Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 05, 2021 5:53 am 
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A gang of girls who spin apart over the years

This is the second feature film adaptation and direction of one of her own plays by the popular Palermo-based Italian playwright Emma Dante, the first having been the more minimal traffic jam two-hander A Street in Palermo (2013). This one's focus is five sisters at three stages of their lives (in three acts), except one sister is involved in a tragic accident at the beach in the first segment, and another sister, rather old by then, passes away in the last one. Much of the action revolves around a ramshackle top-floor flat by the Palermo shoreline where initially the girls, aged eight or nine to nineteen, are supporting themselves, following their parents' unexplained demise, by renting out the doves they raise on the roof and sometimes paint festive colors for weddings and funerals. The noisy, explosive first act, ending with the sisters' ill-stared trip to Mondello beach and a spectacular, crumbling beach house called the Charleston, thanks to the young actors, Dante's direction, and the febrile and brilliant cinematographer Gherardo Gossi, is a marvel. It's so stunning by the time I'd recovered the film was over; it economically covers its near-lifetimes in only eighty-nine minutes.

Before anything is seen the film starts with a grating, edgy sound. It's the girls cutting a hole right through the front wall of their flat to peek out. It's a sign they don't have to follow conventional rules, and things are going to be pretty chaotic from here on. Sights and sounds are intense too, and closeups abound. Gossi makes you remember images: the shapes of the different girls; the smallest getting that first dab of lipstick; a commode with a beautiful drawn landscape like a china plate or a swatch of Toile de Jouy; the doves everywhere and eating off a good plate; the skimpy cotton dresses. Summertime, summertime! There are lots more noises to come. At times this segment seems more a dose of pure energy than a story.

The rowdy five-sister setup is rather reminiscent of the "Turkish Virgin Suicides," Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Mustang (2015) with its vivid picture of five female siblings running wild in a rural cage. Both films illustrate how if you come on hard and fast enough at first the rest risks being anticlimactic.

Antonella is the baby and mascot of the bunch; plump and placid Katia comes next, followed by plain bookworm Lia, who is given to fits of anger and is always getting into fights with the vain, pretty, and romantic Pinuccia. The eldest, responsible for the rest but not entirely up to the task, is Maria, a tall, skinny girl who dreams of becoming a dancer. When they all arrive at the beach in the memorable first section, Maria slips away to meet another young woman and the two declare their undying loyalty and love and do a lot of kissing. It seems innocent - but also irresponsible; Maria should be watching the other girls. As the play in the water is about to take its tragic turn the segment ends. Dante will return to the moment several times, finally at the very end to spell out quite unnecessarily the specifics of the fatal event.

In part two, Pinuccia (Donatella Finocchiaro), who is now an attractive young woman with a boyfriend, has invited the married sister Katia (Laura Giordani) over for dinner. But Lia’s mental problems have pushed her innate aggressiveness over the edge, and in a very theatrical screaming match, Pinuccia accuses her of killing Antonella that long-ago day on Mondello beach. It was clear that Lia can be calmed by reading to her. That's still true. The world of the Macaloso sisters seems as chaotic as ever; it's just the family dynamic has been forever disrupted by tragedy. They want to get it back but they can't. This movie revolves around that futility.

The middle and final segments try very hard not to be anticlimactic. Number two has its raging fight and revelation of full-on madness with the more eccentric, now clearly deranged, sister left to live by herself. Number three has a death and a funeral gathering where a coffin is lowered from above down to the street below to the general applause of the mourners.

Beside the loss of focus of these jumps through time there is a certain sentimentality and repetitiveness - of the dove-images, of focus on furniture in the flat, of Satie's over-familiar "Trois Gymnopédies" first as a diegetic and then as formal overlapping theme. These accumulated touches eventually make one start to fear the vibrant cinema of part one may have been an accident. But this remains a vivid, empathic film that seems likely to put Emma Dante on the international film map.

The Macaloso Sisters/Le sorelle Macaloso, 89 mins., debuted at Venice (Venezia 77 Competition) Sept. 9, 2020; it showed at other international festivals including Warsaw, Busan, Göteborg, Athens (Greek Film Archive), Venice to Moscow; Sodankylä, Finland (Midnight Sun); and Melbourne. Its US release begins Aug. 6, 2021 in NYC (Film Forum) and Aug. 13 in in Los Angeles on August 13 (Laemmle Royal, Town Center & Playhouse), and in select theaters nationwide throughout August.

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