The tricky middle ground walked by prisoners on day-release programs gets sympathetic treatment in writer-director Valerio Jalongo’s accomplished drama, “On My Skin.” The story of one man’s attempt to readjust his moral compass while struggling with the boundaries around him, pic is brought alive by Ivan Franek’s terrific central performance. Although such studies of freedom vs. captivity are nothing new, pic’s smooth script and helmer’s sensitive eye make for an emotionally satisfying work that should prove popular with auds. Title stood out at this year’s Turin fest as the one that could escape festival lock-up.
Tony Zanchi (Franek) is a tightly wound con with a long record. Since he’s never one to play by other people’s rules, the prison staff is skeptical he’ll manage to hold on to his precious day-release job at a mozzarella factory. At first, his behavior proves them right: Tony wants it all, too quickly, and has difficulty striking a balance between prison and outside life.
The mozzarella factory is owned by the Cimarosa family: Alfonso (Vincenzo Peluso), his father Angelo, and cousin Bianca (Donatella Finocchiaro). Tony is hired to accompany Alfonso on delivery rounds, and he quickly sees the business is not going well. Skyrocketing costs, due to their recent switch to organic feed, combined with little financial savvy have led Alfonso to borrow money from camorra chief Durazzo (Antonio Pennarella).
Alfonso’s been late with his loan payments, however, and loan-shark goons, led by Don Esposito (Mario Scarpetta), are looking to rough him up. But Alfonso won’t let on to his father or cousin about the factory’s financial woes.
Meanwhile, Tony’s struggle to adjust to the daily roller-coaster ride of prison, freedom and prison again makes it difficult for him to read the outside world. When Bianca offers to give him a ride to the bus stop, he makes a rough pass which she forcefully rejects. Later, when the goons come to teach Alfonso a lesson, Tony recognizes one of the heavies as a former jail-mate who played the queen to his king in a prison production of Shakespeare’s “Richard II.”
Jalongo spent two years teaching creative writing to inmates, and his understanding of the emotional shake-up caused by part-time freedom is genuine. Though the parallels between Tony’s legal imprisonment and Alfonso’s inner bind feel a little too calculated, Jalongo generally refrains from a heavy-handed approach.
Jalongo’s nice touches help to fill out Tony’s character; he takes pains to portray the inmates as more than nameless inhabitants of cells. From the opening shot of Tony sunbathing, panning up to reveal he’s in a prison courtyard, to the surprising final shot, Jalongo reveals an accomplished eye and a keen appreciation for his actors. He knows how to use a handheld camera, underscoring emotions rather than putting on an empty visual show. And the cohesive script, though only hinting at the inner lives of other characters, creates a well-rounded character for Tony.
With dark good looks to spare and an inner fire, Czech-born Franek (“Burning in the Wind”) brings a brooding intensity toTony, and captures both his brashness and bewilderment as he plans for an unshackled future. Finocchiaro fleshes out Bianca’s inner conflicts, bringing her usual quiet intelligence to a role that feels underwritten. Production values are top-notch, with attractive use of the Neapolitan coast.