Micaela Ramazzotti and Patrick Bruel star in Sebastiano Riso’s melodrama about professional surrogates

Dir: Sebastiano Riso. Italy/France. 2017. 119 mins

A family

Relationship drama A Family aims for the ‘harrowing’ bracket but falls short and lands squarely on ‘gruelling’. This sombre, over-extended second feature from Sebastiano Riso – inspired, we’re told, by true stories, in the plural - offers a tantalising first act, largely because the film is so circumspect about putting its narrative cards on the table. But once we realise what’s at stake, and where it’s all likely to go, this grim study of a damaged duo, and of the screwed-up society they live in, offers diminishing returns.

A preposterous final act enters the realm of the positively operatic

Leads Micaela Ramazzotti and Patrick Bruel strive gamely to bring their characters to flesh-and-blood life, but are hampered by a script that pushes them towards increasingly melodramatic extremes. Riso’s 2014 troubled-teens drama Darker Than Midnight won him some attention on the strength of its youth content; this rather more stolid offering doesn’t have that asset, although Ramazotti’s current prominence, following her much-praised turn in Paolo Virzi’s Like Crazy, could win some attention.

Middle-aged Frenchman Vincenzo (Bruel) and somewhat younger partner Maria (Ramazzoti) are first seen huddled on the Rome subway, looking run-down and nervous, before she suddenly runs for it. For the first half hour or so, Riso teases us with hints about this pair – they’re clearly in the grip of amour fou, clearly both carry traumatic baggage and are at odds, sometimes violently, about the possibility of Maria getting pregnant – something that she’s currently trying to avoid.

It eventually – perhaps too late for the theme to really spark – emerges that the couple have already had several babies, which they’ve sold for money, and that Vincenzo wants Maria to have another. There are hints that both characters have dark back stories, but nothing explains how they embarked on their dubious path or why Maria has gone along with Vincenzo pimping her body, his propensity to violence notwithstanding. Little enlightenment emerges as the drama heads from crisis to crisis, with Vincenzo attacked by a dissatisfied customer, Maria attending the funeral of a child they’ve recently sold (perhaps the moment when the film tips irreparably into excess) and Vincenzo befriending Stella, an abused teenager (Matilda de Angelis).

At one point, Stella tells Vincenzo that he has kind eyes – and indeed, Bruel’s likeable, weather-beaten physiognomy serves as a sort of safety valve, stopping his character from seeming too obviously monstrous. His performance is solid and restrained, although his seemingly arbitrary flipping between French and Italian can be distracting. More problematic is Maria, played full-on by Ramazotti from the first. The character’s consistently sexualized presentation – badly bleached hair, waif-like tops, a penchant for micro-skirts – may be intended as a rough sketch of Maria’s psyche, but instead imprisons her in the stereotype of the glamorously troubled and victim-like child-woman, Betty Blue style. Ramazotti’s visual distinction – her strong, angular face, à la Hilary Swank – serves to denote a certain toughness. But she has the deck stacked against her in terms of making Maria real, especially when a preposterous final act enters the realm of the positively operatic.

Piero Basso’s cinematography offers some classy intensity, with colours are desaturated to a range of greys, except when Maria puts on hot red nail varnish in a number of oddly fetishistic sequences. None of the film’s stylistic confidence, however, improves a sluggish pace nor helps engage our empathy on any real level. In the end, the bleak social vision never transcends the level of a disapproving wallow.

Production companies: Indiana Production, Rai Cinema, Bac Films Production, Manny Films

International sales: Bac Films International, g.sousa@bacfilms.fr

Producers: Fabrizio Donvito, Benedetto Habib, Marco Cohen

Executive producers: Ferdinando Bonifazi, Daniel Campos Pavoncelli, David Grumbach, Veronique Crasset

Screenplay: Andrea Cedrola, Stefano Grasso, Sebastiano Riso

Cinematography: Piero Basso

Production designer: Paola Bizzarri

Editor: Ilaria Fraioli

Music: Michele Braga

Main cast: Micaela Ramazzotti, Patrick Bruel, Pippo Delbono, Fortunato Cerlino,
Marco Leonardi