The uneasy rapport between North and South as well as the divisions between classes and generations have often been central themes in Italian films. Director Mimmo Calopresti brings delicacy and emotional resonance to those questions in “I Prefer the Sound of the Sea.” Melancholy without being ponderous , this densely textured, plaintive drama about the friendship between two adolescent boys from different worlds represents a high point in a bleak season for Italian productions. Critical support should lead to decent niche business at home, and festival attention could open select arthouse doors abroad.
While his 1998 drama, “Notes of Love” (aka “The Word Love Exists”), felt mannered and artificial, this third film by documaker turned feature director Calopresti marks a return to the sober intelligence of his 1995 debut, “The Second Time,” which played in competition at Cannes the following year. Like that earlier drama, “I Prefer the Sound of the Sea” — a line from a verse by early-20th-century Italian poet Dino Campana — is a challenging work that declines explicit definition of its characters or their motivations, ultimately volunteering more questions than answers. And as in “The Second Time,” this approach can be both frustrating and stimulating.
The two boys are polar opposites. Rosario (Michele Raso), from Calabria in the far South, is deeply religious, polite but taciturn and proudly self-sufficient, refusing offers of help despite his disadvantaged position, with a father in prison and a mother erased in a mob hit. Uncommunicative and unhappy for reasons he seems neither to comprehend nor consider, Matteo (Paolo Cirio) is the privileged, sullen son of Calabrian Luigi (Silvio Orlando), who has become a wealthy businessman in Turin.
When Rosario gets into a scrape, Luigi, who is a distant relative, takes an interest in his case. He arranges with his old friend Don Lorenzo (Calopresti) to bring Rosario north to Turin for a spell in the community home the priest runs for troubled youths.
Luigi encourages the boy to spend time at his home on weekends, hoping his company will jolt Matteo out of his deadened state. But while the friendship between the boys slowly and awkwardly takes shape, Luigi’s deep-rooted prejudices about the South and his origins resurface, causing him to lose Rosario’s trust. Rosario’s strength of character helps unlock the urge in Matteo to rebel, but Luigi’s inability to communicate with either boy makes his sense of isolation even more acute.
Written by Calopresti — himself a Southerner long based in Turin — with regular collaborators Francesco Bruni and Heidrun Schleef, the sorrowful, moving drama reflects on questions of solitude, incomprehension and the often misguided impulse to help, on choices, failures, defeats and uncertainties. That the film offers no real answers makes it all the more honest and unsettling, though some auds may crave more clear-cut resolutions.
Characters are never black-and-white, revealing interesting ambiguities. Casting of Orlando is a little unimaginative, given that he’s become the Italian poster boy for these solitary types, imprisoned by their own rigidity. But the actor is effective nonetheless, and unafraid to make Luigi as cold and remote as he is sad and pitiable. Fabrizia Sacchi registers strongly as Luigi’s dissatisfied lover, exposing the woman’s longing without denying her dignity; and Calopresti carves a sympathetic role for himself as the straight-talking cleric.
But the real core of the film is the two boys, convincingly played by first-time thesps Raso and Cirio in a kind of monotone, emotionless non-performance style that seems appropriate to the damp-spirited generation being portrayed here. Raso in particular impresses, his solemn intensity helping to convey Rosario’s almost arrogant determination to adhere to his convictions, to remain in charge of his destiny and depend on no one.
Lenser Luca Bigazzi again delivers distinguished work, shooting the drama mainly in somber, washed-out colors that suitably echo its poignant mood.