‘Tenderness’ (‘La tenerezza’): Film Review

Director Gianni Amelio finds loneliness and pain in the heart of old Naples in ‘Tenderness,’ a character study headlined by Renato Carpentieri and Micaela Ramazzotti.

Estranged from his family, a retired lawyer grows close to his new neighbors until catastrophe pulls them apart in Gianni Amelio’s beautifully shot yet strangely uncompelling drama Tenderness. This study of loneliness, and the inability to love or even connect with family members, covers a lot of well-trodden ground, and not so convincingly. Despite a quality cast and thoroughly pleasing tech work, it never quite hits the high notes that such a story requires, and though there are many good plot twists, there are fewer insights.

With lots of important characters to flesh out, Amelio and Alberto Taraglio’s screenplay has to repeatedly shift p.o.v. to keep track of everybody. It is adapted from Lorenzo Moreno’s Premio Stresa-winning novel The Temptation to Be Happy, whose popularity should allow the film to tap a ready domestic audience after its bow at the Bari Bif&st. Considering Amelio’s international following, and the fact that the main character is in his seventies, uptown art houses catering to a seasoned demographic could supplement festival play.

The Bottom Line

Tender enough, but a bit dated.

Though acclaimed for his early social and political films like Blow to the Heart, Open Doors and Stolen Children, the Italian director has cast his net wide in recent years, making a documentary about gay men (Happy to Be Different), a biography about Albert Camus (The First Man) and even a comedy about unemployment (A Lonely Hero). Tenderness fits into this eclectic selection from a filmmaker always searching for new inspiration, while it strums the chords of psychological distress that can be heard throughout his work.

Surprisingly, the tale of emotional shut-down is set in what is possibly the most unlikely spot on earth: Naples, hitherto known as the land of gushing sentimentality and psychodrama. But maybe the intention is to underline the universality of stunted emotions by city-casting against type. Avoiding the slums and gangland outskirts familiar from films like Gomorra, the film instead displays the unearthly beauty of the inner city in all its fading, crumbling splendor.

The other principal location is a clean, modern hospital (again, playing against the run-down stereotype) where we meet an elderly widower, Lorenzo (Renato Carpentieri), who is supposed to be dying following a heart attack. His impatient son Saverio (Arturo Muselli) and anxious daughter Elena (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) can’t get a word out of him, but as soon as they leave he jumps out of bed and takes the tram home. All through the film, Carpentieri, one of Naples’ top theater and film actors, moves effortlessly between drama and comedy, commanding attention and affection as a cynical, self-centered grouch with a heart of gold. He’s later revealed to be an unfaithful husband and something of a shyster who made his money defending con artists, but no one’s perfect.

As he huffs and puffs his way up the marble staircase to a sprawling top-floor dream apartment where he lives by himself, he meets Michela (Micaela Ramazzotti), the young mother of two who has just moved into the facing apartment with her live-wire husband Fabio (Elio Germani), a naval engineer. A secluded terrace, which the kids soon cross, connects their lives.

The film’s most original element may be its frank look at how adults relate to children. Fabio confesses to Lorenzo that he can’t talk to his kids; he never knows what to say. The old man, in contrast, is in his element around them and pulls his grandson out of school just to pass lonely afternoons with him. Yet Lorenzo makes the startling admission that he stopped loving his distant adult offspring as they grew up.

His relationship to his daughter and her young son comes in and out of focus. Mezzogiorno plays Elena as a sourpuss who, having learned to speak Arabic in Cairo in a backstory that is only hinted at, now earns her living interpreting for Arab defendants in court. She makes herself immediately dislikable when she opines to the judge that a scared, wide-eyed Tunisian boy is lying when he proclaims his innocence. Even if she’s right, she has a coldness that matches her brother’s indifference and tips the scales in the crabby Lorenzo’s favor. 

Day by day, he finds himself drawn to the happy young family of Fabio and Michela, so much warmer than his own. But there are hints that all is not fine with the people next door. Fabio has a childish streak and likes playing with toys. Then there is a disturbing moment in which he loses control when he’s harassed by a street vendor, a powerful scene in itself. Unfortunately, the reliable Germano, who has had his share of extreme roles, has too little screen time to build a portrait of Fabio as an emotional time-bomb and the audience can hardly imagine what’s coming next. An hour into the film, police cars and ambulances surround Lorenzo’s building in a tense, beautifully filmed scene in the pouring rain that leads to a dark and less exciting second act.

Playing down Ramazzotti’s sex appeal (La prima cosa bella, Anni felici) but emphasizing her innocent spontaneity, Amelio films her in big-eyed close-ups sans body that monotonously show her beaming smile with its shadow of underlying sadness. In a small role, Greta Scacchi turns up in the hospital to deliver a cynical monologue about her dead son that is rather chilling.

Though the film’s style is hardly revolutionary, it is a pleasure to watch Italy’s top technicians at work. Luca Bigazzi’s nervous tracking shots of Neapolitan street life capture the piercing beauty of a magnificent old Mediterranean city long past its heyday, while Giancarlo Basili’s production design gives an unusual view of middle-class Naples with its comfortable homes, hospitals and courts. Franco Piersanti’s melodic score conveys the nostalgia of the Italian south.

To be noted is a snippet of the magical cartoon The Blue Arrow, which tips its hat at animation director Enzo D’Alo.

Production companies: Pepito Produzioni, RAI Cinema
Cast: Renato Carpentieri, Micaela Ramazzotti, Elio Germano, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Greta Scacchi, Arturo Muselli, Giuseppe Zeno, Maria Nazionale
Director: Gianni Amelio
Screenwriters: Gianni Amelio, Alberto Taraglio, based on a novel by Lorenzo Marone
Executive producer: Ornella Bernabei
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Giancarlo Basili
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Simona Paggi
Music: Franco Piersanti
Casting: Marita D’Elia
Venue: Bari Bif&st

103 minutes