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Stars Fell on Albania

Venture Capital Punishment: Enrico Lo Verso and Michele Placido try to survive the economic and political hell of modern Albania.

Gianni Amelio's 'Lamerica' serves up horrors too painful for anything but laughs

By Richard von Busack

THE PRIMARY POINT of interest in Lamerica is its extensive tour of Albania, which is all you've heard it is, and more: the most broke, the most xenophobic, the most thoroughly blighted and ruined country in Europe. Seeing some of Mother Teresa's nuns in the film is a reminder that she herself hails from this famously beaten-up country; one doubts that she suffers much from homesickness in Calcutta. Director Gianni Amelio shows us the relics of dictator Enver "Mr. Cult of Personality" Hoxha everywhere. His name is engraved in the sides of mountains, his busts are stacked like cordwood, the thousands of concrete pillboxes he bought to defend Albania from imaginary enemies rot by the barren roadsides.

Starting the film with newsreels of Italy's takeover of Albania in the 1930s by Mussolini's colonialists, Lamerica takes us to a new invasion by shady foreign capital. The cruel investor Fiore (Michele Placido) wants to use the country as a tax shelter, with an Albanian as his corporate figurehead. Fiore and his cat's-paw, Gino (Enrico Lo Verso), pick the decrepit Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli) as the straw man, but Spiro, having been a political prisoner for almost half a century, wanders off at every opportunity. When Gino finds Spiro and lures him back to the coast, they both become part of the hordes of refugees seeking passage to Italy. In Spiro's clouded mind, Italy across the Adriatic is actually America across the ocean, a land of opportunity.

Lamerica hits levels of such horror that you have to laugh to keep from weeping. As the film unwinds, though, Amelio seems more interested in positing the survival experience of the Albanian people as evidence of the triumph of humanity rather than an example of moments of optimism to be found in worst-case-scenario life. The last third wanders, trying to punish Gino for his lack of humanity. Too bad, because in the very gradual friendship between Spiro and Gino, Amelio achieves a depth of feeling that reminds you of Fellini's La Strada. The obviousness (such as the scene of the crippled kid who turns out just to have his leg folded back inside his pants) is what the rest of the film isn't: emotionally rigged.

Lamerica (Unrated; 116 min.), directed by Gianni Amelio, written by Andrea Porporati, Alessandro Sermoneta and Amelio, photographed by Luca Bigazzi and starring Enrico Lo Verso and Michele Placido.

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From the May 9-15, 1996 issue of Metro

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