The price of freedom is never pretty, but it's rarely been portrayed as unglamorously as it is in "Lamerica," writer/director Gianni Amelio's good, unflinching look at post-communist Albania.
In the film, which is set in 1991, opportunistic Italian scam artists have been preying on their neighboring country's vulnerable free economy, setting up dummy corporations to receive generous government grants. But they're not the only ones taking advantage of the situation, which some of them find much to their chagrin.
As the movie opens, young businessman Gino ("Farinelli's" Enrico Lo Verso) is helping the more experienced Fiore (Michele Placido) establish a phony shoemaking plant. All the two men need is an unwitting front man to sign the grant applications, which they think they've found in Spiro Tozai (Carmelo Di Mazzarelli), an enfeebled political prisoner who's been held in an Albania mining work camp since World War II and has only recently been released.
"Too much freedom all at once is not good," observes Fiore, who believes the Albanians aren't motivated enough to make their own fortunes.
However, it turns out that Fiore and Gino aren't the only smooth-talkers here. When Spiro goes missing in the hopes of finding his long-lost wife and child, Gino discovers that the old man isn't really a hero, he's not Albanian and his name's not really Spiro. He's actually Talario Michele, who deserted from the Italian army during the war.
That's just the first of a series of harsh lessons the brash, xenophobic Gino learns as he is first caught up in a rush of Albanian refugees, who are trying to flee to either Italy or America, and then as he is imprisoned himself when the Albanian government uncovers his and Fiore's ruse.
"Lamerica" is slow going at times, but it's definitely at its best when both Gino and Spiro are lost in unfamiliar territory including a heartbreaking scene in which one refugee dies aboard a transport truck and is all but ignored by his comrades.
Amelio does a good job in slowly revealing his moral that economic freedom doesn't necessarily equate with political or personal freedom and, for the most, avoids heavy-handed messages (although the final scene aboard a ship bound for the United States verges on bludgeoning).
He's also helped by his performers, especially the 80-year-old Di Mazzarelli, who shows remarkable restraint in his big-screen debut and who sounds like an older, Italian Kirk Douglas. Lo Verso is also quite good, although a couple of his tirades at pesky, mooching Albanian children verge on hamminess.
"Lamerica" is not rated, but would probably receive an R for a few scattered profanities, which include that one word, some violence and a couple of mildly vulgar moments.