The Past is a Foreign Land

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Rome International Film Festival

ROME -- Daniele Vicari’s “The Past is a Foreign Land” does not offer a new take on the gambling drama, yet is a very watchable film that maintains a good level of tension, if not plausibility, until a somewhat dissatisfying ending. Vicari has made an adrenalin-charged film before ( “Maximum Velocity”) that did not do well at the boxoffice. This time star Elio Germano (“My Brother is an Only Child”) should ensure a larger draw in Italy. Abroad the film could be a nice surprise for arthouse fans not accustomed to faster-paced titles from Italy.

Vicari wastes no time on preamble in this film set in the high-crime southern city of Bari. After young lawyer Giorgio (Germano) is stopped outside a courtroom by a young woman (Valentina Lodovini) who thanks him for helping her once, the story immediately flashes back to several years earlier. At a swanky party the ingenuous but violence-prone Giorgio meets and helps card shark Francesco (Michele Rondini) deal with some thugs.

In return, Franceso invites Giorgio to a friendly poker game. The latter is oblivious to the fact that his new friend is making him win. When he finds out, he quickly agrees to partner up and split the takings. The two scam their way from local poker players to a championship before upping the ante to international drug smuggling. This being a story about young Italian men, both still live at home and Giorgio comically hides his significant earnings in the books least likely to be picked up in his father’s study -- the writings of Marx and Engels.

Whether shooting at night or in blaring sunlight, Vicari stylistically conveys the surreality of Giorgio’s new world, mostly through unfocused images and claustrophobic close-ups aided by a great electronic score by Theo Teardo. While Giorgio is a nerdy fish out of water, he has an undeniable dark side that peaks in one especially disturbing scene in Barcelona.

By then the film has taken a more psychological turn, focusing on Giorgio’s loosening morals and growing addictions to money, drugs and a married woman (Chiara Caselli). When the story veers again, towards Francesco’s sexual violence, it loses steam. Lodovini turns out to central to Giorgio’s turning point yet her bookend appearances are never fully explained or even necessary. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to avoid a voiceover. (The book on which the film is based is written in first person.)

Rondini has a rocky start but is a convincing small-time sleaze, and the ever-reliable Germano makes Giorgio’s transformation credible, pulling off the tension of his first poker wins particularly well. The film is weakest poker-wise, however, The fact that dangerous or armed opponents never find Giorgio too “lucky” is hard to believe.

Production companies: R&C Produzioni, Fandango, RAI Cinema.
Cast: Elio Germano, Michele Rondino, Chiara Caselli, Valentina Lodovini, Marco Baliani, Daniela Poggi, Lorenza Indovina.
Director: Daniele Vicari.
Screenwriter: Gianrico Carofiglio, Francesco Carofiglio, Massimo Gaudioso, Daniele Vicari.
Producer: Tilde Corsi, Domenico Procacci, Gianni Romoli.
Director of photography: Gherardo Gossi.
Production designer: Beatrice Scarpato.
Music: Theo Teardo.
Costume designers: Francesca Vecchi, Roberto Vecchi.
Editor: Marco Spoletini.
Sales Agent: Fandango Portobello Sales.
No rating, 120 minutes.

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