Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger is aghast at the number of extras present in this introspective Italian film about Albanian strife.
"Sorry, no water today. Today holiday. Maybe tomorrow."—Selimi
Lamerica does what the best films do. It shows us a reality that we'd otherwise never be able to experience. It provides meaningful ruminations in understandable cinematic terms. It explores stark visual imagery. Lamerica is a capable, powerful film.
Facts of the Case
Italian "businessman" Fiore (Michele Placido, The Soul's Place) is experienced in fleecing fledgling economies. He takes his apprentice Gino (Enrico Lo Verso, The Stolen Children) into Albania to exploit their newfound independence from communism. Though the country has been devastated through decades of totalitarian rule, Fiore has a plan to siphon government startup grants into his own pocket.
His plan hinges on obtaining an Albanian figurehead. He walks into a former concentration camp and nabs an old political prisoner who has been mining for 50 years. Fiore scrubs the dirt off of Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli, The Star Maker), dresses him in a nice suit, and forces him to sign charter documents. With the new company underway, Fiore makes a swift exit from the country.
Shortly thereafter, Spiro goes AWOL while the Albanian government comes knocking at the door for a few more signatures. Gino must find the old man if he wants their scheme to work. To do so, he will have to venture out alone into Albania.
The title and periodic clues throughout the movie tell us that Lamerica is really about refugees. This main point is delivered with conviction, but in a roundabout way. Almost imperceptibly, the theme creeps upon us. By the end of the movie you will know, perhaps even understand, what it is to be a refugee fleeing to America. Americans should view this film for that reason alone.
On the way to this powerful final point, we're treated to a densely layered convergence of politics, racism, capitalism, inhumanity, and hope. The plight of the Albanians is established with visual economy and convincing realism by the amateur actors. Fiore and Gino waltz through the country with a disdainful swagger that says everything about capitalist exploitation. The people, buildings, and government are tools with which to siphon money into Fiore's pocket. He does not care about any Albanian's plight if it will stand between him and money. For his part, Gino only displays emotion when his designer clothes or his jeep's leather interior are in jeopardy, and the emotion he displays is invariably nasty.
One of the more dramatic revelations (out of many) comes when Gino learns the truth about Spiro. The rest of this paragraph is a spoiler, by the way. It turns out that Spiro is Italian, not Albanian. Gino and Fiore needed an Albanian figurehead to exploit, and they yanked Spiro out of a prison—but he had entered that prison 50 years ago as an Italian political detainee. In a cruel yet telling irony, Gino is exploiting a fellow Sicilian in order to rape Albania. Gino goes so far as to deny Spiro's heritage to maintain the ruse.
Layers such as this enhance Lamerica. Similar themes involve the Albanians' ignorance of the subtleties of their own poverty, the cunning that the natives use to exploit Gino, the meaning of death compared to freedom, and many more. It is rich in political commentary, human perception, and symbolic content. By the time the end credits roll, you will feel as though you've been given a crash course in the human condition.
Writer-director Gianni Amelio uses the camera to do his talking. He sometimes uses deep-focus shots on ships or streets laden with people. The sheer number of extras is staggering, and they all seem genuine. Their weight presses in around us, giving us claustrophobia. When Gino walks down a street, he is constantly harassed by throngs of urchins, though he seems unfazed. We eventually see the rugged majesty of the Albanian mountains, and the image imbues us with a keen sense of isolation and pride. These shots are telling.
Amelio's ambitious tale is capably handled by the actors. Enrico Lo Verso and Carmelo Di Mazzarelli wring sophistication and depth from characters that could easily be stereotypes. Their relationship evolves painfully and continuously. Gino grows before our eyes, while Spiro sheds the weight of years. Countless dualities and similarities present themselves in this relationship.
The video transfer is up to the task. It isn't a vibrantly saturated transfer, but it is clean and mostly free of digital manipulation. Contrast could stand a slight improvement, but in general the transfer lives up to the carefully composed film. The audio is more difficult to judge, simply because I don't speak Italian. There were a few dramatic sonic moments that brought me further into the environment of the film, and nothing that took me out of it. In that sense, the soundtrack is successful.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Growing up during the Cold War, I was exposed to heavy propaganda that painted a bleak picture of the Balkan Peninsula and other communist locales. If the claims were accurate, Albania, Bulgaria, and other Balkan countries were bereft of foliage, sunshine, and clean water. The people huddled in grimy masses while leather-clad dictators cracked whips overhead. Hidden microphones picked up every dissenting word, and the speakers were immediately dragged to jail by government goons. Your average Communist European would sell his mother into slavery for a clean pair of Levi's, a square meal, and a glimpse of green grass.
This distorted view is ridiculous, of course. Albania lies on the Adriatic Sea, a short boat ride from the sunny shores of Italy. It borders Greece, a land renowned for art, culture, and fine olives. Though isolated by rugged mountains, Albania enjoys copious glimpses of sunshine and respectable natural resources.
Imagine my surprise when I watched Lamerica and found that the country is indeed grimy and desolate. Hordes of people, painted a uniform shade of gray by dust, do huddle in masses in the street. The buildings are invariably run down, stark and utilitarian. The picture is as bad as, if not worse than, the worst propaganda would have us believe.
Lamerica is a neorealist film shot on location in Albania. I'm not willing to accuse Gianni Amelio of deception, and I'm sure that atrocities of politics and human dignity did occur. Yet I can't help but feel suspicion for a palette as grimy as this, a visual incarnation of my worst imaginings of communist Albania. Surely there's at least one nice-looking street in the country, one or two houses with intact families and pleasant gardens out front, maybe a dog on the porch? Is Albania really that stark, that bleak, that hopeless? It may be. But I'd rather assume that the horrific images we were fed in the '80s were exaggerated in some way to make a political point. Amelio's images have the desired effect: They show us firsthand why people were fleeing the country in droves. You cannot argue with the factual evidence of the Albanian locations. But I still suspect that Amelio is showing us the worst side of things.
The extras package seems comprehensive. It might be, if you speak Italian. The deleted scenes, alternate ending, and trailers won't do you much good if you can't follow the Italian language. As far as the poster and picture galleries go, these were unexceptional. I also had some difficulty with the submenus displaying improperly.
Lamerica shows a deft touch as it unfolds a precisely considered tale. The story is fraught with pain, brutality, humanity, kindness, and hope. It brings home the reality of hunger, depersonalization, belonging, and optimism experienced by refugees. These goals are met with telling visual symbolism. Lamerica is a powerful film that will stay with you, though it isn't always a fun ride.
Gianni Amelio may be guilty of misdemeanor propaganda. That charge is dismissed in deference to the whole.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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