The Medicine Seller (Il venditore di medicine): Rome Review

A bitter portrait of corporate corruption, backed by fine performances and an earnest, though somewhat overwrought need to condemn.

Claudio Santamaria (“Romanzo Criminale”) stars in Antonio Morabito’s damaging expose of Italy’s corrupt medical industry.

A relentless pharmaceutical salesman gets a nasty dose of his own drugs in The Medicine Seller (Il venditore di medicine), writer-director Antonio Morabito’s kinetic and politically charged Italian drama. Tackling the hot-button topic of medical industry corruption from the point of view of the bad guys, this well-directed and -performed effort feels a bit stretched at times, while subtlety is not always its strong point. But as a no-holds-barred approach to such a serious subject matter, it could spark interest in overseas markets, especially those where similar events have occurred.

Indeed, as an opening montage of news footage demonstrates, several major pharmaceutics-related scandals have broken out over the last decade, including the Mediator debacle in France and the bribery crimes committed by corporate giant GlaxoSmithKline in both China and Italy -- the latter events which clearly inspired the screenplay by Morabito and co-writers Michele Pellegrini and Amedeo Pagani.

Focusing on a 40-year-old sales rep, Bruno (Claudio Santamaria), who suffers unbearable pressure at the hands of his tyrannical boss (Isabella Ferrari), the film begins by revealing just how stressful the job is when a co-worker commits suicide after being lambasted during a meeting. Next we follow Bruno as he makes his rounds to various pharmacies and doctor's offices, which he showers with free iPads and trips abroad in exchange for the promise that they’ll push his company Zafer’s latest product.

As things at work grow increasingly cutthroat, Bruno experiences another sort of tension on the home front when his wife, Anna (Evita Ciri), stops taking her birth control pills -- a decision Bruno doesn’t necessarily agree with. But rather than sitting down and talking it out, he procures more pills from one of his doctor cronies, secretly administering them to Anna in what may be the first onscreen case of someone spiking a bowl of minestrone.

Eventually, the two plotlines merge when Anna starts falling ill and Bruno tries to nab his biggest client yet: a diabolical oncologist (Marco Travaglio) who cannot be as easily bought as the others, and for whom Bruno is obliged to cross even more legal boundaries than before.

Lending the action a sharp sense of immediacy, which is boosted by DP Duccio Cimatti’s roving handheld compositions, Morabito never shies away from the ugly side of corporate politics and crooked physicians -- so much so that his exposé can seem rather stacked at times, with only two or three characters appearing to have any ethics at all. Yet the director’s background in documentary filmmaking (including a movie about Italy’s anarchist movement that toured several festivals) is evident in the painstaking way he explores every facet of Bruno’s profession, from the phony brochures to the wine-soaked lunches with willing clients.

While the film’s final section tends to wear out its welcome, the cast, lead by the intense and charismatic Santamaria -- who starred in the G8 protest-inspired drama, Diaz: Don’t Clean Up This Blood -- keeps things compelling, with Morabito allowing many scenes to play out in extended, skillfully acted takes. A potent score by Andrea Guerra (Hotel Rwanda) helps move the story full-speed ahead as Bruno races toward impending doom.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Classic, Peacock Film
Cast: Claudio Santamaria, Isabella Ferrari, Evita Ciri, Marco Travaglio
Director: Antonio Morabito
Screenwriters: Antonio Morabito, Michele Pellegrini, Amedeo Pagani
Producer: Amedeo Pagani
Director of photography: Duccio Cimatti
Production designer: Isabella Angelini
Costume designer: Sabrina Beretta
Music: Andrea Guerra
Editor: Francesca Bracci
No rating, 110 minutes