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Friday
Jun242011

Caterina in the Big City

  In this Italian comedy/drama, the teenage Caterina (Alice Teghil) moves from a small town by the sea to Rome when her father Giancarlo (Sergio Castillitto), a frustrated academic and aspiring novelist, tires of trying to teach recalcitrant teens in the rural Montaldo Di Castro.   The family moves into a neighborhood that one imagines is just down the street from, say, Trevi Fountain, where in headier days frolicked Anita Eckberg.   However, this film is less interested in taking us to the tourist spots than in limning the private spaces of Rome’s youth, where they go about the business of identity formation in much the same ways as teens everywhere: enjoying their music, nurturing their dreams privately, sharing thoughts with friends.

Caterina must attempt to fit in at a new school where she’s viewed as a hick by her peers, many of whose parents are prominent.   She initially falls in with Margherita, a bohemian outsider whose mother is a noted writer, and later with the popular clique led by the vacuous Daniela, daughter of a rich fascist minister.   Daniela may not be what Arendt had in mind when she coined the phrase “the banality of evil” to characterize the likes of Eichmann, but that’s the phrase that springs to mind when we see Daniela mindlessly throw up the straight-arm salute at a fascist gala.   The film makes an analogy between the popular clique and fascism in that the intoxication of being an insider lies at the heart of the appeal of both.  

The strategy of illuminating the universality of the teen experience rather than the Rome-specific leads to one of those tired montages set in a fitting room in which they try an outfit on Caterina, shake their heads “no”, try another to nods and smiles.   The young scholars are as bored, disaffected, and ill-behaved as in any U.S. classroom, and, as in our culture, their idea of “la dolce vita” revolves around shopping and parties.   The film is more interesting when treating the specifically Roman, such as the comparative width of their political spectrum.   Even the most oblivious youth there seems cognizant of politics as a matter of class struggle rather than the tepid center-to-right spectrum which obtains in the U.S. (though you could argue that this lamented narrowness is perhaps quite a good thing indeed: it stops us having fascists as serious political contenders, for one).  

Castillitto is very good as a man who gives lip service to his contempt for the elite while aching to join them.   The parents of Caterina’s friends form a clique which transcends political differences, that of the world of letters and politics, and he knows in his bones that it’s a club from which he’ll always be excluded.   Tergil’s performance likewise rings true.   There’s a sweet lilt to the romance languages when spoken with the shyness she brings to her line-readings.  

“Caterina in the Big City” isn’t essential viewing, but it’s a nicely observed coming-of-age story which also makes some interesting comments on political life in what remains the Eternal City.   Directed by Paolo Virzi.

 - Sep 25, 2005  

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