Rotterdam 2023 Review: NO DOGS OR ITALIANS ALLOWED
Alain Ughetto creates a fantastic stop-motion look at life in Europe in the early 20th century.
Alain never got to know his grandfather Luigi well, as history didn't allow the two a meaningfully overlapping lifespan. But as a kid, Alain did talk a lot with Cesira, his grandmother, and he heard lots of stories about his grandfather. The film starts with a live-action Alain deciding to show the life of his ancestors as a feature film, and he starts building the puppets, props and backgrounds for his endeavor. No Dogs or Italians Allowed almost starts off as its own "making-of" documentary, but the moment Alain begins a conversation with his stop-motion puppet of Cesira, you get pulled into her world: an Italy in the early 1900s, and a life of staggering poverty.
Cesira and Luigi's life is not short on love but definitely not short on tragedy either. If the poverty itself is not punishing enough, history is quick to step in and help a hand. In a world where everyone is encouraged to breed like mad without contraceptives, families are huge. Luigi is one of eleven siblings and fathers seven children himself. Families do not stay huge for long though, as famine, sickness and wars do a dreadful culling.
On top of that is the relentless exploitation of the Italians as cheap labor by surrounding countries, as the men are often used to work on very dangerous projects like building tunnels and dams. Eventually, Luigi decides to move the family to France, where life as immigrants is somewhat better, though they still encounter bigotry and more exploitation (the title gives a hint). When the family is finally naturalized as French, it is only due to the craziest of political circumstances...
Alain Ughetto shows these mishaps and crimes against humanity with ultra-dry humor and a weary stoicism. By dehumanizing his family as puppets, he is able to tell their story without it ever becoming a leaden litany of desperate tragedy. Make no mistake, the film is often gently heartbreaking in what it shows. But there is room for joking, and if something needs extra explaining, live-action Alain sometimes steps in and asks stop-motion Cesira to elaborate. Together, the pair offer an incredible look at last century's Europe. You get a first-person view and a third-person view of mountain life, war in Africa, the Spanish Flu (topical...), World War One, the rise of fascism (topical), building a new life in a foreign country... Alain dedicates No Dogs or Italians Allowed to his ancestors and all immigrants trying to survive in desperate circumstances. And he's not afraid to fingerpoint: the church does not escape his scathing sarcasm and neither do the fascists.
No Dogs or Italians Allowed is, in short, excellent. I would advice anyone with an interest in history to give it a look. On top of its narrative merits it is also an interesting show of workmanship: Alain Ughetto shows fantastic use of puppetry as a serious medium for adults and brings a message without becoming preachy. "Breaking the fourth wall" to pull you into the story more is a neat trick, and a counter-intuitive one.
The film played last week at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, and paying viewers there awarded it the incredible score of 4.8 out of 5... making it nearly win the Audience Award (Dalva won by the merest of margins).