"While he has not made a documentary, his film reflects a heightened sense of reality derived from the experience of life." --- Rob Edelman
“L’america” was directed by Gianni Amelio (the man responsible for a film we watched earlier in the semester, “The Keys to the House”) and released in 1994. What is unique about this film is that it brings traditional linear Italian film-making to new places by using the methods of neo-realism to carry the audience along on a dreamlike, ironic mythologizing journey whose mood and methods are all his own. This extremely powerful film, almost documentary-like in its presentation of its characters and themes, is as fantastic as it is vividly concrete and sad.
The film tells the story of two Italians, Fiore (Michele Placido) and his assistant Gino (Enrico Lo Verso) who go to the impoverished, wrecked post-communist Albania with the scam of setting up a shell shoe factory as what they - or Fiore, for the most part, because he by himself is the mastermind of the scam - think will be a profitable tax shelter. They corrupt an Albanian official named Kruja, which they turn into Croce (cross) to grease the bureaucratic wheels and obtain government approval for the plan. Unsatisfied with others who have cooperating families who are able to make claims, they find Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), an old man they are told is an orphan and has been imprisoned by the communists for fifty years. They sign him up as the Albanian figurehead "president" of the company. Fiore hurries back to Italy and leaves Gino in charge of watching over the derelict factory they have taken control of, and also to make sure Spiro stays out of trouble.
When Fiore leaves however, things go wrong, and as the story progresses, they get even worse, until Gino has lost everything - even his Italian identity. The journey we as the viewers go on is compulsive watching and echoes tragic wanderings like those of the father and son in De Sica's “The Bicycle Thief”, or the couple in Fellini's “La Strada.” Amelio achieves a sense of understanding and a sorrow and pity that a person can have only when everything has been stripped away from them and nothing but their essential humanity remains. Basically, you have to imagine the worst thing that could happen to you while on a journey, and then take that even further, and you have an idea of the trajectory and transformative emotional power of “L’america.”
When Gino finally gets ahold of Fiore on the phone, he learns that their scam has failed, and they are not only in deep trouble, but he and Spiro are both out of a job. Of course, Spiro says he knew this would happen all along. The Spiro character is extremely pivotal in the film. At first he appears as a derelict, worse than a bum, clearly out of his mind. When asked his age he holds up his fingers twice, and the viewer realizes he still thinks he’s twenty years old. But somehow there is a young man still inside Spiro that seems to emerge as the film goes along as a figure of great humanity, energy and hope.
The first disaster occurs when Spiro disappears from the nuns' institution where they have left him. After being a prisoner for fifty years, all he wants to do now is escape. Gino finds him and takes him on a journey along the coast in a jeep, but once they're out in the middle of nowhere, Gino is lost. He runs around frantically looking for Spiro, and when he gets back to the car, it has been stripped of its tires. He calls for the police, but since he only speaks Italian, no one can understand him. They can only stare at him. These faces Amelio shows us, and again at the end, in that powerful closing montage on the boat heading for Italy at long last, communicate more with these pained and tired expressions than any words ever could.
Much like the great Italian neo-realist filmmakers of the forties and fifties, Amelio uses real places and real people with great skill. What does all this mean? First of all, it's an affirmation of the sheer and inexplicable power of poverty. The fact that Spiro's insanity comes across as beautiful and hopeful shows that the film is not to be taken too literally. The film shows us a lot about Albania, colonialism, rich and poor nations and economic exploitation, yet at its core it is truly a film of heart-wrenching sadness. When we see those faces in the closing scene, the pain felt by these people is truly individualized, showing us the viewers that the problems highlighted not only in this film but in other issues plaguing the world today can be seen in one agonizing stare.
“L’america” is a breathtaking film, and clearly sets Amelio apart as one of the most powerful and humanistic Italian filmmakers working today.