Fears related to immigration, terrorism, and nationalism are a running theme in many Sundance entries this year, although probably none of the films addresses the commingled issues in such a potent yet roundabout way as Jacek Borcuch’s “Dolce Fine Giornata.” This satisfyingly complex drama stars Polish cinema veteran Krystyna Janda (going back to Wadja’s 1977 “Man of Marble”) as a celebrated poet whose enviable semi-retired life under the Tuscan sun rapidly frays when her “artistic license” in a public speech appears to condone suicide bombers.
This very European take on various hot-button topics lacks the kind of easily encapsulated gist that makes for easy marketing. But it’s a fine fifth feature for actor-turned-auteur Borcuch, as good as, yet very different from, 2009’s excellent teenage punk flashback “All That I Love.” Specialty distributors may want to climb on board his train now, as another film or two this strong could make him as significant an arthouse name as fellow countryman Pawel Pawlikowski.
Janda plays the kind of role almost invariably written for men (such as Jonathan Pryce in “The Wife,” to name one recent example): the laureled, arrogant, yet still insecure literary lion around whose whims family as well as fans orbit. Still imposingly cool if no longer slender in her Nico-like blonde wedge cut and sunglasses, Maria Linde is a child of Polish Jewish Holocaust survivors who fled further oppression in her homeland years ago. She’s now long lived a comfortable life in the Tuscan hills with Italian husband Antonio (Antonio Catania), her single-mother daughter Anna (Kasia Smutniak), and her two grandkids.
It’s a casual, privileged existence in the gorgeous countryside. Maria presides over parties and outings as if on permanent vacation, magnetizing admiration — including the Nobel Prize — that she pretends to shrug off, yet also accepts as her due. She’d never admit to something so banal as a midlife (let alone sixtysomething) crisis. Yet there’s something of that in the way she carries on too-conspicuously with Nazeer (Lorenzo de Moor), a handsome, much-younger Egyptian émigré who runs a taverna In town.
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One gets the sense this isn’t the first time Antonio and her daughter have looked the other way when Maria is exercising her rights as a culturally valued free spirit. But native residents like the local police chief (Vincent Riotta) may feel differently, both about her bohemian outsider status and about Nazeer as an Arab immigrant, even if he’s a well-integrated, successful one.
Everyone is shocked by news of a suicide bomber who strikes at a crowded tourist spot in Rome, taking myriad lives. Shortly thereafter Marie accepts a local award in the town hall, using the occasion to deliver a passionate but somewhat inflammatory quasi-political speech. Her intent may be to foster (or goad) peace, but her literary instincts render her rhetoric garbled, making it seem she’s applauding terrorist acts as a new form of “art.” The most objectionable quotes go viral, widespread blowback is immediate, and Marie only increases her sudden pariah status by huffily refusing to explain what she “really” meant. Consequences are not so easily escaped, however, for herself or for Nazeer, whose ethnic roots now also invite open hostility.
“Dolce Fine Giornata” may be a Polish movie about expats immersed in Italy, but if anything, it seems almost French in style: The mix of intellectual banter, incompletely explicated relationships, personal-foibles comedy, and dramatic (but not melodramatic) tension seems much influenced by upscale Gallic cinema of the last few decades. (Marie is even chastised by being told she’s made herself into the new Michel Houellebecq, a magnet for controversy rather than adoration.)
There’s nothing wrong with that, nor with the way Borcuch and co-writer Szczepan Twardoch paint all the relevant issues and major characters in shades of moral ambiguity. There are no simple answers, and the behaviors on display can be viewed from different angles even at their most extreme. The police chief is set up as a polite sort of conservative nemesis to Marie’s liberal torch-bearer. Yet in the confrontation that ends the film, we realize that to him — perhaps even to us — she has effectively made herself into “the bad guy.”
That ending arrives in arguably too heavy-handed and drawn-out a visual flourish. But otherwise “Dolce Fine Giordana” is superbly crafted on all levels, the balance of casual and elegant extending from narrative structure to Michal Dymek’s frequently handheld (yet still handsome) camerawork and the inviting nature of the surroundings (both indoor and out). The performances are all finely tuned, with Janda effortlessly convincing as a complicated, generous, yet not-always-sympathetic mind whose hedonistic appetites no longer have the excuse of youth. (You can’t blame Maria too much for Nazeer, however — de Moor makes him a formidable man to resist.)
While Daniel Bloom’s original score provides subtler accentuation, it was an inspired choice to include some pre-rock oldies, notably Sinatra singing “It Was a Very Good Year” — the classic pop expression of that autumnal self-satisfaction which Maria Linde may well have ruined for herself.