Dir: Daniele Vicari. Italy. 2008. 120 mins.
Italian director Daniele Vicari's latest outing is uneven but compellingly-dark. Shot, scored and directed with terrific command of atmosphere, this study of the relationship between a conflicted law student from a good family and the dangerous but attractive working class card-sharp he takes up with is one of those films that manages to add up to more than the potentially low-figure sum of its parts.
The Past's plot in particular is full of loose ends; but the disturbing, amoral, dreamlike spiral of the main story has enough energy to carry the audience through, largely thanks to the strong dynamic set up between established young talent Elio Germano and relative newcomer Michele Riondino.
Produced by Fandango and distributed in Italy by 01, the film should score more respectable takings than Vicari's last, the existential Orizzonte degli Eventi, and could strike a chord with the twentysomething generation it portrays. But without the media heft or broad canvas of the equally bleak Gomorrah, this is commercially limited and may be affected by the release only six months ago of another film in which Germano played a compulsive gambler - La mattina ha l'oro in bocca. Abroad, the film may pick up some isolated arthouse action.
Based on the novel by lawyer Gianrico Carofiglio, the film opens outside a courtroom where young prosecutor Giorgio (Germano) is accosted by a battered woman who claims to know him. Then we backtrack into the past with impressionistic images of a night drive accompanied by brooding electronic chords; there's a sense that everything we see until the courtroom prologue is tied up almost two hours later is a bad dream taking place, as the title suggests, in a strange land.
At an illegal gambling party in a crass country villa, the restless, well-heeled Giorgio meets young card-sharp Francesco (Riondino), who introduces the law student to a sleazy but invigorating world of high-stakes poker games on the wrong side of town. Francesco works the cards to make sure Giorgio wins, and the two split the takings - with Giorgio hiding his, in a neat touch, in his father's nostalgic but unopened copy of the collected works of Marx and Engels.
Giorgio neglects his studies, has a steamy affair with a married poker-playing femme fatale (Caselli) and rows with his emotionally repressed parents, whom he still lives with.
The southern Italian port town of Bari figures as an ugly, alienating city, infected by the moral void that Giorgio, deep down, seems to be raging against. The camerawork is psychologically telling, though not pretty, with plenty of blurred foregrounds; and both music and sound design contribute to the increasingly miasmic, dark urban atmosphere.
Something is lost when the two wary friends head to Barcelona to seal a cocaine deal; Vicari does not seem so sure of himself on foreign territory, and away from the brooding cityscapes of Bari the tense, uneven bond between the two friends loses some of its power. But a shift into darker territory that takes place here sets up the story's dour and claustrophobic Italian denouement.
As the film wraps, such is our focus on the psychological duel between the two characters the we forget that nobody ever explained what happened to the cocaine. Or the Spanish waitress. Or Giorgio's girlfriend. This casualness is more irritating after the event than at the time, as Vicari's ravishing mise-en-scene leaves little space for alternative universes.
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(from his novel)