Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 06, 2022 5:01 pm 
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Di Constanzo again finds sweetness, this time in an ancient prison

Leonardo Di Costanzo switched from documentaries to fiction features at the age of fifty. His first was L'Intervallo (ND/NF 2012), a slow burner like this one and preoccupied like this one with people held temporarily in a special place and circumstance. But L'Intervallo focused on a couple of youths momentarily confined by the Neapolitan mafia. The Inner Cage/Ariaferma, his third feature, has grander things in mind and a grander location to enact them in - though it too is modest in its way.

The focus of Ariaferma on a handful of prisoners being held by guards in a big, near-abandoned prison leads us to expect treachery, a violent outbreak, and the first hour, at least, is continually suspenseful. But Di Constanzo mainly has quieter surprises in mind. The result is a beautiful, quiet, somehow ceremonial and grand film about humanity and reconciliation. A power outage causes the dozen prisoners, even an ancient and despised sexual molester, Arzano (Nicola Sechi) all to be gathered dining together amicably with the guards in semi -darkness. It may seem implausible, but this is Italy. The fine acting and painterly chiaroscuro images are so splendid, we would be churlish to object.

The slow, gradual, almost epic manner in which the movie works up to this impromptu communal feast is masterful to see. As the film opens, panoramas of mountains wreathed in fog and what sounds like a religious chant handsomely start the proceedings. The main setting, its use doubtless profiting by the director's deep documentary experience, is the nineteenth-century former prison of San Sebastiano di Sassari in the city of Sassari at the northern end of the island of Sardinia, with its large spokes and big roundhouse in the center.

A group of senior guards, whom we see outdoors of an evening - the first use of dramatic darkness - celebrating the end of their assignment here, are disappointed the next morning when the female director (Francesca Ventriglia) tells them that because a handful of prisoners are still awaiting transfer, they must stay on, with a full squad of backups, to guard them.

Most of the film's attention is on the guards, but the guards' attention is all on the prisoners, who emerge even more strongly as individuals. Heading the guard's side and now with the Directrice gone the supreme authority is "Inspector" Gaetano Gargiuolo (Paolo Sorrentino's great lead actor Toni Servillo). On the prisoners' side it's Carmine Lagioia (Silvio Orlando, The Caiman), a mobster and longtime prisoner, who's the acknowledged capo. With most of the prisoners gone, the prison-manned kitchen is closed and prepared food comes in packages from outside and the dozen or so prisoners are all moved to the central roundhouse. (As Jordan Mintzer comments in his Hollywood Reporter review, the architectural background of the "massive, highly photogenic prison" with its "labyrinthine design" is reminiscent of the drawings of the eighteenth-century Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi.) The inmates immediately reject the new food.

Ispettore Gargiuolo is firm, but inside he's a softie; his authority overrides the more severe under-guards. This is a time of hardship for everybody. Visitors and packages can no longer be received, and nobody knows how long this limbo will go on. To end the food rioting, Gargiuolo orders the recently closed kitchen to be reopened. Lagioia, whose father ran (and still runs) an osteria, takes this over. He becomes the cook, with Gargiuolo watching him. The new setup is a success; Lagioia's meals are tasty, and the guards eat them too.

Among the prisoners, a standout is a recently arrived youngster, Fantaccini (Pietro Giuliano). Everyone sympathizes when the man he beat up to steal his wallet, who has gone into a coma, seems to be dying, which will give him a much longer sentence. Bad luck! Di Costanzo ignores all the genre conventions here yet still manages to find something triumphant and impressive. The direction is superb, clearly. Much also is due to the multple-award-winning dp (and Sorrentino regular) Luca Bigazzi, and at key moments as well as throughout essential color and artistry are added by the sound designer and the composer, Pasquale Scialò and his periodically astonishing sound effects - an a cappella choir; orchestral clapping.

The Inner Cage/Ariaferma, 117 mins., debuted at Venice out of competition Sept. 5, 2021, also Gothenberg and Taillin Black Nights, it got nine nominations and won two 2022 Davide di Donatello awards for best original screenplay (Valia Santella, Bruno Oliviero) and best actor (Silvio Orlando). Screened for this review as part of the June 9-15, 2022 FLC-Cinecittà series Open Roads: New Italian Cinema at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

Sunday, June 12 at 8:15pm
Monday, June 13 at 3:30pm

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