The Walter Reade’s current Open Roads series attests to the Italian film industry’s continuing push from the environs of Cinecitta outward to the campagna and far-flung regional hubs. Narratively, most selectees are small in scope, taking a somewhat belated cue from Amerindies, with their low-cost chamber scuffling, restless ragazzi, and sad-luck dames. One major difference, though—you can always count on WTO-drubbing Italians to put the subject of work front and center, to linger on the head-under-the-hood, shovel-to-the-soil aspects of characters’ lives. With this year’s program, that welcome left-inflected preoccupation lends grounded charm to pompous meditations and confers trenchancy on the otherwise trite.
Piergiorgio Gay’s angsty The Power of the Past looks at work as sublimation. Children’s book author Gianni, played by film director Sergio Rubini (whose own film, the comic-Lynchian Soul Mate, also appears in the lineup), is a married 40-ish yuppie dad in Turin who channels resentment of his late father, a fascist official, into his craft. The kid superhero Qwerty Uiop (as fun to type as you’d expect) lives out his creator’s fantasies of underground revolution. Gianni’s hypocrisy is exposed when a mysterious avuncular visitor (Wenders vet Bruno Ganz) brings news that Pop was in fact KGB. A standard identity shake-up, sure, but in what Sundance flick would the protag’s flip-out involve hallucinating that door-to-door solicitors are calling him a “pathetic bourgeois”?
That slur would be even more aptly applied to the brazen architect at the center of Mimmo Calopresti’s maudlin Happiness for Free (co-produced by Luc Besson). This crisis-of-purpose slog finds philanderer Sergio (Calopresti) suddenly bereft of ambition, sliding into a histrionic version of Time Out despair. In Woody Allen directorial fashion, Calopresti ensures his Sergio has a beautiful wife, whom he leaves for a svelte model girlfriend, whom he then discards for a helpless-kitten freak. All babe mongering aside, this spiral is only compelling when good ol’ class guilt compounds Sergio’s midlife dismay. You can’t help feeling he deserves the haunting he gets from a dead union-steward employee whose demise resulted from Sergio’s managerial corner-cuts.
Love and labor also mix it up in the darkly humorous Two Friends. Spiro Scimone and Francesco Sframele’s Rain Man pairing of mismatched flatmates observes the lonely toil of both paint-factory work and mafia wack-jobbing. In an anonymous northern city, these two Sicilians, the laconic, severe Pino and chatty, childlike Nunzio (afflicted with a cough that punctuates his job’s toxicity), bond in heavy dialect and silent marginalization. Their tenuous friendship is all they have outside their jobs, which, especially for gentle Nunzio, bring them only sickness and isolation.
Even the crowd-pleasing road-rager V-Max doesn’t skimp on the everyday repair-shop clang. Daniele Vicari delivers an S.E. Hinton-ish portrait of honor-racing among Rome’s exurban working-class dogs. (A similar sort populates Vincenzo Marra’s Outsiders of the Crowd, a documentary about soccer-crazed Napolitanos.) Spending much of the film tricking out their rides, auto-shop hunks Claudio and Stefano work hard to out-vroom the town’s requisite rich blowhard, along the way getting played by the same girl, natch. But the film’s winning slow burn comes from the consternated calm conveyed by Cristiano Morroni (as Claudio), his stunned intensity crossing Russell Crowe’s scowl with NBA stoic Tim Duncan’s baby-faced resolve.
Of course, the only thing worse than having a job is not having one, as Francesco Patierno points out with his blithely miserablist Pater Familias, a neo-real tale of Napolitano lowlifes. The scrapping of the charismatic friends plays like All or Nothing meets City of God, with most of these dudes senselessly scotched by the end. A sign on a shuttered construction site—”Building Suspended”—says it all.
The most futile tale of the bunch is the best. Enzo Monteleone’s WW II drama of Italian troops in Egypt, El Alamein: The Line of Fire, calls out Saving Private Ryan and its ilk for the right-centrist shams they are. In El Alamein, stock character types reveal complexities that endear with every layer, and best of all, Monteleone uses his retrospective view to offer leftist commentary rather than banal revisionist nostalgia. When a supply vehicle brings no sustenance to the forsaken group, but rather a horse Mussolini intends to ride victoriously into Alexandria, the unit lieutenant gives hell: “You tell Mussolini, we’ve been eating sand and drinking piss for two years. . . . If he wants us to fight, he needs to give us water, shoes, food, medicine . . . ” Berlusconi, are you listening?