Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Nov 03, 2012 2:53 pm 
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A story from the early "Years of Lead"

The First on the List, director Roan Johnson's first feature, is partly cast as a political satire. But it's also the faithful recreation of a true event, set in Italy in 1970, involving three young leftists in Pisa (also the director's home town, despite his English name) who flee to Austria thinking a right wing coup is imminent and will lead to their arrest and worse. They're utterly wrong, but their action truly reflects the chaos and paranoia of the time. Their leader, de facto and self-appointed, is the cantautore (singer-songwriter) Piero Masi. As Masi, Claudio Santamaria, an actor with looks and presence, has the most complex role. He has moral authority and dedication, but his character is also foolish, blind and wrongheaded. In Muccino's The Last Kiss, Santamaria played Paolo, a young man irrationally unable to give up his old girlfriend, who has moved on. Masi's fantasy of a military coup happening in Rome is a mixture of megalomania, misinterpreted information, and justifiable paranoia. This is just a little film, but it will feel vivid and familiar to anyone who has been swept away in a foolish and dangerous venture.

The film begins with old newsreels and information about contemporary Italian attacks on leftist activists, scenes of armed military in the streets, and then a classroom gathering of student activists to discuss the fear that the recent right-wing coup in Greece might be about to happen in Italy. The three young men's action is foolish, but also a real harbinger of the full-on beginnings of the turbulent period of terrorism and repression in Italy from the last Sixties to the early Eighties, the time of the Red Brigades and the Aldo Moro kidnapping, known by the coverall label, "the Years of Lead." At the end we learn that five months later there indeed was an attempted military coup to seize control of the government in Rome, though at the last minute it was forestalled. The weakness of The First on the List is that it doesn't always know whether it wants to mock and turn things all into a lark, or simply follow the sweaty, nervous adventure as it may have happened -- it can't have been very funny at the time. It's best when it lets the minute-to-minute interaction of the three men speak for itself.

The two guys who accompany Masi on his sudden improvised flight are younger, in awe of him, and swept away on his sudden road trip almost purely by chance. Renzo Lulli (Francesco Turbanti), whom we see at home, is supposed to be preparing for his exams, which he's already failed once, and his almost comically severe father (Sergio Fierattini) wants to confine him to his room for the weekend to study. He heads out instead in tight jeans armed with his guitar to do an "audition" with Masi to be a fellow protest singer at rallies, presumably, and bask in his righteous leftist glory. His pal Fabio Gismondi (Paolo Cioni), similarly inclined and armed with his own guitar acts as a go-between. We may feel a slight thrill, remembering the famous sticker on Woody Guthrie's guitar, "This Machine Kills Fascists." But when the awed Lulli and Gismondi arrive at Masi's dark, chaotic apartments, Masi's already in such a state of paranoid agitation he can barely listen. He shushes them and rushes all three of them off in Lulli's father's shiny little car, to points north, saying tips he's just had show for sure a neo-fascist military coup is imminent, leftists will all be rounded up, and as protestors they'll all be "the first on the list."

Obviously Masi may have been good at political songwriting, but wasn't an ace at practical thinking, because they head for Yugoslavia, but when they get to the border, they see a big military checkpoint and turn around and head for Austria. What were they thinking? They stop at a road house for gas and coffee, splitting up their remaining cash evenly: -- five thousand lire each. Masi makes a call to his American girlfriend Nancy, in London, and warns her not to come back to Italy because it's not safe. When she says she had no intention of returning and is headed back home to Connecticut, he is furious, obviously counting on having her under his thumb -- a nice little cameo of sexual double standards and more about Masi's confusion. Suddenly the bar is mobbed by Italian soldiers in a boisterous mood, heading south and saying tomorrow is going to be a big day in Rome. The utterly convinces the three that a military coup is on the way.

When they get to the Austrian border, they are held up and attempt to flee (the Italian border guards disgracing themselves as well) and subsequently wind up in jail, filled with comic uncertainty about what is happening, since they don't understand a word of German. The jail sequences are the film's best natural balance of realism and the comical, as we observe the trio's slow realization of the extent of their stupidity, resulting in a clash between Gismondi and the now clay-footed Masi, but no dire results from the quietly amused Austrian authorities. There was no coup in Rome, and Lulli's and Gismondi's parents come to see them and get them out, guitars, but not pride, intact.

The real Masi, Lulli, and Gismondi appear in person at the end, with titles explaining what they're up to now. They must be good sports, because this film hardly shows them in a very flattering light.

Johnson makes little effort to create a period flavor with sets and costumes -- one old car, some tight pants, and that's it -- but restraint in this area is welcome since it's usually overdone. The jaunty music to accompany the road trip adds a Keystone Kops flavor, however, that ill fist the more serious tone of the action in the car.

I primi della lista, 85mn, was released in Italy November 11, 2011. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's New Italian Cinema series, Nov. 11-18, 2012. Showtimes were Wednesday November 14, 9:00 pm and Saturday November 17, 6:45 pm at Landmark's Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco.

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