A generally unsurprising Cannes competition received an invigorating blast of invention with The Family Friend, a stylish, dark but sometimes perplexing third feature from Neapolitan director Paolo Sorrentino.
The story of a thoroughly grumpy old loanshark, this philosophical black comedy sets itself the challenge of making us sympathise with the most unlikeable character imaginable. Sorrentino's stylistic verve, and a sometimes baffling narrative, may detract from the emotional charge of a fairytale-like narrative that's as much Rumpelstiltskin as Beauty and the Beast, and viewers who loved Sorrentino's sleekly enigmatic The Consequences of Love may find this one altogether too abrasive.
But the sheer vigour of Sorrentino's imagination, plus an outstandingly oddball performance by veteran actor Giacomo Rizzi, should win the film an enthusiastic festival following and healthy sales to adventurous distributors.
The film kicks in with a galvanisingly bizarre intro - a nun buried up to her neck in sand, set to a blast of what can only be described as heavy metal cello - and never lets up. Rizzo plays Geremia de'Geremei, an elderly tailor and moneylender who has accumulated a fortune by making small but lucrative loans, but who still lives with his ancient, bedridden mother in a gruesomely squalid flat. Geremia likes to think of himself as a best friend to the people he helps, poking his nose into their lives like a benevolent but fussy uncle. But if they default on their debt, his clients are likely to find themselves buried in sand, or worse.
Geremia's life takes a turn when he helps out with the wedding of Rosalba (Chiatti), a drop-dead-bellissima local beauty queen and daughter of the pathologically stingy Saverio (Angelillo). Like a bad fairy at Cinderella's ball, the wizened, unsightly Geremia pressures the defiant Rosalba into having sex with him, but his downfall seems in sight when he's asked for an astronomically large loan by a local bidet magnate.
It's an exceptionally eccentric narrative, and Sorrentino creates visuals to match. The opening 20 minutes fire off a barrage of inscrutable, often grotesque images. Our first sight of Geremia has him staring dolefully to camera wearing a strange kerchief headdress: it turns out to be a potato poultice which he wears as a headache cure. The setting is a town built on swampland by Mussolini; its monumental, brutalist vistas contrasting effectively with the cramped shoddiness of Geremia's personal universe.
Into a world photographed with an eye for Lynch-like shadows and dirt, Sorrentino and director of photography Luca Bigazzi intermittently drop equally surreal but less jarring sights - Rosalba doing a robotic beauty show routine, and a vista of line-dancing Italian country fans.
For many viewers, The Family Friend will register as one long succession of disjointed eccentricities. It's undeniable that Sorrentino's images are often somewhat recherche and that he simply makes the viewer work too hard to fathom the pieces together. Many will also find the sexual connection between Geremia and Rosalba altogther too creepy to be countenanced. But to perplex us and creep us out is precisely what Sorrentino wants to do - and he has a great amount of fun doing it. The scuttling, goblin-like Geremia, with his strange delicate mannerisms and inexhaustible garrulousness, is simply one of the strangest creations seen on screen in ages, and Rizzo's sublimely cranky performance is likely to stick in the memory for a long time to come.
Sorrentino is one of the handful of European directors - like Julio Medem - currently able to create their own hermetic, entirely distinctive worlds. The imagination and panache here come as a kick in the pants - not least to contemporary Italian cinema.
Riccardo del Fra