The Family Friend

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

9 May

First recorded appearance of Mr Punch, 1662

On this day in 1662, Navy Board administrator Samuel Pepys went to Covent Garden, London, where he enjoyed “an Italian puppet play that is within the rayles there, which is very pretty, the best that ever I saw…”. The show was by a Pietro Gimonde from Bologna, and Pepys’s mention of it in his famous diary is the first record we have of Mr Punch. Today, Punch is a glove puppet, but back then he was a string marionette called Puncinello or Pulcinella or Pulliciniello, a character derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte. Then, as now, Punch was characterised by his pot belly, his hook nose, his hunchback and his protruding chin. He was a thug and a liar, with a comical gait and a squawking chicken voice (his name might derive from pulcino, the Italian for chicken). Then as now he carried a big stick (the slapstick) which he would use to beat up other members of the production – his wife, Joan (later Judy), or even his child. Characters come and go in a Punch and Judy show, but Mr and Mrs Punch are a constant, the baby is almost always there. So, more often than not, is the crocodile who steals Mr Punch’s sausages (requiring much use of the stick to get them back). Other regulars include the Devil, Toby the dog (nowadays often the puppet master’s real dog), Pretty Polly, the Scaramouch, the Skeleton, the Blind Man, Jack Ketch the hangman (whom Punch inevitably hangs), and a Policeman. Mr Punch survives because he is a figure of anarchy, a lord of misrule, and his simple show is infinitely adaptable. And because, in the end, Mr Punch, is properly outrageous, a necessary corrective to the almost relentless moralising of most other fictional forms.

The Family Friend (2006, dir: Paolo Sorrentino)

An Italian family, short of money for their daughter’s wedding, turn to a “friend” for help. A smalltime money lender who lives in abject filth with his incapacitated mother, Geremia de Geremei is a hideous squat character, a Mr Punch in all but name, who proceeds to extract the maximum amount of interest he can out of the loan. Except his interest is carnal more than financial, and the thing he’s most interested in is the bride herself.

Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to The Consequences of Love is an exercise in the comedy of the grotesque, with Geremia an exquisitely turned malevolent buffoon – the stupid arm cast, the horrible hairdye, the Gollum-esque walk, the vile manners, the lust after young flesh. Which brings us to the 180 degree counterpart, Rosalba – “white rose” in English – played by Laura Chiatti as 50 per cent ice maiden, 50 per cent volcano, with Sorrentino doing everything in his considerable power to make her look like the most ravishing woman on earth. No wonder poor thuggish Geremia’s head is turned, and this monstrous gothic character is soon hurling himself on the rocks of desire and, worse, falling deeply in love with this surely unattainable paragon. Sorrentino really goes to town on Geremia, spending so much time setting up his repellent character that he slightly neglects his actual plot, leaving the last third of the film to cover a lot of ground in a very short time.

Add to this the fact that Sorrentino’s characters seem to be slightly stunned by life – as they were in The Consequences of Love – and indifference is always just on the horizon. As compensation we have the performances of the two leads, and Sorrentino’s jaw-dropping stylishness, all swooping cameras, beautiful composition and deliberate references to Fellini, the entirely appropriate wrapping for a film that is about beauty and ugliness, love and loss, youth and age.

Why Watch?

  • The beautiful cinematography by Luca Bigazzi
  • The perfect performances by Giacomo Rizzo and Laura Chiatti
  • A surprisingly funny film
  • One for Fellini geeks

The Family Friend – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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