Ricky Tognazzi’s “Strangled Lives” is an unusually fine example of a taut thriller made all the more gripping by being firmly and credibly rooted in an insidious social phenomenon. The phenomenon in this case is the loan-shark racket, providing the background here for an electric drama about a supreme manipulator who moves in on a family, playing their friend and benefactor with one hand while orchestrating their destruction with the other. Superlative craftsmanship and potent performances should steer this major Italian production even further than Tognazzi’s widely traveled previous pic, “La Scorta.”
The idea for the intelligent screenplay by Tognazzi’s regular scripting team of Simona Izzo, Graziano Diana and Giuseppe Manfridi came from Italian judge Francesco Taurisano, whose experience in the magistracy also provided the basis for the Mafia drama of “La Scorta.” Usury is a multibillion-dollar business in Italy, where the lingering economic recession and tightening of regular credit facilities have allowed the practice to flourish. An estimated 65% of national businesses incur some degree of debt with loan sharks.
The shark in this moral tale, Sergio (Luca Zingaretti), is, on the surface, a legitimate financial adviser who employs violent thug Claudio (Ricky Memphis) to carry out his strong-arm tactics. Sergio pinpoints his prey in Francesco (Vincent Lindon), an old college companion whom he lost touch with 10 years earlier. Francesco is now running the construction firm founded by the family of his wife, Miriam (Sabrina Ferilli), and sinking under debts accumulated by her father, who is close to death.
Apprised of the firm’s financial difficulties by an obliging banker, Sergio encircles his intended victims at the old man’s funeral, masterfully winning their confidence. He introduces a wealthy widow he is secretly bedding, Signora Sauro (Lina Sastri), who is part of his plan, and then sends in Claudio with the offer of a breath of oxygen. Francesco takes the bait, accepting a substantial loan.
Having laid his trap and insinuated Sauro as the business partner who will protect Francesco from bankruptcy, Sergio sets his sights on Miriam. He comes on to her slyly at first, turning progressively more insistent and ultimately brutal as he becomes indispensable to the family’s economic survival. Meanwhile, Claudio — whose connection to Sergio is still unknown to them — comes in for the kill.
Continuing to play the savior, Sergio tightens the screws. But in his all-round contempt for both his allies and quarry, he makes a series of fatal mistakes, in turn underestimating Francesco’s determination to lose out with dignity, Miriam’s resourcefulness, Sauro’s cunning and Claudio’s willingness to be the fall guy.
In his fourth feature, Tognazzi boldly re-establishes virtues already evident in “Ultra” and “La Scorta.” He is arguably alone among contemporary Italian directors in his commanding grasp of pacing, aggressive editing and complex narrative structuring as means of heightening dramatic tension. Also significant is the attention Tognazzi and his scriptwriters invest in peripheral characters; even the most fleetingly glimpsed figures have a specific function here.
Observation of female characters is especially acute. Despite being involved by the good guys in the decision-making process only up to a point, and treated by the bad guys as mere chattels or pawns, the women still wield considerable power here. Often with no more than a well-timed glance, Miriam, her sister-in-law, Claudio’s increasingly horrified wife and savvy, self-serving Sauro all assert themselves as vigilant, perceptive forces, keeping a quiet watch on events and frequently intervening in surprising ways.
Tension and violence increase like clockwork throughout, with the parallel fate of a debt-ridden antiques dealer effectively used to pump up fears for Francesco and his family. The complexity of the usury machine could perhaps have benefited from more elementary exposition in the opening reels, but once Sergio’s target is brought into view, the chilling drama never loosens its grip.
Tognazzi (who began his career in front of the cameras) already has proved himself an exemplary director of actors, and the work of the outstanding cast here is no disappointment. In the film’s least showy role, Lindon is solid and sympathetic as the victim who summons the strength to fight back. Ferilli gets more to sink her teeth into, creating an intensely believable portrait of a woman cornered into the most degrading kind of compromise to save her family.
The most perspicacious piece of casting however, is that of Zingaretti, who up to now has been better known for his stage work. With his gleaming bald head and stocky, muscular frame, Sergio is both monstrous and alluring, and the actor transforms himself into the embodiment of ruthlessness, menacing sexuality, greed and power.
Technical input is of the highest caliber throughout, especially Alessio Torresi Gelsini’s steely, penetrating widescreen lensing, which closes in tight on the characters and on the congested city locations, and Ennio Morricone’s driving, sinister score.