Movies rarely give us the exhilarating amplitude of an old-fashioned family novel--the kind that Dickens, Zola, Balzac or Tolstoy wrote. But Ettore Scola's new film--and foreign-film Oscar nominee--"The Family" (selected theaters) swarms with life, moving deftly from year to year, generation to generation.
It's a wonderful, golden stretch of a movie, a family chronicle of prodigal range and variety--even though Scola deliberately limits it to a city house's second floor, showing us the outdoors only through windows.
We also never learn the surname of this Italian clan whose fortunes are recorded from 1906 to 1986. They are, in a way, all families--and Scola keeps the story hovering between stylization and realism, abstraction and individuality. At the end--framed by two family portraits, shot 80 years apart, with only one common subject--we sense that such gatherings can conceal a multitude of sins and wounds, forgotten momentarily in the glow of togetherness.
The only common character in the two portraits is the movie's narrator, Carlo, an unadventurous academic whose one pivotal crisis occurs in his youth, when he's made to choose one of two sisters--and picks the one he loves less passionately--as his wife.
Carlo is played by three actors: the child Emmanuele Lamaro, Andrea Occhipinti and Vittorio Gassman--who carries the part brilliantly from age 40 to 80--and plays young Carlo's grandfather. Gassman is a great actor whose best comic-poignant roles were often written by Scola.
Here, Carlo is in control of nothing--not his wife, Beatrice (played by Cecilia Dazzi and Stefania Sandrelli); not his brother, Giulio (played by four actors, father and son Massimo and Carlo Dapporto); certainly not his rebellious daughter and resentful son, and not even his grandchildren, who ignore him.
Carlo has a patriarch's mask over a meek, guilt-ridden soul. He's a mountebank, whose life is constructed on a series of lies--the most serious one being his lifelong infatuation for his wife's sister.
Yet it's a sly point of the film that the family itself is a kind of hero. Merely by surviving, they achieve a sort of beauty. The movie's true heroines are Adriana (Jo Ciampa and Fanny Ardant), the sister who left Carlo, and Beatrice, the sister who stayed. Between them, the sisters define Carlo's limits of desire and respectability, and without them, there would be no family: the only real achievement in this second-rate man's negligible life.
Scola shoots this movie like a clockwork comedy. He compresses it beautifully, constructing it in nine episodes, each a decade apart, with all but the first beginning identically--the camera tracking through the hallway and veering into a room where the action commences, often in the middle of things.
As the years pass and the characters age, so does the house. Each decade brings a new decor, a wizardly metamorphosis by production designer Luciano Ricceri, subtly commenting on the unseen world outside while preserving fragments of the past. Carlo and the family go through cycles: youth, age, romance, disappointment, rebellion, acquiescence. But, at each stage, they manage, magically, to sustain or renew themselves.
As in Scola's 1983 wordless dance film "Le Bal," "The Family" gives free reign for his love of artificiality and cinematic play, long takes and intricate tracking shots, his social criticism and ironic view of dreams and idealism. His ensemble is expert; not only Gassman, but Sandrelli, Ardant and both of the Daportos--give remarkable performances. Scola's view of the family--his and everyone's--is critical but tender. He is like that unabashed lover who can sense his lover's flaws, yet fervently embraces her. The embrace is no less warm for being so knowing; this family no less treasured for being so thoroughly, wittily exposed. (The film is MPAA-rated PG.)
A Vestron Pictures release. Director Ettore Scola. Script Ruggero Maccari, Furio Scarpelli, Scola. Camera Ricardo Aronovich. Production design Luciano Ricceri. Music Armando Trovaioli. Editor Francesco Malvestito. With Vittorio Gassman, Fanny Ardant, Stefania Sandrelli, Philippe Noiret.
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).