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Taking a biting look at Italian society

In the surprising 'Caterina," a teenage girl and her family try to adjust to big-city life.

June 10, 2005|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Paolo Virzi's delightfully deceptive "Caterina in the Big City" is one of the richest, most satisfying Italian films of recent years. Its premise seems simple enough, which is to take Caterina (enchanting Alice Teghil), a lovely, intelligent teenager, from the provinces and drop her into a vast and venerable school in Rome whose students' parents are among the country's elite. Gradually, the film becomes as much about Caterina's parents as it is about her, and in the process Virzi offers a mural of contemporary Italian society as rich as that of Mexico in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" but with an even more biting point of view.

Caterina, who sings in the school choir, seems as happy in her small town as her father, Giancarlo (Sergio Castellitto), is miserable, having been stuck teaching accounting for 13 years at a technical high school. At last his long-sought transfer back to his native Rome comes through, and he and his dutiful wife, Agata (Margherita Buy), move into his family's old apartment, where his elderly aunt still lives. Nearby is the still-outstanding school Giancarlo attended.

At school, Caterina initially receives the predictable country-bumpkin treatment, but she's resilient, self-possessed and pretty. She is befriended by Margherita (Carolina Iaquaniello), whose mother (Galatea Ranzi) is a political activist, separated from her much older husband (Claudio Amendola), a famous leftist writer and intellectual, an earthy, long-haired bohemian much in demand for TV appearances. After an excruciating encounter involving Giancarlo, an aspiring novelist of little talent, Caterina and Margherita fall out, leaving Caterina to take up with the even more formidable Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), the spoiled daughter of Italy's deputy prime minister.

All of a sudden, Caterina becomes caught up in a snobby, fast-moving high life, but as she seemingly is achieving rapid social progress Virzi shifts the focus to Giancarlo, a prickly, overbearing and frustrated man who increasingly lashes out at the rigid exclusivity of society's power elite, which on the right retains ugly strains of fascism and anti-Semitism. The strength of "Caterina" is that, although Giancarlo is accurate about the elite, it reveals him to be his own worst enemy, foreshadowed by his patronizing treatment of his wife, who may not be as docile as she seems.

Although it's pretty clear that Caterina is a born survivor, no matter how painful life's lessons, Virzi's consistently buoyant inventiveness allows him to take a decidedly unpredictable course in winding up his wonderful film. "Caterina" is smart, sassy, compassionate and critical. By the time it is over it has become an especially gratifying instance of inviting its audience to recognize the universal in its sharply perceptive view of contemporary Roman life.

*

'Caterina in the Big City'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some language, sensuality, adult themes

An Empire Pictures release. Director Paolo Virzi. Producers Riccardo Tozzi, Giovanni Stabilini, Marco Chimenz. Screenplay by Virzi and Francesco Bruni. Cinematographer Arnaldo Catinari. Editor Cecilia Zanuso. Production designer Tonino Zera. In Italian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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