Words on a Scrabble board trigger memories of surreptitious glances and near meetings in “Turtles on Their Backs,” an ambitious, beautifully played meditation on the cross-currents of two lives that barely touch yet seem constantly connected. Novice helmer Stefano Pasetto starts with a nameless man and woman and builds their recollections in the same manner as the letters from the game, one off another, jumping time but keeping within a more-or-less linear narrative. This well-sustained, unpretentious meditation on the power of memory should do best at smaller fests, where it can stand out.
A woman known simply as “She” (Barbora Bobulova) brings a Scrabble set to an incarcerated man known as “He” (Fabrizio Rongione). The words formed relate to their history together: She coaxes him to recollect the first image he has of her, on a tram, but their awareness of each other goes back to childhood, when as kids at a beach resort in Trieste he was struck by her self-possessed charms, and presented her with a young turtle.
As an adult, her confidence is considerably more fragile; she’s suspended her medical studies to look after an ailing aunt (Gordana Miletic), and takes a night job as a shop cleaner. He’s freshly sprung from prison and lands work as a pastry chef. Their adult selves become aware of each other through chance stares that reveal signs of recognition, but neither is able to hold onto anything more than a moment’s yearning glance. Seven years pass and they meet again, but while she views their encounter as fate, he’s afraid to see it as anything other than hopeless fantasy.
While Pasetto’s structure is complex, this is no “Marienbad,” and he never questions the reliability of these memories. Instead, they bounce off each other and shift from the present to the past, intersecting so elements formed from each perspective occasionally connect in “Elephant” fashion.
There’s more here than mere recollection, however: Inextricably tied in are considerations of communication, loneliness and fear of intimacy that all conspire to thwart fulfillment. If at times it feels as if Pasetto is unsure how to combine his experimental structure with more traditional forms of narration, he shows great subtlety in this first feature, and doesn’t let the serious mood negate passages of humor.
In her most mature work yet, Bobulova (“The Spectator,” “Mirka”) offers a moving, sensitive portrait of world-weariness, like someone whose inner flame has preternaturally blown out; in this, she’s nicely paired with Rongione’s angry young man.
Pasetto’s feel for colors is apparent in his careful matching of shades to mood, especially in the way he’s worked with the art director and costume designer. Title refers to the inability of turtles to right themselves unaided when flipped over.