The social turmoil in Italy from the 1960s to the 1980s is remembered for its many acts of political terrorism, and these “Years of Lead,” as they are known, are at the heart of director Claudio Noce’s third feature, Padrenostro. This very national drama is likely to feel disconcerting to those who remember the period, because it makes no attempt to confront terrorism or review the motivations and ideologies of the protagonists, or its effect on the society at large. Instead, it describes the personal trauma of a 10-year-old boy who wakes up one morning to gunfire and sees his father shot down by terrorists outside his home.
This might be a promising approach to examining this key period in a welcome new light, but unfortunately that is not the intention of Noce and co-screenwriter Enrico Audenino, who focus instead on the little boy’s repressed fears and imaginings. A little bit like finding an eyewitness to history and then describing everything he feels but not much about the event itself, it leaves the viewer with a sense that something very important has been left out.
History reduced to the personal.
Adding to the puzzlement, the events taking place in the spring and summer of 1976 are framed by a modern-day encounter between two grown men on the subway. They bear no resemblance to any characters in the rest of the film, yet are obviously supposed to. But if they are who we think they are, their meeting can only be some kind of miracle, or they’re ghosts, or a fantasy that adds nothing but trouble to interpreting the film.
In any case, the story has its own authenticity, being based on real-life events that happened to the family of the director Claudio Noce when he was a toddler and his brother was ten. His father Alfonso Noce, head of the anti-terrorism police, survived a ferocious attack by the Armed Proletarian Nuclei that left his driver dead along with a member of the command, who was killed by friendly fire.
This shocking scene is staged early in the film, below the bedroom window of young Valerio (a precociously sensitive Mattia Garaci). Unseen by his distraught mother Gina (Barbara Ronchi), he runs down to the street after her and sees his father Alfonso (Pierfrancesco Favino) lying wounded on the pavement next to his car. Two bloody bodies are sprawled nearby. No one notices that he was present, and this being 1976 parenting, no one in the family talks about what happened. He and his little sister (Lea Favino) are forbidden to turn on the TV (though of course he does) or to look at the newspapers.
His father comes home from the hospital after “an operation” and his pretty mother smiles reassuringly, both trying their best to shelter their kids from the violence that has come into the family, without realizing that their son has interiorized a great psychological trauma and needs to talk it through. When it comes to that, Alfonso is pretty scared, too, especially after the terrorists send a message that they still intend to kill him.
Blond, blue-eyed and very pale, Garaci’s Valerio looks painfully young, vulnerable and lonely. He has an imaginary playmate who is very real to him, and now a new friend appears out of nowhere. Christian (Francesco Gheghi), a swaggering, streetwise prole in dirty jeans, makes his entrance while Valerio is playing outside the gates of his residential complex, alone. His father has given him a signed soccer ball and Christian appropriates it, throwing it out of reach before he disappears as mysteriously as he has come.
Red lights will be flashing for the audience, but Valerio apparently has never been warned about taking candy from strangers. In his intense loneliness, he waits for Christian to return, which of course he does. When he trustingly follows him into the city, he finds himself stealing money from a church collection box and chased down the street by a warden.
His parents notice his absence and freak out, but while they frantically scour the streets for him, Christian leads him back home. In a scene notable for its energy and shock value, Valerio shows his friend what happened that fateful morning, drawing the outlines of cars and bodies with a piece of chalk, just as he saw them. This is how his parents find him. Christian has disappeared — if he ever existed.
The second half of the film takes place in Calabria, romantically shot as a natural paradise by DP Michele D’Attanasio, at his father’s ancestral home full of aunts and uncles and grandparents. It’s a family vacation designed to calm everyone down, but it does nothing of the sort. For one thing, Christian inexplicably turns up and his physical existence becomes more certain when other members of the family start interacting with him. He still feels like a danger to Valerio — or maybe it’s vice versa? Noce teases us with this conundrum for too long.
While the audience waits impatiently for a big reveal to clarify things, there is Favino to admire (he played mafia don Tommaso Buscetta in Bellocchio’s The Traitor), sketching another emblematic character out of Italian history. Both stoically heroic when wounded and demonstrably emotional when he thinks his son is in danger, he bounces off the natural complexity of young Garaci’s character.
Production companies: Lungta Film, PKO Cinema & Co., Tendercapital Productions, Vision Distribution
Cast: Pierfrancesco Favino, Barbara Ronchi, Mattia Garaci, Francesco Gheghi, Anna Maria De Luca, Mario Pupella, Lea Favino, Eleonora De Luca, Antonio Gerardi, Francesco Colella, Parki Meduri, Giordano De Plano
Director: Claudio Noce
Screenwriters: Enrico Audenino, Claudio Noce
Producers: Andrea Calbucci, Maurizio Piazza, Pierfrancesco Favina
Director of photography: Michele D’Attanasio
Editor: Giogiò Franchini
Production designer: Paki Meduri
Costume designer: Olivia Bellini
Music: Ratchev & Carratello
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
World sales: Vision Distribution