New Italian Films at the Walter Reade

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is midway into their annual survey of Italian film, a program that has become as important as the Rendezvous with French Cinema. This year, I've been up to my ass in alligators for almost all of the press screenings, but I did manage to see on film for Jewish Week, and my review, which did appear on their pages, didn't make it to the website. So here it is:

In the eight months following his liberation from Auschwitz and recovery from typhoid and malnutrition, Primo Levi took a roundabout journey home from Poland by way of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Austria and Germany. He documented that strange odyssey in his second book, “The Truce” (also know as “The Reawakening”), a surprisingly humorous and immensely moving volume that should be as well known as his more famous writings about the death camps.

It is that volume, rather than its better-known brethren, that is the jumping-off point for a new documentary by Davide Ferrario, “Primo Levi’s Journey,” which will be shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of their annual showcase of new Italian films this month. And like its literary model, “Journey” meanders usefully across the now-changed landscape of Eastern Europe.

When Levi and his compatriots rode by train across these countries, they had been devastated by five years or more of war. Ferrario and his crew are surveying a landscape less blasted by events but buffeted by an only slightly less violent series of upheavals, the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet system, the lightning-fast end of the Communist era and the traumas of a globalized, unchecked capitalism installing itself. With Levi’s own words (beautifully read by Umberto Orsini) as an occasional guide, the filmmakers attempt to read the future from the past.

While they may not succeed in that endeavor, they paint a convincing picture of a Europe not nearly as changed as it might be. Indeed, one of the most sobering aspects of “Primo Levi’s Journey” is the realization that most of the small towns and cities that Levi and his fellow survivors passed through have change little, mainly through the addition of excruciatingly unattractive Stalin-era architecture and the no-less-dubious ornamentation of Socialist Realist sculptures and monuments. The towns of Poland are filled with pensioners who have been displaced by the new, more efficient methods of Western capital, Ukraine seemingly has exchanged the nationalist fervor of five years earlier for the more homogenized rubbish of European pop culture at its worst, and the only “new horizons” heralded in Romania is the name of an Italian-owned leather goods factory that employs a fifth of the labor force that it would have used before 1989. The oilfields of Ploesti are still ablaze at night, exactly as Levi described them fifty years earlier, and Ferrario finds a bunch of virulent and bullet-headed neo-Nazis on the streets of Munich. This truly is, as one of the film’s chapters is titled, “The New Old Europe.”

In “The Truce” Levi wrote of the final homecoming as being a trial in which the agonizingly earned knowledge of the returnees would be measured against what they found at home. In “Primo Levi’s Journey,” it is his the writer’s old friend and colleague, Mario Rigoni Stern, who offers the final verdict, “I have the treasure you left me, which helps me be less stupid and mean.” But one cannot help but wonder after seeing this film if Levi’s treasure has similarly enriched the rest of us.

“Primo Levi’s Journey” will be shown at the Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza) as part of their series “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema,” which plays through June 14. “Journey” will be shown on Wednesday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, June 14 at 2 p.m. For information, phone 212-496-3809 or go to www.filmlinc.com.

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