Happy to Be Different (Felice chi e diverso): Berlin Review

Felice chi e diverso Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Felice chi e diverso Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

A well-meaning exploration of gay life that’s cluelessly stuck in another age.

Gianni Amelio’s documentary assembles personal recollections of Italian gay men, from the Mussolini era through subsequent decades of the 20th century.

The title of Gianni Amelio’s sincere but sadly blinkered documentary about gay experience in 20th century Italy, Happy to Be Different, comes from a poem by Sandro Penna. But that choice alone speaks volumes about how out of touch this project seems, when much of the world has moved beyond notions of gay identity defined by “different” vs. “normal.” A fragmented collection of first-hand accounts lacking any binding analysis, the film has one or two moving moments but is more often a maudlin downer, with a number of the subjects revealing antiquated attitudes that are no less imprisoning than the discrimination they endured.

Best known internationally for his narrative features of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Open Doors, The Stolen Children and Lamerica, Amelio came out in the Italian media earlier this year at age 69. There’s no doubting his personal investment in this material. The film gathers recollections of around 20 elderly gay men and one transsexual who lived through the Fascist years under Mussolini or the decades that immediately followed, when homosexuality was a social taboo that could cost men their families or jobs. (The documentary excludes lesbians.) But the absence of a politicized perspective, more extensive social context, or any acknowledgement of gay activism in Italy leaves this string of wishy-washy anecdotes without a discernible point of view.

What’s most disappointing is the reluctance to examine the impact of Catholicism and the Vatican State on gay experience. A couple of subjects – who are heard from strictly one by one, without any intercutting to elucidate salient points – reflect on the conflict between their religious beliefs and their sexuality. But the observations remain superficial. The film spends more time treading tired ground about Italy’s institutionalized reverence for the traditional family model, and how this functioned – and to some extent still does – as a deterrent to block gay men from embracing their sexuality.

Throughout the film, intriguing points arise without being in any way developed. One interviewee discusses the anti-homosexual stance of the Mussolini government (“A tree that bears no fruit must be destroyed” was a pro-reproduction credo), while pointing up the homoerotic aesthetic of regime-commissioned sculptures depicting male athletes. Representing later decades, another subject talks about the homosexuality rife at high levels of all the major political parties, notably the centrist Christian Democrats.

A number of the men attest to the more accepting environment of art, film, music and fashion. Among those interviewed is Ninetto Davoli, discovered by Pier Paolo Pasolini as a 15-year-old street kid, who became the controversial director’s muse in a number of films. Archival material shows how Pasolini’s homosexuality and his role as “the bard of the sordid and fetid” made him a target for mockery from the establishment media. But Amelio jumps ahead almost immediately to news clippings detailing Pasolini’s murder, sidestepping any consideration of his cultural influence.

A scene from the 1962 Dino Risi commedia all’italiana classic, Il Sorpasso, shows Vittorio Gassman’s character blithely dropping a derogatory gay epithet, and television clips illustrate the overwhelmingly stereotypical view of mincing gay men in Italian popular entertainment. But a more enterprising documentary maker would have dug deeper into the psychology behind this rampant stigmatization in a phallocentric culture, not to mention the fact that it still endures in lowbrow screen comedies.

Other interview subjects include film critic and occasional actor John Francis Lane, a Brit long based in Italy; haute couture designer Mose Bottazzi; artist Corrado Levi; variety entertainer Paolo Poli; and the late pop crooner Umberto Bindi, a mamma’s boy whose career was no doubt hurt by his homosexuality. But with these and other less public figures, the film is limited by Amelio’s willingness as an interviewer to settle for rambling reminiscence over probing inquiry.

Discussion of sex yields mostly familiar accounts of cruising for clandestine pleasures from those adventurous and brave enough to enjoy the furtive hunt, and loneliness and frustration for those who weren’t. There are stories of brutal abuse from one man whose father was determined to “cure” him, or a banker who paid for his nephew to visit a female prostitute twice a day in a failed bid to quell the youngster’s same-sex urges. There’s talk of attempted suicide, the use of electroshock treatment, and a stint in a mental institution, but again, these are passing mentions with little emotional impact.

The picture of homophobic prejudice and marginalization that emerges here is less notable than the one suggesting self-denial at best, self-loathing at worst. One interviewee confesses a preference for the definition “effeminate” over “homosexual,” while another says the adoption of the term “gay” had a homogenizing effect that did more harm than good. If it weren’t so vaguely articulated, that might be a provocative viewpoint. A conflicted transgender woman’s tearful discussion of “when I was intact” will make more politically evolved LGBT audiences cringe.

Countless inspiring documentaries about life before gay rights have examined early-activism pioneers or ordinary men and women whose courage overcame their fear. But Amelio’s chief affinity here is for victimhood, making this film seem 30 years behind the times. Its most memorable elements are inadvertently hilarious clips from cautionary public-service films warning of the predatory threat of homosexuality, with “inverts” eager to spread disease over a righteous society.

Present-day comparison is limited to a Bergamo youth’s account of coming out to his mother and then to his friends on Facebook, waiting for the fallout when he returns to school after summer break. But while this experience no doubt represents a widespread reality, slapping on a concluding note about how life continues to be difficult for many young gay men in Italy effectively ignores decades of progress.

Had this rich subject been taken on by more resourceful gay historical documentarians like Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, for instance, it might have yielded dynamic results. Instead it’s a limply assembled collage that represents a backward step for the very people it sets out to liberate from the shadows.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Documentary)

Production companies: Istituto Luce, Cinecitta, in association with Rai Cinema, Rai Trade

Director-screenwriter: Gianni Amelio

Executive producer: Maura Cosenza

Director of photography: Luan Amelio

Editor: Cecilia Pagliarani

Researcher: Francesco Costabile

Sales: Rai Trade

No rating, 93 minutes