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From Amazon’s remake of Utopia to CBS All Access’ adaptation of The Stand to FX on Hulu’s take on Y: The Last Man, audiences haven’t been eager to embrace the myriad TV projects focused on the aftermath of fictional global pandemics — shows that had the bad fate to be developed before, but released after, we experienced the real thing. Netflix’s Sweet Tooth at least did well enough to be renewed for a second season, and we’ll see what happens with HBO Max’s upcoming Station Eleven or the second installment of Nat Geo’s pandemic-of-the-year anthology The Hot Zone.
AMC+’s Anna begins each episode with the warning “The COVID-19 pandemic hit six months after filming began,” as if the difference between predicting and depicting will have a big impact on viewership. The show’s producers know, even without TV critics to warn them, that any series in which people coughing and dying forms the narrative spine is going to be a tough sell at this particular moment.
Airdate: Thursday, Nov. 18
Cast: Giulia Dragotto, Alessandro Pecorella, Clara Tramontano, Viviana Mocciaro, Roberta Mattei
Creator: Niccolò Ammaniti
Anna is a hard sell in a number of ways, but I’m going to try it anyway. Niccolò Ammaniti’s adaptation of his postapocalyptic novel is harrowing stuff, a frequently nightmarish story about kids that definitely isn’t made for kids, one that evokes despair with an intensity that sets it apart from other recent pandemic dramas. At the same time, Anna is filled with hope and wonderment. It’s a show of outlandish whimsy and emotional courage, and when it works, it borders on remarkable. And once I describe it to you, chances are good that you’re going to decide it’s nothing you want to go anywhere near.
The series is set on Sicily, primarily in Palermo. A disease known as the Red Fever has swept the globe, killing all the grown-ups. Kids are immune, but Red Fever lingers on, with the young survivors knowing that when they hit puberty, splotchy skin, respiratory problems and death will follow.
A few years have passed, and 13-year-old Anna (Giulia Dragotto) is doing her best to keep her younger brother, Astor (Alessandro Pecorella), safe, which means lying to him about the outside world and keeping him restricted to their rural home when she heads into the city to gather supplies. It isn’t a spoiler to say that keeping a 5-year-old in an isolated fantasy bubble will reach its limits, and soon Anna will have to pursue Astor into the darkest corners of the changed world, where a lack of structure and nurturing has left the remaining kids miserably lonely or utterly feral, some of them in thrall to older, more manipulative kids (all on the verge of death themselves, in a show where the sound of ominous coughing is ever in the background).
The series, which can be best described as Beasts of the Southern Wild with a virus in place of the film’s hinted-around flooding, begins as something narratively loose and dreamlike, becoming increasingly sad and scary as it follows its heroine’s folkloric journey. Stripped of the trappings of society, the children prove monstrous in different ways. Anna faces down the likes of a set of ghoulish twins (Danilo and Dario Di Vita), who leverage the supplies in their dead father’s grocery store for corrupted power, and the spoiled princess (Clara Tramontano) with a love for reality TV who creates a hierarchy of underlings delineated by blue and white paint. With all these origin stories linked to the tragic deaths of parents — some shown in graphic terms — the Disney influences are clear even before Anna encounters three girls who go around dressed like Cinderella, Red Riding Hood and Snow White.
As pure a piece of television magic realism as you’ll see this side of The Underground Railroad, Anna walks a delicate line between overexplaining the details of its apocalypse and leaving certain details to the viewer’s imagination. Ammaniti makes astonishing use of his Sicilian settings, juxtaposing the island’s natural beauty, its distinctive architecture and the detritus of tragedy. Sometimes he wants to make sure we understand things like the initial process of body disposal, but he’s just as willing to let us accept the piles of discarded clothing and trash that are half colorful street art and half an extension of what would happen if everybody refused to clean their room and its contents overflowed into the streets. An author with limited directing credits — only the 2018 limited series The Miracle, which I have not seen — Ammaniti has an eye for both what is natural and what is horribly unnatural in this world. He lets movement between the two steer the pacing of the series, which is sometimes languid and sometimes utterly breathless.
Those languid patches can make the horrific beats, already amplified because they involve children, play as even more sadistic than they might have otherwise. In a few sequences, Ammaniti seems to be getting off a little on the inhumanity, opting for leering voyeurism rather than attempting to ground the onscreen behavior. There are also some large thematic leaps, including a big attempt at commentary on gender in the fourth episode, that Anna can’t make convincingly. The way at least one scene was played for shock value instead of compassion made me uncomfortable. But the series is supposed to make you uncomfortable — there are extremes that are shocking on a visceral level — and I’ll emphasize this again: about kids, not for kids.
The series is beautiful, but with a lack of polish that works to its benefit, like a near-documentary (right down to Ammaniti’s periodic overreliance on drone shots). Long stretches of Anna come across as nearly improvised, the drama an extension of normal childhood play. That makes everything more realistic and, at the same time, more sad, an ever-darkening portrait of sullied innocence.
In a cast composed entirely of newcomers or near newcomers, there isn’t a single misjudged performance. Dragotto and Viviana Mocciaro, who plays the slightly younger version of Anna, make for vulnerable, inquisitive protagonists, with Pecorella offering the wide-eyed innocence — albeit not without brattiness — of a vintage Spielberg child star. Tramontano is a bratty delight as the manipulative Angelica. As the series’ most mysterious character, Roberta Mattei is enigmatic and confident. Especially given how young some of the actors are, it’s a marvel that nobody is distractedly studied or amateurish, a tribute to Ammaniti and casting directors Dario Ceruti and Maurilio Mangano.
Anna is a show which, by its own admission, strikes too close to the headlines, especially if you remember the early coverage of COVID and its spread in Italy (and not the inept version of that coverage on The Morning Show). If the prospect of dead parents, dead children and some of the worst juvenile behavior imaginable steers you away, I understand completely. All I can counter with is that whatever flaws it has, I generally found Anna to be surprising and surprisingly moving, and some of its vignettes and images are likely to linger with me for a long time to come.
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