A dull feel-good movie disguised as an issue picture
Rosso Malpelo has many flaws, the biggest of which being its decision to begin with a statement about its content. The picture's intent, according to the opening text, is to show that child labor is still a major problem, whereas several people think it's linked to the past, as depicted in the short story by Giovanni Verga that inspired the film. Unfortunately, director Pasquale Scimeca, who has always been concerned with the events that unfold in his native Sicily (where all of Verga's works are set as well), does nothing to trigger any strong emotions in the viewer, mainly because the feature gives the impression that this kind of stuff used to take place in the first half of the 20th century and is no longer an issue.
Remaining quite faithful to the original story (minus one detail, which I will get back to later), Rosso Malpelo recounts the sad life of the eponymous boy who is isolated from everybody else because of his red hair, an iconographic connection to Satan (Malpelo translates roughly as "evil hair"), and forced to work in a mine with his father in order to support his mother and older sister. It's all well until the old man buys it in an accident (one of the pic's few heartfelt sequences), leaving Malpelo all by himself. Having to provide for the whole family, the youngster turns more cynical and bitter, safe for his fraternal bond with Ranocchio ("frog" in Italian), an 8-year old (more or less) who has to work despite his poor health.
This sort of situation should be tear-inducing, right? Wrong. As much as he tries, Scimeca seems unable to squeeze even an ounce of true feeling out of the surroundings or his non-professional cast. That said, the actors aren't actually so bad; the real problem is the screenplay, which generates the two most blatant missteps in Rosso Malpelo's execution.
First of all, the central topic: I have already expressed my doubts on the film's impact, considering how badly the theme is contextualized; on top of that, there isn't a real effort to make it look that cruel, as several scenes have the younger characters take a break whenever they please, without anybody interfering. Now, I've never actually been in such a place, but I don't think that kind of portrayal is realistic.
The other defect is the protagonist: no one is expecting him to be exactly as described by Verga, but turning an emotionally unstable bully into a cute, reserved fella whose only concern is giving his salary to his mom... Well, I'd say that is taking it too far. In order to satisfy marketing traditions (teenage lead has to be likable, otherwise audiences will be turned off), the film's very foundation has been destroyed. I mean, the book may not be as well known as Harry Potter or The Da Vinci Code, but the basic rule remains the same: do not screw up the main characters.
It's not all bad, mind: a couple of scenes where Malpelo and Ranocchio interact do manage to reach the heart, and the predictably bleak conclusion has not been sugar-coated. Of course, chances of the average viewer resisting the temptation to walk out of a feel-good flick that's supposed to be a more serious thing are pretty thin, meaning most people will miss the best parts.
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