The Fifth Wheel (L’ultima ruota del carro): Rome Review

A pleasant but hardly memorable jog through recent Italian history with an honest, average guy.

Italian director Giovanni Veronesi moves on from his popular Manual of Love rom coms with a Forrest Gump-like tale.

At a time when Italians are very much under the weather with serious economic woes, a bit of positive thinking, however improbable, doesn’t hurt at the box office. At least that seems to be the philosophy behind the well-designed rom com The Fifth Wheel, whose mark of distinction is that the story spans 46 years of recent Italian history. Starring Elio Germano as a humble, honest Everyman who moves from job to job as the country goes from bad to worse, the Fandango/Warner Bros Entertainment Italia production is facile at best and could have been funnier. But Giovanni Veronesi (director of the Manual of Love film series, the last one starring Robert De Niro) has a confident feeling for local audiences’ taste and they will probably flock obediently when WB releases in Italy next week. The film’s crowd-pleasing potential will be tested as opening night film at the Rome Film Festival.

Offshore, the references to historical events like Aldo Moro’s assassination by the Red Brigades may ring a distant bell, but other classic moments like Socialist politician Bettino Craxi being showered with a rain of pennies by a scornful crowd just won’t click with viewers who don’t know the background. By the time the clock advances to billboards of Silvio Berlusconi lining the highway, it gets a little easier.

Apart from this timing device, the story of the Gump-like quiet hero Ernesto (Germano) is little more than pleasant viewing. As the curtain rises in 1967, he’s a boy whose inept soccer playing is paralleled by his school grades. His angry father calls him a worthless “fifth wheel” in the family and turns him into a slave-like assistant in his upholstery business.  One day Dad parks his van next to a red Renault where, we later learn, Aldo Moro’s dead body lays curled up under a blanket. But this pregnant moment barely ruffles Ernesto as he watches TV that night with his pretty wife Angela  (Alessandra Mastronardi) who comments, "Poor Moro." And so to bed.

Angela’s relatives briefly get him a job as a school cook (though he can't cook), but the night that Italy wins the 1991 World Series he announces he’s going into business for himself. He strong-arms his best buddy Giacinto (Ricky Memphis) into helping him launch a moving company and through his job meets the film’s most appealing character, a mad artist played by Alessander Haber in a role that suits him to perfection. When they are on screen together, Haber and Germano exude authentic values and genuine humor that are lacking in the rest of the story.

In fact, the world around the good Ernesto is becoming increasingly evil and corrupt. Giacinto turns up in a big black car and pulls him into the sphere of the Socialist party, where there is big money to be made shuffling invoices. They work for a dapper fellow (a lusty Sergio Rubini) who embodies the excesses of his day; and when that dream cloud evaporates, there is another one in sight up in Milan, where a rich businessman named Berlusconi is promising “a new Italian miracle.”

All of this is rich material that has been mined before in memorable films like Marco Tullio Giordana’s family saga The Best of Youth.  More recently, Daniele Luchetti’s Those Happy Years explored the impact of the Sixties on Italian life. Here the metaphors are broadly sketched, like the key image of Ernesto frantically sifting through a giant heap of garbage, and tend not to mean much. His submissive wife and wacky family members play like TV characters, the helpless victims of history which swirls around them. Most crucially, he learns practically nothing from the joys and sorrows that life brings him, making it hard for Germano, one of Italy’s finest young actors, to leave a lasting impression.

The technical side is bright and spiffy and enlivened by cult songs from the past, while the film's strong musical themes were composed and performed by popular folk singer Elisa.

Venue:  Rome Film Festival (out of competition), Nov. 8, 2013

Cast: Elio Germano, Ricky Memphis, Alessandra Mastronardi, Virginia Raffaele, Alessandro Haber, Sergio Rubini, Massimo Wertmuller, Francesca D’Aloja, Dalila Di Lazzaro

Director: Giovanni Veronesi

Screenwriters: Giovanni Veronesi, Filippo Bologna, Ugo Chiti, Ernesto Fioretti

Producer: Domenico Procacci

Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti

Production designer: Tonino Zera

Costumes: Gemma Mascagni

Music: Elisa

Editor: Patrizio Marone

No rating, 113 minutes.