Midway through “The Ties,” a long-absent father and his estranged young son realize they have an unlikely thing in common: They both tie their shoes in an unconventional way that draws light mockery from others. The boy must have learned it from his dad, though neither can remember when; now, as they scarcely know each other anymore, it’s the one literal tie that binds them. The original Italian title of “The Ties” is “Lacci,” which translates more specifically as “shoelaces,” and it better evokes where the strengths of Daniele Luchetti’s freely time-skipping domestic drama lie: in conveying the more banal everyday details, incidents and anecdotes that become, over time and often subconsciously, the very fabric of family history. When it reaches for grander metaphors and emotional gestures, on the other hand, Luchetti’s film comes a little undone.
As the first homegrown production in 11 years to be selected as the Venice Film Festival opener — a slot recently dominated by U.S. productions like “La La Land” and “Gravity” — “The Ties” has already secured itself a higher profile than veteran director Luchetti’s last few features, which have largely been confined to home turf. (His last film to premiere at one of Europe’s major fests was 2010’s Cannes prizewinner “Our Life.”) That prominent launchpad, plus a fine cast of internationally regarded players including Alba Rohrwacher and Giovanna Mezzogiorno, may turn the heads of some Euro distributors, but it’s a minor-key affair — closer in tone to the warm, soapy storytelling of Luchetti’s 2007 breakout “My Brother is an Only Child” than the stentorian social realism of “Our Life.”
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“Shoelaces” could also allude to the film’s curious, fitful narrative structure, which appears to loop around twice in its study of a 40-year marriage, before tying things roughly together. We first encounter Naples couple Vanda (Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) in the early 1980s, dancing and whooping it up at a party with their young children Anna and Sandro, before heading home for a cozy evening of TV, bathtime and story-reading. Luchetti and cinematographer Ivan Casalgrandi shoot these idealized vignettes of family life in a rose-orange glow, before the kids are put to bed and the kitchen abruptly takes on a cold fluorescent glare — accompanying Aldo’s unsolicited confession to his wife that he has recently slept with another woman.
Rohrwacher, always an intense, deep-feeling presence on screen, does her best acting in Vanda’s initial, unguarded response to this bombshell, negotiating a line between spontaneous anger and bewilderment that Aldo has burdened her with this knowledge. “What am I supposed to do?” she asks, and not rhetorically: It turns out her uncertainty over how to react will bleed into decades of emotional instability between them. Aldo, a literary radio host, moves to Rome to be with his new girlfriend Lidia (Linda Caridi), ceding full custody of the children to Vanda with a compliance that dismays her, and appearing ever less regularly in their lives. Yet as the years pass, a clean break evades them: Vanda, whose mental health takes a turn for the volatile, raggedly retains hope that he’ll return to the fold, even if her feelings for him have largely dissipated. “It’s not only a matter of love, it’s a matter of loyalty,” she says, and “The Ties” is preoccupied with the overlap or otherwise between those sentiments.
As we disorientingly shift to the present day — in a tricksy transition cleverly maneuvered by Luchetti and his co-editor Ael Dallier Vega — it seems she has got her wish. We reencounter Vanda and Aldo (now played by Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando) living together in their sixties, seemingly content while persistently bickering, and not especially close to the now-adult Anna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) and Sandro (Adriano Giannini), whose accounts of the last 40 years would likely tell very different tales. From this point, the timeline darts erratically back and forth as it retraces the couple’s wayward steps, whether filling in hitherto unseen events between the couple’s time apart and together, or revisiting previous scenes from a different, tilted perspective.
Reflecting the film’s literary roots (it’s adapted from a novel by one of the screenwriters, Domenico Starnone), this bifocal effect is an intriguing conceit that doesn’t fully blossom in a somewhat cramped 100-minute running time. Try as it might, the film never quite gets into either spouse’s head: Seemingly minor events are granted an importance through repetition that remains inscrutable to the viewer, while Luchetti steers around certain more severe incidents by rendering their dialogue inaudible, and their aftermath vague. Though the film is observed with rueful credibility at a granular level — an extended squabble over tipping a delivery person distils all the couple’s fault lines in perfect miniature — climactic scenes in which tensions are brought more shrilly to the surface don’t ring as true.
If “The Ties” is finally a bit more involving than it is affecting, there are still casually skilled pleasures of performance and construction to be taken from it — through to a focus-shifting finale, drolly carried by Mezzogiorno and Giannini, that could work even better as a short film in its own right. In its best moments, Luchetti’s film proves not only the Tolstoy maxim about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way, but that the members of such families are unlikely even to agree on the nature of their discontent.