With excellent Critics’ Week opener “Sicilian Ghost Story” and now Leonardo di Constanzo’s Directors’ Fortnight title “The Intruder,” the Cannes 2017 sidebars have launched a mini-trend of Italian movies that, in very different ways, go some distance toward redressing the imbalance in cinema’s treatment of mafia stories. These are not epic Greek tragedies of dynastic power and greed, but small, intimate tales that resist glamorizing the gangsters and their vicious code, and instead refocus on their victims. In “The Intruder,” a slice of sincere social realism set in a Naples community bedevilled by Camorra activity, there is a further twist of the knife being as so many of the victims are children, the offspring of young, hard-faced mothers and absent, murdered or jailed fathers.
In its central character, it also becomes a portrait of front-line, blunt-edged compassion, and of just how very difficult it is to retain your principles when people are less invested in you doing the decent thing than being on their side. Giovanna (an excellent, careworn, steely turn from Raffaella Giordano) runs an after-school program that engages the kids of underprivileged (read: non-Camorra-affiliated) families in arts and crafts, bike repair workshops, mural painting and so on. In the grounds there is a small, sparsely furnished flat that Gio gives as temporary living accommodation for those who have nowhere else to go. But its latest occupant, Maria, a surly young woman (Valentina Vannino) with a baby and a similarly unsmiling preteen daughter, Rita (Martina Abbate), has exploited Gio’s kindness. In a police raid, her Camorra-linked husband is discovered to have been hiding out there, too. He is arrested for the murder of a local man, which is given an added twist of pointless tragedy by the fact that it was a case of mistaken identity.
The real problems begin when Maria returns to the flat with her kids and Gio feels compelled to let her stay: she may be on the “wrong” side, but she is a woman with nowhere else to go. Also, Rita is starting to make friends with some of the local after-schoolers, even participating in the building of a big pedal-powered “robot” that the kids are excited to unveil at an upcoming party. Giovanna’s decision causes unease among the other mothers, and among the officials of the affiliated day school, not helped by Maria’s prickly ingratitude.
“You’re so naive, Giovanna!” she’s told on occasion, and certainly Maria and the mafia wives who come to visit, alighting from a big black SUV, all seem deeply disdainful of her do-goodery, even while benefiting from it. But the tough, unpopular choices that Giovanna is making are the opposite of naïve. They are the result of long years of costly battles that have yielded little material gain but at least this simple truth: One of the reasons there’s so much evil in the world is because it’s so much harder to be kind than cruel.
There is nothing particularly inspired about the filmmaking — the craft is solid, rather than spectacular, and the imagery fits squarely within the handheld docudrama aesthetic that has become standard for this kind of low-key realist filmmaking since the emergence of digital. But then, “The Intruder” has little interest in formal showiness; it has a story to tell and it is not squeamish about complicating that story with other perspectives. Indeed, the film’s two best scenes are not even set in the after-school program, but turn on an arclight on another side of the intractable social problem of organized crime. The first shows Giovanna visiting the stunned and grieving widow of the murdered man, as though she somehow needs her forgiveness for unwittingly sheltering her husband’s murderer.
And the second is a conversation with the day-school principal, which provides the much-needed other side of the coin just when Giovanna’s turn-the-other-cheek saintliness is starting to feel too obviously morally superior. In this Neapolitan community, he reminds her, her after-school program has been a godsend to the women and children who are at risk of poverty or worse because of their refusal to engage in Camorra activity. Giovanna’s tolerant attitude toward Maria, however well-motivated, seems to them to be the same kind of betrayal they face everywhere else: Yet again, their children are put at risk and their quiet lives disrupted in order to make things easier for the gangster class. A fine, sober and authentic story of inescapable cycles of violence in which the sins of the father are unquestioningly visited on their children, “The Intruder” is a thoughtful and persuasive study in the limitations of compassion and the hard-won nature of hope.