The Family Friend

Giacomo Rizzo and Laura Chiatti in The Family Friend


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


© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Family Friend – at Amazon





The Films of Paolo Sorrentino

Sabrina Ferilli and Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty


Paolo Sorrentino’s latest film, La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is a portrait of Rome through the eyes of a world weary writer. It’s being hailed as Sorrentino’s La Dolce Vita and stars Sorrentino’s Marcello Mastroianni, Toni Servillo. It’s close to a masterpiece in other words, making this a good time to take a look at the career of Italy’s best film-maker right now. Firmly in the tradition of the 1960s generation of Fellini and Visconti, yet clearly his own man too, Sorrentino’s films are intelligent, engaged, stylish, beautifully made and intriguing – they’ve got the lot, in short.




One Man Up (2001)

Sorrentino’s debut feature also saw him team up with Toni Servillo for the first time, with Servillo playing an ageing crooner whose nightly ritual of sing-snort-shag is brought to a premature end when he’s caught having sex with an underage girl. Meanwhile in a parallel world of storytelling and despair, we follow a footballer whose assured future of playing and then coaching is brought to a premature end by injury. Transmuting these earthbound stories is Sorrentino’s approach – dream sequences, ballerinas, fish. Though not entirely satisfying, it’s an unusual Fellini-tinged debut which marked out Sorrentino as a man to watch.

One Man Up – at Amazon (no English subtitles)


The Consequences of Love (2004)

We’re following Toni Servillo again, who plays a mysterious and very quiet man who lives alone in a Swiss hotel, where he seems to be slo-mo-ing towards death with an entirely uneventful life punctuated by a regular delivery of cash and a regular injection of heroin. Meanwhile, an employee at the hotel (played by Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of Anna) has half an eye for him, an eye that might offer him a chance of life again. Or will it? From the opening shot, Sorrentino’s cool – in look, mood, lighting, style – and very Italian version of film noir is entirely gripping. That we’ve no idea what’s going on until the film is nearly over only makes Sorrentino’s triumph all the more complete.

The Consequences of Love – at Amazon


The Family Friend (2005)

We’re deep in a Fellini-esque world of grotesque in Sorrentino’s hugely ironical and highly digressive film about the “family friend”, a money lender who uses his financial heft to secure access to young female flesh. And what female flesh Sorrentino has assembled – take one look at Laura Chiatti and whistle “mamma mia”. And counterpointed against this female beauty is the figure of Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), the ageing old lecher with dyed hair, a Gollum-esque walk, a wheedling voice. As with The Consequences of Love, Sorrentino creates a world populated by people who seem to be stunned by life, an absurd overheated world of farce run through a refrigerator.

 The Family Friend – at Amazon


Il Divo (2008)

Sorrentino’s political drama about Giulio Andreotti must be the best drama about a politician that’s been made for decades, possibly ever. Toni Servillo plays the reptilian Andreotti, the first prime minister after democracy was restored in 1946 and a politician who kept high office until the 1990s, and influence until he died in May 2013. It is the story of a modern Italian politician as a direct scheming descendant of the Borgias, a goodfellas story that manages to spill the beans on the how and who of Italian corruption in high places but does it with an operatic style so heady with gorgeous technique that the technique threatens to overwhelm its subject. Except that its subject is so superabundantly crooked that he can take it.

Il Divo – at Amazon


This Must Be the Place (2011)

Sorrentino’s first English language film saw him getting Sean Penn to dress up like Robert Smith of the Cure to play an ageing goth rocker whose round of self-absorption and tax exile in Ireland (where he is attended to by Eve Hewson, daughter of Bono) is broken by his decision to become a Nazi hunter. If that sounds odd enough as a set-up, this very peculiar road movie (stopping off for a song by David Byrne, whose True Stories is clearly a model), delivered in flat monotone by Penn throughout, eventually builds towards a feverish climax in which the good guys appear to be being painted as cruel and vengeful and the old Nazi they’ve tracked down is used as a receptacle for the milk of human kindness. Revenge is a dish best served not at all seems to be Sorrentino’s idea, in a return to some of themes and procedures of The Consequences of Love.

This Must Be the Place – at Amazon


There is also a box set worth having  here. It contains One Man Up (with English subtitles, unlike the standalone dvd), The Consequences of Love, The Family Friend and Il Divo.


© Steve Morrissey 2013