I can never remember whether Tolstoy said all happy families were alike or all unhappy families were alike, but the truth is simpler: All families are alike.
If not, why would the two brawling, messy, self-loathing, self-adoring clans of Pupi Avati's "The Story of Boys and Girls" be so entirely familiar, even though they live in the Italy of far-off and long-ago 1936?
And why, when families get together, can you count on certain things: a lot of eating, a lot of extremely bad behavior, a lot of dead awkwardness, a lot of pawing, a lot of laughing and a whole lot of crying?
The movie, which opens today for a week at the Charles, seems to be primarily about the restorative powers of food. The aristocrats from the city and the landholders from the country meet to consecrate the union of two of their children. Given a considerable class difference and a considerable variation in the sophistication levels, everybody's nervous once the two families meet.
But once it's chowtime, the small-talk stops and the two tribes can get down to the serious business of consuming half of Italy's gross national product and at least two-thirds of the game birds that fill her skyways. You've never seen food attacked with such gusto, such anger, such intensity. And those are just the servants!
Naturally, over the course of the epic chow-down, each family's dreadful little tics begin to emerge. The aristocratic clan turns out to be somewhat prissy and judgmental: like, get a life, guys. Meanwhile, the farmers reveal themselves to be somewhat nakedly emotional, without the resources to skillfully hide the currents that roar through them. Like, get less life, guys. And, ultimately, men begin to behave badly toward their women and women begin to behave badly toward their men. The children were bad to begin with.
Avati's technique is somewhat similar to Robert Altman's at his heyday: He's not a linear director, racing from high point to high point, but more of a high pains drifter, whose camera floats between the knots and eddies of intrigue. He never formally introduces characters but lets us, like guests at the very party we're watching, slowly tumble to the relationships that are guiding the behavior. He eavesdrops on this or that crisis, watches as this or that marriage begins to falter and crumble, makes notations of the rapidly accumulating piles of betrayals and deceits, but doesn't bother to crush the detail into a formally structured plot.
It's like being an invisible man in the Italy of 1936, in some alternate universe thoughtfully provided with subtitles.
'The Story of Boys and Girls'
Starring Felice Andreasi and Angiola Baggi.
Directed by Pupi Avati.
Released by Triton.