The twins of Indivisible (Medusa Distribution)

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Open Roads showcases a rich cross section of Italian cinema that reflects contemporary malaise and timeless human dilemmas. Dramas unfold in chiaroscuro settings like jails, schools, barracks, and prisons of protagonists’ own making. Characteristically, Italian humor attempts to overcome tragedy, death, and soul-numbing bus commutes. Outstanding cinematography shines in a surprising number of films, and, as always, Italian directors love to righteously point fingers at their nation’s sleazy flaws while not-so-secretly reveling in them.

Indivisible

As Open Roads’ kickoff presentation, Indivisible makes a lurid first impression with a tracking shot of prostitutes defiantly picking their way through bonfires on a trashed beach. The scenario establishes a seedy yet mythical tone that defines the movie.

Conjoined, dewily beautiful twin sisters (real-life twins Marianna and Angela Fontana) are forced to sing for their supper by a drunken, disheveled stage father who pens their sugary show ditties, manages their career, and confiscates their earnings. Director Edoardo De Angelis plays up the twins’ warped innocence in an over-the-top outdoor concert scene that plays like a cross between a Fellini extravaganza and an episode of My Big Fat Roma Wedding.

Eternal attachment presents challenges. The more adventurous twin wants to sever their bond and strike out on her own, while her more timid sister dreads the split. The movie follows the girls as they flee their venal parents and try to raise money for an operation to separate their bodies. Scuttling through a pocked, ominous landscape, they run across many knaves, including a sinister priest who wants their help to prey on a gullible immigrant flock.

Indivisible can feel low on story and characterization and does not do enough to animate the bizarre elements it has set in place. But the film plays out like a surreal fable or fairy tale, its images wielding a strange power.

Two Soldiers

One of Indivisible’s twins, Angela Fontana, inhabits a more conventional role as a teen bride-to-be in Marco Tullio Giordana’s Two Soldiers. Three parallel story lines move forward: a soldier’s tour of duty in Afghanistan, a young woman’s preparation for her wedding, and a mafia gang’s bloody rumble with a rival crew. The different skeins come together one hot night in a bleak apartment on the edge of Naples, setting off a series of events that will ensnare the innocent and end in misery.

Handsomely shot and briskly crosscut to keep the plot moving, Two Soldiers falls a little short of the sweeping dramatic impact it seeks. The stories feel familiar, as do the techniques employed to make them fall into place. The bereaved young woman around whom the story revolves, barely out of her mid-teens, seems too naïve, pliant, giving, and incautious to stand a chance in the film’s grinding milieu.

Tenderness

Battered, beautiful Naples—the historic center, not the seedy ’burbs—takes a bow as an essential part of two domestic tragedies folded into one. Lawyer and proud Neapolitan native Bentivoglio (Renato Carpentieri) lives alone in a palazzo, at arm’s length from his adult children (his confession: “They grew up and something strange happened. I stopped loving them.”). The old man grows infatuated with Elena (Micaela Ramazzotti), a pretty new neighbor from the North, and befriends her husband, Fabio (Elio Germani), as well. When a deadly blow sweeps both households away, Bentivoglio faces a belated journey back to some kind of home.

Director Gianni Amelio sets up some skillfully calibrated set pieces—a surprise confrontation between Fabio and an immigrant vendor sympathetically foreshadows Fabio’s dangerously short fuse. But stagey, melodramatic passages shove lucid moments aside and throw the rhythm off. Part sage, part self-pitying codger, Tenderness’s hero can wear on the nerves. Still, quiet pangs of heartbreak from Bentivoglio’s cast-off children ground the movie in real emotions, and kinetic tracking shots convey Naples’s vitality and bring its mystique alive. “No one can live in Naples who wasn’t born here,” marvels Fabio, and the city breathes a die-hard force that energizes the film.

The cast of Children of the Night (Vivo Film)

Children of the Night

Easily the festival’s most cerebral entry has to be Children of the Night, a moody, claustrophobic voyage into moral darkness set at a boys’ boarding school. While other movies in the festival flit and play, director Andrea de Sica keeps an unnervingly tight focus on a fateful storyline, raising tensions to the shattering point.

Pleading not to be banished to school in the Alto Adige sticks, teenaged Giulio (Vincenzo Crea) argues with a disembodied voice: his mother, whom we hear but never see. Mamma cheerfully and heartlessly makes promises she has no intention of keeping, and Giulio finds himself dumped at school with a lump in his throat. And no wonder. Giulio’s schoolfellows are bullies. Classes are grueling. A manipulative headmaster (Fabrizio Rongione) exhorts the boys to model themselves after some master race, although it is clear they are misfits unwanted at home.

