John Bleasdale LFF

BFI London Film Festival 2012: ‘It Was the Son’ review

★★☆☆☆

Based on a novel by Roberto Alaimo, It Was the Son (È stato il figlio, 2012) director Daniele Ciprì – who has previously made his name as a cinematographer work for such acclaimed filmmakers as Marco Bellocchio – gives a visually imaginative look to his new feature, utilising a stylish sheen similar in the manner of the early films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Unfortunately, It Was the Son has deep-seeded problems when it comes to its control of tone.

A lonely old man (Alfredo Castro) sits in a post office with a plastic bag waiting his turn. While he sits, he tells stories. One story in particular seems to obsess him, that of the Ciraulo family. Living a hand to mouth existence in an already crumbling high rise on the outskirts of Palermo, Sicily, the family is ruled by Nicola (Tony Servillio), who works hard to scavenge a living and takes occasional pleasure in taking his wife Loredana (Giselda Volodi) and his beloved daughter Serenella (Alessia Zammitti) and his gormless son Tancredi (Fabrizio Falco) to the sea, along with his own elderly parents who also live with them.

The family seems to be getting by, though the television doesn’t work and occasionally the council turn the water off for no particular reason. Tragedy hits when the daughter is killed during a Mafia hit gone wrong and the family is left distraught. But Giovanni, a workmate of Nicola, tells him that he can apply for compensation, as the bereaved relative of a victim of the Mafia. Assured of the arrival of a significant amount of money the family begin to get into debt and when it does arrive, Nicola sets his heart on buying a Mercedes.

Beginning as a broad comedy with larger than life characters bellowing like something out of a comic opera, Ciprì’s It Was the Son hits a tragic note with the death of Serenella, only to quickly revert back to jokes about fat people and lawyers with dandruff. There is something vulgar at this laughing at vulgarity, even when it comes to the Mercedes. The daughter has passed from their (and the director’s) thoughts almost entirely. Her death is given one of those overhead spirally shots which is cinematic shorthand for overwhelming grief but that’s more or less it.

The buying of the Mercedes is an opportunity to laugh at Nicola’s cupidity, but this is no satire on the dangers of materialism. The actors all give the large performances required and Tony Servillio is as ever masterful in his art, but It Was the Son’s twists are predictable, its wizardry is irrelevant and what it has to say is incoherent.

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John Bleasdale