The eponymous forest may be immaculately snow-draped throughout, but the dramatics turn to slush well before the end of “The Ice Forest,” a high-gloss, low-logic noir from Italian soph helmer Claudio Noce. Looking to do for the Julian Alps what “Winter’s Bone” did for the Ozarks, this convoluted tale of disappearance and subterfuge on the Italy-Slovenia border flirts with topicality via its theme of European human trafficking, but is otherwise mostly in thrall to American storytelling conventions — right down to the incidental country music twanging over the chilly proceedings. With its mystery too diffuse to hold most viewers’ attention, this dense “Forest” looks unlikely to attract the degree of crossover interest it’s clearly aiming for, though it does mark Noce as a genre craftsman of international standard.
“Border deaths aren’t anyone’s deaths,” grumbles one tetchy mountain man to a detective overstepping the bounds of curiosity — a statement that seems appropriate in the geographical and stylistic no-man’s-land that “The Ice Forest” occupies, where Italian and Eastern European stereotypes alike are refracted through the prism of Hollywood tradition. It’s a hybrid milieu familiar from a number of recent (and similarly frostbitten) exercises in Nordic noir, though it’s hard not to sense that Noce’s chosen region might be richer in its native cultural and sociological conflicts than the film lets on. Diverse, flavorful casting — including striking Russian thesp Ksenia Rappoport and renowned Serbian auteur Emir Kusturica in key roles — adds texture to the enterprise, though the pic’s characters are short on specificity.
A 1994-set prologue finds a pair of Bosnian refugee brothers separated while attempting a hazardous night-time crossing to Italy; the younger of the two survives, while his older brother is killed by brutal traffickers. Though this nervy sequence is ostensibly disconnected from the contemporary story that follows, it won’t take most viewers long to figure out what links them — even if the film only names names toward the end. That’s hardly a crucial enigma, however, in a narrative that piles up numerous other points of secrecy and confusion. A female Libyan refugee (the bulk of the trade having jumped continents over the decades) is found dead just outside a remote border village nestled below a high-altitude power plant. The male-dominated community is unfazed; posing as a bear-tracker, Slovenian undercover detective Lana (Rappoport, sternly playing Marge Gunderson without the wisecracks) rolls into town to get to the bottom of things.
The human beast count, unsurprisingly enough, is higher than the ursine one, beginning with sinister brothers Secondo (Kusturica, suitably grizzled) and Lorenzo (Adriano Giannini), who run the local immigrant racket. Lana’s arrival isn’t the only one to put them on edge: When young electrician Pietro (Domenico Diele) turns up to repair a power outage at the plant, Lorenzo disappears shortly thereafter. Auds will have an easier time teasing out the dynamics between the characters than they will determining the precise objective of the investigation, as the instigating murder looks ever more like a MacGuffin. The initial promise of a wintry Euro spin on Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” — complete with tangy gender tensions — ultimately yields macho, turgid results. Still, Rappoport (who has form in Italian genre fare) is a committed, intelligent presence throughout.
It all looks robustly handsome, and not just due to the failsafe Alpine scenery: Michele D’Attanasio’s lithe lensing effectively streamlines the color palette, reducing the winter-wonderland landscape to bleak, near-monochrome tones while permitting man-made punches of red in the frame. Given the film’s own layered identity, the score by Italian duo Ratchev & Carratello is an appropriately jangling hodgepodge of influences, ranging from acoustic bluegrass to choral kitsch. Oddly, considering the general slickness of the presentation, continuity work is decidedly sloppy — the repeated disappearance of Diele’s earrings from scene to scene ranks among the film’s less urgent, but notably unsolved, mysteries.