EmptyVenice International Film Festival (Venice Masters)
VENICE, Italy -- Italian director Carlo Lizzani's WWII story about a group of mostly Italian Jews trapped by the Nazis in a luxury resort ends with such a horrifyingly brilliant sequence in Lago Maggiore that it prompts forgiveness of the film's small failings.
Based on a book by Marco Nozza about a real event that took place in September 1943 in the lakeside Hotel Meina in northern Italy, the film offers another grim reminder of the Holocaust in a suspenseful story whose outcome is never really in doubt.
Screened in the Venice Masters sidebar at the Venice International Film Festival, the film's masterful imagery, good performances and considerable tension overcome some clichéd characterization to leave a powerful and lasting impression. It should do well on the art house and festival circuit and could easily find mainstream audiences.
Bookended by one survivor's return to the hotel, the film tells of a group of Jewish folk who were among the holidaymakers when Italy signed its armistice with the allies. Sudden joy that the war is over is quashed when an SS unit marches in, takes over the hotel and orders all the Jewish families to be quartered on the fourth floor.
Among them is the Fendez family, father Robert (Elia Donghi), a Turin businessman, mother Liliana (Silvia Cohen) and three children including teenager Julien (Federico Constantini). The boy is in love with Noa (Ivana Lotito), beautiful daughter of Giorgio Benar (Danilo Nigrelli) and his wife Camy (Marta Bifano), who own the hotel. The Benars are Jewish, but as citizens of Turkey, a neutral country, they are permitted to carry on running the place.
The non-Jewish guests are allowed to continue their vacations and many do so rationalizing that they have already paid and the war is over so surely everything will be all right. One of them, an elegant single German woman named Cora Bern (Ursula Bushhorn) actively encourages SS Commandant Hans Krassler (Benjamin Sadler) in his work.
They underestimate Krassler, however. His sternly handsome looks and proper manners mask a dedicated Nazi who trembles as he tells of hearing the Fuhrer speak and is blindly committed to furthering the evil goals of the "master race." Bern is also not what she seems, as is soon revealed when she pulls out a radio in her bedroom and plays a part in getting a Jewish intellectual across the border into Switzerland.
With no news forthcoming about the SS unit's orders, optimism overcomes fear, and there are moments of forced merriment and even weddings as the days draw out. But then Krassler announces that his prisoners will be sent in small groups for questioning in a nearby town, and an atmosphere of dread returns.
While Bern conspires with Benar and resistance fighters to find a way for the Jews to escape across the lake to Ticino, Krassler smilingly imposes his ruthless authority.
There is no escaping the overriding sorrow of such a story, but director Lizzani, working from a well-structured screenplay by Dino Leonardo Gentili, Filippo Gentili and Pasquale Squitieri, creates genuine suspense and many moments of humanity.
The Jewish families, with their traditions and their faith, are well drawn, with Lolito especially appealing as Noa. Bushhorn struggles a bit as the good German, and Sadler shows the usual demonic fury as the commandant. The members of the SS unit are one-dimensional, but then perhaps that was the problem.
Director: Carlo Lizzani
Writers: Dino Leonardo Gentili, Filipo Gentili, Pasquale Squitieri
Producers: Ida Di Benedetto and Stefania Bifano, Piero Amati, Jacques Strauss
Director of photography: Claudio Sabatini
Production designer: Tonino Zera
Music: Luis Bacalov
Costume designer: Catia Dottori
Editor: Massimo Quaglia
Hans Krassler: Benjamin Sadler
Cora Bern: Ursula Bushhorn
Giorgio Benar: Danilo Nigrelli
Camy Benar: Marta Bifano
Julien Fendez: Federico Constantini
Noa Benar: Ivana Lotito
Tepper: Buse Butz
Filipetti: Ernesto Mahieux
Irma Moneri: Majlinda Agaj
Vittorio Pomas: Eugenio Allegri
Liliana Fendez: Silvia Cohen
Ester Moneri: Diana Collepiccolo
Robert Fendez: Elia Donghi
Pierre Fendez: Simone Colombari
Mario Manulli: Giancarlo Judica Cordiglia
Nipote Someco: Massimiliano Di Grazia
Blanca Fendez: Fiamma Ferzetti
Marcus: Marco Fubini
Giacomo Fidani: Fabio Ghidone
Signora Melloni: Anna Maria Loliva
Arnaldo Foschi: Franco Maino
No MPAA rating, running time 110 minutes