“I feel like I’m dreaming,” says young Dasy to her sister Viola over halfway into “Indivisible”, and it’s a sentiment likely to be echoed by audiences. A subtle, appealing and slightly unreal Neopolitan fable that unfolds with the often brutal logic of a fairytale, Edoardo De Angelis’s conjoined-twins drama has the feel of updated folklore — a Brothers Grimm classic, perhaps — relocated to contemporary Italy. While hardly a picture with blockbuster pretensions, a modest post-festival life on the arthouse circuit seems entirely possible, since despite its neo-gothic trappings the narrative is at heart warm and accessible.
Dasy and Viola (presumably named for real-life English conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were exploited by various handlers and went on to appear in Tod Browning’s 1932 classic “Freaks”) are played by debut performers Angela and Marianna Fontana. The young actors are identical twins: Unlike their onscreen characters, they are not conjoined, but do a remarkable job of moving and behaving in such a way that we fully believe in a connection both physical and psychological.
Dasy and Viola live a life limited less by their physical difference to those around them than by the exploitative tendencies of people who ought to have their best interests at heart. In their immediate family, their down-at-heel, gambling-inclined father Peppe (Massimiliano Rossi) needs them to perform the songs he writes — performances at weddings, christenings, first communions and the like are the clan’s bread and butter. Likewise, their blowsy, boozy mother Titti (a small but well-judged performance from Antonia Truppo) appears to view her children as little more than an income source.
A local priest is equally cynical, and only too willing to use the “miracle” of the conjoined girls as a means to solicit donations for the church from the community. A potential manager for the girls’ singing career is the most sinister of the adults in the girls’ vicinity, as he attempts to seduce Dasy, who dreams of love, aboard a luxury yacht that seemingly functions as a floating showcase of physically and mentally outré outcasts, plucked from who-knows-where by this creepy svengali.
The sole benign influence in the girls’ lives would seem to be a visiting surgeon who is shocked to realize that the possibility of separating the sisters has never been seriously considered by those who make their living at least in part from the girls’ unique status. Joined quite literally at the hip, Dasy and Viola don’t share any major organs, just a “mass of capillaries”, and Dasy is elated to realize that this may mean she can have an operation and live a more normal life without the burden of worries such as getting her sister drunk when she drinks.
Viola, by contrast, can’t bear the idea of being separated: Her emotional life, as much as her physical body, is entirely dependent on her sister. While Dasy imagines romance and independence, Viola seems relatively content to exist in a world defined entirely by her family, and is certainly more realistic about the possibility of deprivation and exploitation in the outside world. Despite their lack of experience, the Fontana sisters do a lovely job of sketching an intimate yet at times claustrophobic bond. No doubt elements of their real-life existence as identical twins make a helpful starting point for thinking about how people’s response to them would inform their attitudes to the world. But that’s not to underestimate the extent to which they create plausible individual characters, completely distinct from each other.
Director Edoardo de Angelis (“Mozzarella Stories”, “Perez”, “Vieni a vivere a Napoli!”) works with d.p. Ferran Paredes Rubio to create a muted world of soft teals, lilacs and misty twilight colors, interspersed with livelier set-pieces — such as a first-act party for a rich pre-teen which suggests elements of kitschy decadence reminiscent of a less affluent “The Great Beauty”. Sound design and Enzo Avitabile’s persuasive score are particularly crucial during the girls’ live performances, which are so good as to undermine the notion that their act only draws a crowd because they are conjoined; that rather underestimates the appeal of beautiful and talented identical twin singers.
“Indivisible” is at times a strange ride, but despite its occasionally surreal imagery, it is not a difficult film. Playing somewhat like an extended vignette from Pasolini’s “Decameron,” the narrative is not abstract; it simply concerns people whose lives are not often dramatized in this way. Domestic audiences who can be persuaded to look past the perceived barrier of subtitles would likely be charmed by Dasy and Viola, who raise intriguing and timely questions about female bodily autonomy and the question of what is normal.