Saturday, January 9, 2010

Remastering the Film: Gianni Amelio

Unbelievably, Gianni Amelio, who will be 65 on January 20, had been a film director in Italy for twenty-three years when his film Open Doors was shown in New York in 1990. The film went on to a nomination for the American Academy's Best Foreign Language Film, and with his next two films, Amelio emerged as the best Italian director of the 1990s.

"Open Doors" refers to Mussolini's promise that under fascism Italians could sleep with their doors wide open. To prove it, a Palermo judge, played magnificently by Gian Maria Volonté, is pressured to sentence a man guilty of triple murder to death. With the help of a sagacious juror (Renato Carpentieri) whom he befriends, the man is sentenced to life in prison. While they contemplate the consequences of their actions in sparing the murderer the death penalty, a second judge and jury is appointed and returns with the desired verdict. A closing title informs us of the fate of the man, at the hands of a firing squad.

Beautifully photographed on resplendent Sicilian locations by Tonino Nardi, Open Doors was based on a novel by Leonardo Sciascia and captures the moral nightmare of fascist Italy, in which even principled people must follow the dictates of monstrous leaders with nothing but force to justify their laws. The actions of Scalia, the "monster of Palermo" are nothing but symptoms of a sickness rotting Mussolini's Italy from within.

Amelio followed Open Doors two years later with Stolen Children (Il ladro di bambini), which is a contemporary chronicle of a young girl whose own mother in Milan turned her into a prostitute and the ghastly way that Italian authorities try to deal with her. The girl and her younger brother are escorted by a carabinieri (Enrico Lo Verso) to an orphanage in Sicily, but even the young policeman cannot bring himself to carry out his mission, and risks disciplinary action when he takes the two children on a side-trip to Calabria to see his own family and eventually to the beaches of Sicily. Upon assisting a pretty French tourist to recover her stolen camera, the policeman is forced to face his superiors and turn over the children.

Amelio does amazing work with his two child actors in Stolen Children, particularly Valentina Scalici, who was only eleven when the film was shot. She plays the bewildered girl, a victim of her family's poverty, with such disarming charm and a disquieting grace that we, too, feel the ghastliness of the crimes against her innocence. Enrico Lo Verso, whom Stanley Kauffmann said resembles a knowing fox, plays the carabinieri wonderfully, even if he, too, becomes a kind of "thief" of these children's lives.

Two years after Stolen Children, Amelio made what is his masterpiece to date, Lamerica (1994), which concerns Gino (Lo Verso again) who has gone to Albania after the fall of its government to take advantage of tax loopholes and make quick money setting up a fake show factory. With his boss, played by Michele Placido, they find an old man who calls himself Spiro in a nightmarish prison whom they will set up as the company's Albanian owner. When the old man, who turns out to be an Italian soldier imprisoned in Albania since World War II, disappears, Gino pursues him across an Albania that has fallen into total chaos, with everyone fleeing to the port cities to get aboard ships bound for Italy. The closing scene, in which Gino finds Spiro on a ship crammed with refugees, is powerfully moving, as Amelio shows us the faces of the people, all of whom are heading toward an uncertain destination.

Amelio followed Lamerica with unsteady work, particularly The Keys to the House (2004), which teeters over into some mawkish moments, mostly involving Andrea Rossi, a cerebral palsy victim whose acting skills are unsteady at best. And the usually splendid Charlotte Rampling is awful as a fellow-suffering (and insufferable) parent. With The Missing Star (2006), Amelio seems to be retracing the journey of Gino in Lamerica, except across modern industrial China this time. Amelio was not impressed with what he saw of China: "Today, China is suffocated by a harsh bureaucratic, dictatorial system, in which the worst of capitalism has rooted itself, to the detriment of workers’ lives. Wherever we shot, the skies were grey, cloudy, impenetrable, from the frighteningly high levels of pollution. We only saw the sun when we got to inner Mongolia."* Sadly, the film was not released commercially in the U.S.

*The full interview can be viewed here.

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