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Its borders sealed by Enver Hoxha’s communist dictatorship from 1944 to 1991, Albania is terra incognita for most Western moviegoers. Italian director Gianni Amelio helpfully prefaces Lamerica, set in that impoverished Balkan country, with newsreel footage to provide a historical context for his powerful film. In 1939, Benito Mussolini sent Italian Fascist troops to colonize Albania. The two countries fought together during World War II. After Mussolini’s army collapsed, Hoxha’s resistance forces defeated the Nazis. Proclaiming Albania a republic in 1946, Hoxha established his brutal, repressive dictatorship; the country’s borders were closed to everyone except the Russians and, later, the Chinese. The communist regime fell in 1991, revealing to Western observers an underdeveloped, desperately impoverished nation. Within a few months, 40,000 Albanians attempted to escape to the Italian coast, only 70 miles away. Unable to assimilate this exodus, the Italian government returned most of these would-be emigrants to their homeland.

Lamerica begins with two Italian con men, crafty Fiore (Michele Placido) and his affectless young partner, Gino (Enrico Lo Verso), arriving in Albania to execute a get-rich-quick scheme. They plan to set up a phony shoe factory and use their bogus corporation to obtain Italian government grants. Under Albanian law, no company can be headed by a foreigner, so they are forced to find a straw man to serve as company chairman. Their choice is Spiro (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), a grizzled, disoriented 70-year-old languishing in the squalid ruins of a prison camp. Bathed, dressed in new clothes, and coached to sign documents, Spiro appears to be the perfect dupe—hell’s Hudsucker puppet. But the old man, whose history and psyche are far more complicated than the scam artists realize, unexpectedly vanishes. Gino sets off to recover him, embarking on a journey across Albania’s decimated, rubble-strewn landscape that becomes a voyage of discovery for both men.

Amelio, whose previous films include Open Doors and Stolen Children, first visited Albania in January 1992, five months after the last boatload of refugees departed for Italy. He spent the next two years exploring the country, recognizing parallels with Italy’s own situation following World War II, when hundreds of thousands of his own ruined countrymen set off to begin new lives in America. For Albanians, dazzled by previously forbidden television images of Italian prosperity, Italy became the New America, a dream world promising freedom and prosperity only a short, merchant-ship passage across the Adriatic Sea.

Gino grows increasingly vulnerable as he pursues Spiro across the devastated Albanian countryside. The starving throngs he encounters strip him of his possessions: clothes, luggage, an expensive Jeep. When he finally catches up with his prey, he makes some startling discoveries about Spiro’s past, revelations that draw them closer together. After Albanian officials uncover the swindle, he abandons the old man, who is no longer of use to him, in a residence where his needs will be taken care of. Returning to Tirana, the capital city, Gino is interrogated by the authorities; his passport is confiscated and, after a brief internment, he’s reduced to the condition of the people he intended to exploit. Joining thousands of other refugees, he boards a ship destined for Italy and is reunited with Spiro, his penitential shadow.

Lamerica’s screenplay, on which Amelio collaborated with two co-writers, is excessively schematic. The correspondence between the two main characters is too tidily drawn, as is their predictable reconciliation in the climactic scene. Despite forceful performances by the callow, dark-eyed Lo Verso and Mazzarelli (an 80-year-old former fisherman making his acting debut), their characters, at times, are too obviously designed as spokesmen for themes the filmmaker wants to explore—generational ruptures, national and cultural clashes, analogies between the hopes and dreams of Italian and Albanian emigrants.

But Amelio’s eidetic, neodocumentary imagery transcends these narrative contrivances. His decision to shoot his film in the almost-abandoned Cinemascope aspect ratio—the mid-’50s letterbox screen format—is responsible for much of Lamerica’s impact. A ploy to lure audiences away from their newly purchased television sets, Cinema-scope was devised to emphasize the lavishness of Hollywood genre movies—westerns, musicals, biblical extravaganzas. Amelio employs the format ironically, to record social devastation beyond the scope of conventional framings. His horizontal compositions swarm with indigent, helpless people driven to thievery and prostitution in order to survive. Restricting his palette to drab tones—lusterless blues, browns, and grays—Amelio orchestrates these images on a progressively grander scale, culminating in the indelible spectacle of 3,000 extras crowding the deck of a derelict merchant vessel. (It took seven months of negotiations, capped by the threat of an international scandal, before the president of Albania agreed to the shooting of this sequence under strict military guard.)

The specific purpose of Amelio’s film is to open the hearts and minds of his countrymen to the plight of the Albanian people, to recognize how closely their situation corresponds to conditions in Italy a half-century ago. (He pushes too hard in Lamerica’s final frames: a lachrymose montage of anguished yet hopeful faces—first children, then adults—questing for freedom.) This theme should also hold some resonance for American viewers at a time when reactionary political forces are demonizing immigrants as the source of our own country’s present insolvency. With filmmakers retreating to the masterpieces of the past (the current Shakespeare and Jane Austen cycles) and trivializing the present (Tarantino and his school of madcap brutalists; the vulgarly sentimental, insanely overpraised Leaving Las Vegas), it’s bracing to discover a contemporary film with serious, idealistic intentions.

If Lamerica is, ultimately, more admirable than affecting, the reason lies in the limits of neorealism, the Italian tradition of De Sica and Rossellini to which Amelio adheres. The objective, slice-of-life, socially oriented assumptions of this style constrain artistic expressiveness. However effectively Amelio opens our eyes to the wretched conditions in Albania, we are denied the unexpected insights, the sudden flashes of illumination available to directors unshackled by the bonds of realism. A Buñuel or Vigo could have harnessed the powers of art to penetrate the harrowing surfaces of Albanian life and offer us some subjective, poetic sense of what it might feel like to be part of that landscape. Amelio achieves this just once, in a long-held, enigmatic shot of an emaciated child lost in a spasmodic, Michael Jackson–like dance. This poetic image obliquely captures the allure of cultural imperialism, the insatiable hunger for a dream just out of reach. Although one might justly proclaim Lamerica a masterpiece of cinematic realism—no small achievement—its humane but prosaic style never quite attains the full eloquence of art.CP