When many directors make movies in rural settings, one invariably senses they’re depictions by an outsider, someone who imagines a way of life that ultimately remains beyond their grasp. Instead, throughout Salvatore Mereu’s career directing stories from the Sardinian countryside, the feeling is always that he’s a part of that world. His films, from “Three-Step Dance” to “Pretty Butterflies,” take narrative gambles that acknowledge what’s unknowable, because only images and their juxtaposition, rather than words, can convey the dignity of tradition and the substance of the land.
“Assandira” is Mereu’s riskiest film to date, castigating the commodification of rural heritage in a way that keeps revealing unexpected depths, muddying any attempt at easy conclusions. It’s structured like a classic detective story, with an inspector arriving at an “agriturismo” (essentially a farm catering to tourists) to investigate a suspicious fire and the death of the owner. As the storyline develops in chapters, shifting from the first-person voiceover of the dead man’s traumatized father to the circumstances leading up to the fatal conflagration, it folds together a derisive depiction of tourist insensitivity with something much darker, something that’s rotting in the depths, which claims an affinity with nature but in truth mocks it and corrodes natural links. Shot with an earthy intimacy and featuring an achingly powerful performance by Gavino Ledda, best known as the author of “Padre Padrone,” the film should be picked up by daring art house distributors.
Diluvial rain at night pounds the burnt remains of dead animals at the Assandira agriturismo as police inspect the site, and a distraught Costantino Saru (Ledda) in voiceover laments, “Water can’t extinguish such suffering. Nor can it extinguish the shame.” Cradling his dead son Mario (Marco Zucca) before he’s put in a body bag, Costantino is stupefied trying to contemplate what it means for a parent to lose a child. Chief Inspector Silvio Pestis (Corrado Giannetti) arrives to ask questions, and although he behaves solicitously to the grieving father, the gulf between them is enormous: Man of the earth versus a suit-and-tie man of the office. Pestis is bewildered because he can’t understand Costantino (and not because he speaks Sardinian dialect), while the peasant farmer has little interest in being understood by someone who doesn’t even know how to negotiate a muddy field.
A flashback starts to fill in the story: Mario arrives with his German wife Grete (Anna König) from Berlin, just as they do every summer, though this time they want to stay for more than a few days. They’ve decided to take over the abandoned Saru farmhouse and turn it into a destination for European tourists wanting an “authentic” experience among Sardinian shepherds, but Costantino has not been consulted. He’s long been wary of Grete’s motivations, of her busty Teutonic physicality, so foreign and intimidating, and what’s more, she doesn’t speak Sardinian. She wooed Mario away from his native soil to Berlin, where he’s a waiter, and now she’s the force for moving back to a land she treats like a Disneyfied version of itself. Bulldozing over Costantino’s objections, the couple fix up the property and open it to tourists easily impressed by the “quaint” rural atmosphere. Mario makes his father wear shepherd’s clothes he hasn’t put on for ages, and Grete dons the traditional Sunday dress of Costantino’s late wife, whose meaning is erased when trivialized as merely a costume for dress-up.
The stereotyped depiction of the tourists is symptomatic of Mereu’s anger, and the flat tonalities of their Europudding English, their loud shirts, hedonistic behavior and utter cluelessness about the locale verge on parody. It almost happens with Grete’s character too, but then the attentive viewer realizes something else is going on, something indefinable and unsettling. It’s already clear she has a goal in mind (less certain is how much Mario is a willing part of that), and her flirtatious behavior around Costantino appears to be part of the plan. But just when we think we understand her motivations, the director reveals yet another layer, disturbing not just our equilibrium but the balance of nature. It’s an incredibly daring twist yet, on consideration, one that makes perfect sense given what the director wants to say about the inversion of nature in the hands of outsiders who treat tradition heritage, and the land itself as appropriated commodities: They throw the roots away without caring that the flower also dies right after.
Mereu doesn’t traffic in nostalgia, and it would be simplistic to categorize “Assandira” as merely an outraged depiction of the death-rattle of traditional rural Sardinian culture. The breadth of his sadness goes much deeper, as if the goddess Gaia herself had been defiled and pimped out, and all that’s left are embers no one knows what to do with. He has Grete make a big fuss about taking Polaroid photos and having the tourists do the same, yet the reason for this insistence remains murky; it’s a rare cavity in the film’s structure. Otherwise, the story’s threads — Costantino himself at the start talks about the difficulty in making sense of an event if the thread isn’t evident — are worked through the different layers, creating a startling tapestry of an unraveled present.
Ledda’s dignified, grounded performance anchors everything, his profound grief at the start becoming even more powerful once the full scope of his sorrow and shame are understood. König is also a compelling performer, intimidating in her provocative, calculated sexuality, and it’s thanks to her potent aura that the character remains vibrantly real rather than a caricature of the German in Italy.
Young cinematographer Sandro Chessa should easily land more assignments after his work here, with his flexible, reactive camerawork and carefully calibrated palette, from the opening’s inky rainstorm, shot through with silvery light, to a sunny tourist’s idea of the Sardinian countryside and on to a more diffused, matte Berlin. Paola Freddi’s editing also deserves praise, nimbly shifting from present to past and back without a loss of comprehension or time.