They Call Me Jeeg (Lo Chiamavano Jeeg Robot, Gabriele Mainetti, 2015)

JEEGItalian cinema once had a hearty appetite for genre fare, but has long since abandoned the weird and wacky in favour of the arty or the populist. You wait years for an Italian superhero movie and then two come along at once. Following on from Gabriele Salvatores’ much younger skewing The Invisible Boy which perhaps owed more to Spy Kids than anything else, first time director Gabriele Mainetti brings us a bloody, R-rated yet humour filled look at the superhero genre filtered through Japanese manga and anime rather than US comic books.

The film begins with an aerial shot of Rome accompanied by loud panting which turns out to belong to petty criminal Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) who is currently running hell for leather away from the various policemen who are chasing him. Eventually he dives into the Tiber where he accidentally puts his foot through the lid of some barrels which have been dumped in the river and gets covered in some kind of gunk. After finally getting home he’s violently sick and shaky but probably thinks it’s just from being cold and wet or some other random thing picked up in the water.

At this point, he decides to sell his genuine rolex watch through a fence he knows, Sergio (Stefano Ambrogi), who currently works for a gangster named “Gypsy” (Luca Marinelli). Sergio ends up taking him on a job which is supposed to involve extracting drugs from inside a pair of dope mules but one of them is in a fairly bad way and Sergio’s refusal to take him to a hospital sees the other one grab his gun and shoot him. Enzo is caught in the shoulder and falls nine floors down to the street below but actually is pretty much OK. Later he realises his gunshot wound is healing surprisingly quickly and he’s apparently super strong too. With great power comes great responsibility? When you’re as isolated as Enzo, maybe not so much.

Enzo is 100% not a match for The Chosen One. He is totally disinterested in his fellow human beings and just wants to be left alone. In fact, the first thing he does when he figures out he has superpowers is steal an entire ATM (he didn’t know about the anti-theft dye) and use the cash to buy a fridge full of yoghurt and some more porn to add to his collection. He isn’t even really very bothered about his friend’s death except that he’d rather not attract the attention of Gypsy and his henchmen.

However, Sergio had a grown-up daughter, Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), with some kind of psychological condition which has her in an infantilised state where she’s obsessed with the 1970s Go Nagai mecha anime series, Steel Jeeg. After Enzo, against his better judgement, jumps in to save her from Gypsy she becomes convinced that he’s the real Steel Jeeg and tries to persuade him to use his powers for the good of all humanity.

The de facto antagonist of the story, Gypsy (real name “Fabio”), is a petty gangster and former wannabe reality TV star with grand ambitions. The deal that Sergio was working on was part of a larger collaboration with the Neapolitan mafia who are starting to wonder where all their drugs have got to and are just about ready to come looking for them themselves. Gypsy’s yearning for fame is further irritated by the presence of the so called “Super Criminal” who is already a star on YouTube and immortalised in graffiti all over the city. A violent psychopath with a taste for flamboyant outfits and cheesy music, these twin pressures are fit to send Gypsy way over the edge.

Mainetti ties in current social concerns with the constant TV news reports about large scale protests against austerity and a series of terrorist incidents which are later said to be a mass conspiracy perpetrated by the mafia to try and influence government policy (seemingly successfully). Conversely, he satirises modern society’s dependence on social media with everyone whipping out their phones to try and capture Enzo’s superhuman capabilities and Gypsy’s attempt to make himself a YouTube star with some superhero stuff of his own as well as frequently mocking his former attempt to become a big name celebrity through taking part in a TV reality show.

Ironically, the actress playing the difficult role of Alessia was herself a star of Italy’s version of Big Brother and this is her first acting role. It has to be said that her performance is nothing short of extraordinary as she perfectly captures the strange innocence of this wounded child woman who seems to have experienced a number of traumatic incidents in her past which have pushed her further and further into her anime themed delusional world. In many ways she is the heart of the film using her own superpowers of love and innocence to try and reawaken Enzo’s humanity and push him towards becoming a functional human being who is able to recognise the potential for good his new found powers may have.

Though filmed for an extremely modest budget, They Call Me Jeeg displays extremely high production values mostly concentrating on in camera effects backed up with inventive cinematography. Refreshingly opting for a more grown-up approach, the film doesn’t stint on blood or violence either but is careful to avoid becoming exploitative and is also frank in dealing with its difficult romantic subplot. An impressive debut feature from Mainetti, They Call Me Jeeg succeeds not only in providing action packed entertainment but also manages to mix in a fair amount of humour to its subtly melancholic atmosphere eventually climaxing in an unexpectedly moving finale.

Reviewed as part of the Cinema Made in Italy festival at London’s Ciné Lumière in March 2016 where it screened under the title They Call Me Jeeg Robot.

There doesn’t seem to be an English subtitled trailer around yet but this film is so much fun I can’t even tell you!

A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare, Ettore Scola, 1977)

4963Ettore Scola, one of the most celebrated filmmakers of Italian cinema in the late 20th century, returned to one of the country’s darkest moments for the film which is often regarded as his masterpiece – A Special Day (Una Giornata Particolare). Set on one particular day in 1938 when Mussolini rolled out the red carpet for his fascist brother in arms, Adolf Hitler, it focusses less on this “historic” meeting of “likeminded” leaders of state than it does on two small figures each lonely and excluded from the festivities for very different reasons.

The film begins with a lengthy sequence of archive footage of Mussolini welcoming Hitler and other major German politicians of the time to a series of festivities in Rome. Today, there is to be a large scale parade to demonstrate Italy’s military prowess before their new allies. Antonietta (a surprisingly dowdy Sophia Loren), wakes her entire family including her six children and boorish husband so that they may get ready to attend the parade like good little fascists. She herself will not be going (though she would like to) as housewives and mothers do not get days off and she simply has too much to do. However, her day is disrupted when her pet mynah bird (Rosamunda) escapes and lands on a balcony opposite. Now she notices the gentleman who lives across the way hasn’t gone to the parade either so she decides to ask him if she can try and coax the bird back in through his window.

