Despite the near-dozen cast members listed, “Hungry Hearts” is an intimate three-hander that starts off with one of the more delightful opening scenes of recent years, but then, soon after the half-hour mark, the once-charming protags and their increasingly irrational behavior turn exasperating. Saverio Costanzo’s first Gotham-set, all-English-lingo feature incorporates a “Blue Valentine” vibe crossed with “Rosemary’s Baby” in a story about a neurotic new mom whose bizarre parenting ideas threaten her child and her marriage. A prime example of an idea overwhelming script considerations, “Hearts” could parlay its American indie feel into a small Stateside rollout.
In the tiny basement bathroom of a Chinese restaurant, Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) gets trapped with stranger Jude (Adam Driver) when the door sticks shut. The topnotch actors make the most of their amusing dialogue in this nifty, claustrophobically lensed scene, which could easily work as a standalone shot. In the next shot, they’re lying in bed together when she learns that she’s being transferred from her embassy job; he asks her to stay. They have sex, then Costanzo cuts to Mina on the toilet with a pregnancy test. The clean-cut, telegraphic sequencing offers all the necessary information in these early scenes, allowing auds to focus on the intensity of their relationship and the delightful pleasure they take in each other’s company.
At their wedding, still tightly lensed, Jude’s mother, Anne (Roberta Maxwell), dances over to Mina, telling her that although her son doesn’t want to involve her in his life, she very much wants to befriend her new daughter-in-law. As for Mina, her mother died when she was young, and she has no communication with her elderly father in Italy.
During her pregnancy, Mina consults a psychic, who tells her she has an “indigo baby,” meaning a child with paranormal powers; Jude gently brushes it off. Wary of doctors and given to under-eating anyway, the vegan Mina is warned that her amniotic fluid has all but dried out, and she needs a Caesarean; against her wishes, it’s performed while she’s under anesthetic. Once back home with their underweight infant — for no apparent reason, the script chooses not to name the baby — the mildly neurotic Mina becomes increasingly bonkers. She’s germophobic, she won’t let the baby out of their Upper West Side apartment, and she barely feeds him.
Jude becomes concerned and sneaks off to their OB-GYN (Jake Weber), who tells him the infant is seriously underdeveloped and needs major amounts of protein, best provided by meat. Back home it becomes a tug-of-war, with Mina secretly feeding the kid a purgative that prevents him from digesting Jude’s food.
Around now Costanzo starts using a fish-eye lens in certain scenes, adding to the sense of lives off-balance — a peculiar device that, along with Mina’s increasingly erratic behavior, definitively cancels out the relationship focus that made viewers care even when things started to get rocky. By this point, however, though attention is still on the couple, viewers will begin to notice all the absences: the lack of friends, the fact that Mina doesn’t have a job, or that Jude never seems to be at his. Jude’s deferral to Mina’s peculiarities, at the risk of his son’s life, beggars belief, given how long it takes before he wakes up, and the ending is especially disappointing.
It’s as if the director can’t decide what he wants: to chronicle the disintegration of a family, or to take a magnifying glass to a woman whose mania overwhelms all rational thought. At least in “Rosemary’s Baby,” Rosemary really has been inseminated by the Devil, making her desperation and seeming madness terrifying to watch, whereas here, Mina’s delusion and Jude’s initial lack of backbone feel merely ridiculous.
The fault lies squarely with the script and not the exceptional performances. Driver has carved out a distinctive niche in the indie scene, projecting a complex likability: an everyman with added personality and depth (the latter less visible here). The versatile Rohrwacher, in her second film with Costanzo (“The Solitude of Prime Numbers”), knows how to project iron-willed determination disguised under a veil of fragility; a few more neurotic roles, however, and she’ll be typecast as the go-to actress whenever a repressed hysteric is required.
Visually, the film’s design works beautifully until that fish-eye lens literally makes a mess of things. Fabio Cianchetti’s controlled, intense closeups match the couple’s courtship and “us against the world” attitude that excludes all else around them. Praise also must go to the location shooting in Manhattan, Coney Island and Brighton Beach, and Amy Williams’ production design superbly reproduces Gotham dwelling spaces. Stereotypical scary music makes little sense, whereas the incongruity of Irene Cara singing “What a Feeling” in the wedding scene provides an amusingly jarring effect.