Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 17, 2016 10:51 am 
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Superhero knockoff knocks Rome and Italy's failings

Following Nicola Guaglianone and Menotti (Roberto Marchionni)'s screenplay Gabriele Mainetti has made a highly original debut feature about Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), a Roman petty gangster who develops superpowers through falling into a toxic waste drum in the river Tiber. Falling off a nine-story building and surviving after a botched robbery tips him off that he's now Teflon, and then some. Mainelli's charming, gritty flick - perhaps the most talked about in Italy this year - is rich in Roman local color, romance, moral advice and political and social commentary. What it lacks in polish or profundity it makes up in warmth and punch.

Enzo must negotiate his very ordinary personality through the world created by his new celebrity. He learns to care about humanity through his unexpected romance with Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), an emotionally damaged young woman who thinks he's the Japanese manga character Steel Jeeg. "Jeeg" has misfires - ripping out an ATM machine for the dough activates a liquid marking system - and must fight clever bad guys like the slick pretty-boy gang leader Fabio (Luca Marinelli).

In his enthusiastic review in Variety Jay Weissberg comments that while this film "doesn’t conjure the understated magic of last year’s Vincent, They Call Me Jeeg fits into a new, distinctive brand of European superhero film, creatively playing with the rehashed formulas that persist in U.S. productions." Occasionally US movies have also reexamined the theme, as in Peter Berg's Hancock starring Will Smith as an alcoholic bum with superpowers that points out how un-ecological and wastefully destructive being a superhero is. Ever notice the billions of dollars worth of CGI damage Hollywood Batmen and Supermen do in the course of their "good works"? Enzo/Jeeg doesn't really do that much, and what makes the film engaging is that what happens, other than his feats, seems quite real.

A rivalry between Enzo and Fabio - a sociopathic talent contest runner-up - arises when Enzo's ATM ripoff film goes viral, making Fabio wildly jealous of his sudden fame - a topical allusion to Italy's reality-show obsession that was focused on in Matteo Garrone's 2013 film Reality. Mainetti also alludes to the Rome-Lazio Mafia Capitale scandal showing exploitation of immigrants and collusion between gangsters and politicians to sidetrack public funds. Constant news items about terrorist bomb threats are used to sow general panic so the mafia can sidestep law enforcement.

The trouble with a movie like this, which juggles things to say and atmosphere with maintaining a story-line, is that it may meander, but Weissberg commends the editor Andrea Maguolo for justifying extra scenes just when it was starting to seem a bit too long. I fear that at times it may feel inconsequential, but it still balances intense local Roman and Italian interest with general appeal and has a cult future everywhere.

They Called Me Jeeg/Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot, 112 mins., debuted Oct. 2015 at Rome, showing in 16 other mostly Italian-related or fantasy-related festivals and opening theatrically in Italy 30 Jan. 2016. It first showed in the US at the June 2016 Lincoln Center Open Roads Italian series. Winner of the 2016 David di Donatello awards for best debut director, best actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress and best editor. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco New Italian Cinema series Nov. 16-20, 2016. It won the NICE City of Florence award based on an audience ballot.

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