Over the last three decades Italian director/writer/actor Nanni Moretti has built up an international reputation for making thoughtful comedies which have become more serious over the years. Probably still his best-known movie is Dear Diary, a delightful Woody Allenesque semi-autobiographical comedy-drama made in 1994.
His new film The Caiman, was first screened here at the London Film Festival in October. It mixes together various themes from Moretti’s career: the breakdown of a marital relationship, left-wing political satire and an affectionate send-up of film-making itself. But the end result is a disappointingly tame movie in which the different elements fail to meld.
This time, rather than Moretti himself, the lead role is played by Silvio Orlando, who, as B-movie film producer/director Bruno Bonomo, made a string of commercially successful but critically derided exploitation flicks until he hit financial disaster with his last one, entitled ‘Cataracts’.
Now, a decade later, Bruno is trying to make a comeback by producing a ludicrous film about the return of Christopher Columbus, an epic story on a tiny budget, but when his director walks out he decides to film a script which a young, inexperienced film-maker called Teresa has given him. Initially he thinks it’s a contemporary thriller before realizing it’s actually a no-holds-barred attack on then Italian Prime Minister and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi (the eponymous ‘Il Caimano’). It proves very tough to get backers willing to stick their necks out for a project with so little potential box-office appeal.
While trying to rescue his professional career, and stave off his bank’s demands that he pay his mounting debts, Bruno is also attempting to come to terms with separation from his wife Paola (and their two young boys), who no longer wants to live with him. In this mid-life crisis, the only thing that keeps Bruno going is the determination to complete his film.
The Caiman begins and ends with contrasting film-within-film sequences: the former taken from one of Brunos dreadful old action movies being screened as part of a retrospective; the latter the sensational climax to Teresa’s anti-Berlusconi movie. But as they seem equally melodramatic it’s impossible to take one more seriously than the other. And Bruno’s new-found commitment to the project is unconvincing – yes, film-making props up his fading self-esteem but his passion for this scathing political expos seems out of character.
Moretti’s screenplay (co-written with Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli) doesn’t really make up its mind what the film is about, so there is an uneasy relationship between the comic and dramatic aspects of the story: the tone is uncertain as it swings from broad comedy to personal tragedy and political statement.
Moretti made this film before Berlusconi lost the election earlier this year and had to (reluctantly and belatedly) resign as Prime Minister. He is a well-deserved if easy target, with countless allegations of corruption, links to the Mafia, using his media outlets to peddle propaganda for his own brand of libertarian-capitalist politics, not to mention his dumbing down of Italian TV. However, the film fails to shed any new light on his pernicious influence on Italian society and culture.
Perhaps Moretti is trying to draw a parallel between the divisions in Italian society exacerbated by Berlusconi’s polarizing presence and Bruno’s family splitting up, but if so it’s as half-hearted as the limp lampoon on Italian pulp-fiction movie-making. Although some of the scenes involving Bruno and his estranged wife and two sons are touching, others are sentimentalized, reinforcing the overall sense of an uncharacteristic lack of subtlety in the direction.
As Bruno, Orlando has the desperate hangdog look of a man falling apart at the seams, equally in denial about the bankruptcy of his marriage and his studio, but it’s difficult to sympathize that much with such a self-centred character. Margherita Buy gives a warm performance as the patient Paola, who wants to move on from her dysfunctional marriage just as she has moved on from acting in Bruno’s films. Jasmine Trinca makes a charmingly self-deprecating but committed Teresa, though the decision to give her a lesbian partner seems arbitrary.
In the four personifications of Berlusconi in this film (the last of which is played by Moretti himself), tellingly it is the newsreel section featuring the ‘real’ Berlusconi which is most compelling, as we see the megalomaniac crossing swords with members of the European Parliament. Or maybe it’s just that it’s impossible to satirize someone whos already such a self-caricature.