The Tenderness of La Tenerezza (Gianni Amelio, 2017)
Rarely these days - with mainstream Hollywood blockbusters being churned out at a constant speed - do we find small yet big films that explore the very depths of our emotions and encapsulate the essence of our human existence, with all its beauty and many heartaches.
This emotional engagement of the viewer with the narrative played out on screen, is in Gianni Amelio’s film achieved not through external action but through the director’s use of real and sincere dialogue that fosters mutual empathy - and sometimes pity – emotional engagement, and understanding. Actors aptly selected for their roles inhabit characters that come alive through words uttered with the intention to either create distance or express compassion for the Other and make a real difference to their lives. Lingering eye contact between the protagonists reflects feelings that run deep and dialogues touch on emotions that are partly allowed to come to the fore, partly left unexplored.
It is multi-award-winning Amelio’s opting for a slow narrative pace where the focus of the story is on a small number of characters with intersecting trajectories, that makes this film so effective and powerful. As the story has come to an end, we have gained new insights yet are left aching from a narrative that has moved and touched us to the core, with the restrained emotional turmoil of the elderly male protagonist (interpreted by an impressive Renato Carpentieri displaying a full gamut of acting skills) having had an almost visceral impact also on the viewer.
La Tenerezza (Holding Hands in English) is set against the urban backdrop of a contemporary Naples depicted in external scenes where the camera steers away from the main tourist areas and instead portrays Naples as a generally colourful city, which at one stage is exposed to a dark and heavy downpour - a maze full of narrow laneways, with hidden away stores selling antiques that only the most discerning of collectors would take a real interest in. This city in the heart of southern Italy has a raw beauty and bewildering charm, it is busy and chaotic and in the film pedestrians narrowly escape being hit by vespas speedily making their way past the crowds. Naples in the film is at once very Italian and increasingly globalised, concerned with issues affecting the world at large - of which the pervasive refugee crisis is one of the most prevalent. This city, “rich in heritage but facing new challenges” comes across as a character in its own right and in the film the chaotic urban environment seems to reflect not only cracks in the façade of a seemingly perfect family life that we are privy to and the chaos that reigns within, but the external chaos on the streets of Naples could be interpreted as foreboding of tragedy to come and the unforeseen culmination of a narrative that seemed set to explore a friendship that had the potential to develop into something deeper.
Amelio’s film is based on Lorenzo Moreno’s novel La tentazione d’essere felici, published two years earlier. Book and film title both equally effective, the keywords in Moreno’s original are effectively integrated into a screened narrative that deals with themes ranging from dysfunctional to, on the surface, functional family relationships, to lack of human communication contrasted by positive interaction and a friendship spanning across ages that develops into real sympathy, compassion and, ultimately, a love that grows between an elderly man and his younger neighbour’s wife. At its very essence, Amelio’s film – helped along by a highly effective and subtle soundtrack by Franco Piersanti that further strengthens the visual images – is a narrative masterpiece that highlights the importance of dialogue, communication, and open-mindedness between individuals who are desperate to be heard yet do not tell all. When they engage in the art of listening, they connect deeper with the Other than they would have been able to through words alone.
A humble yet proud Carpentieri, who received the David di Donatello award earlier this year for his role as Signor Lorenzo in the film, claimed during the award ceremony that
La tenerezza è una virtù rivoluzionaria ... Il rischio ogni tanto fa bene: Amelio 28 anni fa mi ha preso per un primo film e ora mi ha preso per un secondo film. Il rischio ogni tanto bisogna correrlo, ci sono molti attori bravi. Amelio e i produttori che dimostrano che a volte il rischio paga.
Indeed, Carpentieri proves the risk was worth it not only for Amelio for choosing this aging actor, but also for Carpentieri himself whose career has further benefitted from his participation in this movie. La Tenerezza - nominated for eight Nastro d’Argento awards in 2017 and winner of four, of which Carpentieri won that of the best actor, opens with elderly Lorenzo being bedridden while he recovers from a recent heart attack. No sooner has his estranged daughter Elena (Giovanna Mezzogiorno delivering a memorable performance) visited him at hospital, words unspoken, than he rises and leaves, driven by an urge to return to some kind of normality. Through Lorenzo’s determination and physical trajectory we soon find ourselves in Naples where we learn of his past profession as a lawyer and that his daughter speaks fluent Arabic as an interpreter lending her voice to Arab defendants in court; her language skills facilitated by an earlier stint in Egypt which produced a son of mixed blood. It is also in Naples, and Signor Lorenzo’s return to his hometown, that we get to know Michela (played by a stunning Micaela Ramazzotti), Lorenzo’s neighbour’s wife in need of assistance after she accidently locks herself out of her flat (it will not be the last time nor was it her first). Signor Lorenzo comes to her rescue and what develops from here is a masterfully narrated delicate friendship between the two, one that allows each conversationalist to tap into emotions that run deeper than words, yet words are sufficient for now, for the two to connect and share thoughts that neither Lorenzo in his previous marriage, nor Michela in her current one, have been able to express.
