Tuesday, August 23, 2011

FFM Montréal 2011: Figli delle Stella

Figli delle Stelle/Unlikely Revolutionaries (2010, Lucio Pelligrini)

Given the political climate in Italy right, what with the Berlusconi government constantly receiving the brunt of criticism for its rampant corruption with non-other than Berlusconi himself at the center of attention for all the wrong reasons, the fact that a director would choose to create a film about a gang of local newbie criminals who kidnap a an Italian politician and hold in for ransom may come as a surprise. Politics is an especially ferocious, passionate and controversial sport in Italy, making the choice to film Figli delle Stelle may be seen as a bold one. However, there are a number of significant aspects to the film that can help sway any negative opinion, namely that is sold as a comedy, therefore proposing a more light-hearted view on the political existing political tension. Then again, some will surely decry that politics and kidnapping are no laughing matter, so who knows.

Figli delle Stelle’s setup is fast paced, wasting little time in exposition. Right from the outset, it is learned that at a loading dock, a colleague of Toni (Fabio Volo) has perished in an accident. Moments later the audience is transported to a live talk show in which the Minister responsible for labour shows few signs of sympathy nor any willingness to adapt laws to better suit employee safety. This proves to be the final straw for a small band of hopeful political terrorist: Pepe (Pierfrancesco Favino), Bauer (Giuseppe Battiston) and apparent leader Ramon (Paolo Sassanelli) who recruit poor Toni and make an attempt to kidnap the hated minister with the intent of holding him for ransom to pay the widow of Toni’s deceased colleague. Problem number one arises when, in the frantic attack on the bathing sauna where the Minister is relaxing, they grab hold of the wrong person! It turns out they have captured a much lower level politician named Stelle (Giorgio Tirabassi). All there other problems stem from the fact that they might not actually know what they are doing...

This is the type of movie for which if the characters do not resonate with the audience, if the viewer cannot find any reasons to follow them around and like tem, then everything else falters. After all, these chaps have committed a serious crime and are causing some people significant stress. Notwithstanding the fact that the stress factor is not dealt with at all (where is this man’s wife and what must she be living through now?) Director Pelligrini and his solid cast do succeed in creating individuals that are sufficiently engaging to carry the story. These are people who hold strong political and societal ideals. They more equality for the people, are turned off by the flagrant corruption that stinks up the legislative and executive branches of government. The time for debating has ended for it is now the moment to actively fight back at the system. Such ingredients would not normally be ripe for comedy, yet Pelligrini makes it very clear that these people are quite real and down to earth when the topic is not what it needs to be done next with the unfortunate captive. Pepe, unmarried, lives with his sweet if sometimes overbearing mother and aloof uncle. Ramon, a long time criminal, dreams of reunite with his long lost son. Bauer, the most politically radical of the group, drives his kids to school every morning. It is a Catholic school (his wife arrived at that decision, no him), compelling Bauer to scold the nun who greets his two children at the entrance gate each morning. There also Marilù (Claudia Pandolfi), a woman who works on the television show seen at the beginning who inadvertently becomes involved in the sloppy scheme. Her history with Ramon means that she, despite her reservations, becomes emotionally involved with the group.

On face value, those elements do not scream three-dimensionality, however when one takes into consideration the acting talent of the cast and the excellent performances they put on, then each of these characters grows in stature. Arguing that the individuals are remarkably well realized would, I fear, be overselling the film, but there is little doubt that, if we are merely hoping to tag along with engaging characters, then the cast does a tremendous job. Pierfrancesco Favino as Pepe is perhaps the standout, for his character arc goes the deepest. The resentment he displays towards to political class at the beginning is unforgiving, yet upon actually learning a few things about Stella, their captive, his attitudinal weaknesses morph somewhat, especially when it is discovered that Stella was fighting to have a law passed that would permit the experimentation of a new drug to fight cancer, which Pepe’s mother suffers from. Favino gives a lively performance, punctuating his frustrations and finicky attitude with the right amount energy, never edging into dark territory. As he states himself at one point, he is a very ‘emotional man.’ Claudia Pandolfi as Marilù and Giuseppe Battiston as Bauer are equally stellar in their respective roles. Pandolfi lends her character with a wide-eyed, stunned innocence in the early goings (she originally had nothing to do with the plan despite knowing Ramon very well) and eventually becomes surprisingly good at playing the game of cover up. Battiston, playing the light version of a political radical, is hysterical almost every time he opens his mouth.

Figli delle Stelle plays things straightforwardly enough to be an engaging crowd pleaser, although not much more than that. The crowd I saw the film with ate up everything like gooey black bottom cupcakes. Every comedic moment was welcomed with uproarious laughter, and several of the moments that aimed for emotional reactions immediately received them from the audience. As for myself, it is difficult for me to be head over heels enthusiastic about Figli delle Stelle if only because it is exactly the sort of movie when one expect. We have seen this sort of movie before, where a serious topic is given a light natured twist for comedic purposes. There are a few little details here and there that are played differently, like the fact that the kidnappers and victim never become too close to one another as to become friends, something that might have been expected from any number of different directors.  An astute viewer who has seen films of this nature before can predict some of the story elements that will happen, but director Lucio Pelligrini does reserve some pleasant surprises, in particular near the end. Without specifically revealing how the story turns out, I was impressed with how Pelligrini chose not to end the film on a note that was overly positive. Call it a bittersweet ending if you will.

The one thought that could not escape my head as I walked out of the theatre was how easily this could be remade into an American picture. The work is already half done Figli delle Stelle received backing from Warner Bros studio. Honestly though, switch the cast from Italians to Hollywood stars, change the locations from and Rome to Washington and the Italian countryside side near the Alps to, say, the Colorado Rockies and you’re done. That is not an argument attempting to belittle the film for it is quite entertaining, only that it does have a very familiar, Hollywood-esque tone to it. Nonetheless, it can be recommended to anybody in the mood for a solid comedy.

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