When his son was only three, Gianni Amelio’s papa departed their poor Calabrian village for Argentina to seek more lucrative work and his own émigré father. He returned 17 years later, unsuccessful on both counts. By then Amelio Jr. had relocated to Rome to study filmmaking. The trauma of such a primal loss hovers over his movies, which deal with intergenerational conflict, betrayal, family ties, migration, and dispossession. Yet a mere oedipal reading ignores the complexity of his oeuvre. One of the few true humanists making movies today—”I belong to the party of forgotten people,” he says with a straight face—this gifted storyteller incorporates the political, personal, and socioeconomic into stylized, indeed architectonic, melodramas. He is heir not only to the neorealists, particularly Rossellini and De Sica in terms of themes and character dynamics, but also to Antonioni (use of space) and Visconti (eroticism and the operatic). Now 60 and still plugging his leftist agenda, he is in production on The Missing Star, an exposé of globalization shot in Italy and China.
Amelio’s film debut, The End of the Game (1970), chronicles the battle between an opportunistic TV reporter and his unwilling subject, a delinquent he accompanies to the boy’s native village. The relationship between an older and a younger man anticipates those in his later features: a bourgeois British novelist vacationing in Tuscany and the peasant child prodigy he mentors in The Little Archimedes (1979); a cultured, moralistic old judge and the younger prole killer he relentlessly interrogates in a fascist-era courtroom in the provocative Open Doors (1990); an academic father and the spoiled teen who turns him in for suspected Red Brigade ties in the revisionist Blow to the Heart (1982); a sleazy Italian capitalist and the elderly, nearly catatonic former Hoxha-regime prisoner he exploits in post-Communist Albania in the powerful Lamerica (1994); a simple carabiniere who reluctantly escorts a damaged pre-adolescent asthmatic boy and his prostitute sister to unwelcoming children’s homes in the De Sica–esque Stolen Children (1992); and a long-neglectful father manipulated by his physically challenged teen son in The Keys to the House (2004).
Amelio ups the ante in the devastating The Way We Laughed (1998). A sexual charge pervades the bond between an illiterate Sicilian laborer and the ungrateful younger brother he puts through school. Something of a documentary follow-up, his next movie was Poor Us (1999), an impressive mosaic of archival footage from the ’50s and ’60s of southern Italian migrants struggling to assimilate in wealthy cities of the north.