Following three gentle but persuasively told contempo dramas, Francesca Archibugi tries on a turn-of-the-century literary adaptation for size in her fourth feature, “With Closed Eyes.” Archibugi’s gift for freshness, simplicity and a second-skin intimacy with her characters seems mildly diluted by the more sweeping narrative strokes needed to bring this novel of broken passion to the screen. The result is nonetheless bolstered by fine performances and radiant visuals, making it a solid if not sure-fire international arthouse contender.
Based on Federigo Tozzi’s 1919 novel of the same name, the largely autobiographical story was an exorcism of the writer’s difficult childhood in Siena — the suffering caused him by his overbearing father, an illness affecting his eyes and the unresolved love that bound him to Ghisola, a servant girl on his father’s farm. But most auds’ unfamiliarity with the original may limit their general grasp of the characters, whose emotional choices are dictated by inner conflicts not always explicitly conveyed.
In films such as “Mignon Has Gone Away” and “The Great Pumpkin,” Archibugi has shown a fascination with the incisive truths and daunting discoveries of childhood. The same focus brings illuminating results in this pic’s first half.
Fourteen-year-old Ghisola (Alessia Fugardi) and Pietro (Gabriele Bocciarelli) are locked in a wordless, mutual immediacy that springs from the shared pain of their unhappy situations. Ghisola labors in the fields, isolated from her family. Pietro — despite the attempted protection of his loving mother (Stefania Sandrelli) — is brutally humiliated by his father (sharply played by Marco Messeri).
Angered by Pietro’s affection for Ghisola, the father seizes on a slip-up in the girl’s farm chores as an excuse to send her away. When the two meet again as young adults (Debora Caprioglio, Fabio Modesti), Ghisola is no longer the fresh farm girl. Pregnant by one of her patrons, she attempts to get Pietro into the sack, to pass the baby off as his and marry him.
In the film’s early reels, Archibugi displays an easy assurance with the material. Deftly sketching the extended gallery of characters against the splendid Tuscan backdrop, she creates a world where the tranquil rustic setting masks a morass of brutal circumstance and behavior.
But as the story progresses the young protagonists remain frustratingly remote. The problem is aggravated by a halfhearted shot at making Pietro’s incipient socialist ideals the force behind his behaving honorably toward Ghisola.
Part of this shortcoming lies in the characters themselves: Ghisola is reticent by nature, and Pietro seems ill-equipped for life. Despite this, all four thesps playing the pair acquit themselves well. The film marks a departure for Caprioglio, a soft-core discovery by director Tinto Brass (in “Paprika”) who bites into her first serious role with respectable results.
Messeri’s lecherous but almost pitiable despot dominates the supporting characters. Memorable contributions also come from Sandrelli, as his loyal, put-upon wife; Angela Molina, who brings quietly heroic dimensions to her role as a resigned, pragmatic servant; and Laura Betti, hilarious as a scheming woman of the world who takes Ghisola under her wing.
In a uniformly polished tech field, the work of music composer Battista Lena and regular Taviani brothers lenser Giuseppe Lanci stand out.
Martin Scorsese’s involvement in the film stems from his association with Rome-based producer Leo Pescarolo, with whom he had planned to co-produce the Federico Fellini project “The Actor” just prior to Fellini’s death. Listed onscreen among the presentation credits, Scorsese has no financial stake in the film, but is reportedly lending his name and support to help secure U.S. distribution.