Examining television’s ability to reduce human suffering to throwaway entertainment, “Heartless” hardly breaks fresh ground. Playwright and scripter Umberto Marino’s second directorial outing does, however, provide sustained if familiar contempo drama propelled by a dynamic central perf from Kim Rossi Stuart. The young actor’s skyrocketing popularity should ensure “Heartless” a brisk run in Italy, with tube dates indicated elsewhere.
A bungled small-time heist, a hostage situation and a desperate attempt to obtain judicial clemency via the power of the small screen form the basis of this “Dog Day Afternoon” episode in the Roman suburbs, adapted in fairly straightforward style by Marino from his own play.
The poorly planned holdup of a tobacconist’s store goes awry when one of the robbers panics, shoots the clerk and is apprehended. His accomplice, Claudio (Rossi Stuart), escapes and holes up in a nearby apartment, taking its terrified , wheelchair-ridden occupant, Esther (Cecilia Genovesi), as his hostage. The state of siege pushes unpredictably edgy Claudio increasingly off-kilter as cops close in, falsely accusing him first of the shooting, then of sexually assaulting the girl.
A TV addict as a result of her self-pitying confinement, Esther sees a solution in “Where the News Is Born,” a popular program in which real-life dramas are resolved live on air.
Claudio alters his demands from a getaway car and cash to an audience with the show’s host (Massimo Wertmuller). A brief interview follows, and promises of a light sentence are made in exchange for Claudio’s agreement to give himself up before the cameras that evening.
As the afternoon wears on and they wait to go on air, there’s a glimmer of communication and potential solidarity between captor and captive, both of whom are relegated to society’s margins. The shifting state of their rapport is much more compelling drama than Marino’s rather hackneyed comments on the convergence of fiction and reality on TV.
Onscreen virtually for the duration, Rossi Stuart packs febrile, brink-of-hysteria intensity into every moment, with occasional touches of unexpected humor. He invites sympathy for his unfortunate character without underselling his innate brutality. The tragedy that results when a more pressing catastrophe robs him of his air time and his chance for public redemption has an impact beyond the scene’s somewhat transparent function.
Genovesi falls a little short by comparison, remaining morose and remote, while Ludovica Modugno as her shrill mother is jarringly off-key. Wertmuller is more effective, coloring the TV host with interesting ethical ambiguities.
Aside from Massimo Ghini as a well-meaning but ineffectual police commissioner, all the principals reprise their stage roles.
The material’s theatrical origins are only fleetingly evident. The sweltering suburban setting is opened out as a voyeuristic arena for other folks’ dramas, with crowds forming and neighbors rushing back and forth from balconies and windows to TV sets to keep track of the events as they unfold.
Inside the claustrophobic apartment, Alessio Torresi Gelsini’s camerawork energetically reflects Claudio’s restlessness. Francesco Verdinelli’s acoustic guitar tunes fit smoothly, and the use of Aerosmith songs provides an additional hook for young auds.