Downturns: Italian flim 'Days and Clouds' on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki looks at tough economic times. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

'Days and Clouds' Finds Changes in the Weather

Dennis Harvey August 26, 2008

It’s said those who’ve never known it think love is the key to happiness; the poor know it is money. Those who espouse the more selfless kind of love are either monks or have never known real, suffocating, no-visible-way-out poverty. Even a drop from one economic strata to another that might still be positively luxurious in the Third World can cause serious anxiety or worse in the First.

Particularly now, with the economy (are we past that "Don’t-call-it-a-recession" stage yet?) having displaced terrorism and the war in Iraq as Americans’ biggest worry, it gives pause to realize how seldom our popular entertainment deals at all with that which so often concerns us most. Namely, why are we working harder, yet it keeps getting harder to make ends meet? The U.S. bedrock is supposed to be its middle class—yet that population bulk has slipped around on less-than-terra firma lately while the rich/poor gap widens, tipping more and more working-class folk increasingly toward a future as The New Poor.

Serious cinema the world round has long cast a sympathetic, dutiful, tragic eye on the desperately poor, in movies that win awards even if nobody (except cinephiles like you) goes to see them. Everyday economic woes in the upper tiers are seldom treated in film fiction, however, unless as satire or comic fantasy. (Think, say, Trading Places or Fun with Dick and Jane.) Ergo the new Italian movie Days and Clouds by director Silvio Soldini (Bread and Tulips), which plays the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki starting August 29, is refreshing simply by virtue of approaching a subject common in the real world but too rare in fiction—that of downwardly mobile bourgeois—without condescension or melodrama. It’s a quietly penetrating tale one could all too easily imagine happening to someone you know. Maybe it already has.

Life looks to be pretty good for middle-aged Genoa couple Elsa (Margherita Buy) and Michele (Antonio Albanese). She’s just passed her thesis examination cum laude, and, to celebrate, he springs not just an expensive gift, but an extravagant surprise party with all their friends in attendance. Their daughter Alice (Alba Rohrwacher) is co-owner of a new restaurant, following in the footsteps of Dad, who cofounded his own company decades ago. The couple are planning a trip to Cambodia soon—just the sort of tastefully exotic experience one might expect such people who "have everything" to acquire at their autumnal stage.

But Michele has a little secret he’s loathe to share, one which will suddenly make the family’s privileged lives feel awfully fragile. Finally able to stall no longer, he confesses to Elsa that he lost his job—yep, fired by his own partners, in particular the bottom-line-focused newbie—two whole months ago. With no immediate prospects and bills piling up, he suggests they might—no, make that must—have to sell their luxury apartment and move into humbler digs.

Once Elsa gets over her initial panic, and anger at Michele’s secrecy, she buckles down with a pragmatism seldom before needed or evidenced. She has a job already, just not the paying kind—a fresco-restoring project that’s simply a scholarly resume-builder. She has to settle at first for one kind of work (telemarketing) available to those who’ve never had to develop actual paycheck skills.

Michele, meanwhile, is overqualified (and probably over-aged) for any remotely appropriate jobs. His new role as non-provider is depressing, exacerbated by such humiliations as having to beg one former coworker for possible reinstatement, and asking an old friend for an ancient loan’s repayment. (Worse, the latter simply lies, claiming he’d already paid it back.)

All these stresses and more create cracks in the marriage. But they also ultimately reveal the true depths of this couple’s long-taken-for-granted bond. Days and Clouds eschews easy solutions as well as histrionics. It’s not a tragedy, because despite all discomfort and indignities Michele and Elsa suffer in "adjusting" to challenging new circumstances, they refuse to be victims—they will do more than just survive, they will move on and perhaps even become more sure of who they really are as a result.

So many movies are lifestyle fantasies, conspicuously so or otherwise. It’s a given in any romantic comedy that the quirky heroine with the "creative" job has a huge flat in prime Manhattan or San Francisco, when you know she’d be lucky to have a shoebox studio. And that her parents live in some rambling split-level in picture-postcard suburbia or on some quaint rocky coast. We take all that for granted—such backdrops are so routine we barely notice them. (Beyond perhaps thinking "Oh isn’t that cute and artistic what she did with old bric-a-brac in her bedroom! Correction: What the amply budgeted production designer and art director did with it after umpteen pre-production meetings.) On the flipside, we sorta know what it’s like in the ghettos, slums and shantytowns, because that’s where so many "meaningful" downer movies are set.

But probably most moviegoers don’t live in any of those places, but somewhere between—and what with the mortgage crisis, gas prices, credit card debt, et al., they no doubt spend a lot of time wondering whether even that middle ground will hold. Outside the ominous headlines, such concerns don’t get a lot of play. Naturally, people usually prefer escapism to facing their own problems when ponying up at the box office. But by quietly illustrating a credible case scenario sans hysteria or editorializing, Days and Clouds makes real-world recognition arresting.