Italian neorealism has an impressive proponent in Claudio Giovannesi, whose sophomore feature, “Ali Blue Eyes,” reinvigorates the form with exacting honesty. The title comes from Pasolini’s poem “Prophesy,” an acknowledgment of Giovannesi’s stylistic and thematic influences for this story of an Italo teen of Egyptian heritage caught between his conflicting identities. Developed from the helmer’s docu “Brothers of Italy” and starring his nonfiction protags in a narrative strongly based on their own lives, the pic makes a common theme feel fresh and vital. Fests and Euro arthouses should see the light in these “Eyes.”
Nevertheless, local play will likely be weak given national tastes, though the Rome fest’s jury prize may provide a brief boost to its limited 32-screen release. A young man trying to balance his roots with his environment has long been a familiar figure in cinema, yet the subject is of more recent vintage in Italy, which has only recently begun coming to grips with an immigrant population. Giovannesi’s immersion in his thesps’ milieu allows him to capture not just a theme, but an atmosphere in which belonging and not belonging — a subject known by all teens on one level or another — takes on added weight.
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Before the school day starts, Nader (Nader Sarhan) and Stefano (Stefano Rabatti) agree to rob a convenience store. Though the gun they use is loaded with blanks, Nader hesitates, so Stefano coolly takes charge. It’s an unexceptional event in the lives of these two 16-year-olds living in Ostia, a working-class suburb of Rome with many immigrants.
Nader, with his blue contact lenses and very Italian swagger, is conscious of his Egyptian-Muslim identity, yet sees no reason why he can’t be part of both worlds when it suits him, especially since he was born in Italy. His parents, Hosny (Cesare Hosny Sarhan) and Fatima (Fatima Mouhaseb), feel otherwise, constantly reminding him that, as a Muslim, he’s different from his classmates.
His biggest parental clash is over g.f. Brigitte (Brigitte Apruzzesi); Fatima in particular can’t accept her son dating an Italian Christian, and when he comes home after curfew one night, she refuses to let him in the apartment, thinking it will teach him a lesson. Instead, Nader decides to teach them a lesson, sleeping rough or with family friend Mahmoud (Salah Ramadan) in a communal apartment with other immigrants.
Meanwhile, hotheaded Stefano gets into a fight at a disco over ex-g.f. Eleonora (Elisa Geroni), and stabs a Romanian kid. He and Nader flee the scene, and in the subsequent days they both try to avoid running into the wounded guy’s family, now seeking revenge. For Nader, it’s a further destabilizing element during a week of upheaval, his search to belong mirroring his exploration of identity.
Within this interior/exterior struggle lies an investigation of loyalty to ones friends, family and traditions. Though Nader fights for his right to date a non-Muslim, he hypocritically keeps zealous guard over younger sister Laura (Yamina Kacemi) to ensure she doesn’t date an Italian (especially not Stefano). Wisely avoiding easy drama, Giovannesi ends on a terrific note of uncertainty in which his camera’s unblinking gaze meets the troubled eyes of his characters.
Nader Sarhan was the main subject of Giovannesi’s docu, and having him, his family and friends play themselves in a fiction feature originally must have felt like a gamble. Yet it’s paid off in spades, thanks to a give-and-take in the pre-production phase among the helmer, fellow scripter Filippo Gravino and the performers. The superb Sarhan, in particular, projects a combination of fragile confidence and vulnerability that could easily be parlayed into a successful screen career, though finding roles of this depth and sensitivity won’t be easy.
Lenser Daniele Cipri once again proves he’s second to none in his subtle use of handheld cameras, capturing realism without losing a firm sense of framing. The understanding of locale is flawless, from Ostia’s bleak nighttime streets and oceanfront to Rome as seen from the p.o.v. of the bridge-and-tunnel crowd.