Two mule-headed women lock horns and car bumpers in multihyphenate Emma Dante’s vivisection of Sicilian society, “A Street in Palermo.” Using a scalpel lightly coated with black humor, the tyro helmer with a background in theater/opera trains an agitated camera and a narrowly focused lens on two worlds: the privileged who flee Palermo’s suffocating alliances and disorder, and those who participate in the parochialism. Largely shot on one street but avoiding a claustrophobic feel, the pic can’t sustain its thematic intensity and feels stretched too thin, notwithstanding a strangely powerful finale. Sales even at home will be modest.
It’s a hot summer Sunday, and tensions are escalating as Rosa (helmer Dante) and her lover, Clara (Alba Rohrwacher), drive through Palermo. Rosa, a native, generally avoids the city, unable to take its predictable unpredictability, while Clara, nervously sketching as her partner drives, feels the distance growing between them and suggests they break up. Dante uses a tight frame and anxious camera movements to further bring out the friction building up in the car.
Meanwhile, Samira (stage star Elena Cotta), an elderly widow in black, mutely tends the grave of her daughter, who died of cancer at 36. After leaving the cemetery she picks up her bullying son-in-law, Saro (Renato Malfatti), along with his family from his first wife, and drives them back home. Only yards from their house, on a narrow street called Via Castellana Bandiera, Samira’s car is blocked by Rosa’s car trying to pass through. The two women eye each other, expecting the other to move first; when neither budges, they turn off the engines and wait.
This small, half-paved street will seem Third World to audiences unfamiliar with the dusty late-20th-century constructions on the periphery of Italian cities in the south, yet it’s typical of such neighborhoods. Dante herself was once a resident, and in classic Sicilian style, although the road exudes working-class vibes, it’s actually close to the storied five-star Villa Igiea Hotel (not shown). Knowing the city’s geography will undoubtedly help audiences to understand certain behavior, since here streets can act as independent, insular villages, despite being part of a metropolis.
Samira’s known throughout the neighborhood as a crazy woman of legendary stubbornness: This isn’t the first time she’s refused to back up or back off. She’s also an outsider from the neighboring town of Piana degli Albanesi, which still preserves its Albanian roots. Saro and family finally get out of the car, but Samira, ever silent, remains grasping the wheel and staring down her rival through their dirty windshields. Rosa is a worthy opponent, ever-ready to tap into her wellspring of cynicism and anger. When Samira needs to pee, she gets out and does it in the road, facing off against Rosa, who follows suit in a scene that could be a sendup of the OK Corral.
Quickly the neighbors get involved, offering Rosa advice (get out) and then, courtesy of wheeler-dealer Filippo Mangiapane (Carmine Maringola), organizing bets on who’ll back down first. Clara doesn’t see the point of the standoff and accepts an offer from Saro’s son Nicolo (Dario Casarolo), 16, to get a bite while Rosa and Samira remain voluntarily car-bound. Their moments out form a welcome interlude, gently filling in character details, yet it’s over too quickly, and there never is a sense as to why Clara stays with Rosa. Clearer is the fate of high-school dropout Nicolo, whose sensitivity (he’s the only one Samira responds to) will be crushed by the limiting social codes of family and neighborhood.
Clearly helmer Dante is influenced by the semi-anarchic insular communities of classic Italian comedy directors like Mario Monicelli and Dino Risi, whose tight-knit members gossip, play and often swindle each other. Yet she keeps the comedy to a minimum. Her main focus is on these two immovable women, each rooted to the spot for very different reasons. For Rosa, eager to cut all ties to her antecedents, Palermo itself stokes her aggression, her anger deeply connected to feelings of insecurity. By contrast, Samira’s stubbornness comes partly from inconsolable grief, which has obviously loosened a mental screw, but also from the steeliness required of an outsider, Sicilian yet ethnically Albanian.
Cotta’s almost entirely mute role means everything is in her face, an inscrutable map of lines anchored by pale, rheumy eyes of a disturbing intensity that make Samira a figure of sympathy, even though the film is unable to get under her skin. A bit more background for Rosa, especially her relationship with Clara, would have been welcome.
Gherardo Gossi’s nervous camera, especially at the start, reproduces the stress inside the cars, nicely matched by the excellent editing. Best of all are production designer Emita Frigato’s modifications to the actual street, revealing in the final shot just how thoroughly these individuals remain stuck in their constricted world.