20 Cigarettes -- Film Review

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VENICE -- In someone else's hands, "20 Cigarettes" could have become a gritty anti-war movie or an outright tearjerker. Instead, Aureliano Amadei opts for a middle ground for his autobiographical debut feature, which is surprisingly mainstream and sincere at the same time.

Aureliano Amadei was the only civilian survivor of the November 2003 suicide bombing at the Italian military headquarters in Nasiriyah, Iraq. He subsequently produced a book about the attack and the ensuing media storm. Now comes this film, which takes its name from the fact that chronic smoker Amadei hadn't even gone through his first pack of cigarettes in Iraq before his life changed forever.

Using mostly a handheld camera and a guitar-heavy soundtrack, the film's strength lies in an ability to shift comfortably from comedy to drama without political rhetoric or trivializing its characters. It should easily become a hit in Italy, thanks also to a name cast headed by TV star Vinicio Marchioni as the director's alter ego. Festival dates also loom.

The film's first 10 minutes are overly earnest but in hindsight help establish the protagonist's initial naivety. At 28, the self-proclaimed anarchist and anti-war demonstrator (Marchioni) was still living at home with his hippie mother (Orsetta de Rossi) when a family friend, director Stefano Rolla (Giorgio Colangeli), offered him a job on a film he was starting in Iraq.

Within days, Amadei lands in the Middle East. Desperate to light up, he's sent to the "smoker's area" -- a tiny circle cordoned off by sandbags in the middle of the desert. Ingenuously convinced that the war is over and full of prejudice toward the soldiers, Amadei nevertheless makes two unexpected friends: soldiers Massimo Ficuciello (Alberto Basaluzzo) and Olla (Andrea Iaia). The very next day they head out, with Rolla, to location scout in Nasiriyah.

There is already a sense of danger in a quick pan of the lunar landscape around the group when it makes a pit stop. Seemingly devoid of all life, the vast brown land is still terribly menacing. As soon as they come to Nasiriyah, the tragedy occurs.

Amadei depicts his alter ego as a flawed non-hero -- an ordinary man who reacts realistically in the face of horror. After the bomb goes off, his screams are almost more painful to bear than the images of his mangled body.

Amadei spends a few days in an Iraqi hospital before being shipped home to Rome, where he undergoes more operations and is cared for by his best friend Claudia (Carolina Crescentini), who would eventually become his wife. He is also visited in the hospital by a parade of journalists, politicians and military officials as he struggles to grasp what he has just been through. Fortunately, he does so with humor and a great sense for humanity that are both typically Roman and universally recognizable.

Marchioni effortlessly elicits laughs and tears. The supporting cast is outstanding, especially Basaluzzo, a true find.

Venue: Venice International Film Festival
Production companies: R&C Produzioni, RAI Cinema
Cast: Vinicio Marchioni, Carolina Crescentini, Giorgio Colangeli, Orsetta de Rossi, Alberto Basaluzzo, Edoardo Pesce, Andrea Iaia, Duccio Camerini
Director: Aureliano Amadei
Screenwriters: Giannoi Romoli, Francesco Trento, Volfganogo De Biasi, Aureliano Amadei
Producers: Tilde Crosi, Gianni Romoli, Claudio Bonivento
Director of photography: Vittorio Omodei Zorini
Production designer: Massimo Santomarco
Costume designer: Catia Dottori
Editor: Alessio Doglione
No rating, 94 minutes

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