The Realist: A Talk with Gianni Amelio

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By David D'Arcy

"Neo-realism was an elite phenomenon."

Gianni Amelio's lifetime, so far, corresponds almost year for year to the resurgence of modern Italian cinema. Amelio was born in 1945, so if you're one of those who believes that life begins at conception, the statement is even more exact. After all, Roberto Rossellini's groundbreaking Open City was made in 1944.

Amelio's films tend to rally the critics and win the prizes when they're released. Yet the retrospective organized by Jytte Jensen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Poetry and Rigor: The Films of Gianni Amelio, is the first comprehensive survey of his work for film and television that I have encountered.

Naturally, MoMA is including Amelio's greatest hits. Best-known among these is probably Stolen Children, the 1992 road movie that begins with police removing a young boy and his 11-year-old sister, forced into prostitution, from a grim Milan housing project. (The girl isn't removed fast enough to keep the tabloids from stigmatizing her with a black X barely concealing her young face on their covers.) Once separated from home, mother and family - three mythic institutions that seem dying if not stone-dead in Amelio's Italy - they begin a journey south that ends on a sidewalk in Sicily. En route, the fearful furtive children, betrayed by their own mother, warm to the carabinieri agent (played by Enrico Lo Verso, Amelio's perennial Everyman) who is taking them to a home for children. He's all they have in a landscape violated by modern constructed ugliness and ruled by a literal-minded bureaucracy that's more cruel than indifferent. For a few days, the children are saved by the agent who personalizes his job - another dying Italian virtue; their lives end up stolen by forces far greater than one policeman.

In most of Amelio's features (he's made docs for television that are also at MoMA), you're never sure where the story is headed, and at moments, the camera and the action stand still for you to take it all in. Ask Amelio, and he'll readily acknowledge his debt to Antonioni. In Stolen Children, you watch youth abandoned in a mute, blighted Italy that has turned its back on beauty as much as it has rejected compassion. They're beautiful in close-ups, even framed by the concrete modern Italy around them. You know that the hard concrete will outlive their innocence.

In Lamerica, the camera watches individuals walk aimlessly in all directions along roads or in vast generic squares in Albania's capital, Tirana, spaces that could have been designed by either Mussolini or Stalin. This isn't noisy passionate neo-realism. It's hypnotic, taking cues from Giorgio De Chirico's empty spaces, or from Rene Magritte, and from, in case you haven't guessed, Antonioni. The people who have called this film "magic realism" miss the point. It's the real disconnectedness that seems hallucinatory. Nightmare is more the word.

Again, Lamerica (1994) is a road movie that follows a corrupt Italian businessman (Lo Verso, one more time) who scorns the desperate Albanians as he sets up a scam corporation fueled by humanitarian funds. After falling victim to a few crimes of opportunity (that could just as easily have happened in Naples in 1944, or yesterday), he loses his swagger on a truck crossing the country to the sea, so crammed with sweaty young men seeking to leave the country for anything abroad that they can't even sit down. It's globalism's Lifeboat, one of the great passages in the movies of the 1990s.

Italians (including his father) were on the same journey from 1870 to 1970, Amelio is reminding us. How quickly they forget. Amelio was chillingly prophetic here - he hit on an inescapable underpinning of globalization, the flight from poor, often corrupt countries to rich ones. Usually it's not so much a dream fulfilled but the labor of Sisyphus. Armies of non-professional actors drive the point home.

In Open Doors, set in Palermo during the fascist period, 1937 to be exact, a civil servant, named, if you can believe it, Scalia, committed to fascism, is driven to extremes after he is the only member of a corrupt bureaucracy to lose his job for stealing. As the film opens, he stabs the arrogant former boss who fired him, then stabs an accountant behind closed doors, then shoots his wife after raping her.

At the trial, the caged defendant glares as judges (among them, the principled aristocrat Gian Maria Volonté) debate whether the death penalty should be imposed. The quiet judge and the ardent fascist both find themselves on opposite margins of the vast corrupt middle. As officials weigh that sentence, and Volonte opposes putting him to death, the killer's path to violence reveals murky circumstances, implicating just about everyone. Fascism can't hold a candle to business as usual.

Amelio has tried to do moral cinema, a difficult task anywhere. He's done it for four decades with actors like Lo Verso and Volonté (and plenty of non-professionals) who always have a way of showing, not just what they're doing, but what's being done to them. Isn't this the way that most of life is lived?

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