'Chlorine' ('Cloro'): Sundance Review

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
A promising first feature with several beginners' mistakes

NYU-schooled Italian director Lamberto Sanfelice's debut feature stars Sara Seraiocco ('Salvo') and Ivan Franek ('La Grande Bellezza')

The neat and rigid synchronicity of her synchronized-swimming sessions is pretty much absent in the private life of an Italian 17-year-old in Chlorine (Cloro), the feature debut of NYU-schooled Italian director Lamberto Sanfelice. This is a bleak, often handheld portrait of a teenage girl burdened with too much adult responsibility after her mother dies and her father subsequently remains stuck in a stupor, leaving the protagonist responsible for her 8-year-old brother in a mountain village where she knows practically no one. Reminiscent of intimate, religion-tinged local films set in the sticks, such as Alice Rohrwacher’s Corpo Celeste (which in turn imported the Dardennes’ gritty, handheld aesthetic from across the Alps), this work is often promising but not quite fine-tuned and individual enough to go all the distance from festivals to foreign theatrical sales.

Chlorine’s early going is especially clipped, with editor Andrea Maguolo's staccato editing rhythms and succession of short scenes meaning that audiences’ll need a while to find their bearings and figure out that Jennifer (Sara Serraiocco, as good here as she was in Salvo) is a synchronized swimming fanatic who’s forced to move from the relatively cosmopolitan town of Ostia, near Rome and the seaside, to a hamlet in mountainous Abruzzo (and filmed near Sulmona, the birthplace of Ovid). Her dad, Alfio (Andrea Vergoni), who grew up there, moved into a cabin with Jenny and her kid brother, Fabrizio (Anatol Sassi), at the insistence of uncle Tondino (Giorgio Colangeli) after what appears to have been the death of the siblings’ mother and their father’s subsequent loss of his job, house and wits.

However, Tondino and his family live a dozen miles away and they have their own problems and with her father an apathetic mess, the burden of taking care of Fabri falls mostly on Jenny, who goes about it the best she can. When she’s not working her other thankless job, at a rundown hotel nearby, she washes Fabri’s hair and clothes, cooks him dinner and takes him to the local school, where the principal (Piera Degli Espositi, who played Andreotti’s secretary in Il Divo, in a cameo) eyes the apparently parentless siblings suspiciously and wonders out loud why Jenny doesn’t want to finish school, too.

But the protagonist has little interest in studying; she really just wants to go back to synchronized swimming. Dry practicing her moves in the snow-covered mountains with steely determination, Jenny clearly hopes she’ll be able to join her friends at an upcoming training camp, though the deafening silence of Tondino when she asks him whether all this is indeed temporary doesn’t augur well.

Sanfelice, who also came up with the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Elisa Amoruso, manages to convey quite a lot of information in economical fashion and without necessarily using words. But there are also too many moments when the film’s simply too cryptic, especially the few -- too few -- scenes that chronicle the relationship that Jennifer strikes up with Ivan (Ivan Franek), a mysterious co-worker from former Yugoslavia with a dark past. Romantically inclined viewers might see a teenage girl exploring feelings of love and desire (for the first time?) with a man who’s also a stranger in the village and who also can’t go back to where he came from. But more pragmatic audiences might wonder if their bouts of sex are a way of paying for the favors of a strong man who can help Jenny out now that her father’s gone, and who's got access to desirable things such as the hotel pool. Both possibilities seem equally plausible, which makes for somewhat frustrating viewing. And because the film privileges a point-of-view close to Jenny but the storytelling's not precise enough, it becomes impossible to understand her completely, however good Serraiocco might be.

Something similar can be said about the way Sanfelice and cinematographer Michele Paradisi use the camera. For most of the film, the template’s clearly the Rohrwacher-via-Dardenne aesthetic, a handheld, color-drained verite style that mirrors the little hope and room for maneuver the agitated characters have and whose austerity is reinforced by its total lack of musical accompaniment. But some shots here are more choreographed, including a smooth traveling shot that moves backwards from a monumental monastery door which attracts undue attention, not only because it’s unusually flashy but especially because it makes little sense on a narrative level, since Jenny’s actually inside, not moving away from the building.

A sideways traveling shot of her running away, intercut with shots of her lying down at the bottom of a dark pool, almost a la Benjamin Braddock, is not much later accompanied by music and is thankfully more suggestive of what headspace Jennifer’s in, though it again stands out because it doesn't quite feel of a piece with the simpler-seeming film that surrounds it. Several upside-down underwater shots, filmed during synchronized-swimming training sessions, have an eerie, almost unreal beauty that evokes something of the lure of the very demanding sport for the teen but feel similarly out of place. Other technical contributions are modest but meticulous.

Production companies: Ang Film, Asmara Films Company

Cast: Sara Serraiocco, Ivan Franek, Giorgio Colangeli, Anatol Sassi, Andrea Vergoni, Piera degli Esposti

Director: Lamberto Sanfelice

Screenplay: Lamberto Sanfelice, Elisa Amoruso

Producers: Damiano Ticconi, Ginevra Elkann

Director of photography: Michele Paradisi

Production designer: Daniele Frabetti

Costume designer: Francesca di Giuliano

Editor: Andrea Maguolo

Casting: Chiara Agnello

Sales: Rai Com


No rating, 94 minutes