The man, Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni), is in something of a nervous mood. When we first see him he’s addressing a large number of envelopes whilst gazing mournfully at the photographs on his desk with half an eye on the pistol to his left. Somehow everything he does carries an air of finality, as if he’s tidying himself away, putting his affairs in order once and for all. Yet, Antonietta’s unexpected call reawakens something in him and suddenly he doesn’t want to be alone anymore. He tries to convince her to stay but she’s shy and slightly confused and, after all, she has so much to do, that she declines his offer and returns home only to feel a slight degree of regret and even resentment when she assumes he’s telephoned another woman right away. However, Gabriele pays a return visit on her and the two end up spending this very “special day” together.

A Special Day is about fascism and the fascist era in some senses, but in essence it’s about Antonietta and Gabriele – two lonely, lost souls each trapped in prisons to some degree of their own making but also those created by society. Antonietta is an ordinary middle-aged housewife. As a mother of six she’s more than fulfilled her societal role though she and her husband are thinking of another child as you get a special “big family bonus” with seven. Her husband is a high ranking fascist official and Antonietta herself is a big fan of Il Duce. Gabriele, by contrast, is an anti-fascist though perhaps more of a passive one. He had been part of the party for appearance’s sake but as we discover in passing fairly early on in the film, Gabriele is gay and an intellectual neither of which is particularly compatible with the fascist state.

Gabriele, played by Marcello Mastroianni brilliantly cast against type as the suave yet melancholy man out of place, has lost his job as a radio announcer precisely for the crimes of being gay and of being under committed to fascist principles. They fired him for not being a member of the party even though he was one because they said theirs was a party of “men”. The fascist credo says those who aren’t husbands, fathers and soldiers are not “real men” and Gabriele is none of these things. He also has a medical certificate which certifies him as not being a homosexual which is fairly counterproductive because, after all, who carries something like that around if they don’t have anything to prove in the first place.

Gabriele hates the fascist state most because it makes you deny what you are, to try to appear different to your authentic self so as to conform better to someone else’s ideals. Just as Gabriele’s identity has been erased by the desires of society at the time, so too has Antonietta’s though she is less well equipt to see it. She even has a scrapbook of fascist photos with slogans which proclaim that genius is something which only belongs to men and that a woman’s role is in the home, supporting her husband and raising his children. Effectively brainwashed, it had not previously occurred to Antonietta to question these ideas before but meeting Gabriele has planted the seed of doubt in her mind. She too has been forced to suppress her true nature and only now does she start to possess the courage to reassert herself.

Loren turns in virtuoso performance as an ordinary, aging housewife ashamed of the hole in her slippers and the ladder in her tights. Full of minor touches of brilliance such as her brief look into the mirror as if suddenly realising how old she’s become and starting to feel shy in front of this man she feels an obvious attraction to or her extended dreamy look towards the end of the film when suddenly surrounded by her family and finding herself mildly horrified by their fascist ideas, her performance in A Special Day must rank among her finest even in a career which is often marked by brilliance. Mastroianni, also cast against type, gives an equally accomplished performance as the quietly defiant Gabriele who knows what kind of fate awaits him and has already made his peace with the unfairness of his situation.

The film is cast in a heavy brown colour palate, almost sepia in tone, which gives it the feeling both of looking directly into history as if in a moving photograph and of emphasising the oppressive and rigidly restrictive society of the time. This is not a time for dreamers and outcasts, those who don’t readily conform to the fascist ideals will be ruthlessly discarded. However, through encountering each other and finding another weary, frustrated soul, something is reawakened in both of these isolated individuals. Here, there is hope for the first time. That if even two people can wake each other up enough to pierce this strange mass delusion then perhaps there might be a way out after all.

I actually had this queued up to post a little later but having just watched the film today I was slightly shocked to hear that director Ettore Scola has died at the age of 84 so I’ve moved it up a little to mark his passing. A Special Day is such a beautiful film that I could have written far more about it but it was running so long already.

A Special Day is available with English subtitles on Region A blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

Unsubtitled scene from near the beginning of the film:


Angels of Evil (Vallanzasca – Gli Angeli Del Male)

Angels of Evil (Vallanzasca – Gli Angeli Del Male) sets out to tell the story of an infamous criminal demonised and idolised in equal measure in the Italy of the 1970s/80s. However, the film largely fails to convey the sort of charisma that would have young women sending fan mail and risqué photographs to a man whose crimes have no other justification. We see glimpses of Vallanzasca’s seemingly happy childhood (single traumatic episode excepted, though even this is not clearly explained) followed by brief stints in juvenile detention and his eventual evolution into a sort of lovable gangster, a down and dirty not-quite-a-gentleman thief, but the film at least  lacks the charm to allow us to buy into Vallanzasca’s lifestyle choices or even really care very much about him at all. Things proceed in a very episodic way that prevents any of kind insight either into the characters themselves or into the larger political landscape and any connections between the two. The direction is also very hit and miss, there are some nice montages and skillful editing but overall bland, even the action sequences which seem as if they ought to be thrilling, aren’t. It’s also very loud, the pounding glam rock which cuts in and out of the action is presumably meant to ramp up the tension but really fails to do so, instead it just reinforces the brashness of film. In fact, ‘brash’ would sum up the film entirely. It’s sleazier than it needs to be and only narrowly escapes exploitation territory, it’s in your face but then has nothing to say. Disappointing, not recommended.