Adolescent awakening and the exposure of a nation’s socio-political hypocrisies would seem an unlikely foundation on which to build a light and amusing teen comedy. Yet the Italian film, Caterina in the Big City, manages to blend the simple tale of a young girl’s journey of self-discovery with an examination on the social, political, and economic divisions affecting modern-day Italy.
The film begins with Giancarlo (Sergio Castellitto), a high school accounting teacher, calmly unleashing a scathing and no-holds barred farewell to his class of his underachieving students. Reflecting that this educational experience has without doubt been “the most depressing of my life”, Giancarlo goes on to articulate a frustration that most teachers (perhaps prudently) keep well buried beneath their professional exterior. Having finally secured a transfer out of Montalto, a provincial town on the Tuscan coast, Giancarlo is enthusiastically looking forward to returning home to Rome to live with his family and teach in a new, and hopefully more intellectually stimulating, technical school.
While Giancarlo’s enthusiasm for leaving Montalto is hardly unchecked, the emotions of his overlooked wife, Agata (Margherita Buy) and his young teenage daughter, Caterina (Alice Teghil) are layered with greater contradiction and uncertainty. Noticeably thoughtful and considerate, slightly awkward and refreshingly absent of the constant self-pity and aggrandizement that go part and parcel with adolescence, Caterina is the quiet heart and center of the film. In direct contrast to her father’s histrionics she is naturally unassuming and seems most herself (and animated) when singing in her school’s choir. While most teens obsess over the latest pop band, Caterina delights in the wonder and history of more classical fare. She is often observed feverishly conducting silent orchestras in the privacy of her bedroom.
The film’s premise—namely that of plucking a shy, innocent country girl and transplanting her into the heart of a bustling city—is both overtly simple and quietly deceptive. Where Caterina in the Big City differs from so much American fare of the same breed is in the threading of adolescent politics with those of the larger society. With precision and the light touch of humor the director, Paolo Virzi, casts a critical eye on the highly stratified cliques established in youth and shows how they mirror the entrenched and self-serving interests of the cultural and political elite. It all seems to prove that dreaded maxim: adults, for all of our advanced years and hard-earned maturity, can never really leave high school behind.
Caterina’s new high school in Rome provides the perfect setting for the illustration and exploration of modern society’s growing polarity. The requisite fears and confusion associated with being the new kid are heightened not only by Caterina’s natural shyness but, also, by the identifiable cultural markers separating the cosmopolitan from the more provincial. From her accent to her clothing and hairstyle, Caterina is neither enthusiastically trendy nor aggressively alternative. She exists, therefore, in the great and nebulous “middle”, which in high school is frightening in its isolation and thrilling in its opportunities.
As a microcosm of Italian society, Caterina’s high school is divided between “left” and “right” factions whose mutual antipathy is tempered only by their shared desire for social domination. Caterina is initially singled out by the anti-establishment “left”, which is led by the self-consciously bohemian and seductively petulant, Margherita (Carolina Iaquaniello). The daughter of a well-known writer and intellectual “celebrity” Margherita is a powder keg of adolescent brooding and melodrama.
Welcoming Caterina into her fold seems more like a tactical adoption of policy than a genuine act of benevolence. The girls, however, become fast friends and Caterina is soon attending political rallies clothed in the casually somber uniform of the anti-establishment. Unsurprisingly, the girls’ mutual enthrallment soon fades as the reality of the other’s individuality begins to sink in. Caterina begins to see the insecurity at the root of her friend’s rebellion, and Margherita painfully learns the limits of her persuasively dramatic personality. Like a firecracker with too short a fuse, their friendship quickly goes up in a burst of smoke and fizzle.
Back at school, Caterina’s abandonment by the “left” is seen by the “right” as both relief and opportunity. Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), the school’s reigning queen bee of popularity, soon comes to her rescue by allowing Caterina the privilege and honor of admittance to her social group. Obnoxiously self-important, spiteful and spoiled, Daniela is the daughter of a top government minister who married into both wealth and political power.
Caterina’s experience on the other side of the social pole is just as bumpy and fraught with peril as her friendship with Margherita was. The careless excess of money, gifts, and parties that Daniela uses as social power is initially intoxicating to Caterina. Mercifully, she earns her sobriety quickly as the decaying rust beneath Daniela’s shine and surface is revealed. Being granted a seat on two very different social roller coasters, Caterina quietly (though not without pain and sacrifice) acknowledges that she is uncomfortable residing in either extreme.
Caterina’s personal realizations are hastened, in part, by the actions and emotional decline of her father, Giancarlo. All along, Caterina’s journey through the social jungle of high school is enthusiastically monitored and encouraged by her father. Excitable, obsessed with status, and emotionally and professionally frustrated, Giancarlo tries to leverage his daughter’s friendships to his own advantage. In the hope of securing a firmer footing on the slippery ladder of upward mobility Giancarlo baldly approaches both Margherita and Daniela’s parents to seek their support for the advancement of his professional aspirations. Suffice it to say these encounters do not go well and Giancarlo’s world begins to unravel.
Accounting for minor ideological differences Giancarlo quietly realizes there is very little distinction between powers on either the “left” or “right”, for both sides yield, command, and control their authority from the same high-gated community that strictly limits access to outsiders. Even though Caterina in the Big City is primarily concerned with issues affecting modern-day Italy, the film’s criticism against the danger of consolidating economic, social, political, and cultural capital is relevant well beyond the Eternal City.
Giancarlo’s tragic flaw is not in his aspirations for upward mobility out of the “middle” class but, rather, in his inability to define himself independent of any (authoritarian) social or political body. Luckily, Caterina does not make the same mistake and understands the fundamental lesson of growing up—to be yourself—which so eludes her father.
The underlying socio-political elements in Caterina in the Big City, while obvious and unapologetic, do not distract from the film’s central coming of age story. The trajectory and ultimate destination of Caterina’s journey is never in question—a casualty of the inherent limits of this genre—but her passage through the social minefield of high school feels genuine and earned.
Like its heroine, Caterina in the Big City is an appealing blend of modesty and quiet intelligence. Hopefully, the film’s recent release on DVD will introduce a wider audience to this low-key Italian charmer.