Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Nov 22, 2011 11:40 pm 
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Making do in the boonies

A beginning teacher in Fifties Pugila (down toward the rugged heel of the Italian boot) gets sent far from home and far from her well-off fiancee to teach in a tiny one-room school in this first film as austere and lacking in excitement as the world it depicts. The lackluster action is offset by the sprightly, natural turn of rising star Isabella Ragonese in the main role of Nena. Ragnese also appears in two other new films chosen to be in the 2011 New Italian Cinema series, Our Life and One Life, Maybe Two, though it's only in this one that she has the major role. Unusual for a young leading lady in being rather plain, she is a little like Betsy Blair of the memorable Fifties films Marty and Calle Mayor: beyond the plainness, there is a poise and presence and something potentially touching and sad about her that holds one's attention.

She's given precious little to do here, however. There is a subtlety about the film and it has cute little touches provided occasionally by Nena's small students in the rural school, but there is very little talk, many of the scenes are made less involving by being shot from the middle distance, and there are no interesting characters other than Nena herself. The fiancee, Francesco (Alberto Boll), is a virtual nonentity. Then when his taking up with a wealhy woman leads Nena to sleep with a local handyman and she must harry him, we get the earthy but noncommittal Giovanni (Francesco Chiarello, another newcomer, like Boll), who may have a pulse, but just barely. In his review of the film for Variety at Venice in September 2010 Jay Weissberg wrote: "Playing it safe at every turn, Cecere turns in the kind of unexceptional drama, light and only mildly entertaining, that fills up satcast movie channels condescendingly geared toward women." He calls the film "unexciting and uninvolving."

Mostly Nena's story is about making do in the boondocks. She seems contemptuous of the villagers and then gradually seems more and more willing to put up with them. She goes from being considered unfit to teach to getting congratulated by an education administrator for her good work. The ragtag urchins (who are little represented but very cute) turn out to be teachable. But what about Francesco, who has changed everything by meeting another more upper class woman? The ending of the film is ambiguous. Cecere's film storytelling is so understated that at times it feels like it isn't clearly stating anything.

The odd coolness of the style, which sets it apart from most Italian films, may explain how Cercere's debut reportedly came to be received with great enthusiasm at Venice. Let's hope future work justifies this interest. The First Assignment/Il primo incarico, however, is not likely to make a big splash in the world at large, apart from some critical success. Despite a confident, though intentionally understated, turn by Isabella Ragonese, there's virtually no there there.

Cecere was nominated for the Controcampo Italiano Prize at Venice, and Ragonese and the production designer Sabrina Balestra received nominations for the Silver Ribbon at the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's presentation of New Italian Cinema, a series shown Nov. 13-20 at Landmark's Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco.

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