Giorgio Diritti, considered the film poet of northern Italy after his stark first feature The Wind Blows Round (2005) set in the Occitane Alps won him awards and acclaim, sets his sights high in the ambitious and impressive Hidden Away (Volevo nascondermi). It may well be the definitive biopic of Antonio Ligabue, Italy’s celebrated Naïve painter and sculptor, whose unfortunate story comes roaring to life. Much is due to Elio Germano’s knockout performance as the artist, which stresses his individuality and his mental health challenges. Ironically, the film makes its bow in Berlin competition the same week as the death of another Italian actor, Flavio Bucci, who memorably limned Ligabue for Rai TV in 1978.
The facts of the artist’s life (1899-1965) are pretty well known, and Diritti’s focus is less in listing them than in finding a cinematic correlative to his subject’s fiercely instinctual, rawly emotional painting. The beauty and originality of the imagery, ranging from impressions of nature along the Po river valley to extraordinary architectonic compositions, can overwhelm the senses with a joy that consoles the viewer for the pain of the man’s life. Because this is a very sad story. But two solid hours of artistry without a strong narrative framework to bind it can’t hold the attention, and in the end this looks like another made-for-Rai TV production that is going to draw the most enthusiasm from high-quality broadcasters.
Impressive acting and staging enliven a biopic with little momentum.
Ligabue is aptly presented as a single moving eye wrapped in a black blanket. He is closely observing the doctor who waits to examine him in a psychiatric clinic where he has been interred. It’s a charged shot that is repeated several times during the film, presumably to suggest the title Hidden Away has a larger meaning of differently abled people kept out of society’s eyesight.
Toni, as he is known, was born in Zurich, the son of a poor Italian woman who gave him to rough country folks to raise. His unhappy childhood is summed up in the little boy’s unsettling habit of walking around with a metal funnel in his mouth. The reactions of his ignorant family and ignorant society are very painful to watch.
The scenes skip around and briefly touch on Toni’s adolescence, when his physical and mental differences have become apparent. Certainly, early 20th century Italy was not an age of enlightened education for special students. We see a pompous educator reading a shocking news story to a variously abled group of children and teens about a man whose wife and three children die from food poisoning. Toni (Oliver Ewy) recognizes his name and is anguished to realize his natural mother is dead.
Switzerland eventually expels him to his parents’ native Italy, where utter poverty reigns as Fascism takes root. Hounded by gangs of boys, Toni (Germano) retreats to the woods and lives in a shack on the river, cold, hungry and alone. He is shown rooting for food on the ground like a wild animal. This is Ligabue’s low point, along with a stint tied to a bed in a psychiatric ward.
Fortunately, he is befriended by the sculptor Renato Marino Mazzacurati (Pietro Traldi), who notices his drawing ability and gets him started on oil paints. For a while, Toni sleeps at his house and is fed by his kind mother (Orietta Notari). But like many subsequent arrangements, it proves temporary. Not surprisingly, he is kept at arms’ length by the fascist mayor, who is counting the pennies that the homeless man costs the city, while the local residents mostly view him as a harmless madman.
Yet when an art critic spots his paintings of tigers and turkeys, and a documentarian from Rome includes him in a film, Toni’s moment has come. His work fetches higher and higher prices and he is able to buy a swarm of motorcycles and, later, even a car with a driver. The mayor allots him a country house where he can live and work. But his relative wealth compared to the people around him doesn’t bring him the wife he so greatly desires, and in one of the saddest scenes he blacks out an optimistic wall-size mural in the bedroom he longs to share with a young cook (Francesca Manfredini).
While the filmmakers want to affirm diversity as a positive value for society as seen in Ligabue’s wonderful paintings and sculptures, it is hard to extract that glowing moral from the man’s terrible life. Even at its most accepting, society is rarely kind to him. Germano is an extremely extroverted actor who bides his time brooding in the artist’s pent-up psyche until he can explode in violent grief or rage, and these are the scenes that characterize his portrait of the artist on the fringes. In the frenzy of his angst, his screaming and inner torment are hard to watch, particularly in the pic’s first half.
But there are several memorable moments full of tender emotion: Toni’s inconsolable reaction to the death of a little peasant girl, whose portrait he paints; his overwhelming emotion when he meets Marino Mazzacurati’s mother again in Rome; his deathbed vision of his own mother calling to him. What one feels most lacking is a strong narrative structure that would build these moments into a meaningful character. As is, Germano reveals a lot about his extraordinary way of projecting himself into the animals he paints, but Toni’s essence remains in some way hidden.
A lot of the feeling in this atmospheric film is created by the cinematography of DP Matteo Cocco, who mixes the natural beauty of the Alto Adige and Reggio Emilia regions with the scenic collective farms and elegant architecture typical of the area. Costume design and makeup help turn Germano into a virtual double of Ligabue.
Production companies: Palomar in association with Rai Cinema
Cast: Elio Germano, Pietro Traldi, Orietta Notari, Andrea Gherpielli, Oliver Ewy, Leonardo Carrozzo, Francesca Manfredini, Paola Lavini
Director: Giorgio Diritti
Screenwriters: Giorgio Diritti, Tania Pedroni with Fredo Valla
Producers: Carlo Degli Esposti, Nicola Serra
Executive producer: Franesco Beltrame
Director of photography: Matteo Cocco
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario, Alessandra Mura
Costume designer: Ursula Patzak
Editors: Paolo Cottignola, Giorgio Diritti
Music: Marco Biscarini, Daniele Furlati
Casting: Barbara Daniele
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Rai Com