Is this a trend or just two Italian movies that just happen to have the same absurdist - sinister- tragic reaction to the corrupting effect of consumer credit culture on Italian family life? I ask this because two of the most thematically rich movies of this year's London Film Festival have been Italian, and not just Italian, but focussing on working class families in mafia strongholds, who have a sudden chance at easy money and have their heads turned by it, with tragic consequences. Moreover, in each film, the film grammar that the director uses to depict these events is one of absurdity that treads a fine line between hilarity and tragedy. Each film features a directorial style that is formally controlled, deliberately stylised, and heightened. We are in the world of a modern day fairy tale, combining both the fantastical and sinister elements that that genre encompasses.
The first film in this vein was Matteo Garrone's supremely beautiful and disturbing REALITY. The second is the debut feature of director Daniele Cipri, IT WAS THE SON. Toni Servillo (IL DIVO) stars as the paterfamilias of a working class Sicilian family, making a meagre living from scavenging scrap metal from the docks, supporting his wife, parents, beloved daughter Serenella and feckless son Tancredi (a wry reminder of faded Sicilian grandeur from Il Gattopardi?) In the first act of this drama, Cipri depicts the family in all its comic absurdity, but with a loving, gentle tone. Toni Servillo is, of course, the master of this kind of role - giving an astounding physical performance that transforms the quietly conniving Andreotti of IL DIVO into a raucous, rude, domineering, but wickedly funny father. In particular, we fall in love with the relationship between father and equally obstinate young daughter.
Accordingly, it's a wrench when Serenella is shot by a stray mafia bullet, and when almost immediately the movie switches in tone from tragedy back to the broad humour of its first act. For the family is now entitled to compensation, and their high spending in advance of its receipt and the father's obsession with his brand new Mercedes drives the action in the second and third act respectively.
The movie has a visual style and imagination which is right up there with Garrone and Sorrentino, and I was not at all surprised to see that the cinematographer was lauded at Venice. It also has, similar to Garrone, a willingness to look the poverty and corruption of the South right in the face, but without being patronising. The only problem I had with the film was that I felt quite uneasy about the tonal shift between the death of the daughter and the resumption of the extreme black humour. But as the movie progressed to its shocking denouement (and a genuinely unexpected twist) I began to realise that this was indeed Cipri's point. Rather than seeing the uneasy tonal shifts as a failure of direction, one has to see them as a deliberate provocation pointing us toward the surreality and ultimate injustice of life in the Mezzogiorno.
IT WAS THE SON played Venice and London 2012 and was released in Italy in September.