Dir: Gabriele Salvatores. Italy. 2008. 103mins.
Gabriele Salvatores can certainly do stomach-pummelling atmosphere. But aside from a couple of tasty performances, that’s pretty much all there is in this overwrought and over-mannered account of a tormented father-son relationship. The second collaboration between Salvatores and novelist-screenwriter Niccolò Ammaniti after the well-received (and far superior) I’m Not Scared, As God Commands is let down above all by its slapdash story - a dark and faintly sordid coming-of-age fable that is in such a hurry to get to its cathartic ending that it forgets to back it up with a controlled dramatic structure.
The novel on which the book is (loosely) based sold well in Italy, and this, together with the Salvatores imprimitur and the presence of arthouse draws Elio Germano and Filippo Timi, will generate interest. Distributor 01 gave the film a respectable 250-copy rollout. Some viewers will be drawn in by its broad, genre-style brushstrokes, but those whose faith in the director was renewed by the finesse of I’m Not Scared are unlikely to be impressed. Neither will buyers; while some festival action is not impossible, As God Commands will likely end up as invisible to general foreign audiences as the director’s last, the flawed but flavoursome Quo Vadis, Baby’.
Rino (Timi) is the classic bad father: he’s a resentful, violent, work-shirking racist with a drink problem. It’s credit to Timi’s bravura that Rino is credible for most of the film, and despite some mannered jump-cut touches in the mise-en-scene, the edgy tough-love scenes between him and his conflicted teenage son Cristiano (promising new talent Caleca) open the film on a high note.
But then we are introduced to the father’s mentally handicapped best mate, the cringe-worthy Quattro Formaggi (Germano), who is fixated on a porn diva called Ramona Superstar. A series of forced narrative leaps push the film into quasi-horror mode in a long night scene set in a wood in the pouring rain. Simpleton, father, son and hastily sketched-in female victim are brought together in a web of destiny - but with little respect for the audience’s intelligence. By the end, it all seems a peculiarly convoluted way of showing how visceral the father-son bond can be.
The main problem, here as in Quo Vadis, Baby’, is that the tale would have worked better as a straight-up drama. Disunity of mood is matched by incoherence in the dramatic structure: we expect Rino’s rabid xenophobia to go somewhere, but it turns out just to be shorthand for ‘not a nice guy’.
On the plus side, the locations are spot-on: shot in the north-eastern Italian region of Friuli, the film uses quarries, stony alluvial riverbeds, concrete superstradas and rebuilt post-earthquake newtowns as tokens of social and spiritual malaise. DP Italo Petriccione, a Salvatores regular, nails the unease, getting handheld and dirty when the drama calls for it.
based on Ammaniti’s novel of the same name
Fabio De Luigi