Along the Ridge (Anche libero va bene)

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Courtesy photo
Kim Rossi Stuart/Italy 2006

It is nice – inappropriate as the adjective may be – to witness filmmakers tackling head on the subject of divorce or at least the broken home, given the alarmingly high instances of decree nisi in modern, Western society. It is surprising that this pandemic has not been represented on celluloid with more regularity in recent years, with the benchmark drama for a marital break-up involving child custody remaining the faultless, but now ancient, Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). If the statistics are accurate, Kramer vs. Kramer’s child star Justin Henry is now so middle-aged, he probably has experienced at least one or two of his own alimony cases.

For some undeterminable yet welcome reason, recent years have seen the production of at least two excellent features portraying this theme from a child’s perspective: First is The Squid and the Whale by Noah Baumbach; the second, Along the Ridge (Anche libero va bene) hails from Italy – a country with a great cinematic tradition, but not necessarily one of interrogating Catholic gender stereotypes and the sanctity of the family unit.

From the beginning, Along the Ridge flouts our expectations of the conventional family dynamic by introducing a domestic scene slightly off kilter: It is the father who is hustling his two kids out of bed and off to school, as he stands ironing in the drawing room, naked from the waist down. It emerges that this young family of three – father Renato (Kim Rossi Stuart), 11-year-old son Tommaso (Alessandro Morace) and daughter Viola (Marta Nobili) – is coming to terms with its disrupted evolution in the wake of the recent departure of wife/mother Stefania (Barbora Bobulova). When Stefania makes a surprise return to home one evening, a tense and tentative reunion ensues, with the young kids being reluctantly drawn into deciding whether their mother should be permitted to rejoin the family.

Along the Ridge is portrayed through the child’s eyes of its young male protagonist. Selected by director Rossi Stuart from amongst hundreds of ordinary school children he auditioned across Italy, Morace is as moving and convincing as Owen Kline and Jesse Eisenberg in The Squid and the Whale. The quiet, endearing son is a stoical, sensitive observer of his parents volatile relationship, yet as a key member of the family of four is both a participant in – and victim of – the enfolding domestic drama.

Along the Ridge takes place in three different locations: the claustrophobic flat where the majority of the protagonists’ interior drama plays out; several idyllic outdoor locations where, despite efforts at lighter moments, familial bliss unfailingly goes awry; and the roof of the family apartment building – a window on the wider world.

The film’s title refers to the instances of solace Tommaso finds when secretly climbing up on to the roof and walking the tight rope of tiles at its edge. As a cinematic device, this act of daring creates foreboding in the spectator who fears that the boy might at any moment fall to his death. Metaphorically, the ridge represents the emotional tight rope Tommaso has to navigate on a daily basis as a child in a family destroying itself. The title also has a sporting connotation: Tommaso is soccer mad, wishing to play along the wing or even as a libero (an Italian term which has crept into soccer vocabulary with no obvious English translation) for a player who is free to run anywhere on the pitch. His overzealous, authoritarian father, however, insists he continue his swimming lessons against his will. The film culminates in a swimming competition on which Renato has pinned all his hopes and expectations for Tommaso.

Such is the psychological subtlety of Along the Ridge. It is impossible to state its defining theme, but love and our expectations thereof are certainly central. The overriding love between all the family members in Along the Ridge is unquestionable but flawed. No one is perfect, especially the adults. One moment the father is tender, cuddling his clinging children in the marital bed, saying “What am I, made of honey?” The next instant, he explodes in a violent rage – unstable, persecuted and destructively proud. The mother is seen both as a princess taking her son out of the classroom for an impromptu day’s outing, and as a red leather-clad seductress as unstable and vulnerable as the father. The elated scene of the mother’s reappearance shifts the film’s emotional charge to top gear, yet forever embodies its antithesis: the threat of (re)abandonment, a sad fact identified by Tommaso early on. Bearing witness, the children, frequently more adult than the adults, experience a childhood much darker than the standard Hollywood happy family.

Along the Ridge is a product of the best in both modern and traditional Italian cinema, due largely to the talent of its first-time feature writer-director Rossi Stuart. Stuart comes from serious Italian thespian stock and is one of a handful of young stars of modern Italian cinema. He was the face of Freddo in the recent international hit Romanzo Criminale and another perturbed father in The Keys to the House. Strangely resembling Nanni Moretti as the blue-eyed, fully bearded Renato, Rossi Stuart’s performance goes above and beyond his tall-dark-handsome screen looks. His semi-schizophrenic, studied performance is even more of an achievement when one knows he only intervened in front of the camera when the intended male lead had to withdraw unexpectedly. A mature film by a young talent, Along the Ridge and Stuart are definitely ones to watch.

© 2007 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

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