The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/Curzon] - NOSTALGIA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/Curzon] - NOSTALGIA

Nostalgia review
A man returns to his hometown of Naples and is drawn into his criminal past.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Mario Martone

Starring: Pierfrancesco Favino, Francesco Di Leva, Tommaso Ragno, Aurora Quattrocchi, Sofia Essaidi

Nostalgia poster

A candidate for the most over-used premise in movies over the past couple of decades is that of a protagonist returning to their hometown and wrestling with a past they left behind. You see it played straight in countless American indies. You see it played for laughs in almost every Hallmark Christmas movie. It fuels many a British gangster movie, with hard men returning to "the manor" after time in jail. It's recently begun to crop up as a staple of queer cinema, with adult gay characters returning to their childhood home and attempting to reconcile with a previously disapproving family.

Adapted from a novel by Ermanno Rea, Mario Martone's Nostalgia is the latest drama to adopt this set-up. In many ways it's a mixture of the straight drama, the gangster movie and possibly even the queer cinema examples listed above. What makes it stand out from its crowded field is its explicit sense of place, with the Naples neighbourhood of Rione Sanita brought vividly to life.

Nostalgia review

It's to this beaten down but defiant area that Felice (Pierfrancesco Favino) returns after a 40-year absence, most of which has been spent in Cairo where he has become a successful businessman with a beautiful Egyptian wife (Sofia Essaidi). On his return, Felice is surprised to find that little has changed in the neighbourhood. On one hand this brings back good memories of his youth, but on the other it reminds him of why he left.

Through flashbacks we learn of the teenage Felice's wild youth. Influenced by a tough, charismatic friend, Oreste (played as an adult by Tommaso Ragno), Felice became involved in petty crime. It's ultimately revealed that a more serious crime led to Felice fleeing his home for Africa. In the intervening years Felice has converted to Islam, but he can't shake his Catholic guilt and feels compelled to meet with Oreste to explain why he abandoned him.

Nostalgia review

When Felice unofficially confesses his past sins to the local priest, Don Luigi (Francesco Di Leva), the cleric blows his top in anger that Felice has compassion for Oreste, who now controls all the criminal activity in the neighbourhood and has earned the nickname "Badman." But the priest sees Felice's interest as a way of exposing Oreste and manipulates the returning man into making his presence known, placing Felice in potential danger. Don Luigi also views Felice as something of a special project, coaxing him into drinking wine in the hopes it might lure him back into the Christian fold.

Felice grows paranoid that Oreste may want him dead to maintain the silence he's maintained through his absence over the last four decades. That silence would seem to refer to the crime the two teenagers were involved in, but flashbacks in which the boys frolic naked in the sea and hold tightly onto one another while riding Felice's moped imply they may have a secret of another kind that Oreste doesn't want getting out (I have to admit that this may not be the intention of Martone whatsoever, that it's simply a case of an emotionally stunted Irish critic reading too much into the comfortable affections of two Italian men).

With its triangle of gangster villain, reformed criminal protagonist and streetwise priest middleman, Nostalgia has a central dynamic straight out of a 1930s Warner Bros gangster picture. But there's no rat-a-tat dialogue or gunplay here, rather a slow burn drama in which a man slowly seals his fate by tempting it. The film appears to owe a minor debt to Andrei Tarkovsky's 1983 Italian-set drama of the same name, with a sequence in which Felice imagines his wife as the African princess whose visage he sees painted in a catacomb (Tarkovsky's protagonist has a similar experience with the Virgin Mary). Scenes in which Felice wanders his neighbourhood have an Antonioni-esque quality at times, with Felice made to look inconsequential by the surrounding architecture.

Nostalgia review

Oreste is portrayed as a Colonel Kurtz figure, or a less charismatic Harry Lime, spoken about in hushed tones by a populace that lives in fear of his power. But in giving us glimpses of Oreste before his eventual encounter with Felice, Martone demythologises the figure, showing him as a crumbling, aging man with a haunted look in his eyes, reflected in the disdainful way Don Luigi speaks of him. By the time Felice has journeyed up the metaphorical river and into Oreste's heart of darkness, we understand why Felice doesn't fear Oreste the way everyone else seems to. After this pivotal meeting, much of the remaining film becomes redundant, leading to a predictable ending that some might view as cynical for cynicism's sake.

Along with Felice, Oreste and Don Luigi, the fourth wheel in this narrative FIAT is the neighbourhood of Rione Sanita. By the end of the movie you feel as if you know every alleyway in this place. Martone uses its geography, with its narrow streets and moped traffic to create the paranoid sense that trouble can emerge from any doorway or from around any corner at any time. But we also understand why Felice feels at home in this vibrant place where nobody is a stranger and a plate of meatballs and pasta awaits a visitor on every kitchen table. Felice may be in danger here, but it's where he belongs.

 is in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema from February 17th.

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