It’s been exactly 20 years since Nanni Moretti won the Palme d’Or at Cannes with “The Son’s Room,” a graceful, humane and often surprisingly witty drama about a family regathering itself in the wake of shattering tragedy. That’s a long time ago, and it feels longer by the minute as you watch the Italian writer-director’s latest, “Three Floors,” a film clearly conceived to hit the same bittersweet notes as his 2001 triumph, but scarcely recognizable as the work of the same filmmaker.
Dramatically stilted, cinematically drab and morally dubious at multiple turns, this soapy lather of assorted crises concerning the residents of a single Roman apartment block may come as a crashing disappointment to fans who have been waiting six years for a new Moretti feature. Pedigree alone has secured this misfire a Cannes competition slot and healthy international sales, though we certainly won’t be thinking about it in two decades’ time.
Moretti’s last film, the minor-key but warmly engaging “Mia Madre,” embraced all-out melodrama with a certain sense of self-awareness: There was clearly some wry mirroring at play in its study of a filmmaker, played by Margherita Buy, whose personal chaos bleeds into her work. “Three Floors” keeps the commitment to melodrama (and Buy, amid a large ensemble of familiar Italian faces) but removes the irony, turning uncharacteristically dour as misery and misfortune pile up to a degree that tests patience and credibility. Adapted from the well-regarded novel “Three Floors Up” by Israeli author Eshkol Nevo, it’s Moretti’s first film without an original screenplay, and his signature tone is all but lost in translation.
It starts with a literal crash, as drunk teenage driver Andrea (Alessandro Sperduti) comes careening around the corner of the street his family lives on, knocking a pedestrian dead, before plunging his car through the glass wall of the downstairs neighbors’ apartment. In the fallout of the accident, his distraught mother Dora (Buy) continues to defend her son’s character, despite his refusal to express remorse; his stoic father Vittorio (Moretti), a high-ranking judge, would rather disown the lad altogether.
As for the neighbors, a car barging at speed into their living room somehow isn’t the low point of their month. Working parents Lucio (Riccardo Scamarcio) and Sara (Elena Lietti) frequently call on the kind elderly couple across the hall, Renato (Paolo Graziosi) and Giovanna (Anna Bonaiuto), to babysit their young daughter, despite Renato’s early signs of dementia. When one such evening ends with Renato and the girl disoriented and traumatized in some local woods, Lucio becomes violently and irrationally convinced that the old man has been sexually abusing his daughter, setting off a decade-long feud between the households.
Somehow, amid these already fraught circumstances, Lucio decides it would be a good idea to sleep with Renato’s flirtatious but underage granddaughter Charlotte (Denise Tantucci). Chalk it up as another of the film’s many perplexing plot points, most of which serve a broad, blunt thesis pitting the stubborn, hot-headed impulses of men versus the saintly, long-suffering benevolence of women, but don’t feel rooted in any particularly perceptive understanding of human nature.
The statutory rape subplot is most distastefully handled, heavy on victim-blaming and unearned redemption as Lucio and Charlotte reconsider events over the next 10 years. Yet if only for its wrong-headed, pre-#MeToo sexual politics, this subplot is more luridly compelling than a disconnected, underwritten third strand which finds guileless new mother Monica (Alba Rohrwacher) caught in the middle of a long-term fraternal war between her frequently absent husband Giorgio (Adriano Giannini) and his seductive, disreputable brother Roberto (Stefano Dionisi) — a grudge that rages for years without once threatening to get interesting.
Beyond being centered in the same well-to-do residential complex, not one of these mini-narratives informs or illuminates the other, much less the world around them — which is so vaguely drawn and inhabited that the film could unfold in practically any time or place. Proceedings begin in the year 2010, before lurching forward in two five-year jumps: The maudlin finale, which strains for contrived closure across the board, is apparently set in 2020, though there’s no onscreen evidence whatsoever of a certain global pandemic. Perhaps “Three Floors” really is set in a parallel universe, which would at least provide a fair alibi for much of its peculiar plotting.
Moretti has never been the most extravagant of stylists, though his best films boast a comforting solidity of craft that, aside from the (saving) grace notes of Franco Piersanti’s elegant classical score, isn’t much in evidence here. Michele D’Attanasio’s lensing is beigely perfunctory and televisual; Clelio Benevento’s editing does strangely little of interest with the film’s trisected narrative and timeline. Even the film’s fine actors feel stuck on autopilot, many of them stranded with characters who don’t detectably grow or evolve or even change hairdo in the course of 10 airless years. “Renato’s broken,” Lucio’s young daughter observes, a little too loudly, of her addled babysitter, in one of the film’s rare lines aiming for an intentional laugh. She’s right: He kind of is. But aren’t they all?