It’s a challenge not to laugh at “A Neapolitan Spell,” a small but inspired first feature about a Naples couple horrified to discover that their daughter has been born speaking Milanese. More like an East European fairy tale than typical Italian comedy, pic at first seems aimed at sending up Italy’s great north/south divide, then goes deeper into universal themes ranging from father-daughter relations to people imposing their beliefs on others. Light and simple, this low-budget entry written and directed by Paolo Genovese and Luca Miniero is a welcome change from the conventionality of many current Italo releases. It should do especially well with auds who know the difference between a pastiera (classic Naples cake) and a panettone (a sweet northern bread). Though its regional gags are broad enough to work offshore with clever subtitling, fests are likely to be the main takers.
Patrizia (Marina Confalone) and Gianni Aiello (Gianni Ferreri), fifth-generation Neapolitans, have long desired a child, but when the baby’s first words come out in Milanese dialect, they are devastated. By the time little Assunta is 10 (Chiara Papa), the situation is embarrassing for her relatives. Not only does she not speak a word of local slang, she spits out all of mamma’s pastiera and tomato ragu, preferring risotto alla Milanese.
As a last resort her father sends her away to live in Torre Annunziata, a slum where people speak a Neapolitan dialect so thick “even they don’t understand each other.” But to no avail. She returns, a lovely girl of 20 (Serena Improta in 1950s garb), not only speaking Milanese but pregnant to boot. She has made love to every boy who asked her out, just for a crumb of affection.
Film ends with the absurd but moving story of how father and daughter come to terms. In a clever touch, the whole tale is told by Assunta as a merry 80-year-old (Clelia Bernacchi) with twinkling eyes and (one supposes) a long, happy life behind her. This puts the Aiellos’ misery into perspective and keeps the tone chirpy.
Marina Confalone delivers a very fine, quietly comic perf as Assunta’s mamma, trying to protect her against her husband’s drastic remedies. Ferreri conveys his irrational paternal dismay as totally believable anguish. Supporting characters, who make their comments on Assunta directly into the camera, are decorative and quite funny, particularly Gianni’s two brothers stirring a never-finished ragu.
Andrea Locatelli’s uncomplicated camerawork brings out the film’s fairy tale quality. Kudos to production designer Valentina Scalia for the fearless kitsch of the sets, which include some amazing views of old Naples.