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Gian Maria Volonté,
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The Missing Star... that gets nine stars out of ten!
This is a wonderful new movie currently still showing in cinemas in my country. Its director, the Calabrian Gianni Amelio, is in my humble view perhaps the only contemporary Italian director, along with Nanni Moretti, to deserve being called great (that is, apart from the old masters who're still around and occasionally still churning out movies). It's one of my greatest regrets that contemporary Italian cinema has been ailing since the mid-70s, mostly due to a dire lack of funding and nurturing of new talent, something which can be transferred to most fields and which makes Italy one of the most static industrialised countries of our time production-wise (both in an industrial and cultural sense)... unlike, say, China. And this, among other things, is precisely the subject of Amelio's latest movie. Few directors can speak to me about the true, present state of my country and the world as Amelio can, yet his pictures also have a precious timelessness and universality. And for those already worrying that they may be slow, ponderous and worthy - rest assured: of the ones I've seen they most certainly aren't, at least not if you're used to quality European cinema.
The basic plot outline: Vincenzo Buonavolontà is a technician at an obsolete steel plant factory somewhere in Italy, probably the North. He is played by Sergio Castellitto, one of contemporary Italy's most versatile and talented actors. When a major Chinese steel company purchases some of the Italian steel plant's industrial machinery, Vincenzo, who struggles to make himself understood with the non-Italian speaking Chinese director, tries to tell him that the machine is defective and its converter needs substituting, an element he's working on custom-building himself. He warns them that not doing this might have very dangerous consequences. Meanwhile a young Chinese woman called Liu Hua acts as interpreter between the two men, but seems to struggle to find adequate translations for some of Vincenzo's technical jargon. The Italian eventually loses his patience with her, virtually pushing her aside and asking her to hand him the Chinese-Italian dictionary so that he can do the translating himself.
Despite Vincenzo's warnings, the following morning he finds that the Chinese factory director and his employees have returned to their own country while not heeding his advice about the adequate use of the industrial machine at all. Thus Vincenzo, equipped with his great integrity, sets off for China. And here begins an endlessly fascinating road movie through China, a very topical 21st century Odyssey through the Asian Giant. A latter-day Marco Polo's quest for the secrets of the mysterious nation? Not quite. As in all of Amelio's movies, the journey itself becomes far more important than whether its ultimate "mission" is carried out or not. In fact, the way in which the point is literally brought home, not without a touch of humour, is a lovely, poignant paradox and irony, which made my eyes well up while I was simultaneously smiling. The spectator is let in on the secret that Vincenzo's trip was ultimately completely useless, but he himself doesn't know it, and goes home a satisfied man, a deluded innocent. At least, you figure, he's happy. Sort of.
The journeys that Amelio's characters embark on totally uproots and strips them down to their bare, human essentials. They are momentarily without name, status or someone to put in a word for them. These Theo Angelopoulos-like themes are also explored in Lamerica, actually my favourite Amelio movie, closely followed by La stella che non c'è in order of personal preference. In the 1994 movie Lamerica, two Italian racketeers travel to Albania to "do business". Just like Vincenzo, they intend to go there, do what they have to do and then go back home. Instead, one of these two Italians accidentally ends up on an almost Homeric journey through this devastated land just after the fall of Communism.
But let us go back to La stella che non c'è: once Vincenzo is in China, he predictably discovers that the seemingly "simple" task of handing the converter to its new owner is anything but straight-forward. The piece of machinery's new location is seemingly almost impossible to determine, unless he embarks on an arduous journey through China. When he comes across Liu Hua, the young interpreter he'd mistreated now working as a librarian, he tries to speak to her but she reacts in a hostile manner, informing him that because of him, she'd lost her job as interpreter back in Italy. Played by the relative newcomer Ling Tai, Liu Hua soon becomes a Virgil to Vincenzo's Dante when she grudgingly figures that she could do worse than to act as guide and interpreter for the Italian on his trip (obviously for a consistent sum of cash). This young Chinese actress may not have the beauty of Ziyi Zhang, nor the movie star glamour of Gong Li, but her charming, expressive and pretty face oozes a combination of defiant strength, intelligence, dignity and wry humour that'll make her features difficult to forget once you've seen the movie. Furthermore, she and Castellitto have wonderful emotional chemistry as co-stars.
Amelio weaves dramas that are serious, poetic, mythical, post-neo-realist and humorous all at once, while maintaining a heart-warming ability to explore the fleeting essence of humanity in everyday, commonplace circumstances. A documentary-like naturalness conceals what is actually a meticulously conceived tapestry of faces and places, a vista which also manages to incorporate a cinematography of breath-taking beauty. The photography here is functional yet gorgeous, as befits a movie on the displaced in an industrial and emotional wasteland.
Amelio's observant eye is a grown-up, disillusioned one, yet also never a cynical or misanthropic one. The masterful camera angles also often gives a sense of Vincenzo's alienness in the eyes of the Chinese, bringing home a sense of objectivity and cultural impartiality that's very rare in movies about a "familiar" Westerner exploring an "unfamiliar" non-Western country. I cannot recommend this movie enough.
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