Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 08, 2012 9:49 pm 
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Working girl makes good, leaves family behind

Documentaries by relatives may show deep insight and certainly benefit from good access, but they also run the risk of bias. This "Nonna" (Grandma) is certainly an interesting personality apart from her problematic relationship with her family. As for the family, it's open to question what the root cause is of her son and daughter-in-law's apparent dislike for her. Was she simply always a "stronza" (mildly rendered as "bitch") as her son announces early on? Or does the family come to resent her partly just because she was so far from the traditional Italian "mamma"? This is a fascinating story, and the family certainly gets to have its say. Or at least the son, Alberto Chiarini, father of the filmmaker, ddoes. Delia Ubaldi, the mother and grandmother in question, was one of the first i first women entrepreneurs in the world of international pret-a-porter. She rode the postwar Italian boom of the 1950's to amass a vast fortune, which she later lost by involvement in a high fashion company with an unscrupulous German partner. To do this, she gave up the traditional role of wife and mother. Is this film about Delia's achievement and her quirky personality, or about her son's resentment? A little of both. The fact is there are many powerful women in Italian life. The "Mamma" is a formidable figure. Most of them don't make such a splash in international business. In Delia Ubaldi's case, it can't have been easy, and the drive it took may have made her hard. Or maybe she was a "stronza" all along.

Delia Ubaldi's story is well chonicled by her grandson with a wealth of visuals, even some showing her in elementary school, and many recording milestones of her early life, including her two husbands (before the last, German one, twenty years her junior). When she was a small child Delia's parents took her with them to France, to the Lorraine, in the 1920's to work in farm and factory. Her mother must have had some of her own fierce determination, because the story is that when the time came to go to high school, she went to the good one, dumped a bag of potatoes on the principal's desk, and said she didn't have the money to pay for the school but wanted her daughter to get a good education and would pay in farm produce. Delia got a proper French education, which raised her above her family's peasant roots.

She also learned German, and later moved back to Italy, slipping back with a handsome prisoner of war whom she married, and grew up fluent in three languages (she was to have three husbands too). Her language fluency was a major asset. First she worked at the post office, then a knitting mill, then she met with buyers and began in trading her own designs with big French, Italian, and German department stores. She traveled constantly, visiting fashion shows and making copies, knock-offs essentially, which she marketed to bargain hunters of moderate stores. Always on the go, "hitting the road," Delia lost good relations with the family, and seemed more like a visitor, and a disruption, than a caregiver. We get a fleeting idea of the factories, the deals, the multiple department stores, the husbands, the resentments. Duccio Chiarini, who's shown coming to visit the 88-year-old "nonna" at her home in a small German town, provides a wealth of illustrative material and a detailed chronology of the career, alternating along the way with interviews with his always disapproving father and mother, and plenty of family video footage of "happy" times together that as they tell it, weren't so happy.

As a kind of climax, after making a billion lire in one year -- always pretending to her French clients that she was French -- and unwisely putting all her money into conspicuous display items (always according to Alberto) -- and owing at one time a castle in Florence, villas in Cannes and the chic "intellectual" Italian resort Forte dei Marmi, an apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower, and more, she got into high fashion -- and into big financial and legal trouble. One of the Juschi stores she opened with her unscrupulous German partner, on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, is entered by Richard Gere in an important scene of Paul Schrader's 1980 film, American Gigolo. But the debuts incurred by the partner required Delia to sell most of her villas to pay. She did not go to jail. She married Klaus Voit, whom she met during the trial. It's Delia and Klaus whom Duccio visits at their house in the little winter resort German town, in the present time.

There are conversations in which Delia muses on her life and expresses a fear of death. She is robust, still extraordinarily good looking at 88, but she becomes ill and goes to the hospital. The film trails off. It doesn't say so, but she died in February, 2012. There are enough stories to show she was, in fact, a bitch, at least in her daughter-in-law's eyes. She and her son used to summer with her at Forte dei Marmi, and at a club Delia pushed her son to flirt with other women. She and the daughter-in-law, who is anything but fashionable, didn't get along.

Missing here are interviews with outsiders, more people whom Delia worked with, a more 360-degree image and a more thorough exploration of her business successes and the Juschi failure. Still, though claustrophobic in the telling, this is a juicy story about a formidable woman who by her own admission did not know when to stop or what she truly sought. Even in her eighties she and Klaus were forever on the move.

Hit the Road, Nonna (press kit), 64min., was shown at Venice Days and won awards at Bologna and Florence festivals. It is showing in multiple overseas Italian film series and was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film society's New Italian Cinema series, Nov. 11-18, 2012, which showings Fri., Nov. 16, 4:30 pm and Sun, Nov. 18, 1:30 pm, both at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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