Hubris and greed encourage corporate shenanigans that bring down a dairy empire in Andrea Molaioli’s “The Little Gem,” a well-crafted sophomore feature that could have packed a wallop with a tighter script. Oddly, while the film cries out for trimming, certain scenes seem to have been infelicitously clipped, resulting in a pic that doesn’t quite come together despite sound ideas, attractive lensing and flawless perfs. Local biz is unlikely to make an impression against a surfeit of popular comedies, while offshore release, barring Italo showcases, will probably be limited to co-producing country France and scattered Euro markets.
The scripters claim inspiration not merely from the current climate of anything-goes financial manipulation, but also from the notorious (temporary) collapse of Italo dairy giant Parmalat, resulting in Italy’s (some say Europe’s) biggest corporate bankruptcy. Molaioli and the pic’s art directors went to impressive lengths to create a believable profile and logo for Leda, their fictional business, even creating a website featuring the various products.
The company boss is Amanzio Rastelli (Remo Girone), typical of old-school Piedmont captains of industry in his restrained taste, attachment to the church and high-living socialite son, Matteo (Alessandro Adriano). The books are kept by chief financial officer Ernesto Botta (Toni Servillo), an arrogant, solitary number-cruncher who wants his realm left unsullied by others.
The firm’s overextension leads to a need for restructuring: Some advise Rastelli to sell his majority holdings, but Ernesto tells him to put Leda on the stock exchange, which creates a boom. It also brings an intruder into the CFO’s office in the form of Rastelli’s niece Laura (Sarah Felberbaum), fresh from Morgan Stanley and eager to put her business degrees to work.
A need for liquidity prompts a business trip to a New York bank, where Ernesto rages when Laura upstages him up at a pow-wow. That evening, the two tumble into bed, injecting phony sexual tension where it’s neither wanted nor logical.
As Leda expands, so, too, does the amount of capital required, yet mismanagement — combined with payoffs to politicos, cops, Rastelli family members, et al. — means the company is constantly short of cash, leading to ever shadier practices.
Especially for those unfamiliar with the Parmalat scandal, there’s something particularly troubling about unsavory financial dealings revolving around a milk company whose aura, unlike that of, say, petroleum corporations, is linked to infants and health. It makes the corruption that much more unwholesome and therefore casts a sharper light on the ways companies cook their books.
Molaioli (“The Girl by the Lake”) and his co-scripters know these characters well, and get the details absolutely right. However, there’s a nagging feeling that much more was shot and then only partially excised. A scene in a Russian sauna lasts a pointless 20 seconds, and characters like Matteo, who seem about to be developed, largely disappear.
As ever, Servillo gets inside his character and maps out mannerisms, a rhythm of talking and a glare — no one has as many glares in his repertory as Servillo — that feel integral to the role. He’s well-matched by vet thesp Girone as his company-proud but spiritually troubled boss, and Felberbaum, strong here as Ernesto’s confident sparring partner and seducer.
Atmosphere is faultless, as is the superb location work, partly shot in the elegant Piedmont town of Acqui Terme. Refined lensing by top d.p. Luca Bigazzi (“Certified Copy,” “Il Divo”) is a pleasure, especially the way the camera gracefully transcribes space. Music, too, is well calibrated, including selections slyly chosen for their ironic charge, such as Abba’s “People Need Love,” played at home by the friendless, humorless Ernesto.