Giulio makes a cynical friend, Edoardo (Ludovico Succio), with whom he begins nocturnal forays to a disco-cum-whorehouse in a remote, snowy stretch of the mountains. In this unlikely refuge (like the school, a sort of prison), he begins an idealized romance with one of the working girls. But jealousy, betrayal, and official punishment combine in an explosive mix that engulfs the whole school.

Tight music edits, austerely composed shots, and moments of silence heighten the atmosphere of repression around Children. One bravura scene of a lustily singing teenager brandishing a gun disrupts the icy dread. It’s just a moment of release before evil pockets young souls.

Daphne Scoccia in Fiore (BIM Distribution)

Fiore

If Children flows from the mind, Claudio Giovannesi’s Fiore springs from the body. Desperate flights, jailhouse fights, and hands-on heists give the movie an intense physicality. Homeless teen Daphne (smoldering Daphne Scoccia, part hobgoblin, part supermodel) makes a living sticking subway passengers up for their phones with a knife. This career soon reaches its limit, and after a breakneck rooftop chase, the tough but inwardly vulnerable  Daphne is sent to juvie hall to reconsider her attitude.

There Daphne falls in love with a sexy young delinquent (Josciua Algeri), and a terse, linear film turns into something softer and more meandering. Moody puppy love and misunderstandings nag at the young sweethearts. Daphne flouts the rules at the facility (which offers coiffure classes, dances, a New Year’s Eve fashion show, and food that actually looks tasty). Encounters with her parents prove disappointing, as the film—like Children of the Night—traces youthful troubles back to inattentive authority figures. Fiore returns to its restless beginnings when a burst of rebellion sets  Daphne back on the road to nowhere that may be her destiny.

Sun, Heart, Love

Daphne may be born to be bad, but the heroine of Daniele Vicari’s Sun, Heart, Love may be too good to be true. Eli (charismatic Isabella Ragonese) is an affectionate mother, a loyal wife, and a lively companion with a kind word for every stranger. In Sun’s kinetic opening sequence, we see popular waitress Eli on a cheerful roll taking orders in a bustling café. Buoyant camerawork and editing set the pace for an upbeat storyline set to busy jazz.

Well, not so fast. Eli’s jobless husband depends on her small salary. Her boss is a nit-picking grouch, and a pitilessly long commute is beginning to wear even down even Eli’s generous heart. Eli has a friend (or perhaps an alter ego) whose life seems guarded and cool as Eli’s is warm and extroverted. Standing ramrod straight, Vale (Eva Grieco in her screen debut) never seems at ease. While Eli is expansively verbal, Vale pursues the nonverbal art form of dance, a vocation expressed here through a combo of Pina Bausch writhing and cheesecore stripping that the film takes far more seriously than many viewers will.

The two friends turn to each other for comfort and balance. As their tribulations mount, one life unravels more severely than the other. Sun, Heart, Love ends on a note of mystery, a passage one wishes were a moment of respite but may be something more final. Under the surface lies the sadness that can overtake the happiest of beginnings.

Daniele Parisi, left, in Ears (Matrioska Productions)

Ears

Kooky and sincere is a tough combination to pull off, but Ears manages it, or comes pretty darn close. The deadpan black-and-white satire directed by Alessandro Aronadio covers a day in the life of a thirty-something nameless man (Daniele Parisi), who awakens with a whistling sound in his ears (something the subtitles translate as “ringing”). Goosed along by a zany art-damaged soundtrack, the film accelerates as the poor fellow careens through a series of off-kilter encounters as he seeks treatment for his hearing and plans for a friend’s funeral.

Old-school nuns barge into his living room, asking nosy questions (“Why aren’t you married?” “Why don’t you read the Bible?”). Denizens of a newer Italy also appear in the forms of a pompous rap artist, maddeningly unhelpful functionaries, and an oily co-worker who commandeers the unnamed man’s place for an adulterous nooner. Later our antihero endures trolling from his own oversexed mother and a psycho doctor. Oh, and a former teacher’s wife, who sweetly tells him, “We thought you were a genius. Evidently we were wrong.”

