A summer of discovery is in store for a 15-year-old in 1980 when he befriends a U.S. military officer and learns about surfing and girls in Massimo Natale’s disarming debut, “Martino’s Summer.” Based on Giorgio Fabbri’s prize-winning script “Luglio 80,” the pic doesn’t cover much new ground, but apart from a few wrong turns and a needlessly misleading finale, it succeeds in getting into the characters’ heads and under auds’ skin. Marketing to teens is probably the wisest course; “Martino” rolls out mid-November in a limited number of prints, but could build with proper shepherding.
Hard-jawed teen Martino (Luigi Ciardo, excellent) is not enjoying his summer in the shadow of brash older brother Massimo (Pietro Masotti). Part of the reason is his attraction to Massimo’s g.f., Silvia (Matilde Maggio), but Martino’s unhappiness goes deeper, tied to his mother’s death, his father’s constant anger and the usual teenage turmoil.
When he spies a couple of American soldiers surfing next to an off-limits NATO base, he’s intrigued. Persistence pays off, and he befriends Capt. Jeff Clark (Treat Williams), who finally agrees to give him lessons. Naturally, the captain is also carrying around some emotional baggage (though far lighter than expected), and the two bond in the waves while discovering the strength to face their challenges.
Practically the entire film is shot on a beach in the southern Puglia region, yet Natale manages to make the locale feel anything but limiting. Though surfing is what brings the protags together, very little time is actually spent observing them catch waves, and it’s refreshing to watch a movie treating this theme without ever encountering the word “dude.” The script nicely builds on the relationship between Massimo and the captain (Fabbri cites “The Old Man and the Sea” as an inspiration), making their interaction believable and intelligent.
The same isn’t always the case with other characters: Massimo and Silvia’s burgeoning romance is well handled at first, but are topless shots of a teen really necessary, and is their coupling something to root for? Occasional golden-lensed flashbacks to Massimo’s late mom (Silvia Delfino) reading a fairy tale about courage are only fitfully successful, and the deceptive finale, partly set in Bologna’s train station, is too obviously manipulative.
The summer of 1980 was a fraught one for Italy: In June, a plane crash near the island of Ustica was popularly ascribed to an errant NATO missile, and in August, 85 people were killed by a terrorist bomb in Bologna’s railroad station. Italians have these events seared into their brains, and some knowledge is vital to an understanding of inter- and extratextual tensions in the film.
Newcomer Ciardo delivers a nuanced, fully conceived performance, well matched by Williams’ ability to convey depth in an underwritten role; he’s also impressively at ease switching between reasonably good Italian and English. Visuals are attractive and feel right for the period without pushing the details, focusing instead on the beach as a landscape of possibilities.