Thursday, April 19, 2012

Peace and Quiet

One of the interesting things about A Quiet Life (2010, directed by Claudio Cupellini) is how it demolishes the notion of national cinemas, in Europe at least. Mind you, Italy has been collaborating with its neighbors on the continent since the 1960s, but it's particularly noticeable in this film, given that it was shot in Germany, is SET in Germany, and features a bi-national cast speaking their own languages. There's nothing new in the number of spoken languages, either, but in the bad old days, everything was dubbed into a single language, be it English for the American audience or Italian for the locals. I any event, A Quiet Life has a bit of the feeling of Revanche in terms of its mood and it has a LOT in common with David Cronenberg's A History of Violence in terms of its plot.

A Quiet Life follows Rosario Russo, a retired gangster who left his old life behind 15 years earlier. His old compatriots think he's dead, which is good, because they would surely hunt him down should they discover otherwise. Rosario has built a new life in Germany, where he has married and had a son and opened an inn and restaurant. He has a peaceful, quiet life and he likes it that way. But, as the movie informs us in the opening scene in which he is seen hunting a boar, he is still a predator. Rosario left one loose end in his old life. He had a son, Diego, and his son knows he's alive. When a gas explosion forces Diego and his partner, Eduardo, into the open when they're on a job, Diego shows up on his father's doorstep. They're planning a murder for contract, and their presence disrupts Rosario's quiet life. Eduardo, for his part, has his suspicions about Rosario, and when Eduardo discovers who he is, Rosario finds that he has to defend himself. Unfortunately, Diego isn't nearly so desirous of a quiet life as his father...

This is a glum movie. I don't think the sun ever shines during the course of its running time. This is entirely appropriate for the film's moral ambiguity, and it stands in for the usual darkness of film noir. There are plenty of night scenes, too, set in lonely spaces. It gets the feel of contemporary noir right. It has a sense of the tragic, too. The best films noir have a hint of Greek tragedy about them, filled with insoluble dilemmas and rapid downfalls after wrong choices. A Quiet Life understands noir, don't get me wrong. It just flubs the circumstances of its story. This is a movie that relies on the idiot plot. There's a long series of convenient choices that have to be made by the characters in this movie in order to maneuver its hero to its state of existential nothingness. This is different, mind you, from the usual nonsense plots one often finds in film noir, because there's a calculation involved and the audience can see the wheels turning. It's not fate that sends the characters to their doom in this movie, it's a screenwriter who doesn't know how to get his characters into place without them doing stupid things. This is unfortunate, and it detracts from the movie. I mean, in principle, I love where the movie winds up, with its hero flushed and on the run again, having to abandon everything he holds dear because his own existential state of being doesn't allow him to face the consequences of his actions. I just hate the way the movie gets there. Alas.

Screenplay aside, there's a lot to like about this movie. It has a terrific cast, particularly Toni Servillo as Rosario. He has a perfect mix of world weariness and sand to be credible as a former gangster, salted with enough humanity to make him a likeable tragic hero. His wife, Renata, is played with brittle intensity by Juliane Köhler and the movie gives her scenes with Servillo that suggest a troubled past even amid their ostensibly quiet life. She's good. Marco D'Amore is good as Diego, too, given that he has the difficult task of playing a gangster whose redemption the audience is encouraged to want. He's likeable, but there's menace in his demeanor, too. Francesco Di Leva's Eduardo, on the other hand, is a cartoon. He's a picture of entitled gangsterism, even when he falls for one of Rosario's employees. His would be a difficult performance to admire even if the movie didn't make him do stupid, out of character things. Visually, A Quiet Life has a polished surface and an underlying feeling of doom. It's a slow movie, given to careful long takes that examine the faces of its actors, but it's never actually a chore to wait through these scenes. Part of this is the fact that the actors here all have interesting and expressive faces, part of this is the dread implicit in its premise. It's a surprisingly quiet movie, too, which amplifies the brief passages of violence when they come. Gunshots in this movie break the quiet with more force than usual. This is all of a piece with the theme of the movie, I guess, and I admire the way it incorporates sound into its grand thesis.

This is another film about fathers and sons, too, though it's less sanguine about the relationships between them than Scialla! was. This is a film where the sins of the father are visited upon the sons, where the sons themselves represent the father's worst fears on the one hand, and greatest hopes on the other. The movie presents Rosario with a version of Sophie's choice, which of course has no good outcome. The act of making that choice annihilates Rosario and it's this element of the movie that provides the film with a dark kick. Regardless of the plot mechanics, this works. It's crude, but it works.

So, ultimately, I'm ambivalent about A Quiet Life. What's good is really good. What's bad, well, perhaps it's best not to dwell too much on all that. Would that I could.

This was the final film of our local program from the Italian Film Festival USA. If the aim of the festival is to create an audience for contemporary Italian film, well, in my case, it's a conditional success. I DO want to see more Italian films, though that desire is implicit in my own insatiable hunger for films. The local organizers of the festival went to great pains to point out how far American appetites for foreign language films have dwindled. At the peak of American cinephilia in the 1960s, as much as twenty percent of the films shown in the USA were from other countries. Today, that number is more like one percent, and shrinking, in spite of the new avenues for distribution provided by the digital age. Americans become more and more provincial as time goes on, so regardless of the relative quality of this festival's offerings, if it arrests this even a little bit, then that can only be a good thing. I'm looking forward to next year's edition.

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