Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino takes an original and teasingly oblique path to one of the most frequently explored dramatic subjects in Italian film in his stylish second feature "The Consequences of Love." Recounting the stilted life of an exiled white-collar criminal, the film is a clever exercise in precise direction and character study.

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino takes an original, reflective and teasingly oblique path to one of the most frequently explored dramatic subjects in Italian film in his stylish second feature “The Consequences of Love,” which calmly surveys the existence of a peripheral figure in the grip of Cosa Nostra. Recounting the stilted life of an exiled white-collar criminal, the film is a coldly clever exercise in precise direction and quasi-scientific character study. What may be distancing and mannered for some will be bracingly mesmerizing for others, signaling ongoing festival invitations and perhaps some high-end arthouse bookings.

Neapolitan filmmaker Sorrentino has negotiated a significant leap in confidence and promise from his 1999 debut “One Man Up,” which was notable for its insightful writing, complex structure and facility with actors. This far more accomplished, tightly focused drama exhibits an exacting control over every aspect of the medium, its over-crafted feel at times bordering on intrusiveness.

A solemnly superior 50-year-old former stockbroker from southern Italy, Titta Di Girolamo (Toni Servillo) has absolutely nothing frivolous about him aside from his name. A chronic insomniac, he lives in an anonymous hotel in an unremarkable Swiss-Italian town. Displaying the same punctiliousness with his addiction as with everything else in his joyless life, Titta once a week shoots up heroin in his room, in a routine from which he never wavers. One or more times a week, he receives delivery of a suitcase containing several million dollars, which he consigns to a high-security bank, insisting it be counted by hand.

Titta sits each day in the hotel lounge, observing bartender Sofia (Olivia Magnani) with evident attraction but never acknowledging her attempts to be friendly. At night, he plays cards with the former hotel owners (Angela Goodwin, Raffaele Pisu), a bitter couple whose wealth has been gambled away. When his younger brother and polar opposite Valerio (Adriano Giannini) visits en route to a surfing instructor gig in the Maldives, Titta is nudged into breaking his silence and establishing a timid communication channel with Sofia.

With much the same chilly remove from which Titta observes the lives of those around him, Sorrentino lays out clues to the brittle man’s past and the secret that pushed him into isolation, separated from his wife and three children who prefer not to speak to him. As his connection to Sofia becomes more tangible, the spare narrative also takes on more weight, shifting into genre territory that’s perhaps less distinctive but maintains a cool fascination through to the end.

Masterfully photographed in widescreen by Luca Bigazzi, the film’s first daringly held single shot of a bank employee on a people-mover reveals a highly evolved visual style not at all apparent in Sorrentino’s more modest first feature. The director owes a debt to Antonioni in his able use of silence, physical distances, abstracted space and sterile environments to convey detachment and delineate the protagonist’s emotional neutrality.

The use of cold electronic music and occasional arch bursts of strings feels too studied, and at times, the film slides into fussy theatricality, particularly with the fallen hoteliers as they verbally spar or recite a litany of lost treasures. But for the most part, the script is as sharply honed as Giogio Franchetti’s editing. Sorrentino has a flair for soberly witty dialogue that keeps the extensive voiceover from becoming too ponderous, and the somber mood is lightened by amusing exchanges such as one between Titta and the hotel manager as they swap secrets.

No less vital than the highly composed visuals in sustaining the film’s austere spell is Servillo’s remarkable performance. A theater actor who has done notable work with other Neapolitan directors like Mario Martone — he also starred in “One Man Up” — Servillo outclasses John Malkovich here on the aloof scale, creating an unblinking, emotionless character given to droll disdain, who only infinitesimally discloses feelings of fear, discomfort or need.

The Consequences of Love

Competing / Italy

Production

A Medusa Film release of a Domenico Procacci, Nicola Giuliano presentation of a Fandango and Indigo Film production in association with Medusa Film. (International sales: The Works, London.) Produced by Domenico Procacci, Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Angelo Curti. Directed, written by Paolo Sorrentino.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Luca Bigazzi; editor, Giogio Franchini; music, Pasquale Catalano; production designer, Lino Fiorito; costume designer, Ortensia De Francesco; sound (Dolby Digital), Emanuele Cecere, Daghi Rondanini; line producer, Viola Prestieri; assistant director, Bruno Memoli. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 13, 2004. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Titta Di Girolamo - Toni Servillo Sofia - Olivia Magnani Valerio - Adriano Giannini Isabella - Angela Goodwin Carlo - Raffaele Pisu
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