Monday, November 30, 2020

Never Bet Against a Sicilian

Film: Lamerica
Format: DVD from Addison Public Library through interlibrary loan on the new portable.

The story is that when the new version of the 1001 Movies book was created, the movies that were removed left a gap in 1994. This is why, out of the blue, there was a new 1994 entry. While ’94 is already a relatively packed year for The List, there are a few missing films that would have been very nice additions. Speed, for instance, is a 1994 movie. So are Shallow Grave, Leon, Quiz Show, Ed Wood, and Interview with the Vampire. But instead, we get Lamerica.

I’m not going to go off on a rant here, because, for what it’s worth, Lamerica won a few awards. It does seem like an odd pick, though, which is something I feel like I can say about roughly 15% of the full 1001 Movies list. There’s always been an aspect of The List that feels like it’s there to show off a little. There are plenty of movies that certainly belong for one reason or another that are instead ignored for what feels like movies listed specifically for cinematic hipster reasons. “Oh, I’ve seen this obscure film from Cote d’Ivoire. You probably haven’t heard of it.” And so, we get Lamerica instead of the excellent movie-related biopic of Ed Wood, the ridiculous pop goofiness of Interview with the Vampire, or Danny Boyle’s brutal big-screen debut.

Lamerica is what happens when you get an odd couple movie and, instead of making it a lighthearted comedy romp, turn it into a weighty drama that makes a huge political and economic statement and makes you want to kill yourself at the end. This is an Italian film that takes place in Albania. A couple of businessmen, Fiore (Michele Placido) and Gino (Enrico Lo Verso), have come from Italy to Albania with the goal of establishing a shoe company. That, at least is what they are telling people. In reality, they are creating a scam company that they will use to embezzle money from. Their scheme requires a local to act as the company’s chairman. They recruit an old man who has spent years in prison as a political prisoner.

That man is Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), who it turns out is not an Albanian but a Sicilian who came to Albanian during World War II to fight for Mussolini. As a fascist, he was naturally tossed into prison when Albania was under communist rule. Now released, Spiro is determined to make it back to Sicily. He’s also only lucid part of the time, being convinced that he is only 20 years old. He’s dropped off at an orphanage for safekeeping. Fiore heads back to Italy leaving Gino in charge. However, since Spiro is not a prisoner, he’s wandered off, hoping to find a way back to Sicily. What ensues is Gino chasing him down and trying to get the fake business started up while the two of them travel across Albania, the situation going from bad to worse.

Lamerica is very much a statement. Despite the fact that Spiro (who we eventually learned is actually named Michele Talarico) is from the old Italy and arrived in Albania in service to a fascist dictator, he’s easy to understand. His life has always been hard. As he and Gino travel around Albania, he simply blends in, essentially hoping to find ways to get back home. Gino, on the other hand, grew up in a modern Italy. This is all hardship for him. He has no idea how to react or survive without the trappings of the world he has always lived in. When bad things happen (and they do), he is always torn apart by them because he has never had to deal with things like this before. Spiro merely deals with it, since his life has been worse.

And so I’m left in the position of figuring out what I think about this. I won’t deny that Lamerica is a fine movie and is worth seeing after a fashion. It’s particularly interesting in the sense that rather than the old guard of Spiro giving way to the new blood of Gino, the opposite happens. The person who represents the new is the one who becomes lost and needs saving. It’s the old ways that save the day here, after a fashion. And yet, there is still constant obsession with the new. The Albanians are desperate for money, to get to Italy, or, especially, to get to the United States. Better to be a dishwasher in Italy, we are told, than to live in Albania.

But for all of that, Lamerica comes across like any odd couple road movie--Planes, Trains & Automobiles or Midnight Run, but grown up and made serious. It’s Rain Man without the family connection or the charm. And while that might be a strength, it also feels like a reason I really wish they’d gone with Ed Wood instead.

Why to watch Lamerica: It’s a dramatic turn on the old odd couple road movie.
Why not to watch: It’s depressing as hell.


  1. OK, I'm adding this to my never-ending watchlist. It looks interesting.

    1. It's not terrible. I'm not convinced it's essential, though.

  2. I just watched it. I liked it , and it was a good pairing with the newly remastered Christ Stopped at Eboli, which I saw today as well, and which I liked more than you did.My husband was on the first USN ship to visit Albania, and I remember all the Albanian refugees in the mid 90’s, when I lived in Southern Italy, so I was predisposed to liking both of these. Having said that, I’d go with Ed Wood or the wonderful Shallow Grave.

    1. Those would probably be my top two choices as well, although Interview with the Vampire was oddly influential in a lot of ways.