‘Luca’ or — Inadvertently Anti-Italian?
‘Luca’ (2021) is Italian director Enrico Casarosa’s love letter to his home country of Italy with a touching central message about being yourself. How sweet! Except due to some bizarre decisions by the filmmakers the message the movie seems to be actually sending out is — always be yourself… unless you’re Italian in which case it’s always better to be American. Mama Mia!
Luca is a young sea monster who, along with his family, lives just off the coast of Southern Italy. One day, Luca and his friend Alberto venture up onto dry land and when they do so they transform into human boys thus enabling them to head into the local town of Portorosso (a nice Miyazaki nod) where they can realise their shared dream of owning a Vespa scooter and exploring the wider world. The only problem is neither Luca or Alberto can get wet as doing so would revert them back to their sea monster form, and the town folk of Portorosso hunt sea monsters (think ‘La Terra Trema’ meets ‘Creature From the Black Lagoon’ for kids).
When they discover Portorosso is holding a triathlon they team up with spirited local girl, Guilia, and set out to beat the local bullies, win the prize money and buy that Vespa. Along the way the boys discover a little something about being true to yourself and the town folk of Portorosso have the chance to learn… well, that’s where it gets weird.
What I found weird about ‘Luca’ was this — Luca, his family, Alberto and all the sea monsters who live in the waters off the Italian coast all have American accents and are archetypes of typical American family life. Luca and his fellow sea monsters are the primary focus of the story. The human Italians, however, all have heavy Italian accents and are huge stereotypes. These Italians are also either secondary characters or the outright villains. Indeed, the main villain, the bully Ercole, is as big an Italian cliché as they come as he saunters about with slicked back dark hair, pencil thin moustache, blue cycling top and shouting “Mama mia!” every chance he gets.
Okay, so maybe the rules of ‘Luca’ are this — sea monsters speak American whilst land dwellers speak Italian? That would possibly work except for when Guilia appears, a human Italian girl living in Portorosso who helps the boys and who, for some reason, has a full on American accent. So hang on, does this mean that if you’re a central character in this movie you must, by default, have an American accent? It seems to be the case because ‘Luca’s treatment of accents makes zero sense.
Then, near the end, it transpires that some of the town folk of Portorosso are sea monsters who have been posing as humans for years all along so when everyone is encouraged to “be themselves” these locals breathe a sigh of relief, say “at last” and change from being Italian into their “true” self which is American. So wait a second, does this mean the message of ‘Luca’ is — be true to yourself except if you’re Italian in which case it’s better to be American and, besides, being Italian was probably only a sham you were perpetrating all along anyway?
Now I’m pretty much convinced that this isn’t, in any way shape or form, the message Casarosa was wanting to promote but with having to comply with the Hollywood standard of automatically ensuring your protagonists be American it sidelines the Italian accent and, more strangely, renders it villainous. None of this is intentional, but it’s there and it’s baffling.
Still, ‘Luca’ is a decent enough film with some pleasant, if not particularly inspired, visual design and it works best when it is that sweet love letter to childhood summers and Italian culture (there are plenty of nods to Fellini, Visconti and De Sica here that are fun to spot). The message of being your true self is admirable but kinda fuzzy as it doesn’t really contain any deeper meaning than simply that and I’m pretty sure Luca is going to cause mass panic once he reaches Genoa (in fact, there’s a very strong chance he’ll end up being brutally gunned down in the streets).
So yeah, ‘Luca’ is a sweet, if slight, tale about being yourself… except if you’re Italian because it’s better to be American and, chances are, you’ll more than likely only pretending to be Italian anyway. God, my brain hurts. Aiuto!