Parisi’s wary sizing up of these infuriating characters evokes Buster Keaton or the early characters of Jim Jarmusch. His performance draws the reluctant viewer into a calm center of befuddled irritation. Ears could be a distancing affair, but the main character’s instinct to tentatively listen, learn, and feel in response to the chaos around him lends the movie a deeper quality. At the heart of a highly mannered exercise ultimately lies a surprising optimism and need to connect.

The Confessions

Oh, the corridors of power! Movies have aimed to reveal insider secrets forever, and Roberto Andò’s polished international semi-thriller The Confessions takes on the G8 Economic Forum. Economists, bankers, and other power brokers gather at a luxury hotel to engineer the fate of the world. To enrich the mix, they’ve invited the odd rock star, a best-selling children’s’ book author (Connie Nielsen) and a monk (La Grande Bellezza’s Toni Servillo).

The forum’s rich and powerful chief (Daniel Auteuil) summons the monk for a solo meeting with an unusual purpose, to confess his sins. The next day finds the titan dead by his own hand. As the good padre was the last one to see him alive, the masters of the universe react with alarm. What does the priest know? And could his revelations harm their master plan?

Cynical, manipulative summiteers seem to have little time for official business. Instead they spy on each other, mount oily seductions, issue veiled threats, and toss off faintly ridiculous aphorisms with Bond villain accents: “Servile German shepherds are the pillar of Europe’s economy.” Meanwhile, the priest is there to keep the bigwigs honest, asking high-level finance nabobs wide-eyed questions such as “What is creative destruction?”

The jaded masters of the universe find themselves disarmed by the noble simplicity of the honest monk—an interesting dynamic the first time we see it, not so enthralling the third or fourth. After an ominous buildup, The Confessions ultimately bunts on a payoff, but the film’s latent friction and sleek, perfectly composed shots have at least created a sophisticated atmosphere imbued with a contemporary chill.

War of the Yokels

Wes Anderson meets Lord of the Flies and The Outsiders in Davide Barletti and Lorenzo Conte’s War of the Yokels, a hyperstylized tale of kiddies at war.

Without a parent in sight, two gangs of boys aged about eight to 14 run wild on the rugged Puglian coast. The elite Masters live in a castle. They strut around in tighty-tight 1970s hot pants, and the camera worshipfully clings to their every pout and flared nostril. The Masters’ sworn foes are the Yokels (perhaps an overly mild translation of cafoni—the rougher sounding “rednecks” might be more apt), a team of unwashed and impoverished ragamuffins. Games of capture the flag escalate into full conflict between the two sides, complicated by a Master leader’s attraction to a Yokel maiden and the recruitment of a sneering gangster in bell-bottoms to boost the Yokels’ firepower.

It’s hard to respond to War of the Yokels, beautifully shot and composed as it is. The film doesn’t really function as a satire of adult class war, and its sealed boy’s club world of preening tweens may leave some viewers feeling locked out. Lines like “In war there is no such thing as blame, and no males and females!” keep an increasingly violent clash arch and distant. Behind the film’s anarchic, savage surface lurks a sense of calculation that keeps Yokels from really breaking free.

At War for Love

Moviegoers seeking a cheerier wartime experience should check out At War for Love. Drawing on the nostalgic appeal of films like Mediterraneo or Life Is Beautiful, director and star Pierfrancesco Diliberto (aka PIF) serves up a broad and very Italian comedy/romance awash in ornate backdrops and blazing Technicolor scenes.

It’s the wartime 1940s in New York City. Kind, goofy Italian waiter Arturo (PIF, a leaner version of The Artist’s Jean Dujardin) annoys New Yorkers with his comic mangling of the word “water,” which recalls Steve Martin’s torturing “hamburger” in The Pink Panther remake. Arturo pines for Flora (Miriam Leone), a classy dame betrothed against her will to a playboy scion of the Lucky Luciano Mafia. To win Flora, he’ll have to request her hand from her father in Sicily, which will require his joining the U.S. army and heading to Flora’s little village for a tête-à-tête with her Babbo.

A flying donkey, a pair of bumbling thieves, and a statue of Mussolini that ends up in odd places complicate Arturo’s patriotic and romantic mission. War’s comic parts can be hit or miss, but when they hit they are very funny. PIF enjoys poking fun at the clueless U.S. military command being hoodwinked by crafty Italians. Meanwhile, a straight-laced army buddy (Andrea Di Stefano, projecting a pleasing beefy masculinity) tries in vain to steer American forces clear of the mafia’s embrace. The film ends with Arturo taking a political and moral stance, a twist that comes out of the blue but nonetheless adds to War’s good-natured charm.