Swans Commentary » swans.com September 25, 2006  



Where're The Stars?


by Peter Byrne


A Book & Film Review



Rea, Ermanno: La dismissione, Rizzoli, 2002, ISBN 88-1786-957-1, 320 pages. BUR Scrittori Contemporanei, 2006, ISBN 88-17-01293-9, 372 pages.

La stella che non c'è, director Gianni Amelio, (Italy, France, Switzerland, 2006). With Sergio Castellitto and Tai Ling. (English title, The Missing Star).


(Swans - September 25, 2006)  There's no greater bore than the novel reader who goes to see the movie of his favorite novel and insists on telling us about all the wonders that the script has left out. He turned up at the 63th Annual Venice film Festival (Aug. 30-Sept. 9) and had a field day with Gianni Amelio's La stella che non c'è, "freely adapted from" Ermanno Rea's novel La dismissione. The spoilsport had to be shut up with the usual emollient, namely, the explanation that a movie can't possibly vehicle a long, complex, time-bound piece of prose and shouldn't make the mistake of trying. Luckily he didn't take his objection a step farther. He could have asked whether a film director, then, might also renounce rendering some sort of equivalent to the novel in film language and pick and choose among its situations ("source material") to tell a quite different story? That's much harder to justify, since the honest thing for a director to do would be to "adapt" the script from another source or, even go to extremes and trust to his own imagination. As we shall see, Gianni Amelio gives a new meaning to freedom in the expression "freely adapted from."

The Novel

If there's one thing Italians can agree on besides food, it's that the city of Naples stands as a case apart. Love it or hate it, they can't escape the fact that Naples resembles a country on its own, with its own language, unwritten laws, and way of seeing its place in the world. Furthermore, everyone, including Neapolitans, perceives the city to be in a long decline. Differences of opinion exist only about whether there's really a bottom it can bottom out in. The current number of the national newsmagazine L'espresso sports the headline "Napoli Perduto" or Naples: a Write-off. Some date the city's descent from the unification of Italy in 1860 when the Neapolitan Bourbons left the scene. Others see it long before that when the Bourbons actually took over.

In 1910 there was an attempt to stop the slide. The Ilva steel mill opened at Bagnoli on the coast near the city. The South of Italy had no industry to speak of -- it still, relatively, doesn't -- and the steel plant assumed huge significance from the outset. For Neapolitans it meant jobs and a hope of modernization, and for the entire South a proof that it was not excluded from progress. No one cared that Bagnoli would become a 19th century industrial hellhole, later topped up by cement and asbestos industries. The South possessed many idyllic spots such as Bagnoli had been, complete with Roman ruins and thermal baths. It had few industrial jobs.

In WWII bombs fell on the area, which was then completely razed by the departing Germans. But by 1951 the plant had recovered and played a part in the Italian economic "miracle" of the decade. In the 1960s, however, Naples caught up to it. Ilva became the city's mirror in its corrupt management and domination by the local mafia, the Camorra. In the early 1980s one of those irrational bursts of southern energy and enormous investments gave Ilva a new life. Then, in 1992, the modernized plant, to everyone's surprise, closed and 9,000 jobs (some reports say 13,000) were lost. Changes in the world steel market and indebtedness, it was explained, made Ilva unsustainable. Rumors had it that speculators wanted the land cleared for building.

Such is the forbidding subject taken on by Ermanno Rea in his novel La dismissione, that is to say, the decommissioning of the enormous steel plant. Rea diverts the industrial worker's novel well away from its usual path. The hero, Vincenzo, seems at first to have fled into a story by Camus or Kafka. He's as obsessive and solitary as any stumbling character of Beckett or intellectual of Sartre. His differences with his wife Rosaria are not going to be put right at a long dinner table in the open on a sunny Sunday to the sound of an accordion. His co-workers are not all rough diamonds but often some very nasty pieces of work. The closedown has shaken their lives and left everyone looking out for himself with the arms at his disposal.

Vincenzo joined the plant's work force right out of school. A good student, he'd acquired the technical knowledge that would assure his subsequent promotions. But more important was his dedication, his identifying with the plant and its operations. He actually lives in an apartment overlooking the industrial site. When he observes the monstrous layout from his balcony he secretly exalts in the pollution that falls on him as if it were morning dew.

In Vincenzo, however, Rea doesn't portray some assembly line zombie out of a 1930s anti-capitalist tract. The character is a well-rounded neurotic, with as dense subjectivity as the creations of the 20th century masters mentioned above. His driving force and the cross he bears reside in his perfectionism -- and his love. Rea takes up Vincenzo's story when the plant's fate has already been sealed. The workers have had to accept the closing and, thanks to perks and payoffs, been for the most part pacified. The Chinese are buying parts of the Ilva plant to take home and reassemble. Never does Vincenzo's attachment wane to the machinery he knows better than anyone else. He not only feels responsibility for it, but a sense that without it he has no life.

At this point, the novelist runs into trouble. He's taken the love of work into a new dimension. Vincenzo has the same aspirations as a dedicated artist with few monetary afterthoughts. But, as story telling goes, Rea's ended in a blind alley. We have left Camus and Kafka to enter a series of tiny, loosely connected sociological dramas that will be spun out to fill pages and more pages. Vincenzo reaches back into his years at the plant to present what amounts to a collection of anecdotes.

