Marina: Hong Kong Review

Flanders Image
A conventional but involving musical rags-to-riches story from Flanders by way of southern Italy.

The latest musical biopic of Belgian director Stijn Coninx looks at the youth of singer Rocco Granata, the son of Italian immigrants in Flanders.

The musically inclined son of an Italian miner in Flanders tries to live up to his potential in post-war Belgium in Marina, a fairly traditional but nonetheless involving fictionalization of the formative years of Italo-Belgian singer Rocco Granata.

Named after Granata’s biggest hit, Marina keeps Belgian director Stijn Coninx in the period musical biopic business after his last effort, 2009’s Sister Smile, which chronicled the life of Jeannine Deckers, the singing nun from the 1960s -- played with great verve by Cecile De France. Marina is set a decade earlier, though it similarly charts the rise of a small-town singer from an unconventional background who made it big.

The film was a huge success at home, where more than 500,000 tickets were sold, a very impressive number for a language area of just over six million people. Co-produced by Coninx’s French-language compatriots the Dardenne brothers, Marina is polished in ways the siblings’ own movies could never be. It could delight audiences with a penchant for solid mainstream entertainment with subtitles even in places where Granata is an unknown quantity, as evidenced by the lively audience response at the recent Palm Springs Film Festival. Its next stop on the festival circuit is the Hong Kong Filmart.

STORY: Hong Kong Stars Donnie Yen, Carina Lau to Receive Special Honors From Asian Film Academy

Unlike probably any other Flemish film in history, Marina opens in 1948 Calabria, in southern Italy, though the film doesn’t linger there, as poor local worker Toto Granata (Italian star Luigi lo Cascio, from The Best of Youth) informs his wife, Ida (Angela Finocchiaro), that he’s going to Belgium to work in the mines for three years in the hope of providing the dirt-poor Granata clan with a better future. But like countless guest workers in northern Europe, instead of returning after a few years, Toto settles and asks his family -- which includes the couple’s young children, 10-year-old Rocco (Cristian Campagna) and 5-year-old Wanda (Federica Marino) -- to join him.

Early scenes in Belgium rather conventionally play up little Rocco’s fish-out-of-the-water status -- since he doesn’t speak the local language, even playing with the other kids or concentrating at school are difficult -- as well as the casual racism he encounters (though there are clear echoes of Belgium’s current problems with xenophobia, Coninx and co-screenwriter Rik D’hiet wisely stick to a point-of-view close to Rocco and his direct experiences).

There’s also the matter of the local grocer’s pretty daughter (Marte Bosmans as a child, Evelien Bosmans as a teen), whom Rocco clearly likes but who seems to be out of his league. Not only is there a rich and cocky rival (Mattias van de Vijver) on the horizon but Rocco, played by newcomer Matteo Simoni from his teenage years on, doesn’t even know her name. To make matters worse, her stern father (Warre Borgmans) clearly doesn’t want the apple of his eye to hang out with the son of a miner who can’t speak a word of Dutch.

An accident with far-reaching consequences at the mine and a brief scene set during the 1956 miner’s strike notwithstanding, Marina generally is far removed from the political conscience of Coninx’s most famous film, the Oscar-nominated 1993 Daens, about a priest who fought for  improved working conditions for Flemish factory workers. Instead, the director opts for a much tighter (and, it has to be said, less adventurous) focus on Rocco’s personal growth and struggles as a young immigrant man and budding musician who sings and plays the accordion in louche bars, much to the chagrin of his hard-working father -- at least until a talent contest suddenly catapults him to fame.

The charismatic Simoni brings a pleasingly affable quality to Granata and is credible as both a performer and a young pup hopelessly in love, which helps paper over the film’s occasionally maudlin moments or attempts at old-fashioned, cutesy humor. The rest of the cast also is solid, and, in a nice touch, a kind Brussels accordion salesman who took a chance on the clearly talented young man is played by the now 75-year-old Granata himself.

Shot in warm colors and classy widescreen by cinematographer Lou Berghmans and with production designer Hubert Pouille shamelessly ladling on the nostalgia, the film looks great and of course features Granata’s most famous songs, including the titular tune, which, as the film shows, was originally conceived as a hasty little B-side.


Production companies: Eyeworks Film & TV Drama, Les Films du fleuve, Orisa Produzioni, Een, RTBF

Cast: Luigi Lo Cascio, Donatella Finocchiaro, Matteo Simoni, Evelien Bosmans, Cristian Campagna, Marte Bosmans, Maite Redal, Federica Marino, Warre Borgmans, Chris Van Den Durpel

Director: Stijn Coninx

Screenwriters: Stijn Coninx, Rik D’hiet

Producer: Peter Bouckaert

Co-producers: Cristiano Bortone, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Delphine Tomson

Director of photography: Lou Berghmans

Production designer: Hubert Pouille

Music: Michel Bisceglia

Costume designer: Catherine Marchand

Editor: Philippe Ravoet

Sales: Media Luna Films

No rating, 118 minutes