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Happiness is not a goal that can be reached, but the home to which we return; it’s not in front of us, but behind us. This fortune-cookie “Eastern saying” encapsulates the essence of La tenerezza, the new film by Gianni Amelio, scheduled for general release in Italy on 24 April 01. The words are spoken by Elena (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), as she reaches the end of a long journey to reconnect with her father Lorenzo, portrayed by Renato Carpentieri. This is modern-day Naples, a rough and ready city brought to life through the vivid and unmistakable photography of Luca Bigazzi. Elena is a sworn interpreter: she conveys the words of Arabic-speaking defendants in the city’s courts, capturing nuances and catching on to their lies. At first, we feel like we are watching a film about immigration, but Amelio (winner of three European best film awards), has been down that road before, back in 1994 with Lamerica; indeed, he was one of the first filmmakers to tackle that subject. 

In truth, La tenerezza, loosely based on Lorenzo Marone’s novel The Temptation to be Happy and written by the director himself in collaboration with Alberto Taraglio, is a film about family bonds and the morass of emotions that emanates from them. At the heart of the story is Lorenzo, who at 70-odd is Amelio’s first elderly protagonist. Lorenzo lives in an old building in the centre of the city and describes himself as a “lamentably famous” lawyer, having dedicated his entire working life to phony car accidents (à la Totò) and insurance scams. He’s an impassive, self-centred man who has long since stopped caring about his two children: Elena, because he suspects her of telling her mother all about his lover, precipitating her death; and Saverio (Arturo Muselli) because he regards him as a waste of space incapable of doing anything. The only chink in his armour is his grandson Francesco (Renato Carpentieri Jr), who Elena carried back from Egypt in her womb seven years ago.

Things start to change when a couple with children move into the flat opposite Lorenzo’s. Michela (Micaela Ramazzotti) is attractive and sparky; Fabio (Elio Germano) is a naval engineer from Trieste, restless, unstable and of an occasionally childish disposition. It doesn’t take long for Lorenzo to become attached to this outwardly perfect family that represents something he could never find in his own children. But a terrible tragedy is waiting in the wings, a crime that wouldn’t be out of place in the most grisly of tabloid crime reports, which will lead the old man and his daughter, still stubbornly angling for a reconciliation, to re-evaluate their relationship to some extent.

Gianni Amelio has taken on political terrorism and social conflict armed with the novels of Leonardo Sciascia, Ermanno Rea, Guiseppe Pontiggia and Albert Camus. With La tenerezza, produced by Pepito in partnership with RAI Cinema, the 72-year-old director has felt the call of an emotion, the “tenderness” of the film’s title, that has the power to bludgeon through misunderstandings, hardships and stubborn wills like a bulldozer through a wall. The performances of the fine actors chosen to make up the film’s cast contain moments of a somewhat affected but carefully calibrated delicacy that, despite everything, will touch the hearts of many in the wider cinema-going public.

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