Rome Film Festival Capsule Reviews #2

Her  (Spike Jonze)

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a 40-something almost-divorced man whose job is to create emotions: through a company aptly named “Beautiful Hand-written” Theodore offers soulful, heartfelt personal letters to people in need of some good old-fashioned romanticism for their loved ones. His day consists of exploring new stories and relationships and writing about them becoming, for a short moment, someone else. Living through surrogate emotions is the only way Theodore can cope with his own personal life, a dull routine of videogames and adult chat rooms, the ghost of his estranged wife (Rooney Mara) still lingering in his mind. When Theodore discovers the possibility of owning a personal super-intelligent operating system, capable of not only communication and thought but self-evolution as well, his life changes, and he soon finds himself completely enamored with Samantha (an amazing Scarlett Johansson, whose voice won her the best actress prize at the festival), the disembodied voice of his OS.

Their relationship is well accepted in a near-future world where having a computer as your girlfriend is not exactly common, but certainly not unheard of. As their beautiful, lyrical love story becomes deeper and deeper, something changes in Samantha, and it appears that Theodore’s merely human mind isn’t enough for the OS anymore.

Spike Jonze’s Her  is a little gem of surreal romanticism. The subtly sci-fi aspect of the movie, almost hidden by a beautifully simple set design with a bit of a vintage feeling, is stressed by small changes in the way common things are depicted: there are no flying cars in this future and the city landscape is pretty much the same as it is now, and yet there’s something deeply unsettling in how every single human being seems to be constantly connected to a rather menacing and invasive version of the Internet.

Jonze’s vision of this world that lives through machines finds its strength in how truly touching the emotions shown by the characters are, even when they’re directed at objects with artificial lives. The director’s dark sense of humor is able to find moments of deadpan irony in this story, especially in the way everyone seems to treat things like a double date with three human beings and a tablet as something perfectly normal, but even in those moments the film never points and laughs, never judges. Using irony in its purest literary sense, Jonze’s screenplay (his first original screenplay for the big screen) lets the audience see through the veil of absurdity and understand the sad hidden truths behind it: these people are truly alone, and on the verge of serious depression, and their inability to connect with real human beings, to find the courage to be individuals in a world of assimilation and homologation, has brought them to something as extreme as making love to a laptop. It’s only when science becomes something out of our control that the humans in this near-future rediscover how small humanity truly is, and how important connecting with other human beings becomes to survive the thought of our own limited existence.

Romeo and Juliet  (Carlo Carlei)

altA retelling of the classic Shakespearean tale, which for once never tries to add new twists to the original play other than Nick Brody as Lord Capulet, Carlo Carlei’s sumptuous Romeo and Juliet  may be the huge, colossal misfire of the festival. In its attempt to draw in the Twilight crowd, this new version tells the woeful story of the most famous star-crossed lovers of all time using all the clichés of superficial harlequin romance. The look of the film is an easy way to draw the attention away from adaptation, direction and acting. The sets are beautiful and the costumes are just what you might expect from a multi-million dollar production, but when the shiny stuff gets boring the audience starts noticing how everything fits together just awfully. The direction is dull when not awkward, using slow motion and dreadful close-ups and sudden “star revelations” in ways that are utterly embarrassing. The use of music, an intrusive score by Abel Korzeniowski, is painful: the balcony scene is barely audible, hidden by a big, grandiloquent score that belongs in the worst Hallmark productions. The acting, which should be one of the main draws for such a movie, is all over the place.

Romeo (Douglas Booth, whose empty eyes are only matched by his monotonous line reading) is presented right from the beginning as the hunk you might see on bright covers of cheap romance novels: buff, sweaty, with his shirt inexplicably open at all times. Hailee Steinfeld‘s Juliet is heartfelt and fresh enough, but her chemistry with Booth seems non-existent and her whole performance is brought down by the most ridiculous choices of mise-en-scene (her not wholly successful but refreshingly real reading of the balcony scene is drowned by the music). The rest of the cast goes from watchable (Damian Lewis, Natascha McElhone as Juliet’s mother, Christian Cooke‘s barely present but adequate Mercutio) to atrocious (Ed Westwick‘s Tybalt above all). If I have to sit through another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet  that changes virtually nothing from its well-known source material, I at least want to see some serious Shakespearean acting going on, which is completely absent here.

It’s a real shame that the movie turned out as it did, because there probably still is room for another adaptation of Romeo and Juliet  that is faithful to the text, despite the huge amount of love that Zeffirelli’s version still gets. But if Joe Wright’s vivid Pride and Prejudice has taught us anything it is that any new version of stories that have been told a million times needs to be really well crafted not to feel superfluous, which is all this new Romeo and Juliet is.

Tir  (Alberto Fasulo)

altBranko (Branko Završan) is a Slovenian ex-teacher who, after being fired, becomes a truck driver working for an Italian company. The new job forces him to stay away from home for months at a time, and this takes its toll on his relationship with his wife, son and grandson.

Fasulo’s Tir, winner of the Marco Aurelio d’Oro for best film, is a difficult movie, which never lets any kind of attachment to the story or characters transpire. The slow pace is emphasized by images that are ermetic in their darkness and claustrophobic closeness to the actors. The emotions are filtered through sporadic dialogue, which adds new dimensions of familiar conflict to the bleak working conditions of the drivers.

While visually striking, the movie never quite comes together in terms of pathos. The style, derived from the works of the Dardenne brothers, lacks the strong and passionate emotional impact of the Dardennes, and when that rare dialogue occurs the sensation is of a superficial and rhetorical j’accuse towards the establishment that makes a profit from the horribly arduous and lonely lives of the characters. Tir  wants to be a subtly emotional movie, but in its attempt to work towards a social cause, it loses the focus of its humanity and becomes quite cold and distant.