A Street in Palermo (Via Castellana Bandiera): Venice Review

A face-off between two obstinate women drivers in a slum alleyway quickly runs into tedium

Acclaimed Sicilian theater director Emma Dante makes her film debut with a look at a battle of will between two women.

Sicily has recently been named one of Europe’s least productive regions, which will come as no surprise to viewers of A Street in Palermo, set in an outlying area of Palermo so poor it hardly looks like Europe at all.

The film bow of acclaimed theater director Emma Dante is the relentless tale of a two-car traffic jam that could more profitably have been written as an absurdist stage play; as a one-location film animated by incessant handheld camera work, its battle of wills quickly turns tedious.

Though some offshore fans of Italian art films may well enjoy an hour and a half of slumming in a colorful local setting, an unfortunate side-effect of the film’s cruel depiction of locals is to reinforce stereotypes of poor Sicilians as beer-bellied brutes cruisin’ for a bruisin’ and more than willing to sell their grandmother for money. Italians will probably read the film as farce and  an outcry against under-development in the south.

In any case, the heart of the film is exquisitely theatrical: the psychological duel to the death between two extraordinarily stubborn women, who face off in their cars in an alleyway too narrow to pass. Neither one agrees to back up the short distance necessary to let the other by. In one car are Rosa (Dante) and her passenger Clara (Alba Rohrwacher), a gay couple on the verge of breaking up. In the other is the Calafiore family, a mass of wailing kids, harried parents, a brutish paterfamilias (Renato Malafatti) who literally considers himself the king of the road, and in the driver's seat his former mother-in-law Samira (Elena Cotta), an ancient, frail old lady whose iron will he exploits for his own purposes.

Early scenes of Samira tending her daughter’s grave in a neglected cemetery help stage thesp Cotta impart sympathy and substance to the mysterious Samira, who has barely a line of dialogue in the whole film. From an ethnic Albanian community even poorer than the residents of Castellana Bandiera street, she has only the affection of her young grandson Niccolo (newcomer Dario Casarolo) to make life human. Yet her very interior performance contains glimmerings of humor that tie it in to the absurdity of the macho menfolk vacuuming up the pasta.

Behind the wheel of the other car, in contrast, is one of the most unpleasant protagonists in memory. Rosa’s only excuse for being bitchy, abusive and ready to kill or die on a senseless whim is that she was a lonely child growing up in similar circumstances of social and cultural deprivation. Considering she has the pretty, good-tempered Clara at her side, it’s hard to rationalize her angry self-hatred and she remains a very difficult character to digest.

Sporting a cringe-worthy gutter punk look, including a tattoo running from her ear to her fingertips, Rohrwacher gives a lively, reliably solid performance as Clara, a talented illustrator always doodling in her sketchbook. These two modern young women have so little to do with Samira’s world that their physical impasse in the cars feels like it’s metaphoric, though it’s hard to say of what.       

The handheld DV camera rarely pauses in its bee-like flight from object to object. More interesting is the conceptual use Dante makes of the street itself, which in the early scenes is extremely narrow and walled-in. It gradually widens in preparation for a highly symbolic finale, to the swelling notes of a soul-searing Sicilian ode sung by the Mancuso Brothers, the only music in the film.   

Venue:  Venice Film Festival (competition), Aug. 28, 2013

Production companies: Vivo Film, Wildside, Offside, Venture Film, Slot Machine in association with RAI Cinema, RSI, SRG SSR

Cast: Emma Dante, Elena Cotta, Alba Rohrwacher, Renato Malfatti, Dario Casarolo, Carmine Maringola, Sandro Maria Campagna

Director: Emma Dante
Screenwriters: Emma Dante, Giorgio Vasta with Licia Eminenti, based on Dante’s novel  
Producers: Marta Donzelli, Gregorio Paonessa, Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Mieli, Elda Guidinetti, Andres Pfaeffli, Marianne Slot  
Director of photography: Gherardo Gossi
Production designer:  Emita Frigato
Music: Mancuso Brothers
Costume designer: Italia Carroccio  
Editor:  Benni Atria
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 93 minutes.