Social Satire, Italian Style

[5 March 2014]

By Jose Solis

Silvio Soldini is well known for his accurate depictions of Italian society as examined through the lens of satire. In films like Bread and Tulips and Days and Clouds he has proven his worth as a man who offers clever observations on how the ridiculous and the sublime coexist in modern Italy.

In his most recent film, Garibaldi’s Lovers, the director seems to have taken this concept almost quite literally and has a statue of General Giuseppe Garibaldi (voiced by Pierfrancesco Favino) lament the state of the country he helped form as he watches his fellow citizens lead their daily lives. “The sad truth is that with every passing day, my mind is increasingly instilled with fear that these people aren’t fit to govern themselves” he expresses as a stork (the film is called The Commander and the Stork in Italian) comes to share in his pessimistic, but funny, views.

Among the citizens that catch his attention are Leo (Valerio Mastandrea) a plumber living with his two teenage children and who still has conversations with his dead wife Teresa (Claudia Gerini), who seems to have taken to heart the ”till death do us part” vow. Every night the wife comes to see her husband to discuss how he’s bringing up their kids, a job which gets especially complicated when their daughter Maddalena (Serena Pintucci) ends up performing a very graphic sexual act which is then shared on YouTube by her beau.

Similarly, we meet Diana (Alba Rohrwacher) a young artist trying hard to make ends meet, who finds herself agreeing to paint the mural of a wealthy lawyer’s office. We also meet Diana’s landlord Amanzio (Giuseppe Battiston) whose destiny is directly connected to Diana’s because the poverty of one equals the economic instability of the other.

All of the characters in Garibaldi’s Lovers are “little people”, the likes of which Garibaldi fought hard to defend in the 19th century, who even more than a century after his passing seem to be living the same injustices they did during the time of his greatest achievements. Now Garibaldi has nothing left to do but mourn for the state of his country and to wonder how is it that the people have amounted to so little in such a long time. Through Favino’s acidic delivery, we almost come to “feel” how the statue wishes nothing but to break free from its static state and set out to help those most in need and a such, the film achieves a superb tone of bittersweet comedy and poignant social commentary.

Yet sometimes it feels as if Soldi had so much to say and wanted to make it so approachable that he ended up losing aim of where Garibaldi’s Lovers was headed, making it a film of several very good scenes, but a sense of larger greatness left to be desired. The director has very important ideas and the way he and his screenwriters set out to depict them is fantastic (there are opinions from the spirits of other Italian greats like Leonardo da Vinci and Cazzaniga for example, the latter of which pokes fun at Garibaldi constantly reminding us of how Italy is a country where timeless history shares a space with modernity.

The commentary provided by the statues and ghosts is a wonderful way to move from scene to scene, making these scenes into sort of tiny “situation comedy” episodes that we crave as we get to see the other characters. The trifles of the characters who are actually alive seem pale in comparison to the exciting discussions offered by the “historical characters,” which in its own way is a great reminder, perhaps even a completely intentional technique, of showing us how the government’s so-called respect and reverence for history, more often than not amounts to its creating a series of monuments to ideas and ideals it doesn’t really hold as true.

All of the actors deliver really good performances, with Rohrwacher bringing a sense of cynical lovability to Diana and Battiston stealing practically every scene he’s in. Gerini, who might just have the film’s most complex part, is also a treat to watch, especially when we consider how silly and superfluous her character might’ve turned out to be if played by a lesser actress.

Garibaldi’s Lovers is presented in an effective DVD edition by Film Movement, which continues to excel in providing audiences with non-English-speaking cinema that might otherwise escape us. The DVD includes a trailer of the film and also features a lovely short film by Anete Melece called The Kiosk, in which an overweight woman realizes she’s trapped forever in the small newsstand in which she shells magazines and candy. Like the feature presentation, this enchanting short film shows us how we interact in stituations we might otherwise take for granted.

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