A tribute to old-fashioned, tradition-of-quality filmmaking, Michele Rho’s handsome if literal-minded saga “Horses” depicts the travails of two farm-raised brothers spanning the decades. Pic marks a helming debut that harks back to an era of epics from “The Leopard” to “Jean de Florette,” yet without Viscontian majesty. Blah local B.O. after the pic’s Venice preem contrasts with its warm reception at offshore fests, such as Santa Barbara.
Lively opening section shows young bros Alessandro and Pietro (actual siblings Luigi and Francesco Fedele, respectively) playing around in the woods near their parents’ northern Italian farm, until Pietro has an accident. Their stern father (Cesare Apolito) blames Alessandro and punishes him, spurring their sickly mother (Asia Argento, in possibly the most traditional role she’s ever played) to urge compassion. Thus, the tone is set for the older Alessandro to live a life of trouble, while Pietro manages on better terms.
Life-altering events abound in nearly every reel, per the codes of 19th-century literary storytelling (which Rho and co-writer Francesco Ghiaccio follow in accord with their adaptation of Pietro Grossi’s original book). Mother’s death marks the first change, as the boys are assigned to take care of two horses, whose fates then closely parallel the boys’ own. In a visual device that quotes from both Visconti and Orson Welles, young Alessandro looks in the mirror at a tailor’s shop and transforms into adult Alessandro (Vinicio Marchioni), now a crafty opportunist and social climber who’s in over his head. Pietro (Michele Alhaique) has mostly stayed on the farm, and has developed the skills of a horse whisperer.
The scenario fortunately refuses to simplistically paint Alessandro and Pietro as opposites; indeed, some of the more interesting passages in “Horses” have the brothers uniting and re-stoking their close bonds when necessity demands, as in some increasingly violent exchanges with horse traders. Veronica (Giulia Michelini), daughter of the town pharmacist, is eventually matched up with Pietro, whose general stability grows as Alessandro’s weakens, fueled by his desire to quit the place altogether, and venture across the Italian Alps to supposedly greener pastures.
The rising and falling of fortunes and luck seem like grist for the mill for actors Marchioni and Alhaique, who throw themselves into their roles with swarthy gusto, with Marchioni sometimes recalling a young Oliver Reed at full, animal tilt. Duccio Camerini as Pancia, a modest farmer and fatherly friend to Pietro, provides some welcome lighter notes, while Argento leaves a strong impression despite her early exit, and returns with voiceover over the lovely, highly novelistic conclusion.
The production, shot entirely in Tuscan locales, is high-class all the way, distinguished by Andrea Locatelli’s magnificent widescreen cinematography and Paki Meduri’s wide-ranging production design; both elements skillfully convey a rustic Italian world on the cusp of the wild and the urban. Nicola Tescari’s old-fashioned score caps a movie that, not unlike Steven Spielberg’s own recent “War Horse,” is thoroughly entrenched in retro values.