Italian films never get more curious or Byzantine than when they deal with the Catholic religion; proving no exception, Saverio Costanzo’s “In Memory of Myself” bursts with powerful originality and some very deep thinking on screen, along with a tense, involving atmosphere. But its point of view on the Church is harder to pin down than Marco Bellocchio’s rich tapestry “The Religion Hour”/”My Mother’s Smile.” This apparently austere meditation on faith and what it takes to be a priest will fascinate viewers drawn to its unusual theme while leaving another, probably larger, part of the paying public angrily scratching their heads.
Though at first it seems the screenplay will turn around a problem of homosexuality among the novitiates (more upfront in the 1960 Furio Monicelli novel “The Perfect Jesuit”/”Impure Tears” on which the story is based) or their moral dilemma in informing on their peers as the rules demand, pic perversely veers away from simple drama to focus on the protags’ spiritual crises, which are much harder to untangle.
Even the central question of whether they should stay in the seminary and submit to a discipline that has little to do with love of one’s fellow men, or leave and seek an elusive freedom in the world, never gets satisfactorily resolved in a frustratingly coy, have-it-both-ways ending that will be inoffensive to viewers of all persuasions.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, the film has stunning camerawork, an intriguing atmosphere and deep characterizations going for it. Critical appreciation is likely to be forthcoming for Costanzo, whose widely sold 2004 debut “Private,” set in occupied Palestine, launched a brilliant festival career beginning with a Golden Leopard at Locarno. Echoing the monastery setting of Philip Groning’s documentary “Into Great Silence,” here the action takes place entirely in an island seminary on the Venice lagoon — the majestic San Giorgio Maggiore — populated by a religious community of priests.
Clean-cut, intelligent Andrea (Christo Jivkov) arrives in the seminary for his spiritual training, having decided to turn his back on the world’s confusing possibilities and enter the priesthood. The poker-faced Father Superior (Andre Hennicke) informs him it will be a testing period for both him and the community to see if he has a real vocation. From their first, terse dialogue, it’s clear that Andrea is going through an inner crisis and is searching for something to live for.
The novitiates’ time is spent in silence and meditation. Common meals in the refrectory and unplanned meetings in the hall and lavatory give them a chance to make eye contact and size each other up. In a fascinating scene in which the Father Master (Marco Baliani) commands the novitiates to speak their mind, they tell Andrea he seems stuck up and overly curious.
One of the things he is curious about is the dark horse novice Fausto (Fausto Russo Alesi), who rather absurdly expresses his unnamed torments by banging his head against a wall. When Fausto leaves the seminary, Andrea’s morbid attention shifts to his friend Zanna (Filippo Timi). The most human character in the film, Zanna exchanges views with Andrea on the emptiness he senses in the Church in an intense nocturnal scene, made more mysterious with all gay subtext airbrushed out.
The well-cast young Jivkov, who played John in “The Passion of the Christ” and the semi-religious figure of Giovanni De’ Medici in Olmi’s “The Profession of Arms,” makes skillful use of an ambiguous face that recalls both a sensitive angel and an emotionally dead soldier. As his intellectual counterpart Zanna, stage thesp Timi is riveting and magnetic in brooding close-ups. German actor Hennicke (“Sophie Scholl”) offers an icy take on Father Superior that never slips into cliche.
Camerawork takes a giant leap beyond the grungy video look of “Private” to play a strategic role in defining Andrea’s choices. The perfectly balanced, full-frontal shots of the seminary’s high-ceilinged hallways and rows of identical doors suggest the kind of straight-and-narrow life awaiting him as a priest. Lensing by Mario Amura imparts a dreamlike feeling to the mysterious goings-on in the seminary and Francesca Calvelli’s editing is right in step.
Soundtrack, credited to Alter Ego but enriched with classical themes, is also delightfully inventive. The unexpected use of a Viennese waltz played full blast while the community takes its meals is just one example of how sound is used to pull scenes out of the expected context.