'Magari' ('If Only'): Film Review | Locarno 2019

Francesca Fago
'Magari'
Warm, vibrant and intimately observed.

The Locarno fest's opening-night selection is a comic coming-of-age drama told largely from an 8-year-old girl's perspective.

There's a pint-size die-hard romantic at the center of Magari: Alma, age 8, who with her two older brothers spends a shambolic and charmed holiday season with their divorced dad. Coursing beneath their seaside interlude is a little girl's intense longing, reflected in the English title of this Italian-French production: If Only. Alma holds tight to the hope that her parents, who split when she was a baby, will remarry. She's certain, all evidence to the contrary, that this turn of events would set the world spinning in its proper orbit.

Ginevra Elkann, a producer who began her film career as assistant director on Bernardo Bertolucci's Besieged, makes her feature directing debut with a film that's steeped in a tender but not sugarcoated nostalgia. Vladan Radovic's flowing, nimble camerawork is perfectly in sync with the gently messy emotional terrain of the story — written with sharp, unfussy insight by the helmer and Chiara Barzini— and especially with its immersion in child's-eye-view sensory delights.

Alma (a lovely turn by Oro De Commarque), broody 14-year-old Sebastiano, aka Seb (Milo Roussel), and diabetic middle kid Jean (Ettore Giustiniani), whose health issues have perhaps heightened his devotion to TV superheroes, fly from Paris to Rome for a Christmastime visit with their father, Carlo (a pitch-perfect Riccardo Scamarcio), a struggling screenwriter. Their mother, Charlotte (Céline Sallette), is an eccentrically pious convert to the Russian Orthodox faith of her husband, Pavel (Benjamin Baroche) — who's understandably deemed "really boring" by the kids. Along with the clothing they pack for a ski trip that never happens, Charlotte has sent them off with little warning and two secrets that won't remain under wraps for long: She's pregnant, and she and Pavel plan to move the family to Canada.

Under an auspiciously sunny sky, Dad arrives late at the airport, but with an adorable mutt in tow. That combo of screw-up and charisma is his m.o. But as well-seasoned as his captivating shtick may be, Carlo regards the reunion with a twinge of fear. He's far from a constant presence in his kids' lives; when he urges them to speak Italian rather than their now-preferred French, Seb responds with a sullen teenage dig: "It's hard speaking Italian every two years." Carlo's also distracted by work, consumed with getting a production company to greenlight his new screenplay — one that he claims has drawn the attention of Mastroianni.

Based on that name-drop and Jean's Game Boy console, the story is unfolding in the early '90s — as Italian audiences surely will deduce from the pop songs that spark car sing-alongs and celebratory dancing in key scenes. Carlo's typewriter might look like an affectation to contemporary eyes, but given his financial situation, it's more likely that it's a necessary holdout during the end of an era.

Whatever his anxieties, Carlo temporarily abandons the kids at his parents' place. Static overhead shots capture the orderly geometry of their well-appointed place, a striking contrast to the free-spirited days that lie ahead, after Carlo retrieves Alma and her brothers in an early-morning sneak maneuver. This time he's accompanied not just by his scruffy dog but by his loose-limbed writing partner, Benedetta (Alba Rohrwacher, terrific). She might also be his lover, and, at least in the eyes of film producers, it seems she's the better writer — one of many tantalizing details woven seamlessly into the screenplay.

Instead of the planned trip to the mountains, Carlo takes the kids to the seaside, where he has a modest house. Seb understands that this off-season beach trip is a cost-saving measure, but Alma views the choice of location through heart-shaped rose-colored glasses: It's a return to a place that her parents once shared, and therefore another sign that they're destined to reunite. When she thinks of romantic couples — like herself and a cool teen boy with a moped — Alma envisions wedding scenes, and foremost in her imagined nuptial pairings are her parents, whose reunion is the subject of her ardent prayers and at least one nauseating sacrifice.

The unrushed idyll that unfurls is alive with discovery, flirtation, parties and several characters' boundary-testing drifts between darkness and joy. Brett Gelman (Fleabag), as an American film-biz friend of Carlo's, bursts in on the lazy days with a high-energy blast of weird intensity and loud English, accompanied by a mysterious silent partner.

After such an organic narrative ebb and flow, two key dramatic turns in the late going can't quite shake off the feeling of contrivance. Magari is not an indelible film, but it casts a sensuous spell, and Elkann has an eye for odd and lovely details, impulsive hairpin turns and everyday moments charged with emotion: a first kiss; the ineffable intimacy of a shared sandwich during a wayward journey — memories in the making, and wishes giving way, if grudgingly at first, to the unexpected.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Wildside, Rai Cinema, Tribus P Films, Iconoclast
Cast: Riccardo Scamarcio, Alba Rohrwacher, Milo Roussel, Ettore Giustiniani, Oro De Commarque, Céline Sallette, Benjamin Baroche, Brett Gelman
Director: Ginevra Elkann
Screenwriters: Chiara Barzini, Ginevra Elkann
Producers: Lorenzo Mieli, Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Gangarossa
Executive producer: Elena Recchia
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Roberto De Angelis
Costume designer: Sergio Zambon
Editor: Desideria Rayner
Composer: Riccardo Sinigallia
Casting: Barbara Melega
Sales: Rai Com

In Italian, French and English

101 minutes