Thursday, September 01, 2011

Covi & Frimmel at AFA: La Pivellina

Circus work is difficult, especially on a freelance basis. The last thing a group of ragtag performers needs is another mouth to feed, but that is exactly what they get in La Pivellina (or Little Girl, trailer here), the first foray into narrative features from the Italian and Austrian documentary filmmaking team of Tizza Covi & Rainer Frimmel, which kicks off its premiere theatrical run in New York today as part of the Anthology Film Archives retrospective of their work, presented in conjunction with the Austrian Cultural Forum New York.

Crimson haired Patty was in the park looking for her dog Hercules. Instead, she found Aia (which the middle aged woman assumes is short for Asia), a two year old girl abandoned by her mother. Being a decent woman, Patty takes Aia home with her, but not without some trepidation. After all, the Carabinieri are not kindly disposed to itinerant circus roustabouts. Her husband Walter is even more concerned about what the law might make of the situation, as well as the added costs the young girl represents. However, the novelty of looking after Aia appeals to their thirteen year-old neighbor Tairo. Before long, even Walter is won over by her cuteness. Yet, it is not clear how long they can act as guardians without legal status.

Though technically a dramatic feature, the documentarians’ observational filmmaking techniques remain largely the same. Their small “nonprofessional” eponymous ensemble all play roles quite close to home, firmly rooted in the hardscrabble back alleys and industrial parks of Rome’s outer suburbs. While Covi is the duly credited screenwriter, Pivellina definitely has an unscripted feel. Yet, the dialogue is far sharper than the mumblecore industry standard. In fact, Patty and Walter are sometimes rather amusing bickering and bantering together.

Patrizia Gerardi is absolutely fantastic as the reluctant Italian godmother, proving working class women of a certain age can be divas too. Walter Saabel plays off her quite well, without becoming a curmudgeonly caricature. Little one Asia Crippa is sufficiently endearing, while Tairo Caroli exhibits some real screen charisma as the surprisingly domestic teen.

Pivellina definitely builds to a dramatic if intentionally ambiguous climax. However, there are undeniably moments of “drift” as it works its way there. A bit more narrative focus would not have been a bad thing. Still, there are plenty of revealing moments to be found throughout the film (including a candid look at contemporary Italian attitudes towards Mussolini). Though Frimmel’s handheld verité cinematography is not particularly appealing visually, it is appropriate to the film’s subject and milieu. Austria’s official submission for best foreign language Academy Award consideration this year, Pivellina is bittersweet but unmistakably humanistic at its core. Respectfully recommended, it opens today (9/1) at Anthology Film Archives.