Not the Hero We Needed

Always an eagle-eyed portraitist of contemporary Italy and its socioeconomic peccadilloes, Gianni Amelio hasn't had a film released here in more than 15 years, and this strange, gentle, whimsically formulated concoction may give us a clue as to why. Ostensibly a kind of Candide-like tragicomedy, the movie's as difficult to figure as the reasoning behind the deplorably off-the-mark English-distribution subtitle. (L'Intrepido translates as “the intrepid one,” the title of a beloved Italian children's magazine from the middle of the last century.) Just when you think you've got a grip on its tail, it slips into head-scratching near-absurdity.

Amelio-ites—for whom the Amelio of the 1990s, with Open Doors (1990), Stolen Children (1992) and Lamerica (1994), represented a lone thorny hope for Italian cinema—will not be satisfied, but those without expectations of any kind might well be charmed. Antonio Albanese, lately of Woody Allen's lamentable To Rome With Love, plays Antonio, a middle-aged naif who works as a kind of temp/”fill-in” across Milan. Untrained but skilled enough to drive a trolley and cook in a restaurant, Antonio also delivers pizzas, sells flowers, works on construction sites, slaves in an industrial laundry and so on, each job for one day or so. Though work stuff often goes wrong, Antonio is never downtrodden—on the contrary, he is merry, enthusiastic and virtually tireless. Eventually, we meet his sax-playing son (Gabriele Rendina), learn about his divorce and his past career as a teacher, and we watch him make platonic friends with a troubled girl (Livia Rossi), who's also scrounging for temp work.

Amelio's movie is at times oddly jaunty, with a frothy score that cuts across the implicit tone of socioeconomic critique. Antonio is a kind of clown, unbattered by circumstance to a degree that compels you to wonder what the film's actually about. His childlike savoir-faire doesn't fuel the story very easily, and eventually, Amelio resorts to offhand tragedy, humiliating coincidence and a left-field collapse of Antonio's relationship with his son, who suddenly becomes a hair-trigger tortured-artist mess.

The slices of modern Milanese life are vivid, and Albanese's lonely-mutt gaze is seductive in an old-school, Harry Langdon kind of way, but Intrepido adopts and discards possible stories as though they're tissues—a sequence when a panicked Antonio discovers that the shoe store he's working in is actually an all-but-shoeless front for black marketeering makes sense, but too much of the hero's other floormat reactions to abuse and misfortune don't. His sad-sack Candide-ness isn't an instrument of satire; it's hard to say why the character has been conceived this way or what his mild travails signify. Amelio might just be trifling around, and sometimes that's how the film feels: rudderless and unsure of its own purpose. If fuzzy thematic thrust doesn't bug you, however, the essence of Albanese as a shrugging everyman for post-debt-crisis Europe may be its own reward.

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