“Fiore,” the story of a teenager discovering herself and finding love at a juvenile detention center in Italy, combines Dardennes-style social realism with a tale of cross-prison infatuation so dewy you half-expect the film to end with a title card comparing the institution’s rates of recidivism and romance. Very smoothly directed by Claudio Giovannesi (“Alì Blue Eyes”), making his third feature, the movie provides a magnetic showcase for newcomer Daphne Scoccia (who appears in every scene), even as the narrative burrows away, like Clint Eastwood in “Escape From Alcatraz,” at the picture’s overall credulity. What starts as a hard-hitting commentary on how society can help people get back on their feet sometimes veers perilously close to “Arancione Is the New Black.” Even so, the same crowd-pleasing qualities that undercut the narrative may help to sell the film more widely. Release in Rome and Milan begins May 25.
Already assigned to a group home that she compares to jail, Daphne (Scoccia) spends her days participating in a small-time criminal outfit, mugging subway passengers for their cellphones. When she’s caught after a robbery, she is forced to adapt to a juvenile prison — something she manages without much trouble, since life in this slammer doesn’t seem too harsh. Workshops teach Daphne how to sew and cut hair. Contraband like lipstick flows relatively freely, although Daphne struggles to contact her father (Valerio Mastandrea) for clothing and an MP3 player. When she’s assigned a new cellmate (Klea Marku), the two immediately bond over their tattoos. This may be the warmest depiction of European social services since last year’s Cannes opener, “Standing Tall.”
But the key figure in Daphne’s new life is undoubtedly Josh (Josciua Algeri), who lives on the (separate) men’s side of the prison and mopes about his outside girlfriend’s lack of fidelity. Separated by fences and bars, the two steal conversations and eventually affections, and occasionally even the prison staff seems inclined to roll its collective eyes at the local Romeo and Juliet. The key drama comes from whether the two can commit to each other — not only are they separated most of the time, but Josh still pines for his ex — and also whether they can stand the wait.
To be fair, it’s possible that puppyish teenage romances of this sort are common in such circumstances. Per the press notes, the filmmakers spent four months researching at the Istituto Penale per i Minori in Rome, and many of the film’s cast members were previously imprisoned or are on probation. Some Steadicam work adds energy to the proceedings even as it renders the scenario incongruously glamorous. Scoccia, tasked with playing a character whose behavior is perhaps surprising even to herself, is the film’s strongest element.
Another plot thread concerns Daphne’s opportunity to live with her father, who has just finished doing time, and his girlfriend (Laura Vasiliu, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), on probationary custody, a commitment her dad is not sure he can take on. But sometimes it’s hard to see why Daphne would want to leave. Do real juvenile detention centers have coed dances and fashion walkoffs? Maybe, but it’s hard to shake the sense that “Fiore” glosses over complexities — economic, legal, racial, institutional — in the name of uplift.