From a purely narrative point of view, Amelio’s film – with an award-winning cinematographic effort by Luca Bigazzi - is remarkable precisely in its ability to portray the friendship turned emotional relationship between an elderly man and a younger woman, which is rich in sensuality and where the deeper connection between the two reflects a longing that may be both emotional and tending toward the physical. And yet, they never allow themselves to become lovers. Signor Lorenzo’s and Michela’s mutual need to open up and express themselves is left at words, not action, and this in itself is where the inherent beauty of the film lies. It is a director’s feat to convey desire solely through spoken discourse – perhaps particularly at a time obsessed with the human body.
While Carpentieri and Ramazzotti command a captivating screen presence, with sincere dialogues that transcend the cinematic space and affect each and every one of us, in his role as Michela’s husband Fabio, Elio Germani succeeds in provoking a sense of anguish and unease in the viewer. Fabio represents contemporary citizens of countries worldwide, who are fed up, unable, and unwilling to either sympathise with or lend a helping hand to individual refugees having crossed national borders. In the case of La Tenerezza in one scene Fabio reacts violently towards a less fortunate African man begging for money - in plain sight - and yet his reaction is sure to have triggered mixed responses among first viewers. It would be easy to judge Fabio, yet as individuals residing in countries struggling under the financial and social burden of a constant influx of refugees, it is unpleasant to discover that a part of us are able to understand Fabio and where he’s coming from. Yes, he is flawed, childish, naïve and struggling with unresolved issues relating to loneliness and social frustration as a child. And yes, like Signor Lorenzo who in an emotionally charged scene tells Michela that he suddenly found himself incapable of loving his children as they came into their own as adults, also Fabio is unable to connect with his children - and yet his son and daughter are only young still. As a naval engineer it seems Fabio comprehends machines and mechanics better than he understands and is able to feel empathy for his own children. Emotionally volatile and lacking in an ability to express real love and affection, offer strength and support to his spouse and instil a sense of domestic security and happiness, Fabio becomes a symbol of flawed human behaviour, a man who despite having found a partner is ultimately not capable of caring for his wife and connect with her on a deeper marital level. He calls Michela “una forza della natura” yet it soon becomes obvious that she was a force of nature who he stopped in her tracks (at one stage Michela confesses that he caught her mid-flight – “sempre in giro per l’Italia” – “until he blocked me”). In a later scene Signor Lorenzo remarks that “Women put up with everything”. This statement seems as timely and contemporary as does the clash between Fabio as an Italian native, and people of African-Arabic origins (“è un disturbo continuo”) and which from a larger perspective is indicative of negative sentiments towards refugees streaming into countries across Europe.
The parallel struggle for recognition amongst women worldwide who have recently become influenced by the impactful Me Too-movement, has led to a collective desire to express political, social, and gender-related freedom and emancipation. In Amelio’s film, and on an individual level, this could be reflected by at once socially and politically liberalised and emancipated Elena who, nevertheless, still struggles to connect with her emotionally detached and openly rejective father - and who suffers from their lack of communication. Her fellow protagonist Michela is likewise (silently) engaged in a battle for recognition from a husband incapable of loving her. And yet, the love that Elena craves from her father is rather destined for Michela. The tenderness that develops into a deeper love between herself and Signor Lorenzo could potentially become less platonic had there not been a sudden turn of events 46 minutes into the film that catapults the narrative into a darker tale of cruelty, tragedy, and despair. The second half of the film is sombre and heartbreaking, in stark contrast with the sense of hopefulness conveyed in the first half. And yet, in the very last scenes, a loved character whose exuberance, beauty, and innate vibrancy has affected individuals both on and off screen now gone, Signor Lorenzo and his daughter manage to reconnect and an Arabic saying expressed in court becomes universal as the film leaves us with a final, lingering message:
Dice un poeta arabo
che la felicità non è una meta da raggiungere
ma una casa a cui tornare,
che non è davanti,
Tornare, non andare.
Director: Gianni Amelio
Production companies: Pepito Produzioni, RAI Cinema
Cast: Renato Carpentieri, Micaela Ramazzotti, Elio Germano, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Greta Scacchi, Arturo Muselli, Giuseppe Zeno, Maria Nazionale
Screenwriters: Gianni Amelio, Alberto Taraglio, based on a novel by Lorenzo Marone
 Filmfest DC – La Tenerezza (2018, July 22). Retrieved from https://www.mt.cm/filmfest-dc-la-tenerezza
 L'attore ha vinto il suo primo David come miglior attore protagonista nel film di Gianni Amelio. (2018,March 22). Retrieved from http://www.repubblica.it/spettacoli/cinema/2018/03/22/news/renato_carpentieri-191942011/