(Air Date: Week Of 05/8/96)
We think of road movies as a purely American invention, but in fact the Europeans often steer the genre into more interesting terrain than we do. A case in point is "Lamerica," the riveting new film from Gianni Amelio, the gifted Italian director of "Open Doors" and "Stolen Children." Set in the chaotic back roads of Albania, of all places, "Lamerica" is a beautifully photographed yet shattering fable of innocence lost.
The set-up is truly inspired: A pair of terrific Italian actors, the silver-haired Michele Placido and the young, sharp-featured Enrico Lo Verso, play corporate sharks on a slimy mission to the formerly Communist Albania. Their goal is to invent a sham shoe factory in order to qualify for a development grant from the Italian government. They have no intention of actually operating a factory, of course; they'll just take the money and run.
The partners discover that the law requires an Albanian citizen to head the new enterprise. So they find a figurehead, a broken old man and former political prisoner, to sign the papers. Then they dump him in some crumbling institution, only to find out that they need him for an essential meeting with government officials. The younger partner, Gino, sets out to find the codger, who's now escaped and hit the road.
In desperate pursuit, Gino tracks his elderly quarry into the countryside. But Gino is the ultimate fish out of water--a handsome hunk in yuppie clothes, driving a tricked-out Jeep in the middle of total poverty. Welcome to Albania, post-Iron Curtain, a Third World country with dangerously fractured social structures and nonexistent infrastructure. Although he catches up with the elderly man, Gino loses his Jeep, the nice clothes and, eventually, his identity.
This is strong stuff, but "Lamerica" is more than an anti-capitalist polemic or anti-imperialist warning. Along the way, Gino rediscovers his capacity to empathize, to see people as something other than profit centers or marks for his financial schemes. "Lamerica" takes Gino deep into the dark night of the soul, in a Kafkaesque kind of way, and he's a different man when he emerges. The real power of "Lamerica" is that we share Gino's nightmarish journey. In case you haven't been paying attention, economic insecurity, poverty, refugees and corruption are as rampant here as they are in the Eastern Bloc countries.
Copyright 1996 Michael Fox
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