Two tough Italian con artists come face to face with the nightmarish despair of post-Communist Albania in “Lamerica,” a hard-hitting, often moving film by top Italo helmer Gianni Amelio. Pic’s uncompromising scorn for the two exploiters is matched by its hellish vision of a starving nation desperately searching for an escape hatch. Much tougher than Amelio’s previous “The Stolen Children,” pic could encounter resistance from more delicate filmgoers. But its evangelical sincerity and the sweeping emotion of its finale could win the director new admirers abroad with well-targeted handling.
Enrico Lo Verso, the swarthy young carabineer from “Children,” returns as Gino, an apprentice swindler who comes to Albania with the more experienced Fiore (Michele Placido) to buy a shoe factory they never intend to run. Their get-rich-quick scheme is to cash in on Italian government aid to Albania’s devastated post-Communist economy, but first they need to find a local majority partner to play the role of the company’s puppet president.
The choice falls on 80-year-old Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), a helpless senior who has been driven mad by 20 years of hard labor in the Communist prisons. Now the prison doors have been flung open, but Spiro has no place to go. He still lives in the labor camp, filmed as a living hell, with other lost souls.
The story takes its first turn when Spiro disappears. Lo Verso’s angry search for the old man offers Amelio a chance to take his camera on the road and meet roving bands of barefoot children and hungry, hollow-eyed citizens traveling on run-down trains and dusty buses. On the way, Gino begins a frightening descent into the world of no-way-out poverty. His arrogance and cruelty melt away as he is dispossessed of everything heowns: his Suzuki jeep, his chic Italian sunglasses, finally his clothes, his passport and what remains of his self-confidence.
In the end, Gino is indistinguishable from the penniless, unwashed, desperate Albanians who cram into a rusty ship bound for Italy. Their faces, some blank, some full of hope, blend into the faces of thousands of Italian immigrants from the past. The film ends here, but Italian viewers well remember the fate of the Albanian refugees on that voyage of hope in the summer of 1991: When they reached Italy, they were herded into soccer stadiums, where they remained for days before being forced to go back home.
Despite its grounding in recent history, there’s nothing documentary about “Lamerica’s” carefully planned and paced scenes, lensed in chillingly desaturated color and epic widescreen by Luca Bigazzi. At the film’s center is the relationship between Gino and the deranged old man, who, much to his surprise, turns out to be Italian, a Sicilian like himself who deserted Mussolini’s army in 1939 and went into hiding under an Albanian name. Played by a non-pro, Spiro/Michele has the unreal presence of a concentration camp victim come back to life.
Lo Verso is at the height of his powers here, lending intensity to the cocky, despicably self-serving Gino who gets a comeuppance of biblical proportions. But even this strong a perf can’t erase a feeling that the character is very schematically drawn, and Gino’s slow progress toward human feeling is all too predictable. Placido is on target in a small role as his totally cynical business partner.
Title comes from Amelio’s metaphoric connection between the Albanians straining to reach the promised land of Italy, and the impoverished generation of Italians who left their country behind to go to America.