Oscars 2015: “Don’t be bad” is not too bad…

"Don't be bad" is the Italian selection to compete for the 2015 edition of the Oscars. The movie, whose original title is "Non essere cattivo", is the third and last part of a trilogy of films started in 1983 by director Claudio Caligari who died shortly after the end of filming. It portrays the lives and crimes of a bunch of young thugs in the Roman suburb of Ostia: Pasolini meets Gomorra

Claudio Caligari made only three films in his lifetime – Toxic Love (1983), The Scent of the Night (1998), and his third and final film, Don’t Be Bad (2015). In May of this year, Caligari died of cancer. Four months later, the Italian Motion Picture Association chose Don’t Be Bad as its candidate for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.

Part of a trilogy that spanned 40 years, the film takes place, once again, in Ostia, a suburb of Rome. And once again, it focuses on a marginalized segment of society – young thugs with no apparent means of support, who snort coke and pop pills, drink to excess, and abuse their girlfriends.

I was a bit worried about watching and writing about a film with subtitles – I do not speak Italian. But the translations were clear and easy to read; and after a few minutes I began to absorb them as though I was hearing actual dialogue. But thirty minutes into the story, all the scenes were beginning to feel familiar, and both the dialogue and the action was getting repetitive.

What kept me watching were the characters. Despite their “bad habits”, there was something endearing about both Cesare and Vittorio, two young men united by drugs and ultimately divided by the need to change their lives. The acting by Luca Marinelli and Alessandro Borghi in the lead roles was rich, real, and finely tuned. I felt their friendship, their non-judgmental love for each other, and even their crazy forays into drug-addled euphoria. And I was captivated by the close-ups of their eyes: sometimes tear-stained, often bloodshot, and occasionally wild. The supporting characters were also terrific and added depth to the story, especially the two girlfriends, Silvia D’Amico and Roberta Mattei.

But it was the back-story of this film that really caught my attention. The director, Claudio Caligari, struggled to finish the film before his untimely death in May at the age of 67. At the screening I attended, Valerio Mastandrea, actor and star of The Scent of the Night, spoke poignantly about those last months. Through halting but heartfelt English, he said, “It was Claudio’s passion for the film that kept him alive” … sometimes shooting as many as 5 scenes in a day. And when completion funds were scarce, Mastandrea made a written appeal to Martin Scorsese (“Martino”, as Caligari liked to call him) for money. Ultimately, the production itself became another love story of sorts.

Don’t Be Bad may not be the best film out there; and it might not even make the Oscar short list for Best Foreign Language film. But as Mastandrea proudly proclaimed, “We have already won our Oscar”.

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