The title “Foreign Bodies” encompasses several things: malignant organisms that cause illness, and foreigners whose presence can seem like an intrusion into one’s national space. Mirko Locatelli’s sophomore feature aims to combine the two concepts to make the idea of “foreign” less troubling (at least with the second meaning), yet despite Filippo Timi’s fine performance and helming that sticks to general arthouse standards, “Bodies” remains terra incognita, conjuring mood without giving much in return, while keeping the notion of “the other” relatively intact. Local play won’t make a dent, and offshore exposure will mostly be relegated to Italo showcases.
Antonio (Timi) is a working-class dad (how he makes a living is but one of many senseless lacunae in the script by Locatelli and wife Giuditta Tarantelli). His infant son, Pietro, is seriously ill, and Antonio drives some distance from another province to a hospital in Milan for scheduled surgery. Most of “Foreign Bodies” takes place in the deadening corridors and rooms of the medical center, which Locatelli captures with knowing acuity.
Also waiting in the ward is Jaber (Jaouher Brahim), a Tunisian teen sticking close to friend Youssef (El Farouk Abd Alla), who’s got terminal cancer (one presumes). Despite Jaber’s friendly mien and solicitousness regarding Pietro, Antonio is less than warm, complaining on the phone to his wife that the Arabs are noisy and smelly. When his car breaks down, he begrudgingly accepts Jaber’s offer to connect him with a mechanic, yet the wall Antonio builds around himself — partly unthinking prejudice, partly the stress of worrying about his child — remains largely unpenetrated.
Unfortunately, so does Antonio’s life. For reasons that remain unclear, Locatelli and Tarantelli never explain why Antonio’s wife doesn’t come to the hospital. They’re obviously struggling financially — Antonio takes an early morning job stocking trucks at the central market to make ends meet while in Milan — yet it’s odd that the child’s mother wouldn’t try to come, notwithstanding two other kids at home (one child is referred to early on, but the other is mentioned only toward the very end). Also strange is that no family member bothers to relieve the strain; Antonio is truly alone, which works as an interesting script device but needs to be fleshed out to address niggling questions.
The same problems pertain to Jaber: What makes him and Youssef so close? What’s his relationship to Youssef’s family? Jaber’s situation is never revealed, though he’s by far the most sympathetic figure. The press notes state that the character fled the unrest of the Arab Spring, though this information doesn’t make it into the script (and if it did, would require more explanation). Perhaps the biggest flaw in “Foreign Bodies” is that by withholding essential details, it freezes Jaber into the role of the exotic other; it’s a device designed to accentuate Antonio’s isolation and latent prejudices, and it leaves the teen, himself an isolated “foreign body,” a quasi-mysterious figure without foundational structure.
Such scripting weaknesses are all the more frustrating since there’s a good story here, and the helmer nails the feeling of time standing still in hospital wards, where waiting, endless waiting, is the twin of perpetual worry. Timi, one of the finest actors of his generation, understands how this anxiety preys on the psyche, and he uses his considerable physicality to bring out Antonio’s aggression and unthinking recourse to intimidation.
Viewers have far too much time to observe the back of Timi’s head; Locatelli’s decision to frequently shoot from behind is yet another inexplicable choice that feels almost like a parody of recent arthouse helming. Better the sparse use of daylight, since the evening hours reinforce the uncertainty of time so often a part of the hospital experience.