Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon May 31, 2021 5:24 am 
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A turbulent and insecure girlhood seen in pretty pastel colors

"Maledetta Primavera" is the title of an Italian love song sung in unison by all on a drive (in a smart French car) from the "periferia" of Rome to the sea. Everything is pastel-bright and pretty here in this girl's coming of age story loosely based on the life of writer-director Elisa Amorso, formerly a maker of documentaries.

The film is a pleasant, visually pleasing, but slightly sluggish watch that suffers a bit from the blandness of much contemporary Italian cinema, but the reality nonetheless isn't quite so sweet for the teen protagonist Nina (Emma Fasana), blonde, asthmatic, perhaps attracted to girls. Her new pal Sirley (Manon Bresch, with deliciously kinky hair) a light chocolate girl from Cayenne, French Guyana, at least seems inclined that way; or maybe it's just a teen crush of two outcasts. Nina at first fights with, then quickly befriends Sirley (typically, an outlier herself) on first arriving at the nuns' school that she and her little brother are sent after their parents are forced to move to a flat way outside Rome.

The cause of the sudden move is doubtless economic insecurity resulting from the shifty dealings of papà Enzo (Giampaolo Morelli, with full-on Neopolitan accent, actor himself recently become a director), who is constantly buying and selling and trading stuff, not aways in legitimate ways, and apparently gambles by night. Over Enzo's lifestyle Nina's mamma Laura (Micaela Ramazzotti) is constantly complaining. And so on. Some of the more dire aspects of her parents' life Nina finds out toward the end of the film.

Amoroso found it natiural to shift from documentary to feature filmmaking for this "very personal and intimate film" based on her then recently published, evidently autobiographical, novel Sirley, she says in an interview. But will we remember these events as represented here as clearly as the director no doubt does? (For herself, she says, the biggest challenge was to maintain a certain detachment.)

Sirley makes the stronger impression, at least at first; Nina's sensitivities and greater seriousness gradually emerge. The girl from Guyana is the colorful, feisty one, though they fight like cats and dogs on first meeting at school. Sirley smokes in the classroom, then hides her cigarette pack in Nina's book bag. She breaks a plaster madonna, then hides it too in Elisa's bag: it's a busy first day. Sirley speaks only French, simply refusing, according to her white stepmother, to speak Italian. Luckily for their intimacy, Nina luckily speaks French too and they live nearby. Sirley will get over this restriction when she gets an Italian boyfriend, leaving Nina temporarily bereft, a loss she assuages by playing her saxophone in the field Sirley has first led her to.

The most memorable early incidents seem to involve not so much Nina, but the others with her. She shows Sirley her parents' bedroom and Sirley tries on her mother's dress from the closet without permission and is banished. Papà trades a Leica set for a probably stolen gold Rolex for that Laura is uncomfortable about accepting. The parents squabble loudly but briefly on every encounter. What dad does is diverting but makes little sense. He constantly gets different cars, today a big Mercedes with an internal phone (this is the eighties, and Sirley flirts with Nina by dancing the Lambada). Enzo trades the dining table for a billiard table. Some of the unstable atmosphere is reminiscent of the spy writer John Le Carré's descriptions of growing up with a con man father: excitement deceptions, constant change, insecurity.

Little brother Lorenzo (Federico Ielapi, Garrone's Pinocchio) a character not to be discounted, gets attention in the story too; no one is neglected. The siblings' relation is loving. They hug, go to the same school, and sleep side by side. Lorenzo is often at Nina's side. He gets a badly cut knee on an outing with the two girls when they look away.

Everything remains suspended here. Laura, the mother, arrives at a crisis that makes her want to take a decisive step and be more than ever discontented with her marriage, but nothing is resolved. Nina doesn't want to be chosen "Madonna" as Sirley does but improvises a speech to the Madonna that impresses the priest. Nina and Sirley approach each other and withdraw, or are forcibly separated by Sirley's stepmother when they finally start getting physical with each other - after Sirley's separation and flirtation with a boy. Nothing decisive happens, despite constant emotional outbursts.

Throughout, the cinematography makes the girls, and Sirley especially, glamorous and sexual in a pastel, Hallmark card kind of way that tamps down the emotional impact that is already rather tame. The director makes pretty images out of her past like a ceremony honoring the Virgin Mary with lots of beautiful shots of interiors, the seaside, car trips (delighting in vintage cars), a religious procession on a country road, girls getting undressed and making out contre jour, featuring their contrasting coloring and hair. And not to compliment just the visuals, the principals perform admirably. Emma Fasana especially impresses at delivering long speeches clearly ad energetically. But I was not moved. I longed for some of the emotional oomph of André Téchiné's great recent film about two boys coming to terms with their sexuality and their attraction to each other, Being 17, which has some plot parallels. If only Amoroso had had Céline Sciamma as writing collaborator, as Téchiné did. This material could have been brought together so much better.

Sirley/Maledetta primavera, 94 mins., debuted Oct. 23, 2020 at Rome, and showed Feb. 13, 2021 at Greek Film Archive. Screened online for this review as part of the FLC Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series (May 28-Jun. 6, 2021).

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