A very old man discovers a pornographic photo of a girl from his village in “The Gift,” an admirable little film from Italy’s deep south. Almost wordless and storyless, and with the inexorable rhythm of a funeral march, film starts slowly and unpromisingly, but catches on through sheer weirdness. Debuting director Michelangelo Frammartino makes masterful use of cinematic understatement to portray the hidden life of a beautiful but dying place. A little sad, a little ironic, the film has been a hit on the festival circuit, and certainly warrants a look from cultural TV channels.
At the foot of a Calabrian ghost town depopulated by emigration, an old fellow (played by the director’s 93-year-old grandfather, Angelo Frammartino) calls two boys over to bury his dog. Later he finds a cell phone and the photo of a naked couple in bed. He ignores the phone as it vibrates its way across his simple wooden table. The picture fascinates him.
The girl (Gabriella Maiolo), who lives in a beached boat on a desolate shore and seems a little crazy, prostitutes herself by the roadside by the wrecks of rusting cars. Her bicycle is unable to make it up the steep grade leading to town, so her customers give her a lift. In town, she delivers groceries from a supermarket somewhere in the valley. Old women cast spells to help her exorcise her demons.
The air of mystery is pervasive. In everything that happens, a causal link is implied but not explicitly stated. The funeral announcements on the ancient walls and a coffin being carried to the church suggest a dying town. A single child appears in the film, chasing a ball that rolls down the streets until it literally falls off the mountainside. The entire film passes before a connection is made between the old man and the girl, which finally occurs in a wonderfully offhand way.
Frammartino’s rigorous use of fixed camera and long takes, and the use of non-professional actors asked to be themselves rather than to act, create a contemplative mood that recalls the simple humanity of Iranian cinema. Yet for all its humble anti-drama, pic closes with a surprise: a magic realism scene out of a South American novel.
For the record, pic is said to have been shot in 16mm in 14 days for $6,000, before being picked up by Italia Cinema and RAI Cinema. The director, of Calabrian origin, lives in Milan.