Whether or not you consider yourself in the market for an Italian Mean Girls with a stronger political slant, filmmaker Paolo Virzì has taken the concept about halfway down the road to genuine revelation. In his Caterina in the Big City (or Caterina Goes to the City, as the opening titles call it, in defiance of all marketing coherence), Virzì comes on like a radicalized Tina Fey, depicting a Roman middle school as a microcosm of Italy's present-day government.
Newly arrived in the capital after an upbringing in sleepy Montalto di Castro, naive Caterina Iacovoni (Alice Teghil) finds her attention a hot property that's sought after by the rival forces in her classroom. On one side is the lefty/commie contingent; on the other are the right-wing fascists whose parents are re-entering the political mainstream for the first time in decades. The knee-jerk name-calling sessions in which these kids routinely engage help advance director Virzì's larger point that his country's adult society is a noisy clash of "cliques." But how different are the respective sides, really? At Caterina's school, the ringleaders of both factions are precocious divas with ample resources and influential parents which is why their pursuit of Caterina is prized equally by her father (Sergio Castellitto), a misanthropic accounting teacher and self-styled social climber. He prizes it, that is, until he realizes that these well-connected princesses are indoctrinating his little angel into some unwholesome rituals, including tattooing and shoplifting. At this juncture, the movie's paradigm becomes less Mean Girls and more Thirteen times two (which I guess would make it Twenty-Six).
Subtitles that are damnably hard to read are all that gets in the way of Virzì's story, which simultaneously suffices as a teen drama and a political metaphor. And if he's left himself no clear path to a satisfying resolution, well, that's always the pitfall of attempting an allegory to complex current ills. Behind every narrative corner lurks the possibility that Caterina's assimilation difficulties can be resolved by the onset of first-time romance. But you and I know that puppy love doesn't tend to work as well when it comes to resolving Parliamentary debates. Or cooling heads at anti-immigration rallies.
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