhaps because they’re overlaid with an excruciatingly sentimental orchestral number, perhaps because dramatic irony can only aggrandize such a slight story so much.
Like Saturn in Opposition before it, which was also shown at last year’s “Open Roads” program, A Perfect Day is a minor accomplishment for Ozpetek. Its conclusion repudiates the comfortable re-establishment of community that has become the thematic cornerstone of his prior alternative lifestyle melodramas. At the same time, if he makes one more film that makes a big deal out of having moved on, he’ll prove that he’s moved on in thought only.
It’s a shame that Pupi Avati, a veteran filmmaker who’s had more time to hone his craft than any other “New Italian” filmmaker represented at this year’s “Open Roads,” should provide the best entry of the bunch. In Giovanna’s Daughter, he trains an unflinching eye on the disintegration of a bourgeois family during the final days of World War II. No one is spared from crippling, depression-inducing emotional problems, not Giovanna (Alba Rohrwacher), a teenager who winds up murdering her best friend in a deluded, jealous rage, nor her father Michele (Silvio Orlando), who blames himself for not seeing his daughter’s problems earlier, and certainly not his estranged wife Delia (Francesca Neri), who severs her ties from both of them because she blames them for everything.
Avati’s film essentially insists on the truism at the heart of every “New Italian” film, namely that you can’t avoid your responsibilities no matter how they torment you but with a little luck, you can make do. What separates it from the pack however is that the coda at the film’s end is clearly tacked on like an after-thought, a wispy nothing of a resolution that doesn’t try to provide a definitive ending to the story. These characters emotional wounds are so deep that Avati and co-writer/brother Antonio wisely just let them breath. Giovanna’s Daughter is a far cry from a step in the right direction, but so long as that’s where Italian cinema is at the moment, it’s as good as it gets.
*I’m thinking specifically of the three films with English subtitles you can (legally) find by Matteo Garrone (The Embalmer, First Love, Gomorrah), the two Marco Tullio Giordana films I’ve been able to see (The Best of Youth, One Hundred Steps), one or two films by the mostly repetitive Ferzan Ozpetek (Harem and, perhaps, Hamam), the recent films of Gabriele Salvatores (I’m Not Scared, Quo Vadis, Baby?), the better half of Paolo Sorrentino’s oeuvre (The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend) and the most punchy film I’ve seen by Carlo Verdone (Love is Eternal While it Lasts).
Simon Abrams writes about comics, books and movies for the Comics Journal, the L Magazine, the New York Press and Slant Magazine. Since last year, he’s been obsessively keeping a film journal where he writes down something about every film he’s seen.