*WARNING* — CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS
I have seen some Superhero action movies. As a child of the 90s, how could I not? I’ve watched the face of Batman change from Michael Keaton’s to Val Kilmer’s to George Clooney’s (really? George Clooney?) to Christian Bale’s. I’ve watched Toby Maguire morph into a wiry Spiderman all three times. I’ve watched X-men mutate and Superman fly. And at the insistence of my husband (and much more recently), I’ve watched every single Marvel movie in recent history, from the very first Avengers film to Deadpool to Black Panther and everything in between. As long as I could stay awake (and I have a bad habit of falling asleep during heavy action sequences), it was good, run-of-the-mill entertainment, but not much else. Only few exceptions came across as anything more than the stock, formulaic agenda of your typical superhero action film. There’s a good guy (and yes, it’s almost always a good guy). He’s flawed, but his overall moral integrity is beyond question. There’s a sometimes memorable bad guy with no redeeming qualities and seldom a compelling background story. There are some supporting characters who never amount to much. There’s the goofy male sidekick. There’s the mandatory love interest. There’s a happy ending where justice wins the day and the bad guy gets what’s coming to him.
And then, there’s Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot.
Watching this movie, I was (delightfully) hard-pressed to be able to put it in any box. The Superhero box. The action film box. The drama box. The modern neorealist box. I was prepared to find it stale, trite, dated. Instead, what I found was a profoundly courageous, modern reflection on contemporary Italian society.
A quick plot summary. Enzo finds himself escaping law enforcement officials on the day of a peaceful protest against terrorism and routine bomb threats in Rome. During the pursuit and to escape the officers on his tail, he locks himself in a floating supply shed in the Tiber river. But as the officers approach, it becomes clear that Enzo must find another way out. He slips into the water, where a toxic substance is steadily leaking from open cans of hazardous material. When he emerges, he has more than a mouthful of iron-like liquid in his system and, hours later, superhuman strength and regenerative capacities. At first, his instinct is to use his new power for minor crime. But the relationship he develops with Alessia, the daughter of a man he meets on a drug trafficking job, gradually encourages him to use his strength for acts of good. Eventually, he attracts the attention of notorious gang leader Fabio (Lo Zingaro) who is eager to discover where Enzo got his powers and how to use them himself. When Fabio threatens to kill Alessia, to whom he had become quite attached, Enzo agrees to share his secret. What later ensues is a fight between matching superpowers in a battle for all of Rome’s safety.
Let’s begin with the film’s protagonist: Enzo, also known as Hiro (and I am pretty sure the play on the word ‘hero’ is intentional here). In a landscape now overrun with the currently fashionable ‘antihero’ figure — or protagonist who lacks heroic qualities and openly breaks with social convention for personal gain — at the film’s start, Enzo is the indifferent antihero who goes to great lengths to use his powers only for basic survival and as infrequently as possible. Unlike Breaking Bad’s Walter White, Enzo’s criminal activity is unmotivated— he is not ill or dying. Unlike Dexter’s Dexter Morgan or The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes, he has no code, no inherent moral compass, however skewed. Enzo is openly misanthropic — a hermit completely uninterested in society. He uses his powers only to feed his addiction to pudding and pornography. He neither openly defies laws nor blatantly disregards them. He simply has no interest in or use for them. Nor does he have any laws to regulate self-conduct of his own.
Like many carefully drawn characters, however, he, too, undergoes an arc of development owed to love — but a complicated love. Not the love of a parent for a child. Not the love of a lover for his beloved, but a heavily problematic combination of both. Arguably the film’s true hero, Alessia, is clearly mentally disadvantaged (though she speaks wisdom beyond her years). She is a child trapped in the body of a beautiful, fully-grown woman and Enzo’s attraction to her is troublesome. Though he begins by wanting to have nothing to do with her, the more time he spends with her, the more intriguing and endearing he comes to find her innocent way of communicating, her love of the 80s cartoon Jeeg robot d’acciaio, her openness, and the ease with which she comes to trust and confide in him. Knowing of her mental illness, he tries not to take advantage of her. Indeed, in a scene in which we are led to believe that Alessia was being routinely sexually abused, Enzo promptly backs off when his soft physical approach to her is met with a firm ‘no’ (and an accompanying look of terror followed by tears). But not much later, and at her slightest physical aperture toward him, Enzo rapes her in a scene that leaves no room for doubt about her lack of consent. What follows — as is often the case in everyday life — is Enzo issuing an apology to Alessia, who accepts, though not without reservation. Two years before the #metoo movement, representing these kinds of difficult truths on film and in a society in many ways still unrecognizing of rape culture and domestic violence is nothing short of very, very brave. I haven’t seen this kind of moral commitment to representation of sexual deviance in Italian film since Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ground-breaking — and, at the time, very controversial — film, “Accattone,” in 1961.
Enzo is not the only social deviant in the film, however. His main opponent, Fabio (or Lo Zingaro) is as villainous as they come. But his monstrosity goes beyond the physical acts of violence he orchestrates or carries out. It stems neither from a need for vengeance nor from a childhood trauma, as is often the case with super-villains. Rather, Fabio has an egotistical drive for social recognition, firmly rooted in his past as a reality TV star as a teen; it is portrayed as being as heinous as his complete disregard for human life. He kills without reflection or mercy. He exchanges one human life for another. But his main motivation in doing so is neither material nor poetic — it is simply a superficial desire for notoriety. He wants to be remembered as the worst villain Rome has ever seen and will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. As Fabio’s behaviour degrades in direct proportion to the growth of his obsession with fame, Mainetti’s mistrust of social media and the compulsive fixation with ‘image’ and ‘personal narrative’ it promotes becomes clear: there are people who would kill for a million views on YouTube, and their dangerousness is not to be overlooked.
Though it does so fleetingly, “Jeeg Robot” also addresses issues of race and racial exploitation in Italy. The drug mules hired to smuggle heroin into Rome for Lo Zingaro’s clan are black. It is rare to see black faces in an Italian movie, let alone to see the reality of racially exploitative human trafficking relayed in Italian cinemas. This was a bold movie on Mainetti’s part. He could have chosen to feature any other minority or hated group in Italy — ROM are the most popular by far, especially in Rome —, but decided instead to feature these black faces so frequently seen in Italian news, but nowhere else in the realm of representation of Italian reality. What is more, he chose to represent them not as powerless victims of a larger criminal system, but as active, rebelling agents in an operation they know to be risky. Their disadvantage is very clear. But Mainetti refuses to strip them of agency just the same. To do so is to fly in the face of their portrayal in Italian media as foreign objects and the passive recipients of benefits unjustly taken from the Italian people by the oversights of their governing body.
In short, Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot is a courageous, ambitious film that successfully speaks to a contemporary audience about issues of direct personal relevance to them. It defies genre. It is neither an action film nor a science fiction drama nor a neorealist film, but rather espouses elements of all of these. It blends the neorealism of its frame — set in Rome, filmed in Rome, with Roman actors using Roman accents — with the science fiction elements of the original Jeeg Robot animated series with superhero action sequences, with moments typical of the ‘romanzo criminale’ (crime novel genre). It draws these individual components together in a dramatic narrative that places the emphasis on the interpersonal relationships present in the film rather than on its other individual details. And it does so with incredible balance and grace. What became clear to me by the film’s end was not only the depth of Mainetti’s incredible international cinematic preparation, but also the extreme sensitivity and social awareness he must have and that he puts on display in this elegant and bold modern tale of what it means to be a human – and a hero – today.