Sunday, November 11, 2018

Cinema Italian Style: The Story of a Love Affair/Like a Cat on a Highway

I saw The Story of a Love Affair (Cronaca di un amore) at SIFF's Cinema Italian Style festival yesterday.  Originally released in 1950, this was director Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film and it immediately established him as a new voice in Italian film-making.  It's essentially a retelling of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, except set in the world of the Italian middle and upper classes of Ferrara rather than among the poor.  The beautiful Lucia Bosé plays the femme fatale, Paola, and Massimo Girotti is Guido, the sap who falls for her.  And then, of course, there’s Paola’s rich, older, and insufferable husband whose removal would fix everything for our two lovers.
The story-telling in this likable film is a little clumsy at first but once our two protagonists enter, it moves with calm assurance to its final grim, betrayal-filled ending.  The Story of a Love Affair is a sturdy piece of work.  Right from the start Antonioni's trademark visual style is there: isolated figures stand or walk about in large empty spaces, there's always a titanic and sterile tenement blocks in view, the world seems deserted - except, of course, of the massive post-war ennui of the films' well-dressed and elegant leads.  Viewers tend to find Antonioni's style either very cool or very pretentious.  I admit I fall into the former group.  

Massimo Girotti and Lucia Bosé

The only problem I had with this film, in fact, concern its two leads.  They're good but don't have the sort of chemistry when they are together to be entirely convincing. There's not much electricity between them, none of that white-hot "I love you so much, I'll kill for you!" passion which the story requires.  One hopes that they would crackle at least a little, but they don't.  Fortunately, that's not fatal for this movie.  Lucia Bosé is so beautiful, sexy, and elegant that even if we don't believe that her co-star would kill for her, some of us in the audience might.  And that's good enough.   

In the 2017 comedy Like a Cat on a Highway (Come un gatto in tangenziale) Giovanni (Antonio Albanese) is the head of a think-tank dedicated to improving the lot of those who live in the poor, crime-ridden outskirts of Rome.  His NGO gives presentations to various EU commissions to request increased funding for the programs designed to help the poor.  He is, in short, a compassionate, middle-class do-gooder.  But when he discovers that his young daughter is dating a boy from those same outskirts, he freaks out.  Also freaking out is Monica (Paola Cortellesi), the loud, tough, heavily-tattooed, baseball-bat-wielding mother of the boy.  Soon Giovanni and Monica are working together to thwart their kids’ romance.

From that brief description if you don’t know exactly - and I mean exactly - where this comedy is going you need to stop reading this blog immediately and never come back.  Director Riccardo Milani and co-writers Furio Andreotti, Giulia Calenda, and the aforementioned Paola Cortellesi, don’t miss a trick or a cliché in this odd-couple story.  We get the middle-class guy's comical first encounter with people in the tenements.  And the equally comical scenes of the low-class woman's dealings with the affluent.  And yet the obvious predictability of all that doesn’t really matter; the film-makers manage to pull it off.  This is a very lively, fun movie.  You may see everything coming, but you don't mind.  Much of this is due to the chemistry between Albanese and Cortellesi.  They have a mutual interest in separating their kids and both performers bring out the toughness and resilience of their characters in this task as well as their vulnerabilities.  The characters may border on caricatures but the actors manage to give them enough humanity to engage us.  And they're both riotously funny, too.     

Paola Cortellesi, Alice Maselli, Simone de Bianchi, and Antonio Albanese

The script is so tightly-written, the jokes and comic incidents are so expertly piled up, that you don’t really notice (or maybe, don’t really care) that this topical film evades most of the issues it raises.  We never see any of the drug or alcohol abuse that plague the lives of the poor, nor do we see any of the real violence which they encounter - or commit.  In fact, the poor in this film seem to be largely unaffected by their lives of poverty. There are no gangs, no brutality, not even a mafia - imagine that.  As for the affluent, they have no fear of the poor, no hostility towards them, their wealth and power are in no way connected to the existence of poverty, they think the poor are “just folks”.  Class war?  What class war?  It’s as if a script by Bertolt Brecht were given a total re-write by Nora Ephron.  

Still, despite my carping, I enjoyed this film. It was a pleasant way to kill an hour and forty minutes. 

No comments: