The Sweet and the Low

A moving tale of a child's life during wartime

In life, as in the movies, perspective is everything. Adults often recall their childhoods as idyllic and carefree, but such nostalgia is more fiction than recollection. Children live lives as full of heartache, fear, anguish, and doubt as any adult's. Perhaps more, for children often suffer the consequences of adult behavior without the comfort of understanding why grownups act the way they do. That's the engaging concept of The Sky Is Falling (Il Cielo Cade, 2000), a World War II drama of persecution as seen from a child's point of view. The result is a surprisingly sweet and charming coming-of-age story that slowly builds toward a heart-breaking finale.

In fascist Italy two young sisters, Penny and Baby, are orphaned when their father dies in an accident. The children are hurried off to live with their aunt, Katchen (Isabella Rossellini), her German husband Wilhelm Einstein (Jeroen Krabbe), and their two daughters in a lovely villa outside of Florence where Wilhelm hosts an array of genteel guests. Strong-willed, rambunctious Penny, the older girl, soon runs afoul of Wilhelm, a stern paterfamilias who will brook no trouble in his house. Deeply grieving for the loss of her father, Penny longs for love and acceptance but feels little from Wilhelm or reserved and cool Aunt Katchen.

But life in gorgeous Tuscany has its pleasures -- long, sun-dappled rambles by the local stream; Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin in the parlor; and splendid meals in the grand dining room. As Penny starts life anew at the local Catholic school, she's cornered by her teacher, the local priest: Why doesn't Wilhelm send his girls to Mass? Penny doesn't know but starts to worry that Wilhelm, whom she secretly loves desperately, is doomed to Hell for shunning the Church. It's only by tiny steps that Penny begins to realize that Uncle Wilhelm and his house guests are different -- they are Jewish and watching their steps very carefully in Mussolini's Italy. As news of an Allied invasion of Sicily results in Mussolini's overthrow, the joy of the villa community turns to fear when the retreating German Army begins rounding up every Jew it can find.

Through a child's eyes, the winds of war can seem to blow from all directions
Through a child's eyes, the winds of war can seem to blow from all directions
Opening at the Cosford Cinema.

The Sky Is Falling starts out as one film and turns into another. That's not a fault, merely an observation. Whereas most Hollywood movies quickly set up their narrative boundaries in a few minutes, this one starts off as a charming series of bucolic childhood adventures: pranks, mishaps, sexual awakenings, laughter, tears, reconciliations. But amid this honey-lit nostalgia is a leitmotif of impending tragedy, subtly present right from the start -- when the two girls arrive at the villa, they proudly wear their fascist school clothes and smartly snap off fascist salutes. Wilhelm and Katchen flinch but say nothing, turning the girls' attention toward domestic matters. But the darkness of the outside world looms closer and closer and comes to dominate it in the second half.

To their credit, co-directors Andrea and Antonio Frazzi keep the focus on Penny and the other children, and the story is largely filtered through a child's experience. Penny doesn't understand her family's Jewish connections from the start, and neither do we. Likewise much of the adult action presented is disjointed, sometimes in deliberately confusing sequences that take a while to sort out and understand, again replicating a child's experience. Penny overhears whispered secrets in mid-conversation and stumbles on lovers in a coital embrace. Soldiers arrive and leave. Guerrillas slip out of the forests and back again. Villagers mill about, towering over the children, all talking at once. These things affect her profoundly, but she can't begin to understand them. Caught up in an atmosphere of building menace, Penny's plucky girlish bravado turns into a fear of what may come.

The Frazzis, who have spent many a year toiling in the trenches of German television, deliver a nicely paced, effective direction that's more efficient than fully engaging. Their characters have heart and humor but lack much complexity or surprise. Once they show up, you pretty much know who they are and what they will do thereafter. Krabbe is a solid father figure with a heroic, kind heart, while Rossellini turns on her usual cool patrician elegance. All of the child actors hold their own, with young Veronica Niccolai a standout as Penny.

The film is based on a novel by Lorenza Mazzetti, who took real-life incidents from her own family's experiences as the basis for her story. The book in turn was adapted for the screen by the legendary Suso Cecchi d'Amico, whose résumé reads like a digest of Italian cinema, scripting 95 films, everything from Brother Sun and Sister Moon to The Leopard, all the way back to The Bicycle Thief (1948). Production values are superior. Franco Di Giacomo's cinematography is lush and painterly, reminiscent of his lovely work in Il Postino (The Postman). Composer Luis Enriquez Bacalov's sentimental, string-heavy score appears to borrow heavily from schmaltz-meister Ennio Morricone (Cinema Paradiso).

This film offers superior sound quality, something not often found in European films, but visual purists be warned -- this print is not pristine. The film is Italian and German with English subtitles. (And note to avoid confusion: There is another film with the same title, also made in 2000, an American independent feature.)

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