Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jun 02, 2018 2:00 pm 
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Control freaks

The team of Silvia Luzi and Luca Bellino have made several documentaries, but turn to a kind of docufiction in this feature debut using non-actors. Il cratere (Crater) focuses on Rosario Caroccia, a Neopolitan fairgrounds hawker who gives out stuffed animals to customer who try for a winning number. It also focuses on his thirteen-year-old daughter Sharon, who is pretty and can sing. When we say focus, we mean focus. The film's relentless visual device is to put the camera smack up close on its subjects, with everything else blurry, which is designed to make the experience depicted universal. It could be anywhere, because we never really see where it is.

There are four kids, and money is tight. Harsh, chain-smoking Rosario pushes Sharon to develop her singing talent, thereby to achieve, who knows? Fame, recognition, money -belting out for a wider audience the Neapolitan "neo-melodic" songs she has been performing in public one way or another ever since she was a tyke.

Singing is a quick route to fame compared to harder jobs like classical music or professional sports, the filmmakers have explained - evidently implying they considered those as topics, for a film about underdogs craving social recognition. For the pop route, you buy a song, which costs a thousand euros, then buy an audition on the "Ciao Italia" show or something like that, and when you perform your song, well, maybe it happens.

Crater is a pain to watch from the start. The visual style seems to thumb its nose at the viewer but, beyond that, Rosario is a really obnoxious guy. Bellino's pre-screening statement that this is a "carnival love story" drew objections from audience members who could see no love here. This is a father never happy unless he is yelling at his daughter or pushing her around. One can only hope this isn't real-life father and daughter Rosario and Sharon's actual relationship. And if it is, wherein lies the fiction?

Luzi and Bellino are trying to do something special here. In the first scene Sharon recites statements as if for a class about Giovanni Verga and verismo and Flaubert while making artificial gestures and this is to hint that Crater is a flat-out rejection of any kind of realism. Using people playing something close to themselves might contradict that. Their subject, to quote Jarmusch, may the the limits of control. Rosario's efforts to turn Sharon into a pop figure fizzle mainly because she's lazy. As he tells her, "You want to sing only when you feel like it." Indeed, and she really does like to sing, just not as a job. She's lazy about school too: she's missed a lot of it this year, and seems to spend most of her time watching TV with her friend Imma, the two of them singing along enthusiastically whenever a song comes on.

But in the peculiar, hard-to-watch filming method, and the strict limiting of the action, which only barely sketches in the rest of the family, and of course can't show them all together since it shows only one head or body part at a time, the filmmaking itself shows the limits of control. It's funny that documentarians would not have observed more and manipulated less. But as we said, manipulation is their theme. Rosario also sets up surveillance cameras in their house, and keeps watching the set of screens mostly showing empty rooms. Perhaps the most telling, and certainly poetic and haunting, shot is the final one, showing Rosario repeating over and over a short strip of surveillance footage of Sharon going out a door. This, and a sequence just before where he watches videos of her at various sub-teen stages performing songs, are rare instances where the camera doesn't sneak up and bite its subject but gives us a moment to think.

Of course stories like this have been told many times in film. Such scenes occur in any musical biopic. Imagine one about Michael Jackson and his "babbo". The action is, given the filmmakers' documentary skills, very realistic, no doubt also as to the recording studio, where the person on the controls sends Sharon away because her voice is too "nasal" and "raucous." That's not really noticeable, and we wonder if this actor, like Rosario, isn't overplaying the harsh side. The competition scene takes place, we guess - as with everything else we don't get to see much - but there isn't extensive development of the conventional music bio narrative. All we know is that Rosario's effort to push Sharon seems to begin losing steam at a certain point.

Those who like to be challenged may enjoy the visual style, though the idea that it conveys universality seems illusory. The experience offered is unique, also frustrating. The striving for universality seems undercut by the fact that the characters all speak in Campania accent you could cut with a knife, making the ambiance very specific even for Italians.

Crater has been compared to Visconti's Bellissima and also last year's film Indivisible, Edoardo De Angelis’ story about pretty conjoined twins exploited by their parents as novelty singers - which in turn may remind some of Fulton and Pepe's Brothers of the Head (SFIFF 2006). But those all offer rich visual worlds that Luzi and Bellino intentionally deny us.

Crater/Il cratere, 94 mins., debuted in the Directors' section at Venice Sept 2017; also was in competition t Tokyo, where it received a special jury prize; theatrical release in Italy 14 Apr. 2018. Screened for this review as part of the Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center, Q&A with the filmmakers.

Showtimes, Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center:
June 2-1:00 PM
June 4 - 4:15 PM

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