A permanent marker is mightier than the sword in “The First Day of Winter,” a tiny Italian neorealist drama that impresses despite its numerous shortcomings. Austere effort by scribe-helmer Mirko Locatelli zooms in on a meek geek-turned-browbeater who threatens a closeted classmate that he’ll blanket the school in tell-all graffiti. Carefully followed-through aesthetic and provocative yet subdued treatment of an Italo high school’s eat-or-be-eaten mentality should get it some play beyond gay fests and national showcases.
As in Locatelli’s “Come prima,” a boy in crisis is at the center of this naturalistic exercise in teen misery. In a small village in the Milan region, gawky Valerio (Mattia De Gasparis, from “Come prima”) tries to stay afloat at school and during swim practice. In the changing rooms, he is ribbed by one of his swim mates for a lingering look, which sends Valerio’s defense system into overdrive and turns him from a victim into a bully.
Valerio’s weapon: a steamy shower scene he’s witnessed between hunky Dani (Alberto Gerundo) and fey Matteo (Andrea Semeghini), two fellow swimmers. The latter becomes the victim of Valerio’s bullying and blackmailing, which quickly get out of hand.
Pic balances Valerio’s cruel behavior at school with his decidedly normal life at home with working-class mom (Teresa Patrignani) and kid sister (Michela Cova). Dual-track narrative humanizes Valerio and shows that his nasty streak stays largely confined to the moments with his peers.
Unusually, pic focuses on the bully rather than the bullied, and also refuses to pin down the protag’s own sexuality. Valerio’s motivations for his actions are about as clear as those of the kids in Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant,” to which the film pays homage in a tracking shot. Part of “First Day’s” appeal is that it prefers ellipses to predigested explanations, though Locatelli overdoes that here; a bit more info would have given the tragic closing scenes more heft.
The pic thankfully refrains from sexualizing any of its characters, focusing instead on power relations among teens and the daily effort required to simply grow up. Ugo Carlevaro’s smudgy, penumbral lensing reinforces the film’s naturalistic approach.
Like Heath Ledger in “Brokeback Mountain,” De Gasparis persuasively mumbles his way through the dialogue, while Semeghini convinces as the intimidated teen. Other nonpros and extras are less convincing, at times draining the story of dramatic momentum.