In his fourth stint behind the camera, actor-turned-director Michele Placido weaves a romantic tale about a feisty young woman whose Communist principles and crusade for female emancipation make her an unpopular presence in conservative southern Italy in the late ’50s. Inspired by Liliana Rossi, a largely forgotten figure from Placido’s hometown in Puglia, who dedicated her short but intense life to voluntary teaching, community assistance and politics, “Of Lost Love” sufficiently recovers from its awkward opening stretch and schematic flashback structure to become an engrossing, if old-fashioned, period piece that should figure on fest slates.
While it lacks the tight direction and economy of Placido’s “Close Friends” and “Un Eroe Borghese,” the new pic represents a leap to a much larger canvas with strong production values, in particular d.p. Blasco Giurato’s drained colors and graceful ‘scope lensing of the vast, open landscapes of Puglia. But while its visuals might open some arthouse doors, the backdrop of dense political factionalism that became characteristic of postwar Italy may make the drama remote to foreign audiences.
Prosaic present-day opening has 50-year-old priest Don Gerardo (Placido) preaching about sins while reflecting on memories of his own failings. Backtracking to his childhood in 1958, the drama wades through some stodgy exposition, sketching the prior expulsion from school of young Gerardo (Piero Pischedda) over a presumed homosexual encounter, and the efforts of his disciplinarian father (Fabrizio Bentivoglio) to toughen him up and set him on a righteous path.
The story becomes more cogent as outsider Gerardo is progressively drawn to twentysomething Liliana (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), an outspoken, active member of the Communist party, which in itself constitutes a mortal sin according to the oppressive Catholic Church. Despite the hostility of the community, including her uncle (Lorenzo Gentile), a former mayor, his successor (Rocco Papaleo) and the parish priest (Rino Cassano), Liliana establishes a school in an abandoned stable for the many local kids kicked out of state schools. But her teaching of such advanced ideas as birth control and equality between the sexes creates more resentment.
Part of the film’s failing to go beyond solid storytelling and become a truly stirring historical saga — a push in part attempted by Carlo Crivelli’s emotionally overstated score — is due to its delay in making Liliana’s character more central. This occurs gradually as she becomes more involved in politics, running for a seat on the local council and alienating not only the moral majority but also members of her own party with her passionate views.
The confusion caused by Gerardo’s incipient love for Liliana, his religious vocation and his conditioned disapproval of her red flag-waving is aggravated when he learns of her clandestine affair with a married doctor (Enrico Lo Verso) , prompting him to join right-wing thugs in the destruction of Liliana’s school.
A consistently able director of actors, Placido elicits a performance full of conviction from relative newcomer Mezzogiorno (“The Bride’s Journey”), but the script only partially succeeds in establishing Liliana’s quietly heroic dimensions. Consequently, it is the rich cast of supporting players that really stands out, especially Bentivoglio, who slowly reveals the humanity and dignity beneath his character’s rigid surface; Papaleo and Gentile as the town’s slimy moralists; and Sergio Rubini as a supposedly respectable former fascist.
The film is dedicated to Mezzogiorno’s late father, actor Vittorio Mezzogiorno, who co-starred with Placido in Francesco Rosi’s “Three Brothers.”