The old adage about babies having babies gets markedly grown-up treatment in “Sole,” a crisp, reserved debut feature from Italian writer-director Carlo Sironi that examines the concept of parental instinct from an unusual point of view: that of a directionless young man play-acting the role of fatherhood, and finding himself unexpectedly broody in the process. An Italian-Polish co-production in which both nationalities feel narratively and spiritually integral to proceedings, Sironi’s film effectively blends the warm-blooded emotional stakes of classic Italian melodrama with the cooler, more rigorous language of new Eastern European cinema. It’s a head-turning hybrid that, while a little over-studied in parts, will travel well on the festival circuit, and is sure to feature prominently in new-director showcases.
Besides its more substantial virtues, “Sole” is surely notable for being among the bluest films ever committed to the screen — literally, that is, as Sironi bathes the screen in more shades of sky, aquamarine and cornflower than a layman can possibly name. Gergely Poharnok’s lensing and Ilaria Sadun’s production design are so methodically and frostily color-coded as to render the film’s setting, a drab coastal town in Italy, a kind of vast human aquarium. (The boxy Academy ratio that Sironi and Poharnuk have opted for doesn’t hurt that impression either.) It’s clearly not an accidental metaphor, given how trapped and glassily exposed its two young characters are made to feel as they go about the usually very intimate business of having a baby.
Or so it may seem from the outside: As it turns out, wide-eyed wastrel Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio) and sullenly pregnant Polish immigrant Lena (Sandra Drzymalska) don’t know each other from Adam, and certainly have no intention of having a child together. Instead, Lena is preparing to sell her unborn daughter to Fabio (Bruno Buzzi), a persuasive businessman unable to conceive with his wife Bianca (Barbara Ronchi). Since surrogacy is illegal in Italy, a bit of a ruse is required: Fabio has employed Ermanno, his nephew, to pose as the baby’s father until its birth, whereupon Lena will return to Poland, and the supposedly overwhelmed new dad will invite his relatives to adopt the newborn.
It’s a somewhat absurd scheme that shows up the heteronormative conservatism of Italian law in this regard, and is also vulnerable to the slightest change of heart from either of the two youths, as they move in together for several months to keep up appearances. While the stoic, briskly detached Lena remains keen to be rid of her daughter as soon as possible, Ermanno begins to have doubts about the setup. As his initially sentry-like relationship to Lena blossoms into a halting, unlikely romance, he harbors a fantasy of them coupling up to raise the child together — idealizing, like most of his countrymen, a nuclear, blood-bound family model over an alternative one, even if he isn’t the biological father himself.
Is he really in love with Lena, or does playing house with her simply make him crave a life different from the aimless, seemingly affection-starved one he’s lived thus far? Sironi’s terse script, co-written with Giulia Moriggi and Antonio Manca, keeps the question open, as does a porous, minimalist performance by Segaluscio, a non-professional with a rheumy, haunted bearing that perfectly undercuts his Dolce-and-Gabbana-model looks. Casting such a blank-slate lead is always a risk, but Segaluscio’s aptly affectless presence is bolstered by the contained firepower of the more experienced Drzymalska, who plays Lena as a hard-worn pragmatist with flickers of playfulness and even maternal instinct occasionally peeking out from under a dour protective shell.
Sironi, whose shorts have earned him acclaim at the Venice and Locarno fests, opts for a directorial style as strictly controlled and composed as the performances he draws from his stars. From the serene but subtly aggravated rhythms of Andrea Maguolo’s editing to the echoing, alien sparseness of Teoniki Royznek’s superb electronic score to that aforementioned, oceanic color palette, it’s all impressively of a piece, though a few more hot, disruptive elements amid the bristling calm wouldn’t go amiss. When a few stray, searing flashes of neon pink eventually infiltrate that chilly color scheme, it’s no random aesthetic whim: Sironi plays on our gendered color associations to signify a rising, resistant feminine energy amid all that drowning blue. The Italian patriarchy doesn’t exactly get smashed in this sad, solemn family fable, but Ermanno, in his growing hunger to be part of it, takes a few bruises.