South Is Nothing (Il sud è niente): Berlin Review

Magical realism, androgynous characters and a cruel wall of Southern silence forcibly mix in a curious coming of age tale

Fabio Mollo’s notable feature debut about Italy’s South continues its march through festivals

A Euro coming of ager well rooted in its corner of southern Italy, South Is Nothing tells the story of a strange, outcast teenager struggling to find a psychological, sexual and, why not, social identity in a hostile environment. Confident camerawork and pithy dialogue lend a modern feel to this notable first feature by Fabio Mollo, a young talent from Reggio Calabria who builds on the unsettling but realistic atmosphere of his award-winning short Giants. He has his finger on the pulse of young cinema – there are a lot of familiar echoes here -- and the film has proved a sturdy festival item, making the rounds from Toronto to Berlin.

Even if it recycles trendy characters and tropes, however, South manages to find its own voice. Its anchor is the androgynous protag whose male dress and mannerisms are so convincing that only well into the story does the audience wake up to the fact that she’s a 17-year-old girl, ironically named Grazia, played in rebellious silence by Italo-Swedish actress Miriam Karlkvist. Her father Cristiano (Vinicio Marchioni) morosely sells fish, but his business is threatened when the local Mafia boss casts an eye on the store. He reacts with slump-shouldered resignation and angry silence, feeling it’s useless to rebel against fate.

Since everyone is so tight-lipped, Grazia is kept in the dark about this looming danger and has to figure it out for herself. She’s already obsessed with her missing brother Pietro, whose absence no one will explain to her. Spinning a note of magical realism, Mollo has her see his ghost underwater in a lyrically filmed scene that has a pinch of the L’Atalante about it. She becomes determined to find out what happened to him, though given that five years have elapsed since he disappeared, it feels like a pretty trumped-up motivation.   

In the end, the film is strongest in underlining the heart-breaking difference between the beauty of the humble fishing village located just across the Straits of Messina from Sicily, and the terrifying power of ordinary, everyday criminal forces that sweep through the family like a Greek tragedy.

Other characters just float through the script without taking hold. Carmelo (Andrea Bellisario) works in his Dad’s traveling carnival and takes a shine to Grazia, though at first he’s fooled into thinking she’s a boy. Valentina Lodovini wanders in as Cristiano’s love interest.

Many members of the film crew, like Mollo and cinematographer Debora Vrizzi, are recent grads of Italy’s Centro Sperimentale and do a very credible job creating the film’s pleasing pace and atmosphere.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Generation 14Plus), Feb. 13, 2014.

A Cinecitta/Luce release (in Italy) of a B24 Film, Madakai production

Cast: Miriam Karlkvist, Vinicio Marchioni, Valentina Lodovini, Andrea Bellisario, Alessandra Costanzo, Giorgio Musumeci, Francesco Colella

Director: Fabio Mollo

Screenwriters: Fabio Mollo, Josella Porto

Producers: Jean Denis Le Dianhet, Sebastien Msika

Director of photography: Debora Vrizzi

Production designer: Giovanna Cirianni

Costumes: Andrea Cavalletto

Editor: Filippo Montemurro

Music: Giorgio Giampa

Sales Agent: Doc & Film International

No rating, 90 minutes.