Caterina in the Big City

Somewhere not quite in the middle of Caterina va in città, a darkly tanned actress named Paola Rota confesses to the film’s eponymous, 14-year-old heroine, “You look so mature to me.” Rota plays Lucilla, an intense, dejected, cigarette-smoking young mother, perhaps only a decade or so older than Caterina. Lucilla has had a child—a male child—with a man in his 50s; the baby’s father, a grinning idiot-genius, worships his infant son to the complete exclusion of the women in his life. Lucilla pours out her dismay to Margherita, her companion’s teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and to Margherita’s new friend Caterina, who has joined them for a weekend in the country.

You can see the younger woman/older man back-story at a glance, without the writers filling in it—the characters are clearly at the end of a line that started with admiration, turned to desire, and ultimately arrived at nowhere. Rota’s searing presence burned this brief scene into my memory, yet the director Paolo Virzi (he also wrote the script, along with Francesco Bruni—it’s their sixth colloboration) layers his film with several wistfully comic variations on a universal theme: kisses that turn out not quite as hoped for.

Released in its native Italy in autumn 2003 and just now making it to America this summer (with as meager fanfare as possible by the U.S. distributor Empire Pictures), Caterina va in città (or Caterina in the Big City) stands out as one of the very best reasons to go to a movie right now, if a bijou near you would be willing to screen it.

Like Altman or Milos Forman, Virzi gives an epic sense of scope to stories about people. Unlike those directors, Virzi never judges or jeers at his characters—he simply presents them in all their confounding contradictoriness. Real life, Virzi implies, may be entertainingly parodic enough without a veil of cynicism getting in the way.

The movie begins as a family unit of three moves from a bucolic coastal village to Rome. Virzi has a great eye for urban incongruities, and we see some of them through a passing car window, from which the impressionable, innocent Caterina narrates our tour: a nun smoking a cigarette; a woman who rests at the edge of a noisy, traffic-congested street to concentrate on solving crossword puzzles; and so forth.

Alice Teghil, born in 1989, makes a smashing debut in the title role. Fresh, radiant, believable—she’s everything that her pal Margherita says: “Finally, a simple, pure person who doesn’t fit the conventions.” Teghil had no acting experience prior to making this movie, and that works to her (and our) advantage.

Well photographed by Arnaldo Catinari, who captures the vivid colors of a crumbling palazzo that Margherita shares with her social activist mom (memorably acted by Galatea Ranzi, seen too briefly) as well as the strikingly strobe-lit mall patronized by Margherita’s right-wing rival for Caterina’s friendship, the blonde Daniela, daughter of a high-ranking flunkie in Berlusconi’s government. Catinari’s most viscerally pleasing composition may be the spectacular night shot of rich, young fascists as they splash about in a heated swimming pool, the steam rising into the dark above their chlorine waves.

Virzi and Bruni do more than just acknowledge the standard left vs. right friction. They also address divisions within the right, a subject ripe for cinematic exploration. Here, there’s a fantastically tense wedding reception at which most of the guests raise their arms in a fascist salute—to the pained embarrassment of Daniela’s father, who probably found his way into office by appealing to that very sentiment.

The varied soundtrack courses along to the music of Jim Morrison, Nick Cave, Donizetti, and Verdi. Caterina, who sang in a choir in her provincial hometown but doesn’t join one in Rome, assuages her sense of dislocation by listening to choral music on headphones, dancing in her bedroom to a majestically sung “Gli arredi festivi” from Nabucco. In these moments, we see both the real Caterina, not the one who’s being molded to fit this or that set of expectations, as well as a glimpse of an idealized self, one who lives a life that actually bears some relation to who and what matters. I loved seeing a movie that shows how classical music is good for you. Listening to it keeps Caterina strong; in a pivotal montage that’s scored to Verdi, two men in Caterina’s life break down and cry, yet she has the resiliency to keep going.

Alice Teghil, Caterina in the Big City

In Virzi’s hands, the movie succeeds as comedy, as drama, as astutely observed satire of warring factions within a private middle school as well as those eternal schisms of have and have not in the outer world. This versatile filmmaker even manages a sequence of vaguely surreal, romantic suspense, in a passage that recalls—and improves on—another recent Italian film, Ferzan Ozpetek’s pleasantly innocuous Facing Windows.

The sets, designed by Tonino Zera, aren’t merely eye-catching, they greatly enhance our knowledge of the characters and the milieus they inhabit, especially in a brief, almost ghostly encounter between Daniela’s mother and an abandoned houseguest. The actors—Sergio Castellitto as Caterina’s boorish daddy, Carolina Iaquaniello as Margherita, Federica Sbrenna as Daniela, and Zach Wallen as a guitar-strumming neighbor—are exceptional across the board. – NPT

July 10, 2005

Caterina va in città opens in Seattle on August 5 at the Landmark Seven Gables.