BEIRUT: It is a bleak Labor Day in Milan. “It’s impossible to organize an initiative like Labor Day without a job,” the voice of an off-frame labor organizer announces to his invisible workers’ rally, “because we’re celebrating the fear of losing one’s job.”
Beneath the stage where the speech is being performed, day laborers crouch, inflating celebratory balloons. The camera pans past two men working with helium bottles. Another, named Antonio (Antonio Albanese), is blowing balloons up manually – a white one, a red one, the colors of the national flag. Each one explodes in his face.
Unlike years past, the invisible labor leader continues, “I don’t have a prepared speech. I’m improvising.”
This essentially comic scene falls about a half hour into Gianni Amelio’s 2013 film “L’intrepido,” (The Intrepid). If Amelio’s work had been written as a magazine article, rather than a feature film, a journalism student might call this scene the “nut graph,” the bit that pulls the threads of argument together for readers.
Amelio’s argument is that Italy is a mess. More than a premise for his film’s narrative, the argument is urgent enough to override plot considerations. Though Antonio’s story is rife with incident, there is no effort to erect a reassuring narrative edifice from these bits and pieces. It is as if the writer-director were forced to choose between narrative and sociocultural veracity and erred on the side of the latter.
That said, Amelio’s film is a cleverly constructed and powerful thing.
As his name suggests, “Antonio Pane” (Antonio Bread) is a comic figure thrown into a world bereft of humor. The nature of this world is evident in the film’s opening shot.
Filmed with gorgeous blue-tinged palette, the landscape is a slushy wintertime wasteland ringed ’round with the mammoth carcasses of yet-to-be-completed structures, above which loom construction cranes. While promising, the future is distant and alien.
“In Milan,” a text informs viewers, “at this time.”
It is 6:30 a.m., the text continues, and at this time every day, Antonio begins his work, in his own fashion.
The scene cuts to an abandoned intersection. Antonio sprints across the frame to meet a man in a construction worker’s outfit. A few minutes later, you see Antonio working the high steel.
Eating lunch midair on a steel girder, a young fellow speculates aloud about where Antonio is from. “Moldavian?” he says. “Romanian? No, Tunisian. You look Tunisian.”
After the young man finishes his amusing lament about the extinction of collective bargaining in Italy, Antonio chirps up with a quotation in a language he doesn’t understand.
“What’s that mean?” he asks.
“People who work are fortunate,” Antonio translates. “At least they can strike.”
Over the course of “L’intrepido” Antonio dons any number of outfits to earn his daily bread – from a lion costume (in a shopping mall day care facility) to a factory worker’s outfit to the uniform of a trolley car operator.
Antonio has no fixed job. He is a “fill-in,” a job title that is redolent with the smell of “informal economy.” Working with a dodgy “agent” called “The Maltese,” he fills-in for employed people, staying with a job for as little as a few hours or as much as a few days.
The Maltese is good at peddling his clients’ flesh but he’s more circumspect about actually paying them for their labor. When Antonio glimpses some of the ethical implications of this, he seeks casual labor by other means.
On the whole, Antonio retains a remarkably sunny disposition toward his utter lack of job security, which is why “L’intrepido” has the counterintuitive patina of comedy that it does.
The only thing that makes him blue is the fact that the people he loves don’t share his resilience.
The most important person in his life is his son Ivo (Gabriele Rendina). A student at the conservatory, Ivo is an inspired jazz saxophonist. Though father and son share an affectionate relationship, his emotional struggle to reconcile his high-culture music education with conventional market demands frequently propels him into self-absorbed brooding.
The other beneficiary of Antonio’s affections is Lucia (Livia Rossi), a waifish young woman of about Ivo’s age. He sees her during a “competitive exam” – an exercise that insists candidates demonstrate job eligibility via written examinations, though jobs always go to people whose connections override their qualifications.
In another film, Antionio would introduce Lucia and Ivo and the two would live happily ever after. Amelio knows this never happens, though, so instead the waif assumes the role of an unattainable love interest, object of concern and potential tragedy.
“L’intrepido” belongs to a uniquely 21st-century subgenre that might be called the “declining market film.” It includes such accomplished works as Fernando Leon de Aranoa’s 2002 feature “Mondays in the Sun,” which centers on the tragicomic day-to-day struggles of a group of dockyard workers made redundant by globalization.
Though Aranoa and Amelio have both been feted for their work, critics have detected similar problems with them. Since they are so deeply committed to veracity to the losers of unbridled capitalism, these films tend to have little in the way of reassuring narrative resolution.
Yet “L’intrepido” isn’t a series of unconnected vignettes. Amelio’s tour of contemporary Milan resembles a profane retooling of Dante’s “Inferno” – Ivo’s mother abandoned Antonio for a money-laundering import-export baron named “Dante.”
Neither is Amelio’s story invested in despair. Rather, it suggests that, as Antonio knows instinctively, contentment can be found in action, performance if you like.
At the heart of the film is an exchange between Antonio and Ivo at his band’s warehouse-cum-performance space, where the boy has just had a shouting match with his bandmates.
“How can anyone perform in this place?” he demands. “You know why they do it? For the people. They just want to stand before a crowd!”
“It feels good to perform before a crowd,” Antonio observes quietly.
“The bigger the crowd the more interest?” the young man screams back. “No, they plug their ears! All of them!”
It might be a description of the politics of the Berlusconi years.
Gianni Amelio’s “L’intrepido” screens (with English subtitles) at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Thursday at 8 p.m. For more information, please call 01-204-080 or see www.metropoliscinema.net