Trieste writer Italo Svevo’s masterpiece “The Conscience of Zeno,” about a marriage-minded youth who frequents a family of sisters, is sensitively brought to the screen in “My Father’s Words.” A very personal, rather touching film with unusual depth of character, it is directed by Francesca Comencini (“Pianoforte,” “Annabelle partagee”), who has numerous sisters herself, all involved in filmmaking like their father Luigi. Pic’s bizarre idea of using a contemporary setting populated by old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century characters is a bit theatrical, but realized with conviction. Covering just two chapters of the novel, film succeeds in conveying the book’s otherworldly atmosphere while avoiding the problems and cliches of expensive Henry James and Edith Wharton costume adaptations. It should catch the eye of small arthouse distribs shopping for Euro quality.
Young Zeno (Fabrizio Rongione, seen in “Rosetta”) is a cultivated, sad-eyed youth whose cold father has just died (Toni Bertorelli, an elegant stage thesp who recently played a vampire with great conviction). His last pre-death act, which Zeno ironically refers to as his “spiritual legacy,” was to slap his son’s face. The father’s solicitor informs him he won’t touch his inheritance until he succeeds in holding down a job for a year.
Thus he introduces himself to Giovanni Malfenti (played by glum actor-director Mimmo Calopresti), a friend of his father’s who owns an art gallery, and hesitantly starts to work.
Malfenti takes a shine to the boy and brings him home to meet his four daughters. Zeno immediately falls for the beautiful eldest girl Ada (Chiara Mastroianni), a budding actress who is rehearsing Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters.” His timid courtship ends with her seducing him, but after they make love, she suddenly drops him for no apparent reason. The neurotic second sister, Alberta (Claudia Coli), Ada’s rival in everything, flirts with him and he passively lets himself be drawn into the family’s emotional games.
In this context, Rongione is an ideal Zeno, an ineffectual, hyper-sensitive male lost in his father’s big overcoat, and increasingly insecure and lonely in stumbling, all-wrong relationships that today would lead him straight to the analyst’s couch. Svevo himself was one of the earliest Italian intellectuals to embrace the new ideas of Freud and Jung, and his book could easily be read as the father complex of Zeno.
The sisters are carefully distinguished. Mastroianni’s sensual Ada is an unreachable goddess for Zeno, but auds can relate to her familiar doubts about her talent. Coli’s Alberta is a little wacky in an irritatingly modern way; Viola Graziosi’s Augusta is a matronly wallflower who surprises with an outburst of passion.
Pic’s strategy throughout is to contrast the viewer’s contemporary mores with the delicate feelings of a bygone era, using one to illuminate the other. The clash is carried through to the aesthetic level in the production designer Paola Comencini’s spacious old-style apartments full of art objects, the absence of telephones and cars. Luca Bigazzi’s intriguing camerawork, concentrated almost entirely on nighttime and rainy sequences, shadows, Roman marble and half-lit faces, surprises with its modernity, especially in some wobbly hand-held work and extreme closeups.