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PostPosted: Fri Nov 25, 2011 4:03 pm 
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Film slacker's Iraq war tale

20 Cigarettes is autobiographical account in three parts of an experience of the then 28-year-old Amadei in Iraq in 2003. Based on the book he co-authored with Francesco Trento, Venti sigarette a Nassiriya (Twenty Cigarettes in Nassiriya, Einaudi), the film is lively but patchy and uneven in its tone. In its attempt to be amusing about deadly serious matter, in some parts it's curiously tasteless, strange, and off-key. There is the danger of a kind of pathetic fallacy here that the film falls prey to almost immediately and recovers from imperfectly -- of feeling as frivolous and half-cocked as its protagonist is pretty much all through. The fact that the tragic event he gets inadvertently involved in was big news in Italy adds considerable interest to the film for Italians. The tonal issues and choppiness are minuses for others.

From the start the smiling, curly-haired Aureliano (Vinicio Marchioni) seems like an overgrown child, playing games with a camera in his hand. It's telling that when he goes to Iraq, completely on a whim, he forgets to bring his camera long, though using it was the purpose of the trip. A sometime anti-war demonstrator who escaped military service by pretending to be gay, Aureliano has vague filmmaking aspirations, but he's far from there at this point. Boyd van Hoeij of Variety calls this story "the incredible (and incredibly irresponsible) work experience of an Italo slacker." The Italian soldiers he's around, evidently not key to Bush's "shitty war" (as A. calls it) are goofballs too. Aureliano goes because his mother is friends with director-producer Stefano Rolla (Giorgio Colangeli), who wants to do a fiction feature in Iraq and is asking her to donate $5,000 and offering the smiling 28-year-old aspiring filmmaker boychick a chance to come along. "It'll be a real job," says his mom (Orsetta de Rossi, a Laura Dern lookalike). "Not as an actor, though," Aureliano protests. He's supposed to go in a couple of days. But he's about to be in a demonstration against the Iraq war.

Good story.

And very soon after he gets there, Aureliano gets blown up in a suicide bombing. Yet he survives. And that's the payoff.

In the first section taking the protagonist from his slacker life to a truck bombing in Iraq, the film is good at making great leaps. It jumps back and forth between the Rome takeoff and the Iraq arrival, the swinging handheld camerawork evoking the good natured recklessness of the protagonist. He's got a spoiled life, with a ditzy but simpatica upper bourgeois mamma and two girlfriends, lovely "best friend" Claudia (Carolina Crescentini), whom he occasionally has sex with, and an official "fidanzata" from Rio, the superstitious Angela (Desirèe Noferini, merely glimpsed).

Amadei's signal of the absurdity of the desert combat zone of Nassiriya, with its US PX "megastore" and Burger King, is that when he's off the plane and wants a cigarette, he has to go off to a tiny island of confinement surrounded by sandbags as a "smoking area." The conclusion of part one is an atmospheric collection of trivia as Aureliano settles in with the soldiers and Rolla, his boss, Massimo Ficuciello (Alberto Basaluzzo), their official bodyguard, who's the more sympathetic because he's a reservist, not regular army.

20 sigarette has in common with David O. Russell's Three Kings a sense of the palpable harmony between the absurdity of the Iraq war setting and the unpredictable danger it harbors. Frivolity is jammed up willy-nilly with seriousness. The picture's location shooting (actually filmed in Morocco) has a realistic feel, and so does the explosion, which comes in part two. The first part of part two is shot literally from Aureliano's P.O.V., initiated by having Aureliano wipe the sand out of his eyes and reopen them. This intense P.O.V. makes the truck bombing and Aureliano's injuries more vivid. Though the modest budget keeps this from being as rich in detail and context as The Hurt Locker, Amadei deserves much credit for creating an intense battle sequence midway.

According to a Guardian report the Nov. 12, 2003 Nassiriya bombing killed 25. Included were 17 Italian soldiers and military police and two Italian civilians, including Stefano Rolla, the director of the film Amadei was supposed to work on, and at least eight Iraqis. When this happens 20 Cigarettes jumps momentarily into horror movie style, with Aureliano panting and groaning, the screen filled with his blood-covered arm clawing its solitary way forward through the rubble. After that: hysterical soldiers, objects, chaos, tragic news, an American hospital, and a few more cigarettes.

Part three is the aftermath back in Italy starting three days later as Aureliano recovers from trauma and leg injuries, a badly mangled ankle. In the Rome hospital, after all the moaning and weeping that's gone before, comedy abruptly returns with Tino (Edoardo Pesce), a clownish male nurse who offers to give out cigarettes and joints to all patients. Aureliano is now a hero because he miraculously survived, and a media circus surrounds him, along with squabbling with other survivors and maudlin moments.

Amadeo the director lacks the dry touch necessary to carry off comedy while presenting a tragic incident of war. His account of his own experience is vivid but jarring and overdone.

20 sigarette debuted at Venice Sept. 5, 2010 and had its Italian release Sept. 8. It was screened for this review as part of the New Italian Cinema series (Nov. 13-20-, 2011) presented by the San Francisco Film Society at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.


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