Can a performance carry an entire movie? Elio Germano's role as a construction foreman working in the outskirts of Rome in La Nostra Vita (Our Life) almost does the trick. The 30-year-old Italian actor, with his boyish, mercurial features and mischievous grin, is at the centre of every scene of this portrait of a charming but unscrupulous hustler trying to hold his family together through one predicament after another.
At Cannes last year Germano shared best actor prize with Javier Bardem, playing a similar beleaguered father in Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu's Biutiful, against a modern Europe plagued by corruption, illegal immigration and shady get-rich-quick opportunities.
"It's all a scam," says Claudio of the construction industry in a judgment that would seem to apply to the anything-for-a-euro portrait of contemporary Italian society. Early scenes establish Claudio's busy but happy worker. He has two boys and a new child about to be born. His beautiful wife, Elena (Isabella Ragonese), is worried about new nursery furniture, and Claudio pretends to talks dirty in bed by reciting different Ikea product lines. One event casts a shadow over their bliss: The discovery of the body of a watchman who has fallen to his death at the work site. The man was an illegal Romanian immigrant, and Claudio decides not to report the accident, which would likely cause the work site to be closed down.
A couple of scenes later Elena dies in labour, leaving Claudio with a third infant son to care for. At the funeral, Claudio screams out the lyrics to their favorite pop song , Vasco Rossi's Anima fragile (Fragile Soul) with its pointed lyrics "And life goes on without us." The outburst is short and emphatic and almost immediately, he stops grieving for her and becomes obsessed with making money. If his children can't have two parents' love, they can at least have whatever money can buy. Hovering in the background to worry and help out are his siblings, a girl-shy, handsome older brother (Raoul Bova) and protective older sister (Stefania Montorsi).
With Elena out of the picture, La Nostra Vita quickly develops into something like an Italian version of one of English director Ken Loach's social realist dramas: a portrait of a proletariat hero, driven by an unjust system into ever more perilous circumstances. Desperate to get some cash, Claudio blackmails his boss about the dead Romanian and gets an opportunity to supervise his own building, with the attendant early finishing bonuses. First he has to borrow 50,000 euros from his shady friend, Ari (Luca Zingaretti), a drug-dealer and pimp who works out of his wheelchair.
Not surprisingly, Claudio is soon in over his head. He runs out of money and his team of illegal workers quits. Then, the dead Romanian watchman's former wife, Gabriela (Alina Madalina Berzunteanu) and teenaged son, Andrei (Marius Ignat), show up. Claudio finds ways to bring them into his family circle, but without admitting what he knows about the man's death.
The film's tone is awkward, with brief scenes of despair set against an overall comic portrait of life as a series of hustles and dodges, mixed with the odd kind moment. The energetic handheld camera work and naturalistic acting give La Nostra Vita energy, but can't, finally, patch over a haphazard script. Crises are raised and eliminated with the expediency of episodic television drama.
Eventually, La Nostra Vita itself feels like a bit of a scam, with a last-minute upbeat ending that neutralizes any sting of the film's social critique. Even Germano's charismatic performance leaves the impression that, when you get down to the core of human behaviour, a conscience is far less helpful than a talent for charm.
La Nostra Vita (Our Life)
- Directed by Daniele Luchetti
- Written by Daniele Luchetti, Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli
- Starring Elio Germano, Isabella Ragonesse, Raoul Bova and Stefania Montorsi
- Classification: 14A