What are those films that you find so difficult to describe? The work of which filmmakers would you classify as “unclassifiable”? In my case, I would say that there is such a difficult oddity to digest Yorgos Lanthimos’ films, including, of course, The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of Sacred Deer (2017). Same with Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2017).
Another filmmaker whose work I have recently discovered and have been struck by the uniqueness of his approach is the Italian Matteo Garrone, director of Tales of Tales (2015), Dogman (2018) and Pinocchio (2019), amongst others. Precisely from the brothers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, Garrone’s collaborating writers in Dogman, comes Bad Tales (Favolacce), one of the most disturbing, alluring and yet hard to describe films of the year.
Selected to compete for the Golden Bear in the main competition section at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, the film earned the D’Innocenzo brothers the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. A well-deserved award, as the film has a well-crafted, tricky script. Among other things, Bad Tales is a brilliant storytelling exercise.
The film starts with the voice-over of a man who claims to have come across a girl’s diary, and when he reached its final part, he decided to continue writing in it. Why? “Because I liked that life,” says the narrative voice. “What follows was inspired by a true story. The true story was inspired by a lie. The lie is rather uninspired”, he warns us. In this way, we are facing a film that from the beginning reveals that sometimes problematic relationship between reality and fiction and that, somehow, confuses our expectations and surprises us with unexpected dramatic turns.
Bad Tales presents several interconnected stories of families dealing with the complexities of domestic life, linking children’s vision with adult behavior. We have Bruno and Dalila Placido, played respectively by Elio Germano and Barbara Chichiarelli, parents of outstanding students Dennis (Tommaso Di Cola) and Alessia (Giullietta Rebeggiani). This is a family that at first seems to be perfect, but we soon notice some restlessness in children’s eyes. Throughout the film, the camera searches characters’ faces to reveal their anxieties. In fact, this is a film where more things happen in silences than in dialogue.
The truth is that Bruno and Dalila’s marriage is going through a crisis, although we are never given many details about it. The D’Innocenzo brothers focus on the drama of Dennis, a boy who faces the sexual awakening of adolescence, which is observed mainly in his peculiar relationship with a young pregnant neighbor and with Ada (Laura Borgioli), another restless and curious child.
We also have Petro (Max Malatesta) and Susanna (Cristina Pellegrino), parents of Viola (Giulia Melillo). This is another unique family in which parents demand a lot from their daughter, who is always quiet and shy, forced to wear a wig after her parents cut her hair as punishment. The truth is that throughout the film the actions of parents towards their children are irrational. Fortunately, Viola finds comfort in the company of Geremia (Justin Korovkin), son of the always electrifying Amelio (Gabriel Montesi). They both appear to be of a lower social class than the other families, living in an isolated and depressing house.
Something interesting about the film is that, although it takes place in Italian neighborhoods, it feels so real and universal that at the same time speaks of life and the illusion of family in the American suburbs. In that sense, at times it reminds us of Hollywood classics like American Beauty (1999) or Little Children (2006). However, the children’s perspective is central here. They do not get to express their concerns in detailed dialogues, but rather in looks that range from palpable fear to contained rage about to explode. The aggressions they suffer from adults range from the most subtle to the most extreme, unleashing devastating consequences.
The cinematography by Paolo Cernera is perfect in the visual construction of that summer landscape, displaying curious and hypnotic images. In fact, the film achieves a great balance between image and sound, accompanying the visual approach with that irritating screeching of insects.
All the performances are outstanding. A remarkable work by an ensemble cast. However, it is also fair to say that this considerable number of characters that come and go at times works against the film. Furthermore, it is true that the film seeks – not always successfully – to encompass many ideas, but the result is compelling enough.
Bad Tales opens in select theaters, virtual cinemas and premium video on demand June 11
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