Viva la libertà Dir. Roberto Andò

[Distrib Films US; 2014]

Styles: drama, comedy
Others: Strange Crime, Secret Journey

In the winter of 2009, I was stranded in the Charles de Gaulle Airport for a week. I subsisted on meal vouchers, washed my hair in sinks, and slept askew on polyurethane upholstery. I’d call it hellish, and it was, but I love the experience for one small observation. While I loitered around the ticket queue watching the flight ticker tell me if I could finally leave, a clan (not family) of Italians stood a few feet away, eyeing an update on a flight to Rome. When the panels flashed and the Rome flight read “DELAYED,” the geriatric patriarch brought the back of his hand up to his ridiculous grimace and exclaimed, “OH ROMA!” Like a Greek Chorus in the lowest-stakes-ever drama, every member of the family wrenched their hands upward and flung “OH ROMA!” in spades at the vaulted ceiling. I was filthy, exhausted, and sick of Orangina, but I laughed hard — very hard — in their faces.

I’m not entirely convinced Italians don’t view life as one continuous theatrical production, and honestly I don’t mind because their histrionics are fun to watch from a distance. Viva la libertà, based on director Roberto Ando’s eponymous novel, probes politics as performance when opposition leader Enrico Oliveri (Toni Servillo) silently deserts his post for Paris and is promptly replaced by his twin professor brother fresh out of the sanitarium (also Servillo). The ensuing hour and a half of film portrays itself as an examination of dichotomy and holistic nature, of the dramatic and comic, et cetera. Even when Italians are toeing self-satire and farce, they make sure their suit is crisp and their expression somber.

True to Italian culture, Viva la libertà breaks its back to remind the audience of an illustrious past. Much like this sentence, the film panders to the erudite with constant nods to directors, philosophers, musicians, and anyone else Europeans would be interested in turning into marble. Pensive framing, umbrous lighting, and pseudo-philosophical dialogue are employed to magnify contrast when something lighthearted happens, like the crazy brother dancing barefoot with the regal lady PM. I don’t know how Meryl Streep didn’t bulwark her way into the script playing a sestina and playfully flinging polenta at a starchly formal politician.

The characters may as well have been thrown together from scraps Antonioni or Rohmer left on the editing floor. There’’s the straight man handler, the passion-hungry wife, the wistful flame: there’s even a wry, cryptic arthouse director married to the wistful flame. Such depth! The film meanders through different combinations of personality interactions at a glacial pace, dropping knowledge bombs about life, love, and the mystery of it all in between puffs of a cigarette. When not waxing philosophical, Viva la libertà does manage to view modern Italy — marred by ineffectual governance, corruption, and crisis — with a clarity absent in the hamfisted efforts of the rest of the film. At some point, you don’t know whether to laugh or pat them on the back.

Italy is kind of ridiculous, but Italians pull off ridiculousness in a way that makes you want to at least momentarily watch. There’s something impressive in a culture’s ability to trundle on despite being snapped in half by a failing economy and then quartered by the ad nauseum sex and corruption political scandals. Viva la libertà reverted to the freshman question, “Is the only sane man in the room the one in the straightjacket?” For their sake, I hope they make it to sophomore year film class.

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