Director Silvio Soldini is known for his award winning Bread and Tulips (2000) and Days and Clouds, (2007). His work is often relevant, filled with irony and critical commentary about society. In Garabaldi’s Lovers, the director is at the height of his powers in melding social and political issues with timeless verities which touch upon the importance of friendship, family and love. Nominated as the Official Selection at a number of film festivals, Soldini’s subtle, sometimes surprising comic touches and pithy truths provide the spur which allows us to take a deeper look into our own lives to assess where we stand amongst his panoply of characters swimming in a wild sea of predators, hypocrites and keepers of the flame. On January 21st, the DVD will be available for purchase and streaming at Film Movement.
The film opens on a square in metropolitan Italy and focuses on a close-up of a statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the 19th century hero who championed the rights of “the little people,” and is a patriarch of Italian democracy. Garibaldi (in humorous and sardonic voice-over narration by Pierfrancesco Favino) peruses the interactions in the square and expresses his doubts about the crass paisani he sees behaving selfishly and ignobly. Reviewing the general state of the country, Garibaldi despairs. He mourns that the people do not “yearn for justice or the common good,” but are “duped by petty promises and false ideals flaunted by power-hungry charlatans.” We anticipate that the plot will reinforce this theme and perhaps provide additional humorous twists to reveal characters who are unlike the ones that Garibaldi rails against.
Soldini cleverly uses the great spirits of the Italian past like Garibaldi, Giacomo Leopardi (Italian poet and philosopher), Leonardo da Vinci and Cavalier Cazzaniga (politician) as critics of contemporary Italy but can be applied globally. In comedic voice over narrations by Gigio Alberti (Cazzaniga), Neri Marcore (Leonardo da Vinci), and others, these greats spit out their baleful snippets of dialogue like a dirge. Writers Doriana Leondeff and Marco Pettenello use the statues’ sardonic ridicule of each other (Garabaldi and Cazzaniga) and cultural critiques to provide a paced, thoughtful transition between scenes. The effect is hilarious, yet mind-bending.
Events switch back and forth following three different characters: a starving female artist, Diana, a widowed plumber, Leo, who is raising his teen son (Elia) and daughter (Maddalena), and Amanzio, a lazy,scruffy landlord with intellectual pretensions. Their lives eventually merge together as events culminate in an adventure that takes them briefly to Switzerland. During the film we see how these “little people” are trying to make “a go of it.” They, in turn, slam up against the corrupt charlatans that Garibaldi has referred to at the outset of the film.
Soldini has thoughtfully parsed out each detail of his characters’ lives and has included foreshadowing. The clues beautifully round out the characters providing them with substance and reality. This is fine editing. It establishes apt pacing which contributes to the overall comedic effect. The foreshadowing also enhances the seamless plot/character connections, making the situations intriguing and logical. These characters meet in happenstance without the contrivance or artifice that is often typical in film. The ingenious storytelling has the appearance of randomness, yet hints that spiritual forces are bringing the characters together to make things work, despite, Leopardi’s comments that, “the world is mud.” With humor and irony, the director draws us. We wonder how the pieces will fit. But as in life, nothing is clear-cut and initially events seem arbitrary. Gradually, the threads are untangled and the tapestry is woven until the resolutions are reached conveying hope, despite the doomsday pronouncements by the statues.
The result is refreshing. This intricate film about how impoverished Diana, humorously portrayed by Alba Rohrwacher, falls in love with the harried father/plumber/widower Leo in an excellent turn by Valerio Mastandrea runs deep and wide. How Soldini takes us to their coupling at the film’s conclusion is through the most ingenious, diverting and circuitous route from point A to point B with Garibaldi, da Vinci and Leopardi commenting to remind us of where we are and what is at stake.
For example, one of the feeder subplots that propels us from A to B involves the landlord Amanzio. Portrayed by the funny and brilliant Giuseppe Battiston. Amanzio lives by his wits and tries to stand up against corrupt profit systems. Yet, he hypocritically threatens Diana about nonpayment of her rent. In a positive turn, he befriends and mentors Elia whom he meets when both are pilfering groceries. Elia confides to Amanzio about Agostina, a stork Elia is feeding so it isn’t poisoned by eating polluted wildlife in the unhealthy ecosystem. That the stork is a great symbol in Europe (of Christ, goodness, happiness, prosperity) is not a coincidental choice by this director. It points to the film’s greater themes and reinforces the innocent nature of Elia (a lovely performance by Luca Dirodi) who represents those who are guardians of goodness, striving in their actions to manifest the virtues that Garibaldi wishes to see.
Other subplots feature Leo and his wife Teresa (Claudia Gerini) who visits Leo each night to discuss the kids. This bit of magical realism is an explanation of Leo’s well delineated character; he cannot disengage himself from his love of her.* We see this in their humorous interchanges and in his fatherly care and concern for his son and daughter, especially when a compromising video of Maddelena shows up on YouTube. (The scenes related to this are hysterical yet poignant.) This working man who is struggling to make it to the next day is another innocent and guardian of goodness. It is fitting that eventually, he and Diana, the artist, (a keeper of the flame), end up together. The events of how they meet are dynamic and include corrupt, deceitful, ignoble characters (lawyer, employer, politician) that Garibaldi referred to in the opening scene.
Soldini’s Garibaldi’s Lovers is matchless in its unique comedic and dramatic elements. The film was named The Commander and the Stork in Italian, but the title was changed to create “American” appeal. However, the symbolism of the stork is not lost, especially in the last scene Elia shares with the stork and Amanzio’s quote of a Persian proverb. When Leo asks what happened, Amanzio responds, “The wisest thing one can say is to be silent.” It is in that silence that comprehension and enlightenment speak to us in a still, small voice.
In Garabaldi’s Lovers, Soldini is telling it like it is brilliantly with an amalgum of comedic interplay and hysterical irony. And if you listen for it, you will hear the soupçon of truth.
*(SPOILER ALERT: she is deceased.)