Apowerful but very subdued study of bulimia and female self-image, “The Venus of Willendorf” requires concentrated viewing, and may prove too heady — or quietly disturbing — for general auds. Fest play is assured, especially at femme-centered events, followed by a place on better vid menus.
Elisabetta Lodoli’s debut feature initially appears to be a female-skewed update of “La Notte,” dealing with the dissolution of an oh-so-modern marriage. Elena (Luisa Pasello) and Enrico (Emilio Bonucci) may be jaded rich folks with too much time on their hands, but the brittle Elena’s problems are even more fundamental: A third of the story elapses before one realizes that her obsession with appearances manifests itself in a serious eating disorder.
As the couple stays at the seaside villa of her late father, things are brought to a head when Elena’s cousin, an outgoing stewardess named Ida (violet-eyed Iaia Forte), who just happens to be Enrico’s former sweetheart, comes for a prolonged visit.
The women are more like sisters than cousins, right down to their sibling-styled rivalry. Although Elena, a successful biologist, may be the technically beautiful one, she’s a fairly grim customer, and the easygoing, less ambitious — and slightly plumper — Ida has always fared better with men, and with life in general.
There’s resentment to be sure, but Elena’s biggest conflict is with herself, and the battlefield is her own body — indeed, the pic opens with her examining her nude reflection with well-practiced disgust. She’s also got the binging-and-purging cycle down to a science, and it’s only because Ida comes back to the villa unexpectedly that the problem is ever exposed. Things end on an ambiguous note, suggesting at least the possibility that the women will work together to deal with Elena’s condition.
This is subtle stuff, and viewers looking for big revelations or major turning points will have to go elsewhere. “Venus” doesn’t hit any of the usual disease-of-the-week landmarks; Lodoli prefers to let character and crisis poke through cautious, often prickly transactions within the clan and with casual observers who drift through.
Pic is superbly shot, with cool white light appropriate to Elena’s clinical world view. The strong-faced Pasello does an admirable job of creating viewer sympathy for a character who essentially despises herself, and Forte, as the effervescent cuz, contributes needed energy. Savio Riccardi’s orchestral score is perhaps too melodramatic for the pic’s low-key tone, but “Venus” is otherwise perfectly built.