True, all this bulks out the picture of Bagnoli and Naples. It's the kind of background found in good journalism with an eye for "human interest." However, didn't we start with the big bang of Vincenzo's obsession as if we were going to ride the wild stallion of an updated individualist hero? Momentum has been lost; perhaps we set out at too great a pitch. Now we feel let down to find ourselves amidst the humdrum details of a neighborhood on the skids. All the more so because these bits and pieces don't seem to lead anywhere except to more of the same.

Of Vincenzo, Rea only reiterates what we already know about him. As author he has also lumbered himself with a debilitating gimmick. He is supposedly acquiring the information that makes up the novel from Vincenzo himself in a kind of endless interview. This creates all sorts of doubts in the reader. Doesn't the method put breaks on the man's personal revelations? What exactly does the journalist contribute? Far better to let Vincenzo have the floor entirely on his own. There's something mistaken in writing a novel that's afraid to call itself a novel.

The arrival of the Chinese in Bagnoli fails to set the story back on track and moving again. A party of fifty come to learn all about the machinery they have purchased that will be taken down and re-erected at Meishan. They see Vincenzo, because of his seriousness and highly specialized knowledge, as indispensable. Ironically, his personal fulfillment continues as the object of his affection is dismantled to be shipped overseas. The Chinese offer him a job in Meishan. But opposition from Rosaria and his own Neapolitan fatalism will keep him in the city to whose intriguing life Rea devotes more and more attention.

Several minor story lines run their course. A young woman fails to divert Vincenzo's sense of responsibility to herself; her moral dissolution and death parallels the degradation of Bagnoli. Vincenzo will get to know the Chinese better and continue to demonstrate his ingenuity in solving mechanical problems beyond the call of duty. On the waiting ship there are final goodbyes to sections of his beloved plant and Chinese friends. The reader finishes La dismissione with the impression of having read a good book about a fascinating city in yet another moment of crisis. He can't help, however, being disappointed in the hero and his creator who seemed to promise more. Vincenzo really hasn't developed and his destiny remains where we found it on page one. No central drama has taken shape that could have concentrated, slimmed down, and sped up the narrative flow. In the last analysis the reader has to admit that rather than searing memories what he takes away from the novel is curiosity about how the filmmaker Gianni Amelio might put it to use.

The Movie

The film touches down in Naples just long enough to let us know that Sergio Castellitto -- Vincenzo -- has been employed at the steel plant now bought by the Chinese and wrapped up to take home. Vincenzo informs them before they leave that a defect mars their purchase. But despite help from the official Chinese translator, a slip of a young woman, Liu (Tai Ling), his revelation makes no impression. Then we see him in a machine shop putting together a metal object the size of an old-fashioned alarm clock.

Next, hold your hats, he's in China and seeks out the pretty, young translator. She's not happy to see him because her last job involving him got her fired. This is mere coyness, not on her part but on that of the scriptwriters (Amelio and Umberto Contarello). For Vincenzo, no Marco Polo, can't possibly navigate China without her help. He's neglected to obtain institutional or financial backing for his trip. We never doubt that Liu will gradually come around and smile.

Sure enough, the two set out together, so Vincenzo can deliver his alarm clock to the re-erected steel mill in order that -- well, we don't really know why. Does it matter? Not to Amelio, who really only wanted his road movie to be up and running. We are supposed to silence our curiosity about Vincenzo, whose character no one has bothered to establish. Our role will be to exclaim over the great shots of the New China that Amelio's excellent cinematographer, Lucca Bigazzi, will deliver. There will be landscapes out of classical Chinese painting, views of remote lunar countryside, desolate industrial scenes, and elevatorless skyscrapers crammed with busy humanity that in the Nixon era was called the Red Ants.

As this majestic travelogue unfolds, our two characters -- pretty lightweight at their best -- become completely superfluous. Worse, they and their slight, implausible story actually get in the way. We ask ourselves, as Bigazzi puts his filters in place to shoot another magnificent view, why Castellitto doesn't get out of our sight lines. Instead he stands in the foreground registering surprise, disorientation, exhaustion and, well, more surprise.

Vincenzo's two or three failures to find the right steel plant allow Amelio to show us the transport facilities of the New China -- planes, trains, buses, trucks (some with three wheels) and even a boat going up the Yangtze River. Finally, coincidence aiding hugely, Vincenzo delivers his alarm clock to the right place. The gizmo seems very much what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin, a contrivance with no reality except as pretext to keep a story rolling. Its purpose has been to get Vincenzo from one side of China to the other. The ungrateful Chinese workers, in what Amelio doubtless sees as irony, throw the alarm clock on to a pile of scrap metal. Forget irony, that's just where a used MacGuffin belongs.

Gianni Amelio's The Missing Star glows with a decidedly provincial light. It's hardly breaking news, for anyone besides Vincenzo, that China suffers from dreadful pollution and that its workers don't enjoy the conditions of those in Milan or Turin. There's a whispered bass line here noticeable in Italian films made outside of Italy. The director murmurs, "Look, we're actually filming in India, or North Africa or Iowa! Wow!"

On September 9th The Venice Festival awarded the Golden Lion for best film to a movie about China, but not to La stella che non ch'è aka The Missing Star. The winner was Jia Zhang-Ke's Still Life, a Chinese film made by the Chinese. Perhaps, following that recipe, Naples could eventually have its day at the annual Venice Festival.


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About the Author

Peter Byrne was born in Chicago, attended universities in Quebec and Paris, and lived for long periods, teaching and writing, in Montreal, London, Paris, Italy -- north and south -- Sofia, and Istanbul. He now lives in the Italian city of Lecce within sight of Albania on a very clear day.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 25, 2006