Foreign Bodies (I corpi estranei): Rome Review

An occasionally touching, intimate drama that’s also way too diffuse for its own good.

Filippo Timi (“Vincere”) stars in writer-director Mirko Locatelli’s latest drama, which unspooled in the Rome festival's international competition.

A potentially powerful subject is given a rather underwhelming going-over in Foreign Bodies (I corpi estranei), the third feature from Italian writer-director Mirko Locatelli (The First Day of Winter).

Featuring the terrific Filippo Timi (Vincere, The American) in a restrained but moving performance, this story of an impoverished father caring for his cancer-stricken child, and discovering Milan’s marginal Arab population in the process, is far too withdrawn from the plot and characters to hammer its message home. Still, as a gritty micro-portrait of a nation confronted by its changing ethnic face, the Rome competition selection could see additional fest play and limited pickups outside Italy.

Set in a gloomy public hospital, where working-class dad, Antonio (Timi), is accompanying his infant son, Pietro (played by twins Gabriel de Glaudi and Tijey de Glaudi), through the unbearable process of brain cancer treatment, the film reduces events to a series of minimal gestures and conversations, forever sticking to Antonio’s side -- as well as to the back of his head, in a very Dardennes Bros.-style approach that nonetheless lacks the Belgian duo’s strong sense of narrative.

With his wife and other sons back in the provinces, Antonio is left to his own devices, and soon takes interest in a Moroccan teenager, Jaber (Jauoher Brahim), whose friend Youssef (El Farouk Abd Alla) is also laid up in the cancer ward. At first, he seems repelled by the boy and his buddies --  “These Arabs smell!” he tells his wife on the phone -- but his curiosity is soon piqued when he follows Jaber to a wholesale food market, eventually getting work as a night laborer.

Intercutting scenes of Antonio opening up ever so slowly -- the film could easily lose 10-15 minutes and would be none the worse for wear -- to Jaber, with scenes of Pietro going through surgery and a difficult post-op, Locatelli seems to be drawing a parallel between Pietro’s recovery and the possibility of Antonio accepting another culture. He even goes farther, suggesting that the sick little boy’s livelihood may actually depend on Muslim traditions unknown to his native Italian dad.

Yet despite its good intentions, the drama never really takes form, with the filmmaker including random moments -- such as a subplot involving a dead car battery -- that never lead anywhere. And while we're with Antonio for pretty much the entire time, we hardly learn anything about him, nor why his wife (or parents, or friends) would allow him to go through this distressing situation on his own.

There’s a fine line between realistic storytelling and failing to tell a story properly, and Locatelli -- who co-wrote the script with his wife Guiditta Tarantelli -- tends to fall into the latter camp, with a meandering narrative that takes way too much time to arrive at a rather foreseeable conclusion.

This doesn’t mean, however, that he’s not capable of providing pockets of emotion, with Timi embodying Antonio’s pain and helplessness in some very effective ways. Likewise, newcomer Brahim portrays Jaber as a lost young man searching to make a connection, and perhaps find a father figure, in a place where he’s also entirely alone.

Tech credits are solid, with regular DP Ugo Carlevaro using a muted color palate to film all the dreary decors and exteriors, capturing the utter charmlessness of Milan's industrial sprawl.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Competition)

Production companies: Strani Film

Cast: Filippo Timi, Jaouher Brahim, Gabriel de Glaudi, Tijey de Glaudi

Director: Mirko Locatelli

Screenwriters: Mirko Locatelli, Guiditta Tarantelli

Producers: Fabio Cavenaghi, Paolo Cavenaghi, Mirko Locatelli, Guiditta Tarantelli

Director of photography: Ugo Carlevaro

Costume designer: Lidia Maria Corna

Music: Baustelle

Editors: Fabio Bobbio, Mirko Locatelli

Sales agent: Strani Film

No rating, 101 minutes