The European Union Film Festival opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, March 1st and runs through the month of March. 61 films will be presented, and I’ll be reviewing as many as I can throughout the month.
Emil Christov’s The Color Of The Chameleon (Tsvetat Na Hameleona) (Bulgaria, 2012) is a blackly absurdist comedic thriller that becomes less absurd the further the eccentricities progress. Batko (Ruscen Vidinliev, resembling a long-lost brother of Jake Gyllenhaal and Joaquin Phoenix) is a somewhat aimless savant, an orphan, who is recruited out of school by the Bulgarian secret police to sniff out conspiracies using his limitless creative imagination and his propensity for lying at will. When his inventions spin out and back from left field, his amused but impatient supervisor continues to employ him, but when a circumstance in his homelife breaches the bureau’s paranoid protocol, he’s dismissed. But by now Batko appreciates the fervent mix of real investigative homework coupled with the convincing lie and the artful masquerade, and, taking up where he was ordered to leave off, fabricates his own investigation of a local political arts group. Spurred on by Batko’s ‘interest’ in their activities, each member of the group succeeds beyond even their own personal expectations. Eventually, he’s given the opportunity to spin his poison-pill network of officious circular-shooting-gallery opportunists against the intelligence network that rejected him, all with the ultimate goal of sailing off into a romantic sunset with his own film-buff paramour (Irena Miliankova).
It’s a very stylish and clever mélange of cold-war espionage filtered through a character not too far removed from Being There’s Chauncey Gardner. Casablanca is a frequent reference within the film as well, but it’s a riff that enhances what Christov has already fashioned, rather than just an atmospheric short-cut. The first portions of Christov’s narrative may seem a little patchwork-y and confusing, but Vladislav Todorov, adapting his own 2010 novel Zincograph, brings it all home admirably. And more than a few of you will be debating that unexpected ending on the way out of the theater. Highly recommended.
‘The Color Of The Chameleon’ will be shown on Sunday, March 10th at 7:15 p.m. and Monday, March 11th at 8:00 p.m.
Chicago filmgoers attending the EUFF are rightfully looking forward to new films from the likes of Alain Resnais, Margarethe von Trotta, Marco Bellocchio, and Ken Loach. But one of the films I’ve been anxious to see is Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy (Romanzo Di Una Strage, or Story Of A Massacre) (Italy, 2012) from the prodigiously talented Marco Tullio Giordana; his 2003 epic, The Best Of Youth, is a magnificent film, and a personal favorite of mine.
Piazza Fontana chronicles the events leading up too, during, and after the bombing of the Banca Nazionale dell'Agricoltura in Milan in 1969. The political history of Italy post-World War II is pretty complex; Mussolini’s fascist government was supplanted by a new Italian Republic, with a new constitution and a series of moderate Christian Democrat leaders throughout the fifties and sixties. The complexity arose with establishment of a genuinely adversarial coalition government, with substantial representation for the various socialist, communist, anarchist and (remaining) fascist elements that had persevered throughout Italy’s 20th century political scene. The Socialist Party proved especially assertive in the early 1960s - the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) had been rebuffed in their bid to merge with the Christian Democrats in 1960, but the Socialists helped to foster a number of genuinely constructive policies soon thereafter that understandably infuriated the fascists. And the United States and other western European democracies (who then, and still today, don’t honestly know the difference between socialists and communists) exerted a lot of pressure on Italy to keep its overtly Communist organizations under wraps. Nonetheless, the various opposition parties were spurred on by movements on behalf of farm and factory workers’ rights, as well as increasingly frequent student riots, and government enforcement mechanisms like the Carabinieri (Italy’s highly militarized arm of the police), the Civilian Secret Service, and the SID, Italy’s now-enhanced government intelligence unit, escalated the mutual antagonism.
Giordana’s film begins with what most historians point to as the beginning of the period known as the ‘Years of Lead’ (anni di piombo) - the death of an Italian policeman, Antonio Annarumma, in Milan, during a left-wing protest in 1969, presaging the escalating insurgent ferocity of the opposing factions, and the transition from demonstrations and protests to actual acts of ‘terrorism’- factory occupations, kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings. The narrative starts to follow one of the more prominent police captains in Milan, Luigi Calabresi (Valerio Mastandrea), a family man and hard-nosed investigator who has managed to cultivate a serious-minded but respectful dialogue with a number of the Anarchist leaders, including Giuseppe Pinelli (Pierfrancesco Favino), who is disturbed by the increasingly violent rhetoric and actions of both his fellow anarchists and the neo-fascists of the National Front. Calabresi knows that more militant elements will try to win Pinelli’s imprimatur for their activities, but Pinelli’s not biting, and Calabresi only has vague ideas of who the real forward threats are. Nonetheless, those threats manifest themselves impressively when the National Bank of Agriculture, located in the Piazza Fontana, is bombed, killing 17 people and wounding 88. There’s no shortage of suspects – Pinelli is, of course, but also another anarchist, Pietro Valpreda (Stefano Scandaletti), who split off from Pinelli to promote more extreme activities. On the fascisti side we have Stefano Delle Chiaie, the head of the neo-fascist National Vanguard who had also been tugging on anarchist shirtsleeves of late. And the police are trying to follow the money trail of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a wealthy publisher who funds left-wing causes, but has recently advocated for further violence and armed insurgence.
It’s tough to tell the players without a scorecard – hell, the Red Brigades are barely mentioned - but I think the adapted screenplay of Paolo Cucchiarelli’s book, Il Segreto di Piazza Fontana, by Giordana, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, does a masterful job of structuring and streamlining the various branches of the narrative to fashion an urgently compelling procedural that covers all of the bases without bogging down in, or dumbing down, the details. Giordana’s film occurs mostly at nighttime, and cinematographer Roberto Forza’s photography is moody and evocative without falling into murkiness or illegibility. And the acting is consistently terrific. Along with Marco Bellochio’s Vincere, Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, and Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, this is one of the best recent political thrillers out of Italy, and an impressive lesson for American audiences on the real power of educated political engagement, constructive and otherwise.
‘Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy’ will be shown on Sunday, March 10th at 4:45 p.m. and Thursday, March 14th at 7:45 p.m.