It’s that time of the year, an absolute treat. I am obviously talking about the annual Italian Cinema festival, Open Roads, that takes place every June at Lincoln Film Center. It’s a rare opportunity to get access to some of the freshest voices in Italian cinema with veteran as well as new surprises. This year, unfortunately, I was not able to attend all the films I had planned, part of the reason is that some were scheduled midweek during business hours and that was tough – a note for organizers.
That said, I was grateful to catch Emma Dante’s Via Castellana Bandiera – A Street in Palermo, which was a pure delight. This is Dante’s debut film where she plays triple role of writer, director and main protagonist. You can’t expect a tighter artistic package from wordsmithing to actual role building. And this is no accident, Dante, a native of Sicily’s Catania, although educated up north, has a rich theatrical background having formed her theatrical company Sud Costa Occidentale – with a long list of theatrical successes.
So the good ol’ rule of thumb, write about what you know, is pretty much mirrored in this film plot. Dante offers a unique a semi-autobiographical window, into Rosa (played by herself) and her partner Clara (Alba Rohrwacher) that returned to Palermo for a wedding after being shunned by her family.
Samira (Elena Cotta) in a symbolic visual, mourning on her daughter’s grave,
flanked by stray dogs resting in unused graves
The film takes a unique photographic strategy that attempts to place viewers as if they are part of the reality. The film opens with the camera going up and down below sea level – as if the audience is this huge body of divers that are peeking at the small fisherman boat to introduce the Calafiore men, working hard at sea. Then this approach continues with the rough shots of Rosa and Clara driving through the narrow streets of Palermo, looking for the right turn and the camera as if affixed to their heads, wherever they look at the camera immediately responds. A similar artistic approach you may recall from Abbas Kiarostami‘s films where entire plots take place inside cars. Lots of closeups are also used when introducing us to Samira (Elena Cotta) an old Albanian, with an iron will. The cemetery episode with her care to stray dogs roaming the place, is very poignant.
Generational showdown fed by different reasons
The storyline focuses on a trivial, turned into philosophical generational clash – when Rosa and Clara meet the Calafiore family in a narrow street – car against car – with both Samira and Rosa not willing to budge for the other to pass through. Smira harnesses stubbornness against the maltreatment of the Clafiore family led by the grotesque portrayal of Saro Calafiore (Renato Malfatti) who married her daughter who is now dead. Whereas Rosa builds her counter bullheadedness, by metaphorically seeing Samira as her conservative Sicilian family that had deserted her.
The showdown continues on and in the process reveals colorful Sicilian characters (non-professional actors), drivers that got stuck behind Clara and Samira’s cars and different levels of losing their tempers, the local neighbors that provide advice to each side. One neighbor reveals the crude side the Sicilian way of life – all houses are number 5 with non-existent municipal control.
You can also find some artistic tributes to classic Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns – when there is the rapid eyes closeup exchange between Rosa and Samira to build up the growing tension of who will break down first.
The whole neighborhood dash: vanity in disguise of caring
The film has many moments of pure visual gems, like when Samira comes to pick up the Clafiore from the beach and her image is looming ominously up the hill, looking down at Saro on the beach. The best scene in my opinion is the final scene (without revealing too much), where all the neighbors are filmed running towards the camera. It’s a fantastic study of age, gender and what constitutes a local community coming together not by way of helping the other, but by raw curiosity to a neighbor’s dismal fate. And finally three doves that walk around business as usual, undisturbed by the drama people have apparently cooked around them…