Italians have a saying: “This is Italy”. It’s the kind of phrase that follows a shrug or precedes a wink. It conveys that life is full of surprises and contradictions, and while it’s not perfect you’ve just got to roll with it. So when it comes to Matteo Rovere’s Italian Race (Italian: Veloce come il vento)—a quirky family indie transplanted into the world of luxury motor racing—it’s fitting to say “This is Italy”.
Seventeen-year-old Giulia (Matilda De Angelis) is a promising driver in the lower echelons of GT racing. She’s following in the family footsteps but when her father and trainer dies, her world crashes with the revelation that the family home and auto shop have been leveraged to fund the team; her estranged mother is nowhere to be seen and her 10-year old brother Nico (Giulio Pugnaghi) is on the fast track to foster care. When her drug-addled older brother Loris (Stefano Accorsi), a former driver, returns seeking his share of the inheritance, he becomes their unlikely guardian, and steps into the role of Giulia’s trainer with the hope she can take out the championship, pay off the loan shark and fund the family’s freedom. Failing that, there’s always the offer to drive in the ‘Italian Race’ a clandestine rally where Italy’s elite pay handsomely to watch “crazies and desperados” literally smash it out on the backstreets.
Italian Race is Rovere’s third feature and is loosely based on the life of Italian rally driver Carlo Capone, who racked up wins in the early 80s before drugs and mental illness took hold. Rovere—clearly a racing fan from his reverent race and trackside cutaways—penned the story and co-wrote the screenplay. During the press tour Rovere commented he was drawn to the tale for its similarities to Luc Besson’s Taxi series and John Fankenheimer’s Ronin: “it reminded me of a time when European cinema was able to assert itself as being on a par with US cinema because it combined great action sequences with emotion.”
It is in this blending of emotion and action that the film is its most successful. In the diverse canon of rev-head pictures, while Rovere’s take lacks the moral complexity of Ron Howard’s Rush, it’s not the auto-porn of The Fast and the Furious either. Instead Italian Race balances impressive action sequences—filmed without the aid of special effects and enhanced by rapid editing—with genuinely tender scenes of the unconventional family unit coming together to forge their own path. There are some plot inconsistencies that even the charm of the brother/sister reconciliation can’t quite overcome—from the a social worker who readily leaves minors in the care of jobless addict, to the run of functional characters who enter scenes purely to discuss the looming ‘Italian Race’, never to be seen again—and the ending swerves dangerously close to cheese territory, but again: this is Italy.
Stefano Accorsi is something of a heartthrob in Italy, once engaged to model Laetitia Casta. Here, he thins down and grubs up as the fallen Loris, once dubbed ‘The Dancer’ on the track before a crash sent him into a spiral that saw the family cast him out. This is a role written for a big name because while the film centres on Giulia, it’s Loris, with his Mr Miyagi-like training approach and personal demons, who provides a focal point for much of the film’s humour and pathos. Accorsi is not always convincing—sometimes a tad too blinky—as an addict on a constant high, but when it counts he maintains a noble balance between a man seeking redemption whilst teetering on the knife-edge of sporting genius and local nutjob.
Matilda De Angelis holds her own as the stoic Giulia, as she bears the weight of her family’s future on her tiny shoulders. In only her first feature De Angelis leads 80 percent of all scenes, bringing rawness to a role that could easily have fallen to schmaltz. De Angelis, just a teenager herself during shooting, shows restraint as Giulia, running the gamut from fiercely protective sister, to rebellious teen letting loose on a drunken night out, and back to ferocious competitor; a valiant effort for an actor of any age, let alone one who who gained her performance chops as an artistic gymnast and folk singer (she also sings on the film’s soundtrack).
Italian cinema that piques the interest of international distributors can often be confined to stories about food, fashion, la dolce vita or mafiosi, but Italian Race proffers an antidote, presenting a story that is at once an ode to the small town Italia and an unashamed sports drama. Rovere wears his US influences on his flame-retardant jumpsuit sleeve but he also shows you don’t need Hollywood budgets to make a high-octane action film.
Loris’ enduring advice to Giulia is for her to “anticipate the curves before you see them”; to accept that twists and turns will arise in charting the path ahead. It’s a motto of the real driver Carlo Capone and sage advice for Rovere’s audience, because overthinking this broad tale could steer you off course and take away from Italian Race’s easily likeable, and oddly charming, ride.