Italy / France, 1994
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 04 August 2004
Source New Yorker DVD
A grainy newsreel flickers on the screen, accompanied by the bombastic clarion call of propaganda. A grandiloquent Italian voiceover narrates the images of Mussolini’s army entering (and “civilizing”) Albania in 1939, as crowds of Albanians can be heard cheering the beneficent Il Duce. The newly arrived Italian foreign secretary speaks of “an account that was waiting to be settled,” suggesting a contract between Italy and Albania, a mutual indebtedness.
This moment in Italo-Albanian history sets the stage for Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica, a dramatic report on the current status of this “account” between the two nations. The film’s story begins fifty years later, with the country’s fascist and communist regimes in the past and the road to capitalism ahead. Crowds of impoverished Albanians still cheer their Italian visitors (in hopes of a few thousand lire), and the powerful Italians still act as the Albanians’ benefactors and parents, while dominating their politics and economy, and taking advantage of their modest resources.
In Amelio’s Albania, capitalist globalization is merely the next in a series of socio-political structures that exploits the poor and makes the life of the individual all but redundant. The film follows one of these capitalists, a young businessman named Gino, whose company has devised a scheme reminiscent of that of Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks’ The Producers: they will buy an unsuccessful Albanian shoe manufacturer with the intention of defrauding their investors and pocketing grants they receive from the Italian government. In order to make this deal seem legitimate, Gino needs to find a straw man, an Albanian to act as figurehead of this corporation.
In Spiro Tozai, Gino seems to have found the ideal candidate. Locked away in a communist labor camp for the past fifty years, Spiro is a confused old man with no family, friends, or memory. He barely speaks and can just write enough to sign his own name on the important company documents. In other words, he appears to be totally pliable.
But unfortunately for Gino, Spiro is not all that he appears to be. Indeed, he is not even Albanian, but an Italian named Talarico Michele, a former deserter of Mussolini’s army, imprisoned by the fascists, the communists, and now the capitalists. Now out of prison, Spiro/ Talarico is convinced that he is still in Italy and so evades his new captors and journeys among the impoverished villages and craggy countryside of Albania in hopes of reaching his wife and child in Sicily. Gino must follow the old man into this alien landscape and then find his way out. Immersed in the brutal, yet hopeful life of Albania, Gino gains a greater understanding of the people of this nation and the role that Italy has played in their history.
Lamerica could easily have been a far more sentimental film, but instead it maintains a fairly sober, matter-of-fact style. There are occasional swells of orchestral music, even some bravura cinematography, but nonetheless the film is never far from being a straightforward portrayal of poverty and decay. In this regard, the film is a distant, European cousin of the photographic work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, those stylized, but forceful portraits of America’s rural poor visually defined the Great Depression. At the conclusion of his film, Amelio borrows directly from this tradition with a collection of filmed portraits of Albanian refugees, each a particularly beautiful, expressive, or grotesque specimen of his race.
No doubt the film’s intention is to put a human face on a complex international situation, and while this is mostly successful, it is the complexity of the film’s characters that draws the audience’s empathy. Talarico’s tragic personal history resonates with the larger historical event through which he has lived, and the transformation of Gino’s role within this situation — from cynical opportunist to sympathetic observer to bewildered victim — is a seamless one and never appears overstated or didactic. Nor is the film’s essential humanism and hopefulness excessively sentimental, perhaps because this sense of hope is never fully endorsed by the film.
At the film’s conclusion, Gino attempts to return to Italy like an Albanian immigrant, aboard a large cargo boat freighted with poor families hoping for a home and life in Italy. Talarico, however, imagines the boat to be headed “l’America,” where he will start a new life as an Italian émigré. This hopefulness is presented as the senile delusion of an old man, and therefore the film’s sentimentality is tempered. The film’s title, Lamerica, is a kind of reduction of “l’America,” which seems to signify the immigrant’s romantic notion of a far-off land of promise. In Talarico’s mind, this idea of America is conflated with the Albanians’ hopeful dream of Italy, where one might hope to be a famous soccer player, but will in fact be lucky to get a job washing dishes. With the old man’s confusion of Albania with Italy, and Italy with America, Amelio further reinforces the lack of difference (and distance) between these countries and their people. As Gino learns, we are all at the mercy of our environments and our nation’s politics, and each of us may just as easily be a migrant as a millionaire.