Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 05, 2021 7:16 pm 
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A bonfire of the agri-vanities[ becomes a police procedural

It is a premise of this film and the novel by Giulio Angioni on which it is based, set on a farm in Sardinia, that agriturism destroys and cheapens country life and traditions, not, as many think, revitalizing rural communities and saving their patrimony. What could be more illustrative of this perceived negative effect than the warping of a small family's inner structure and finally the destruction of a whole Sardinian sheep farming site - and agriturism hq - by fire causing the death of an only son and the loss of a newborn baby? There's no time to balk at this theme or this action since the fire is already a fait accompli when the movie begins. We are immediately enveloped in an atmosphere of doom, tragedy, and suspicion and it was only after the film's 126 minutes were over that I had time to think.

In its way this is an impressive film. The protagonist, the elderly, rugged shepherd Constantino, is played by Gavino Ledda, a Sardinian cultural icon whose mere presence lends gravitas to the proceedings. He is a Sardinian, son of a shepherd like his character, and his life was as austere and remarkable as anything pointed to here. Indeed we know about it from his famous autobiography, Padre Padrone ("My Father My Master), source of the also famous Taviani brothers 1977 film whose screenplay Ledda collaborated on. Slim and gnarly with a full head of dark wavy hair at 80, he is an intense, world-weary, disapproving presence in nearly every scene both as narrator/commentator and participant in the flashbacks that fill most of the film's run-time.

In his enthusiastic Variety review, Jay Weissberg calls this film Salvatore Mereu's "riskiest yet." It is risky and laden with significance, unfolding, as Weissberg says, in successive layers. This is a film out to make an intense impression. But it is marred by both lacunae and repetitiousness. Even its construction undermines its effort to be meaningful. There are signs that the book had just too much to develop even in a two-hour film. The division into chapters - "the pool," "the son," "the photograph," "the fire inside," etc. - can't make up for limited space.

Setting the story in a mystery-police procedural framework helps contain the material and lend suspense, though the mystery feels unresolved and the outcome is obviously flat. Action starts with Constantino in a heavy rain. It's drenching the ruined farm buildings that were destroyed the day before. A big white mare that has played a symbolic role earlier wanders onsite and symbolically dies. All we know is that everything was destroyed. Constantino's son Mario (Marco Zucca) has died. Mario's pregnant German wife Greta (Anna König) is in the hospital, her condition and the baby's unknown. We will see a lot of them, especially of Greta.

Constantino's voiceover dominates, delivered in a low voice, almost whispered sometimes in commentary on scenes and on dialogue while they're going on, as flashbacks reveal events that led up to this tragedy. It began when Mario and Greta come for their annual summer visit but turn it into long stay in which they arrange to rehab a farm building and turn it into an agriturism spot - despite Constantino's strenuous resistance.

As events unfold al lot of objecting and arguing goes on and then suddenly without much transition the agriturismo is a done deal, called Assandira, a local word that's never explained, just as it's never explained why Greta takes so many polaroids when they first arrive and then gives out polaroid cameras to the tourist guests and encourages generous use of them.

Greta is big and busty, babbling in her own makeshift Italian (not Sardinian; she doens't know that, as Constantino doensn't know the English that will be the lingua franca of the tourists). Weissberg is telling when he says König as Greta "remains vibrantly real rather than a caricature of the German in Italy." Caricature is left to the gaggles of tourist-guests, though Greta isn't subtle. She is grinning and loud and has boobs out or nearly-out much of the time, but she is so much in control of her scenes that we accept her. She leaves little room for Mario, a wiry, bearded, argumentative man who yet lacks authority. He emigrated to Berlin and became a waiter. Now he is back at home, posing as a shepherd's son. They put on costumes. It becomes fake. We get it. This is a cloying, hyper-touristic place now. Constantino still has to put the livestock out to pasture. Events like milking, or mating two horses, become shows for the paying guests. These guests don't seem to share in the work, even merely for show.

But details are lacking, like how this all got set up, and who the other employees are. There are several photogenic young local men now on the scene, some making trouble for both Mario and Constantino, but one suspects the novel explains better who they are.

After scenes around the building of a swimming pool, regarded by Constantino as a wholly inappropriate object in a place where bathing is normally so austere, leads to concern about Greta getting pregnant. This is where dynamics of the trio, Constantino-Greta-Mario, get complicated. And then there is the strange, licentious fête conducted in a barn, a Visconti moment, which the old man accidentally walks in on. With this scene, agriturismo morphs inexplicably from crude and crass to pornographic. And then, I suppose, we are ready for a great bonfire. And then the investigation to determine the nature of it and the cause can become the main focus at last. Perhaps one is a little exhausted by then. Gavino Ledda sees very, very tired, but he remains a charismatic sufferer and in his own way a distinguished and memorable figure. At the end, though the nimble camera of young dp Sandro Chessa has carried us through many a mobile action, what remains in the mind is a white mare stumbling to her death and the sad, tired face of Gavino Ledda.

Assandira, 126 mins., debuted at Venice Sept 62020, opening theatrically in Italy Sept. 9; showed at Haifa, Greek Film Archive, Venice-to-Moscow, Luxembourg City, and Rheims Polar. 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).

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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