Always an eagle-eyed portraitist of contemporary Italy and its socioeconomic peccadilloes, Gianni Amelio hasn’t had a film released here in over fifteen years, and this strange, gentle, whimsically formulated concoction may give us a clue as to why. Ostensibly a kind of Candide-like tragicomedy, the movie’s as difficult to figure as the reasoning behind the deplorably off-the-mark English-distribution subtitle. (L’Intrepido translates as “the intrepid one,” the title of a beloved Italian children’s magazine from the middle of the last century.) Just when you think you’ve got a grip on its tail, it slips into head-scratching near-absurdity.
Amelio-ites — for whom the Amelio of the Nineties, with Open Doors (1990), Stolen Children (1992), and Lamerica (1994), represented a lone thorny hope for Italian cinema — will not be satisfied, but those without expectations of any kind might well be charmed. Antonio Albanese, lately of Woody Allen’s lamentable To Rome With Love, plays Antonio, a middle-aged naif who works as a kind of temp-slash-“fill-in” across Milan. Untrained but skilled enough to drive a trolley and cook in a restaurant, Antonio also delivers pizzas, sells flowers, works on construction sites, slaves in an industrial laundry, and so on, each job for one day or so. Though work-stuff often goes wrong, Antonio is never downtrodden — on the contrary, he is merry, enthusiastic, and virtually tireless. Eventually, we meet his sax-playing son (Gabriele Rendina), learn about his divorce and his past career as a teacher, and watch him make platonic friends with a troubled girl (Livia Rossi), who’s also scrounging for temp work.
Amelio’s movie is at times oddly jaunty, with a frothy score that cuts across the implicit tone of socioeconomic critique. Antonio is a kind of clown, unbattered by circumstance to a degree that compels you to wonder what the film’s actually about. His childlike savoir-faire doesn’t fuel story very easily, and eventually Amelio resorts to offhand tragedy, humiliating coincidence, and a left-field collapse of Antonio’s relationship with his son, who suddenly becomes a hair-trigger tortured-artist mess.
The slices of modern Milanese life are vivid, and Albanese’s lonely-mutt gaze is seductive in an old-school, Harry Langdon kind of way, but Intrepido adopts and discards possible stories like tissues — a sequence when a panicked Antonio discovers that the shoe store he’s working in is actually an all-but-shoeless front for black marketeering makes sense, but too much of the hero’s other floormat reactions to abuse and misfortune don’t. His sad-sack Candide-ness isn’t an instrument of satire — it’s hard to say why the character has been conceived this way, or what his mild travails signify. Amelio might just be trifling around, and sometimes that’s how the film feels — rudderless and unsure of its own purpose. If fuzzy thematic thrust doesn’t bug you, however, the essence of Albanese as a shrugging everyman for post-debt-crisis Europe may be its own reward.