Lamerica [1994]

Albania, 1991. After weathering a pre-World War II bout of Italian fascism and decades of communism (sketched out with newsreel footage in the film's opening moments), Albania has thrown off the shackles of totalitarianism and reveals to the world an economically devastated country...just ripe for the picking. As hordes of refugees stream out of Albania to Italy, a pair of Italian con men arrive with promises of industry and jobs. They select an addled former political prisoner (Carmelo di Mazzarelli) to front the company as the Albanian "chairman," and get ready to siphon off government development money and split--until their front suddenly wanders off and junior partner Gino (Enrico Lo Verso) sets off to find him. Systematically fleeced of his valuables and his identity by the very people he was out to bilk, the brash, flashy Italian is soon just another refugee struggling to sneak back past the borders of his own home. Shot entirely in Albania with a largely nonprofessional cast by Gianni Amelio (Stolen Children, also starring Lo Verso), a documentary immediacy fills the film with a harsh beauty, and it serves as a shocking revelation of a country so long cut off from the rest of the world. Amelio resists opportunities for sentimentalizing the desperate poor in his neorealist odyssey, but suggests hope in the periodic acts of kindness they bestow upon Gino. Though he is hardly a likable character, the haunted look in Gino's eyes by the end of his journey suggests a hard education that's likely to remain with him. And with us. --Sean Axmaker

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