We beginning the story in 1960s Italy as Massimo (newcomer Nicolò Cabras) as he spends his days with his mother (Barbara Ronchi), at times joyfully dancing the twist or mesmerised by Juliet Greco's Belphegor on TV; other times warily watching dark clouds passing through his mother’s soul. Cabras’s mesmerizing performance, Daniele Ciprì’s cinematography and Marco Dentici’s superb production design immediately pulls us into the story. Everything is both magically stylised and naturalistic.
This home is the place of the film’s inciting incident: Massimo’s mother’s death. Though its place in the film makes a lot of sense, and Massimo’s family’s gauche way of handling the situation is completely human, the consequences on Massimo’s adult storyline (what is shown of it) was more difficult to fully grasp. And though this was the entire point of the film, Massimo’s weaknesses as an adult, in spite of having worked in Sarajevo, held a good career as a sports journalist as well as experiencing tremendous success when responding to a reader about motherly love (or lack thereof. This moment is by the way the only comic relief of the film), made it hard to fully route for his character. How can an intelligent adult be in that much denial without anyone ever saying anything? How can a child who seems so observant become an adult who, in spite of his job, accepts what he is told as pure truth without ever challenging his father or re-examining the facts? He of course eventually does, but it’s nearly impossible to believe it would have taken him that long, especially given his professional background and his apparently otherwise normal mental health, give or take a few panic attacks (which one might expect of someone who has seen the horrors of war first hand).
Adult Massimo’s obsession with Belphegor was another point on which the film lost me. Yes, I completely understand the association made between Belphegor and his mother’s dark side and death, but again, what kind of adult would express feelings close to being scared of the dark with a straight face? (also, reading the English subtitles, I was quite aggravated to see that Belphegor was inappropriately mentioned as a “he” and neither “she” for Juliette Greco, nor at least “it” as would make sense for a creature, and which I was told, was in fact the choice in the original Italian).
Similarly, one of my favourite moments showed teen Massimo (Dario Dal Pero) visit a wealthy friend in a gorgeous old house, and sitting still as the other teen misbehaves with his mother (the wonderful Emmanuelle Devos who I was hoping would play a more important part in the film). The scene was fairly random and only relevant to the overall story as it showed Massimo’s yearning for a mother persist throughout his teens. Though it does bring narrative value to the film, it doesn’t seem essential to tell the story. But there is something almost otherworldly, something deliciously French and Italian and which in a way also captures the emotional stakes of the film so much more than many slices of Massimo’s adult life. It is that sense of nostalgia and “out of time-ness” which kept me hooked, and later led me home daydreaming, a head full of fond memories of the past and longing for the magic moments ahead.
A gorgeous and heartfelt mess.
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