In a sleepy little town somewhere in Europe, curly-haired moppet Momo (Radost Bokel) is found living in a cave underneath the ancient amphitheatre. Led by kindly old Beppo (Leopoldo Trieste) and cheerful musician Gigi (Bruno Stori), the warm-hearted townsfolk immediately set out to make the young orphan feel welcome and educate her about the wider world. For in this town nobody is bothered about stress and everyone has time to spend helping others. That is until the day the bald, pale-skinned Grey Men and their sinister leader (Armin Mueller-Stahl) start to appear around town infecting people with their insidious belief that “time is money.” Before long everyone is too busy making money to spend time caring about each other. Only Momo proves immune to these invisible demons and their evil spell. Somehow she must find a way to save her friends.
Author Michael Ende famously disliked the movie adaptation of his international best-seller The Never Ending Story (1984) to the extent that he took the filmmakers to court. Presumably Ende held warmer feelings towards this German-Italian screen version of his lesser known children’s book given he makes a cameo in the first scene. The author plays a befuddled train passenger to whom the story of Momo is told by twinkly-eyed mystical Mister Hora played by legendary director John Huston in his last film as an actor. Knowing that Huston was facing his final days adds extra poignancy to his role as the sagely keeper of time who reaffirms Momo’s core belief that time should not be horded but spent generously for the betterment of society. Although obscure in English speaking countries the film remains much loved throughout Europe and in Germany in particular, not least for featuring an early role from Radost Bokel who became a popular star and heartthrob in her native land.
It is a charming fable with a heart-warming message, laden with the sort of homespun philosophy Ende likely preferred over the effects driven spectacle of Never Ending Story. On a visual level the film conjures some impressively dreamlike, or by turns nightmarish, imagery featuring some truly mind-blowing fantastical sets created by Federico Fellini’s regular production designer, Danilo Donati. In fact the film shares quite a lot in common with the maestro’s celebrated Amarcord (1973), portraying a lively, earthy community pitted against a cold-hearted, neo-fascistic political philosophy. The film champions a laid-back, seemingly more European way of life against a time-obsessed, capitalistic ethos from overseas. Johannes Schaaf constructs a dreamlike and disorientating narrative style that while beguiling is hard to follow at times. One suspects that while grown-ups may respond to its genteel lyricism, small children may find the film too esoteric. The tone is occasionally precious and a trifle heavy-handed in its critique of American capitalism. Certainly bureaucracy and big business are worthy targets but Ende also sweeps pop music, mass produced toys and showbusiness into the same garbage can.
Nevertheless the story’s heartfelt belief that the key to a happy life is to be generous with one’s time, knowledge and love is a message worth heeding. The film is impeccably acted by an accomplished European cast and overflowing with enough inspired strangeness and surreal set-pieces (the town children’s pirate fantasy proves especially beguiling) to please those in search of family fare a little out of the box. Ende’s book was later adapted into the well-received animated feature Momo all conquesta del tempo (2001).