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Four emotionally stifled suburban kids on the cusp of puberty struggle to adapt to the banality of their parents’ world in the very off-beat, slow-starting Bad Tales (Favolacce). If the D’Innocenzo brothers, Fabio and Damiano, were the new boys on the block when their realistic crime drama Boys Cry (La Terra dell’Abbastanza) bowed in the Berlin Panorama in 2018, they reach another level of maturity in this suburban noir. Though its roots are recognizably in Matteo Garrone’s bleak tales of cruelty from the Neapolitan hinterlands (the directors were collaborating screenwriters on Dogman), the Rome-set Bad Tales has its own distinctive look and a strong personality for Berlin competition.
Surprising, disconcerting and droll, this Italo-Swiss co-prod packs the grotesquerie of an Ulrich Seidl film minus the sex, plus vivid acting. Its weakest link is on the narrative level — or maybe it intentionally, if unwisely, aims to frustrate easy understanding of who its characters are and what they’re up to. Their futile lives are revealed by and by. But there’s nothing banal about the filmmakers’ vision or the power of the lensing, intriguing atmosphere and acting, elements that may help it win festival prizes. On the other hand, while there is a sly humor that carries the day for more sophisticated viewers, regular audiences are going to be faced with some very depressing portraits of young teens living outside Rome, whose sad fates could well be judged under-motivated.
The opening is coyly complicated by an unseen narrator (Max Tortora) who claims to have found a little girl’s diary and, when the diary abruptly ends, to have completed its story. Luckily this literary device more or less disappears, leaving the stage to an assortment of awkward kids from dysfunctional families.
Viola (Giulia Melillo) is a pretty girl who always keeps her eyes on the ground and spends a lot of time at the house of the Placido family, friends of her father (Max Malatesta). One day she does something wrong that enrages her elders and is sadistically shorn of her locks. She doesn’t openly react to this brutality but spends the rest of the film wearing a black wig.
The family includes her cousins Alessia (Giulietta Rebeggiani) and Dennis (Tommaso Di Cola), who are forced to read their report cards out loud at a family dinner. They both have gotten straight A’s. Their mom (Barbara Chichiarelli) and dad (Elio Germano) seem distant and unloving. Dad’s passive aggressiveness explodes when, after installing a frame swimming pool in the backyard, he gets so annoyed by the neighborhood kids using it that he maliciously knifes it and blames it on “the gypsies.”
The last weird family features the pale, sickly Geremia (Justin Korovkin) who never talks and his extroverted, cowboy-like dad (Gabriel Montesi). At least they have a relationship and some positive feelings for each other, even if no mother is in sight and they are both pretty odd. But tensions mount across the board. Bombs are built. Poisons are prepared. An unbalanced teacher instructs his young students how to end their anxieties and depression in one quick go. Threaded through the kids’ lives like a warning is the unsettling presence of Vilma (Ileana D’Ambra), a trampish older girl seething with rage, whose pregnancy does not bode well for a happy ending.
Though Elio Germano, the star, keeps the tale on edge to his final blowout, the whole cast does a good job breaking out of stereotypes, particularly the four distinctive young actors who suggest kids poised between the angst of their age and a total lack of reliable adult role models.
There is a strong feeling of place created around the little row of houses surrounded by manicured lawns, which veteran cinematographer Paolo Carnera and three production designers turn into a fantasy space that is, appropriately, never quite real.
Production companies: Pepito Produzioni, Rai Cinema, QMI, Amka Films Productions, RSI
Cast: Elio Germano, Barbara Chichiarelli, Gabriel Montesi, Max Malatesta, Ileana D’Ambra, Lino Musella, Max Tortora, Barbara Ronchi, Sara Bertela, Justin Korovkin, Cristina Pellegrino, Giulia Melillo, Giulietta Rebeggiani
Director-screenwriters: Damiano D’Innocenzo Fabio D’Innocenzo
Producers: Agostino Sacca, Giuseppe Sacca
Co-producers: Giovanni Cova, Gabriella de Gara, Paolo Del Brocco, Michela Pini, Tiziana Soudani
Executive producer: Salvatore Pecoraro
Director of photography: Paolo Carnera
Production designers: Paolo Bonfini, Emita Frigato, Paola Peraro
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Editor: Esmeralda Calabria
Music: Egidio Macchia
Casting: Gabriella Giannattasio, Davide Zurolo
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Match Factory
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