“Magari” is an Italian word without a precise English-language equivalent: somewhere between “maybe” and “I wish,” backed by a particularly Italian tone of cheerful, shrugging flexibility. It’s the original title of Ginevra Elkann’s sweetly ruminative debut feature, though the more blandly whimsical “If Only” has been chosen as its English moniker, which is neither wrong nor quite right. Yet that elusiveness is apt enough in the case of Elkann’s semi-autobiographical film, which presents family tensions and divisions that are at once universally recognizable and firmly rooted in her Franco-Italian upbringing: Following a splintered family’s reconciliation over the course of one shambolic Christmas vacation, it’s a gentle, cool breeze of a memory piece made pleasurable by its richly and specifically accented telling. That might not translate into major global distribution, but this year’s Locarno opener will win friends on the festival circuit.
Elkann has already established herself on the European arthouse scene as an intrepid producer of bold, border-crossing projects, including Noaz Deshe’s “White Shadow” and Babak Jalali’s “Frontier Blues.” Her first feature as a writer-director — coming 14 years after the first short — is perhaps less formally adventurous than her production résumé might suggest, though it’s clearly a work of intimate personal investment, likely to inspire comparisons to Mia Hansen-Løve’s early films in its talky, wistful quality and flirtation with memoir.
The superficial resemblances between Elkann’s upbringing and that of the film’s eight-year-old narrator Alma (appealing newcomer Oro De Commarque) are clear enough in this mid-1980s period piece: Like the helmer, Alma is the youngest child of divorced parents, raised in Paris with two older brothers by her devoutly Catholic mother and a Russian stepfather, while her writer father resides in Rome. Other details are fictionalized around these parallel points, as if in some “magari” spirit of the film’s own: While Elkann was born into a pair of wealthy industrialist dynasties, Alma’s father Carlo (Riccardo Scamarcio) is a feckless, seemingly penniless chancer, keen to imbue his estranged, somewhat uptight kids with a measure of his happy-go-lucky energy.
As their mother plans an imminent family move from Paris to Canada, she sends an enthused Alma and her more reluctant brothers Seb (Milo Roussel) and Jean (Ettore Giustiniani) to Rome to spend the holidays with Carlo, whom they haven’t seen in some time. (“It’s hard to speak Italian every two years,” Seb pithily points out on being admonished by his father for speaking French.) It’s a frosty reunion from the off, though fanciful romantic Alma doesn’t see this faultlines: Imagining that she can engineer a reconciliation between her parents, who separated before she can remember, she idealizes a nuclear family unit at the expense of shaggier reality. Elkann’s script, co-written with Chiara Barzini, has a wry understanding of how children perceive adult relationships, naively simplifying some dynamics and wildly over-complicating others — not realizing that the emotional impulses of children and their parents aren’t always that far apart.
Things go from bad to worse when it emerges that Carlo can’t afford the skiing trip the kids have been promised, instead whisking them off to a shabby coastal cottage owned by his bohemian American pal Bruce (Brett Gelman, relishing a more affably flamboyant role than his oily villain from TV’s “Fleabag”). That’s not the only change of plan: Alma is young and ingenuous enough to buy Carlo’s claim that Benedetta, the glamorous fur-hatted woman accompanying them on their trip, is merely his esteemed co-writer on a planned screenplay project, but Seb and Jean are less forgiving. Played with droll loucheness by Italian indie godmother Alba Rohrwacher, cast amusingly against type, Benedetta turns out to be the disruptive element that heals more than she hurts. Even in their child’s-eye view of dysfunctional family life, Elkann and Barzini are disinclined toward easy stereotyping or pat moral judgments.
From the low-key chaos of this setup, the sketchy story ambles along in pleasantly episodic fashion: a first crush here, a rash act of teenage rebellion there, with stretches of hard-won harmony punctuated by shouty blowouts. “If Only” gets that family life doesn’t proceed according to a narrative arc; rather, it ebbs and flows, each day subject to mood swings and fleeting surges of rage or joy. There are no grand revelations here, just comforting, cumulatively moving observations we can all recognize: that our parents are rarely either the heroes or monsters we make them out to be at critical points in our childhoods, and that no amount of “magari” thinking can change the families we’re given or the shape they take.
Elkann handles a charismatic, freewheeling ensemble — including her trio of non-pro child performers — with apparent ease, while her filmmaking is no less casually assured. Desideria Rayner’s intuitive editing lends proceedings a spiky, diary-like rhythm, while d.p. Vladan Radovic, shooting on film, conjures a grainy, tactile aesthetic without straying into Instagram-filter kitsch. Indeed, much of the film exudes the milky, sun-faded sheen of old family photographs — perfect for these 30-year-old memories, whether they all belong to the director or not.