Already, so many of the late-century world cinema promises have been broken: The Chinese Fifth Generation has devolved into efficient, softhearted irrelevancy; Kitano has lost his backbeat; Kieslowski’s dead; Almodóvar’s edge has been dulled by age; the increasingly idiosyncratic Kaurismaki and Sokurov have been all but ignored by distributors; the Hong Kong zeitgeist has faded into cliché. So more’s the glory of Gianni Amelio, still Italy’s premier tale-telling moviemaker and international powerhouse—however the more visible and more Miramaxable sell-jobs of Roberto Benigni and Nanni Moretti may loom. It’s been seven years since Lamerica, Amelio’s thunderstruck briefing for a descent into Albanian hell, and that’s too long to wait for such thick cuts of steak. In fact, his new, most audience-friendly movie, The Way We Laughed, has been waiting in the wings for over three years since winning top prize at Venice, but it is typically a movie of its own melancholy moment.
Italian cinema has always tended toward the novelistic, and Amelio’s narratives are overtly dramatic, at the same time engaging full-tilt with the domino effects of postwar poverty. Don’t be fooled by the movie’s placatory, Benigni-ish title: Amelio culled it from the reader-written joke page of the national Evening Courier‘s Sunday supplement in the ’50s—the Italian equivalent to The Saturday Evening Post. The iconic nostalgia is ironically invoked, for Amelio’s vision pulses with hopelessness and betrayal. The movie’s a tale of brotherness: Giovanni (Amelio vet Enrico Lo Verso), an unschooled Sicilian laborer, arrives in Turin to meet and support his school-age brother Pietro (Francesco Guiffrida), who is already studying to be a teacher. As muscular, buoyant, and innocent as his younger brother is pale and doleful, Giovanni is the movie’s moral thermometer, taking appalled measure of his milieu’s ethical ruin, burgeoning underworld, and prejudicial politics. (Being “southerners,” the brothers are treated like immigrant trash.)
Amelio’s movie unfolds in a chapter sequence of selected days—one each for the years between 1958 and 1964, when the largely agrarian country was morphing into an industrial economy—and often what’s happened in the intervening year is a dreadful question Amelio takes his sweet time answering. The two brothers subtly change, every time, sometimes in horrifying ways the film reveals to us gradually. This brutal strategy is handled deftly—particularly in the end, which is always where Amelio pulls his trump card. Despite sumptuous wide-screen imagery (shot by Luca Bigazzi), The Way We Laughed does the majority of its chilling work on Lo Verso’s remarkable face. He’s all cheekbones, lips, and lost, serious eyes, and as Giovanni tries to disguise how much the worm has turned in him, Lo Verso takes on the hundred-yard gaze of a haunted survivor.
It’s an old-fashioned epic full of mysteries—predominantly, the uncommunicative, unresponsive Pietro, who seems plagued from the very first scene. (When Giovanni gets off the train in a flood of Sicilians, Pietro hides from him and instead tries to help a dim-witted family find an address that doesn’t exist.) As the doughy, puppyish Guiffrida plays him, Pietro is an anti-Giovanni: secretive, discontented, disturbed by dilemmas he won’t explain. Just as he doesn’t follow his brother’s ambitious prescriptions, Amelio refuses to let the character make satisfying motivational sense—until, of course, it ceases to matter and Pietro’s problems are no longer his own at all. Exploring a specific generational moment in mid-century Italy’s social weft, Amelio’s family saga might be his grimmest film, if only for the tragic exploitation of fraternity.
Another radicalized Italian perspective on poverty, Jung (War) in the Land of the Mujaheddin plays like tomorrow’s headlines. A digital-video documentary about the establishment of a charity war-victim hospital in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000, Jung contains the most remarkable footage of Afghan combat procedures I’ve ever seen. (One hopes the Pentagon had already studied it closely prior to designing Operation Everlasting Gobstopper, or whatever it’s called.) Hero-surgeon Gino Strada is the focus, negotiating and bullying his way into Charikar to create a hospital at the center of a wasteland populated by munitions-maimed, Taliban-hating Muslims. (Strada’s Emergency project has already built similar units in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone.)
The movie itself is quite shrill and melodramatic, brimming with bombastic musical accents, special effects, action cutting, and mournful CARE-ad children—the material would be even more ballistic without the emphasis. As in Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s upcoming Kandahar, the images are disquieting: a mountaintop view of a mined valley with a single, traffic-clogged safe road; the alien, almost sci-fi visions of faceless, burka-cloaked figures punctuating the desert. The filmmakers never flinch—not even from amputations and face shrapnel. As history (1.5 million deaths so far in 20 years of nonstop war) and as news, it smokes CNN.
“Directors Without Borders: Afghanistan’s Shock Corridor” by A.G. Basoli