Caterina in the Big City
2003Director: Paolo Virzi
Cast: Alice Teghil, Sergio Castellitto, Margherita Buy
aterina's first day in her new school in Rome is much like that of other new kids in fictitious high schools in countless films and television programs. Shy, awkward, and hopelessly naive, she is initially greeted by her classmates with the scornful curiosity and open mockery so endemic of high school kids everywhere. Sighing into her chair in the back of the class, or eating lunch alone, she seems resigned to her ostracized fate.
Soon enough, though, she falls in with Margherita, the fauxhemian daughter of a wealthy leftist intellectual, and the good natured Caterina finds herself embroiled in the typical high school clique politics, rife with back stabbing, cat fights, and petty betrayals. Their antagonist, Daniela, the daughter of a prominent right wing minister, leads a gaggle of proto-fascist bimbos who hold the school in their thrall, as much by their blinding beauty as their political clout. Caterina eventually has a spat with Margherita, and defects to Daniela, only to become subsequently disillusioned with the very real cruelty lurking beneath Daniela's sunny demeanor, and thus, of course, ends up right back where she was when she arrived at the school. Caterina's combination of callow provincialism and winsome innocence is her blessing and her curse, leaving her susceptible to the machinations of her supposed friends, yet insulating her from the emotional brutality of their ultimate betrayals. She emerges at the end a bit wiser, a bit less innocent, but unscathed and as ebullient as ever.
And so we've seen it all before—or think we have, because Caterina in the Big City holds out the promise of a refreshing new take on a tired subgenre, less revisionism than potentially interesting detour. The film goes to great, often very confusing, lengths to make very explicit the political and class schisms of privilege and exclusion that only underpin analogous American films (the obvious reference point being Mean Girls), and yet ultimately, for all its earnestness, this track of the film leads nowhere. Set against a backdrop of recent Italian elections and protests, Caterina seeks to address very specific political questions, and attach them to the universal quandaries of adolescence, but never really hones in on any issues specifically enough to warrant this angle. Yes, as Caterina's beleaguered father (played to curmudgeonly perfection by Sergio Castellitto) tirelessly reiterates to anyone who will listen to him, "It's all cliques everywhere one looks." But this is neither particularly profound nor really stating anything other than the obvious. Perhaps, this aspect of the film doesn't import well.css; or, perhaps, as Caterina herself admits during an early classroom debate about socialism and fascism, I'm just not knowledgeable or qualified enough with Italian society and politics to appreciate the film's agenda.
Even so, its muddled politics are the least of Caterina's concerns. Indeed, its most pressing problem might be its titular heroine, who emerges as little more than a cipher caught in a tug of war match for her identity between the warring cliques. Her trying on of new guises and personas never seems so much like a search for an authentic self as simply following the path of least resistance. The fault here lies more in the schizophrenic script and direction of writer/director Paolo Virzi, who never seems quite sure just what he wants his heroine and his film itself to be, than with young star Alice Teghil. She buries a latent and quiet intelligence beneath Caterina's supposedly submissive demeanor, a promising performance that only confuses matters all the more once you realize that the film is often going in a different direction than Teghil as Caterina.
Caterina the film is as tentative and hesitant as Caterina herself, and thus hesitates and stutters along, each scene tripping over or crashing into another, never quite connecting into a sensible narrative. In a way, I guess, the film's ambivalence as to its genre (teen satire? political commentary? family drama? straight up comedy? bildungsroman?) or intent complements its heroine's progress rather appropriately. And yet, it's almost impossible to truly care for her, or for the film, when we never get a clear idea of just who or what it is we should be caring for. This is unfortunate and a bit sad because Caterina is a very (almost desperately) likable movie. Maybe it’ s just trying a bit too hard to win your affections, ultimately driving you away with its cloying attempts to please, to be everything to everyone.