'The Dinner' ('I nostri ragazzi'): Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Cate Blanchett, take note

Italian director Ivano De Matteo beautifully adapts Herman Koch's best-seller with an all-star Italian cast

A violent surveillance-footage video could cause the implosion of not one but two families in The Dinner (I nostri ragazzi), an Italian take on the Dutch best-seller by Herman Koch. Unlike the local film adaptation from last year, directed by Menno Meyjes, this Italian version is less faithful to the material, abandoning the novel’s titular one-evening, one-setting event in favor of something less theatrical and more cinematic, while still zooming in on some of the complex issues the novel raises.

With a local star cast that includes Giovanna MezzogiornoLuigi Lo Cascio and Alessandro Gassman, this tough and confronting drama stands a good chance of doing solid business locally, while its recent win of the Europa Cinemas Label at the Venice fest suggests it might have crossover potential in other European territories. Cate Blanchett, who’ll make her directorial debut with the English-language adaptation of the novel, better take note.

Paolo (Lo Cascio) is a kind pediatrician at a busy Roman hospital. His wife, Clara (Mezzogiorno), is a guide at the Ara Pacis monument, and together they have a zit-sprinkled 16-year-old son, Michele (Jacopo Olmo Mantinori). Paolo’s brother, Massimo (Gassman), is a lawyer who has a pretty teenage daughter, Benny (short for Benedetta, and played by Rosabell Laurenti Sellers), who’s Michele’s age and who lives with her father and his second wife, Sofia (Bobulova), who’s the mother of Massimo’s second child but, crucially, not of Benny.

On the surface, these two brothers and their families have it all. But despite living a comfortable life with all the prerequisite trappings of bourgeois success, small sources of tension can be spotted from the start. Paolo is someone who would prefer to keep everyone happy but thus ignores what he himself thinks is important, while his wife is protective of her son to an extreme degree, making excuses for him when she’s called in by a teacher.

Massimo is an extremely pragmatic lawyer who has no qualms about defending someone who’s guilty of manslaughter but who’s nonetheless insecure about how he’s perceived by his brother, whom he feels might not approve. Appropriately, Sofia feels like fifth wheel on the wagon, someone who doesn’t fit in and is mostly ignored by Massimo’s daughter, who prefers to hang out at Michele’s and by Massimo himself, who prefers to eat dinner alone in his study, and by Clara, who thinks she’s a trophy wife, and even by the film itself, which gives her no real personality.

The beautifully detailed screenplay, written by Valentina Ferlan and De Matteo, deviates significantly from the novel in terms of plot and characters but explores very similar themes. After an (entirely invented) prologue that both prepares the audience for future shocks and helps set up the characters and their differences, De Matteo can throw in Koch’s narrative bomb that will make everything and everyone explode: a blurry video of a homeless woman being kicked to death by two youngsters who look somewhat like Benny and Michele. Both kids deny being involved but doubts, accusations and very different parenting approaches crystallize quickly after the footage surfaces, creating a crisis that will soon spiral out of control.

The film, like the novel, isn’t necessarily interested in whether the kids are guilty or not; the mystery angle is simply a mainstream pretext to lure unsuspecting viewers into an exploration of complex and painful truths about contemporary Western society (it can be argued they are even more forcefully explored here than in the novel, especially as a new ending drives home some of the film’s points much better). What really matters is how everyone reacts to and deals with the various revelations and accusations, as the film looks at themes such as senseless violence, alienation, education and responsibility through the prism of six very different characters.

In scene after scene, De Matteo tightens the screws, first revealing the gut feelings of the three parents and then, when all the contrasting views are on the table, letting the opposing views worm their way into the conscience of the characters as they try to calm down after the initial shock. Meanwhile, even the reactions and subsequent actions of the children are well-observed, including a devastating exchange between Benny and her father in his practice in which his face tells an entirely different story from his words.

Indeed, the entire ensemble is impressive, as they tear into this very strong screenplay with relish, and the way in which the film keeps suggesting new gray areas and adds shading through dialogue exchanges is remarkable and sustained throughout. It’s a shame, then, that De Matteo feels the need to rely on a couple of unnecessary and rather cliched musical montages in which people stare out the window with a troubled air. Much more sophisticated is cinematographer Vittorio Omodei Zorini’s use of selective and shifting focus, which suggests how emotions are fluid and thoughts move between the characters in the fore- and background. Production and costume design beautifully work together to visually suggest the different personalities and shifting allegiances.

Production companies: Rodeo Drive, Rai Cinema
Cast: Alessandro Gassman, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Luigi Lo Cascio, Barbora Bobulova, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, Jacopo Olmi Antinori, Lidia Vitale
Director: Ivano De Matteo
Screenplay: Valentina Ferlan, Ivano De Matteo, based on the novel by Herman Koch
Producers: Marco Poccioni, Marco Valsania
Executive producers: Francesca Di Donna, Cotty Chubb
Director of photography: Vittorio Omodei Zorini
Production designer: Francesco Frigeri
Costume designer: Valentina Taviani
Editor: Consuelo Catucci
Composer: Francesco Cerasi
Sales: Rai Com

No MPAA rating, 92 minutes