La Pivellina Dir. Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel

[First Run Features; 2009]

Styles: dogme, drama
Others: Babooska, Das Ist Alles, The Bicycle Thief

There’s something engaging and beautiful about the way La Pivellina was put together. Taking several cues from the Dogme movement, the film denies itself a soundtrack, features non-professional actors, and lays out a narrative small and intimate enough to merit its long shots and gray, grainy veneer. Focusing their attention on a group of impoverished carnival performers, directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel imbue La Pivellina with a subdued grace and performances as gut-wrenching as they are unassuming. There’s a potent realism to the film that stems from the fact that its directors made a fairly well-regarded documentary about the real-life circus performers who act in this film, 2005’s Babooska. The film never feels like a documentary, though, and I feel that it would’ve suffered greatly if it had.

We meet Patty (Patrizia Gardi), one half of an old couple living in a trailer on the outskirts of Rome, supporting themselves through a truly shoddy and woefully intermittent carnival act while in the middle of a search for her lost dog, Hercules. The somber tone — set by the elongated tracking shot that follows her around and the crippling depression that literally seeps out of the impeccably gray, brutal high-rises through which she meanders — is the only clue viewers need to know that Patty’s life could probably be a little easier. Of course, she doesn’t find her dog. When she comes upon a two-year-old girl named Asia (Asia Crippa) sitting on a swing in the middle of a landscape comprised of broken asphalt and empties, a depth-of-focus change isn’t required to give us a hint that she’ll be an important figure throughout the rest of the film. The little girl has a note from her mother, begging whoever finds her to refrain from calling the police and that she’ll return at some point for her daughter.

Patty naturally takes the girl home, which presents an obvious enough marital stumbling block for Patty and Tairo (Tairo Caroli). An argument ensues over whether or not to report the incident to the proper authorities, and the girl winds up serving as a catalyst for various people who inhabit the trailer park, illuminating salient aspects of their lives without resorting to cheap/lazy softball social commentary. There are some easy parallels in La Pivellna to the Neo Realism that still stands as Italian cinema’s crowning achievement, some intentional, some not so much.

What jumps most readily to mind is De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and the desperation that saturates both films is most assuredly cut from the same cloth. But I witnessed something that seems pretty scarce, or at least I think I did, in La Pivellina: Covi and Frimmel show respect for their characters, deep, genuinely intrigued respect, and maybe even a little awe. This makes sense, seeing as they’ve spent so much time with the actors, and that the line between the actors’ reality and reality itself is a little blurry. But this respect never devolves into condescension, which seems to be the benchmark of countless movies made about poor people and the mistakes they make in their lives. There’s a certain freedom an artist denies to his/her creations when he/she disallows them the possibility of radical responsibility for their fuck-ups.

La Pivellina isn’t a traditionally entertaining film. There are some passages that ring a little hollow and some stretches that beg to be edited with a surer hand. But there’s a clarity of vision and a palpable environment of genuine collaboration that penetrate to the core of what this film has to say about human beings and how they relate to one another. Patrizia Gardi’s face was made to so thoroughly crystallize a sense of loss — something I can only relate to Saudade — and it’s to her and her directors’ credit that they allow it to do so in such a sublimely disastrous manner.

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