Gianni Amelio's "The Way We Laughed," set in the Italy of the late '50s and early '60s, is a masterpiece about filial love and the horrors of poverty. A great film unaccountably ignored, made in 1998 by one of the most highly admired (in Europe) of living filmmakers, it follows the bewildering, changing fortunes of two lower-class brothers from the provinces, workman Giovanni (Enrico Lo Verso) and teenage student Pietro (Francesco Giuffrida), who come to Turin to make their fortune and instead discover corruption, disappointment and betrayal.
If that outline suggests Luchino Visconti's 1961 classic "Rocco and His Brothers," so - intentionally - does the film's style, which is lushly textured, beautifully controlled, filled with soulful performances and haunting images (though in rich widescreen color rather than the black and white of "Rocco").
It's also a gem of elliptic storytelling. Amelio divides his tale into six parts, each taking place on one day in six of the years from 1958 to 1964. Though each section is introduced with a date and title - "Arrivals," "Deceptions," "Money," "Letters," "Blood" and "Families" - Amelio deliberately never brings us up to date on events in between except for what emerges naturally in conversation. He simply plunges us into each new day, gradually revealing the sometimes shocking changes in the brothers' lot.
The relationship between the brothers is complex and poignant. Giovanni, 12 years older than Pietro, is an illiterate, determined that his brother will study and become a successful schoolteacher. To that end, he works tirelessly at many menial jobs in their hometown and later in Turin, giving Pietro most of his money. Yet we see from the very first episode, "Arrivals" - where Pietro dodges a meeting with Giovanni at the train station - that the younger brother is lazy and a liar. He is also no serious scholar but is, instead, frittering away his time and Giovanni's money while pretending to study. It's a woundingly sad situation. Giovanni, who can't read books, worships them and handles them like sacred relics, and he also adores Pietro. Pietro, in turn, avoids his books and dreams instead of the easy life.
Amelio suggests all of this very quickly in the first two scenes, while also giving us memorable views of the two brothers moving around Turin: Giovanni with his gaunt, dark face and haunted eyes, Pietro with his languidly pretty, thick-lashed baby face. But though the story seems to be heading in a conventionally sentimental direction, Amelio has some surprising turns to traverse in the six years. Neither brother is quite what he seems, and their ultimate fate is unguessable from the early scenes but relentlessly logical when it comes.
For anyone who loves the old, great Italian films of the '50s and '60s - the gems of neo-realism and the postwar boom year classics of Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni - "The Way We Laughed" is a must. Amelio, who has won the Best European Film award three times, for 1988's "Open Doors," 1992's "Stolen Children" and 1995's "Lamerica" is in the great tradition of Italian cinema, and this is a better film than Nanni Moretti's "The Son's Room," last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner.
"The Way We Laughed" won a fest grand prize itself - the Golden Lion at the 1998 Venice Film Festival - but the perversities of Italian cultural politics and the vagaries of foreign language film distribution have kept it from our theaters since. That's unfortunate. This is a film precisely constructed, brilliantly imagined. The story it tells of poor people struggling in society is humane and compassionate, but also as compelling and full of dark twists and turns as a film noir.
The title refers to the back page of a popular '50s Italian magazine, a section devoted to old jokes that had mostly lost their humor but evoked nostalgia. (One such joke is repeated throughout the film: "How do you get four elephants in a Fiat?" "Two in front and two in back!") That title evokes a vanished world and so does the film: a postwar time of opportunity, idealism, political turmoil, of sometimes guilty success and honorable failure - and of great films by great filmmakers. "The Way We Laughed" belongs in that company.
"The Way We Laughed"
Directed and written by Gianni Amelio; photographed by Luca Bigazzi; edited by Simona Paggi; production designed by Giancarlo Basili; music by Franco Piersanti; produced by Vittorio and Rita Cecchi Gori. A New Yorker Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 2:08. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned: sensuality, violence).
Giovanni - Enrico Lo Verso
Pietro - Francesco Giuffrida
Lucia - Rosaria Danze
Rosario - Claudio Contartese
Pelaia - Fabrizio Gifuni Ada - Simonetta Benozzo
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune movie critic.