Three adults are haunted by the emotional legacy of a child molester and murderer in “Rust,” a strikingly made pic that, while crafted down to the last detail, lacks subtlety where it counts most. Helmer Daniele Gaglianone continues to tackle disturbing subjects with notable intensity, but rather than turning out a memory piece exploring the lasting effects of trauma, he presents a too-obviously monstrous pedophile. The results are troubling yet overblown, with sequences lacking the lingering dread to which Gaglianone aspires. “Rust” will make the fest rounds and probably receive attention in the serious press.
The film’s structure is a constant shift between a continuous past and a fixed present. The earlier time is the 1970s, on the outskirts of an unidentified north Italian city — a nondescript, empty wasteland with bland housing projects glimpsed on the horizon; the sole landmark is the rusted remains of a couple of industrial metal silos nicknamed “the Castle” by a band of kids. They’re a ragtag lot, reflecting the diverse immigration patterns from the peninsula’s south.
Carmine (Giampaolo Stella) is the bullying leader while Sandro (Giuseppe Furlo) is the sensitive one, and Cinzia (Giulia Coccellato) the most mature. At the pic’s start, a strong sunbeam illuminates dust motes that undulate above the kids’ heads like the evanescence of Tinker Bell, but this is no J.M. Barrie view of childhood. Instead, Gaglianone (“Pietro”) takes a page from Sally Mann, with the youngsters projecting a palpable yet accurate sexuality — it’s a refreshing rarity in Italo cinema, where tots are mostly repositories of cuteness.
Enter Dr. Boldrini (Filippo Timi), the new pediatrician, driving a Mercedes and sporting three-piece suits. Gaglianone avoids shooting Boldrini full-on, favoring his back, often a black mass against the light, or using mirrors to glimpse his face. He’s an intimidating figure for the peasant parents of the district, not least because he’s rude, given to emotional explosions, and sings to himself accompanied by exaggerated mannerisms. In fact, Boldrini is a full-out psycho.
As the past is laid out before the viewer, the helmer keeps returning to a particular moment in the present. Carmine (Valerio Mastandrea) is a dropout barfly, Sandro (Stefano Accorsi) is a single dad who plays with his young son at the expense of moving on in his life (signaled by unpacked cartons in the apartment), and Cinzia (Valeria Solarino) is a timid high school teacher at a faculty meeting. The three adults are only seen in these locales, their limited temporality a cue for their inability to process the past and fully live in the present.
The concept is powerful, yet the back-and-forth is overdone, attempting to build mood but flattening the rhythm and undercutting development. The biggest problem, however, is Boldrini’s characterization. What makes Peter Lorre’s pedophile in “M” so chilling is that he’s an unremarkable figure able to slip into the anonymous masses before suddenly striking — he’s deeply troubled yet able to maintain a placid exterior. Boldrini is visibly a schizophrenic madman from the get-go (a scene of him in a car wash, his eyes rolling into the back of his head, is but one of several overdone moments), so obviously evil that “Rust” teeters into a horror film rather than a serious mood piece about trauma and the residue of amorality.
Timi isn’t to blame, since it’s clear he’s following instructions and the script. Mastandrea and Accorsi are fine in their limited roles, and Solarino carves out a presence greater than her restricted scenes. The kids, too, are well directed, appearing natural in difficult parts.
Lensing favors a voyeuristic mode that’s good at making auds feel uncomfortable. Lighting signals the changes in temporality, the past awash in bright summer sun and the present all darkened interiors. Minimalist chords or pulsating electric notes attempt to heighten the tension, excessively so.