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Perfect StrangersItaly 2016
Directed by Paolo Genovese
Running time 97 minutes
Synopsis: 40-something couple, Rocco and Eva (Marco Giallini and Kasia Smutniak) invite five good friends to dinner - recently married Bianca and Cosimo (Alba Rohrwacher and Edoardo Leo), long time married couple Carlotta and Lele (Anna Foglietta and Valerio Mastandrea) and perennial bachelor, Peppe (Giuseppe Battison). In the course of the evening they discuss the infidelity of a mutual friend who was caught out when his wife checked the messages on his mobile phone. This leads to a discussion about how many secrets people have hidden on their phones and, of course, everyone denies having anything to hide. This prompts Eva to suggest that they play a game: they must each place their phones on the table and share with the whole group any phone call, text, tweet or Facebook update they receive during the evening. If they have nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear. But as the game progresses it begins to reveal a hidden side to each of their lives.
Director Paolo Genovese and his four co-writers (Filippo Bologna, Paolo Costella, Paolo Mammini and Rolando Ravello) set themselves quite a task with their highly theatrical screenplay. There were two big challenges that can often be a death-knell for a film. The first is a storyline based around the use of small screens. He skirts this issue neatly by requiring texts to be read out, phone calls to be on speaker and on the one occasion where seeing the screen is critical to the story, he makes us watch others react to what they see, forcing us to use our imaginations. The second challenge is that the bulk of the film is a dinner party conversation. It’s not quite Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) but there’s a lot of sitting down and talking to manage. Here, again, Genovese sidesteps the problem with skilful camera work and assiduous use of other rooms in the house to provide the occasional breakaway from the tyranny of the table.
For the most part this works, except for the recurring use of the balcony to observe the progress of a total eclipse of the moon happening coincidentally with the dinner. It’s clearly meant to provide some sort of portent of doom but seems more of a contrivance than anything else. More insistently, for non-Italian speakers, as I am, it is hard to judge exactly how effective Genovese’s direction is as the constant switch between the images and the subtitles provides a distraction from the dinner table action, clearly not a feature of the film in its original form.
What carries the film over this hurdle, though, is the great casting of terrific actors playing roles that elicit both ire and sympathy in equal measure. What’s most effective is the level of suspense and tension that Genovese draws from this silly game, counterpointed by a well-balanced tension between moments of humour and moments of high emotion. What’s less effective is the need to assign a deep dark secret to every single character. After a while it shifts from a story that feels authentic to one that feels more manufactured in order to fulfil its idea. For the most part, the problems these people have and the secrets they try to hide are the province of the well-to-do. With the exception of one character (and I won’t give away which one) their secrets are self-centred and self-serving and, for me at least, started to lose their impact the longer the film went on and the twist at the end, whilst completely unexpected, felt to me like a bit of a cop out.
Still, there is such a clever conceit here that’s it’s hard not be entertained and drawn into the tangled web the characters weave. It will no doubt be a game that gets copied at many dinner parties. Then again, given how things unfold in the film, maybe it won’t. In fact, it’s more likely to prompt a lot of hasty deletions of phone memories on the way out of the cinema.