CIAO, PROFESSORE! (Italy, 1992) *** 1/2
With some nine movies between 1963 and 1976, director Lina Wertmuller became a cult figure, admired for her caustic humor, social criticism, excesses, farcical or steamy sexuality, absurdism and maverick filmmaking.
"Seven Beauties" (1976) made her the first woman to be Oscar-nominated as a director. But her next film (1978), starring starring Giancarlo Gianini and Candice Bergen, "The End of the World in Our Usual Bed in a Night Full of Rain" failed. The dozen pictures that followed, for sundry reasons, made no more than a ripple. Wertmuller almost disappeared from the international scene.
With "Ciao, Professore!" she is back at the head of the class. The film is much more mainstream, toned-down and warm than previous ones by Wertmuller.. At the same time, she uses her sharpness and irony in unpretentious, un-showy ways that protect the movie from facile sentimentalism.
The picture is based on "Me, Let's Hope I Make It," a book which I suppose was written by a teacher about his experiences. That was also the movie's title at the 1993 Toronto Film Festival, after which it became "Ciao, Professore!"
The basic story -- new teacher conquers, and is conquered by, a difficult class -- is not new, but its specific context, details and variations on a familiar theme, make it fresh and original.
Marco Tullio Sperelli had asked to be transferred to the northern town of Corsano but was mistakenly assigned to Corzano in the south, a grimy, dilapidated, impoverished, lawless disaster area in the region of Naples.
At school, three-fourths of Sperelli's third-grade students are no-shows, but many can be located, at work around the mean streets of Corzano as a waiter, a hawker of stolen cigarettes, an ice-cream seller, a barber's assistant, a flegdling racketeer.
Corruption reigns, from the Mayor (a party to breaking child-labor and school-attendance laws), to the school's black-marketeer janitor (he sells cakes as well as chalk and toilet-paper to teachers and pupils), to his do-nothing janitress/cleaning lady wife, to the absentee, perpetually pregnant school director who accepts everything -- and everything is wrong -- with a shrug and a smile.
Corpulent Sperelli, who looks somewhat like a kindly Luciano Pavarotti, corrals his pupils and soon finds out what a miserable existence most of them lead. With patience, tolerance and humor (much of it at his own expense) he treats the youths like humans, disciplines them with wit and imagination, teaches them some academic things and some values -- while he himself learns about life in the area. We may be in recognizable territory, but it is light-years away from The Blackboard Jungle type of movies.
One assignment to the kids is to write parables. This is particularly relevant as the movie itself is also a parable of Italy's North vs. South. The North is industrial, affluent, developed and "cultivated." Northerners often looks down upon a South (the "Mezzogiorno") perceived as foreign and backward. They can be repaid with suspiciousness and defensiveness born of inferiority complexes.
The North-South gap is cunningly symbolized by the Southerners' peculiar pronunciation of De Amicis -- the school being named after Edmondo De Amicis, the writer whose "Cuore" (Hearts), a book about school-children, may well be the most read classic in Italy.
Sperelli is a Northerner, but a friendly one, with minimal prejudices and maximum good will. He appreciates nature's beauty and some aspects of southern hospitality. He accepts peculiarities, superstitions, and soon he understands a great deal : the conditions that make the locals take the Camorra and its drug traffic for granted. (The subtitles call it Mafia, but the Mafia is Sicilian, the Ndragheta is Calabrian and the Camorra is Neapolitan); the bright kid whose dream is "to be a man" (read "above the law") and "feel nothing"; the proliferation of births; the prematurely wise little girl who is the head of a wretched household; the sleepy boy who has to stay up nights helping his father to collect discarded cardboard in the streets; the fat boy who takes refuge in overeating.
Sperelli is not merely a routine teacher, but a self-appointed social worker. Knowledge comes to him in little shock waves mixed with a constant flow of comic moments.
The kids are street-wise. One of the movie's charms is the amusing-sad way they talk like grown-ups, with adult gestures, body language and a rich scatological vocabulary. Appealing too is the fact that in spite of little schooling, the kids know a surprising (albeit oddly interpreted) amount of things academic, from anthropology to geography. They are fast learners and fast thinkers, and the bond that grows between them and their teacher is a delight.
This bond is predictable, but the uninhibited give-and-take of the dialogue, the succession of clever, believable events, their details, the acute, specific observations of the ethos and lifestyles of Neapolitan culture, take you from small surprises to larger revelations.
"Ciao, Professore!" is a very serious funny movie, excellently written, directed and performed. A picture that has five writers spells catastrophe in Hollywood, but in Italy many of the very best films have had several scenarists.
When Sperelli leaves for good, neither he nor we, the viewers, harbor illusions. What the Professore has contributed may be no more than band-aid treatment. Yet, as he goes away, the two-way affection will remain with him and in the hearts of Corzano.
[published 4 Sept. 1994. Minor cosmetic changes 25 Dec. 1995]