'Oriana Fallaci' ('L'Oriana'): Film Review

Courtesy of Rai Fiction
A great performance surrounded by a mostly mediocre movie.

Italian actress Vittoria Puccini plays the controversial Italian journalist and writer in this biopic directed by Marco Turco.

One of Italy’s most notorious and divisive journalists and thinkers is brought to rather tame life in the biopic Oriana Fallaci (L’Oriana), from director Marco Turco. Made for TV in Italy as a 200-minute two-parter, the project was briefly released in Italian cinemas as a 106-minute film two weeks before it aired, and this theatrical cut also debuted in French theaters earlier this month. Though uneven as a whole, this is worth a look for the brave and incisive lead performance by actress Vittoria Puccini, who has clearly thrown herself into the role of a lifetime, and for the segment dealing with the writer’s impossible love affair with Greek politician, poet and national hero Alexandros Panagoulis. Further sales, especially in Europe, are likely, though small-screen interest will clearly outnumber theatrical sales.

The film opens in the Florentine countryside in the year 2000, when Oriana is over 70 years old and Puccini is covered in old-lady makeup and a Susan Sontag-y wig that's not convincing from all angles. A sincere if somewhat maladroit Ph.D. student, Lisa (Francesca Agostini), has come to help her with arranging her archives, with each new folder bringing back memories that — surprise! — inspire flashbacks. The girl confesses she has no clue about archiving, which inspires a typically crabby Fallacian diatribe about having to make do with what she’s been given, though what’s startling is mostly how short-lived and PC her outbursts are both here and throughout the film. (Even what is arguably Fallaci’s most famous interview, her encounter with Ayatollah Khomeini during which she took off her chador, doesn’t crackle with her typical rage and indignity so much as a sense of deferential disagreement followed by a coup de theatre.)   

Practically no time is wasted on Fallaci’s early years, when she interviewed stars actors and directors such as Orson Welles in the U.S. in the 1950s, with the film taking her practically straight to Karachi in 1961 with the rather vague idea to "write about the condition of women." The screenplay doesn’t explain what interests her so much about this supposed condition, and during her first encounter with local women, Oriana is suggested to be so clueless about Islamic and Pakistani mores, it does the journalist, however young and naive, a disfavor (it seems reasonable that anyone traveling to Pakistan to write about the women there would already have some vague notions about the subject).

The way the Karachi episode segues to 1967 Saigon is also awkwardly handled, as it is never clear why that was her next major stop. Her revealing conversations with American GI’s, while occasionally interesting and even touching, certainly don’t illuminate the condition of women in Vietnam. And the entire Indochinese episode, in which she has a dalliance with the handsome if sketchily developed bureau chief of France Presse (Stephane Freiss), is the film’s weakest, with production designer Paola Comencini struggling on her TV budget to make the country in war come alive; Turco relying too much on overly familiar audiovisual tropes — cue the rock anthems, helicopters and explosions — and most of the supporting actors, like the women in Pakistan, distractingly dubbed.

Thankfully, Puccini always fully inhabits her character, and she manages to turn even throwaway moments, such as a short visit to an orphanage, into scenes that ensure that Oriana is not only a chain-smoking, gravel-voiced tough cookie with a poison-tipped pen but also a human being with recognizable feelings.   

That said, what is perhaps most surprising about Fallaci is how classically structured and borderline wishy-washy this biopic is, firstly because the titular subject herself was such a controversial and outspoken figure — clearly, she would have hated this semi-hagiographic take on her own life — and secondly because the screenplay was co-written by screenwriters Sandro Petraglia and Stefano Rulli, the country’s undisputed masters of fusing recent Italian history with very personal stories in projects such as The Best of Youth, My Brother Is an Only Child and Romanzo Criminale.

Petraglia and Rulli’s brilliance is only hinted in the film’s midsection, when Fallaci visits Alexandros Panagoulis (Vinicio Marchioni, morally upright and devilishly charming) in 1973 Athens. A Greek activist-turned-politician, Panagoulis tried to kill dictator Georgios Papadopoulos in 1968 and spent the next few years in prison being tortured by Greece’s Regime of the Colonels. He’s fresh out of the slammer when Fallaci gets to interview him and the two immediately hit it off to such an extent Oriana even gets pregnant (though she’d never actually have any offspring, one of the small details the film seems obsessed by).

The way in which the larger political canvas and deeply personal feelings are intertwined here is fascinating and potent cinematic material, with the dubbing issue disappearing since everyone in Greece miraculously speaks fluent Italian. But it is a choice that helps Turco concentrate on the couple's explosive bond and how their lives don't influence their life's work so much as are an integral part of it. Ably supported by Teho Teardo’s score of quivering strings, the events between Greece and Italy culminate in a feverish, blue-tinted courtroom scene and finally the supposedly accidental death of Panagoulis and the birth of Fallaci’s semi-autobiographical novel, A Man. Too bad this mastery doesn’t extend to the writer’s later years, when she would become rabidly anti-Islam, something only hinted at when, in one of the film’s most predictable shots, she witnesses 9/11 happen on her TV in her New York home and then starts writing again.  

Production companies: Fandango, Rai Fiction

Cast: Vittoria Puccini, Vinicio Marchioni, Stephane Freiss, Francesca Agostini, Benedetta Buccellato, Irene Casagrande, Adriano Chiaramida, Yoon C. Joyce

Director: Marco Turco

Screenplay: Stefano Rulli, Sandro Petraglia, Marco Turco, Fidel Signorile

Producers: Monica Paolini, Sara Polese, Ivan Fiorini

Director of photography: Roberto Forza

Production designer: Paola Comencini

Costume designer: Lia Francesca Morandini

Editor: Simona Paggi

Music: Teho Teardo

Casting: Jorgelina Depetris Pochintesta

No rating, 106 minutes