Open Roads Series Dispatch: Daniele Vicari’s “The Past is a Foreign Land”


“I can’t look people in the face,” cardsharp Giorgio tells co-conspirator Francesco in director Daniele Vicari‘s The Past is a Foreign Land / Il passato è una terra straniera (2008). “I think sooner or later I’ll rip them off.” “Everybody rips everybody else off,” Francesco responds. “Only some people know when they are ripping people off.”

Perhaps the curse of the gifted cardsharp is that winning big pots at the end of the night ceases to be a rush anymore: it is just your job. And by extension, what about the other fruits of your criminal labors– the easy money, fast cars, free drugs, forbidden sex — will these ever get to be just your daily grind?

“Cocaine?” Giorgio (played by Elio Germano, who plays Quattro Formaggi in As God Commands / Come Dio comanda (2008) also in Open Roads) asks Francesco (Michele Riondino) when he learns his partner in crime wants to move into drug trafficking. “Why? Don’t we have enough money?”

The trials of too much easy money are confined to fantasy: to books, movies, and hip-hop ballads. This story was already a best-selling novel (by novelist and anti-Mafia judge Gianrico Carofiglio) before becoming a film. These are not moral decisions Vicari’s audience will face directly. Real world card hustlers work too hard at what they do, a life consuming activity to exploit a very narrow statistical edge. It would be hard to imagine the survival of a young, misty-eyed, card hustler “innocent” like Giorgio: Giorio is our surrogate, our proxy in Vicari’s moral laboratory to examine a more targeted phenomenon. (Though he clearly drifts from our cipher to a more frightening creature over the course of the film.)

It turns out, according to Vicari’s data collection, that if you scrape away one obstacle to a desire, you don’t extinguish desire, you uncover both a new desire and a new obstacle. In the case of overachiever young criminals Giorgio and Francesco, both lost balls in taller and taller weeds in urban Bari in southern Italy, Vicari scrapes down through the paint to a core supposition: young men who take a shortcut to overcome the obstacles older men put before them to money, power, material goods discover that at the end of the day they are more addicted to taking what they cannot have than to having the things themselves.

So instead of the traditional model for stories like this — one gamble too far,  car chase, bullet in an back alley — the menacing forces in the latter third of the movie are largely these young men themselves, to each other, to themselves, to those unlucky enough to have something these men shouldn’t have but now want. And Vicari’s commitment to push further into this territory is worth experiencing.

— Matt Griffin

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