Having long become a subgenre of its own, war stories viewed through children’s eyes have a special place in Italian cinema. From the raw sorrow of Roberto Rossellini’s great War Trilogy to the astringent lyricism of the Taviani brothers’ The Night of the Shooting Stars, filmmakers have repeatedly returned to kids struggling to hang on to scraps of their innocence amid bombs and bullets as a means of scrutinizing the national traumas of WWII. The Man Who Will Come, which kicks off the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Open Roads series this year, aims to further the tradition. Not without flashes of pensive power, director Giorgio Diritti’s meticulous combination of historical tragedy and fairy tale ultimately succumbs to a dutiful worthiness less allied to the volcanic emotions of Italian masters than to the superficial polish of For-Your-Consideration Oscar hopefuls.
Analyzing the bambini in neorealist films, Gilles Deleuze wrote of children in chaotic adult worlds as silent witnesses with enhanced capacities for seeing and hearing. The description seems tailor-made for eight-year-old Martina (Greta Zuccheri Montanari), who, as the axis of the film’s portrait of provincial life rattled by war, wanders freely (if with increasing danger) between civilians and warriors, partisans and invaders. Having not spoken since her little brother’s death, she roams the Bolognese rural commune where her large family has taken root, gravely pondering her father’s (Claudio Casadio) diligent toil, her pregnant mother’s (Maya Sansa) concerns, and, since this is 1944, the brutal struggle between Italian partisans and German soldiers taking place in the forest just outside the village. It isn’t long, however, before marauding Nazi patrols are piercing through the commune’s shield of bucolic piety and pushing the peasants, including the pocket-sized heroine, out of watchful passivity and into desperate action.
Based on still-traumatic accounts of Nazi slaughters which claimed the lives of almost 800 Italian civilians, The Man Who Will Come doesn’t lack for gravitas. In its finest moments, it contemplates the gulf between a child’s dawn-fresh perception of the world and the horrors descended upon it by war—the way it captures Martina’s wonder at the sight of men parachuting into the woods as well as her mystification at the prisoner forced to dig his own grave. Yet this schism is too tidy, a crisp diagram in need of a burst of fury or madness. Alas, Diritti is no Elem Klimov. Motivations are neatly divided and underlined by celestial choruses, the locations are CGI-scrubbed, and even the most weathered faces are prettified into effigies of rustic heroism. As if afraid to upset anybody’s dinner, Diritti stages the climactic massacre with a sentimentalized tastefulness that feels as exploitative as Spike Lee’s obnoxious reenactment of a similar sequence in Miracle at St. Anna. To the characters, the titular “man” everybody is waiting for may be the heroine’s symbolically loaded newborn brother, but, to viewers of this chilly movie, it might refer to the elusive filmmaker who will break Italian cinema out of its current creative rut.
The Man Who Will Come will play on June 3 and 7 as part of this year’s Open Roads: New Italian Cinema. For details about the festival, including ticketing information, click here.