Loose Cannons: Small Expectations

Jan 8th, 2011

Loose Cannons (Mine Vaganti, Ferzan Ozpetek) is an Italian comedy about Tommaso (Riccardo Scamarcio), a young man who returns home planning to announce to his family that he is gay. However, his older brother Antonio beats him to it: he has been hiding his own homosexuality, and makes his announcement first. Both brothers want the freedom to openly live the lives they desire, and the younger brother wants to avoid the responsibility of running the family pasta factory. After his father’s reaction to Antonio’s announcement, however, it begins to look like he will be stuck with the family business forever.

If Loose Cannons were a consumer product, it would be among the luxury goods: soft leather, polished wood, and fine, hand-crafted details. And yet unlike most luxury items, the film is comfortable and unpretentious: you feel almost immediately at ease with it. And the pleasure of Loose Cannons costs only the price of a cinema ticket: for this modest outlay, followed by ads and trailers as unpleasant but thankfully briefer than a short-haul flight, you will be transported to a warmer and sunnier world for two hours. Upon your return to January’s dull, cold reality, your head will be filled with useful life lessons, and your ears with a sexy, exuberant soundtrack.

As a comedy, the film is successful. It derives its comedy not, as you might expect, through entirely predictable and exaggerated portraits of gay men and their family’s reactions to homosexuality. There are a few clichés: nearly all the gay characters like to sing and dance around the house, and when the older brother announces that he is gay, his father dramatically rejects him. Much of the comedy, however, derives from the characters themselves, and their reactions to unexpected events. The characters are well-defined, and benefit from a solid performance by all the actors. It is clear, too, that much attention has been paid to the script-writing, with inventive turns of phrase, and the verbal comedy translates well into English.

If there is one characteristic of this film which makes it such a rare pleasure, it is the attention to detail, which comes through in the aesthetics as much as in the script and the characters. Loose Cannons challenges our expectations of the genre: a good comedy does not have to limit itself to making us laugh, but can also be beautiful and thought-provoking. This is something which Roberto Benigni understood with Life is Beautiful (La vita è bella), albeit in a far more sentimental way. Ozpetek creates scenes of lyrical, understated beauty, from flashbacks of the grandmother’s wedding day, to scenes between Marco and Teresa, the glamorous but troubled co-manager at the factory. The characters, too, are brought to life through the details: the diabetic grandmother’s taste for sweets, her dry observations, her enduring love for her deceased brother-in-law, and the ruby and diamond earrings she wore as a bride. The aunt’s drinking problem, her vain attempts to manage without glasses, and her ritual charade that it is a thief, not her lover, who slips in and out of her room at night. Teresa’s red sports car and love of shoes are details which give her some substance, but her mental instability is one element which is not sufficiently substantiated, and reduces her to something of a tragic cipher. However, the script contains numerous other convincing details which would never make it into a Hollywood film, as they would be considered extraneous and unnecessary to the story. Yet it is precisely these peripheral details of life which make the film’s world so vivid, and which transport the audience to another place.

The film, it must be said, is set in a world of privilege, and this has the potential to grate: the family lives in a palazzo with marble floors, antique furniture, a spacious balcony for leisurely breakfasts, and servants who come running when they’re called. Although the family may be richer than the bourgeois group of friends in Guillaume Canet’s latest comedy, Little White Lies (Les Petits mouchoirs), they are far more sympathetic. This is because they struggle to deal with problems which are familiar to any family: the struggle between parental expectations and children’s need to live their own lives. Any sentimentality in the film relates to this main theme. Meanwhile, the pressure of social expectations, which extend beyond the family, is treated with a consistently light and humorous touch, from the father’s paranoia that his fellow citizens are laughing at him, to the mother’s spirited comeback to a spiteful gossip she meets in town.

Although I sincerely believe that Loose Cannons is an excellent and well-crafted comedy, it is important to take into account the influence of expectations. I went to see this film expecting very little. Among this week’s international and arthouse offerings Mine vaganti seemed to be the least-worst choice. If it turned out to be a dud, there would always be the pleasure of listening to Italian–and of watching Riccardo Scamarcio act in a film that could be no more disappointing than My Brother is an Only Child (Mio fratello è figlio unico, Daniele Luchetti). Over the past 10 years, I have been surprised to find mediocre Italian films making it to international distribution: I feared that Loose Cannons would be one of these. Add to this the fact that I had been disappointed by Ozpetek in the past: having had his Facing Window (La finestra di fronte) enthusiastically recommended to me by friends, only to wonder what all the fuss was about when I finally watched it, I wasn’t expecting Mine vaganti to be to my taste. I think it’s always important to keep the element of expectation in mind when you make an assessment: if a film turns out to be far better than you expect, you may mistake that good film for a great one. Equally, a film that has been built up for you by superlative reviews runs a big risk of disappointing you—more about that opposite phenomenon in my next blog. In the meantime, go to see Loose Cannons: let’s hope I haven’t built it up too much…

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