The greatest virtue of Ariaferma is its versatile balance between its themes, typical to contemporary italian cinema, and an unexpected freshness in such themes’ depiction.
Prison overcrowding is a pressing issue currently being discussed in Italy, yet Leonardo di Costanzo chooses to tackle it through subtraction, not by presenting an overwhelmed jail, but by portraying an anomaly: a penitentiary in the sardinian mountains is due to close down, but the transfer of a small number of detainees is delayed. A group of very few prison guards are tasked to maintain order, despite not having the required resources.
The premise seems to set the foundations for a thriller, where the escalating tension between the prison guards and the prisoners would set off a chaotic nightmare, but the film remains faithful to its title, “still air”, by setting an aura of slow, impending doom that never leads to violent ends.
The static nature of the film is set to a rhythmical percussions score by Pasquale Scialò, while the climax of the film features a Clapping serial score by Steve Reich, which provides a peculiar energy.
Rather than a prison story, Ariaferma is best described as a human story, a story of reconciliation between two opposite groups, the guards and the prisoners.
Through the self-contained setting, the film examines the difficult coexistence of two groups that normally identify each others as enemies, but that now inevitably are both forced into isolation.
The isolated microcosm is further shut out from The narrative that eventually focuses on two main characters: an old detainee, likely an ex member of organised crime, and the appointed leader of the prison guards. Portrayed respectively by Silvio Orlando and Toni Servillo, it is their confrontation that makes up for the powerful statement of human equity that the film aims at.
Several striking quotes could be drawn from the screenplay, which are impactful and filled with bitter irony, despite its slimness caused by frequent moments of silence. In an iconic scene, Silvio Orlando’s character, in his cell, asks Toni Servillo: “tough to be in jail, eh?”, to which Servillo, the prison guard answers “you are i jail, I am not.” Orlando replies: “Really? I haven’t noticed”.
This scene serve sas a good example of the serious yet ironic nature of the dialogues, which always holds a hidden meaning that cannot help but affect the audience deeply.
Most surpisingly, it is not a story of good versus bad, or of oppressors and oppressed, and herein lies the greatest achievement of di Costanzo’s work: the true antagonist of the film is the distance imposed by society on the characters, a distance that in this setting becomes extremely thin. Ariaferma truly manages to maintain the status quo without personifying this abstract antagonist into some character, even if for a brief part of the film it seems like Fabrizio Ferracane’s character is going to assume such a role. As a result, he managed to craft a neutral and at the same time a emotionally engaging film, without taking sides. Despite the clearly optimistic message, it is not a naive film, it does not pose solutions or seek a happy ending: it represents the issue, it portrays a human story, yet it is self-conscious of the barriers that make change hard.
Ariaferma is however not a mere depiction of a reality or an emotional reaction seeking film, it is a most cinematic work. The prison’s setting, a round cathedral-like structure makes for a very appealing location, the aforementioned rhythm, the palpable tension, the performances all round up for a film that, ahead of being a film about a social issue, is pure cinema, a carefully constructed craft of motion picture.