L’Amico di Famiglia
2007Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Cast: Gigi Angelillo, Fabrizio Bentivoglio, Laura Chiatti
orrentino’s follow up to the hit Le Conseguenze dell’amore (The Consequences of Love) glitters with a fertile imagination that constantly surprises. A much broader and more immediate film than his previous success, L’Amico di Familiglia has an exuberant, insidious charm.
Geremia, a grotesque, reptilian moneylender, lives alone in his dilapidated house with his scornful, cynical, and bedridden mother. He has a morbid, obsessive relationship with money and he uses it to work his way into other people's lives, pretending to be the titular "family friend." A man requests a loan to cover his daughter’s wedding. The daughter in question is the spiteful, beautiful Rosalba. Unable to pay the money back, Geremia rapes Rosalba on her wedding day. (Geremia himself is unable to pay the money? Didn’t he lend it?) This act of brutality sets in motion the moral disbanding of all involved. Rosalba claims to love the hideous Geremia, and they become a sort of ‘beauty and the beast,’ enchanted and repulsed by one another in equal measures.
Geremia is drawn as a typical figlio di puttana, a resolute survivor living on his wits. This type of figure is a much-respected one in Italy. The post-war years, so grim for the majority of the population, seem to have created an admiration for stubbornness and resistance, as if remaining alive by any means possible is an achievement in itself. The caution and precision with which Geremia conducts his business betrays the fundamental insecurity and mistrust of a man who seems certain to lose it all. He’s so scared of going back to nothing that he has sealed himself shut; nothing gets in and nothing gets out. Teho Teardo’s almost vindictive score—cold electronica and crunching synths—perfectly expresses the timid violence of our cruel, outsider hero.
Geremia’s central relationship with Rosalba is one of the most curious in cinema. As incongruous as the comparison seems, it reminded me of Max Renn’s need to enter Videodrome: his explicit intention was to experience it and consume it, to be hurt by it. Like Max, he must identify the form of his transcendence. Geremia lacks one thing in his life: extremity. His perniciousness forbids it. However, he allows Rosalba to be the siren calling him to the rocks. Geremia not only listens, but hands her the song sheet from which she should wail. Laura Chiatti plays Rosalba as a frosty beauty; her sumptuous figure is frozen in perpetual disdain.
The film never truly draws us into the central tragedy of the narrative and the ending trips over itself in its anxiety to finish (in contrast to Geremia, who seems unconcerned when Rosalba asks him to stop just before he is about to climax). The cross/double-cross formula of the thriller just doesn’t stick to the otherwise slickly written story. The director has created such a uniquely malevolent setting that conventional storytelling just won’t do. However, the dialogue is tremendous, and the characters—even those who appear for just a few minutes—are touched by an undeniable solemnity. The loneliness of Geremia is shared by all. In Sorrentino’s world, being alone is the natural state. The disruption of others is a regrettable and painful interlude.
Ultimately, the plot seems secondary to the touching intimacy with which we observe Geremia. It made me think that being this close to anyone makes us feel for them. Despite his revolting character and the opportunistic pleasure he takes in the misfortune of others, Geremia is ours for the duration of the film. We come to understand Geremia through the root of his unhappiness: shame. Abandoned by his wealthy father, he struggles to emulate him—knowing deep down that he is not as shrewd as people assume. His rejection of all others and of all forms of friendship means that he must instigate the emotional movements within his life. To feel shame, he must rape. To feel happiness, he forces himself to love. To feel anger, he must engineer betrayal. Sorrentino is brave to center his much anticipated film on the sordid misadventures of an undesirable man. Giacommo Rizzo’s vital performance is the reward for such courage. Rizzo’s Geremia is so fully realized that he dominates everything. Like a shit heel Lord Jim, Geremia is a mesmerizing and woefully tragic central force.
Sorrentino is a director with such dominant idiosyncrasies that he has no apparent contemporaries. However, this is an unmistakably Italian film. The sexy surrealism of the imagery and the poignant exploration of the degenerate central character draw a picture of an elderly country unable to understand its emerging younger self. The way in which the one deals with the other is to hurt it, fuck it, and hope it crawls away. Unfortunately for them, it seems that the counterpart is not only unfuckable, but also unlovable. L' Amico di Famiglia is by no means a perfect film, but there won’t be a character as utterly horrid or compelling as Geremia for some time. The closing credits see him walking along the beach with a metal detector. After a few minutes, when many have given up and left the cinema, he finds something: two euros. Not much, but something. The bastard will always cling on, finding enough to survive.
L’Amico di Famiglia is currently in limited release.