Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Hazardous To Your Health

I love my local art house, and weeks like this are one of the main reasons why. In addition to their ongoing programming, they've brought two traveling film festivals to my fair city this week, both of which look me and the eye and realize they've got a sucker on the hook. The first of them to screen is the Italian Film Festival USA, which is in its eighth year. This is the first year it has come to Columbia, which is the smallest city on the circuit. The premise of this festival is to provide playdates for important recent Italian cinema. This is kind of a big thing, because the window of opportunity for foreign films in the US grows smaller and smaller every year in spite of the changes in distribution and exhibition brought about by the digital age. It shouldn't be as hard as it is to see movies from Italy (or anywhere else, for that matter). But hard it is. This festival aims to address this imbalance and that's a noble purpose.

In any case, this last weekend brought four recent Italian films to a theater near me and further sweetened the pot by showing them at no charge to the audience. Mind you, I would have paid my money to see the show, but free is definitely better. Unfortunately, a lot of people think like this and I didn't get in to the first film of the series. I did see the second film, though, and the other two on the next day.

The first film I saw was 20 Cigarettes (2010, directed by Aureliano Amadei), an autobiographical film in which a young filmmaker and activist accepts a job filming a project in Iraq in 2003, right after George Bush declared "Mission Accomplished." Needless to say, things are not all skittles and beer for our hapless filmmaker. Shortly after arriving in Iraq, he the director for whom he is working travel to the Italian Military Headquarters in Nassiriya where security has become lax in the wake of the "end" of open hostilities. A truck bomb comes crashing through the gates shortly after Amadei and his escort arrive, killling most of his companions and inflicting a horrific leg wound on Amadei himself. He returns to Italy a changed man, no longer the activist who sees things in black and white, and no longer able to stomach the official lies about the Italian presence in Iraq. His relationship with his best friend, Claudia, changes, too, and together, they start a family. Unfortunately, Amadei carries his trauma with him. The film suggests that it will follow him all of his days.

This is a film in sections, and the style of the film changes from act to act. The first part of the film, prefaced by an ominous prelude, finds Amadei in a carefree mood. He's the very definition of a slacktivist, whose activism consists of filming anti-war concerts. The formal elements of film are playful here, with jump cut inserts, fast forward and rewind effects, and a general sense of play. Once the bomb goes off, we get a long, fifteen minute grind of horror, filmed in the first person, then with a fixation on Amadei's face. Finally, we get a coda three years later, in which Amadei has written a book and founded a family. This section is somber, and there's at least a little bit of self criticism in a scene where one of Amadei's activist friends accuses him of selling out. Unfortunately for Amadei's youthful ideals, his brief trip to Iraq has blurred the lines of politics for him and he's not able to see either side of the conflict as inhuman. It makes for a difficult moral dilemma for a man who once saw things in black and white. The downside of the film's shifting moods is that it makes for a movie that's not all of a piece. The comedic opening act seems like a completely different movie than the horrific second act. The comedy re-appears in the third act, during Amadei's long convalescence, but it's less antic and punctuated by pathos.

There's a troubling sense of calculation (for want of a better word) in 20 Cigarettes. It starts with the narrative convention of framing the film as a series of events that takes place between smokes. This may be a nice organizing principle, but it marks the movie as a movie, if you get my drift, and it tends to torpedo some of the film's aspirations to verisimilitude. There are some strange conventions of the way the scenes are set, too, given that between the bombing and his arrival in Rome, a trip that takes him through a military hospital (complete with pretty blond nurse), no on sees fit to clean the blood off his face. The image of Amadei's bloody face seems calculated as a bludgeon. I dunno. Maybe that's how the director remembers the experience, but it tends to shock the audience out of the film. I wasn't the only member of the audience who remarked on this at the showing I attended. But the most naked manipulation of the audience comes when, having been loaded into the back of a truck after the bombing, a dead Iraqi child is placed on top of him to be taken to the hospital. This is bad enough, and by itself is probably forgivable, but then the movie calls back to this, when, in the film's final montage, Amadei is triggered by the act of holding his infant son. This, too, may be the director's experience, but damned if it doesn't use a sledgehammer to drive its point across. The brief cut to flashback in this sequence makes sure that even the most clueless of audience members gets the point.

And in all of this, there's a troubling lack of ideology. Amadei describes himself as an anarchist and activist at the beginning of the film, and articulates a European hatred of George W. Bush, but the criticisms the movie levels at the Italian government could be leveled at any government. They're so vague as to be toothless. It doesn't name names, and it should. But for the horrific first person bombing sequence, this would seem like a film made for a broad middle class demographic, so much so that it doesn't take any real risks. In its place, the film instead provides a kind of crucible of manhood. A conversation I had about the film afterward compared this to Hemmingway, which is exactly right even down to the pretty American nurse. It works a bit better on this point, and if I squint at the end of the movie through this lens, I can see at least a little bit of justification for the film's manipulations. It's NOT a naturalistic film, after all, in spite of its aspirations as non-fiction.

If it sounds like I didn't like this movie, well, I did like it well enough. It holds the screen and my attention never wandered, which is not to be discounted. I'm just a little bit disappointed in it. I see so few new Italian films thanks to the vagaries of American distribution and its diminishing interest in foreign films that when I'm presented with a movie that's an award-winning heavy-weight, as this film is, I expect more.

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