Shanghai International Film Festival: ‘The First Assignment’
Directed by Giorgia Cecere
The First Assignment is a triumph of a romantic drama. Beautifully paced, photographed, and acted, the film takes well-worn material – the long-distance relationship – and fashions it into a meaningful experience that’s refreshingly free of cinematic sap and outdated gender roles.
Nena (Isabella Ragonese) is a teacher from southern Italy in the midst of a relationship with upper class intellectual Francesco (Alberto Boll). Their love is put to the test when she agrees to move to a small mountain town to instruct a ragtag group of children. Aside from difficulty adapting to a life of relative isolation and comparable simplicity, Nena finds happiness with her students and in Francesco’s letters and visits. Everything changes when Francesco meets another woman.
Director Giorgia Cecere maneuvers The First Assignment into subtly complex territory. In addition to its tragic-romantic narrative she incorporates commentaries on class divides and malaise, and sexual politics.
While the pacing of The First Assignment is deliberate, the film is not devoid of action or shocking moments. One such sequence comes immediately after Nena learns of Francesco’s infidelity. Cecere keeps her camera in handheld close-up as Nena, in a daze, stumbles helplessly out into the daylight. A cut to a wide-shot reveals an open field, workers in the background. In one fluid action Nena storms forward, rips open the cover of a well and throws herself in.
There’s no musical cue, no camera movement for emphasis and no telegraphed information. It’s simple, raw storytelling where a highly emotional situation reaches its surprising climax. The camera is observational, leaving us perhaps in the position of a worker in the field watching the suicide attempt, or of just another Francesco who watches Nena but doesn’t move to act.
Soon after, Nena meets Giovanni (Francesco Chiarello). He is the only young man seen in the town. He’s the polar opposite of Francesco physically – he works with his hands, speaks crudely and is roughly sexual. Nonetheless, Cecere makes a comparison between the two men in their treatment of Nena, and spares Giovanni the same scathing glare she gives Francesco, who seems driven more by boredom than even lust.
The delicate, restrained ending of the film speaks loudly. Though Nena seems to submit to both men at separate times she does in fact control her own destiny and ultimately is less defined by her sexuality than by her intellect and career choice.