The lifelong shame and trauma experienced by the victims of childhood incest are grippingly dramatized by Cristina Comencini, consummate mistress of Italian family drama, in “Don’t Tell,” probably her most successful film. More than in her previous tales of dysfunctional families like “Marriages,” she lightens the weight of angst with well-designed subplots, secondary characters and moments of tender humor. Though this Euro co-production has all the hallmarks of Italian cinema’s swing toward television-ready scripting, casting and pace, that shouldn’t prevent it from attracting strong theatrical business at home and drawing interest from offshore markets.
Pretty Sabina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), who dubs TV films for a living, lives with fellow actor Franco (Alessio Boni.) They’re very much in love and seem not to have a care in the world, until a nightmarish memory resurfaces from Sabina’s early childhood. It regards her dead father, and what he did to her one night in their home.
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Sabina feels too ashamed to unburden herself to Franco or her two best friends, the blind Emilia (Stefania Rocca) and her dubbing director Maria (Angela Finocchiaro.) Yet she is disturbed enough to fly to the U.S., where her brother Daniele (Luigi Lo Cascio) has settled. From him, she will learn the terrible truth about what was going on in their home, while their mother looked the other way.
There is nothing very unusual or challenging here, just a solid script based on a good grasp of human psychology with the moral lesson clearly spelled out in the final scene. It is striking how directly Comencini, who based the screenplay on her own novel, approaches her characters’ psychology.
Compared with the glancing sophistication of Louis Malle’s “Murmur of the Heart” or Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Luna,” which aimed at catching the viewer off-balance in their psychoanalytic view of incestuous relations between a parent and child, Comencini brooks no talk of Oedipal complexes and depicts no moral ambiguity in child abuse — only psychological damage that lasts a lifetime. Viewers are never in doubt about where to place their sympathy and where to lay the blame, making “Don’t Tell” both easy to digest and suitable for all audiences.
The same could be said for the film’s apparently daring love story between two women — Maria, who has been left by her husband for a young woman, and Emilia, whose unrequited love for Sabina is a constant torment. Their rather improbable relationship is handled with a graceful lightness that will turn no one off.
In the role of the older Maria, Finocchiaro demonstrates once again she is one of Italy’s most underrated comediennes, able to dissolve the most serious situation into laughter with her offhand directness. Rocca sensitively renders the restless, blind Emilia with feeling but not sentimentality.
In the main role, a heartfelt Mezzogiorno alternates between sweetness and moodiness, while Lo Cascio brings darker nuances to her taciturn brother, for whom marriage and fatherhood have not automatically healed the scars of childhood.
Tech work is seamless and for the most part invisible, leaving the spotlight on the actors. Franco Piersanti’s score subtly creates a touch of musical foreboding.