If I Close My Eyes I’m Not Here: Santa Barbara Review

On-the-nose poetics get the better of a broody, sympathetic character study.

In an intimately observed coming-of-age drama, a Eurasian teen struggles to find his place in the universe -- and in working-class Italy.

The Filipino-Italian at the center of Vittorio Moroni’s new drama is a sensitive, intelligent 16-year-old who’s surrounded by small-minded people -- until a mysterious mentor enters his life. If I Close My Eyes I’m Not Here (Se chiudo gli occhi non sono piu qui), which competed in the International section of the Santa Barbara FIlm Festival, uses the remote atmospherics of its northeastern Italian setting to good effect, and its performances are strong. But the angsty story’s impact is muted by a surfeit of philosophical musings and distractingly precious poetic touches.

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As Kiko, a boy mourning his beloved father, Mark Manaloto seethes convincingly with resentment over being barely understood by anyone in his life. Alone at night, in a variation on cutting that leaves him bruised, he pinches his arm with pliers to counter the existential pain. Such adolescent acting out aside, more often than not he seems more mature than his Philippines-born mother, Marilou (Hazel Morillo), who runs a cafe, and her construction foreman boyfriend, Ennio (Beppe Fiorello), who puts Kiko to work alongside his crews of exploited immigrants.

In one of the film’s most inventive and character-defining elements, Kiko has turned an abandoned bus in an edge-of-the-highway industrial yard into a refuge and a shrine to Jacopo, his father. Jacopo, a warm presence played by Ignazio Oliva in flashbacks, was a soulmate who sparked the boy’s imagination, Marilou discourages his studies; it’s hard to imagine what the couple had in common. And Ennio’s attempts at connection, when he isn’t working Kiko to exhaustion, involve the chance to drive a car or smoke a cigarette.

At school, where Kiko is failing because he’s so burned out from the hours at construction sites, teachers, likewise, offer little to feed his artistic hunger. They recognize that he’s smart, and there are a few words of sympathetic encouragement, but nobody goes out of their way to help him. Until an elderly man shows up at a particularly opportune moment.

Giorgio Colangeli is exceptionally good as the stranger, Ettore, who claims to be a friend of Kiko’s father and quickly becomes the teen’s friend as well. He taps straight into the boy’s intellectual curiosity, and his book-filled house (wonderfully lived-in set design by Fabrizio D'Arpino) becomes a second home to Kiko. From lovingly cooked meals to conversations on Plato’s Republic, Ettore’s mentorship provides precisely what Kiko aches for. But as openhearted as the man is, it’s clear that he’s got a dark secret. Tellingly, he emphasizes the importance of empathy before a crucial revelation leaves Kiko at loose ends -- and brings to mind Hard Eight, Paul Thomas Anderson’s first tale of mysterious mentorship.

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Matters of destiny and identity have the right urgency for a teenage protagonist, but director Moroni and his co-writer, Marco Piccarreda, overdo the explicit philosophical yearning. The film’s pointed aphorisms, and its questions about astronomical phenomena like the Big Bang, the star Proxima Centauri and black holes, work intermittently; when they don’t, they lean toward pretentiousness. The movie’s midsection sags with such ponderings.

To his credit, though, Moroni grounds the poeticisms in economic realities, touching upon immigration and xenophobia in Italy, topics he dealt with a few years ago in his screenplay for Emanuele Crialese’s Sicily-set Terraferma.

Through it all, and despite the often unnecessary embellishments, the cinematography by Massimo Schiavon is keenly attuned to intimacy and desolation, the characters and their place in the landscape.

Venue: Santa Barbara Film Festival
Production: 50 Notturno, Rai Cinema
Cast: Giorgio Colangeli, Beppe Fiorello, Mark Manaloto, Hazel Morillo, Elena Arvigo, Ignazio Oliva
Director: Vittorio Moroni
Screenwriters: Vittorio Moroni, Marco Piccarreda
Producers: Vittorio Moroni, Marco Piccarreda
Director of photography: Massimo Schiavon
Production designer: Fabrizio D'Arpino
Costume designer: Grazia Colombini
Editor: Marco Piccarreda
No MPAA rating, 102 minutes