The Solitude of Prime Numbers -- Film Review

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VENICE -- You know something's off in a film when the only character you can identify with is played by Isabella Rossellini, whose small but significant role is by far the best thing about Saverio Costanzo's supposed horror romance, "The Solitude of Prime Numbers."

Based on the eponymous novel by Paolo Giordano, who co-wrote the script with Costanzo, the story's simple premise is forced by the ambitiously self-indulgent handling of the material. Horror nods to "The Shining" (long tracking shots of empty hallways), "Carrie" and even "Heathers," along with constant ominous music and eerie sing-song, bury what is actually a psychological drama about two outcasts who understand one another because they're both damaged souls.

"Prime Numbers" is guaranteed a large domestic rollout on September 10 by co-producer Medusa Film but the art film will not make much of a box office splash with wider audiences. Arthouse and festival venues are its best hope for an international life.

The film spans over 20 years through four time periods that, once established, are later mixed in a series of flashbacks. The two main characters, the film's lonely "prime numbers," are introduced in 1984. Mattia (Tommaso Neri) is a bright little kid with an autistic sister (Giorgia Pizzo) he must care for. Alice (Martina Albano) has an overbearing father who pushes her beyond her capabilities on a skiing trip. Both will undergo a traumatic experience that is revealed later on.

In 1991, the two meet in high school. Alice (Arianna Nastro), a shy sophomore with a limp bullied by the class queens, is drawn to Mattia (Vittorio Lomartire), a severely withdrawn but brilliant student who has started cutting himself.

In 2001, Alice (played as an adult by Alba Rohrwacher) is working as a photographer and Mattia (Luca Marinelli), nearly catatonic, is heading to Germany to get his Ph.D.. They are best friends although Alice has never been to Mattia's house and finds out about his sister from Mattia's mother (Rossellini, truly wonderful).

The ensuing flashbacks explaining their traumas are drawn out so tediously, mixed with events from 1991 and 2001, that the tension simply wears itself out. What's worse, to establish why they understand one another's solitary pain, Mattia and Alice's backstories are handled with equal gravitas. Alice's accident is sad but the kind of event that happens daily. Mattia's tragedy is immense and carries immeasurably greater weight.

Back in 2001, when Mattia and Alice skirt with love as adults, is when the film hits its peak of pretension. In the film's most overwrought set piece, Mattia accompanies Alice to shoot the wedding of the girl (Aurora Ruffino) who most tortured Alice during school. They stare at each other from across a crowded room in interminably long close-ups, until he disappears into an "Amarcord"-like fog that rolls into the building.

In 2008, the two meet again. Alice has become anorexically thin and is going through a divorce and nervous breakdown. Mattia instead has put on weight and is cutting himself regularly. Audiences can only hope they finally get together to make the film's two hours worthwhile.

Costanzo clearly pushes Rohrwacher to the limit, and thankfully she can go there, but the fact that he had his actors drastically change their bodies for the film's shortest segment is further testament to the director's self-indulgence. For his part, Marinelli is wasted in a performance that consists mostly of intense stares and a lot of gazing at the ground.

Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Offside, Bavaria Pictures, Les Films des Tournelles, Le Pacte, Medusa Film, Sky
Sales: Le Pacte
Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Marinelli, Martina Albano, Arianna Nastro, Tommaso Neri, Vittorio Lomartire, Aurora Ruffino, Filippo Timi, Andrea Jublin
Director: Saverio Costanzo
Screenwriters: Saverio Costanzo, Paolo Giordano
Producer: Mario Gianani
Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti
Production designers: Antonello Geleng, Marina Pinzuti Ansolini
Music: Mike Patton
Costume designer: Antonella Cannarozzi
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
No rating, 119 minutes
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