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A delicate, nuanced film that is unexpectedly moving in its portrait of a young Italian family living through the turbulent, freedom-loving ’70s, Those Happy Years uses ironic distance to talk about very intimate things. Director Daniele Luchetti (My Brother Is an Only Child) brings a personal, even autobiographical urgency to the story, coolly told in hindsight by a narrator who watched his parents’ marriage unravel when he was a child. It captures the excruciating honesty and soul-searching of the years of feminism and self-liberation, a time that now seems far, far away. For this reason, it should evoke a lot of bittersweet memories in older viewers who will appreciate its light touch, along with fans of Italian stars Kim Rossi Stuart and Micaela Ramazzotti, both at the top of their game here.
Guido Marchetti (Rossi Stuart) is an ambitious but still unknown avant-garde artist in 1974, when things were considerably groovier than today. He sculpts female nudes in his Roman studio by pouring plaster over models’ naked bodies. His two sons, Dario (Samuel Garofalo) and little Paolo (Niccolo Calvagna), watch their father work as though it were the most normal profession in the world. They’re only kicked out when Dad needs a private session with his models, while the artwork is drying.
Typical of the times, the boys call their parents by their first names. Their mother, Serena (Ramazzotti), is a pretty, curly-haired housewife who doesn’t understand the first thing about modern art, but understands all too well what her good-looking spouse is up to. Their fights usually end happily in the bedroom, as the boys look on. One of the clever things about the film is the way the kids are treated as if they’re invisible, making them privy to everything their parents do and feel and allowing Dario to be a privileged narrator.
Though at first Serena seems like just another jealous, slightly dippy housewife, Luchetti deftly turns that impression around in an early scene about performance art. Throughout the film, conventional academic art is challenged by the new avant-garde; Guido belongs to the latter school. His foreign gallery owner, Helke (Martina Gedeck of The Lives of Others), gets him a shot at the big time: an important group show in Milan. Though he orders Serena to stay home, she turns up with the kids anyway. In a beautifully imagined and filmed sequence artfully balanced between humor and embarrassment, Guido walks into the gallery stark naked with four of his models, who proceed to paint his body while an assistant challenges the squirming, well-dressed crowd of critics and spectators to take off their clothes. From the back of the room, Serena and the kids look on bug-eyed. Her spontaneous reaction is a touching expression of her naivete about modern art, as well testimony to the love, trust and admiration she bears her husband.
Thanks to Serena, the critics pan the performance as “fake”.
But the film audience, at least, is now firmly on her side, and Guido and his artistic male ego drop away as the screenplay unexpectedly shifts its attention to her. Serena has always accepted Guido’s unliberated attitude that a wife should stay home and care for her family, but now something changes inside her. Had it not been for her wonderful openness in the Milan scene, it would be impossible to believe she could go so far so fast in taking ownership of her feelings and rights as a woman. In the short space of a summer, under the playfully watchful eye of Dario’s new 8mm film camera, Serena puts aside her doubts and heads off to a feminist retreat in France with Helke and the kids in tow. There, as the expression goes, she learns a lot about herself. When she returns to Rome, her marriage to Guido will never be the same.
There’s something heart-wrenching about the tone of the screenplay, co-authored by the director with top screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, both of whom worked on My Brother Is an Only Child. Given the fact that Luchetti’s father, sculptor Luca Luchetti, had a career similar to Guido’s, and that his artwork was used in the film, it’s hard not to associate Daniele Luchetti with the eager young filmmaker Dario Marchetti. In any case, the story’s warm, affectionate tone will make the audience agree with Dario’s reflection that, despite all the chaos and painful moments in his youth, in retrospect they were the “happy years.”
Rossi Stuart is wholly believable as the angry, self-absorbed artist, the product of a mother who never stops cutting him down, even as an adult. But Ramazzotti steals the spotlight from him with her engaging pout and sudden courage to defy her big, warm family of shopkeepers and follow her own path. The performances are underlined by very delicate and illuminating mood music from composer Franco Piersanti.
A disclaimer: Luchetti presents what must be one of the most glowing portraits on film of an art critic: one who not only forgives a punch in the face for a negative review, but nobly offers sage words of advice and a pat on the back when the same artist changes register and starts producing good work. It’s one of the film’s little surprises.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 13, 2013
Cast: Kim Rossi Stuart, Micaela Ramazzotti, Martina Gedeck
Production companies: Cattleya, Rai Cinema
Director: Daniele Luchetti
Screenwriters: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli, Caterina Venturini, Daniele Luchetti
Producers: Giovanni Stabilini, Riccardo Tozzi, Marco Chimenz
Executive producer: Matteo De Laurentiis
Director of photography: Claudio Collepiccolo
Production designer: Giancarlo Basili
Music: Franco Piersanti
Editors: Mirco Garrone, Francesco Garrone
Sales: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 105 minutes.
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