A foolhardy internship if ever there was one is dramatized in “20 sigarette,” which recounts the incredible (and incredibly irresponsible) work experience of an Italo slacker hired as an assistant director on a film shot in Iraq, in 2003. Hours after Aureliano Amadei’s arrival at Nasiriyah military police HQ, suicide bombers drive a tanker truck into the building, killing soldiers and civilians. Amazingly, Amadei survived, and wrote a book and now directed a film about his experiences. But the pic, which tries to mix realistic wartime drama and light comedy, is so tone-deaf it won’t go anywhere beyond home turf.
The Nov. 12, 2003, bombing killed 17 Italian soldiers and military police, two Italian civilians (including the director of the film Amadei was supposed to work on) and nine Iraqis. Audience familiarity with the event, which was the only media topic for days, could help the pic score some decent B.O. when it bows locally Sept. 8.
Amadei, who was hospitalized in Iraq and then Rome after the attack, later wrote a book about his experiences, which became the basis for this film. However, despite — or perhaps because of — the work of no less than four screenwriters including the director, the tonally incoherent pic tries to tackle far too many things for one film. Perhaps the book had a narrative style that facilitated the coexistence of silly comedy all’italiana with much graver matters, but onscreen, it’s like oil and water.
In its first, comedic reels, the film plays like a wacky “The Men Who Stare at Goats”-style look at the Italian military presence in Iraq. Layabout Aureliano (Vinicio Marchioni), a pacifist who faked being gay so he wouldn’t be drafted, wants to do something in film and decides to accept an offer to work with director Stefano Rolla (Giorgio Colangeli) in Iraq. Comedy’s often more offbeat than hilarious: When the protag’s desperate for a cigarette after landing, he’s told to go to the outdoor smoking area, which amounts to some sandbags layed out in circular fashion.
A photorealistic recreation of the attack catapults the film into “Green Zone” or “The Hurt Locker” territory around the halfway mark, with sound especially well used to convey the disorienting effect of the surprise attack. However, subjective camerawork at times seems more dictated by the need to conceal the pic’s modest budget than by any direct aesthetic concerns. Later reels, in a hospital in Rome, are again injected with comedy, especially through the character of Tino (Edoardo Pesce), a feisty male nurse. Concerns such as the media and army’s misrepresentation of the events are briefly touched on but barely developed.
On top of the jarring tonal shifts, there is another major problem: The protag, as depicted here, is interesting only for having been the right person at the right place at the wrong time. He comes off as callous and reckless in the early going, and doesn’t seem much transformed or outraged by what happened to him. Inexpressive perf from Marchioni in the lead doesn’t help. And all other roles are bit parts.
Pic was shot in Morocco. Title, rigorously kept in Italian in the subtitles and press materials, of course means “20 Cigarettes.”