Judge Gordon Sullivan only adopted a goldfish during his circus days.
"A revealing and soulful portrait of courage and discrimination"
The line between fiction and documentary film has always been a bit porous. No matter how apparently objective a documentary is, as viewers we always have to wonder how much the people we see are "playing up" for the camera, or how much the footage has been manipulated after it was shot. On the flip side, even the most fantastic films (excepting certain animation flicks) have some relationship to the physical reality we all share. The line between fiction and documentary has rarely been as effectively blurred as when the Italian Neorealists were doing their stuff in the decades following World War II. Combining untrained actors with films shot on location in war-ravaged Italy, directors Rossellini, Fellini, and De Sica made films that still loom large in the international art cinema world. We have no better evidence of that than Little Girl, a recent film with Neorealist roots made by a pair of Italian-Austrian directors. Like the greatest of its influences, Little Girl combines the pleasures of reality with the challenges of drama in one surprisingly affecting package.
A pair of down-on-their-luck circus performers (Patrizia Gerardi and Walter Saabel, essentially playing themselves) discover an abandoned little girl (Asia Crippa). The pair decide to keep her, and the film follows the relationship between these characters as they adjust to their new worlds.
Honestly, when I saw the description of Little Girl, I thought "really, c'mon." The Italian Neorealist references and the use of untrained actors (including a young girl playing a young girl) were enough to put me on my guard. The fact that it's a pair of circus performers just seemed over the top. I mean circus performers just seems too Fellini, and there's a fine line between being influenced by someone and outright thievery. Based on first impressions, Little Girl seemed to be going a bit too far in the direction of hero worship.
Then, I watched the film. Yes, the film obviously owes its existence to its Italian forbearers, and some of the quirks (like making them circus performers) feel a little forced. However, for those open to a slice of unaffected acting, Little Girl offers all the pleasures of its Neorealist predecessors. There is a pervasive feeling that we are being given access to the lives of real people as they struggle to find themselves and deal with the challenges of parenting and survival.
More importantly, the film eschews easy sentiment. Were this a Hollywood feature we'd be treated to endless scenes of rehashed humor followed by tear-jerking scenes of a family reunited. Little Girl instead offers less "drama" and more scenes that feel like real life. Of course they're not actually real-life scenes—as when a kindly older man performs some magic for Asia—but it's comforting to not feel quite as manipulated as Hollywood often does.
This DVD also makes the film easy to digest. The 1.78:1 images appears to have been captured on consumer-grade video, but given that the image looks pretty good. Colors vary a bit, detail isn't strong, and black levels aren't very deep, but those are all source difficulties. The transfer itself does fine with them, with no significant artefacts or compression problems to speak of. The Italian stereo track is similarly rough spun, but the problems with volume and distortion appear endemic to the source, not this track. In any case, English subtitles ensure we can follow everything that happens as the audio quality varies.
The film's main extra is a Q&A with the directors. In a move I've not seen anywhere else, the interview is text-based, and the DVD player's next button takes the viewer from question to question (seven in all). The questions do a decent job answer the basics of the film (like if it's based on a true story or not). There's also a short bio of the filmmakers, and a trailer gallery.
Little Girl is a film that requires patience, and a susceptibility to the charms of Neorealist style. Those looking for actual "performances" from the actors will certainly be disappointed, and anyone seeking a solid, driven plot from this film will likewise suffer through the slow, almost-plotless pace of Little Girl.
Though I've stuck with the Italian Neorealist comparison (for obvious reasons), the more contemporary touchstone of Little Girl is the work of the Dardenne Brothers, who are also known for making languid films about marginal characters. Fans of neo-Neorealism or the Dardenne Brothers are urged to seek out Little Girl, but less adventurous viewers are advised to stay away.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
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