(director/writer: Gianni Amelio; screenwriters: Alessandro Sermoneta/ Andrea Porporati; cinematographer: Luca Bigazzi; cast: Enrico Lo Verso (Gino), Carmelo Di Mazzarelli (Michele, “chairman”), Michele Placido (Fiore); Runtime: 125; CGG Tiger/Arena; 1994-It/Fr.)

“Chocked full of universal messages the director feels impelled to get across.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“I’m Italian, don’t you understand?” So go the musings, to deaf Albanian police ears, of Gino (Enrico), a brash, young con man from Italy, who came to Albania to be an assistant to another con man, the more experienced Fiore (Placido). He has now gotten himself mired in the hopelessness of this country, clinging to his belief in his superior Italian birthright in the face of failing to pull off his scam, as he is left abandoned in Albania. The scam artists came to this impoverished country to run a scam shoe company to make someone who is inept and has no relatives, be the dummy “chairman” (Carmelo) of their bogus company. Their hope was to get the Italian government to give them a grant, which they almost always do for those who fought the communist regime. The con men would then take the grant money and skip town, never even making one pair of shoes.

Amelio’s film is a political one, with a black comedic edge as it traces the tragic recent history of Albania, studying the dehumanizing effect bad governments have on its people. In its opening credits it uses actual newsreel footage of Il Duce’s arrival in 1939 to Albania, as it shows his conquest of the country. When WW11 ended, the Soviet Communist regime supported the local dictatorship and the country remained isolated with its vast problems of poverty unknown to most of the world; that is, until 1991, when a supposedly “new” democratic regime took over and opened up the country for the world to see. Italy was flooded with a wave of Albanian immigrants, looking to that country to fulfill its utopian dreams because of its material and cultural strength, but Italy could not handle the onslaught of so many people and would not let anymore immigrants in. What remains for the Albanians is a pipe dream of escaping to Italy, as they are stuck where they are. The new Albanian regime is just as bad as all the other regimes; it is actually made up of most of the leaders from the past, who only change the name of their ruling party.

This is a rather slow-moving film, that is chocked full of universal messages the director feels impelled to get across. This becomes a special political film for those who are interested enough to stick with its slow pace and all the political explorations that are needed to show how corrupt and decaying Albania really is, and how through the human spirit a suppressed people can manage to survive on the barest hope.

Amelio (Open Doors, Stolen Children) has so much political ground to cover that the film becomes overwhelmed with the misery of its exploration and suffers because of it. Problems such as immigration, poverty, corruption, cultural decadence, ignorance, hatred, greed, and a generation influenced by Italian television are just too complicated and heavy to handle without sacrificing the film’s entertainment value. Though I liked what I saw, I did not feel passionately about it. It was a cold but intellectually sound effort.

The character of Gino is examined most closely and he becomes the messenger for the director’s viewpoint. He is trapped in the bleak Albanian countryside trying to make his scam work. His car tires are stolen along with his passport (identity), clothes (appearance) and the arrogance (ego) he had when he first came. His handpicked “chairman” turns out to be an Italian Army deserter from 1939 and not an Albanian anti-Communist. The “chairman” has tried to stop time, thinking he is still 20-years-old, living as if nothing took place the last 50-years since he has been in prison. He forms a very strange relationship with the Italian, both skeptical of him and later on thinking of him as a fellow traveler who is also abused by the world situation. The heart of the film lies in the change that overcomes Gino. This nightmarish episode in his life is certainly profound and deadly. He can never be the same again. By the final scene he is stripped of his worldly possessions, looking ragged and bedraggled, and looking somewhat like an Albanian refugee. And that is the success of this film. We are forced into seeing the poverty that exists, and even if we don’t like to be put in that position there is nothing that we can do about it. There are just no answers and the film is left without a happy ending, only a few images of hope. This is seen when a little girl in a remote Albanian village freely dances and dreams of a better life somewhere else than in the barren land of her birth.