The Italian coming-of-age story Cosmonauta begins with a memorable, striking bit of youthful defiance: We're gathered in a Roman church for First Communion on a spectacular sunny day in 1957. Nine-year-olds proceed down the aisle, hearts full, gripping devotional candles.
Suddenly, one girl has had enough. She blows out her candle and tears off out of the church, leaving her astonished family scrambling and shouting.
"Why are you doing this?" her mother asks, once they're home.
"Because I'm a communist," the little girl squeals.
Other girls play with dolls and dresses. For Luciana (Mariana Raschilla), it's billposting and megaphones. We see the youngster canvassing her neighbourhood, extolling the useful life of Laika, the tongue-wagging Soviet space dog who became the first animal to orbit the Earth.
At night, she and her vulnerable, epileptic brother, Arturo (Pietro Del Giudice), stare up at the inky sky, waiting for a saviour. Not Jesus Christ - Yuri Gagarin, Shining Hero of the Proletariat; the Soviet cosmonaut who would boldly go where no one had gone before, in April, 1961.
After a short, eventful prologue crammed with cheerful, vintage documentary footage of the Soviet space program, the film cuts to Luciana in 1963. She's 15 now and headed fast for trouble. The teenager lights a cigarette as if she's igniting a Molotov cocktail.
Predictably, her family is what explodes first. Luciana's new step-father is right wing. Worse still, he's rich - haute bourgeoisie. Brother Arturo's condition has worsened, meanwhile. Medication and extravagant Soviet propaganda have brought him blindfolded to the edge of some dangerous cliff. Luciana fights with her perplexed, frightened mother all the time.
Life with the FIGC, the Italian Federation of Young Communists, is only somewhat better for our young heroine. There is a boy in the party she likes, but he is going with Luciana's best friend. And the traitorous Italian Socialist Party is splitting the Italian left wing, ruining the country's one chance at utopia.
The 15-year-old swings into action, determined to fix everything quickly. In other words, she's headed for catastrophe.
Cosmonauta is distinguished by a warm, convincing performance by young star Raschilla as Luciana. Whether affecting expert authority on the Soviet space program or crumbling inside watching the boy of her dreams in another girl's arms, Raschilla is always credible and frequently heartbreakingly funny.
And as a dramatist, writer-filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli moves her chess pieces around with considerable skill. In one telling sequence, Luciana is horribly let down by her young lover, Vittorio (Michelangelo Ciminale). They fight. He says some terribly unprogressive things, leading us to believe that he might not be a great catch for any woman.
While misbehaving, he's standing right in front of a poster of Vladamir Ilyich Lenin, which suggests that, for filmmaker Nicchiarelli, communism is no better bet for women than most other isms.
Cosmonauta never lingers long with any of Luciano's messy confrontations, sparing us unpleasantness, it's true, but also preventing us from experiencing a deeper drama. It's a slight, charming, thoughtful movie; one that can be recommended to fallen idealists of every persuasion.
- Directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli
- Written by Susanna Nicchiarelli and Teresa Ciabatti
- Starring Mariana Raschilla, Claudio Pandolfi, Sergio Rubini, Pietro Del Giudice and Susanna Nicchiarelli
- Classification: N/A