In Paolo Franchi’s second feature, a brooding, intense variation on “Strangers on a Train,” two men (Bruno Todeschini and Elio Germano) swap the same murder. Filmed mainly at night or in cold light, against the gray water and austere architecture of Turin, pic is an unrelenting study in Oedipal angst. Despite its visually compelling style and two magnificently dysfunctional perfs, pic finally fails to ring enough variations on its father-fixation theme. “Fallen Heroes” has gained notoriety for its glimpse of a naked, fully erect Elio Germano, but unremitting bleakness may be the sticking point for arthouse auds.
Transplanted French-Swiss Bruno (Todeschini), at 40, is not doing well. He has just discovered he cannot father a child, and the banker to whom he owes a fortune has given him a week to come up with the money. He hides both truths from his wife, Anne (Irene Jacob), not because she would not understand but because, in her maddeningly unconditional wifely/motherly love, she would.
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A trip to his home in Geneva to borrow money from his sister (Maria de Medeiros) triggers his not-very-deeply buried hatred of his dead father, a famous Swiss painter who just happens to look exactly like him.
Meanwhile, Luca (Germano), the young son of the man to whom he owes the money, has problems of his own. If repressed Bruno nurses his neuroses, disturbed Luca visibly battles his psychoses, most of them centering around his conflicted feeling for his usurer father. Luca begins to follow Bruno and stages an encounter patently designed to set him up to take the fall for Luca’s planned patricide. But he soon becomes fascinated with Bruno and Anne, Freudian transferences of every conceivable stripe madly whizzing around the camera’s obsessive stalking.
Franchi whips up some stunning Sturm und Drang as characters throw themselves into the water, madly dig in the earth or chase each other through torrential rains. Yet nobody actually works: The unspecified business into which Bruno has sunk all his borrowed money commands a beautiful corner office by the sea, but no clients. Neither Anne nor Luca has a job. Indeed, the characters don’t even eat — all they do is indulge in angst, which can be surprisingly time-consuming (in an amazing scene, Luca contorts his entire body in a terrible, protracted attempt to vomit up his soul), and desperate, graphic sex.
Unlike Franchi’s debut “The Spectator,” where the camera, in its voyeurism, created a sense of continuum and sly reversals, here scenes are linked by blackness and discontinuity, as characters walk into darkened rooms or are transported from Turin to Geneva in a single cut. And unlike Robert Walker’s wonderfully entertaining Bruno in Hitchcock’s “Strangers,” Germano, here taking the role if not the name, singularly lacks a sense of panache or humor.
Tech credits are superb. Gianmaria Cau’s production design creates austere interiors full of artful emptiness, while lenser Cesare Accetta limns suitably desolate landscapes of the mind. But it is pic’s extraordinary sound design that really captures its characters’ alienation.
Pic’s title refers to Bruno’s father’s painting of the same name, and could better be translated as “none of the qualities of heroes.”