Silvio Soldini won’t be an Italian film maker who immediately springs to mind though thought be applied. With a thirty year career and 32 directorial efforts it’s somewhat surprising, and too bad for his potential viewers. Of the 32 only 4 or 5 have been picked up by international distributors. Bread and Tulips (2000), a tenderly told escape fantasy (in Venice, no less) for middle-aged women, was the first I know of to be released in America. It did moderately well, playing outside the small art-film circuits to decent sized audiences and box office returns. Agata and the Storm (2004) seems to have passed through without notice, though continuing his interest in women finding new leases on life.
Days and Clouds (2007) is available on DVD, and takes as its object of interest not just a woman but a couple, negotiating the turning upside down of their comfortable life when Michele (Antonio Albanese) is removed from a small company he co-founded – and hides it from his wife Elsa (Margherita Buy) for a while. Not at all a view through the romantic glasses of Bread and Tulips, this is an unflinching, without being brutal, look at enormous changes in two lives, and to a lesser extent their teen-age daughter Alicia (Alba Rohrwacher). After he can’t find immediate work, she stops her volunteer efforts as an art restorer in the middle of a possibly important find. He reveals the numbers to her. She rages. They sell their very nice home, and close behind, a small sailing yacht. Moving into a small run-down apartment with the help of out-of-work former employees, he is taken for a handyman and has a run at that for a while – with tragi-comic results. He sinks into depression and stops looking for work altogether, though continues to care for his semi-invalid father. Husband and wife fight, with each other and with their daughter . They do not meet disaster with equanimity. She finds a second job and with it a night-time fling — all filmed in a matter-of-fact way. No exclamatory close-ups. No histrionics. The emotions are real but the camera is discreet. Certainly this could have happened to many of us, or those we know. The ending is a resolution, with hope, but without being Hollywood happy. Quite wonderfully, she has come back to see the progress of the art restoration she had started and which others have finished in her absence. It turns out to be a remarkable find, for which she is greatly complimented and which casts her into a trance of wonder. As she takes in the great angelic fresco, her husband arrives and hand in hand, lying on the floor, gazing at the vivid, newly discovered work, they find their peace with each other.
In Come Undone (2012) (Cosavogliodipiù / What More Do I Want) Soldini once again immerses himself in the life of a woman, Anna (Alba Rohrwacher – the daughter in Days and Clouds) who, despite her apparently happy coupled life, follows a tidal wave of desire and couples with another, a handsome waiter, Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino), she met by chance. The movie then becomes a study of the three couples –Domenico and his wife, Miriam (Teresa Saponangelo) and two small daughters, Anna and her cheerful live-in boyfriend Alessio (Giuseppe Battiston), and the two adulterers. They desperately declare they must stop; they desperately meet again; they secretly phone each other, they lie, they hide, they argue, they stop again, they begin again. As Proust reminded us almost 100 years ago — they can’t live without each others scent; they can’t live with it. The existing partners find out; the world is about to come crashing down. There are desperate, hurried sex scenes and there are attempts at normalcy – dancing and a walk on a Moroccan beach. The tug of their actual lives is strong, however, and it a strength of the movie to let us be sure about that. Domenico is a doting and tender father. Alessio, as Domenico says about him, “is a saint.” As many who have tried it have discovered, a “fling” can be more like a “wrenching.” The end, less resolved than Days and Clouds, is a resolution of sorts, a decision, a possibility of walking back from the fire….but maybe not. We have seen her do this scene before….
Soldini is an accomplished and empathetic movie maker. His focus on women, not as sex-objects or lovely ingenues, but as actual women grappling with the wildness of desire and the caring of the heart, is fine work, shot with a naturalness at the borderline of a documentary. The camerawork is unobtrusive, the lighting right for the location and time of day — and so, sometimes, a bit dark. Though you wouldn’t want to be, you could be their neighbors with a ring-side seat.
Not for everyone and, as it’s said, recommended for mature audiences — less for the sex scenes than for the palpitating reality of lives lived.