Film Review: The Prize

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ROME -- The best thing about Giuseppe Piccioni's latest film, "The Prize," is Valeria Golina's performance as a prisoner on work release who teaches swimming while serving time for the murder of a lover. The main character here, however, is Guido (Valerio Mastandrea), an acclaimed, married writer whose sterile home life is fertile ground for adultery, not artistic inspiration.

Guido's writer's block worsens after he's named one of five finalists for a prestigious national award. But when he decides to learn how to swim with his daughter's instructor, the two begin an affair that offers him a great story: hers. Through Guido, Giulia's carefully constructed shell is broken and her yearning for the outside world painfully re-ignited.

However, there's little to engage audiences, and an art house release will be difficult outside Italy. Even at home, the film picked up less than €350,000 ($422,223) from its opening weekend.

"Prize" is not bad, it just feels uninspired. Mastandrea is reliably likeable, as always, and adds levity to a downbeat story that suffers from the weight of perhaps not enough writer's block. Gestures almost always speak louder and better than words, especially in cinema. Yet here, every time the chemistry between the two wounded characters blossoms in small, unexpected moments, it fizzles soon after, buried under long academic explanations of the emotional lives unfolding before us.

Side stories include Giulia's estranged daughter, who never has forgiven her mother for abandoning the family for the aforementioned lover. And some of Guido's initial stabs at short stories, which come to life but add little to the main plot, are overly narrated through voice-over.

More aesthetically evocative are the underwater shots of the real and imaginary life at the bottom of the pool. The cold blue colors nicely add to the paradox of the characters' sense of freedom and buoyancy in yet another confined space.

On an odd note, the closing song sounds suspiciously like last year's Oscar-winning tune from "Once."

Opened: Friday, Feb. 27 (Italy)
Cast: Valeria Golino, Valerio Mastandrea, Sonia Bergamasco, Domiziana Cardinali, Jacoppo Domenicucci, Fabio Camilli, Sasa Vulicevic, Antonia Liskova, Piera Degli Esposti
Production: Lumiere & Co., RAI Cinema
Producer: Lionello Cerri
Director-screenwriter: Giuseppe Piccioni
Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Giada Calabria
Costume designer: Maria Rita Barbera
Music: Baustelle
Editor: Esmeralda Calabria
Sales agent: Intramovies
No rating, 104 minute
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