Thursday, June 4, 2009

Italy: Marco Amenta's SICILIAN GIRL and Gabriele Salvatores' AS GOD COMMANDS

The Sicilian Mafia: Didn't we just cover that? True, but the film under consideration today from the FSLC's Open Roads festival is so much different -- and better -- than yesterday's Brave Men that I advise a look-see. For its central performances alone THE SICILIAN GIRL (La Siciliana ribelle) demands attention, but there's even more going on here in terms of Sicily's history, psychology and family dynamics. Director/co-writer Marco Amenta has helmed two other Mafia-themed movies (unseen by me), so perhaps he was primed for this based-on-life tale that takes place nearly two decades ago.

When a 17-year-old girl approaches the chief prosecutor of Palermo in order to vindicate Mafia-related deaths in her family, she sets events in motion that eventually make history in Italy. As expected in Italian films of this nature, there is lots of local color (much of it rich -- and red), waring families, doors that suddenly close when the killing begins, and -- particularly interesting -- the idea of the "good dictator," a kinder, gentler Mafia man who, though a criminal and murderer, helps keep the peace, says no to dealing drugs, and treats his underlings and family with conscience and care. Amenta (shown above) understands the importance of pace and how to vary it. His is a fairly simple plot, yet with well-chosen incidents, on-target dialog and sound design (notice how the sound of gun being cocked sounds like a camera clicking), and pacing that is fast-but-followable, the film works as both mainstream entertainment and something more.

That "more" is provided by a fine cast, especially in the two leading roles. Veronica D'Agostino (left), whose first film was Respiro, brings complete conviction to her role -- strength, sadness and especially that specific impatience and sense of "right" so typical of youth -- that she pretty much single-handedly carries the movie. Watching this young and untutored girl -- lonely, scared and insistent -- is one of the most wrenching, riveting and finally heartbreaking experiences a movie has given us in some time. Her nemesis-turned-helper is the very fine Gérard Jugnot (shown below), so different here from his current role in Paris 36.

Amenta chooses his details wisely and economically, from the early scenes in Sicily to the moment when we learn that the tenants of the building where the investigating officer and his family reside are circulating a petition to force them from their home. Fear is everywhere and Amenta makes us feel it -- which turns the rare moment of joy and relaxation (a trip to the beach with a new boyfriend) into something special. D'Agostino's final long scene is staggering, as she turns to anyone left in her life for companionship: a simple word, even a touch. By this point in the film the girl has turned 18. Think of your own daughter in a situation like this and weep.

When I interviewed Il Divo director Paolo
Sorrentino last April, he told me that Italy has never experienced the kind of Democracy we know in other western nations. Rather it is more like a combination of what you'd find in an African dictatorship and the west. Watching the way in which the Mafia controls in The Sicilian Girl (not to mention Il Divo itself), you may better understand what he means. The Sicilian Girl screens Friday, June 5, at 6:30 and Monday, June 8, at 2.


Something special can also be found in AS GOD COMMANDS (Come dio comanda), though in this case, that's not a positive thing. I've calmed down some since my initial encounter with (and thumbnail review of) the movie by Gabriele Salvatores (of Best Foreign Film Mediterraneo fame) and can now see things to recommend. The performances in particular are all quite good: Filippo Timi (above, left -- from last year's Signorina Effe, Saturno Contro and In Memoria di me) as the father, newcomer Alvaro Caleca (above, right) as his son and Elio Germano (below, from this year's The Past Is a Foreign Land and 2007's My Brother Is an Only Child) as their brain-damaged friend. But the story, which initially deals with everything from racism to parenting, immigration, family bonds, the mentally impaired, and the responsibility of employers to their workers goes so far off-track in its frenzied plot twists that it almost literally begs you to discount it out-of-hand.

When the one supposedly crazy character manages to outdo everyone else on view in terms of intelligence and foresight, you know your movie's in trouble. Like many other of the films this year, As God Commands is dark (for a time it appears almost the darkest of the festival), but as events pile up, the movie seems like one of those multi-car accidents but with people taking the place of automobiles. After a time it lightens up so far in the other direction that, by the finale, it seems to have become almost cynically sentimental.

Midway through, there is a pivotal scene, which for me was the deal-breaker. Taking place in the night rain, this extraordinarily lengthy scene, as directed by Salvatores (shown left) is as visually dank and oppressive as possible and aurally loud, obnoxious and unending (the shrieking and bellowing never seem to stop: one character takes over from the next, as though a relay race of screamers was the main event). If you survive this unscathed, who knows, you may just be able to tolerate the rest of the movie. As to what it is trying to tell us, however, I haven't a clue. As God Commands screens Friday, June 5, at 9pm and Tuesday, June 9, at 3:15.

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