Hidden Gems: The American
By Kyle Lee
March 31, 2016
The American is a startling and brilliant movie for a multitude of reasons. It contains one of George Clooney’s best performances, is shot mostly in the picaresque Italian countryside, and is the engagingly subtle tale of an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village. It was directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, whose background in photography is obviously present in every meticulously beautiful frame of this movie. Although it made money at the box office (opening #1 and making $68 million on a $20 million budget), it was hated by audiences, resulting in a D-minus Cinemascore rating and an audience approval score of 38% on RottenTomatoes.com (its film critic number was the just barely “fresh” 66% approval). I think this is because it was marketed incorrectly. This is a slow, cerebral movie more in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï than it is the “Clooney as Bond” movie that was marketed. And I’m thankful for that; we need more movies with a brain in their head like this than we need another Jason Bourne knock-off.
Based on British author Martin Booth’s spy novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American follows Jack (Clooney) as he flees Sweden, running from men who are trying to kill him. We’re not sure why, but Jack’s handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) says it’s because Jack has lost his edge now that he’s getting older. Jack goes to where Pavel sets up a safe house in Italy, but a paranoid Jack runs away on his own to a different town. He’s eventually set up with a job to make a gun for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, the innkeeper from In Bruges). While in the town, Jack becomes involved with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), despite Pavel advising not to “make friends” with anyone, telling him “you used to know that.” Jack also crosses paths with local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), with whom he has many philosophical conversations. But Jack never lets down his guard, even as we can tell he wants to for Clara.
Violante Placido, as Clara, is kind of the heart of the movie, at least in regards to what she means to Jack. Placido is even more beautiful than her mother Simonetta Stefanelli (whom most of us know better as Michael’s Italian wife Apollonia in The Godfather), but with the same expressive eyes, sweet smile and intriguing Italian sensuality. Her Clara is the classic hooker with a heart of gold, but nothing about her feels standard to me. Her performance has depth to it, even though most of the story focuses on Jack and how she relates to him.
Possibly the best scene in the movie is one in which they go out on a real date at a restaurant and her girlish excitement at being with a guy she could actually connect with is endearing. When a man comes over selling roses and she tries to shoo him away, trying to tell Jack, “He thinks we’re a couple,” Jack retorts simply with “It’s okay.” The look in her eyes, seeing that Jack isn’t embarrassed she’s a prostitute and actually enjoys being with her, being seen with her, and thought to be her guy, almost brought tears to my eyes in what that means to Clara and how beautifully Placido expresses that.