This review was corrected on July 17, 2002.
A low-key but intriguing thriller with ethical underpinnings, based on the unsolved disappearance of an Italian economics prof, “The Final Lesson” is a quietly impressive debut by writer-director Fabio Rosi. Mood of expectation and unease is cultivated with a sure hand as one of the missing man’s former students attempts to solve his mentor’s vanishing act while deciding whether or not to apply the old man’s rigid standards to his current work in finance. Despite its Italian setting, pic has a universal resonance that should be welcome at fests and on quality TV.
On April 14, 1987, Prof. Federico Caffe, a leading light in economic theory and an influential teacher for 30 years, left his passport, glasses, watch and other crucial personal effects on a desk in his study, walked out of his Rome house and was never heard from again. The police and a core group of his students searched high and low, positing suicide, kidnapping by terrorists or even an unpublicized retreat to a monastery. However, no useful evidence ever emerged concerning the 73-year-old Caffe’s fate.
Scripters have created the fictional character of Andrea Collati (Ignazio Oliva), who dropped out of Caffe’s doctoral program to accept a job at a prestigious financial organization. Ordered to fudge a report on a proposed public stock offering, Andrea sees multiple flaws in the proposal and must decide whether to gloss them over or point them out.
While the pressure is on, Andrea has a falling out with dishy looker Monica (Chiara Conti), a fellow economist. She’s still a student and hasn’t yet been faced with the kind of dicey choice troubling Andrea.
All fierce backbone and seasoned wisdom, Caffe, portrayed in flashbacks as a frequently curmudgeonly but staunchly independent paragon, is brought to life by Roberto Herlitzka, whose presence permeates entire pic despite relatively brief screen time. Whether Caffe engineered his own disappearance or met with foul play, is explored up until the final frames.
Effective lensing judiciously switches between intimate, mobile camerawork and a more poised, formal approach. Extracts from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and mostly unsettling compositions by the Matilda Mothers Project suit the proceedings.