The mean girls of Rome: ‘Caterina in the Big City’

caterina_italian_posterPaolo Virzì’s Caterina va in città is the kind of movie that’s too rare in any country, certainly in the U.S.: too smart and ambitious for the studios (yet discreet in its ambitions — it never plays like awards bait), and, I almost want to say, too smart for the indies as well. For in addition to portraying the life of a tween girl with wit and sympathy, the film is also a knowing depiction of modern-day Italy. Virzì isn’t peddling clichés for tourist consumption, and he and his co-screenwriter Francesco Bruni never resort to caricaturing the people who don’t share their politics.

Too close for comfort? Sergio Castellitto and Alice Teghil. Copyright So-and-So.

Too close for comfort? Sergio Castellitto and Alice Teghil. © Copyright First Run Features.

Twelve-year-old Caterina (Alice Teghil) lives in a provincial coastal town with her father Giancarlo (Sergio Castellitto), a teacher who’s also a monumentally frustrated writer, and her mother Agata (Margherita Buy), a well-meaning soul who has to endure Giancarlo’s merciless condescension and endless diatribes about what’s wrong with the universe. Salvation arrives, or so Giancarlo thinks, when he gets a transfer to Rome, so he eagerly packs up the family for the move to the big city.

Caterina, however, has a rough time in her new eighth-grade class, where the kids immediately size her up as a hick. The girls in the class fall into two equally precocious cliques: First there’s a hip contingent whose cute mixture of diluted hippie and punk-emo trappings screams “lefty.” These are the daughters of the bourgeois bohemians, the successful writers, artists and media sharpies who consider themselves part of the political opposition in Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy.

I'd trust a blurb from Martin Scorsese, wouldn't you?

I’d trust a blurb from Martin Scorsese, wouldn’t you?

Watching this bohemian clique, my mind reeled at the sight of 12-year-old girls in Che Guevara T-shirts. A post on imdb.com from a Brazilian viewer faults Caterina in the Big City for showing the same cliques we see in Hollywood teen movies, but I’m hard pressed to recall an American teen flick that features any group of adolescents like these girls.

It’s the other group that Caterina encounters who are far more recognizable to American audiences — the daughters of the rich and politically connected, whose parents work in finance or government ministries, or who don’t need to work at all. These girls know they’re the scions of the ruling class, and they like to flaunt it. Savvy, catty, hyper-acquisitive, they have an access to designer fashion that their mean-girl brethren in the O.C. or Beverly Hills can only dream of.

caterina_usaCaterina’s status as a middle-class nobody from the boonies initially leads both groups to ignore her. (The movie’s few glances at the boys in the class show them to be more or less amiable, unformed lunkheads compared to the girls, which feels right for eighth grade.) But after she responds to a teacher’s questions with a few clever observations, Caterina becomes a catch for the opposing cliques.

Caterina learns from the boho hipster girls, but it’s too much. The earnestness and the doctrinaire line that these girls bring to all matters are exhausting…and maybe a bit silly too, since the girls are too young to have formed any political ideas based on their own experience. Caterina can’t help drifting toward the clutches of the rich girls, specifically Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), the daughter of a government minister.

It’s a sign of the script’s smarts that it acknowledges that for an eighth grader, being friends with these girls is, initially at least, a lot more fun than hanging with the do-gooders, who are always moping about this or that social injustice. Life with Daniela and her crew is an intoxicating whirl of parties and shopping sprees, with the occasional bit of gratuitous shoplifting thrown in to spice things up. It’s all in fun; these girls understand that none of the mischief they indulge in is likely to have serious consequences, given their parents’ money and connections.

caterina_spanishWhen Caterina in the Big City expands to take in Daniela’s father Manilo (Claudio Amendola), a high-ranking government minister, and his world, the movie threatens to take on too much: the wide-lens social portraiture almost overwhelms the story of Caterina’s amusing travails in the eighth grade. But Virzì and his co-writer Bruni gradually come to show us how, even in this politically polarized society, the opposing cliques cozily entrenched at the top have more in common with each other than the ignored middle class.

Watching poor Caterina, in Alice Teghil’s sympathetic performance, navigate between the two groups of girls in pursuit of a hard-won individuality is a big part of the movie’s charm. There is no easy moral; the world of the elite girls, with its glamour and giddy, non-stop fun, is sensationally appealing for a girl who would otherwise be shut out of this milieu.

That said, there’s little doubt where director Virzì and Bruni’s sympathies lie. The rich girls aren’t evil, but the film adroitly shows (shows, not tells) how vapid and competitive their milieu is, and how nothing in that world encourages the girls to think for themselves, to articulate an opinion. In contrast, the boho girls might be striking a pose, affecting the worldviews of their parents without question, but at least that’s a sign of engagement, a first step. Tellingly, one of them will show far more heart sticking up for Caterina during a climactic catfight than her designer-clad rivals.

Alice Teghil, Sergio Castellitto. Copyright So-and-So.

Alice Teghil, Sergio Castellitto. © Copyright First Run Features.

That dustup between the girls at school summons Caterina’s father Giancarlo, the film’s trump card. The move to Rome doesn’t bring Giancarlo the rewards he dreamed of; closer proximity to power and the media elite just makes him more frustrated.

It’s common to describe an actor’s performance as “fearless” when a star throws him- or herself into playing an alcoholic, a mentally handicapped person, or, nowadays, even someone out of shape. But as I watched Sergio Castellitto as Giancarlo, that overworked adjective “fearless” seemed to apply just as much as it would to far more showy or physically demanding performances — because Castellitto here takes the same risk, and shows the same dedication, to a role that doesn’t bring with it the same kind of obvious rewards. He’s not playing a martyr to a disease or political cause, a man whose suffering might stir some deep reservoir of pity or compassion in viewers.

Sergio Castellitto as Giancarlo. Copyright So-and-So.

Idealist, artist, intellectual — in his own mind: Sergio Castellitto as Giancarlo. © Copyright First Run Features.

No, Castellitto is playing an ass. An incredibly exasperating, ordinary man, all too recognizable and human. Giancarlo is the most tragicomic of creatures, the man who passionately feels himself to be an artist but who doesn’t have a smidgen of talent.

Screenwriters Virzì and Bruni don’t give Giancarlo any third-act moment of redemption. The story builds to a plot twist that in a certain light could play as downbeat, even tragic. Yet in another sign of the script’s smarts, the increasingly worldly-wise Caterina chooses not to take it that way. Needless to say, it isn’t an ending you can expect to see from Hollywood anytime soon.

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