La Pivellina, which translates as “the little one,” is set against the grey and grubby milieu of San Basilio on the outskirts of Rome—in the winter, no less. But while this cold, garbage-strewn setting would typically engender a harsh story of angst, brutality, or exploitation, co-directors Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel have instead captured a modestly scaled but emotionally potent chronicle of love and kinship. La Pivellina commits itself fully to the tenets and ethos of naturalism while eschewing both noble pronouncements and cheap histrionics.
Covi and Frimmel’s first fiction feature begins not with the lost “little one” of the title but with a search for “Hercules.” Patty (Patrizia Gerardi), a slightly lumpen middle-aged woman topped by a shock of bright dyed-red hair, wanders a desolate wooded lot surrounded by housing blocks, yelling for Hercules, worry lining her weathered face. Instead, she finds a two-year-old girl (Asia Crippa), abandoned on a swing set in a puffy snowsuit. After waiting with the girl for mum to return, “Aunt” Patty takes the foundling home to her cozy, cramped trailer nearby. Soon enough, Hercules is found as well—dog, not demigod, returns home and is slapped and scolded by Patty for running away.
While Patty believes that the girl’s mother will return for her soon—a “desperate” note tells her so—her German partner Walter (Walter Saabel) is concerned about their taking on this living, breathing new responsibility. As circus folk eking out a tenuous existence on the fringes of society—with dodgy access to water and electricity—he’s worried they’ll be accused of kidnapping and wants to notify the police. However, Patty’s empathy wins out over Walter’s cautious self-protection. While Patty scours the newspapers for word on the absent mother, for the most part she dives into the task of taking care of the foundling, named Asia.
Dogs and other fauna of various shapes and sizes run around the bric-a-brac compound, but it’s only half-an-hour into the film that we see the family at work in this, their long and lean off-season where instead of touring, they hunker down for the winter. Real circus performers, seemingly playing very loosely fictionalized versions of themselves, Patty, Walter, and kin set up in the middle of a sad, vacant square and start their “amusing” show of clowning, knife-throwing, and plate-spinning with the goal of attracting some passersby—a failed endeavour. (Patty’s dexterous navigation around Walter’s flying daggers provides a rush of joy because nothing approaching danger previously has reared its head.) These scenes substitute the rough-hewn magic of entertainment on-the-cheap for any sort of jaw-dropping spectacle. They get to the heart of showbiz: the fleeting relief from the dullness of the everyday through colour and thrill. They also epitomize the film’s sense of humour impressed by sadness, which is nicely summed up by Patty’s offhand, bracingly simple explanation for a night of heavy rain: “God was crying.”
Patty briefly looks into adopting Asia—they are foiled because according to Italian law she and Walter are too old—but in this provisional community, blood bonds are understated and often difficult to discern. Patty and Walter share their fenced-in caravan complex with Tairo (Tairo Coroli), a 13-year-old boy who lives with his uncle and grandmother, who claims to have resided on this spot for 30 years—both are barely glimpsed. Tairo’s father is a tamer of big cats, whom Tairo later visits briefly, while his mother is completely absent. Biology is ultimately irrelevant for this post-nuclear chosen family that crosses species as well as generations, though the fact that Patty and Walter seem not to have had children themselves lends a certain pathos.
Much of the film follows the family playing with and caring for Asia—her arrival is presented not as a rupture, but as an almost seamlessly integrated augmentation of their collective existence. If Asia catalyzes anything, it’s compassion, generosity, and goodwill. Lacking a single genuinely sad scene, La Pivellina’s gamboling, episodic narrative is virtually devoid of drama; poverty is an undeniable fact of the family’s lives, but Asia’s needs take priority. They buy her diapers and hand-knit clothes and take her on outings; at first stubborn, she soon embraces them.
Working with a skeleton crew consisting solely of Covi and Frimmel shooting on Super 16 with natural light, and non-professional actors improvising dialogue following a loose outline, the directors’ mode of production grew out of their previous film on circus performers, the documentary Babooska (2005), but it is also clearly conscious of the legacy of Italian neo-realism. (While the directors’ comparison of Gerardi to Anna Magnani may be blasphemous, world-weary Patty does have a certain commanding, dynamic presence.) The canonical neo-realist films never shied away from employing artifice—excessive sentimentality (particularly the kind accompanying children in distress), melodramatic narratives, archetypal characters—in the service of delivering a keenly felt emotional punch to its audiences. Jason Anderson’s description of the film as a marriage of the Dardennes and Fellini is not too far off the mark—the dingy suburban environs and overly intimate camera work of the former is certainly echoed here. While La Pivellina contains nothing that approaches Fellini’s carnivalesque spectacle and excess, it does borrow his understanding of how moments of beauty can originate from, transform, and finally transcend the banal everyday. Two late scenes with men enthralling Asia with their acts of prestidigitation expertly show how wonder can be produced from the most modest means—in this, they are synecdoches of the film as a whole. Perhaps what makes these circus folk the perfect cast is that they are performers without being actors.
There is an intangible power to seeing a small child onscreen because no director can be in full control of her actions. (This brings to mind Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner’s 2004 video Wild Boy, which makes explicit how the feral child/doctor relationship of Truffaut’s L’enfant sauvage is perhaps the most apt metaphor for the child actor/director relationship.) Asia’s behavioural volatility suffuses the entire film with a sense of spontaneity—“life caught unawares” to borrow Vertov—that no self-conscious, fully developed human subject could provide. When La Pivellina hits an occasional false note —as it does with the TV report that Walter watches immediately following Asia’s arrival about an alleged mother-daughter murder-suicide—it is because this vivacity is breached in favour of a calculated “message.” Most of the scenes with Asia are so affecting without ever being mawkish because they are “real” moments of communion, cajoling, and camaraderie that exist between her and her fellow cast members. Patty’s convincing her to take off her coat or Tairo’s splashing through the puddles with her in rubber boots would be unbearably maudlin in a film lacking La Pivellina’s preternatural grasp of filmic naturalism. (Tairo’s physical and verbal sparring with Walter and Patty, his perfectly honed teenager’s ability to take the piss, is also commendable for its authenticity.) What could have been a forced bit of gravitas—a late scene where Patty remarks on her and Tairo both coming from broken homes—is instead perfectly pitched thanks to its casually wry tone.
Near the end of the film, the family visits a wax museum to learn about the wider machinations of history that so far have only been present in Tairo’s boring school textbook. Never have the great and the good appeared so kitsch, so dusty, and so remote. This scene stands in stark opposition to the family’s farewell party for Asia that follows it, organized after they receive a note that the little one’s mother is planning to return. The warmth and exuberance at this wistful event—accentuated by a cake, songs and even an armful of puppies!—honours the small and seemingly insignificant people and actions that form the true fabric of history.