At one point early on in “A Family,” our dour antihero Vincent enters a seamy massage parlor for treatment. On the table, when his young Asian masseuse reaches under his towel covering his crotch, he stops her short: “Just a massage,” he instructs. It’s as clear a sign as any that happy endings will be hard to come by in Italian director Sebastiano Riso’s overlong, overwrought melodrama, in which a couple of black-market baby merchants struggle to reconcile their livelihood with growingly impatient maternal urges. With a surface dusting of realist grit hardly covering for the strained contrivances and one-note characterization propelling its lurid narrative, Riso’s sophomore feature never shakes the artificial, soapy aroma at its core. Following its Venice competition premiere, the pic should build on the domestic success of Riso’s 2014 debut “Darker Than Midnight”; internationally, it’s harder to see distributors taking this “Family” in.
Credit leading lady Micaela Ramazzotti, at least, for committing wholeheartedly to the siren-high emotional pitch of an enterprise that affords Maria, her endlessly denigrated character, very little respect in return. Though “A Family” ostensibly critiques the toxic Italian patriarchal system that has literally made a professional baby-maker of Maria, it neglects to define or detail its female protagonist far beyond a desperate yearning for a family of her own.
Though it takes some time for the grim circumstances behind her childlessness to emerge, that mourned absence is made clear from the opening scene, as Maria and Vincent (Patrick Bruel) are distracted by the sight of an adjacent family on the subway. Intensely drawn to the brood, Maria impulsively hops off the train when they do, stalking them through the station. Possible plot strands of adoption or estrangement pass through viewers’ minds before a more sordid truth emerges: Vincent and Maria have been conceiving, delivering and selling children to couples in need, fetching up to 80,000 euro per kid through a disreputable network of agents, wranglers and underhand doctors.
Between babies, they maintain an illusion of contented, self-sufficient coupledom in drab suburban Rome, though if it was originally true love that drew the impressionable Maria to the significantly older Vincent, the arrangement has palled under his controlling touch. Separated from her family and prevented from forming her own social circle to maintain the covert nature of their operation, Maria wants out — secretly using contraception until she can persuade her opportunistic lover that the next baby they have should be their own. Thus is the foundation laid for a slightly edgier update of sudsy “women’s pictures” of old, but “A Family” loses momentum and human credibility over the course of its two-hour running time, wallowing repetitively in Maria’s defenseless subjugation, and breaking off into half-developed subplots that contribute little but a compounded sense of social disrepair in the film’s glum contemporary milieu.
There’s a thread of political commentary to the couple’s morally debatable mission, as they’re particularly encouraged to supply children to gay couples still penalized by Italian adoption law. “We thought this country might change, but it never will,” reflect one pair of prospective clients — picking up the stand against socially conditioned LGBT persecution taken by Riso’s more overtly queer debut — though their plight is but one tributary to “A Family’s” rushing river of woe. Sketchier still is the story of Stella (Matilda De Angelis), a young woman rescued from an abusive relationship by Vincent, only for him to begin grooming her in much the way one suspects Maria was ushered into her present predicament.
“A Family” hints at a more excoriating critique of the cycles of female abuse perpetuated by social and religious conservatism, yet never does so with complete conviction. As it lunges toward a shrill, literally shrieking climax, Riso’s screenplay, co-written with Andrea Cedrola and Stefano Grasso, seems unduly torn between Vincent’s potential redemption and Maria’s still-clouded self-realization. Rarely do life’s incidental moments of levity or ecstasy amid hardship color the lugubrious tone, though the actors — the put-upon Ramazzotti in particular, suffering as lavishly as she did in Paolo Virzi’s 2010 hit “The First Beautiful Thing” — do their best to pull raw feeling from the schematic situational agony they’re given to work with.
Technical contributions are proficient, sometimes covering different ends of the film’s tonal spectrum. Save for one extravagant floating take around the couple’s apartment complex as a fight unfolds in the audible background, Pierro Basso’s lensing often aims for the close, desaturated intimacy of social realism, while Michele Braga’s thick, swooping, pining score fully embraces the project’s melodramatic leanings.