Review: ‘South Side Story’

Confirming her title as the queen of Italian musical comedy in "South Side Story," director Roberta Torre delivers a second film very much in the mold of her tradition-bashing debut, "Tano to Die For." If two loud, chaotic, neon-colored, tongue-in-cheek songfests set in Palermo's slums seem a little repetitive, Torre can at least vaunt the consistency of a unique style miles from what everyone else in Italy is doing. In comparing the two films, however, it becomes clear that the aggressiveness of her mocking, new-wave pop style is much less in synch with current pic, whose story about a local boy in love with an African girl is an obvious take-off on a beloved musical classic. If the novelty hasn't worn off for "Tano" fans, domestic box office should be similar for the Istituto Luce release. Elsewhere, distribs will have to chase down niche auds looking for an offbeat kick.

Confirming her title as the queen of Italian musical comedy in “South Side Story,” director Roberta Torre delivers a second film very much in the mold of her tradition-bashing debut, “Tano to Die For.” If two loud, chaotic, neon-colored, tongue-in-cheek songfests set in Palermo’s slums seem a little repetitive, Torre can at least vaunt the consistency of a unique style miles from what everyone else in Italy is doing. In comparing the two films, however, it becomes clear that the aggressiveness of her mocking, new-wave pop style is much less in synch with current pic, whose story about a local boy in love with an African girl is an obvious take-off on a beloved musical classic. If the novelty hasn’t worn off for “Tano” fans, domestic box office should be similar for the Istituto Luce release. Elsewhere, distribs will have to chase down niche auds looking for an offbeat kick.

Italy’s growing immigration problem has often been tackled in social-minded, realistic films. Here, the underlying condemnation of racial hatred is no less strong, despite the tone of lighthearted burlesque. Romea (Forstine Ehobor), a smashing Nigerian girl, is one of the $15-a-trick African prostitutes who have been smuggled into Italy to work for their “managers” until they pay off a colossal bondage fee. When the girls move into a low-rent street they cause a scandal among local residents, comically repped by the three obese aunts of Toni Giulietto (Roberto Rondelli), a rock ‘n’ roll singer and Elvis imitator.

The aunts have even more to shriek about when Toni and Romea fall for each other, a romance opposed by Romea’s girlfriends, too. Each camp consults its local witches for magic potions to end the attraction, but to no avail. Echoing the hostility between the Sicilian and African camps, Torre contrasts the performance styles of two of Italy’s most popular and kitschy warblers, Little Tony (an Italo version of Elvis, and Toni Giulietto’s idol) and famed Neapolitan singer Mario Merola, a hero for Toni’s aunts. Both make hilarious guest appearances.

Torre’s approach here lacks the daring political edge it had in “Tano,” where it was a perfect match for the vulgarity of Sicilian Mafiosi. But like her first pic, this is very much a group film performed by non-pro actors moving, chanting, singing and screaming in chorus. Flashily duded-out leads Ehobor and Rondelli, both making their screen bows, are part of pic’s incredible pop-art surface created by cinematographer Daniele Cipri.

Catchy, toe-tapping tunes written by Gino Decrescenzo have great energy and a grungy physical charm. Except for Rondelli, the singers are non-pros clearly cast for their grotesque faces rather than their voices or choreographic skills. Filippo Pecoraino’s wild, unchained art direction dresses Palermo’s colorful slums as theater sets, which they naturally resemble. Indoor sets seem inspired by children’s art.

South Side Story

Italy

Production

An Istituto Luce release (in Italy) of a Gam Film production in association with Istituto Luce. (International sales: Adriana Chiesa Enterprises, Rome.) Produced by Gherardo Pagliei, Elisabetta Riga. Directed by Roberta Torre. Screenplay, Torre, Franco Maresco, Francesco Suriano.

Crew

Camera (color), Daniele Cipri; editor, Giogio Franchini; music, Gino Decrescenzo; musical project, Torre, Nicola Zaccardi; art director, Filippo Pecoraino, Torre; costume designers, Alberto Spiazzi, Alessandro Lai, Claudio Cordaro. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Dreams and Visions), Sept. 6, 2000. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Romea - Forstine Ehobor Toni Giulietto - Roberto Rondelli Aunts - Eleonora Teriaca, Rosa D'Alba, Giuseppa Vella With: Little Tony (Antonio Ciacci), Mario Merola.
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