Mario Martone’s beautifully shot and superbly composed film teeters on the edge of something special. And if it doesn’t quite achieve that, settling in the end for something more generically crime-oriented, it’s still very good. Naples looks wonderful here, although very different from the city that Paolo Sorrentino depicted in The Hand of God. A middle-aged guy comes back to his home town after 40 years away, arriving on a plane from Cairo: this is Felice, played by the craggily expressive Pierfrancesco Favino. A great deal of the film’s opening movement is just Felice walking around, overwhelmed with bittersweet memories that he cannot put into words: the streets, the stores, the churches, the balconies, the kids. (The film uses silent Super 8 flashbacks to make explicit some of what he’s remembering.)
Felice makes an emotional visit to his ageing mother, Teresa – a delectably sad portrayal from Aurora Quattrocchi – and is angry to see that she has sold the apartment he grew up in and has moved to a dingy ground-floor flat in what he suspects was a ruinous deal. But mother and son are deeply moved to see each other again and there is a touching scene when Felice takes her tiny naked body in his arms and bathes her.
But there is a hidden wound beneath all this. Felice’s boyhood friend Oreste (Tommaso Ragno), with whom he indulged in petty crime back in the day, is now a much-feared dead-eyed local mobster, and clearly has something to do with Felice leaving his beloved Naples in the first place. Don Luigi, the local priest, played by Francesco Di Leva, is a passionate campaigner against Oreste’s murderous gangsterism, and after reacting angrily to Felice’s secular “confession” that he was this notorious figure’s best friend, begins a subtle plan to flush Oreste out. This involves introducing Felice to all his parishioners (thus inciting the gossip that will get back to Oreste) and even encouraging the non-drinking Felice to take a little wine.
Nostalgia is tremendously shot, and terrifically acted by Favino. It challenges the idea of “nostalgia” as broadcast in the title: it isn’t simply that nostalgia is delusional, or that the past wasn’t as great as it appears when viewed through rose-tinted spectacles. It is that there is no past and present. Naples then and Naples now are the same – and for Felice his fears and loves never really went away or even changed that much. A strong, deeply felt, valuable movie.
• Nostalgia screened at the Cannes film festival.