Dir: Paolo Franchi It/Switz. 2007. 100 mins.
Paolo Franchi is the true heir to Antonioni among the current crop of young Italian directors: he's fascinated by passive, blocked, brooding characters, by emotions that can hardly be translated into images, let alone words. And like the films of the late lamented Ferrarese maestro, both Franchi's promising debut La Spettatrice and his current Venice competition entry feel like ongoing thought processes rather than finished, wrapped and bundled creative efforts.

The risk of this approach, as well as its satisfactions, are evident in Fallen Heroes, which is by turns fascinating and frustrating. But Fallen Heroes nevertheless confirms Franchi as a beacon of talent to rank alongside Paolo Sorrentino, Matteo Garrone and Saverio Costanzo in the dark forest of contemporary Italian arthouse cinema. This is a sombre film that makes demands on audiences, and it will appeal to those with an appetite for a tussle with complexity. Best results will be posted at home in Italy, in the co-production territory of Switzerland, and in France, where Todeschini and Jacob are both guarantees of quality. Elsewhere further festival action will probably be needed to tickle distributors.

The film's pull derives from Franchi's deep sympathy for his characters and the fact that he grounds their bottled-up desperation in closely observed emotional detail (two things that were not always true of Antonioni). It helps, too, that this existential noir about a young man with father problems who apparently begins stalking an older man with father problems is grounded in three fine performances, by Bruno Todeschini (Secret Agents, La Petite Jerusalem), Elio Germano (My Brother is an Only Child) and a touching, vulnerable Irene Jacob.

The frustrations lie perhaps in the fact that for all his probing Franchi himself never seems to work out exactly what he wants to say, and perhaps in desperation lets his tentative probings be forced by the thriller plotline, which barges in more than once like the bull of story in the china shop of emotions. Sudden amplified passages in Martin Wheeler's terse, suspenseful electronic soundtrack seem to fall into the same trap, frantically underlining complex and unresolved cruxes that deserve a more delicate accompaniment.

Fallen Heroes ('Heroes without quality' better renders the Italian title) resembles La Spettatrice in many ways. In both, one character spies on another; in both, voyeur and victim are brought together with unpredictable consequences. But restless young Luca (Elio Germano) is more aggressive and, we soon discover, more motivated in his observations of middle-aged French businessman Bruno Ledeux (Bruno Todeschini) than the hesitant female voyeur of Franchi's debut. Luca's father is a bank manager who doubles as a loan shark - and Bruno is heavily in debt to him. Luca is disgusted by his father's deadbeat double life and, we feel, shamed by his father's implied contempt for him.

Bruno too had a domineering father - a self-obsessed painter who continues to torment his son even after his death. He can't have children himself, either: we learn at the beginning that Bruno is infertile - a metaphor perhaps for his emotional blockages, for the fact that he is a walking dead-end. Though Bruno's wife Anne is sweet, conciliatory and understanding, her unconditional love only serves to send Bruno further into the fog of self-hatred and depression.

Lighting, camerawork and sound design conspire to stress the jangling harshness of the world inhabited by the two lost and conflicted central characters. Alternately penumbral and illuminated by harsh artificial light, often in the same scene, the film pans out in a series of unforgiving grey cityscapes (Turin and briefly Geneva) and cold interiors.

Background electric hums are turned up to mirror the interference inside Bruno's head, and there's a jagged rhythm to the montage, with scenes of uneasy calm being cut into by jabs of frantic action. The final frustration of Fallen Heroes is the ending, which consists of a twist that little of what has come before has prepared us for. It feels a little as if Hitchcock had been drafted in to wrap up the mystery of L'Avventura and tie it with a neat bow.

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Bianca Film (It)
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Beppe Caschetto
Anastasia Michelagnoli

Donatella Botti
Elda Guidinetti
Andreas Pfaelli

Paolo Franchi
Daniela Ceselli
with the collaboration of Michele Pellegrini

Cesare Accetta

Production design
Gianmaria Cau

Alessio Doglione

Martin Wheeler

Main cast
Bruno Todeschini
Elio Germano
Irene Jacob
Maria de Medeiros