Giovanna's Father is another drama set in Pupi Avati's native Bologna during World War II. Once again, it centers on a dysfunctional family. But whereas The Second Wedding Night was unable to find any depth beyond its three uneven central performances, Avati's latest has a beating heart, and as the title suggests, that heart lies in Silvio Orlando's moving portrayal of a loving father, an effort for which he received the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival.
Orlando's character, Michele Casali, is a high school teacher, respected by his students and coworkers, loved by his wife Delia (Francesca Neri) and helped financially by his best friend, police inspector Emilio Ghia (Ezio Greggio). The only problem is his daughter Giovanna (Alba Rohrwacher), a sweet but troubled girl who has a peculiar connection with the surrounding reality. It doesn't help that Michele has always told her she is better than anyone else and that there's nothing wrong with her, so when he asks (read: bribes) one of his students to take Giovanna out on a date, she thinks the poor guy really has feelings for her. The situation evolves badly and quickly leads to murder and Giovanna being sentenced to confinement in a mental institution. As this takes place, Michele's whole universe falls apart, but he never abandons his daughter. In fact, he's the only one who keeps visiting her regularly, while everyone else is looking for a way to survive with the conflict reaching its final stages.
It is actually that context which constitutes the only real flaw of Giovanna's Father: the period is recreated with great care and the viewer gets a sense of how different the quality of life was back then, that's undeniable, and it's obvious Avati chose that specific time-frame to make the situation more poignant (and he succeeds; more on that later). The downside is that when he actually has to focus on the strictly historical aspect of the matter, i.e. the downfall of Fascism, it all feels quite rushed and, inevitably, a bit stereotyped (long story short: a few people we had come to care for face execution). Then again, this was present in The Second Wedding Night and The Heart is Elsewhere as well: Avati has always been more interested in the characters (with varying results) than the context.
Thankfully, and therein lies the film's saving grace, the father-daughter bond that constitutes the movie's emotional heart is constructed with real care, so that the plot's developments never once fall into the cliché trap. It is a universal story, that of a parent's unconditioned love for his child, and it is given extra power by a committed, well chosen cast. Rohrwacher, who is quickly becoming the new Italian talent to watch, nails Giovanna's troubled psyche without resorting to any "cheap" acting tricks (in other words, she doesn't do a Jack Nicholson just for the hell of it). As her estranged mother, Neri gives a nuanced, flesh-and- blood performance that makes her believable even in those delicate moments a less talented actress would have ruined, and Greggio, whose dramatic talent was heavily doubted by most people (he's primarily a comedian, and not a really subtle one), pulls off a less complicated, but not less important role with great seriousness (there are a few humorous bits, but they're dictated by the context and not at all excessive).
And then there's Orlando, whose chronically sad face (even when he's smiling) and marvelous facial expressions have made him the ideal presence in Nanni More tti's body of work. Here, he embodies the character with a sweet yet realistic naiveté that makes Michele easy to empathize with and never pathetic, the bittersweet core of a touching family tragedy. He may have been the second choice for the Volpi Cup in Venice (Jury President Wim Wenders made it pretty clear he preferred Mickey Rourke's turn in The Wrestler, which got the Golden Lion and therefore couldn't receive another award), but a very good choice nonetheless, his eyes conveying a painful humanity only a rock would fail to respond to. His interaction with Rohrwacher alone is good enough a reason to watch this thoughtful film.
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