'Normal': Film Review | Berlin 2019

NORMAL-Publicity Still 2-H 2019
Courtesy of Berlinale

Italian director Adele Tulli's observational documentary looks at gender in contemporary Italy.

Gender as a construct is explored to unsettling effect in the ironically titled documentary Normal, directed by Italian academic-turned-filmmaker Adele Tulli (365 Without 377). This startling and confrontational work of non-fiction cinema is really in full-on observational mode — a la Nikolaus Geyrhalter and his Our Daily Bread — serving up scene after scene of mundane events and tasks carried out by John (or should that be Giovanni?) Does and Jane Does in different parts of Italy. The cumulative effect is that an idea emerges of the frightening extent to which our daily lives in the West are informed by some very rigid ideas about what’s appropriate for men and women. 

Without further editorializing elements except for the editing — so there are no voiceovers or talking heads — this isn’t the kind of film that will ever become a mainstream hit, though docuheads, gender-studies aficionados and LGBTQ- and women-focused programmers will want to make sure they catch this Berlinale Panorama premiere on the big screen at a festival near them soon. 

A mother accompanies her daughter as she gets her ears pierced. A father readies his little boy for a (tiny) motorbike race with his peers. These are some of the first shots in the film, and scenes like these will have played out in Italy and elsewhere in the world thousands of times. Nothing out of the ordinary, right? Except that by putting these scenes into a documentary context such as this one, elevating them to events that merit big-screen projection and thus our undivided attention, the filmmaker throws telling details into high relief. 

The person piercing the girl’s ear, for example, is, of course, a man. And on the racecourse, there’s not a woman to be found. Both the boy, named Francesco, and the girl, named Alma, are undergoing a kind of rites-of-passage moment into a more mature age, and they do so by appropriating — or, rather, copying — things normally associated with adulthood (motorbikes and earrings and jewelry, respectively). It’s not clear from the short fragments if these kids or their parents first suggested the kids do these things, but what is clear is how it’s considered 100% normal — that titular evocation — for young kids to aspire to be mini-adults according to their gender. Never mind that the girl might look more like a doll than a grown woman with studs in her ears, or that the boy’s helmet is almost bigger than his bike. They are being trained in what’s normal for their gender regardless of their age.

Tulli and her co-editors, Ilaria Fraioli and Elisa Cantelli, slowly up the ante as the “normal” people showcased get a little older. Young teenage girls go crazy at a meet-and-greet with local YouTube star Antony di Francesco, who has over a million followers on the broadcasting platform and who, judged solely by this footage, must be more popular in Italy than whoever the local equivalent of Noah Centineo or Shawn Mendes is these days. But their hoped-for special connection with their idol is mocked by Tulli’s simple decision to show the brutal mechanics of a meet-and-greet, with Antony giving every single girl who bought his book a kiss on the cheek and a hug before gently shoving them out of the way to make room for the next one. This supposed display of affection and proximity are, one realizes, just one more commodity being sold alongside the book di Francesco’s hawking. Teenage crushes are, of course, par for the course, but in this particular light they look more like something smart but also very cynical people can really cash in on (much like the toys for boys and girls in stereotypical colors spied in a factory montage that most clearly brings to mind Geyrhalter’s cinema).

The supposedly stronger sex isn’t much better off, as a group of teenage boys are seen playing violent video games and the sequence then segues to a role-playing game that involves them in army fatigues wielding weapons in an army-training-like outdoors setup. It looks like they might be at a kind of summer camp for boys, where one of the leaders — himself just a few years older — at one point sits the guys down and explains to them how to talk to and deal with girls (and especially “bitter women,” a dismissive expression if ever there was one). 

I wish, purely for my selfish benefit, that this particular sequence finds its way to the internet real soon because what these poor teenage boys are told about that elusive and impenetrable species called women would probably lead woke Twitter to create the greatest GIF- and facepalm-meme reaction thread of all time. It isn’t even so much retrograde as it is just generally clueless. Placed around the mid-point of the film, it finally explicitly addresses how male-female relations are seen, at least by these future sons of the patriarchy. It’s both chilling and tragic to watch as what they’re told will forever taint how they relate to not only the opposite sex but also their peers with whom they’re competing.   

The segments on adult courtship, marriage and marriage counseling — “Cheating is always the fault of both parties,” a dead-serious priest explains, somehow without any sense of ridicule — continue the general trend of confirming that it feels almost like a miracle men and women still interact on this planet at all given how much bad advice and worse expectations both sides get burdened with. Your future husband will be “like another child who needs cuddles, too” a young bride-to-be is told, as if it were a 1950s infomercial for happy marriages and chastity belts. But instead it’s the 21st century and women are still being told they are the sole caretakers for both their kids and their partners. The fact someone needs to tell them already feels telling. 

That said, by avoiding any kind of overt editorializing beyond choosing what to film and how to edit the material, Tulli allows audiences to draw their own conclusions. The way the pic plays could differ greatly from person to person. Someone who, because of their society and upbringing, agrees with the aforementioned priest or the parochial woman explaining a woman’s care-taking duties will just see what they already know and feel confirmed in their beliefs. To make sure they, too, have something to chew on, the director throws in a coda that clearly suggests that gray zones exist. A male magician might make a female assistant disappear onstage, with her taking the wordless sexy role and him being the alpha male in full control, but Tulli also shows him as he has his makeup done, and he’s clearly wearing more makeup than his assistant is. Is this still “normal”? And what about the civil partnership ceremonies that end the film? If same-sex couple are longing for the “normal” life and values heterosexuals long for, does that make them “normal,” too? 

Cleanly composed and shot, in widescreen, and expertly strung together, the scenes from daily life in Normal suggest that Italian society as a whole is in flux, just like the definition of what it really means to be normal. To help audiences concentrate on the images and their meaning, the soundscape occasionally sounds slightly disorienting or distorted, adding an otherworldly edge that allows viewers to look at our species as if they were the subject of an animal documentary. Slowly the question of what’s “natural” for a man and a woman starts to arise because surely, if it’s all so natural, why do we need to be told by people how, specifically, we should behave? 

Production companies: Film Affair, AAMOD, Istituto Luce Cinecitta, Intramovies, RAI Cinema, Ginestra Film
Director: Adele Tulli
Producers: Valeria Adilardi, Luca Ricciardi, Laura Romano
Directors of photography: Clarissa Cappellani, Francesca Zonars
Editors: Ilaria Fraioli, Elisa Cantelli, Adele Tulli
Music: Andrea Koch
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente)
Sales: Slingshot Films

In Italian
70 minutes