Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 18, 2011 9:12 pm 
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"We'll make it all up"

The Jewel/Il gioiellino reunites Andrea Molaioli with the great Toni Servillo, whom he directed in his first feature, the much-celebrated 2007 "existential" police procedural, The Girl by the Lake/La ragazza del lago, which I reviewed as part of the Lincoln Center New Italian Cinema series in New York in June 2008. Molaioli previously worked a lot with Nanni Moretti, which may help explain his interest in social and political issues. This new film is based on the true story of the bankruptcy of the Italian company Parmalat. Servillo plays Ernesto Botta, the chief financial officer, the right hand man of the boss Amanzio Rastelli (Remo Girone). The names are changed, the events would be familiar to Italians.

Rastelli, who has the regal air of a captain of industry, inherited a sausage factory from his father and grandfather and in several decades, by the Eighties, turned the business into a multinational food conglomerate and global dairy producer called Leda. It's the "little jewel." But Leda is like the Lehman Brothers surrogate in the new film Margin Call, only instead of credit default swaps, the weak underpinning that can't survive the stock market boom's sudden fade is a network of bribes of politicians and financial authorities. LIke the Depression era Ponzzi schemer in the recently revived 1963 Terence Rattigan’s drama Man and Boy, Rastelli and Botta are swinging back and forth, between Moscow and New York in this case, trying to raise the money to stay afloat, and the cops are waiting in the wings.

Officers of the company waste money on luxuries, and Rastelli has his football team and airplanes. Botta mostly just watches and frowns: Servilli's performance is a controlled display of bitchy temperament. You should hear the language he uses when he talks to American bank officials, in English -- he can't hear himself. He fights Rastelli's neice Laura (Sarah Felberbaum) when she's put in his office. Then she turns out to be smart and he has an affair with her. Perhaps it's to make this seem more plausible that much older Servillo wears a hairpiece for this role. But it doesn't work: the affair seems sterile and worse yet, a narrative misstep. For a while this turns into a portrait of Botta. Maybe the filmmakers just became overly fascinated with the by now famous Servillo. He can anchor the film but the story is not about him. An episode in which Botta and Laura confront an American bank officer in New York verges on the absurd.

Like The Girl by the Lake this film takes its time and rambles, and this time some of the sequences are of dubious value. It's nothing like Margin Call, which stunningly depicts a spectacular failure that takes place in 24 hours. We watch Leda hovering on the verge of failing for years, and if this weren't a financial thriller, if it weren't the very timely story of a major crime, this could be a very dull movie. Rastelli keeps bringing the company back from the brink, and when he finally gives up Botta jumps in. "We'll make it all up," Botta finally says. Filippo Magnaghi (Lino Guanciale), the young commercial director, sees through the imposture, can do nothing about it, and jumps off a bridge. As he and another executive are take away in the paddy wagon, another executive says, "We had some golden years, though, didn't we?" Botta just glowers into the distance. This film has its flaws, but it's timely and it's got the steely ill humor of Toni Servillo, and the crocodile endurance of Remo Girone, as his boss, is a strong performance too. The corporate design credits -- logos, products, publicity, the grand company offices -- are also all very well done. Several scenes in a Russian church and in the snows of Moscow are handsome. The picture is nice to look at.

Screened for this review as part of the New Italian series presented November 13–20, 2011 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema by the San Francisco Film Society. The other film in this series starring the remarkable Toni Servillo is A Quiet Life, a crime thriller directed by Claudio Cupellini.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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