In Sicilian director Piero Messina’s The Wait (L’Attesa), French actress Juliette Binoche looks more like a matronly Mediterranean mother than ever, somewhere between Mamma Roma’s Anna Magnani and Greek icon Katina Paxinou, the matriarch in Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers. She’s the main attraction in this very loose Pirandello adaptation about a grieving mother, holed up in a cavernous Sicilian villa, who can’t bring herself to tell her son’s French girlfriend that he’s died. Messina, Paolo Sorrentino’s assistant director on Oscar winner The Great Beauty, occasionally indulges too much in stylistic superfluities and isn’t the subtlest of directors, something immediately clear when considering that he’s telling a story about a death and the titular wait for a return (or resurrection) that’s roughly set over the period between Good Friday and Easter Monday. But especially in Catholic countries, this modern-day melodrama, a Venice competition premiere, should find pockets of believers.
In the film’s impressive opening shot, the camera spirals around a wooden statue of a crucified Christ, apparently floating against a black backdrop, before arriving at the bottom, where, suddenly, the head of a nun comes into view. A cut then reveals that we’re actually inside a dark church, where a funeral’s being held. The complex camera choreography is clearly a Sorrentinian influence but the cut feels like something of a “gotcha!” moment; what’s missing here is what makes these moments work for Sorrentino, namely the fact that his stylistic flourishes always help advance the story or deepen the characters and their plights. This early into Messina’s film, with no sense of either the characters or the story, a shot like this is simultaneously meaningless and borderline pretentious.
The still raven-haired and alabaster-skinned Binoche plays the ominously named Anna (as in the grandmother of Jesus), a Frenchwoman whose Italian husband left her an enormous villa in the shadow of the Etna volcano, in eastern Sicily, where she still lives. Her twentyish son, Giuseppe (Italian for Joseph), is presumably the one being buried during the film’s opening scene, after which Anna retires, clad in black, to her hollow and empty-feeling home, with all mirrors covered in black crepe. A landline call announces the arrival of someone Anna doesn’t know: Jeanne (Lou de Laage). The vivacious young woman turns out to be Giuseppe’s French girlfriend and she’s packed her bags to come and spend Easter at the family home, though now he’s not answering his cell phone anymore. Anna lets her come over, though she can’t bring herself to tell this young woman — named, one assumes, after Joan of Arc — that Giuseppe has died. Initially, though somewhat unusual, the sentiment feels understandable, because if Anna can keep Giuseppe alive for just one person, then he’s not completely gone yet and she doesn’t have to deal with her grief.
The screenplay, written by a staggering four screenwriters including the director, deviates significantly from Pirandello’s play, which focused on a how a mother’s memories of her absent son were much better than the real thing. Amongst the major changes are not only Jeanne’s character but also the role of modern technology. Giuseppe’s cell phone, which he’s left in his room, almost becomes a third character, serving not only as confessional for Jeanne, who keeps calling him and wondering when he’ll finally return home, but also providing Anna with a way to get to know more about the young lovers by listening to Jeanne’s voicemail messages (many of them heard in voice-over).
Anna’s unwholesome decision to keep mum becomes more objectionable with each moment that Jeanne passes in her home as they “wait” for his return “in time for Easter” and is also questioned by Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli), the home’s lonely servant, who acts as Anna’s conscience. But clearly, this is the kind of Catholic melodrama in which the conceit of having a mother mourn her son alone, and Jeanne, standing in for the faithful, eagerly awaits her beloved’s return on Easter Sunday, is too beautiful to resist. There are also subtler religious parallels woven in throughout, including the suggestion that the film’s actually set in 2004, which makes more sense if one realizes that in that year on Good Friday, the clearly ailing Pope Jean-Paul II, briefly glanced on TV, celebrated his last and very painful Via Crucis (he who would die almost exactly a year later).
Audience’s tolerance for this kind of heavy-handed, occasionally very mannerist symbolism may vary, though Messina does ensure that the religious parallels never completely eclipse the contemporary characters. They are given some space to be themselves, notably in a jocular interlude involving two strapping young men (Antonio Folletto and Domenico Diele) that Jeanne befriends and whom she takes home for a dinner that Anna has prepared. The entire sequence beautifully suggests how, in times of uncertainty or pain, there are established rituals people fall back on that are comforting because each person knows which role to play (a kiss at the door is especially telling in this regard).
Binoche has rarely looked more Italian than here, and her command of the language has also audibly improved when compared to her awkwardly syncopated Italian in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy. She has such quiet grace that even somewhat awkwardly metaphorical sequences — like when Anna’s drinking days-old coffee from a stray cup in Giuseppe’s room or when she realizes that the air escaping from a pink inflatable mattress is actually her son’s breath — are transfigured into quietly wordless moments of considerable power. De Laage, so good in Breathe, also impresses here, which is no small feat since her character is an odd mix of contrasting desires, clearly wanting to reunite with her boyfriend enough to make it to Italy but also insouciant enough about his absence to never ask too many questions.
Marco Bellocchio’s ace regular production designer, Marco Dentici, was responsible for the sets and locations and they play an important role. The austerely decorated mansion amplifies Anna’s sense of inner emptiness while making Jeanne feel somewhat lost, while the surrounding volcanic landscapes, consisting of black rocks and smoking crevices, suggest nothing less than the gates of hell. Despite the opening and some other look-at-me shots — someone swimming up for air as seen from the bottom of a lake; the sight of a pink inflatable mattress that the wind moves across a deserted inner courtyard — which will have to be ascribed to the director and cinematographer Francesco Di Giacomo’s inexperience, the film’s generally gorgeously shot, with Di Giacomo frequently capturing the small cast in their surroundings in ways that help suggest their psychology.
Indeed, if Messina can find the right balance between his ambitions and his still-growing abilities as a filmmaker, he’ll have a promising career ahead of him.
Production companies: Indigo Film, Medusa Film, Barbary Films, Pathe
Cast: Juliette Binoche, Lou de Laage, Giorgio Colangeli, Domenico Diele, Antonio Folletto, Corinna Lo Castro, Giovanni Anzaldo
Director: Piero Messina
Screenplay: Giacomo Bendotti, Iliaria Macchia, Andrea Paolo Massara, Piero Messina, screenplay based on the play La Vita che ti diedi by Luigi Pirandello
Producers: Nicola Giuliano, Francesca Cima, Carolotta Calori
Executive producer: Viola Prestieri
Co-producers: Fabio Conversi, Jerome Seydoux, Vivien Aslanian, Romain Le Grand, Muriel Sauzey
Director of photography: Francesco Di Giacomo
Production designer: Marco Dentici
Costume designer: Maurizio Millenotti
Editor: Paola Freddi
Music: Alma Napolitano, Marco Mangari
Casting: Annamaria Sambucco, Juliette Denis
Sales: Pathe International
Not rated, 100 minutes