I think Gianni Amelio’s Lamerica is pretty damn great, but I may be inherently biased toward any movie which has De Sica’s heart and that crowded, millenial World Cinema vibe, and which manages to be an unsentimental road/buddy-movie to boot. In fact, it’s not too weird to say that Lamerica is what Midnight Run might have looked like if Francesco Rosi had directed it.
It’s set in Albania just after the Commies lost power in ’91 and the country was on its ass. A slick Italian swindler, planning to set up a shell company so he can abscond with the government grant, picks as his front an old man who’s been a political prisoner for so long—50 years—that he’s mute and half-mad. The swindler assigns a young helper, little more than a thug, to babysit the old man and make sure he shows up to sign the necessary papers as CEO of the fake company. But the old man toddles off when the kid isn’t looking, the kid chases after him, and they’re soon stuck out in the countryside, at the mercy of each other and Albania’s cratered economy.
Because I’m an incurious dumb-ass I’d had no idea that the relationship between Italy and Albania was this complex, but it’s been a problem for centuries. During the war Italy occupied and then annexed Albania, I knew that much, and Albania still has a love-hate fascination with Italy since it’s the closest model for Western democracy and luxuries. (A recurring image in Lamerica: clusters of Albanians taking in, and transfixed by, cheap Italian TV shows.) The picture’s style is naturalistic, though its portrait of a society still reeling from the Hoxha regime is so creepy that I at least hope it’s been heightened. The barely reformed prison in which we first see the old man makes the Midnight Express prison look like a Holiday Inn, and there’s a hair-raising scene in which a pack of street urchins attach themselves to the old man like half-pint barnacles and manipulate him with predatory grace into an old bunker to roll him. This is a world in which even a simple lift in a lorry involves being jostled along with 75 other men, and when near the movie’s end the young hero finally finds a bed to rest on, it doesn’t matter that it’s nothing more than a filthy cot—we’re exhausted along with him.