Small Homeland (Piccola patria): Rotterdam Review

Ambitious slice of social realism represents an intermittently promising fiction debut for an established documentary-maker.

Maria Roveran and Roberta Da Soller star in Alessandro Rossetto's Italian drama, set in a small town in the rural north-east.

Yet another portrayal of contemporary Italy as a bleakly unwelcoming nexus of corruption, hypocrisy and virulent xenophobia, Small Homeland (Piccola Patria) narrowly fails to really deliver on its strong early promise but deserves credit  for its probing social focus and sprinklings of genuine directorial flair. It's a cautiously promising fictional debut for experienced documentarian Alessandro Rossetto and, having premiered at Venice last fall, has been quietly progressing around the festival circuit.

A stunning aerial opening surveys the title's "homeland," a seemingly unremarkable corner of the Veneto region in Italy's far north-east. To the accompaniment of a rousingly euphonic Bepi Di Marzi chorale, Daniel Mazza's widescreen cameras glide low over a part-industrial, part-agricultural landscape dominated by the glassy black monolith of a 1980s-style hotel complex. After some elliptical glimpses into the daily lives of several local residents, two main protagonists quickly emerge: best friends Luisa (Maria Roveran) and Renata (Roberta Da Soller), a money-minded pair who dream of escaping to China.

Eking out meager incomes with occasional sex-work, the duo hit on a get-rich-quick blackmail scheme targeting a morally bankrupt relative, one which results in predictable complications. Luisa, meanwhile, risks the wrath of her foreigner-hating dad Franco (Mirko Artuso) by drifting into a relationship with the ever-smiling, scooter-riding Bilal (Vladimir Doda), a member of the area's widely-despised community of Albanian economic migrants. The girls hit upon a blackmail scheme as a quick means of escape, but their machinations yield unforeseen complications.

The slender story unfolds against a lightly-sketched background of regional separatism--one sequence depicts a public meeting of a group calling for the independence of the Veneto area (not, as the English-language subtitles misleadingly suggest, of Venice). But Rossetto, working with two co-writers, seemingly lacks the kind of dramaturgical experience and ability to fully integrate his various plots and subplots, and after a while the combination of evasive narrative opacity and a tendency towards self-indulgent longueurs outweighs the occasional flourish of insight and/or transcendence.

Tensions boil steadily towards the inevitable dramatic--or rather melodramatic--finale, leaving the impression that this topical, intriguingly complex material might have been more convincingly examined in the documentary form for which Rossetto has previously been known. The picture seeks to occupy terrain somewhere between the stylistic braggadocio of Paolo Sorrentino and the social insight of Gianfranco Rosi's Venice winner Sacro GRA-- the latter edited, like Small Homeland, by Jacopo Quadri. But Rossetto's touch is a little too heavy-handed, both in terms of his deployment of modish shallow-focus visuals and an occasional over-reliance on Paolo Segat, Alessandro Cellai and actress Roveran's score, although the intermittent choral punctuations, sampling existing works by De Marzi, provide welcome, reliably exhilarating grace-notes.


Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum), January 31 2014

Production companies: Arsenali Medicei, Jump Cut

Cast: Maria Roveran, Roberta Da Soller, Vladimir Doda, Diego Ribon, Lucia Mascino

Director: Alessandro Rossetto

Screenwriter: Caterina Serra, Alessandro Rossetto, Maurizio Braucci

Producers: Gianpaolo Smiraglia, Luigi Pepe

Director of photography: Daniel Mazza

Production designer: Renza Maria Calabrese

Costume designer: Anna Lazzarini Klipspergher

Editor: Jacopo Quadri

Music: Paolo Segat, Alessandro Cellai, Maria Roveran

Sales: Arsenali Medicei Films, Pisa, Italy

No MPAA rating, 111 minutes