Slightly warmer than the rigorously cold “Consequences of Love” but with a similar conception of space and the emotionally crippled characters placed within it, Paolo Sorrentino’s third feature “The Family Friend” expands the maverick helmer’s singular vision, though this time he’s crafted a more complex world to illustrate his philosophy: “everyone steals, and everyone is unhappy.” Tale of a thoroughly unpleasant loan shark whose misanthropy may be due to his brutish appearance is oftentimes original on the surface but distancing in tone. Sure to divide auds and critics alike, B.O. is unlikely to befriend Sorrentino’s calculated stylizations, though brief arthouse play is probable.
Where “Consequences” limited characters and kept set-ups to a spare minimum, “The Family Friend” weaves in a more expanded range of personae, though the increase in numbers doesn’t equal a higher incidence of humanity. Geremia de’ Geremei (Giacomo Rizzo), known as Geremia Heart-of-Gold, is the friendlier loan shark of the neighborhood, using a certain loquacious phony grace to simulate concern for the desperate people coming to his tailoring establishment for loans.
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Proud Saverio (Gigi Angelillo) humiliates himself by asking for money to pay for a suitable wedding for daughter Rosalba (Laura Chiatti), although the bride would rather forgo the party than deal with the ugly loan shark. Before the marriage she pushes down her disgust and lets Geremia rape her in return for limiting his usurious charges.
Fond of quoting from “Reader’s Digest” while keeping up a pretence of concern for his clients (“my last thought will be for you”), Geremia is part Mephistopheles, part Faust, and all unsavory. Miserly and misogynistic, he lives with his invalid mother (Clara Bindi) in a darkened apartment that drips a bilious liquid as tainted as its inhabitants. Although refusing to use the word “friend,” his lone peer is Gino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), an unobtrusive cowboy wannabe who acts as Geremia’s spy when clients falsely cry poverty.
Like the futurist artist Giorgio de Chirico, Sorrentino limns a sparsely populated world of stark architecture in which figures form a structural, depersonalized element that’s equally architectural.
Really a surrealist, Sorrentino uses realism and minimalism to achieve his aims, and, with a painter’s eye, he tries to capture the iconic moment, be it of pleasure or pain.
But is originality of vision enough? Perhaps in these days of cookie-cutter Italo pics the answer is a faint-hearted yes. However, the frozen world of Sorrentino’s emotionally vacuumed characters presents a troubling view of humanity that offers little satisfaction apart from surface pleasures.
Certainly his striking visuals, care of ace d.p. Luca Bigazzi, are admirable, be they meticulously crisp geometric cityscapes or a stunning scene of Rosalba and Saverio arguing in a black-tiled bathroom. Sorrentino certainly loves colors, and again his eye is that of a painter’s: a woman’s green top juxtaposed against a red clay volleyball court, or a semi-nude woman against a brightly-lit blue wall.
Structurally, pic has difficulty staying focused, overloading on scenes that have little connection to character — though they may be beautifully shot — and further limiting the chances for emotional involvement. Unlike the fine-tuned, icy calibration of “Consequences,” here Sorrentino seems unwilling, or uncertain, how to call it a day.
Better known in Italy for his stage work, Rizzo proves an inspired piece of casting, perfect as the self-loathing, smug Geremia using his power to make mankind suffer for his unlucky fate. It’s a strong, memorable characterization.
As with helmer’s debut feature “One Man Up,” music is overly insistent, lessening its desired impact. Especially disconcerting is an uncomfortable scene with Geremia lewdly inserting his hand in a young woman’s pocket, loudly accompanied by the sublime Elgar Cello Concerto — the disconnect between the two a too obvious try at manipulation.