Shot in 2009 as a follow up to his WWII film Canopy, Aaron Wilson’s Little Tornadoes once again explores the weight of generational trauma on men – this time through the lens of Leo (Mark Leonard Winter, Measure for Measure), the son of Canopy’s Jim (Robert Menzies).
It’s the early 1970s and Leo’s wife Camille (Anya Beyersdorf) has left the family, including their two young children Maudey and Jack (played by real life siblings Minnie and Freddy Lisukiewicz). Leaving only a short and non-explanatory note and a set of keys behind on the table, Camille has departed for Melbourne as an escape from her drab existence in rural Victoria.
Alone and unable to fully comprehend Camille’s actions, nor adequately care for his beloved children, Leo sinks into a deep depression that is not aided by the fact that the era he lives in expects men to repress their emotions. He tries to speak to his father, Jim, but he is walled off by his own trauma of living through WWII and the death of his wife, Betty.
Leo is desperately seeking some kind of connection that will help him make sense of his life. That connection comes from his workmate, Italian immigrant Tony (Fabio Motta) suggesting that his sister Maria (Silvia Colloca) could help as a cook and babysitter in Leo’s home.
Little Tornadoes is a split narrative that concerns Leo’s struggles to find emotional equilibrium and a document of Maria’s immigrant experience. Maria’s voiceover is characterised by the wisdom of an outsider seeing Australia and those who live in it with a clarity that is poetic. We suspect that a lot of her dialogue comes from Wilson’s co-writer on the film, famed Australian author Christos Tsiolkas (Head On, The Slap).
Maria notes that Leo doesn’t yearn for a bigger life than the one he has established in the small town where he works in a factory. Leo’s whole world was his family and when he loses a vital part of it, he is forced to come to terms with what single parenting means, and how to best keep Maudey and Jack safe and happy.
The film is a very slow-moving character study that on one hand is subtle and on the other quite laboured. Even with its relatively short run time, there is a sense that Wilson is repeating motifs to the point of exhaustion.
Although Mark Leonard Winter’s performance is strong, so much of it is internal and relies on Wilson reiterating his loneliness by endlessly creating shots where the actor sits alone and stares off into the middle distance.
Enlivened by the appearance of Silvia Colloca’s character, the film still doesn’t quite know what to do with her. The Maria that appears on the screen seems somewhat at odds with the philosophical Maria depicted in the voice over. There is also the sense that Wilson is suggesting that no home can really be fulfilling without the presence of a woman. Snippets of a television vox pop discussing Germaine Greer and the emergence of second-wave feminism in Australia are supposed to point to something, yet it is curiously vague as to what Wilson is trying to say with them.
In the shadow of the Vietnam War, Jim’s experiences in WWII have a weight to them that could have enriched the character’s point of view. His monosyllabic reticence is partially explained by PTSD from the war. Leo’s desperate pleas for him to not ignore his grandchildren are one of the more heartfelt moments in the film and Wilson should have made more of the father/son relationship.
Little Tornadoes is a film with a lot on its mind but doesn’t quite find the cinematic language to express it. Although handsomely shot and immaculately period accurate, the film feels like the script never quite resolves on the points it is trying to make. The slowness of the film is not to its favour, making the narrative drag and many scenes feel pointlessly repeated. As Little Tornadoes is apparently the second film in a planned trilogy, Wilson will hopefully tie up his themes more succinctly in the third instalment.
This is the third film in a trilogy, but that’s not a problem as it stands alone well enough. What IS a problem is that it could have done with serious editing, and there are excruciating longueurs. Fortunately, there are compelling moments too.
The story proper – set in Calabria – begins at the 18th birthday party of Giulia (Grecia Rotolo), one of two sisters of the central character, 15-year-old Chiara (Swamy Rotolo). It’s a seemingly interminable scene, though to be fair it – and other sustained vistas of family life – are justified retrospectively to some extent as background to what follows. Less defensible is the excessive use of atmospheric music, general loudness and protracted close-ups by way of compensation for a simple plot. There are far too many pregnant pauses, and what’s more they are – as it were – phantom pregnancies, because they signify nothing beyond the obvious.
So far, so-so. To Chiara eventually gets much better, however, as we start to follow Chiara’s dogged attempt to find out what exactly her beloved but enigmatic and reserved father Claudio (Claudio Rotolo) is up to. He is, it turns out [SPOILER ALERT], working for ‘Ndrangheta (the Calabrian mafia). As she ‘closes in’ on him – and thereafter – the pace picks up, the cinematography becomes lyrical, and Chiara’s strong character makes quite an impression. The unfortunate paradox is that it’s this more generic crime-movie material which succeeds, while the relatively original component – showing the personal cost to a mafioso’s family – often doesn’t.
There’s the adage that the greatest tragedy for a parent is having to bury their own child. For window cleaner John (James Norton), that time has come much sooner than he was expecting in Nowhere Special, from director Umberto Pasolini (Still Life).
Already in poor health when we meet him, single father John’s focus is ensuring that his four-year-old son, Michael (Daniel Lamont) is cared for properly when he’s gone. This need comes at a cost though as, for John, there’s simply no family that could properly raise his son the way he wants.
At times, the film goes to show that John is right in his concerns, as he visits different foster families with his social worker. There’s the family whose patriarch tries to dissuade Michael’s love of dogs by recalling tales of being attacked by them as a postie. Perhaps the most egregious is the couple for whom Michael would be nothing more than a solvent to close the ever-widening gap in a loveless marriage.
However, Pasolini also goes to great pains to show that John is so determined to ensure everything is perfect for Michael that he doesn’t see the potential in others that the social workers do. So worried is John about Michael that he can’t even bring himself to tell his son that he is dying. When Michael stumbles across a dead bug in the park, a more mawkish film would use this as the moment for John to get his demise out in the open. Instead, the dutiful father skirts round the issue.
It is, of course, impossible for John to keep everything from his son and Nowhere Special knows this. That doesn’t stop you from wishing that John could have it all before he goes. It’s made clear from the start that there will be no third act deus ex machina to save John, so in a way – like the more fantastical Cargo directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke – the audience can only hope that time doesn’t run out too soon.
As the increasingly ailing father, Norton brings a tender yet stoic performance to the film. Despite becoming frustrated with what he sees as a failing system, he channels that energy into loving his son; reading him bedtime stories, playing in the park and deseeding grapes.
The only real example of John’s anger bubbling to the surface is in a deeply satisfying scene wherein he takes eggy revenge on an irate customer.
It would be churlish not acknowledge the young Lamont, who holds his own in the film’s heartbreaking scenes.
Nowhere Special, despite its narrative, still manages to warm your heart in a way that is unexpected. It is a bittersweet portrait of not just fatherhood, but of caring for our loved ones in general, and doing everything to ensure we are there for them in life and death.
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