Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sons and Fathers

Titles are a funny thing when you translate them from other languages, particularly if you're translating them from slang. Take, for example, Scialla! (2011, directed by Francesco Bruni), the second film I saw during this past weekend's Italian-palooza at my local art house. The film festival website (and my local art house followed its lead in its advertising of the event) translates "Scialla" as "Easy!" The IMDb doesn't list this as an alternate title of the film. It, instead, translates the title as "Chill." I suspect that the latter is probably closer to its usage, at least from what I can glean from its context in the film itself. Scialla!, in any case, is a comedy about fathers and sons. It's a coming of age film for both of its central characters, who are, respectively, a no-account 15-year old boy who dreams of becoming a gangster or a drug pusher and a burned out academic who has retired from teaching to ghost-write celebrity biographies. They're both defined by a certain lack of discipline, by a certain vague anomie, by a disregard for propriety. Like father, like son, as the saying goes.

As the story opens, Luca is a failing in school and doesn't really care. His mother has landed a short-term job teaching in Mali, so she decides that Luca should stay with his father. His father, Bruno, is Luca's tutor. Neither of them knows how they are related to each other, though Luca's mother tells Bruno when she asks him to take Luca in. Bruno barely remembers her, and is shocked to discover that he has a son. At first, he doesn't treat Luca any differently, but when he's brought into the school to address Luca's disciplinary problems, that changes, though gradually. Luca, meanwhile, is getting sucked into a life of crime through the boxer he and his friends meet at the gym. They're already (very) low level pushers. The boxer pushes them up the chain until they meet a boss named The Poet. Luca steals some money and some blow from The Poet's house, and soon, he's in a world of trouble. It's up to Bruno to extricate him...

This is a fairly amiable movie. It's generally funny, and it has a nice texture provided by a soundtrack of Italian rap. I don't know why I'm amused at the notion of Italian rap, but I am. These are all to the good, because I can't say that I like Luca much. Actor Filippo Scicchitano plays him with a satisfied smirk. It may be appropriate to the character, but it's irritating to this viewer. In most scenes, I just wanted to smack the kid upside the head. Fabrizio Bentivoglio is better as Bruno. He's everyone's loveable, disheveled uncle. Not quite a sot (yet) and with enough intellect to have long conversations in the pub. But still, he's the kind of child/man one finds in Judd Apatow movies, and this is that sort of movie. It's a dudebro movie about adolescents, arrested and otherwise, and one in which women don't really figure (with one major exception which I'll come to in a bit). Certainly, Luca's mother, Marina, is a non-presence in the film, and Luca's hard-ass teacher is more nemesis than rounded character.

Like other movies of this ilk, there's a wish fulfillment fantasy element to this that makes it kind of hard to take seriously. For instance, in giving Luca a motive for looking up to his father--for giving him respect, as the movie insists--the movie contrives to have a civilized gangster who recognizes Bruno and lets him and Luca off the hook when he realizes that Bruno gave him culture through his time as a professor. It's not totally unearned. The Poet is shown organizing his entourage around a big TV to watch The 400 Blows earlier in the movie, and epicene criminals aren't unknown in either film or in real life. But this smacks of contrivance. Still, it's a comedy. The movie tips its hand, though, with the porn star who is the subject of Bruno's latest ghostwriting gig. She comes on to Bruno at the end of the job, an advance that Bruno rebuffs. Later in the film, just as Luca is beginning to look up to his father, she re-enters the picture, and this time, Bruno does not rebuff her, and not a minute too soon. Luca gets the picture. It's drawn in broad strokes with a crayon: his old man has the respect of gangsters and is nailing a porn star. This all strains the movie's credibility. It's just a bit too precious.

In any event, this is another film that I don't really dislike, in spite of my misgivings. This just seems like it's a middlebrow film. There's nothing wrong with that. I LIKE meat and potatoes movies, and this is a meat and potatoes movie. It doesn't reinvent the cinema on the fly and it isn't telling deep truths about the human condition. Seriously, how many movies about fathers reconnecting with sons does the world need to see at this point in time? This is ground that could lay fallow for a few decades. Mind you, Scialla! certainly has a level of craft that's more polished and easier to watch than an equivalent American film. But, again, this is an award winner. It took last year's Contracampo Italiano prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, which is Italy's equivalent of Oscar. There are expectations that go with that. Maybe I'm being unfair, because winning a prize is certainly not a patch on what's actually in the film, but it does suggest a film that's more ambitious in its form or in its story. Scialla!, contrary to my expectation, seems slight in comparison.

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