Albanian chaos sets duo free Movie review: An old soldier and a young con rediscover themselves in a striking 'Lamerica.'

April 05, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

On the basis of Gianni Amelio's brilliant "Lamerica," which opens today at the Charles, one can assume Albania has made this significant contribution to world architecture: the pillbox.

In this film, set against that pitiful country's still tragic and blasted landscape, the pillbox is everywhere, symbol of the late dictator Enver Hoxha's Stalinesque paranoia and his conceit that invasion from without or rebellion from within was so probable that every neighborhood -- virtually every street corner -- needed its own concrete machine gun emplacement.

So we travel through a country where nothing works, where the streets are full of chaos (that is, where there are streets, and there usually aren't), where the factories are gutted, where no one has quite caught on that World War II ended 50 years ago, but the gun-pits are in pristine condition.

The movie is set in the rubble of collapsed totalitarian systems -- before the nut-case commie Hoxha, the country was ruled as a Fascist colony by Mussolini, so the prevailing culture happens to be irrepressibly Italian. But another rough beast haunts the landscape: bandit capitalism, as represented by two Italian shoe manufacturers who set up a factory to take advantage of the new market and the low labor costs.

Except they're con men, whose scam is intended to nudge tax credits from their own government without doing diddly squat for Albania except arousing, then shattering, expectations. But they need a front man, preferably a hero in the fight against communism. They settle on a decrepit 80-year-old political prisoner whose bleak face and dead eyes mirror the savagely looted landscape.

Of course, nothing goes as it's planned, which ultimately deposits the callow conniver Gino (Enrico Lo Verso) and the old man Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli) in the middle of the nation's collapse. It's a terrifying journey, and ultimately the film comes to be a part of the literature of ordeal.

The younger man is slick, greedy, without scruple, insanely materialistic. The older man is a victim of history, and we see its violence indelibly stamped in his face. Yet as they are caught up in the chaos, they bond in ways neither could have expected; each discovers a long-lost ember of need, and each recovers a shard of a dream.

The young man probably really didn't want to steal; he just fell into a job. The old man turns out not even to be Albanian: He is caught in the dream that he is the still-young soldier Mussolini drafted in 1939 and that he still has a wife and son waiting back in Sicily.

The trick of the film is that by melodramatic intervention, each is reduced, or uplifted, to emigrant. Each is unrooted from the present and made to fend for self and the other; each comes to feel the dream and the idealism that such an escape would represent.

And in a strange and terrible way, they come to mirror the entire emigrant experience.

This movie is a little like "Fiddler on the Roof" as directed by Sergio Leone: It is epic in scope, composition and in its evocation of the impersonal forces of disruption that send people scurrying across forbidding seas for new lands. But it also has a love of the intimate and the dramatic.

'Lamerica'

Starring Enrico Lo Verso and Carmelo Di Mazzarelli

Directed by Gianni Amelio

Released by New Yorker

Unrated

Sun score *** 1/2

Pub Date: 4/05/96

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