Somewhere in the depths of Daniele Cipri’s distressingly broad tragicomedy “It Was the Son” lies a rebuke against venality and the facade of family relationships. However, uncovering that seed beneath the pointless stereotypes, wasted scenes and denatured colors is hardly worth the effort. There’s a great idea here: By cashing in on the accidental death of their daughter, a family shows that blood ties are merely brittle conduits for monstrous selfishness. Yet rather than functioning as a stinging satire, “Son” plays like an annoying parody of an Italo pic, furthering the peninsula’s diminishing rep on the international cinema scene.
Local play is more difficult to gauge, since Italy has long had a healthy affection for grandiose characters. But even in average films of the past, helmers used caricature to capture something real about the Italian psyche, whether positive or negative. Stereotypes embraced the Everyman and, in their very excess, functioned as either salutary mocking or affectionate ribbing; they may not be real people, but auds cared and projected their lives onto the screen. Cipri instead populates his pic with cruel mockeries and broad absurdities that offer nothing but overkill.
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The great Toni Servillo delivers an astonishingly complete performance, as always, but in his loud, abrasive, avaricious impersonation of protag Nicola Ciraulo, he merely exposes the film’s malicious conception of southern Italian working-class stereotypes. There’s so little real emotion here that the tragedy at the pic’s heart is shrugged off by the characters and the audience.
Sometime in the unspecified past (tea-stained colors suggest the early ’70s), the Ciraulo family of suburban Palermo scrapes by on Nicola’s shipyard scrap-metal scavenging. He’s constantly disparaging his slow-witted dreamer of a son, 20-year-old Tancredi (Fabrizio Falco), wishing he’d be more like cousin Masino (Piero Misuraca), a swaggering mobster-in-the-making. Nicola’s wife, Loredana (Giselda Volodi), does little to protect her son from the hectoring.
Then their headstrong daughter, Serenella (Alessia Zammitti), is accidentally killed in a botched Mafia rub-out; screams of grief leave viewers unmoved, since these are merely semblances of people. Nicola’s friend Giovanni (Giacomo Civiletti) tells him he should apply for Mafia victim compensation, and the Ciraulos are rewarded a healthy sum, wiping away any pretense of sorrow. Convinced the money will arrive soon (are they really Italian?), the family runs up enormous debts in local credit, forcing Nicola to go to a loan shark.
When the funds finally come, the family, including Gramps (Benedetto Raneli) and Grandma Rosa (Aurora Quattrocchi), suggest ways to put it to good use, but Nicola has his heart set on one thing: a Mercedes. With a Mercedes, they can be big shots, pushing Serenella’s memory even further away.
All this is framed within a poorly incorporated present, in which Busu (Pablo Larrain regular Alfredo Castro, dubbed) sits in a post office, telling the Ciraulo story to anyone willing to listen. Toward the end there’s a sudden shift in tone and the satirical bite missing for more than 80 minutes is suddenly felt, making sense of Busu’s presence. But it’s not enough to retroactively turn the film into a devastating, or at least humorous, dissection of a society blithely willing to sacrifice kin for fleeting comfort.
“Son” is peppered with numerous scenes and characters that go nowhere: A musical number seems lifted from another pic, while conversations cut off by passing trains have no function. Cipri is a fine d.p. with impressive credits, though apart from the dull colors of the Ciraulo scenes and the brighter tones of the present, the visuals leave little distinguishing marks here. Carlo Crivelli’s compositions are an odd mix of Nino Rota and Maurice Ravel (supplemented by baroque orchestrations), fitting into a traditional Italian satirical vibe. The Apulian city of Brindisi and outskirts fill in for Palermo.