COSMONAUT (Cosmonauta) (2009)
starring Claudio Pandolfi, Sergio Rubini, Mariana Raschilla, Pietro Del Giudice
screenplay by Susanna Nicchiarelli, Teresa Ciabatti
directed by Susanna Nicchiarelli
Susanna Nicchiarelli's Cosmonaut (Cosmonauta) opens with little Luciana fleeing Holy Communion, shedding the accoutrements of the ceremony on her sprint back home. She seems a little young to be throwing off the shackles of religious conformity, younger even than her alleged onscreen age of nine, but the punchline's priceless in its precociousness: "Because I'm a communist!" she barks when her mother asks why she left church. There's actually a bit more to her rebellion than that. With their dad gone (having died a "true communist"), she looks to her geeky older brother Arturo for guidance, and because it's 1957 and the Soviets are about to launch Sputnik, he favours the godless world of communism as well. From a North American perspective, the movie is interesting in that respect, as very rarely do our history books stop to consider the excitement that Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin must have engendered in Europe on their way to depicting America's mad rush to win the space race. Even propaganda footage showcasing the likes of Laika the Russian dog--which forms the basis of transitional montages similar to but less operatically intense than the ones that constitute a good portion of Marco Bellocchio's Vincere--was mostly new to me. In fact, when the moon-landing cropped up in the finale, I breathed a sigh of disappointment, though it's worth noting that it may not be such a cliché in Italy.
Arturo is diagnosed with epilepsy. Cosmonaut flashes forward to 1963, the year Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman--moreover, the first civilian--in space: Luciana's now a surly, chain-smoking fifteen-year-old (she doesn't appear to inhale, which may have been actress Mariana Raschilla's own squeamishness but suits a character who's all affectations just the same), a heavily-medicated Arturo is a social liability to her, and their mother has remarried, mainly for stability's sake. Following in her late father's footsteps, Luciana joins the Italian Federation of Young Communists, implicitly out of childhood nostalgia. While Arturo mysteriously hoards match-heads, headstrong Luciana establishes herself as a promising addition to the party, but her efforts are clearly designed to attract the attention of her handsome branch leader, who, somewhat hypocritically, has his eye on the seemingly better-heeled Fiorella. Luciana's actions then become strictly jealous and petty; proving the wisdom of a voting age, her raging hormones trump her allegiance to any political cause.
The movie has its charms, including an enticing, Almodóvarian palette and an intriguing juxtaposition of Cold War iconography and old-world architecture. Raschilla's humourless, almost joyless performance is decidedly disengaging, though, and I lost patience with Cosmonaut as it became an increasingly pro forma coming-of-age flick. Nearly every beat in the film's second half, down to Luciana's cruel rejection of Arturo's advice and Arturo subsequently running away from home without the identification he needs in the event of a seizure, finds its origins in genre convention rather than in organic storytelling. (Although Nicchiarelli elicits sympathy for Arturo by showing others marginalizing him, she ultimately marginalizes him as well (a Catch-22?), making his theatrically self-destructive gesture feel arbitrary.) And what to make of the picture's historical irony? Luciana and Arturo cling to doomed concepts (socialism, rocket ships), allegorizing the youthful ignorance of us all, yet the smartest, most humane characters are arguably a pair of middle-aged Communists, one of whom is played by Nicchiarelli herself. I haven't seen Nicchiarelli's companion piece, Sputnik 5, an animated short about the veritable Noah's Ark that was the titular satellite, but without all that narrative baggage perhaps it has a chance to fulfill Cosmonaut's aesthetic promise.
Cosmonaut begins a one-week engagement at The Royal in Toronto on March 18. Visit the filmswelike website for more details.