Noirish Italo romancer "First Love." uses dieting as a method of oppression, which is both unusual and brave, and domestic abuse portrayed here has the authentic feel of Jimmy Stewart's obsession with Kim Novak's clothes in "Vertigo." Pic divided crix at its Berlin preem, but ensured some future beyond the fest circuit.

Ill-matched lovers and psychological disorders provide food for thought in noirish Italo romancer “First Love.” Using dieting as a method of oppression is both unusual and brave, and cinematically the domestic abuse portrayed here has the authentic feel of Jimmy Stewart’s obsession with Kim Novak’s clothes in “Vertigo.” But “First Love’s” subject is undermined by the film’s fixation with form and surfaces, whether human, architectural or natural. Pic divided crix at its Berlin preem, but its luxuriant, chiaroscuro visuals and dalliance with the touchy subject of women’s body size will ensure some future beyond the fest circuit.

Twenty-five-year-old Sonia (Michela Cescon), a shop assistant and artist’s model, meets austere, thirtysomething goldsmith Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan) on a blind date. The rendezvous is presumably the result of an Internet dating encounter, as the pair is on first-name terms, but as they visually appraise each other it’s clear Vittorio is disappointed by Sonia’s body shape — she’s svelte, but a little fuller than slim. Put out, she makes an effort to leave, but Vittorio encourages her to stay for a chat.

Over the next few days, the pair becomes further acquainted. Vittorio lives alone in a fortress-like structure above his workshop: He’s literally caged in by his need for financial and emotional security. Sonia resides with her brother (Roberto Comacchio), with whom she has a relationship that veers between the supportive and the irksomely close.

Using the acquisition of a new home outside town as leverage, Vittorio persuades Sonia to move in with him and his preoccupation with her weight begins in earnest. With initial encouragement that she’ll feel better about herself after shedding some pounds, Vittorio soon ups the ante to the point where Sonia can consume food only under his watchful gaze.

The feeding regime takes its toll on both of them. Vittorio makes a series of unfortunate business decisions due to his inability to focus on anything other than Sonia. Simultaneously, the constant lack of nourishment makes Sonia irritable at best and hallucinatory at worst. Unable or unwilling to work among other people, the enmeshed couple unhappily retreats deeper into their shared world, with disastrous results.

Virtually a two-hander, pic demands and delivers strong perfs. Cescon convincingly inhabits the role of Sonia, which could have quickly become tiresome if played incorrectly: Few actresses have so daringly bared themselves (literally) in such a vulnerable way. As Vittorio, Trevisan manages to be both malevolent and sympathetic, which is also no mean trick.

Direction by Matteo Garrone, who made the similarly obsessive “The Embalmer,” is assured and precise, but prone to indulgent moments of contemplation. One particular sequence on a rowboat, in which the protags are deliberately kept out of focus, comes across as irritatingly arty in its heavy-handed demonstration that the pair is out of synch with reality.

While engaging, pic eventually betrays itself as having a trivial attitude to its chosen subject, with a climactic scene that is genuinely, but inappropriately, amusing. Given the preceding build-up, this misplaced humor comes as a letdown. The film immediately attempts to bounce back to its foregoing ominous atmosphere, but the break in tension and the predictability of the finale makes the damage irreparable.

With its deep blacks and use of color chiaroscuro, Marco Onorato’s lensing is faultless. Music by Banda Osiris is tantalizingly sinister in a classical vein. Other tech credits are likewise impressive.

First Love

Italy

Production

A Fandango production, in collaboration with Medusa Film. (International sales: The Works, London.) Produced by Laura Paolucci. Directed by Matteo Garrone. Screenplay, Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso, Vitaliano Trevisan based on the novel "Il cacciatore di anoressiche" by Marco Mariolini.

Crew

Camera (color), Marco Onorato; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Banda Osiris; art director, Paolo Bonfini; costume designer, Francesca Leondeff; sound (Dolby Digital), Marcietta Lombardo; assistant director, Gianni Di Gregorio. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 9, 2004. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Sonia - Michela Cescon Vittorio - Vitaliano Trevisan Sonia's Brother - Roberto Comacchio
With: Alberto Re, Paolo Caoduro, Elvezia Allari, Antonella Mazzucato, Gianluca Moretto, Marco Manzardo, Antonio Viero, Deni Viero, Claudio Manuzzato, Pierpaolo Speggiorin, Paolo Cumerlato.

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