Screenwriter Franco Bernini, who has penned scripts for some of the past decade’s best young Italian filmmakers, including Daniele Luchetti, Carlo Mazzacurati and Gabriele Salvatores, weighs in as director with the fact-based psychological thriller “The Grey Zone.” Examining the insidious machinations of the Italian secret service and its role in a tragic bombing of the ’70s, this well-structured drama is a taut, tension-filled probe into an unhealed wound on the national psyche. Festival exposure may lead to arthouse bookings in some territories.
Recent Italian features such as Mimmo Calopresti’s “The Second Time” and Wilma Labate’s “My Generation” have dealt with the political terrorism that scarred Italy during the ’70s. Bernini’s film approaches similar material from a different angle, addressing the state’s involvement, via its secret service operations, in the bombings between 1969 and 1980 that caused 144 deaths and left 732 wounded. The 1974 bombing of Piazza della Loggia in Brescia is at the center of the drama here.
Story takes place mainly in 1993, when psychoanalyst Claudia (Francesca Neri), who lost her older sister Lorenza in the Brescia bombing, begins treating Tancredi (Claudio Amendola). He claims to be a wire service reporter tormented by the atrocities he witnessed in Bosnia, but his vivid description of a fatal explosion in a crowded piazza matches every detail of Lorenza’s death.
With each session, it becomes more apparent that Tancredi is actually describing the Brescia incident, and Claudia’s attempts to trace him reveal he was never a correspondent. Disturbed by the returning memories of the sister she loved, and obsessing about Tancredi’s motive in coming to her, Claudia confides in her husband (Enzo Decaro) and consults her former psych tutor (Massimo De Francovich). He advises her to continue treating the patient but not to go to the police about his possible involvement in the bombing.
The action jumps ahead repeatedly to 1998, when Claudia is living with her infant son in a new city in a witness protection program while waiting to testify against the state. Her decision to go to an investigating magistrate (Toni Bertorelli) is then recapped, along with Tancredi’s ploy to use her to help cleanse himself by confessing his activities as a former secret service agent following years of self-imposed exile abroad. The attempts of his former colleagues to discredit and silence him eventually compel him to join Claudia on the stand.
Like Ricky Tognazzi’s 1993 Mafia drama “La Scorta,” Bernini’s debut deals with one of the harsh realities of contemporary Italy in a suspenseful, American-style thriller structure that also owes much to the national tradition of civil protest films. The possible reasons for the secret service being behind the Brescia bombing or similar incidents are touched on only in rather vague terms, but the script effectively places the dark chapter in postwar Italian history within a realm of sinister uncertainty alluded to in the pic’s English title.
Where Bernini’s training as a wordsmith gets in the way is in the overly constructed dialogue. This is justified to some extent in Tancredi’s impossibly prose-like monologues during analysis, which are later revealed to be a baited hook for Claudia. Elsewhere, the characters’ exchanges often have an artificial ring. The director’s handling of physical moments, like a secret service hit man’s attempt on Tancredi, is less sure than in the more intimate scenes that dominate the drama.
The able cast responds well to the material’s sober intensity. As Tancredi, Amendola shapes a complex, conflict-ridden man, despite the unbelievability of his recruitment into the service without the kind of psychological screening that would weed out anyone likely to repent. Neri conveys the weight of years of anger and suffering as well as the unease of the momentous personal and professional choices Claudia has to make. Decaro, Bertorelli and De Francovich all bring an incisive grasp to their supporting characters.
Pic is stylishly shot by Paolo Carnera, with Dario Lucantoni’s forceful thriller music the only overstated element.