Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” stretches long as a late-evening shadow over Italian director Sara Summa’s feature debut “The Last to See Them.” The Italian title, “Gli Ultimi Viderli Vivere” which translates literally to “The Last to See Them Alive,” is also the heading of the opening chapter of Capote’s book. The setting is, similarly, a remote farmhouse whose four occupants — father, mother, daughter, son — will soon suffer a grisly fate. Even the book’s contested designation as a “nonfiction novel” has inescapable parallels: Summa’s film is also based on a real event, but the extent of its truthfulness is difficult to gauge.
This is largely due to the wilful austerity of the director’s coolly premeditated approach. An opening title baldly reveals that one day in 2012, four members of the Durati family were murdered — an event we soon begin to suspect we will not see — and then, armed only with this scant foreknowledge, we watch these unsuspecting victims go about their ordinary business, in the drowsy Southern Italian sunshine with the picturesque countryside rolling all around them, on the last day of their lives.
The family patriarch, Renzo (Canio Lancellotti) starts his day sorting through some papers in his makeshift office. Mother Alice (Donatella Viola) is prone to headaches and when not lying in a darkened room, wanders listlessly around the house. Young son Matteo (Pasquale Lioi) is hand-finishing an ornate wooden box intended as a wedding present for the family’s eldest daughter, who is never seen. It’s teenage daughter Dora (Barbara Verrastro) who has the busiest agenda and who, very loosely, is the focus of the film’s studiously disinterested gaze. She helps a neighbor’s kid make a cake, she fields phone calls and later a visit from her boyfriend, and throughout the day she is occupied with making bridesmaid’s dresses and running other errands for her sister’s imminent nuptials. We are only fleetingly reminded of the family’s onrushing doom by slightly leaden interstitial impressions: hands on a steering wheel, headlights sweeping along a deserted country road; a faceless malevolence getting implacably closer with the unexplained, inexorable purpose of Death itself.
If it all sounds a little like a film-school final project, there’s a reason for that. “The Last to See Them” is produced by DFFB, the German film school of which Summa is a graduate, and as a portfolio piece it is impressive. Katharina Schelling’s photography is pleasantly restrained, shot with a digital graininess that mutes down the palette so that bright skies look pale, and sunshine feels harsh rather than cheerful. And certain scenes are repeated from different perspectives in the edit (which is credited to Summa with additional thanks to filmmaker Valeska Grisebach), which seems to be an attempt to comment on the slipperiness of cinematic time, and to muddle the film’s otherwise relentlessly linear nature.
But none of the repetitions actually give us any more information than we had before, so their effect is ultimately deadening. And, coupled with the slightly self-consciousness performances from the film’s non-professional cast, which seems to be very aware it is walking in the footsteps of the dead, much of “The Last to See Them” feels less like dramatization than reconstruction — less drama than diorama — yet it remains unclear just why these mundane actions warrant such minute recreation.
Without any sense of the killer’s motivation (the oncoming disaster might as well be a comet strike), nor any suggestion of what the family might have done to bring this catastrophe upon itself, Summa’s anti-thriller occupies an oddly sterile, intellectualized realm. The avoidance of sensationalism is laudable given its basis on a real event, but soon that very bloodlessness starts to grate, and to feel less like respect than a squeamish repression of cinema’s visceral, emotive, expressive power. In this regrettable way, “The Last to See Them” does escape the legacy of “In Cold Blood”: Capote’s story, despite the elegance of the telling, brims with horror and violence and grief.
The creation of suspense often relies on the audience knowing something the characters do not — there’s a killer behind the door; there’s a body in the bathtub; there’s a strange egg hatching in the forest. And Summa’s experiment is a tantalizing one: Can an audience create all the suspense needed to nourish a film from just one slender opening title? It’s just a shame that the conclusion we can draw from “The Last to See Them,” a film too much thought about and too little felt, is that we cannot.