Two from Open Roads
Quick, name the movie: an artist looks back on his adolescence in Italy’s recent past, recalling his discovery of girls and politics, heartbreak and corruption, with a mixture of longing for bygone times and anguish from lessons learned. Maybe you thought of Fellini’s Amarcord, Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (admittedly set in Paris), or more than one film by Giuseppe Tornatore. Amend the question to “boy comes of age amid social tumult” and you can go all the way back to De Sica. Italian cinema is surpassingly rich in portraits of artists as young men, and to that prodigal canon the Open Roads series adds two more.
The Mafia Only Kills in Summer
Television host and satirist Pierfrancesco Diliberto, commonly known as Pif, makes his feature writing and directing debut with The Mafia Only Kills in Summer, a warmhearted memoir of childhood in Palermo, Sicily. The protagonist, Arturo (Alex Bisconti as a boy, later Pif himself), believes his conception occurred in tandem with a local mob massacre, ensuring his destiny would entwine with the Cosa Nostra in bizarre and bewildering ways. He falls in love at the same moment as the neighborhood don, and must find equally inventive (though less permanent) means of dispatching his rival. When his clueless but loving father, who tries to soothe Arturo’s fears with the title claim, fails to grasp the urgency of his feelings, he catches sight of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti (the subject of Paolo Sorrentino’s operatic biopic Il Divo) relating his courtship of his wife on a talk show. Arturo grows to idolize the macabre politician, and the film tracks the development of his three obsessions—the Mafia, his beloved Flora (Ginevra Antona, then Cristiana Capotondi), and Andreotti—which, this being Sicily, are prone to intersect.
The beats of Pif’s story are familiar (addled parents, first love, dismay at the adult world), but they’re handled in an ingratiating, lighthearted vein, divested of the heavy-handedness often attendant to loss-of-innocence tales. (Arturo actually seems no less ingenuous at the fade-out.) Local characters like a whip-snapping priest, a wise judge, and even the mob bosses seem benign, imbued with the warm glow of nostalgia—Fellini by way of Damon Runyon. Miles removed from Gomorrah, the organized crime here has a genial, neighborhood feel, complemented by Santi Pulvirenti’s bouncy, playful score. If the film is ultimately less than monumental, it leaves a dolce aftertaste. The Mafia may kill in summer, but Pif’s memories survive and most enchantingly thrive.
Those Happy Years
With a title better suited to Pif, Those Happy Years recounts the childhood of writer-director Daniele Luchetti (My Brother Is an Only Child, 07) with the pensive air of maturity. Ten years old in the summer of 1974, Dario (Samuel Garofolo) registers the strained union of his parents—Guido (Kim Rossi Stuart), a convention-flouting artist dismayed by his lack of success in Rome, and Serena (Micaela Ramazzotti), a fiery housewife stirred by the women’s revolution. Guido rages to all in earshot about the need for freedom in art, but circumscribes his wife’s curiosity and confides to his mother that liberty should have its limits. When Serena furtively attends her husband’s performance art piece and answers his call for a volunteer, he is vexed—it was meant as a provocation, a statement on the public’s innate incapacity.
Aggrieved at the restraints on action imposed by those professing to champion it, Serena takes her two sons on a feminist retreat. There she’s encouraged to reclaim her fertility and explore unorthodox avenues of fulfillment. “Asking permission to be free means you’re not, inside,” she is told, and though Dario is less attuned to ideology than to capturing immodest gambols on his Super-8 camera (his newfound instrument for self-expression), the sentiments clearly find purchase.
While events are glimpsed through the boys’ eyes and narrated by the adult Dario, the film’s pivotal figure is neither he nor the jealous, frustrated Guido—it is Serena. She leaves the colony buffeted by her sexual and philosophical discoveries, and Ramazzotti gives a nuanced, multilayered portrayal, reflecting both the truth of her character and the heightened aura ascribed her by hindsight. That dichotomy is more complex here than we tend to expect—Those Happy Years might well include a question mark, as it’s by no means a valentine to youth. Dario’s coming of age lacks the usual benchmarks (first kiss, etc.), and in fact goes unnoticed by all but himself as his parents drift volcanically apart. At times the film is closer to The Squid and the Whale than to Cinema Paradiso, and while literally colorful (a lingering image is of bodies covered in paint), it’s muted by the avowed consequences of the new freedoms. “Those were happy years,” he reflects from the vista of middle age. “Too bad none of us realized it.”