Dir: Claudio Giovannesi. Italy. 2012. 99mins

Ali Has Blue Eyes

Easily the most rewarding of the three Italian films to play in competition at this year’s Rome film festival, Claudio Giovannesi’s fresh, pugnacious first dramatic feature with its impressive non-professional cast puts his documentary training to good use. Sticking close to its always watchable protagonist Nader, a sixteen-year-old Italian kid of Egyptian origins, Ali Has Blue Eyes (Alì ha gli occhi azzurri) builds a small but engrossing story around the problems of a second-generation immigrant teenager, caught between peer pressure to fit in to the Italian youth culture paradigm and his family’s insistence that he should respect his cultural and religious roots.

Set in winter, and bathed in a cold sunlight that offers little space for fantasy, Ali Has Blue Eyes nevertheless draws on fable and archetype in its portrait of a young man suspended between two conflicting states.

It’s not exactly virgin territory, and the story of Naser’s week-long rebellion against his family’s diktat makes little attempt to bring in those powerful, sometimes melodramatic plot cruxes that a theatrically-minded social realist like Ken Loach employs to keep us interested. But it’s precisely in the observational authenticity of the film, its refusal to shout, that much of the pleasure of Giovannesi’s fictional debut resides. With its scrappy Roman seaside suburb setting and sensitive available-light photography, the film is likely to reach out to Italian cineastes more than general audiences, but school screenings – a significant niche in Italy – could boost its numbers. Abroad, Ali looks like a sure-fire festival tourer.

The film’s title derives from a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was murdered by a rent boy not far from Ostia, the seaside dormitory suburb of Rome where most of the film is set. Nader is the poem’s Ali, and the film’s central character. He’s played by Nader Sarhan, one of three immigrant kids whose lives Giovannesi charted in his 2009 documentary Fratelli d’Italia. Only those who have read the press notes will know that Nader plays a version of himself, that Brigitte (Brigitte Apruzzesi), his girlfriend in the film, is also his girlfriend in real life, and that both teenagers’ film parents are also their real parents. But we don’t need this information to appreciate the film’s solid grounding in real people, real places and real lives.

The action spans a week, its days announced by on-screen captions. We first see Nader with his best friend Stefano on a Saturday, doing an early-morning hold-up of a grocery store on the way to school – just as later in the week they will head for the beach to hang out after Nader has stabbed a rival in a dance club. It’s the ordinariness of delinquency that this unjdgemental film brings out, the way it becomes part of the fabric of life for these street-smart kids.

In Nader’s case, the gangsta pose is also part of his rebellion against the pressures of family and faith. A row with his family over his Italian girlfriend Brigitte (he’s too young, they say, and she’s not a good Arab girl) provides the film with its main dramatic arc, as the stubborn teenager decides to take seriously his mother’s melodramatic suggestion that he should leave home. But like many kids with a foot in two cultures, Nader is conflicted: he defiantly replies in Roman dialect to his family’s Arabic imprecations, and wears blue contact lenses, presumably to ‘Italianise’ his appearance. But when Stefano shows an interest in Nader’s sister Laura, he becomes the jealous Arab brother with a hypocritical double standard for men and women.

Set in winter, and bathed in a cold sunlight that offers little space for fantasy, Ali Has Blue Eyes nevertheless draws on fable and archetype in its portrait of a young man suspended between two conflicting states – Arab and Italian, childhood and adulthood, right and wrong. It’s a measure of the sensitivity and wide-eyed realism of the script that it offers no easy way out of the existential waiting room Nader occupies, without entirely closing the door on hope.

Production companies: Acaba Produzioni, Rai Cinema

International sales: Acaba Produzioni, www.acabaproduzioni.com

Producer: Fabrizio Mosca

Screenplay: Claudio Giovannesi, Filippo Gravino

Cinematography: Daniele Cipri

Editor: Giuseppe Trepiccione

Production designer: Daniele Frabetti

Music: Claudio Giovannesi, Andrea Moscianese

Main cast: Nader Sarhan, Stefano Rabatti, Brigitte Apruzzesi, Marian Valentini Adrian, Cesare Hosny Sarhan, Fatima Mouhaseb, Yamina Kacemi, Salah Ramadan, Roberto D’Avenia