Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jun 01, 2018 3:28 am 
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Nest of snakes

In the Davide di Donatello-nominated film The Place, a sad-sack mystery man (Valerio Mastrandrea) sits, seemingly continually, in the back of a cafe-diner with that name, receiving a constant stream of visitors. To each of them he grants wishes. In return, he gives them tasks to perform. These, in proportion to the difficulty or importance of what they request, are extreme or criminal. They must rob a bank to be prettier, kill a stranger's child to save a cancer-stricken son. Is this man an agent of God, or the Devil?

This film is closely based on Christopher Kubasik's US FX cable TV series "The Booth at the End." It began as a web-only series in tiny segments, like "High Maintenance." In fact all or most of the stories and characters come from that series, except that we are in Italy. Genovese's Italian dialogue is simple and natural. Genovese likes choral, multi-story features. His 2014 Blame Freud/Tutta colpa di Freud was a simpler collection, three people, three stories, one shared psychiatrist. His 2016 Perfect Strangers/Perfetti sconosciuti ups the ante to six long-time friends, who assemble for a dinner and agree to share increasingly complicated and revealing secrets via text, email, and phone messages they receive.

This time, another mixing up of personal stories occurs, and Genovese has upped the ante even further because now there are eleven "perfect strangers" (and they really are strangers, though they begin in some cases to find out about each other). The Place has enlisted the accomplished assistance of stars like Alba Rohrwacher, Silvio Muccino, Rocco Papaleo, and the hot young actor Alessandro Borghi, who also has key roles in Fortunata and Naples in Veils (everyone seems to want him these days). The stream of strangers approaching the mysterious man strike Faustian bargains with him. The most extreme example is the old lady, desiring to have her husband's Alzheimer's removed, who is assigned by the man to plant a bomb in a restaurant. Hardly less radical, a man must kill another child to save his own.

Will they carry out their task? Can they? Repeat visits to the Man tease us with delays or changes of mind. The old lady goes back and forth numerous times, and then winds up with a real surprise. In fact surprises and twists are one of the story's main aims, which may seem to cheapen the solemnity of the old-fashioned focus on deep moral questions. But this is a structure we know from movies and short stories forever.

As the visits begin to multiply and we begin to take in the personal stories and the tasks assigned, it develops that the people and their tasks are beginning to overlap, in dangerous ways. (Perhaps this God is a clumsy God?) Meanwhile a woman on the night shift at the cafe, Angela (Sabrina Ferilli), takes a growing interest in the mystery man, naturally enough, since he is always there when all other customers are gone. His world-weariness clearly attracts her, and also his mystery, as they do us. Ultimately despite his secret identity, he becomes the richest character, since we spend by far the most time with him.

The Place is importantly different in effect from its TV series source in that it collapses many stories spread over time originally into only 105 minutes. There is no time for the viewer to absorb and contemplate. But of course this is no more than binge-watching, which is what many people do anyway. In this condensed form, it is the more obvious that the nameless, exhausted magus does not sleep, that he is mysteriously inexhaustible as well as always tired, and this is a process that never stops. The film is engaging, fascinating, challenging, ultimately a little bit too much to take in, and, given its lack of resolution, a little bit less than we may have expected, though its texture is finely honed.

This film is plainly designed for adults, who would have the patience for its complications and repetitive structure and talky format, but the theme seems best designed for young people as a way of posing moral questions. The fundamental one: how far is it acceptable to go to achieve one's desire? If you could get what you wish for, would you do anything to get it? What desires really are worth pursuing? Is morality relative? This is an intensive look at the extremes of egocentrism, but also of the pain of living in the world, having, for example, a sick child.

The Place is engaging and slick to the Nth degree, well shot and beautifully acted, directed, and filmed. Like much Italian cinema today, however, it takes no real chances, goes only so deep, and, being basically a remake, is fundamentally unoriginal. A great deal of talent has been used to satisfy us with much less than the masters provided during the great years of Italian cinema.

The Place, 101 mins., opened in Italy in Nov. 2017 and in a dozen other countries in 2018; only three small festival showings. Screened for this review as part of Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018 at Lincoln Center, at the Walter Reade Theater.
Thursday, May 31, 3:30pm & 9:00pm (Q&A with Paolo Genovese at the 9:00pm screening)

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