"Hoodlum" isn't the word that springs to mind as a group of actors indulge in joyous mayhem at the start of Mirjiam Kubescha's surprising docu, but, when it's revealed that these performers are also prisoners, the title takes on a more varied meaning.
“Hoodlum” isn’t the word that springs to mind as a group of actors indulge in joyous mayhem at the start of Mirjiam Kubescha’s surprising docu, but, when it’s revealed that these performers are also prisoners, the title takes on a more varied meaning. Though Kubescha wears her social activist hat a little too conspicuously, there’s no denying the talent of “the Company of the Fortress,” a theater troupe based in a high security Italian jail. Kubescha’s docu, which picked up an award at Turin, is more likely to travel abroad than its incarcerated subjects.U.S. auds used to “Oz” may be surprised by the degree of freedom awarded this odd assortment of killers and thieves, who’ve built their own theater within prison walls and regularly get leave to tour Italy with avant-garde productions ranging from “Hamlet” to “Marat/Sade.” Pic focuses on rehearsals for both “The Threepenny Opera” and a Brechtian cabaret-style take on life’s travails, rich in irony and erotic potential. Group founder Armando Punzo stays mostly in the background, allowing the men themselves to bring out the force and humor of the material in surprisingly effective ways: “Mack the Knife” takes on a whole new dimension when sung by someone locked away for murder. The prisoners speak with dedication and warmth about their new vocation, though pic’s most powerful moment comes when they address the camera and tell what they wanted to be when they grew up. Kubescha is determined to connect the poverty of the southern Italian provinces and crime, but she teeters dangerously on the “they had no choice” line as the men discuss young lives ground down by hopelessness. Still, while there’s no argument about the effects of poverty, plenty of disadvantaged people don’t feel the need to resort to serious crime, as is made clear by interviews with family members not in prison. When “society” is too frequently blamed, it’s difficult not to hear the Jets, tongue-in-cheek, singing “Gee, Officer Krupke.” That said, her point that prison doesn’t do enough to rehabilitate inmates is certainly on target, and after seeing Vincenzo Lo Monaco (serving a life sentence for murder) capture Kurt Weill’s edgy humor perfectly, and talk about life behind bars movingly, it’s difficult not to feel some of these guys deserve a second chance. Tech credits are tops, with d.p. Sophie Maintigneux’s omnipresent camera obviously unthreatening and continually creative. Hand-held work is nicely controlled, and intense close-ups heighten the unexpected emotional impact.