The bloodshed may be in line with the grim dictates of contemporary Italian crime cinema, but the romantic melodrama at the center of “Senza nessuna pieta” is as aged and crumbly as vintage Parmigiano. Michele Alhaique’s medium-boiled Mafia thriller goes efficiently through the genre motions, and is boosted by co-producer Pierfrancesco Favino’s soulful lead performance as a mob heavy attempting to shake his demons for the love of (what else?) a golden-hearted hooker. But the familiarity of the premise and the predictability of the execution prevent sustained emotional engagement in this polished exercise, even as it cranks up the star-crossed contrivances toward a would-be weepy finale. Pic’s brooding noir stylings may attract limited distributor interest at Venice and Toronto, but it’s not punchy enough for major crossover success.
Among the less endearingly old-fashioned meller elements of “Senza nessuna pieta” is a seamy strain of sexism that sits awkwardly with its more sentimental gestures: Its idea of a meet-cute between swarthy Mimmo (Favino) and supermodel-gorgeous escort Tanya (Greta Scarano) culminates in her joking about the possibility of being raped by him. Such asides, together with a brutal opening sequence that sees a debtor grievously assaulted in a car park, mean that it takes some time for Alhaique’s film to reveal its ultimate tone. Its softness emerges simultaneously with that of Mimmo, a bearded, bearish construction worker who reluctantly moonlights as a debt collector for his uncle’s crime syndicate on Rome’s industrial outskirts, glumly doing the dirty work while his despised, lecherous cousin Manuel (Adriano Giannini) enjoys the spoils.
When Manuel procures Tanya’s services for an evening, Mimmo is instructed to babysit her until needed; when the tryst turns violent, Mimmo attacks his cousin, rescues the girl and has no option but to go on the lam with her. The oddly matched runaways may experience some initial friction, but auds will see the beauty-and-beast attraction coming well before Mimmo and Tanya reach their coastal hideaway and commence frolicking in the waters. “When a piece of ass gets them that hot gets them hard, they go crazy,” one character romantically observes: Not only does Tanya inspire Mimmo to abandon his former life, but she motivates a particularly ugly quest for retribution on the part of his spurned employers. (The title — listed simply as “Senza pieta” on certain materials — translates either way as “without mercy.”)
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The inevitability of the lovers’ destiny is beckoned not just by the film’s fatalism but by longstanding genre tradition. Less predictable and more colorful are the lives at the fringes of the film’s narrative — notably Pilar, a brisk, stout-hearted cleaner who agrees to shelter Mimmo and his ward. Played with salty empathy by Iris Peynado, she seems a feistier dramatic and romantic match for him than Tanya, wanly objectified in the script despite Scarano’s best efforts. There’s a crackle of warmth and mutual connection in Pilar’s scenes with Mimmo that the film misses elsewhere, though Favino — looking a little like a wilder, woollier Ricardo Darin — is an appropriately weary, hunted-looking presence throughout, his bruised heart plainly strapped to his bulging sleeve.
Technically, the film isn’t aiming for the flash or kineticism of recent, more expansive Italian mob sagas, though its assembly is slick enough, with Ivan Casalgrandi’s widescreen lensing seemingly gaining in iridescence as the protagonist’s emotions are unlocked. At one point, the squat gray townscape is blanketed in a fuchsia sunset worthy of Caspar David Friedrich — one into which no underworld heroes are permitted to ride.