John Bleasdale Venice Film Festival

Venice 2017: Una Famiglia review


★☆☆☆☆

Sebastiano Riso flies the Italian flag on the Lido with his new film Una Famiglia, a claustrophobic, scuzzy drama about a couple engaged in the illicit trade of selling babies. It’s a dour, monotonous, predictable and dull effort that doesn’t deserve its place in competition.

We first spot Maria (Micaela Ramazzotti) and Vincenzo (French singer and actor Patrick Bruel) on the Rome Metro. They are obviously troubled, but there is some bond there. However, when Maria spots a family, she inexplicably gives chase. She never catches up to them and is apologetic to Vincenzo. They return to their concrete-coloured apartment for some joyless sex. Something is rotten in the state of their relationship. Is Vincenzo a pimp? Is Maria anorexic? They are apparently trying to have a baby, the bin is full of used pregnancy kits which doesn’t seem to make sense but okay. One thing is apparent: Maria would rather not have a baby but she can’t or won’t tell Vincenzo this, going to her sleazy doctor (Fortunato Cerlino) on the sly to have a coil fitted.

Riso along with fellow screenwriters Stefano Grasso and Andrea Cedrola allow the truth to slowly emerge. Vincenzo, it becomes clear, is abusive and controlling. He holds onto the money. She stays at home when he goes out to get himself a massage. There’s a threat of violence in the air that will come out as the story finally progresses. And yet during the first particularly violent scene, the director decides to take the camera for a wander around the backyard of the apartment block in a swooping single cut long shot as it goes on. Both an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy and a bit of look-at-me direction, the move also feels like a failure of nerve, an evasion of the brutality of one of the lead characters. In fact, Vincenzo is a sordid little man with very little appeal to help you understand how he got the looker Maria in the first place.

Later on Vicenzo will start grooming another young woman, no doubt to take Maria’s place, and the scenes are almost exceptionally badly written and performed. His charm looks pretty much like his sleepy contempt. ‘Based on true stories,’ the title announces at the beginning of the drama. And as the subject matter purports to be the exploitation of women for the purposes of selling their babies, the filmmakers have some responsibility to do a better job than this. However, the film is so one-note and colourless, the performances of one dimensional characters pitching from catatonic to histrionic, that very little empathy is possible.

Maria scratches her fingernails in extreme close up against the wood of the table and Vincenzo hints at a terrible childhood as some vague justification for what he is doing. With another baby on the way, Maria begins to unravel and Vincenzo is apparently appalled at the fact a gay couple want the baby. Una Famiglia is the kind of social realism that isn’t realistic and says little about society. It traps both its characters and the audience in a hopeless misery that the predictable symbolism – she’s called Maria remember – does nothing to justify.

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John Bleasdale | @drjonty