For decades, Italian filmmakers dominated Cannes.
If the 1960s saw Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti reign supreme, somehow the 1970s were even richer. Elio Petri and Francesco Rosi won shared top prizes in 1972, while for two consecutive years later that decade the Taviani brothers and then Ermanno Olmi hoisted Palmes across a border that sits just 40 miles away.
This year’s lone competition title from an Italian director (the only other Italian language film, “The Eight Mountains,” comes courtesy of two Belgians), Mario Martone’s “Nostalgia” will probably not break that particular drought, but the Neapolitan director can take solace in another modest honor: Telling a story about mothers and sons, about gangsters and priests, and about a peculiar kind of longing for the past in a place where little has changed for hundreds of years, “Nostalgia” is a nigh perfect candidate to wave il Tricolore.
Taking a thin amount of plot and stretching it as far and wide as it can go, the film itself is far from perfect, but it does benefit from “The Traitor” star Pierfrancesco Favino’s terrific lead performance as a man who learns the hard way that there’s no going home again.
After forty years abroad, Felice (Favino, of course) returns to his native Naples a stranger in a familiar land. Not much has changed from the streets of his youth except for Felice himself, who now speaks an accent forged from four decades in Cairo and Beirut and peppered with touches of French and Arabic.
The reason for his exile will reveal itself over time – more than an hour in, to be exact – so in the opening reels we can simply enjoy the pleasant enough walking through streets and alleys of Naples’ Sanità neighborhood, or the touching sight of Felice reuniting with his mamma. Like her son, who has grown into a different person, mamma Teresa (played by Aurora Quattrocchi) has passed an invisible and irreversible threshold; only in this case, it is of physical decline. While the film’s measured pace acts as a kind of gift to the characters, giving them just a bit more time together, eventually narrative imperatives take over.
As Felice wanders Naples’ empty streets, first alone and then as an orphan, Martone incorporates 8mm flashbacks that grow longer in length, and that introduce Oreste (played as an adult by Tommaso Ragno), Felice’s childhood blood brother who stayed behind while Felice left, and in turn became a very different man – and a dangerous one at that.
While Oreste — now called the Badman by those in the neighborhood – lends “Nostalgia” a bit of gangster heat, the character remains above all a kind literary device, a reminder that the world keeps turning even as you turn your back.