Proving again that emotionally riveting movies are made of imagination and not a bulging pocketbook, Alessandro Angelini’s small powerhouse “Salty Air” may qualify as the Italian debut of the year, at least as for critics. Closely shot, fast cut drama about an angry, idealistic young prison tutor forced into an explosive face-off with his father, a convicted murderer, bursts with energy and a feeling for how actors plus camera can equal a serious moviegoing experience. It may not tip the scales in a domestic marketplace keyed to teen comedies, but should voyage nicely through fests, with a crack at the niches.
Unfolding its big themes of abandonment, remorse and father-son relations, the film hits fever pitch early and never pauses for a moment of softness or to let the story breathe. Script by Angelini and Angelo Carbone is rooted in the prison drama where men are tough as nails until their skin is peeled away. Here this happens almost entirely on an emotional level, with little physical violence but a great deal of physicality from wiry young Giorgio Pasotti, a martial artist turned actor, with black-belt talent.
Story hits the ground running, even a little too fast for comprehension. Fabio (Giorgio Pasotti) works in a penitentiary as a hard-nosed social worker, following prisoners and recommending them for day leaves and probation. His passion for this difficult, ill-paid job earns sympathy points, even though his own personality is borderline violent. When the well-to-do father of his girlfriend Emma (Katy Saunders) offers him a flashy car and job for his birthday, his bitchy refusal is far from endearing.
Soon a new case arrives on his desk that uncovers a buried nerve. Fabio recognizes the hard-faced Sparti (Giorgio Colangeli), who has served 20 years in prison, as his own father. Cruelly, almost sadistically, he taunts the older man without telling him who he is. In a series of tensely acted and directed scenes, Fabio and Sparti square off in raw hostility.
Last third of the film takes the action into the Roman suburbs, where the two, now known to each other, spend a day out of jail together. Sympathy has long since shifted to the lonely, hounded Sparti, reinforced by the cold shoulder he receives from his family and the mitigating circumstances that are eventually revealed around the murder he committed. Fabio further messes up when he takes Dad to meet his sister Cristina (the fine Michela Cescon), who like Fabio has never forgiven him for destroying their family.
Being so much an actor-driven film, the pic owes half its merit to the intense Pasotti and the totally convincing theater thesp Colangeli, who never let up for a minute. However, by wrapping the audience in a bear hug from start to finish, Angelini sacrifices some of the power more variety would have provided.
With the camera staying close to the actors, there is little need for anything but the most essential background. The oppressive, plain-jane prison sets were recreated in an abandoned prison facility by production designer Alessandro Marrazzo. Arnaldo Cantinari’s lighting is simple and effective.