Bruno (Francesco Colella), a director at the mortuary,
plays detective with Camilla (Kasia Smutniak)
My year of Italian Renaissance circa 2021 has followed me into this 2022 year of vertiginous winters, wet duplicitous spiralling days filled with worsening world news and my own (forced) professional reboot. I found solace in consuming serial TV programs at the end of each long day: Faster Than Fear, Crisis Unit, In Therapy, Irma Vep, Astrid, Don’t Leave Me, The Split, My Brilliant Friend (season 3), L’Ora,The Silence of Water, Doc, Inspector Ricciardi amongst others. Most of what I watched were German, French, British or Italian productions. Throughout the past nine months, whatever preconceptions I’ve had about Italian sentimentality were soon washed over by an almost magical discovery of something fragile and intelligent in their stories. In fact, the discovery is of something more enigmatic – akin to one’s soul – or at least, in a more recognisable form, it speaks to an open encounter with kindness (and forgive me for quoting Keanu Reeves here : “I would not want to be a part of a world where being kind is a weakness”) that becomes the fuel behind many of their stories, of personal relationships and social responsibilities.
The first two films to be reviewed for this year’s St Ali’s Italian Film Festival, 3/19 and Lord of the Ants also have this glowing jewel, of love and humanity, or love of humanity at its core.
It’s not really possible to say that Camilla, played engrossingly by Kasia Smutniak (a well-known face in cinema of late, Perfect Strangers (2016), Made in Italy (2018) and Loro I and Loro II (2018)) is unhappy: she is a successful and calculating lawyer (feared and revered by her minions in equal measure) who has a rather meaningless if careless mother/daughter relationship with her university-aged daughter Adele (Caterina Forza), and the cream on top is that Camilla has settled into a semi routine, by way of a simpatico love nest with a married man, all with the comforting knowledge that this relationship wll ultimately lead nowhere.
Daughter and Mother
Adele (Caterina Forza), Camilla (Kasia Smutniak)
Sometimes, it only takes a small crack for things to unravel, the beat of a butterfly’s wing, or in this case, a rainy night incident where Camilla was involved in a hit and run by a motorbike. Kids on a stolen bike or kids out for a ride and didn’t see her, either way, one of the kids died, a John Doe, he is 3/19, unknown and unidentified, the third person in this predicament in 2019.
The film has a slatey palette, jarring bled-out greens and hues that matched the mood of an eternal and bloodless winter; cinematographer Matteo Cocco’s angular framing of Smutniak’s equally masculine jawline made her character even more austere and flinty – all perfectly camouflaged in the Milanese backdrop of stones and histories. But as Camilla unpicked her way through this tapestry of the unknown person, their histories and connections, we realise that the seduction that gets played out in this film is not of sex or desire, but is of kindness and consideration. We are consumed by its wilderness – whether it is the forest in Camilla’s minds eye, or the sea by which the young man is buried; and in this regard, Camilla needed to desperately revolt against her own sense of decorum and habitual justice to find beauty and meaning in something completely foreign to her.
Some may see that she is reborn, but I’d like to see that she’s just discovered something new within herself, perhaps something that was always there. In her nascent form, she is well matched by Bruno, the director of the mortuary. I see him as the guardian of the dead and the keeper of their secrets, the overseer of one’s last repose. Bruno is an everyman, played wonderfully by Francesco Colella, who also stars in one of my favourite recent TV series, L’Ora (currently showing on SBS) and the more gritty drama ZeroZeroZero (also on SBS).
What unfolds is a personal endeavour to travel through an unknown and invisible history of a stranger, brought closer through a found photo in the pocket of the young man, and a beautiful ancient poem written in Arabic. It is as though all these things are calling out her name and binding her to a future, the constitution of family, hers, with Adele, through a lost son.
|Lord of the Ants|
Bracing for love, Luigi Lo Cascio plays the brilliant Aldo Braibanti
Lord of the Ants also calls forth the need to belong. A thread that binds Aldo Braibanti’s story is told in elliptically with much of his desire for a certain young man, Ettore Tagliaferri, (sensitively portrayed by first-timer, Leonardo Maltese) played as a meeting of the minds and heart despite their physical attraction. And this is precisely an area which this fictional portrayal of Braibanti’s life focuses on, the idea of plagio, translated as ‘plagiarism’. It is a mediaeval crime where one is accused of influencing another person’s mind to the extent of taking possession of it; and to imbue the other person with immoral actions and thoughts. The Italian criminal code defines it as "whoever submits a person to his own power, in order to reduce them to a state of subjection”, in order words, forcefully subjecting their will over another’s; meaning that Braibanti has to take full blame for whatever happened between him and Ettore.
|Lord of the Ants|
Three loves, Ettore (Leonardo Maltese), Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and ants
The backstory of how the two men met was brought to life nostalgically, full of poiesis and beauty. Luigi Lo Cascio, who also starred in last year’s film festival favourite Lacci or The Ties (2020), reviewed here; is perfectly cast as Braibanti: handsome, urbane, artistically and politically active, uncompromising and (without sounding condescending) the epitome of 60s Italian intelligentsia. It is no wonder that young men and women gravitated to his poetry, visual art and dramatic theatrical experiments held in a commune at the Farnese tower of Castell'Arquato. These experiments, as well as large scale studies of ant colonies lasted for six years before he moved to Rome. The production design by Marta Maffucci as well as some of the location shots are magnificent (some scenes were reminiscent of the freedom of French New Wave cinema), and there are some brilliant anti-theatre staged sets at the commune. But for me, the first scene of the softly-spoken Aldo, in an open Roman movie theatre by the water with Ettore, reciting poetry to each other, that has the audience entranced from the very beginning. That, and the writing.
|Lord of the Ants |
Dramaturgy, poiesis and experimental theatre at work
Most of the film is focused on the trial, and that in itself – a courtroom drama – is of historical importance. But it is through a myriad of side stories that allows us a real glimpse into the Braibanti universe: the loving relationship between Braibanti and his mother, the relationship of Ennio (played by Elio Germano, most recently we’ve seen in him Lucia’s Grace (2018) and Rose Island (2020)) a journalist sent to cover the trial by his Communist newspaper and his cousin, his cousin’s lover, the student protestors, the ‘cure’ provided by the psychiatric centre on Ettore, and even Ettore’s own naivety, spoke volumes of the 60s in Rome. In the end, though, it is the story of Braibanti and Ettore that eclipses all else; and Lo Cascio’s brilliant performance made their story so palpable and arresting to watch on the big screen.
Ending this review on a side note: it’s interesting to note that director, Gianni Amelio came out as gay only a few years ago, when he was in his sixties. So I would say that this would be a very personal film, and perhaps explains why this is a fictionalised account rather than a straight biopic – in order to allow for artistic freedom and poetry. It took out 4 awards at the Venice Film Festival this year. If you’re interested in the actual trial itself, Carmen Giardina and Massimiliano Palmese directed a documentary on Braibanti's trial in 2020 called Il caso Braibanti. The film was awarded the Nastro d'Argento prize, one of Italy's most prestigious awards. But if you’re interested in a moral drama of the un-mappable human heart, then, Amelio’s film soars above all else.
#italianfilmfestivalis currently playing at selected Palace cinemas around Australia, finishing on the 16th October in Perth.