'Hungry Hearts': Venice Review

Biennale di Venezia
A psychotically protective young mother endangers her newborn’s health in an overwrought drama with a New York indie look

Rosemary’s baby as an undernourished vegan

Italian auteur Saverio Costanzo clearly has a thing for horror-romance. Following his 2010 The Solitude of Prime Numbers, a psychological drama about two damaged souls who connect, comes an even weirder love story between a young New Yorker and an eccentric Italian girl, whose very different ideas about parenting precipitate an alarming crisis over their baby’s health. The idea is original enough to pique curiosity, and the small cast, led by Alba Rohrwacher and the up-and-coming Adam Driver of HBO’s Girls fame, digs gamely into the material, but something is missing. Something like credibility. Shot in English and mostly confined to the couple’s Manhattan apartment, the film has a low-budget New York indie look that suggests a modest post-festival release might be possible banking on Driver’s name.

Italian actress of the moment Rohrwacher (Dormant Beauty, I Am Love, The Wonders) is Mina, a junior attache at the Italian embassy in New York, who in a funny opening scene finds herself locked in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant with Jude (Driver), a man who has a digestive emergency that leaves the air unbreathable. This simple comic skit between strangers is the last time anything funny happens in the film.

After this unpromising smelly start, Mina and Jude end up dating and soon are celebrating their wedding to the unlikely strains of "Flashdance … What a Feeling." Not only does Jude’s friendly mom (Roberta Maxwell) pop up complaining he never calls her, but Mina confides her own mother died when she was two. This is the only clue to explain their isolation from their families when their son is born and Mina’s frail psychology goes into lunatic mode. Believing the little creature must be protected from contamination and impurity at all costs, she bans cellphones and street shoes from the apartment. Jude loyally hangs in with her on having a “natural” childbirth in a little swimming pool in the hospital, but when she refuses to feed the baby anything but vegan food, he fails to grow. Jude and his mother are forced to team up and take desperate action in the last part of the film, played out as a clumsy thriller.

There’s really not much crossover with Rosemary’s Baby, though Rohrwacher does have the same kind of boyishly thin-to-emaciated, strawberry blonde look as Mia Farrow. While the baby, who is strangely never named, was still in her womb, a $10-a-reading psychic predicted he would be a very special child. This, coupled with her recurrent dream of a deer being shot by a hunter, is all it takes to push her over the edge to extreme veganism. Costanzo’s screenplay, based on a novel by Italian writer Marco Franzoso, comes down firmly on the “no” side of the veganism-for-infants debate, but it feels more like an excuse for pathological behavior than a pressing concern. That may be why it’s so hard to believe Mina’s pain-racked stares and hurt silences as she discovers, to her horror, that Jude has secretly been feeding their hungry offspring prosciutto in a nearby church.

Driver and Maxwell are pleasingly rational for New Yorkers, and Driver has the presence not to lose scenes to Rohrwacher's unpredictable antics as the family psychotic. The intervention of the local police and social services doesn't ring true, however, giving the finale an unsatisfying, arbitrary feeling.

Production companies: Wildside in association with Rai Cinema
Adam Driver, Alba Rohrwacher, Roberta Maxwell
Director: Saverio Costanzo
Screenwriter: Saverio Costanzo, based on  a novel by Marco Franzoso
Producers: Mario Gianani, Lorenzo Mieli
Executive producers: Riccardo Neri, Louis Tisne, Olivia Sleiter, Christopher Marsh
Director of photography: Fabio Cianchetti

Production designer: Amy Williams
Costume designer: Antonella Cannarozzi
Editor: Francesca Calvelli
Music: Nicola Piovani
Sales: Radiant Film International

No rating, 112 minutes