A law student tries to play his cards right but instead finds himself in a downward spiral of crime and abuse in "The Past Is a Foreign Land."

A promising law student tries to play his cards right but instead finds himself in a downward spiral of crime and abuse in Daniele Vicari’s “The Past Is a Foreign Land.” Hot Italo thesp Elio Germano (“My Brother Is an Only Child”) plays a cardsharp-in-training whose association with the wrong people threatens to lead him astray. Pic’s atmosphere and acting are always involving, but a somewhat unfocused screenplay obscures the protag’s psychological journey. Local opening was modest after Rome preem, but fest dates in foreign lands could be in the cards.

At a party in the southern town of Bari, Giorgio (Germano), a law student from a good family, meets rowdy, working-class Francesco (Michele Riondino) by chance. It’s probably the last time chance is involved, as Francesco initiates Giorgio into the art of being a cardsharp and they start swindling people out of their money.

Things get out of control when the large amounts of cash in their pockets (and, in Giorgio’s, volumes of Marx and Engels, in one of pic’s rare moments of humor) lead Francesco to suggest they invest in a drug deal guaranteed to make them millionaires. During a detour to Barcelona to seal the deal, Francesco goes off the rails, as hidden truths surface that threaten to take down Giorgio with him.

Pic’s screenplay — credited to four scribes, including Gianrico Carofiglio, helping adapt his own novel — is too focused on the characters’ actions and its large cast of secondary players, robbing the main characters of time to develop any psychological complexity. It’s never clear why Giorgio thinks nothing of throwing away his comfortable life and future: Is he simply bored, or does he have a wild, anarchic streak that needs to be satisfied?

Helmer Vicari oscillates between a semi-docu approach and a more expressive vein, aided by great lensing and production design (though the card-playing sequences still lack visual punch). Surprisingly, one of Italy’s finest editors, Marco Spoletini (“Gomorrah”), here seems unsure how to cobble the different strands together; the second half especially suffers from an unevenness in rhythm and tone. Rock music on the soundtrack and Theo Teardo’s pulsing score act as glue between the different components.

Germano, who again plays a gambler after his turn in “The Early Bird Catches the Worm” earlier this year, is affable but makes for a slight lawyer. Relative newcomer Riondini is also convincing, but his character is fairly one-dimensional and the revelations about his real nature feel like a last-minute narrative ploy. Chiara Caselli, as a hausfrau who moonlights as a talented card player, does a lot with very little.

Though Bari is in Italy’s deep south, accents are mostly neutral or only slight.

The Past Is a Foreign Land

Italy

Production

An 01 Distribution release of a Tilde Corsi, Domenico Procacci and Gianni Romoli presentation of a Fandango, R&C Produzioni production, in association with RAI Cinema. (International sales: Fandango Portobello Sales, London.) Produced by Tilde Corsi, Domenico Procacci, Gianni Romoli. Directed by Daniele Vicari. Screenplay, Vicari, Massimo Gaudioso, Francesco Carofiglio, Gianrico Carofiglio, based on the novel by Gianrico Carofiglio.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Gherardo Gossi; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Theo Teardo; production designer, Beatrice Scarpato; costume designers, Francesca Vecchi, Roberta Vecchi; sound (Dolby Digital), Remo Ugolinelli; assistant director, Saverio Di Biagio. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (competing), Oct. 25, 2008. (Also in London Film Festival -- Cinema Europa.) Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Elio Germano, Michele Riondino, Chiara Caselli, Valentina Lodovini, Marco Baliani, Daniela Poggi, Maria Jurado. (Italian, Spanish dialogue)
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