In 2009, movies finally began to present stories about the devastating impact of the current global economic crisis. The movie that grabbed the most attention and was hailed as capturing a zeitgeist moment on corporate downsizing was UP IN THE AIR. Despite its acclaim and multiple predictions that it would be the one to beat at this year’s Oscar’s, it went home empty-handed. Truth be told, I wasn’t a big fan of the movie and thought its depiction of the economic crisis was more slick than illuminating. Where were the personal stories that showed the real devastation of job loss?
Italy’s satisfying answer is DAYS AND CLOUDS, directed by Silvio Soldini (BREAD AND TULIPS, AGATA AND THE STORM). It traces the harrowing economic descent of a sophisticated, upper-middle-class couple in Genoa after the husband loses his job. Flawless performances by Margherita Buy and Antonio Albanese as the couple (Elsa and Michele) keep us riveted as they attempt to grapple with their escalating fears about an unfathomable future.
All seems fine as the movie opens with a surprise celebration of Elsa’s graduation from an art history program. But when Elsa wakes up, Michele confesses that he hasn’t worked in months and they will probably have to sell their home. Elsa is furious at what she perceives as a betrayal of marital trust. While Michele explains that he did not want to distract her from her exams, it soon becomes clear that much more is at issue—Michele’s unbearable shame for jeopardizing a way of life that he can no longer maintain.
The theme of shame runs deep as Elsa discovers her own inability to share the news with her daughter or close friends. The stress of these multiple non-disclosures begins to create a weight so heavy that the marriage starts to buckle under the strain. The pain is so palpable I felt my heart racing as fast as their downward tumble.
I picked the clip below because it shows how the couple’s economic unraveling is beginning to invade all aspects of their life. It also highlights Michele’s state of denial and embarrassment as he pretends that everything is OK. In this scene, with the news of Michele’s job loss still fresh for Elsa, the simple act of picking up a dinner check with friends quickly devolves into an angry confrontation:
One review of this film suggests that Michele’s denial and anger are, in part, exacerbated be an “Italian machismo” that impairs his ability to cope with a surreal loss of stature. I’m not sure that’s correct. It seemed to me that Michele’s reaction was more universal and not necessarily affected by any cultural distinctions.
Michele’s search for employment flows from denial to desperation so quickly that he has difficulty adjusting to a reality that finds him working odd jobs as a postal messenger and plaster/painter--anything to avoid the horror of doing nothing. Elsa must also adjust to a future that requires working two shifts as a secretary. And she discovers that she must make decisions about whether to consider alternate life choices including other men. A pass from a wealthy, attractive businessman is not so easily dismissed and the pain of this discovery is revealed in a breathless moment of sadness, vulnerability and desire.
Film’s ending does, however, provide a glimmer of optimism and it is Elsa’s art restoration that serves as an apt metaphor: if you can scrape away the years of passive neglect that can camouflage a marriage, you may find, if you’re lucky, something very beautiful that has somehow managed to endure. Whether that’s true or not, we finally have a film that accurately captures the economic calamity that can happen to anyone. And it’s pretty scary.