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Italian Film that's right - one film
October 2010: Where is Geronimo Meynier? That was my first question coming out of the cinema having seen Franco Rossi’s Amici per la pelle (Italy, 1955; UK title: Friends for Life; US title: The Woman in the Painting [sic – winner of the most inappropriate translation of the year]). And why had I never heard of Amici per la pelle before? Me, a semi-serious fan of Italian cinema, who worships Felliini, Visconti, Bertolucci (even if I do keep calling him Berlusconi) de Sica et al.
Two boys – aged somewhere between 10 and 14 – become friends at school. Mario (the said Geronimo Meynier - pictured right) is tall, tousle-haired, with beautiful eyes, a round face and an inability to stop moving, to stop
thinking, to stop living; Franco (Andrea Sciré - left in photo below) is small, quiet, intelligent, wary.
They are two out of a score of pupils who sit on tiered benches, the boys in thick woollen cardigans, shorts or plus-fours
(yes, plus-fours in 1950s Rome) and tweed jackets, the girls in pigtails (aka braids) and demure long-skirted and long-sleeved dresses.
As classmates, they shake hands on greeting each other, stand when a woman comes into the room and unselfconsciously kiss the hands of
the mothers of their friends.
This is, in other words, a world that has long disappeared. It is a world of security – children respect adults without fear, they wander the streets alone and unafraid. It is a narrow world, with no communication more modern than the single telephone sitting in the hall, with horizons no more distant than one or two streets, with friendships and acquaintances limited to the faces one sees at school and neighbouring houses. And in such a world intense friendships
Franco is motherless, living in a hotel with his father, a diplomat who loves his son but who cannot fill the gap in both their lives. Mario, with the self-confidence that handsome young Italians imbibe with their mothers' milk, is unaware of the emotional wealth that surrounds him – the banter he shares with his designer-businessman father, the love from his mother, the annoying little sister, the maid that allows their lives to function. At first Franco is the needy one, who seeks a surrogate home, who longs
for a companion to do his homework with. Then, imperceptibly, it is Mario who finds that he needs Franco, to provide the Vespa that he rides to impress the girl he likes, to walk around town with, to open his eyes to the world around him, to come and live with him.
What makes this film unique is Meynier’s and Sciré’s acting. Except that it is not acting; it is something more. Every second that Meynier is onscreen, his face, his body shines with excitement, with curiosity, with energy; he is, although he does not know it, in love with life. This is not yet a sexual energy – it will be another year or two before testosterone erupts, but you can you see its shadow in the excitement and uncertainty with which he talks to the girl he thinks he likes. In short, Meynier exudes exuberance – an exuberance that I cannot remember from any actor in any other film.
Against this energy, Sciré's Franco at first appears lifeless. Small, young, uncertain, we wonder why Meynier’s Mario is interested in him. But Sciré’s reticence is the perfect foil. And the more we get to know Franco, the more we understand why he is so reserved; we see the hidden depths. Finally we understand that Sciré’s role is more difficult than Meynier’s, because he has to convey both the loneliness and sadness that beset him and the mask that he presents to the world.
We know from the start that this film will end in tears. Happiness does not make great cinema. But what makes this a great film – in addition to the acting, not only of the two leads, but of every other child and adult who appears – is a plot and script that finds drama in mundanity, that does not take us down the path we expect it to go. Each step in this story, from the minor incident that brings them together to the momentous event – momentous, that is, in their young lives – that tears them apart, follows naturally from who they are, how they feel, how they behave. We know these boys because when we were their age we behaved and felt exactly as they do, or if we avoided such emotional highs and lows, we knew many others who did not, who were lucky enough to experience the highs and lows of such an intense friendship.
Back to question one. Geronimo Meynier, born in 1941 is thought to be still alive. He appeared in a few films in the 1950s and 1960s, including, reportedly, as a minor character in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. This picture of him may come from the 1957 film Il Cocco di Mamma, made when he was 16. One internet page claims that he was born in Croatia and thus has Croatian nationality. More than that cannot be gleaned in either English or Italian. Andrea Sciré, born in 1942, also appears to have disappeared from public life.
But whatever their reasons for leaving the world of
film, we can at least be grateful for the masterpiece they left us in
Amici per la pelle.
* And not just in Italy – in France, Roger Peyrefitte’s Les amitiés particulières appeared in 1943, with a focus on sexuality that did not arise in Amici per la
pelle. And think about the boarding-school romances that coloured teenage lives across the UK throughout most of the twentieth century.
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