If Oscar nominations were the sole criterion for evaluating foreign filmmakers, Italy’s Ettore Scola would be right at the top of the list.
IIn the last 10 years, he’s had nominations in the best foreign language film category for A Special Day in 1977 and Le Bal in 1983. This year, he has another movie in the Oscar circle: The Family.
Scola’s busy decade has also included La Nuit de Varennes and the unsuccessful Jack Lemmon/Marcello Mastroianni movie, Macaroni. There is some very good work there, and in a way The Family is the culmination of this winning streak. This is one of those big-canvas movies, a film that spans 80 years in the life of a family of the 20th century.
But Scola has made a crucial decision in the way he wants to look at this time. The entire film is set inside the house of an upper-middle class family. But for brief glimpses outside the window, we never see the outside world.
And yet the people who pass through the portals embody the changing moods of Italian society. There’s gentility and privilege in the early scenes, the specter of fascism during Mussolini’s rise, and the anger of the 1960s, all brought in by various characters from different generations.
The character who occupies the central position throughout the years is Carlo, whose baptism marks the film’s opening. (He is played as a young man by Andrea Occhipinti, as an older man by Vittorio Gassman.) Carlo grows up into a careful, non adventurous man, as befits his status as an observer.
The one great tragedy in his life was a love affair with a vital, exotic woman (Fanny Ardant); but he gave her up, and married her simple sister (Stefania Sandrelli) instead. He is happy in his marriage and yet, sometimes he wonders. . . .
He is always surrounded by colorful family members, such as the three nutty aunts who spend their lives bickering, as by ritual; the ne’er-do-well younger brother, who will be a lifelong pain in the neck and who eventually writes a book called Waste: A Life Story; the good son who touchingly realizes he’s the dull witted one in the family.
Scola saunters through the 80 years in just a little over two hours, sometimes threatening sketchiness but almost always capturing the crucial times. The conversations in the movie frequently take place while the characters are eating, or engaged in some other ritual of day-to-day living, as though to emphasize the power of small realities as opposed to large historical events.
Scola’s finest work comes in the sequence when Carlo finds himself alone in the house with his old flame. Their connection is still strong, but she leaves his life in just the way she left it many years before, with a painful walk down the stairway (the only two times we see that part of the house). It’s moments such as these that create the rich atmosphere alive within those old walls.
First published in the Herald, December 1987
Scola had a long and successful career, all right, including the 1974 film We All Loved Each Other So Much. This film has not left a lasting impression on me, but I like the sound of the subplot with Fanny Ardant.