'The First Light': Venice Review

LA PRIMA LUCE Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

LA PRIMA LUCE Still - H 2015

An uneasily involving relationship drama.

Italian star Riccardo Scamarcio fights an international child custody battle with thriller elements.

Uncomfortably personal, far from objective and somehow less dramatic than its subject warrants, Vincenzo Marra’s The First Light nevertheless reverberates after the lights come up. It’s hard not to feel uneasily involved in this harrowing account of an international child custody battle told from the father’s p.o.v. Taking the father’s side so fiercely gives the drama a lopsided, unobjective feeling. Still, it can bank on its timely, media-ready subject and a cast that includes Italian teen idol Riccardo Scamarcio and Chilean actor Alejandro Goic (Carne de perro), who should earn the film a brief theatrical run before it heads to the small screen.

Marra, who has alternated between documentaries with a strong social flavor like his award-winning Vento di terra, and fiction films like Tornando a casa, vaunts a respectable if uneven body of work. There is a documentary flavor to this realistically observed story about the end of a relationship that catches the viewer up in the personal drama

The action begins in the southern Italian town of Bari before switching to a coyly unnamed South American city of 6 million inhabitants (Santiago del Chile, for the record). Marco (Scamarcio) and Martina (Daniela Ramirez) are at the end of their 7-year-long relationship, giving each other the cold shoulder when they’re not bitterly squabbling over their future. Martina’s work at an ad agency is going nowhere and she has made up her mind to return to her homeland where, according to her, the economic situation is far rosier than in recession-ridden Italy. Besides, she misses her mother. Since Marco is a struggling lawyer and can see no way to work abroad, he categorically nixes the plan. Nor can he conceive of letting their little boy Mateo (Gianni Pezzolla), whom he adores unconditionally, leave the country without him. They have reached the point where he has hidden Martina and Mateo’s passports, but not well enough.  

In the second part of the film, the scene switches to South America and Marco’s search for his family. Relationship tensions give way to the bureaucracy of embassies, the Foreign Office, courts and lawyers. A well-dosed pinch of the thriller keeps the action moving forward, albeit in a highly predictable way. The final scenes are something of a let-down.

Ramirez handles the thankless role of Martina with anguished aplomb, but the dice are loaded against her and the foregone conclusion is that she’s selfish, vindictive and wrong; Marco is the innocent victim of her unreasonableness. A very brief mention is made of the fact that he refuses to marry her or have the second child she desires. So one is left wondering what other small problems he may have swept under the carpet. Like stealing her passport, maybe?

The film revolves around star Scamarcio’s penetrating blue eyes and perpetual sexy scowl. Though he lavishes paternal love and affection on little Mateo, he is dour and unresponsive to Martina. She, in turn, is a block of ice, sad, miserable, sexually unavailable and determined to leave with their son at all costs. Her motivation is so ludicrously flimsy that Marco grabs all the viewer’s sympathy, but there seems to be only one side of the story being told here. Why, for example, does she keep insisting he’s “violent”, when Scamarcio depicts Marco as a normal if slightly southern-macho guy who has his emotions well under control? And why does a court psychiatrist confirm her accusation? Most mysteriously, why isn’t there a scene that would allow both actors to express their personality differences, instead of just talking about them?  The one big argument between them is just starting to get interesting Marra reins it in.

Maura Morales Bergmann’s cinematography anchors the film to the spacious, airy port city of Bari before tackling Santiago’s shady middle-class streets. Though their roles are relatively small, Luis Gnecco as Marco’s Chilean lawyer and Alejandro Goic as a no-nonsense detective are refreshingly professional. Camila Moreno’s exotic vocals are a fine addition.

Production companies: Paco Cinematografica, Indigo Films in association with Rai Cinema
Cast: Riccardo Scamarcio, Daniela Ramirez
Director: Vincenzo Marra
Screenwriters:  Angelo Carbone, Vincenzo Marra
Producers: Isabella Cocuzza, Arturo Paglia
Director of photography: Maura Morales Bergmann
Production designers:  Maria Teresa Padula, Angela Torti
Music: Camila Moreno
Costumes:  Eva Palmisani, Carolina Norero
Editors: Vincenzo Marra, Sara Petracca
Sales Agent: Recreation Media  
108 minutes