Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, an impressionistic coming-of-age tale about the friendship between two adolescent girls in Cold War London, packs an impressive amount of personal and political history into a wispy 90 minutes of screen time. Starring the resplendent Elle Fanning (who was only 13 at the time of filming) as shy, bookish Ginger and Alice Englert (the daughter of the Australian director Jane Campion, in her film debut) as her boy-crazy best friend Rosa, Potter’s film is conventional in form, worlds away from her playful, fluid 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s century-skipping, gender-morphing novel Orlando.
Potter explicitly links the lives of her teenage protagonists to the end of World War II: An opening shot of the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima gives way to a scene in a maternity hospital in 1945, as the girls’ mothers (Ginger’s is played by Christina Hendricks, Rosa’s by Jodhi May) go through labor at the same time. Seventeen years later, both girls and mothers are best friends—but as teenage girls will do, Ginger and Rosa have decided their mothers are irredeemably pathetic. Ginger’s romantic idealism finds expression in her engagement with the anti-nuke protest movement, especially after she attends an exhilarating street protest with her two gay godfathers (both named Mark, and charmingly played by Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt) and their radical feminist friend (Annette Bening).
The fatherless Rosa, on the other hand, pins her outsized adolescent longings to the figure of Ginger’s glamorous dad Roland (Alessandro Nivola), an intellectual bohemian who served a jail term during the war for refusing military service, and who isn’t about to let the world forget about what he sees as his anti-bourgeois heroism. Roland is a fascinating character, capable of acts of monstrous selfishness but also clearly besotted with his lively, intelligent daughter. After he moves from the apartment he shares with Ginger and her mother into a squalid bachelor flat, the story takes a couple of late turns into melodrama. But the first hour, which establishes the teenage girls’ intimate bond in a series of economical, near-wordless vignettes (sneaking cigarettes, hitchhiking, reading celebrity magazines in the bathtub) creates a lingering mood of lyrical melancholy that carries throughout the film. It’s that mood—combined with the chance to watch the changing emotional weather on the face of Elle Fanning, who at 14 has already established herself, not just as promising young actress, but as a major talent—that makes Ginger & Rosa feel more substantial than it is.
The Italian director Matteo Garrone’s last two movies—the grim fact-based mob drama Gomorrah (2008) and his newest, the trash-TV satire Reality—both won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Garrone’s use of bright, garish colors, broad social satire, and stylized camerawork in Reality place it at a far aesthetic remove from the documentary-style naturalism of Gomorrah. But the two films share a certain savage candor, a drive to expose what Garrone clearly sees as a spiritual rottenness at the heart of contemporary Italian culture.
The expansive, charismatic Luciano (Aniello Arena) operates a fish stand at an outdoor market in Naples, running small-time scams on the side to provide for his large, noisy extended family (often framed by Garrone in comic-grotesque tableaux straight out of Fellini). When his wife (Loredana Simioli) encourages him to sign up for an open audition for Big Brother, Luciano is at first resistant, then eager, and eventually desperate to secure a spot on the show. Waiting to hear back from the producers, he begins to interpret every unusual occurrence in his everyday life as a sign that the show’s producers are spying on him, judging his worthiness as a potential contestant. Luciano also tries to parlay his slight acquaintance with a past Big Brother winner, the glitzy pseudo-celebrity Enzo (Raffaele Ferrante) into acceptance on the program, resulting in a series of encounters of escalating awkwardness that can’t help but recall Robert DeNiro’s stalking of Jerry Lewis in The King of Comedy.
When Luciano begins to suspect that a cricket on his living-room wall is some kind of plant from the Big Brother crew—could it contain a hidden camera?—we’re not meant to see him simply as an individual paranoid kook. Reality isn’t a realistic drama about one man’s descent into mental illness but a mordant parable about the corrosive power of the hunger for fame. No one would call Garrone’s insights about materialism and celebrity culture subtle, but the movie’s broad satire still bites deep, largely thanks to the work of Aniello Arena, the magnetic 44-year-old actor who plays the yearning, deluded Luciano.
Arena’s back story is as incredible as anything we see onscreen: He’s currently serving a multidecade prison sentence for his involvement in a mafia-related triple murder in 1991. After discovering acting at a prison theater workshop, Arena spent a decade working with the prison’s stage company before a judge agreed to release him on a day pass to shoot Reality. (Garrone wanted him for Gomorrah, too, but a judge ruled that a realistic mob drama was the wrong movie for a convicted mafioso’s debut.) It’s clear that acting for Arena is less a job than an act of spiritual redemption. The actor’s feverish urgency matches his character’s, right up through the movie’s dreamlike final scene—a surreal nighttime tour of the “Grande Fratello” house that makes it look like both an oasis and a trap.