Italy has won more foreign film Oscars than any other country, and it’s not hard to see why. From the rubble of World War II came neo-realism—movies like Rome, Open City and The Bicycle Thief that, for all their simplicity, revolutionized the art form. The decades that followed produced monumental, diverse works that still inform the way we view Italy in our collective imagination. La Dolce Vita, L’Avventura, Rocco and His Brothers, among dozens of others spoke to the mixed blessing of the country’s “economic miracle,” the quarter century of sustained growth that dovetailed with a cultural burgeoning, one the Guggenheim Museum labeled “The Italian Metamorphosis: 1943–1968” in an electrifying 1994 exhibition.
By the time that show arrived in New York, though, Italian cinema was at sea and had been for some time. The days of De Sica, Rossellini, Visconti, Pasolini, and Fellini were long gone; Antonioni was, after suffering a stroke, literally speechless. A cultural malaise set in, fueled by a limp economy and the advent of Berlusconi-ism—cynical politics matched by a dumbing down of the culture, proudly broadcast on television networks owned by Italy’s fatuous on-and-off president.
One figure who has long appeared poised to revive Italy’s film culture is Gianni Amelio. His string of intellectually rigorous and formally impressive works won international recognition throughout the 1990s. Lamerica, his 1994 examination of Albania after Communism, was one of Susan Sontag’s favorite films of the decade. After a more-or-less ten-year absence from Italy and its concerns—The Missing Star (2006) was filmed mainly in China, and in 2011 he adapted Camus’s The First Man—Amelio has returned to reflect on the damage caused by the repeated concussions of the Berlusconi era.
His latest, Intrepido, A Lonely Hero—which opens in New York City on Friday and then throughout the U.S.—follows the sweet, genteel Antonio Pane (which translates to “bread” in Italian). With his shiny pate, he may as well be Saint Anthony; he’s that good, almost to a fault. He claims to be 48—though looks older—and his wife has left him for another man.
Antonio (portrayed by the actor Antonio Albanese) is a victim of the contemporary Italian economy. He’s a temp—known there as a “fill-in”—and though the movie is set in Milan, the country’s financial engine, jobs are doled out not through an employment agency but on the sly, in this case via a grotesque old man who owns a gym which may be a front for more unsavory business.
There’s no real plot here; instead we observe Antonio in episodic takes as he negotiates daily life while trying to retain his dignity. He works at construction sites, where he’s assumed to be a Tunisian immigrant; at an American-style mall entertaining kids in a lion custom; and in a kitchen as a prep man. He delivers pizzas—and is robbed. He inflates balloons—which all pop. He turns up for work in a mine in Albania.
Through it all, Antonio is always kind and never loses his compassion. During an exam for what appears to be a state job, he gives his answers to a fragile young woman frozen with fear, which establishes an unlikely friendship. But in this Milan of 2015, nice guys finish last. Antonio depends on his son, a music student, for support. The son, in turn, gets the money from his mother, now remarried to a scheming, pompous, Berlusconi-era charlatan. Amelio’s disdain for such types is obvious, and his contempt pushes the character into the realm of caricature.
The real star of the film is the city of Milan itself, and Amelio revels in using it to counter every Italian cliché. Unlike younger master Paolo Sorrentino’s 2014 Oscar-winner The Great Beauty, there are no seventeenth-century Baroque churches, no gentle Roman light; only that famous twentieth-century secular cathedral known as San Siro, empty of soccer fans and eerily strobe-lit for the cleaning crew, Antonio among them. There are no histrionic Southerners, no hand gestures, no Nonnas, no Sunday feasts. Food is eaten on the run, families fractured.
When the film opens, the words “Milan, in these times” immediately appear across the screen. It would be a more apt title. Intrepido: A Lonely Hero is not equal to Amelio’s earlier achievements: There are strands of story that aren’t pursued; his message appears overly simple; and he tries to blend genres when the film would have been better served sticking to social realism. Despite these shortcomings, it may be Amelio’s finest visual piece. Milan’s vast cityscape, with its added vertical dimension, rare in Italy, is shot from odd and unexpected angles.
In recent years, Italy has suffered through a quiet crisis: an unforgiving recession, a brain drain, and political corruption. But with crisis comes opportunity, economic and artistic. After all, a stolen bicycle once went a long way. A miracle in Milan may not be forthcoming, but as Amelio has shown here, the material is there. Enough, perhaps, for a second metamorphosis. Finally.