Miramax looks to be in a distinctly Disney frame of mind with its Stateside pickup “Me Let’s Hope I Make It,” a winsomely bittersweet schoolroom lark whose social dissection is colored with disarming sentimentalism. This mainstream departure for veteran Italo helmer Lina Wertmuller won straight A’s at national wickets and should earn decent grades in U.S. playoff if carefully pitched to sophisticated auds.
As in Wertmuller’s 1975 international breakthrough, “Swept Away,” initial conflict and much of the humor stems from north-south antagonism, more pertinent than ever given the current swell of secessionism in Italian politics.
Source material is a bestselling collection of school compositions by barely literate Neapolitan tykes. Wertmuller and a team of seasoned comedy scripters have cleverly woven these into a familiar but amply functional story.
A computer hiccup lands a northern elementary school teacher (Paolo Villaggio) in a run-down, inefficient school outside Naples. While waiting to be reassigned, he tries to instill order, clashing with the school’s laissez-faire principal (Isa Danieli), its crooked janitor (Gigio Morra) and the kids themselves.
Funny opening sequence has Villaggio entering an almost empty classroom, then heading out to round up the truants, variously employed as everything from barmen to barbers to pint-size black marketeers. Villaggio eventually wins their confidence and becomes their teacher, counselor, doctor and confidant.
En route to a heart-tugging conclusion, Villaggio shepherds the kids through changes and undergoes a few himself, culminating with his stealing a car and manhandling an uppity nun.
Pic touches humorously on things like shoddy health care, sanitation, education and public services, but with a grim note of truth. Entry of drugs and the Mafia into the kids’ consciousness is also fluidly intro’d, along with their wretched family situations.
Though the pic frequently seems on the point of sermonizing, the scripters step back from the soapbox each time. But Wertmuller mildly oversteps the cutesiness boundary at times, with one doe-eyed gaze too many from the moppet cast.
A local icon — thanks to his long-running series of “Fantozzi” flicks — Villaggio forgoes his trademark buffoonery to play foil to the wily kids and indolent locals. Some of the laughs stemming from his tenuous grasp of Neapolitan dialect may be lost on offshore auds, but southern histrionics are neatly played against his northern reserve.
Backup adult cast is fine all around, with Danieli hilarious as the chaotic school’s imperturbable chief. Kids are especially delightful when at their rowdiest, as when they supply Villaggio with a lexicon of vulgar insults.
Technically, pic is solid but undistinguished, with some visibly post-synched dialogue a minor blight.