A well-played and beautifully written Italian drama from scribe-helmer Ivano De Matteo.

Daddy cool is left out in the cold after having been unfaithful in “Balancing Act,” a well-played and beautifully written Italian drama from scribe-helmer Ivano De Matteo. Though hardly new material, this heartbreaking tale of an essentially decent husband and father, whose life falls apart after an extramarital tryst, is leavened by its Roman sense of humor and a superlative, arguably career-best perf from comedian-thesp Valerio Mastandrea. De Matteo’s wider, withering portrait of the impossibility of surviving on a regular income in times of crisis is topical in Italy and further afield, which bodes well for the pic’s international potential.

At first, everything seems routinely OK in the home of City of Rome employee Giulio (Mastandrea) and his receptionist wife, Elena (Barbora Bobulova). Together they try to raise teenage rock chick Camilla (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), who dreams of going to Barcelona, and her kid brother, Luca (Lupo De Matteo), whose braces are costing the clan a small fortune.

Things explode after Giulio takes pity on a rain-sodden pizza delivery man (Pierluigi Misasi) who has brought them the wrong order, resulting in Elena having to eat anchovies, which she hates. The behavior in this scene, and indeed much of the film, is meticulously observed, suggesting that Giulio is an essentially decent guy who doesn’t properly consider the possible results of his instinctive actions. It also shows that Elena’s irritations stem from a larger, hidden grudge: the fact that the couple had decided to stay together for the sake of their children after Giulio’s infidelity (seen in a spectacular, wordless opening sequence filmed in the archives of the City of Rome).

Bulk of the pic traces Giulio’s life after he’s moved out of the family home and has chivalrously told his future ex-wife that he’ll take care of everything. But with a monthly salary of just €1,400 and two households he needs to provide for, this is easier said than done. Giulio tries to find a second job and a decent place to live, occasionally helped by Camilla, who is clearly Daddy’s girl, but prices are steep and jobs hard to come by.

De Matteo and co-scripter Valentina Ferlan, who is also credited for the screen story, are involved in a tough balancing act of their own, walking a tightrope as they introduce setback after setback for their protag. The story subtly yet clearly raises the specter of potentially fatal decisions that lurk in Rome’s underground, which teems with dishonest and violent individuals out to make a quick, illegal buck. Amazingly, at least until the pic’s closing scene, the scribes never set a foot wrong, staying on course even as Giulio’s situation becomes so desperate, he has to resort to sleeping in his car and eating at a soup kitchen.

Pic brings together a specific portrait of Giulio as a man who has to pay the (disproportionately high) price for his unfaithfulness with a vivid sketch of a situation that’s sadly recognizable for many contempo Italians and southern Europeans.

Though the subject may be dire, the film isn’t without laughs, as it’s firmly anchored in something called “Romanita,” or “the state of being Roman.” This implies a certain philosophical outlook on the world and is often expressed in rapid-fire, tit-for-tat dialogue and a direct, often rude but hilarious sense of humor that De Matteo braids in throughout, giving even the smallest supporting characters not only color but a clear function.

Mastandrea (“Nine”), a director-dependent Roman thesp more known for his comedy work than for his dramatic chops, is almost continually onscreen and never less than mesmerizing. The other unexpected standout is Laurenti Sellers, who has palpable chemistry with Mastandrea and is clearly confused by her unconditional love for a man she now finds difficult to comprehend. Supporting cast is solid.

Vittorio Omodei Zorini’s camerawork is supple and occasionally imaginative without becoming showy, while master cutter Marco Spoletini perfectly handles the story’s bleak progression. Location choices and extras casting all reflect a more multicultural and heterogeneous Rome that’s a lot more accurate than what most Italian pics set in the capital go for.

Balancing Act

Italy

Production

A Medusa release of a Rodeo Drive production, in association with Babe Films, with the participation of Rai Cinema, Canal Plus, Sky Cinema, Mediaset Premium. Produced by Marco Poccioni, Marco Valsania. Executive producer, Francesca di Donna. Co-producer, Fabio Conversi. Directed by Ivano De Matteo. Screenplay, De Matteo, Valentina Ferlan, based on a story by Verlan.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm-to-HD), Vittorio Omodei Zorini; editor, Marco Spoletini; music, Francesco Cerasi; production designer, Massimiliano Sturiale; costume designer, Valentina Taviani; sound (Dolby Digital), Antongiorgio Sabia; casting, Pino Pellegrino. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Horizons), Aug. 29, 2012. Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Valerio Mastandrea, Barbora Bobulova, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Grazia Schiavo, Lupo De Matteo, Antonio Gerardi, Antonella Attili, Stefano Masciolini, Giorgio Gobbi, Damir Todorovic, Maurizio Casagrande, Rolando Ravello, Pierluigi Misasi. (Italian, English dialogue)

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