Ariaferma (Still Air), starring Toni Servillo and Silvio Orlando, is a new film directed by Leonardo Di Costanzo presented out-of-competition at the Venice Film Biennale of 2021.
Originally from Ischia, the director studied documentary cinema at France’s Ateliers Varan. He mainly deals with social and human problems, which often have no definitive solutions but do open up worlds of possibility and spaces for careful reflection. In 2003, he released A scuola (At School), set in the Nino Cortese Middle School in the Pazzigno district of Naples. It won the Academy of Italian Cinema David di Donatello Award for Best Documentary. Its underlying theme was the importance of teaching in the most deprived neighborhoods that are starved of the presence of institutions.
The film showed how this important work can be the only fragile hope for those whose destiny is almost certainly marked by both material and cultural poverty. Another of his films, L’intervallo (2012) (The Break) is the story of a girl kidnapped by a gang of camorristi, and her jailer, who is her age and is forced to keep her under surveillance in an old, ruined hospital.
Ariaferma, with a screenplay by Bruno Oliviero and Valia Santella, explores the world of prisons. The boundaries signified by the walls, the relationships between inmates and those between jailer and prisoner – in part already anticipated in a different way in L’intervallo – are the themes presented realistically and often with fairytale-like poetry in the masterful performances of Orlando and Servillo.
Set in Sardinia’s rugged, cold, wooded interior, the film opens with a group of prison guards around a fire toasting the imminent closure of the prison and their subsequent transfer to other, more hospitable facilities. However, upon returning from this apparent “hour of air,” an hour of freedom – the film points out several times that the guards are also prisoners – the prison director announces that a small number of prisoners, not having found a place in other facilities, will have to stay behind until a solution is found. The consequence of this unexpected failure on the part of state institutions is the reorganization of the prison, with a few cells designated to house the small group of 12 prisoners, controlled by a few prison guards.
The prison is stripped further of what little humanity it had. The kitchens are closed and meals are provided by an outside caterer; family visits are suspended indefinitely, and the social rehabilitation activities in which some of the inmates took part are interrupted. The prison is crumbling, with peeling walls, cramped, dirty and decaying cells and becomes a place with “still air,” the title of the film, where the oxygen of life is missing and with it the hope of a return to a more hopeful reality, both for the prisoners and the guards.
The extreme situation – the stress of feeling suspended in a seemingly unending limbo – will bring out the character and humanity of all those involved. They have to face both the new conformation of the place, which will reveal all its inhospitality, and the relationships, which will gradually become more taunt and personal.
The two groups – prisoners and jailers – initially challenge each other in a power game, each knowing what cards they can play. The prisoners, in order to achieve their rights and to show the difficulties they are experiencing, use methods such as hunger strikes; the guards, on the other hand, will try to show even less indulgence, to attempt to maintain order through strict adherence to the law.
Prison thus becomes a place of confinement for both groups, as shown by the close and frank dialogue between veteran camorra boss Carmine Lagioia (played by Orlando) and inspector Gaetano Gargiulo (played by Servillo). The former says, “Is it tough being in jail?” The latter, laconically emphasizing the distinction of roles, replies: “You’re in jail, I’m not.” The boss’ witty and subtle reply is: “Oh yeah? I didn’t know.”
The humanity of the frontier
“What ways are there out of the impasse and the escalating tensions, so as to avoid a revolt?” Inspector Gargiulo seems to ask. There is a choice between a hard line and a path of humanity, which, however, must go to the extremity of the law, giving proof of a trust to those who have been condemned for having already done evil in society.
This is the film’s challenge and it will induce the inspector to choose to make gradual overtures, entrusting the kitchen and the preparation of meals to the Camorra boss Lagioia, his alter ego. The kitchen, the place where ingredients undergo a transformation, becoming succulent and delicious food to be shared, becomes the area where, little by little, defenses are lowered.
We pass from dialogue consisting of orders and almost monosyllabic expressions to moments in which, step by step, we get glimpses of our own existence and thoughts. Like the food, the characters undergo a gradual transformation. This is symbolized by the Neapolitan ragù, one of the sauces prepared, which contains different types of meat and must be cooked on a “low heat” as the main dish of the feast and of being together. This dynamic of trusting humanity, opening up to a new way of seeing the other, has repercussions throughout the prison. It touches the souls of all those who are living inside the cold walls. Everyone can accept this trust, even if only for the opportunity to feel a little better, or reject it, because they find it unjust and not in keeping with the strict regulations that must be observed and respected.
An important and life-saving figure in the film is the young and intimidated Fantaccini (Pietro Giuliano), who arrived in the very days of the prison’s closure charged with the serious offence of rendering an elderly man comatose during a robbery. Gargiulo already knows him, but tries to get him to move beyond his crime by sending him to the kitchen as Lagioia’s helper. Remorse for what he did will drive the young Fantaccini to lose himself in the dilapidated and abandoned corridors of the prison, with the temptation to kill himself, forcing the two protagonists, Gargiulo and Lagioia, for the first time to help each other to find him.
It is the same young Fantaccini who will take care of washing an old prisoner, condemned for pedophilia and completely isolated from the other prisoners, because even among prisoners there is a code of honor. Fantaccini goes beyond this code, descending into the abyss of his own loneliness and that of the old prisoner he looks after in a dark cell relieved by sudden flashes of light. So he will defend him and welcome him during a touching improvised dinner at the center of the prison, due to a sudden blackout.
At this dinner, not only will each prisoner be responsible for bringing his own table to share with the others – these are simple gestures that become important in a prison – but no one takes advantage of the opportunity to revolt against the guards. Gargiulo also sits at this prisoners’ dinner and eats with them, silently overriding a sentiment he expressed to Lagioia at the beginning of the film: “You and I have nothing in common.” Maybe that is not quite right.
The film proceeds with other events that are triggered by a new way of seeing the other, originating in a situation, that is, by the impossibility of closing the prison completely. This extreme situation makes the inspector implement strategies that, while being within or on the border of the law, manage to create places of respite where there is a still, suffocating air, devoid of possibilities of life. These seeds of hope and trust that sprout little by little also touch the other characters, who have to deal with the themes of good and evil, justice and mercy, forgiveness and condemnation.
In Ariaferma, Di Costanzo describes the physical and existential situation of the prison, showing cracks in the system and an opening, where a sudden light, whether human or divine, can filter through.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.1 art. 13, 0122: 10.32009/22072446.0122.13