Who Do You Belong To? The Doomed Fathers of Italian Cinema

in 77th Venice International Film Festival

by Tommaso Tocci

In an unprecedented edition of the Venice Film Festival— which turned out to be a resounding success, logistically as well as artistically, all things considered—a stronger focus than usual on Italian films was to be expected. Putting together a program worthy of the festival’s status in the middle of a pandemic required adjustments to old formulas and in addition to a sizable presence in the official competition, Italian productions were showcased in the opening and closing slots, as well as out of competition.
Strength in numbers, however, went hand in hand with a common thematic foundation, explicitly concerned with the destructive influence of fathers, whether absent or too present, loving or distant. Interestingly, the two competition films directed by women – Susanna Nicchiarelli’s Miss Marx and Emma Dante’s The Macaluso Sisters (Le Sorelle Macaluso) – were the ones to do away with fathers altogether. If Dante, adapting her own play into a surprisingly sharp chamber piece, makes the absence of parents in the lives of five sisters as conspicuous as it is unexplained, Nicchiarelli’s biopic of Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor opens with the philosopher’s funeral, and depicts a woman tormented by an insidiously filial strain of anxiety of influence. Marx’s presence looms large on Eleanor’s personal and professional life, and is hinted at by Nicchiarelli as the engine of the contrast between her fierce political commitment and the diminishing returns of her relationship with Edward Aveling, which led her to taking her own life.
Meanwhile, the festival opened with The Ties (Lacci), a family drama split across two time periods in the aftermath of a separation. Daniele Luchetti, a smarter director than his filmography suggests, appeared in good form after a string of subpar efforts, perhaps thanks to a Domenico Starnone novel that provides the material with a subversive, caustic core that can’t go unnoticed in the fairly conservative milieu of mainstream Italian dramas. Cross-cutting across a 30-year span in Aldo and Vanda’s relationship, The Ties is the rare marriage film in which the original sin is not a spouse’s affair or the resulting separation, but the fact that the people involved could not split up with enough conviction, thus condemning even the children to the unhappiness of being stuck with each other. 
While elegantly directed and boasting four heavyweight names in the cast (Luigi Lo Cascio and Alba Rohrwacher aging into Silvio Orlando and Laura Morante), Luchetti’s film truly comes alive in its dying minutes when it abruptly switches to their kids, Anna and Sandro, now adults and ready to settle some scores. Anna, in particular, leverages the underserved persona of actress Giovanna Mezzogiorno to perfection as a pure agent of chaos raging against the symbols of the Italian bourgeois family, and by extension the cinema that has so widely depicted it.
Back in the main competition, Claudio Noce’s Padrenostro is a dense exploration of fatherhood as a matter of physical space, of lingering aura, and almost metaphysical perception. Told entirely from the perspective of young Valerio, who in the 70’s witnesses an assassination attempt on his dad just outside their Rome family apartment, it holds autobiographical value for Noce, whose father almost died at the hands of terrorists during Italy’s “years of lead”. Plunging deep into personal trauma brought a leap forward for Noce as a filmmaker, in a film that although plagued by missteps in its more fantastical second part, remains a tight and heartfelt depiction of the awe a traditional father figure inspires in a young boy. Pierfrancesco Favino (who won a Coppa Volpi for the role) infuses Antonio with all his star power and trademark physicality – a man that even the camera is at times afraid of. 
Introduced as the quintessential “pater familias”, to be approached with reverence, he morphs into a more fallible, vulnerable human body as a result of his injuries. In Valerio’s eyes, the film paints that strange mixture of fear and apprehension that kids can’t quite reconcile when looking at a parent. And while the monolithic idea of a father gets deconstructed in front of his eyes, Valerio is carried from Rome to the family’s native Calabria, where the dialect uses the same expression to mean “who are you?” and “who is your father?” Indeed, to belong to someone is the synthesis of identity and lineage. It describes fatherhood that protects us and threatens to swallow us. 

Tommaso Tocci
Edited by Rita di Santo