“The Cruelest Day” traces the last month in the life of Italian investigative reporter Ilaria Alpi who, with cameraman Miran Hrovatin, was murdered in 1994 in Somalia. Ferdinando Vincentini Orgnani’s impassioned fact-based reconstruction makes for fascinating viewing. Flashing back and forth in time, drama follows journalist as she pieces together the story that will get her killed. Pic received lukewarm reception in Italy, bowing inopportunely at the start of the Iraqi war. But newsworthiness, thriller pacing and charismatic thesping by Giovanna Mezzogiorno (“The Last Kiss”) and Rade Sherbedgia (“After the Rain,” “Quiet American”) could translate into strong arthouse biz.
Cameraman Hrovatin is older and less singleminded than the bright, beautiful journalist Alpi (portrayed with Deborah Winger-ish friendly fervor by Mezzogiorno). He is aware of everything around him, detouring to record an impromptu songfest or a little kid with a gun. His wry middle-aged acceptance complements Alpi’s sharp focus and youthful intrepidness. In an odd sense, pic is almost a love story between the two, who meet in the course of the film.
Hrovatin’s war-forged humanity is somewhat simplistically contrasted with Alpi’s boyfriend, who spinelessly abdicates when her news investigation threatens his ministry job.
Alpi’s scoop, as it is slowly revealed, is an unexpected shocker: “Humanitarian” Italian organizations, in the guise of building necessary new roads, were in fact paving over tons of toxic waste conveniently dumped in Third World countries like Somalia with the connivance of government agencies, sectors of the army and the help of local warlords, the latter probably paid off in smuggled armaments.
Assassination of Alpi and subsequent trial made headlines throughout Europe. Alpi’s parents, who figure prominently as her confidants, are at various non-linear points interviewed by a lookalike woman reporter, while the forward momentum of Alpi’s story is further interrupted by eerie postmortem replays. Thus a lively exchange between Alpi and Hrovatin ends with them closing their adjacent hotel room doors, those same doors opened minutes later by reporters who pore over their belongings, holding up a book or passport or pair of earrings — now media relics — for the camera.
Pic begins and ends with the deaths of Alpi and Hrovatin — at first presented audibly, in confused dialogue and scattered gunshots, the action just off-screen. By film’s conclusion, sounds are synched to imagery and the film comes full circle in complete understanding of what is happening and why.
Like “Silkwood” or “Erin Brockovich,” pic along the way has built enormous sympathy for its characters without ever backgrounding the headlined story for which they were sacrificed.
Tech credits are excellent, Giovanni Cavallini’s sharp-edged lensing adding to the overall lucidity of the proceedings, while providing unexpected moments of stark beauty. Oddly angled, color video shot of infamous road over toxic waste stretching emptily into the distance turns out to be actual footage shot by Hrovatin.