TV & Movies

‘Anna’ Is Proof That We May Never Run Out of Fictional Pandemic Stories

[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]

Where to Watch ‘Anna’: AMC+

No one said the fall of civilization was going to be predictable. With that in mind, “Anna” presents an interesting choice: Would you rather have chaos built on the unpredictability of quasi-rational adult actors or built on the “just because” logic of children?

In the world of this six-part series, one that sticks mainly to the second option without completely ignoring the first, a mysterious disease has wiped out every adult within range. Near the aftermath ruins of their city, Anna (Giulia Dragotto) and her little brother Astor (Alessandro Pecorella) have carved out a rural hideout for themselves. They scavenge the nearby area for food and supplies that they bring back to the house where their estranged parents once tried to wait out the pandemic in isolation. Years later, surrounded by physical evidence of the life they once led, the two children face a new kind of threat.

If one of the running themes of the new HBO Max series “Station Eleven” is how the tragedy and trauma of a pandemic can make us even more vulnerable to those looking to manipulate the future, “Anna” amplifies that by showing that kids are far from impervious, too. Not every corner of this new world is governed by predatory factions, but there’s a sense that whatever carefree existence these children experienced in the wake of having no adult tell them what to do has curdled. Resources are dwindling, harmony is fading, and those with a vested interest in staving off the inevitable have little mercy to spare.

As if survival wasn’t enough, one early development sends Anna into rescue mode. Against her will, she becomes the young Odysseus of Sicily, facing this new Italy’s versions of Sirens and Cyclops through a vague storybook haze. Niccolò Ammaniti, directing an adaptation of his own book, abstracts the story’s timeline, liberally hopping back and forth between what Anna now faces and the various developments that led to her series of strange, macabre trials in a new teen-run hierarchy.

At least in other fictional pandemics we’ve seen on screen in 2021, there’s a spark of hope that’s still left. Ammaniti offers that at the outset of “Anna,” letting a viewer imagine that a world stripped of corrupting influences might let a kinder, gentler world grow in its place. But one particular detail, brought up casually near the end of the series’ first episode, deals a crushing blow to that notion. From there, things go from Grimm to grim, marked by a distinct “Children of Men”-esque nihilistic streak that only select individuals are able to break free from.

Despite these dire circumstances, spending time in a post-apocalyptic world isn’t about wish fulfillment. Watching hours of characters sorting through a horrifying new existence isn’t something you sign up for hoping that it’ll be an escapist jaunt. We do so, especially now, with the hope that we can take a subconscious list of dos and don’ts from someone else’s hypothetical. Ammaniti’s portrait of humanity’s ability to pass along our worst traits to new generations is also tempered by some small kindnesses. Anna works off of a guidebook, left behind in careful meticulous handwriting by her mother. Astor is learning to read, even with only having Anna as a tutor. They may only have a few years left, but they’re trying to spend it by experiencing the good that still exists.

One of the things that makes these pandemic stories so potent is that these sickness-related tragedies seem to spawn an exponential amount of new ones. There’s heartbreak in “Anna” in seeing how so many kids don’t even think to stop some of those trajectories. After that initial consequence-free life without any adult chaperones, you see how many turn to trying to mimic the behavioral patterns of their bygone guardians. Class-based hoarding, tribalism, reveling in the suffering of others: None are gone from the world of “Anna.”

Ammaniti’s trick — again, something mirrored in “Station Eleven” — is demonstrating a near-impossible ability to find beauty wherever possible in this fictional bleakness. (A disclaimer at the top of each episode explains that Covid arrived six months after production on “Anna” began.) Childilke hallucinations, tiny bursts of color, and tender memories of past family moments all swirl together between present and past. There’s brutality in some of it, to be sure. But even the scene-to-scene transitions in “Anna” are stunning achievements in themselves. They complement the sense of quiet resiliency that Dragotto brings to the central character. It may not be a show drenched in allegorical wonder, but “Anna” paints a treacherous, often-brutal world in gorgeous strokes.

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