'Crater' ('Il cratere'): Film Review | Tokyo 2017

CRATER Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of the Tokyo International Film Festival
Technically impressive filmmaking, but patience is required.

A frustrated fairgrounds huckster grooms his teenage daughter to become a pop singer in a documentary-like drama that won the special jury prize in Tokyo.

Documakers Silvia Luzi and Luca Bellino (Of the Art of War) play with the boundaries of documentary and fiction in their first feature film, Crater (Il cratere), which takes its cue from the real lives of a father and his 13-year-old daughter and builds a film around them. It’s a technically impressive feat, complete with a few hidden cameras, that recalls a reality show in the hands of two very sensitive, skillful directors. But like reality TV, it has its longeurs. It has found appreciation with more sophisticated festival audiences, bowing in Venice’s Critics Week and winning the special jury award at Tokyo.

The story of a frustrated dad who becomes obsessed with turning his daughter’s singing into a lucrative career carries a strong echo of Luchino Visconti’s 1952 classic Bellissima, where Anna Magnani played a stage mother determined to live by proxy through her daughter. It also, inevitably, recalls last year’s festival breakout Indivisible, Edoardo De Angelis’ tale of conjoined twins exploited by their parents as a singing act in the Neapolitan hinterlands.

What makes Crater very different, and probably less audience-friendly, is its neutral, undramatic approach to the story. Also striking is its upfront film language. The constant use of tight close-ups and blurred-out backgrounds cut the characters out of any possible context; with the setting obliterated, they are left dangling in a void. It’s actually an apt metaphor for their mental state of dreamy confusion.

Rosario Caroccia and his wife are traveling fairground hawkers who sell tickets for a chance to win a stuffed animal. Their accents are from Campania, the area around Naples, and their four-child family is far from affluent. In several closely observed scenes, the camera shows Mom (the excellent Tina Amariutei as an uncomplaining workhorse) vigorously scrubbing a stuffed bunny with detergent, as though it was being recycled from who-knows-where as a prize. Later, Rosario rifles through a bag of doll eyes as he repairs or creates new toys. Both scenes are shot so close that the faces are barely visible, proving that narrative can be built around mere details.

Rosario is tired of his boring, low-paying work and dreams of making it big through his teenage daughter Sharon. She’s hardly the ambitious type — she cuts school and spends most of her time watching TV with her friend Imma — but she has one asset: her voice. Since she was a tyke, Sharon has been happily singing to audiences at the fair, in a popular neo-melodic style that fuses traditional Neapolitan songs with modern lyrics. When we finally hear her singing to playback in a recording studio, she’s good; though the soundman quibbles that she sounds hoarse and nasal, few will notice.

Dad announces he will be her manager and persuades Mom to handle the fairground business on her own; he needs money to buy Sharon a song (€1,000) and get her on local TV (€300 a pop). The girl suddenly finds herself thrust into the role of the child star who has to be groomed, recorded and nagged to work on her singing — which she quickly loses interest in.

A key to reading all this is given in the first scene, when Sharon rehearses a school lesson (at typically great length) about the literary movements of naturalism and verismo, in which the author “observes the souls of the characters without being influenced by his own feelings.” This non-judgmental approach, which is more common in documentaries, gives more space to watching than weighing Rosario and his family. No one is depicted as a monster, though it gets a little weird when Dad plants a bunch of hidden closed-circuit cameras around the house, presumably to observe his daughter-protegee in every moment of her life. The more she rebels, the more he draws the net tighter around her.

Sometimes with a shade of comedy, sometimes with a whiff of danger, the film chronicles the deteriorating relations between Rosario and Sharon as he forces her to live his dream. There is literally no way to tell when Luzi and Bellino deviate from the strict facts of the Caroccias’ lives, though the low-key ending is too perfect not to be scripted.

Production company: Tfilm in association with RAI Cinema
Cast: Sharon Caroccia, Rosario Caroccia, Tina Amariutei
Directors-producers-cinematographers-editors: Silvia Luzi, Luca Bellino
Screenwriters: Silvia Luzi, Luca Bellino with Rosario Caroccia
Music: Alessandro Paolini
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Alpha Violet

93 minutes