Saw The War of the Yokels at SIFF last night. It’s part of their Cinema Italian Style festival which runs to November 16th.
In a desolate Italian coastal region, two groups of kids engage in a seemingly endless war. One side, the yokels, are poor, wear tattered clothes, and live in a shack. The other side are known as the masters. They are well-off, their colorful clothes are spic and span, and they live in nice homes. During the course of this war territories are invaded, opposing side’s flags captured, and booty taken in the form of a moped and a pinball machine.
Directed by Davide Barletti and Lorenzo Conte the film has been publicized as The Lord of the Flies meets The Goonies. That is not a harmonious combination. One is goofy entertainment and the other is a disturbing allegory/parable about power and evil. They don’t quite mesh. But that captures perfectly what’s wrong with this movie. The War of the Yokels is a mess. It’s not clear what it wants to be. Sometimes it's an allegory, at others a satire, then a heart-warming love story, then a naturalistic coming-of-age tale. It even descends into religious fantasy. Every time I got my hopes up that the movie had found its footing it went off in a different direction. It doesn't just fall between the stools, it tumbles through every seat at the table. It is deeply unsatisfying.
One example should make it clear (there will be spoilers). Each side has a flag, the masters’ is black with a coat of arms on it. After having theirs stolen and burnt, the yokels loot it. Their leader, Scaleno, tells the yokels that they will burn the flag of their exploiter. But when left alone with it, he drapes the flag over himself, emperor-style, and starts to pose before a broken mirror. Ah, the viewer thinks, the flag is a symbol or emblem of the masters’ power. The film then goes through many shifts of tone. Towards the end, the leader of the masters, Francisco, is murdered (so now it’s a murder drama). When his body washes up on the beach a solemn Scaleno, to show that he no longer wants to fight the war, gives the flag back to the masters. So is this an act of defiance (leaving the war) or submission (accepting the power of the masters to avoid violence)? It’s not clear. This is not creative ambiguity, this is a muddle.
The saving grace to this film, though, is its superb young cast. And I suspect that like the actors in those other movies set in the world of kids - The Outsiders and Stand by Me - we will see more of them in the future.