Unlikely to duplicate the success of international hit “I’m Not Scared,” Gabriele Salvatores’ stylish father-son drama “As God Commands,” with its decidedly American indie feel, impresses with unsparing visuals, an uneven script notwithstanding. Though character-driven, the story of a neo-Nazi dad, his confused, worshipful son and their unbalanced sidekick turns the far-right setting into mere window dressing and reduces its climactic ending to a feel-good embrace that feels at odds with what’s come before. Despite largely positive reviews, local B.O. has been moderate, and offshore prospects look spotty.
Salvatores strongly pushes the neo-Nazi element from the get-go with Rino (Filippo Timi), an out-of-work alcoholic whose prominent Celtic Cross tattoo goes with the swastika decorating his wall. He’s barely holding onto custody of son Cristiano (Alvaro Caleca, making an impressive debut), who’s 14 and in frightened awe of his violent father.
Their one pal is Quattro Formaggi (Elio Germano), a former off-the-books laborer with Rino until an industrial accident left him severely brain-damaged. Rino stays loyal, though Quattro now has the mental capacity of a child and spends his days making large dioramas and obsessing over a porn queen.
When Quattro spies Cristiano’s schoolmate Fabiana (Angelica Leo), he mistakes her for his idol, and on a dark, stormy night, he fakes a scooter accident so she’ll stop to help. The ensuing scene lasts nearly half an hour and is both impressively sustained and deeply disturbing, as Quattro violently beats Fabiana when she rejects his pawing. By the time Rino shows up, Quattro has killed and sodomized the young woman, and Cristiano comes to believe, mistakenly, that his father is responsible.
Reducing his novel with the collaboration of Salvatores and Antonio Manzini, scripter Niccolo Ammaniti consciously focuses on a Shakespearean triumvirate of king, crown prince and court jester, though the latter offers no wisdom and remains a fool. This condensation means Salvatores must be subtle yet emphatic, such as when explaining Rino’s brooding hatred of blacks and immigrants and its ties to a certain north Italian eagerness to blame foreigners for everything. But after making such a show of Rino’s Nazi ideology, the script jettisons any depth by turning it into a crucible from which Rino can arise reborn.
Cristiano is by the far the most interesting character, not just because, as written, he’s the only sympathetic creature onscreen, but also because of Caleca’s finely calibrated perf. With his slightly down-turned mouth and large expressive eyes, he displays the kind of presence and depth that made everyone take notice when Leonardo DiCaprio first entered the scene. Timi suitably captures Rino’s off-kilter menace, while Germano (busier than a 1930s Warner Brothers character actor) isn’t always successful at preventing his showy role from getting tedious.
Pic is heavily beholden to an American indie style, with handheld camerawork, energetic editing and deliberate interpolation of music. Shooting in a wet, underpopulated northeast, Salvatores and regular d.p. Italo Petriccione start off with a handsomely theatrical darkness that envelops the early scenes, though it’s their controlled handling of the unsettling, extended sequence in the woods that really impresses.
Too bad the mood is pushed over the top by Quattro, careening to Robbie Williams’ “She’s the One.” Final song, Antony and the Johnsons’ version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is meant to be ambiguous but feels very wrong, as if all the hatred could be wiped clean.