Having proved himself a skilled director of sharply scripted social comedies, Daniele Luchetti seems destined to keep following his hits with ambitious misfires. “Il Portaborse” segued to the pretentious “Arriva la bufera,” while the Italo helmer now follows 1995’s “School” with the disappointing “Little Teachers.” Based on Luigi Meneghello’s poetic novel about a band of idealistic young college students drawn into the Resistance struggle, this antiheroic take on the World War II partisan movement musters too little passion and emotion to stir much theatrical support.
Part of what distinguished “School” was its wittily drawn gallery of faculty and student characters. But the same scripting team of veterans Sandro Petraglia , Stefano Rulli, novelist Domenico Starnone and Luchetti here have penned a dramatically inert ensemble piece in which characters are indistinct and interchangeable, despite an able enough corps of young, mostly non-professional actors.
Chronicle of the final 20 months before Italy’s liberation from fascism centers on a group of philosophy-spouting student chums. Identifying empty rhetoric as their prime enemy, they head into the mountains in Nazi-occupied northern Italy where they soon attract additional recruits. Like kids playing at war, their early exploits are marked more by enthusiasm than by strategy; the group’s tendency to get caught up in theorizing also limits the effectiveness of their actions. But as they become part of the real conflict, and some of their number are killed, the eye-opening reality of war changes them.
Maintaining an almost jaunty tone in the early going, the film gradually acquires dramatic weight as its protagonists develop a consciousness of the events in which they blithely became involved, and as the barely formed principles of democracy and freedom they set off pursuing become fused by pain and experience into more concrete ideals.
While Luchetti and his co-scripters avoid the lyrical, folkloric sweep of such films on the war as Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s “The Night of the Shooting Stars,” and wisely shun the solemnly self-important tone of more recent partisan dramas, their alternative doesn’t amount to much of anything.
The film strives to be an intimate epic, but as a reflection on a part of Italian history whose merits are still being debated by revisionists, the nostalgic drama is ambling and inconclusive; as a film about youth, it is lifeless. Its lack of dramatic muscle makes the characters’ ruminations unaffecting, and even the climactic surrender of occupying German soldiers has no emotional impact.
On the plus side, the cast is appealingly natural, in particular rising star Stefano Accorsi as Gigi, whose easygoing warmth gives the motley band a strong center. But the underplaying of the story’s romantic thread, in which Gigi slowly falls for and wins his best friend’sgirl (Stefania Montorsi), only robs the film of some much-needed tangible conflict and adds to the frustration over how remote and weightless these characters remain.
Giuseppe Lanci’s widescreen lensing, scenic countryside locations and production designer Giancarlo Basili’s fine period reconstruction combine to give the film a handsome look. Its one technical liability is Dario Lucantoni’s unrelenting, saccharine score.