Legit team Spiro Scimone and Francesco Sframeli make a quietly accomplished transition to features with “Two Friends,” an original odd-couple scenario intelligently fleshed out from Scimone’s play, “Nunzio.” While the duo’s filmmaking instincts are not yet fully formed, neither are they altogether absent; the beginnings of a distinctive visual style are coupled with the material’s fresh mix of droll humor, poignancy and darker undercurrents, and the finely-tuned dynamic of the actor-directors’ work onscreen. Further festival slots should follow.
The production continues a streak from recent years of interesting, modestly budgeted Italian indies inexorably linked to the filmmakers’ native regions and dialects. Among these are Neapolitan Vincenzo Marra’s “Sailing Home,” Alessandro Piva’s “La Capagira” from Bari, Edoardo Winspeare’s “Living Blood” from Salento, and Sicilian features such as Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco’s “The Uncle From Brooklyn” and Emanuele Crialese’s “Respiro.”
While the action of “Two Friends” takes place on the outskirts of an unidentified industrial city on the Italian mainland (Turin served as the location), this is very much a two-character piece centered firmly on Sicilian transplants isolated within that world and spoken in thick dialect from the two men’s hometown of Messina.
The Sicilian housemates are Nunzio (Sframeli), who works in a paint factory and is stricken with a chronic cough for which he refuses treatment; and Pino (Scimone), slowly revealed to be a killer-for-hire. Notified of each assignment via a delivery of fish on his doorstep, Pino picks up instructions from the local fishmonger (Armando Pugliese) and departs by train to carry out the hit. Naive, unwordly Nunzio knows nothing of his friend’s work, quizzing him obsessively about train travel and hotel stays.
Beautifully played by Sframeli and Scimone in roles honed into a snug fit on the stage — critically lauded legit production was directed by Italian theater luminary Carlo Cecchi — the duo’s contrasting personalities spark together in curious ways.
Wide-eyed, open and trusting, Nunzio borders on simplemindedness, but his sweet nature and fragility gradually touch something in stern, secretive Pino. The hitman begins refusing commissions in order to nurture his friend through ill health, the loss of his job and his eager but clueless attempts at courtship with a young woman (Teresa Saponangelo). But Pino’s work proves difficult to leave behind, prompting him to confess all to Nunzio, whose life has been placed at risk by his friend’s devotion.
Peppered with deadpan humor and underscored by the melancholy aspect of southern outsiders in the chilly, unwelcoming north, the film strives a little hard for quirkiness in one or two peripheral characters. Despite Blasco Giurato’s sharp, somber lensing and lots of lively camera angles, there’s a certain visual inconsistency, and the lush score by Andrea Morricone perhaps over-emphasizes the story’s underlying poignancy.
Overall, however, this is a small but satisfying first feature, told with economy, sensitivity and enlivening eccentricity.