Wednesday, March 15, 2006

ITALIAN CINEMA: La Bestia Nel Cuore (Don't Tell)

Caught an advance screening of La Bestia Nel Cuore (Don't Tell) at the Delancey Street Theater yesterday evening. The film is poised to open here in San Francisco at the Bridge Theater on Friday, March 17. Directed and co-written by Cristina Comencini, Don't Tell won several awards at the 2005 Venice International Film Festival and was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

Moira Sullivan, reporting from the 62nd Venice International to the Greencine Daily, advised that Don't Tell won the Prize for Best Italian Film "for having harmonized the stories of every character and managing to soften the dramatic aspects of the plot with elements of irony." Michael Hawley advises me that Italy's original entry to the Academy Awards was Saverio Costanzo's Private—undoubtedly a stronger entry—but it failed to pass the Academy's language criteria. Not enough Italian was spoken in Private for it to qualify.

Privacy remains the theme, however, in Comencini's Don't Tell where Giovanna Mezzogiorno (winner of the Best Actress award at the Venice International), portrays Sabina, an actress who—upon recently becoming pregnant—begins to have haunting dreams about something her father did to her when she was a child. In perhaps one of the film's most arresting and disturbing images, the approach of Sabina's pajama-clad father becomes a child's eye view of his crotch, his open fly, and the shadowy and terrifying mysteries therein; a doorway into repressed abuse. In her nightmares, Sabina watches herself as a child being pulled into this doorway. In horror, she recoils, unable to scream for help, unsure of the image's meaning. The surfacing of these images disturb the seeming successful and calm veneer of Sabina's personal and professional life. Suddenly she begins to have issues with her lover and her child's father, Franco, played by Alessio Boni (of The Best of Youth fame). The very notion of fatherhood becomes suspect as Sabina loses trust in Franco. They decide to take a break from each other and Sabina travels to the United States to visit her brother Daniele (Luigi Lo Cascio, also of The Best of Youth). Considering Don't Tell is the first Italian film I've seen since The Best of Youth, and though delighted to see both Alessio Boni and Luigi Lo Cascio reunited, I have to admit the casting was perhaps not the best thing for this film as it proved distracting, pulling me out of Don't Tell into their previous venture.

During her visit with her brother, Sabina realizes Daniele is having trouble being affectionate with his own children and eventually ascertains that he too was abused by their father while their mother did nothing to intervene. The film's final gesture of affection between parent and child suggests the only possible resolution to the revisited tragedies of the past. All that being said, and rather obviously at that, what strikes me most about Don't Tell is not its feminist and fairly successful dramatization of the lifelong shame and trauma experienced by the victims of childhood incest but its evenhanded treatment of the lesbian love relationship between Sabina's childhood friend Emilia (Stefania Rocca) who has, literally, been blindly in love with Sabina since childhood, and Sabina's employer Maria (Angela Finocchiaro) whose husband has left her behind for a much younger woman.

Who decides what title a foreign film will have in the United States? La Bestia Nel Cuore, which translates The Beast In the Heart, has been rendered as Don't Tell for its American audiences, though I can't shake the suspicion that the translator wanted to rename this movie Don't Ask, Don't Tell. What is Comencini trying to say by creating this parallel love story alongside that of Sabina and Franco? If not for the sensitive treatment of the male characters in this story I would suspect Comencini of ballbusting all men, blaming them for all the personal failures in the world, and I can see the connection between Sabina's abuse at the hands of her father (who sexually desires someone younger) and Maria's abuse at the hands of her husband (who sexually desires someone younger) as a possible template of lesbian desire. Sabina even dalliances with Emilia while she is involved with Franco, even though she kindheartedly arranges for Emilia and Maria to eventually get together. Something else is going on here: something about the misplacement of desire, and the wounds created from that, and that the only true salve or salvation from such wounds is to redirect desire and place it appropriately. In its endorsement of the proper placement of desire between Emilia and Maria, Comencini has achieved a heartfelt and solid portrayal of lesbian relationship via "a well-designed subplot." Angela Finocchiaro's comic talents lend her character Maria a disarming quality as she discovers the potential of this side of herself. In my estimation, Finocchiaro's acting is the best in this film. She lends the "tender humor" that Variety critic Deborah Young feels "lightens the weight of angst." Young summarizes: "There is nothing very unusual or challenging here, just a solid script based on a good grasp of human psychology with the moral lesson clearly spelled out in the final scene."

Having initially received the idea for her novel and film from a newspaper item about a brother and sister trying to recover from the trauma of incest, Comencini included Maria's story line about a woman whose husband has left her for a younger woman. "I knew a lot of men escaping with very young women," Comencini states in one interview, "And in my mind it mixed with the other news (about incest). What's the link between them? These two things are so different because in one case, you have really a crime, and the other case is allowed by the law. But in a human meaning, it's really near. In either case, you are seduced by the youth, by the innocence. And so I tried to think about this."

In a separate interview Comencini explains: "I did not want to make a scandal about something. I wanted to explore the dark places in all of us, to understand how this kind of thing could happen. Every human being has basically a bad side and a good side. It's a contradiction: As adults, we can do the best thing in the world and love our children, or we can have an attraction to young bodies and do a bad thing. If you can see it, you can stop it, and decide to be a human being."

Ray Bennett from The Hollywood Reporter states the film is "laced with incisive wit" and notes that the film's ensemble of characters "deal with their own failings and strengths, helping each other to find a kind of love that is understanding and forgiving."

Not all the critics are so kind, however. Michael Atkinson of The Village Voice reduces the film to an "Italian chick flick" that is "paradigmatically mediocre." But before I raise an eyebrow at any suspicions of anti-feminism, I let Atkinson's review evaporate like the hot steam it is and enjoy Anne Thompson's backstory for The Hollywood Reporter, wherein Comencini is allowed to express herself, her fears, her confidence, her concerns for women filmmakers. John McMurtie furthers her concerns about making headway in a man's world for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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