Sep 20, 2014

Asia Argento and Alice Rohrwacher at the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival

Aria and her found cat seek a home for the night in Asia Argento's Incompressa (Misunderstood). (Photo courtesy of the New York Film Festival.)
This is the first in a series of posts about the 52nd Annual New York Film Festival.

The New York Film Festival press screenings started on an interesting note last week with actress Asia Argento’s narrative film Incompressa (Misunderstood), which is about nine year-old Aria (Argento’s birth name) whose famous, cocaine-addicted parents—one an actor, the other a pianist—are so self-absorbed, they fail to notice when she stays out all night. The movie stars Giulia Salerno in a wonderful performance as the pixie blonde whose loneliness and despair lie at the core of Argento’s film.

In interviews, the writer-director has said that Misunderstood is not autobiographical—her father is filmmaker Dario Argento—but rather that the movie is inspired by incidents she witnessed as a child and as an adult. Charlotte Gainsbourg, who plays Aria’s pianist-mother, grew up in circumstances similar to Argento's, in an affluent, Bohemian family. Perhaps in casting Gainsbourg, Argento felt that the actress would be a kindred spirit on-set. She adds dimension to the life of a neurotic woman juggling creative work against the exigencies of marriage and children. Both Gainsbourg and Argento are moms, actresses and singers.

Misunderstood is not for the faint-hearted; this is a Carrie-like story in which Aria endures many betrayals. Her grandmother tries to poison her cat, and her classmates are jealous of her. They also mistake Aria’s motives when she makes a last-ditch effort to garner their affection. Argento’s script is far too episodic, but she is a capable director, and elicits good performances from the entire cast, including Gabriel Garko (Callas Forever, 2002) as Aria’s father. At this writing, the film does not have a distributor and can only been seen at the New York Film Festival on September 27th and 29th. It is in Italian with English subtitles. Nota Bene: While Misunderstood is about a girl, it is a movie aimed at adults, and is inappropriate for children younger than 15 or 16 years of age.

Gelsomina and her sister Marinella in Alice Rohrwacher's Le Miraviglie (The Wonders), a delightful movie aimed at adults, but also a rare movie about a girl's coming-of-age appropriate for adolescent children. (Photo courtesy of The New York Film Festival.)

Alice Rohrwacher won the Grand Prix award at Cannes this year for her second film, Le Miraviglie (The Wonders), the story of 14 year-old year-old Gelsomina (Alexandra Lungu). Her first, Corpo Celeste (2011), was also a “girl movie” set in Reggio di Calabria, about 13 year-old Marta, an adolescent forced to relocate from Switzerland when her mother loses her job. (My interview with Rohrwacher for that film appears at the left of this column in “From the Archives-Interviews.”) For Le Miraviglie, Rohrwacher filmed on-location in the beautiful agricultural region where she was born, near the borders of Tuscany and Umbria-Lazio. Both movies are about the significant passages of girlhood, in Le Miraviglie that moment when daddy’s little girl betrays him by becoming a young woman.

The movie is beautifully written and directed, and Rohrwacher’s eye for color and texture lends a rare authenticity to the narrative. While the movie is not autobiographical, it is obviously inspired by the writer-director’s girlhood memories. Like her protagonist, Rohrwacher was born to an Italian mother and a German father.

Gelsomina’s dawning realization of the world outside her family and away from her demanding father, unfolds slowly, just as it happens in real life, over a magical summer. She is the eldest of four sisters in an eccentric family whose parents wish to protect their children from the vagaries of modern life, Wolfgang (Sam Louwyk) insists that his wife Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher, the writer-director's sister) and their daughters spend their vacation working at their country home, tending to sheep, gardening and making honey. Gelsomina has a gift for beekeeping. Much to her father’s chagrin, she signs the family up to compete in a contest sponsored by a reality TV show.

As Gelsomina begins to yearn for something more—glittering dresses and time spent with girlfriends spying the neighborhood boys—the movie contemplates that sense of displacement we all experience as girls moving from the cocoon of family to the larger world we create for ourselves. Wolfgang feels displaced, too, sometimes by the fact that he is surrounded by women, but mostly because the world seems to be spinning out of control. Through Gelsomina, he learns that everything in life is evanescent. Le Miraviglie in is in Italian with English subtitles. It screens at the festival on October 3rd and 4th, and is aimed at adults but is appropriate for young adults as well—and it is a wonderful movie for girls.

Tickets for all New York Film Festival screenings may be purchased here: