Libero aka Along The Ridge (Anche libero va bene)

Italy (2006) Dir. Kim Rossi Stuart

Families. Can’t live with them, etc… Some of us lucky to have solid, cohesive and loving relationships with our families while others are not so fortunate for a number of reasons. Actor turned director Kim Rossi Stuart explores this theme with his directorial debut, falling more closely into the latter scenario outlined above while remaining hopeful about the former.

It’s told largely from the perspective of an 11 year-old boy, Tommaso “Tommi” Benetti (Alessandro Morace) who lives with his older sister Viola (Marta Nobili) and their hot headed father Renato (Rossi Stuart), their mother Stefania (Barbara Bobulova) having recently left them and considered by Renato as persona non grata.

Struggling to keep things together, things are fractious between the trio until Stefania suddenly returns begging forgiveness from the family, which is given. But achieving harmony second time around proves difficult and soon Stefania leaves them again, sending Renato down a path of unbridled rage and parental misjudgement.

Rossi Stuart not only impresses with his first time behind the camera but he also wrote the script, which despite suggestions of the plot summary does have some light hearted and warm evocative moments, mostly when focused on Tommi’s school and recreational life. The setting might in Italy but the scenarios and struggle of the Benetti family are acutely universal.

Tommi is, for all intents and purposes, the innocent cipher through which the audience follows the peaks and troughs – mostly troughs – of his family, and as the youngest is the one who has to make the most sense of it all. Yet for all this callow naivety, Tommi is surprisingly together and weathers the numerous storms with a maturity and poise from which his family could learn plenty.

It is not revealed what caused the split between the parents but Renato blames Stefania and questions her morality in the process, and she willing accepts that blame, although it is all but confirmed that she may be psychologically ill. Stefania is a wreck when she returns and is humiliated by Renato into begging for forgiveness after he throws her out but the kids welcome her back – Viola more so than Tommi.

Both kids are arriving at that point in their lives; Viola being older is more receptive to it, which creates an uncomfortable frisson between siblings when Viola tries to encourage her younger brother to join in her “naughty” games. Similarly, when Stefania offers to bath Tommi he naturally runs in embarrassment, causing his mother to quip rather oddly “Viola was right, you are stingy!”  

At school, Tommi is forced to sit next to a new lanky mute pupil Claudio (Federico Santolini) who is avoided by everyone else but for Tommi is a welcome relief from shouting and antagonistic voices. Tommi also befriends rich kid Antonio (Sebastiano Tiraboschi), introducing the stable family unit for Tommi to flee to when Renato goes nuclear.

Rossi Stuart may rely on certain well-worn conventions in his script to give this film universal appeal but like any good craftsman, it is the way he uses them that prevents them from being lazy creative crutches and prop up the story as vital and relatable plot elements. For example, Tommi wants to play football but Renato signs him up for swimming classes which he essentially guilts and bullies the boy into taking.

Renato can be sensitive soul when he needs to be but unfortunately he posses that alpha male trait of always being right even when he is wrong. Having spent his money on a steadycam kit, Renato gets a job on a commercial but proceeds to tell the director what he wants to film and not what is asked of him. Of course it is the director’s fault for Renato storms off set in a huff.

Stefania fares no better, connecting immediately with Viola while Tommi remains cautious. Illustrating Stefania’s clueless sense of caprice, she takes Tommi out of school mid lesson to spend the day with him, going to an amusement park which won’t be open until later in the day. She then takes the kids to an art exhibition held by their godmother, and spends the time flirting with other men.

All of this makes the film seem like a catalogue of vignettes acting out the adage, “one step forward, two steps back” which essentially is true, but Rossi Stuart keeps each situation firmly grounded in domestic reality with the central threesome of Renato Tommi and Viola as the anchors – mostly Tommi.

Nothing is forced, the problems growing organically from one simple action or failure to act, yet there is a pervasive complexity to the lives of this family that refuses to abate, resulting in a series of poignant tragedies underlining the central theme of listening and understanding each other.

A good script needs a good cast and Rossi Stuart is blessed to have the actors he does for this film. While he himself is alarming convincing with his Jekyll and Hyde essaying of Renato, Barbara Bobulova is striking bundle of nervous energy in portraying both Stefania’s ebullient and catastrophic sides. But the true star is young Alessandro Morace, a pitch perfect representation of naivety, wilfulness, sincerity, charisma and empathy.

Rossi Stuart also presents a superb looking film with a unique selection of shots and compositions to relate his tales – such as the POV camera bobbing in and out of the water to replicate Tommi’s swimming strokes, or the ambiguous silhouettes of one of Viola’s naughty games. Crucially none of this feels excessive or superfluous to what is a simple drama, instead it enhances the realism of the experience for the audience.

There are many lessons to be learned from Libero both as a piece of filmmaking and storytelling and as a cautionary tale about family relationships. This is arguably the best compliment I give this mature, intelligent and unassumingly potent debut from Kim Stuart Rossi, which deserves a much wider audience.