Rose Island (2020) • View trailer

3.5 stars. Rated TV-14, for considerable profanity

Truth really is stranger than fiction.


In 1967 — annoyed by the ponderous Italian bureaucracy involved with any sort of construction — innovative Bolognese engineer Giorgio Rosa sank nine pylons into the ocean off the coastal city of Rimini, at the country’s northeastern tip. The pylons soon supported a 400-square-meter “island” platform that, over time, hosted a restaurant, bar, nightclub, souvenir shop and post office: all free of rules and regulations, and open to tourists who soon arrived in enthusiastic numbers.


With their “independent island state” having become a popular tourist attraction,
Giorgio (Elio Germano) and Neumann (Tom Wlaschiha) wonder what to do next.

On June 24, 1968 — having shrewdly placed his little enclave just beyond Italy’s territorial waters — Rosa declared it an independent state dubbed Insulo de la Rozoj, and named himself president. He declared an official language (Esperanto), created a flag, issued stamps and set up a council of ministers. Piles of mail began to arrive, from people desiring citizenship on this artificial island.


We’ll never know whether Rosa genuinely desired to tweak the Italian government, or wanted to conduct an ingenious sociology experiment, or regarded this as the perfect way to mingle with counter-culture Riviera hedonists, or simply had a wicked sense of humor.


Rosa died in 2017, having agreed that these events could be depicted in a film to be released after his passing. It didn’t take long: L’incredibile storia dell’Isola delle Rose (Rose Island) has just arrived as a Netflix exclusive.


It’s quite delightful: very much akin to droll, low-key British charmers … but in Italian.


Director Sydney Sibilia — who co-wrote the script with Francesca Manieri — has taken liberties with historical fact; it’s best to acknowledge that his film is suggested by actual events. Key details are accurate, but Sibilia has made much more of Rosa’s capricious bid for statehood, and its impact on the Italian government, in order to get more of a cinematic story by tweaking a series of fabricated officials running all the way up to the Vatican.


The result feels strongly influenced, in tone and structure, by 2009’s Pirate Radio, with its similarly affectionate nod to renegade spirit.


This also is very much a 1960s saga; one can’t imagine it occurring at any other point in time. The film’s soundtrack therefore is laden with the era’s pop tunes, in a variety of languages: from Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction,” The Kinks’ cover of “Louie Louie” and Shocking Blues’s “Send Me a Postcard,” to Dik Dik’s robust Italian cover of “California Dreaming.”


We meet Giorgio Rosa (Elio Germano) during a brief flash-forward, as he attempts to gain an audience with the Council of Europe, headquartered in Strasbourg, France. His case piques the curiosity of diplomat Jean Baptiste Toma (François Cluzet).


The always terrific Cluzet, well remembered from 2006’s Tell No One and 2011’s The Intouchables, is an intriguing choice for such a fleeting role; that said, he definitely makes the most of his brief screen time.


Toma grants Giorgio the opportunity to explain his presence; we then bounce back a year, to watch these events unfold.


Germano’s Giorgio is a scruffy, impetuously foolhardy engineer/inventor with more ingenuity than common sense; he’s nonetheless likable in a lost-puppy sort of way. This likely explains the effect he continues to have on former girlfriend Gabriella (Matilda De Angelis), despite her having broken off their lengthy affair awhile back.


Gabriella, level-headed and studying law, seems wayout of Giorgio’s league … and yet she can’t quite abandon him completely. (It must be mentioned that De Angelis, in addition to deftly navigating this complex role, is stunningly attractive). 


Germano and De Angelis are captivating together, Gabriella’s amused exasperation nicely balanced by Giorgio’s motor-mouthed persistence.


Conventional employment simply doesn’t interest Giorgio. While blue-skying a crazy concept with best friend Maurizio (Leonardo Lidi), the notion becomes increasingly attractive to both men, who set about making it a reality. Before long, they’re sitting at the edge of their newly constructed platform, which — at this point — has nothing but a few chairs, a cooler filled with food, and a standing umbrella.


This tableau is oddly amusing, particularly when cinematographer Valerio Azzali frames it with a long shot, emphasizing the crazy structure’s isolation in the open sea.


As time passes, Giorgio and Maurizio gain additional compatriots: Pietro (Alberto Astorri), a gruff, hulking and mostly silent drifter who builds the platform’s growing structures and amenities; W.R. Neumann (Tom Wlaschiha), a stateless German club promoter, who boosts public interest in this endeavor; and Franca (Violetta Zironi), a pregnant 19-year-old who becomes the extremely popular bartender.


Wlaschiha — likely best remembered as Jaqen H’ghar, in Game of Thrones — oozes glad-handing smarm as Neumann, but this oily affectation is balanced by a touching streak of vulnerability. It’s therefore no surprise that Neumann benefits from one of the story’s most poignant little touches.


Back on land, the “island’s” rapidly escalating popularity soon reaches Italian Prime Minister Giovanni Leone (Luca Zingaretti) and Internal Affairs minister Franco Restivo (Fabrizio Bentivoglio). Something must be done, but they’re not quite certain what; Sibilia has a lot of fun with both actors’ slow takes and mounting frustration.


Even so, such hijinks — and Sibilia’s droll touch — can’t wholly staunch our sense of rising dread. Powerful men don’t like to look foolish or impotent; their responses, at such times, tend to be wholly out of proportion to the situation.


Whatever the actual Rosa’s intentions, Sibilia’s approach here definitely paints this unlikely venture as a fascinating sociology study … and, perhaps, also as a cautionary tale. Idealistic dreamers rarely prevail in our rigidly structured world.

But it sure is fun to watch them try.

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