Chekhov's three sisters fail to get to Moscow, but dreamy high-school teacher, Giancorlo Iacovini (Sergio Castellitto), manages to escape to Rome from the provincial town where he's felt stifled in his talents, and to bring along his wife, Agata (Margherita Buy), and daughter, Caterina (Alice Teghil). For Giancarlo, life has a thrilling second act. He can teach in the fabulous metropolis where he grew up; and he has ambitions there for his beloved Caterina.
In Paolo Virzi's Caterina in the Big City, a tender, intelligent Italian feature, 15-year-old Caterina, shy and sheltered, is enrolled at a high-power Roman private school because her father wants her to mix with the scions of the ruling class. She's obedient to his grandiose expectations, though the students mock her as a hillbilly from the Tuscany countryside.
The setup reminds of Mean Girls, with face-offs at school of brash rich-girl cliques. But there's a huge difference from the Hollywood model of teen conflict, for the quarrels herein are intensely ideological. Though all student but Caterina are sinfully wealthy, they split heatedly left and right. It's the young Eurocommunists (Italy's humanist Marxists) versus the young conservatives (supporters of the Burlosconni government).
The most apolitical person at the school is our goodhearted heroine, more concerned with making friends than caring what the friends stand for. She's first taken in by Margherita (Carolina Iaquaniello), bushy-haired and artsy, whose peace-activist mother brings the girls on a march. (It features, an unexpected cameo from the barricades, Life is Beautiful's Roberto Begnini as himself.)
Things mess up with Margherita, so Caterina, without a blink, moves rightward, adopted by (the movie's publicity material aptly describes them) "a circle of rich, cell-phone-toting mall rats." She takes up shopping and hanging out in patrician castles. A new best pal is Daniela (Federica Sbrenna), a 24-hour party girl with an on-call chauffeur and limousine. Daniela's father is a bigwig in the conservative government. In the film's most disturbing scene (surely even more ballsy shown in Italy), a celebration of Berlosconni supporters with obvious Mafia ties goes even far for them, when all give forth the traditional Fascist salute. Caterina's chum, Daniela, too.
Ulimately, Caterina begins to spin, shaky about who she is. What happened to that once-grounded teen, whose happiness was singing ethereal choral music? Far more terrible is the plight of her dad, Giancarlo, whom Rome, dear Rome, chews him up and spits on him. His new teaching gig falters; his aspirations for a second career as a writer sputter, for nobody in big-city publication will make time to consider his erotic novel. Maddened, he rails bitterly against the powerful, "the party that knows how the world works," whom he earlier had worshipped. "They ignore us," he wails. "They treat us like toys."
Director Virzi, the son of a Sicilian police officer, feels for Giancarlo's despair but ultimately sides with Caterina, who is capable of straightening out. Virzi situates himself as "a long-time supporter of a popular, optimistic, and non-catasrophic left."