A coming-of-age story set in an Italian juvenile detention center, Claudio Giovannesi’s “Fiore” puts a very literal spin on the idea of “arrested development.” But some puns run deeper than others, and this vibrant slice of romantic neo-realism — powered by one of the most magnetic and unbridled teen performances since Katie Jarvis’ in “Fish Tank” — leverages its potentially one-note premise to pose an interesting question: What’s the difference between growing up and just getting older?
Daphne (rookie actress Daphne Scoccia, supposedly riffing on her own tumultuous teen years), is a wild child who’s crashing with a friend in Milan, spending her days robbing people of their cellphones at knifepoint. Not particularly verbal — she’s a closed book full of frayed pages, in the way that 17-year-olds often tend to be — Giovannesi’s camera nevertheless knows her well. Borrowing the reactive handheld immediacy of the Dardenne brothers (who are an obvious point of reference in more ways than one), the film’s richly expressive opening shot follows Daphne up an escalator and through a train station as she stalks her latest target. One uninterrupted take is all that’s necessary for Scoccia to convey a lifetime’s worth of spirit, grace and desperation. But Daphne, for all her fire, isn’t exactly a master criminal, and she’s soon cornered by the cops and shipped off to kid jail.
Giovannesi, whose “Alì Blue Eyes” displayed a nascent interest in stories about troubled youths, researched for his latest film by spending four months as a voluntary teacher at the Istituto Penale per i Minori in Casal de Marmo, and his effort pays off from the moment that Daphne is herded into the minimum-security clink where she’s sentenced to spend the next two years of her life. There’s a raucous, lived-in energy to the place; its rhythms and protocols believably well-observed. The trust that such a convincing environment earns “Fiore” comes in handy during later scenes in which the film’s depiction of life in juvie deviates from how American viewers might think of it — by the time Daphne attends a New Year’s Eve party in a fancy gown and gets to slow dance with the boy delinquents (from whom they’re usually isolated for obvious reasons), it’s hard to tell if she’s living in a reformatory or an overly strict boarding school.
Unanswered phone calls to her absent father (Valerio Mastandrea, one of the cast’s few professional actors) suggest how Daphne wound up in a place like this. “Nobody is here for you,” adds one of the severe women who run the joint, belaboring the obvious. Eventually, Pops pays his daughter a visit, showing up with his new family and telling her that there may not be any additional vacancies in their house.
Daphne acts out, brooding in her room and lighting her bedsheets on fire; she isn’t exactly feral, but she feeds off whatever chaos she can cause. Everything she does feels impulsive; it’s less like Scoccia is tapping into her past than she’s been thrown back into it, these thoughts occurring to her for the first time. She’s a tempest in a teacup, her barely contained rage recalling Italian cinema’s most iconic ingenues (squint at Scoccia and you can see shadows of Giuletta Masina chasing a circus fool with a knife).
But the naturalism that Giovannesi brings to the prison is ultimately let down by the plot that he smuggles along with him. “Fiore,” it turns out, is something of a love story. Ironically, sparks first fly during one of Daphne’s stints in solitary confinement, as a brooding young ruffian whispers at her from behind a barred window on the boys’ side of the building. His name is Josh (Josciua Algeri, also in his first film), he’s got high cheekbones and a heavy stare, and he readily admits that he physically threatened his last girlfriend. In fact, that’s what he wants to talk to Daphne about — his ex is (understandably) starting to see other guys, and Josh is hoping that Daphne might know how to relay a message to her in the outside world. Out of boredom, or maybe out of a need to feel like she’s of value to someone, Daphne agrees to help out.
That brief interaction is all that’s needed to spark a connection between these two attractive people who are cut off from the outside world. It hardly matters that Daphne doesn’t know all that much about Josh — or that the one thing she does know about him is repugnant. They begin sneaking letters back and forth, filled with wildly romantic lines like “You alleviate jail for me,” and “At the party, I realized I want to be your best friend.” Daphne leans into the idea of forbidden romance and she leans into it hard. In the film’s most perfect moment, she impulsively steals a first kiss as she slips away from a security guard, climbs on the bars of Josh’s window, and sticks her face through the metal squares.
In between their flirtations, “Fiore” lags. The rambunctiousness of Giovannesi’s direction doesn’t jive with his story’s measured flow, which is largely built around routine rather than incident. The more time we spend with Daphne, the more impenetrable she becomes — we can’t know her because she doesn’t know herself. Only during the film’s breathless final moments does her broad teenage malaise finally crystallize into something clear and cutting: Daphne, like anyone her age (and older), just needs to be loved.
The sentiment is so diffuse that it only takes shape as the closing credits are starting to roll. In part, that’s because the film has almost exclusively defined the holes in Daphne’s life by their absence, as the brief scenes between she and Josh are the only moments during which the focus shifts away from the things that the girl doesn’t have in her life. Because both Josh and Daphne’s father are both so functional and thinly sketched, the girl’s yearning is reduced to a conceptual level, her story coming to an end at the precise moment when she finds a place for herself in it. It’s a shame that we don’t get to see what happens next. Daphne will survive, but nobody comes of age alone.
“Fiore” premieres this week at the Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.