Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 03, 2018 6:49 pm 
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Small victories that count

In the calm, polished world of contemporary Italian cinema, Vincenzo Marra's feature Equilibrium/L'Eqilibrio is an exhilaratingly angry movie. Shot with limited means and mostly non-professional actors, it concerns a priest whose quiet struggle for what is right is none the less noble and significant for being largely frustrated. Whatever happens, he has dared to take action against what he sees is wrong. Marra feels that people don't care any more, that we have given up the struggle against the worst powers that be, are dominated by fear of practically everything, and that the gangster forces that dominate his native Naples are nothing compared to the evil rule of the rest of Italy, the north, America, and the world. Father Giuseppe tries, and his path is one the director has frankly talked about as "Christ-like." The modest, understated but incisive The Equilibrium is the most exciting film I have seen in the Lincoln Center Italian film series this year. Its intensity is underlined by the way it follows its protagonist around constantly in a continual series of long single takes, documentary-style.

Father Giuseppe (Mimmo Borrelli, projecting quiet steadfastness) has been a missionary in Africa, and when first encountered, is working to help and protect refugees as part of his work at a small diocese in Rome. He decides to seek reassignment, and quickly gets it, after he feels his vocation is in danger when his relationship with a female coworker has become too emotional: she has confessed to being in love with him and he also has feelings for her. He is sent to a larger parish on the outskirts of Naples, to his native Campania, where he comes from.

Father Giuseppe arrives back at the land of Camorra-sanctioned waste mismanagement chronicled in the film See Naples and Die and in Roberto Saviano's book on which Matteo Garrone's Cannes Grand Prix-winning film Gomorrah was based.)

Father Giuseppe comes to replace a veteran cleric, Don Antonio (Roberto Del Gaudio, convincing as a glib fake), who has been and remains outspoken against the industrial waste problem in the area. Don Antoino seems like a good guy. He talks about the waste issue and about "speaking out" to his congregation, and he points out the burning garbage to Giuseppe. But Father Antonio turns out not really to be one for doing anything. Quite the contrary, though he tells Giuseppe when he leaves to get in touch if there is any problem.

The story hereafter focuses on particulars. It turns out the waste issue was a safe one. Objection to it is widespread and responsibility is diffuse. Such is not the case for wrongs Father Giuseppe meets. The first thing he runs into is that kids, including Davide, the altar boy, are playing ball in the street while the parish playing court is occupied by a tethered goat that is locked in. When he asks the nun who works at the parish she says this is because the owner of the goat is "a very important person." His effort to set this situation to rights and tie the goat outside are the first thing that arouses he disapproving gaze of the local Camorra.

The statistics on cancer and other illnesses from the toxic waste and fires are appalling. He goes to a hospital to visit a woman dying of cancer (Astrid Meloni) who begs him to persuade her son Saverio (Giuseppe D’Ambrosio) to see her. Eventually Giuseppe persuades the unwilling Saverio to visit his mother and in doing so he learns the young man's job.He stands guard with a whip in an abandoned building where addicts do their drugs. Why not a better job? Because there aren't any, and straight jobs don't pay anything. The arrangement is to protect Camorra drug interests: if the addicts used in a public, unguarded place, it would draw in the police and interfere with the drug trade.

The same apples when a more serious issue arises after a parishioner, Assunta (Francesa Zazzera), comes not to confess but to chat. She suspects that her boyfriend is abusing her daughter, and this may be widespread in her building. Nobody can say anything about this because the building is a center for the drug trade, and bringing in the police would jeopardize it.

When Giuseppe calls in Don Antonio, he scoffs and says Assunta is crazy, having delusions caused by anti-psychotic medication. The nun is scornful of Giuseppe's action on the goat occupying church space. He should leave things the way they are, she says sourly. That is the proper way to behave.

Don Giuseppe persists with Saverio and with Assunta. He has Assunta's daughter tested and a doctor certifies that she has been used sexually, which he presents to the police. This leads to his being roughed up by Camorra toughs and threatened with a pistol. They send Saverio to threaten him, and then rub Saverio out. Has Don Giuseppe caused Saverio's death? Perhaps; but the pressure not to make waves, to maintain "equilibrium," the status quo, is clearly for Don Giuseppe unacceptable. The death of Saverio is only a small sign of the insignificance of human life to the Camorra. Eventually Don Giuseppe is removed and Don Antonio comes back, taking over the parish again. Finally all Don Giuseppe is able to do is save Assunta and her daughter. But he leaves an honorable man, and Don Antonio is revealed to be a scoundrel.

In his Variety review from Venice, Boyd van Hoeij is approving of this film but points out that it films about the "far-reaching influence" of the crime syndicates in the Italian South "are many," and that Marra "isn’t working on the scale or with the virtuosity of people like Gomorrah’s Matteo Garrone or someone like Paolo Sorrentino." He also says some of the non-actors are less convincing than ones Marra used in a previous film. This may be true, but Equilibrium has a specificity and conviction not found in those more impressive works. There is something austere and relentless here that strikes home.

When this was screened at Lincoln Center director Vincenzo Marra was impressive for his passion and his modesty. He began by saying that the opening trailer for the upcoming Visconti retrospective made him think that we should all just go to lunch (it was a 1 p.m. showing). On the other hand he made clear that he remains convinced of the value of small but sincere films like this one about important things - that small inroads on big wrongs have true value.

Equilibrium/L'Equilibrio, 90 mins., debuted a Venice 5 Sept. 2017. opening theatrically in Italy (typically, very briefly, as Marra pointed out), distributed locally by Warner Bros., a fortnight later; it also was shown at London, Busan, and Buenos Ares. It was screened for this review as part of the 2018 Open Roads: New Italian Cinema series at Lincoln Center.

Showtimes (Walter Reade Theater)
Q&A with Vincenzo Marra on June 3
June 3 -1:00 PM
June 6 - 4:30 PM

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