A teenaged Neapolitan granita seller is forced to babysit a big-mouthed female peer for a Camorra boss in “The Interval,” the impressively subdued first fiction feature of Italo documentary helmer Leonardo Di Costanzo (“At School”). Shot on sleek 16mm in an abandoned mental institution by d.p. Luca Bigazzi (“This Must Be the Place,” “Certified Copy”), pic chronicles the push-pull dynamics of the adolescent protags, who both try to act older than their age in order to survive in their potentially violent reality. After its Venice-Toronto twofer, “Interval” should see very few breaks on its festival tour.
Salvatore, nicknamed Toto (Alessio Gallo), is a slightly overweight 17-year-old who sells granita, the refreshing lemon-and-crushed-ice concoction, from one of his dad’s two street carts. But what appears to start as a regular morning changes when the local Camorra boss, Bernardino (Carmine Paternoster, “Gomorrah”), needs someone to guard 15-year-old wild child Veronica (Francesca Riso) for the day in a cavernous building, and the task falls to Toto.
“The Interval” is co-written by one of the five screenwriters of “Gomorrah,” Maurizio Braucci, and stars one of that film’s thesps in a minor role, and it more than obliquely considers the devastating effects of the Camorra on the people of Naples. Yet the film is another beast entirely, essentially a chamber piece involving two adolescent characters who happen to have a lot of chambers at their disposal.
Most of the film consists of the duo roaming through the enormous, abandoned edifice as they tease and talk to each other. Toto is clearly not the jailor type, though he’s aware of the duty he has to execute properly — or he’ll suffer the consequences. Similarly, Veronica seems conscious of the fact that something unpleasant is awaiting her when Bernardino returns, and she seems of two minds about whether or not to try to escape.
In the observant screenplay, co-written by Braucci, Di Costanzo and Mariangela Barbanente, innocent chatter gives way to more insightful dialogue and behavior, as Salvatore and Veronica go back and forth, showing off different sides of their multifaceted, still-forming personalities, with the frequent gear-changes barely visible; the duo is beautifully played by non-pro newcomers Gallo and Riso.
Occasionally, the characters resemble children not even half the teens’ age who are simply exploring a huge new playground. More often, they reveal darker, more calculating sides that suggest that they’ve grown accustomed to the threat of mobster violence to such an extent that their coping mechanisms have shifted their fears elsewhere. This is clearly the case with Veronica, who is brash and cocky with the gangsters she’s angered, but who’s got an irrational fear of rats, ghosts and getting her feet dirty.
The location, Naples’ former Leonardo Bianchi psychiatric hospital, is stunning and clearly the third protag of the film. The cavernous, penumbral interiors are captured by Bigazzi in fluent movements on atmospheric 16mm, while the almost Edenic jungle that surrounds a part of the building is equally evocative.
Sound design is also aces, with the noise of overflying airplanes repeatedly suggesting that freedom and escape lie just beyond the building’s prison-like confines.
For the record, “Interval” is entirely in Neapolitan and was also subtitled in Italian at the Venice screening caught.