Wearing its proletarian ambitions firmly on its sleeve, Gianni Amelio's first comedy A Lonely Hero ends up light on the comedy but heavy on the surreal and predictably melodramatic moments. Ultimately a misfire, Antonio Albanese's underplayed portrayal of the generic mysteries of a good man aren't enough to save this slowly paced film.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Gianni Amelio
Screenplay: Gianni Amelio, Davide Lantieri.
Runtime: 104 minutes.
Cast: Antonio Albanese, Livia Rossi, Gabriele Rendina, Toni Santagata.
Trailer: Slightly misleading.
Plot: Antonio Pane ekes out a contemporary, proletarian living by performing jobs as a fill-in – for a few hours, a day, perhaps longer if he is lucky. Moving in a surreal fashion from job to job, he somewhat incompetently cleans dishes, puts up street advertising, performs as a children’s mascot, and toils away unglamorously. Meeting young girl Lucia, things seem to be looking up as they begin a fledgling relationship. But things are quick to unsettle; with Antonio’s talented son Ivo struggling with performance anxiety and Antonio’s own lingering feelings for his ex-wife.
Festival Goers? Miss it.
Viewed as part of the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.
Review: Constructing a film about contemporary economic collapse is no easy task; attempting to bill the result as a surreal comedy is an even braver experiment. Yet Italian filmmakers have an astounding history of doing just that – from the didactic and insistently proletarian Umberto D by Vittorio De Sica to the gentle, beautiful Il Posto by Ermanno Olmi, and beyond. Even Fellini’s stinging La Dolce Vita offers glimpses of muddy fields and cramped apartment buildings as its aristocrats, celebrities, and nuovi Italiani trip from one clandestine affair to another, a film which now seems locked in an eternal dialogue with its contemporary successor La grande bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino; both still as potent in their genuine, universalised critique, both conscious that political and cultural ennui seal the fate of the common man even as they ignore it.
The wry humour of that common man is never far from Italian filmmaking, like a crucifix lurking in every shot, and this makes Gianni Amelio’s A Lonely Hero doubly disappointing. Gifted a powerful presence in Italian comedian and superstar Antonio Albanese, Amelio barely manages to extract humour from some of the amusingly surreal juxtapositions of protagonist Antiono Pane’s conditions of labour; while the discursive thrust of his film is similarly as under construction as the half-finished buildings he extensively documents. The rest is uninspiredly grim, and prone to unimaginative cliché; grinding the impersonal boot into the face of its hero simply to establish his moralbona fides. There is not much of a critique to be found here; and what there is needs to be read into the blank and affectless surfaces the film offers up to the viewer. ‘They chase rats with a twig, they empty the sea with a fork’ a construction worker remarks on the efforts of the trade unions to improve the lot of the worker. The same could be said of the efforts of A Lonely Hero.
It begins with protagonist Antonio Pane (the aforementioned Albanese), who becomes a literal everyman in that he has to fill in for every man’s job. This takes a while to sink in, as we see him transitioning from working on one of a number of ubiquitous Milanese construction projects; then as a children’s mascot in a mall (unceremoniously tormented by his charges); then as a cook’s assistant; then as a tram driver; then as a pizza delivery man (dutifully robbed); then as an impromptu seamstress; then as a laundry worker and so on. The film is at its best when it channels a contemporary Chaplin-esque vibe, particularly in the laundry where the baffling array of modern industrial equipment does the work for Pane, the singular human worker on the floor. I suppose the humour stems from the fact that this is an intentional homage to films such as Modern Times; rather than being played as the tragedy of Joh Fredersen’s descent into the undercity in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Even judged by the breadth and depth of resonances a scene like this can unintentionally muster it is an indication of just how overused these black proletarian jokes are. Amelio seems largely unaware of this cinematic vein of fatigue.
The monotony is leavened, for Pane and the audience, through the arrival of innocent but troubled Lucia who is the damaged femme de jour of this film and leaves no uncertainty in the audiences mind that she will end up dead by her own hand in the third act. One simply waits for the call to come and Albanese’s jowls to droop appropriately. One also takes it that she is meant to stand in for the promise of the young, the betrayal of youth unemployment rates, and the fate of a generation coming-of-working-age within the depths of a recession. Further comment isn’t ever really actualised within the film; although Pane’s son Ivo is a promising and talented saxophonist who may have a path out, into the cultural elites. Yet this too is tainted by his own anxiety, and his father’s inability to communicate meaningful advice from the pockets of his own goodness and downtrodden experience. Some will declare the ending of the film, entangled in this relationship, as touching; personally, I found it an embarrassing tip of the hand for a film that up to that point had the virtue of grounding its surrealism in reality. Yet another reference comes to mind, Seller’s Being There, and if that is the case then yet again Amelio shoots and misses.
The other touches are equally as blank; with Pane answering to a corpulent boss in a boxing gym who organises the jobs for him but doesn’t pass on the remuneration, presumably meant to be an embodiment of the way things get done in Berlusconi’s Italy. The gym locality is probably a none-too-subtle jab at Italy’s continuing pestilence of organised crime. If so, again nothing is done with it within the runtime of the film. Just like referential humour is the thinnest gruel of comedy, so too can an endless series of hints but no real exploration be the same for a film aching for broader meaning.
To be honest, the adjectives kept piling up within my notepad without anything specific to pin them to: arid, abstract, ironically heartless, drifting, a blank space becoming tiresome. I take that as symptomatic of a cinematic experience that is ultimately empty; the only true impressions I can pin down are the rectangular, clinical compositions of the shots – with Amelio repeatedly favouring architectural beams and walls in beige to frame his compositions, like a dull Malevichian suprematist. There are lots of clinical blues and greens to emphasise the sterility of modern labour; appropriately, when Pane travels to the morgue to see the dead Lucia, and is set upon by the news media in yet another familiar scene reminiscent of the bus scene from La Dolce Vita. The careworn “focusing on shoes to understand the person” cliché is delivered as some mythical insight from Pane; probably pilfered from his viewing of Kundun, where it last got an on-the-nose airing. Amelio loves elements like long shots of his hero walking into the distance, and numerous odd sound effects.
It is a shame because some of the compositions truly are startling, like a brief and gratuitous visit to a prosthetics warehouse where his wife’s new husband makes money illegitimately. I appreciate that Amelio is trying to reconstruct the delicate filaments of human relationships, which are slowly spun within the place of work and the labour that gives meaningfulness to our lives. One can see how the meaning draining out of that labour slowly empties out of the personal and other elements outside of that space as well. But the web in A Lonely Hero is lopsided, lacking in authenticity and full of asymmetries. The film is so proud of itself it repeatedly lingers, unnecessarily, building an unsatisfying experience for the viewer. Ultimately, these are just the usual generic mysteries of a good but faceless man, played slowly.
‘Why did you call me?’ Pane asks Lucia. ‘I just wanted to see an honest face’ she responds, revealing that perhaps the film owes its greatest debt to that blight of characters created in the wake of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. But how many Prince Myshkins must festival goers endure? Any deep and profound marrow has been sucked from that bone years ago.
Rating: Two stars.