Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 06, 2021 7:24 am 
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Neoealism gone astray

This new film by the De Serio brothers is a strange hybrid, whose unrelated elements seriously undermine its social-political theme - a neorealist film of worker's struggle at the bottom of the economic scale that turns into a revenge horror movie with fantasy twists. It's indigestible and as time goes on nearly unwatchable.

Documentary filmmakers with serious social concerns, they have produced here ostensibly an indictment of the despicable institution of the caporalato. This is a system of agricultural slavery that particularly exploits extracomunitari, refugee-immigrants from outside the European Union (Africa, the Middle East).(The film reportedly uses real excomunitari as extras and is highly realistic in depicting what their life is like. But the De Serio turn the action in non-realistic directions from the first, adding elements of melodrama, pathos, surrealism, and magic realism. The result is puzzling and disturbing, ultimately hard to take seriously, and even hard to watch.

The directors show their quirky style from frame one with the child's POV "upside down kiss" exchanged by his mother and father before his mother goes off to work. The POV is that of Antò (Samuele Carrino), the couple's angelic-faced little boy. We learn later Antò's mother, Angela (Antonella Carone) works at the brutal, illegal caporalato his father Giuseppe (Salvatore Esposito) in desperation goes to work in when, soon into the action, Angela drops dead at work in the hot agricultural fields, apparently of a heart attack from stress and exhaustion. (The screenplay is partly based on a news story of the 2015 death of Paola Clemente, a farm worker in the Apulian countryside.)

Antò's perspective remains essential to the film. He lives partly in a fairytale world. Even when things become horrible, a certain strain of humor and sweetness remains in the constant warm and loving relation of father and son. The "promise" is another fairytale element: Giuseppe promises Antò that his mother is not dead forever, but will come back one day, and the boy holds onto this belief.

Since father and son stay close together in the ordeal of a desperate search to survive in challenging, realistically depicted circumstances, Una Promessa ("A Promise"), aka Spaccatore ("Stonebreaker") has been described as a modern day Bicycle Thief. That's a complete misunderstanding. This isn't anything like Rossellini's neorealist classic. It isn't realistic at all. Both little Samuele Carrino and big, chubby Salvatore Esposito (the latter famous for playing Genny Savastano, the ugly villain in Garrone's 2008 Gomorrah), are actors using their own actor-y voices, nothing like the illiterate from-the-streets non-actors whose voices were dubbed for Ladri di bicilette. Here Esposito maintains a lovable, cuddly, silent endurance, that only at the end explodes into rage and revenge - a transformation that has been compared to Marcello Fonte in Dogman as "a blind rage directly proportional to the abuse he has suffered."

Giuseppe has been unable to work at his brutal job as a stonebreaker at a quarry since a flying rock blinded him in one eye at work. Antò puts drops in his dad's eye every day which he thinks a magic fluid; he thinks the accident has given him superpowers. After Angela's sudden death Giuseppe must become the breadwinner. He now winds up in the net of his wife's tormentors when goes to work at the caporalato, and takes Antò with him. Yes, that's how he takes care of his little boy, by having him work at his side in the fields. They can't live in their cheap apartment anymore, so they come to live in one of the farms' filthy plastic tent shacks.

The farm turns out to be owned by a sadistic pervert (Vito Signorile) who has a collection of antique pots (Antò's dream is to become an archeologist), is a man of "taste" who enjoys the hunt for wild boar, and who uses sex as an instrument of domination and self-amusement. Workers who die in the field, a regular occurrence, are put into plastic sacks and thrown into a ditch and forgotten. The master's will is carried out by Mimmo (Giuseppe Lo Console), a tall, shaven-headed, brutal enforcer, as in traditional depictions of slaver plantations in America. Now an important new character appears, Rosa (Licia Lanera), worker on the farm, who turns out to have been a friend of Angela's and to have been at her side when she died. A dark scene is witnessed where the master forced Rosa to slit the body of a hanging slain boar and then torments her with a hose. Later, Giuseppe, driving a tractor, intervenes to save Rosa from further torments, and from then on he is doomed.

We move from the Dardenne-style stalking of the first part (the Dardennes hinted at by the second film title of "A Promise") to the hyper-realism of pulp scenes in the master's house, to the surrealism of a headlong race at the end where Antò runs away after the murderous scene of revenge he and his father have participated in together, when he is joined by his dead other.

This combination here, the sudden morphing from gentle, touching miserablism to sudden operatic slasher revenge, is simply outrageous. Nonetheless the De Serio brothers know their documentary métier well and film the brutal exploitation of the farm laborers and the sun-drenched Apulian countryside beautifully, and all the action, including night scenes on the farm in Caravaggioesque chiaroscuro, has a compulsive, jaw-dropping watchability. It's just not artistically or sociologically convincing.

Action is effectively highlighted, the luridness chilled a bit, by the distorted guitars of Gatto Ciliegia against Il Grande Freddo.

Una Promessa , 104 mins, debuted at Venice 2020 as the only Italian film in the Days section, also Kustendorf. Released in Italy and in France. AlloCiné press rating 2.5 (50%). It was screened at home online for this review as part of the FLC Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series (May 28-Jun. 6, 2021).

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