A Quiet Life

September 24, 2011
A Quiet Life

Of all the national film festivals held every year in this country, the Italian Film Festival is second only to the French in both magnitude and popularity. 2011 is the twelfth anniversary of this event, which according to the publicity release includes: “31 new Italian films, including 29 features and 2 documentaries, plus 3 cult classics and one short!” This translates into more than 900 screenings spread across five cities. Sydney and Melbourne are currently in the midst of the action, while Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth will get their turn next month.

The major sponsor is Lavazza, who are also supplying Palace cinema bars with a peculiar concoction called a Mocha Martini, which tastes rather innocuous but seems to combine the pick-up of caffeine with the mellowing qualties of alcohol. Personally, I’d prefer a macchiato.

As one would expect from the Italians, the roll call of films is truly a mixed bag, ranging from arthouse to gritty drama, to complete inanity. The major drawcard is The Ages of Love (Manuale d’Amore 3), a romantic comedy that features Monica Bellucci and Robert De Niro “talking Italian”. Not having seen this film yet, I’m unable to comment.

Cinemaphiles will be drawn to Mario Bellocchio’s Sorella Mai, a film about the director’s family which often feels like an extended home movie, interspersed with brief flashbacks to his best known features. Divided into six chapters, ranging from 1999 to 2008, it’s a watchable but slightly frustrating affair that gives one the awkward feeling of eavesdropping on a series of private conversations.

Altogether more satisfying is Corpo Celeste, by first-time director, Alice Rohrwacher. Twelve-year-old Marta has moved back to Calabria with her mother after having lived for a decade in Switzerland. The film follows Marta’s preparations for her confirmation, giving us a portrait of southern Catholicism that makes it look as bizarre as a medieval mystery cult. This is a successful variant of the coming-of-age film, touching and funny, with a powerful sense of atmosphere.

By contrast, Escort in Love (Nessuno mi può Giudicare) , is the sort of light-weight comedy that aims at nothing more profound than box office success. The underlying message seems to be that it’s fun, and very lucrative, to pursue a career as a call girl. It’s equally amusing to live in a poor slum neighbourhood of Rome, where everyone – regardless of race or creed – acts like one big happy family. Even the racists are loveable rascals!

There are a few sly digs at Italian politicians as major patrons of the escort industry, but a factual documentary on Roberto Berlusconi would probably provide a greater source of comedy.

The most impressive festival offering I’ve seen so far  is A Quiet Life (Una Vita Tranquilla), a tense thriller directed by Claudio Cupellini, featuring veteran actor Toni Servillo, as man whose dark past catches up with him.

Rosario runs a small restaurant and guest house in a small town near Frankfurt. He is Italian, but his wife and son are German. This happy life is upset by the arrival of two young men from Italy, who have come to Gemany as hired assassins. One of them, Diego (Marco d’Amore) is Rosario’s son from his earlier life in southern Italy. In this previous existence Rosario was a ruthless criminal who killed many enemies and was himself marked for death.

To escape his fate he disappeared and was believed dead. He also had to leave Diego, who kept his secret all these years, and had never visited his father before. Although Diego refers to Rosario as only a distant relative, his companion, Edoardo (Francesco di Leva), a hot-headed, cocaine-sniffing hoodlum, can sense the deception. As Edoardo causes trouble and attracts attention, Rosario feels the cracks appearing in his carefully-constructed persona.

The story spirals, inexorably, into ever more extreme and dangerous territory as Rosario is forced to deal with the emotional wreckage of the past while struggling to preserve the stability of the present. There are certain similarities with an earlier film of Servillio’s, The Consequences of Love (2004), where he played the role of a recluse whose life is changed by his attraction to a hotel barmaid. In this movie too, a violent history came surging back to upset the present.

The strength of A Quiet Life is its perfect pacing. Although the tempo is slow, the screws keep gradually tightening. Rosario’s world is crumbling by degrees, but our sympathies are kept at bay by the perpetual mystery of the crimes he committed in his younger days. As we are sucked into this psychological vortex, we are left wondering if it is possible to completely change one’s life. The sins of the past have returned to haunt Rosario, and he finds himself reverting to his old ways. It’s a classic film noir scenario of the man who tries to outsmart the Mob and ends by losing himself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=chJoBwDEhXw&feature=player_embedded

Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 24, 2011

Italy. Not Rated, 105 minutes.

Lavazza Italian Film Festival 2011:
Melbourne: until 5 Oct.; Sydney: until 5 Oct; Brisbane: 5-23 Oct; Adelaide 12-30 Oct; Perth 13-26 Oct.