Exile, remorse, guilt and responsibility are the themes of Italian newcomer Marco Turco’s uncommonly well-handled debut, “Belleville,” which examines the lives of a close-knit community of former terrorists living as political refugees in Paris and the painful after-effect of their actions. While a number of recent Italian features have dealt with 1970s urban terrorism, this modest production makes the issues in question more immediate than most, gradually building a rich dramatic texture around a story of fraternal bonds. Festival and TV exposure should tag this new director as one to watch.
In addition to making commercials, videos and short films, Turco worked as assistant director to Gianni Amelio on three films. Underlining a strong link to the films of his former boss, Turco’s first feature recalls Amelio’s 1983 drama “Straight to the Heart” in its Paris setting, its assessment of the legacy of urban terrorism through family relationships, and in the father-son conflict of its opening scenes. The film shifts its gaze, however, to two half-brothers who have grown up strangers and are now attempting to bridge the gap.
Setting is the late ’80s in the Belleville quarter of Paris, which is home to many Italians avoiding conviction on terrorism charges. Young journalist Jacopo (Massimo Bellinzoni) travels from Rome with his father (Umberto Turco) for the wedding of his exiled older brother, Dario (Ennio Fantastichini), who has constructed a new life with a respectable job. When Dario’s father leaves after some bitter confrontations, Jacopo decides to stay on and get to know the brother he has always idealized as a heroic free spirit.
But Jacopo’s presence upsets the fragile equilibrium of Dario’s life. The situation worsens when he begins probing into the past, conducting video interviews of Dario’s former comrades in arms. As old wounds are reopened, members of the group become suspicious of his motives. Their fear of extradition and imprisonment provokes hostility, which spirals out of control when Jacopo becomes involved with Eugenia (Isabella Ferrari), who participated years earlier with Dario in a hit on an Italian industrialist.
Along with “Straight to the Heart,” “Belleville” also resembles Mimmo Calopresti’s 1995 feature “The Second Time” in its focus on psychological and personal issues as a way of examining this still-volatile political phenomenon. Based on Turco’s 1996 documentary on political refugees in Paris, the screenplay by Doriana Leondeff, Andrea Porporati and Turco efficiently uses Jacopo’s urge to understand as the embodiment of Italy’s struggle to come to grips with one of the darkest passages in its recent history.
The sober drama depicts the often uneasy rapport of these people in exile with their victims, adversaries and former comrades. It conveys their sense of isolation and fear in scenes such as Eugenia’s painful farewell when her son returns to Italy, and Dario’s shock when he realizes his young daughter already is beginning to learn about his past. While the film appears to be building toward a tragic finale, Turco instead steers it to a more optimistic conclusion, in which dialogue, if not complete understanding, becomes possible.
The understated work of the entire cast is well tuned to the sensitive, controlled direction. Especially notable contributions come from Bellinzoni as the drama’s catalyst; Fantastichini, who makes his hard, scarred character both stern and frightened; and Fabrizio Gifuni as an emotionally unstable former associate of Dario.
Shooting mostly in close-ups and medium shots and in a loose, unconstrained style, lenser Franco Lecca uses grainy images — blown up from 16mm to 35 — to create a suitably intense feel, with wintry Paris making a bleak backdrop. Steve Lacy’s melancholy saxophone and Riccardo Fassi’s percussive jazz commentary effectively underscore the uneasy drama.