Franco Lolli’s debut feature is a contemporary exercise in Neorealism that seems slightly out of place in the world of today. The piece concerns itself with the misfortunes of a slightly dishevelled pair. Ten-year-old Erik has been thuggin’ it out on school playground. He’s made to take up residence with Gabriel, a lethargic layabout who means well but cannot get his finances straight. Gabby and Erik are father and son, but quite unacquainted. They’re off to a rough start. Dad feels excited by Erik’s arrival (misery loves company, after all) but this is no sentiment the youngster’s eager to reciprocate.
A greener pasture lures in the home of Gabby’s patroness, who initiates Erik in a life that is filled with the luxuries of ice cream, Nintendo Wii, buggy’s and high-top sneakers. These cultural artefacts are a nice change from Gabriel’s scruffy shoes Lolli never fails to draw attention to. But can they in fact better the person who’s not accustomed to them, or even hold their lustre? Not if it’s up to the director, who aims at bringing home the message that lower class may play at passing as superstructure-in-disguise, but will never outgrow the soil it was raised in.
Gente de Bien tries hard to shed light on a topical subject by zooming in on the Colombian woes of social stratification. True to the genre he takes as his source of inspiration, Lolli pegs his characters as specific social types in a heavily scripted melodrama where no scene is without its overt message, and no individual trait present that doesn’t tie in with Erik or Gabby’s place in society. The move feels surprisingly stunted, and actively undermines the ‘truth’ of the documentary quality Lolli tries to advocate by use of a handheld camera that makes the viewer follow in wake of the characters’ backs, and gives one the feel of being a fly on the wall. There’s no harm done in appropriating the beats of melodrama to raise audience sympathy, but there is when using them in a true-to-life form that obscures the fact that we’re not watching authentic people, but a staged story.
Lolli ignores another important caveat for any director drawn to the social problem film: do not, under any condition, make it sappy! Sentimental humanism is dangerous ground to thread, and easily runs the risk of turning into mush. Lolli, on the other hand, feels no shame in tugging a few heart-strings, and sets off cooing fits with a scenes that take the pair’s pooch to the pound, and eventually put it to sleep. Credit where credit is due: the dog isn’t merely there to be aww-ed at, but also the bridge between father and son, and the one thing they can bond over and both feel connected to.
It leaves no doubt that Gente de Bien has its merits, but there’s no merit to be found in staging politics as Lifetime melodrama – if only because a film that aims at sensitising people to a social problem shouldn’t feel dishonest.