Making her debut appearance at the London Film Festival, noted theatre director, screenwriter and actress Emma Dante presents Sicilian-based drama A Street in Palermo (2013), a big screen adaptation of her own acclaimed novel of the same name. Widower Samira (Elena Cotta) cleans the tomb of her daughter before going to pick up her son-in-law Saro (Renato Malfatti) and his family from the beach. Once seated, she drives them through the streets of Palermo towards home. Meanwhile, lesbian couple Rosa (Dante) and Clara (Alba Rohrwacher) search for a wedding reception only one of them wants to attend.
The two cars meet head-to-head in the middle of a narrow street, and with neither of the stubborn women willing to reverse and let the other one pass, a showdown commences between the old and the new; traditionalism and liberalism. Horns sound, neighbours look out of windows and a traffic jam inevitably starts to form. This is not the first time that immobile cars have been used in cinema as an allegory for a deeper political/psychological paralysis. Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) immediately springs to mind, as well as Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963) and the homage at the beginning of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993). However, the dichotomies that the two women seem to represent quickly begin to dissolve.
The surrounding community isn’t unsympathetic to Rosa – believing that Samira is little better than a crazy old witch – and the local Mafiosi are also quick to begin cashing in on the prospect, with the connivance of son-in-law Saro, by setting up a betting pool. For her part, Clara would just like to get out of there as fast as possible, the wedding now long-forgotten. Unfortunately, night begins to fall as the two women, now almost entirely silent, continue what becomes – quite literally at one point – a glorified pissing contest. Yet remarkably, despite the formal shape of an allegory being firmly on the cards, Dante’s talent proves to be far more mercurial.
The despair at an Italy built around hypocrisy and petty criminality is almost palpable. A neighbour even points out that in this street, people choose their own numbers so that there are two fives. “But mine’s the real one,” she adds, none too convincingly. Dante’s cast, taken in large part from a theatre troupe she had previously worked with, provide A Street in Palermo with a convincing observational realism (the director also lived on the road in question for a number of years). Towards the end of the film, the keen-eyed may spot that the street is no longer as narrow as it first seemed, perhaps broadening our view of Italy’s multiple ingrained dilemmas.
The 57th BFI London Film Festival takes place from 9-20 October, 2013. For more of our LFF 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.