'On My Skin' ('Sulla mia pelle'): Film Review | Venice 2018

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A shocking and memorable statement on police brutality.

Rising Italian actor Alessandro Borghi is mesmerizing as Stefano Cucchi, a young Roman who died after being viciously beaten by the Italian military police.

Director Alessio Cremonini painstakingly reconstructs the high-profile true-crime case of 31-year-old Stefano Cucchi, a former heroin addict arrested by the Italian military police for possession of drugs and beaten so sadistically he died in custody a week later, in On My Skin (Sulla mia pelle). As tensely focused as a thriller, the film is gripping from start to finish, which is surprising given the familiarity of the case in Italy. One of its main assets is rising star Alessandro Borghi, who lends searing credibility to the doomed youth with his low-class Roman accent and street wit, and he turns Cucchi’s seven-day decline into death into a heart-breaking calvary.  

This case, which happened in 2009, is still in the appeals courts and more trials are upcoming. But Cremonini and his co-scripter Lisa Nur Sultan pull together the various conflicting legal threads into a single, powerful narrative leaving no doubt that the initial beating was the primary cause of death, aggravated by a criminal lack of medical treatment in a series of Roman hospitals. The Netflix release should give new wind to the prosecution, which has been actively spurred on by the victim’s sister Ilaria Cucchi, here played by Jasmine Trinca in a rather small supporting role.

Though one of the most infamous cases of the decade and one that rocked public opinion, Cucchi’s is only one of 172 deaths of inmates that occurred in Italian prisons in the year 2009. The emphasis given to this figure at the end of this tense, grueling pic gives one pause.

For those who don’t already know the story, the film opens with a hospital orderly on a locked ward discovering Stefano lifeless in his bed, seven days after he was arrested in his car for possession of 20 grams of hashish and a small amount of cocaine. His backstory begins a week earlier with the essentials of the boy’s life: work in his Dad’s engineering office, boxing workouts at the gym, attendance at Mass, carving up bricks of hash in the apartment his folks have bought for him.

One night, while joking with a pal in his parked car, a carabiniere patrol car appears out of nowhere; the uniformed military police are soon joined by two off-duty officers in street clothes. When they find 10 packets of hash on Stefano, they run both boys in for questioning. It is the beginning of a nightmare of unrelenting tension. The key scene of the beating, however, takes place offscreen. In a remote police station in the middle of the night, Stefano is shoved into a cell with three officers. When he emerges his face is a mass of bruises, his back hurts and he can barely walk.

His condition worsens with each passing day; he can't eat, drink or urinate. What is hard to comprehend is why he insists that “nothing happened” to him when questioned by other police officers; he ironically says that he fell down the stairs. The doctors don’t believe him, but they wash their hands of him and hide behind bureaucratic protocol when he refuses treatment. The scenes fly by swiftly in Chiara Vullo’s no-nonsense edit, with the ever-weaker youth being dragged from jail to hospital and back to jail and stumbling in front of a judge who barely glances at his swollen face. Only to some other inmates does he confess he was beaten by the police who arrested him.  

This is clearly a career-changer for Borghi, whose roles have swung from a violent crime lord in Stefano Sollima’s Suburra to a mysterious lover in Ferzan Ozpetek’s Veiled Naples. He is barely recognizable with his shaved head that emphasizes his huge eyes and emaciated frame. Keeping Roberto De Angelis' production design simple and the sets verging on barren, Cremonini makes sure all the attention is focused on the protagonist. The only breakaways are to his upset older parents and his married sister Ilaria, honest middle-class people who live on the wrong side of town, but have struggled to see him clear of the drug trap. Unbelievably, they’re denied access to their son and brother, even after they’re told he’s been hospitalized, and the bureaucratic runaround they’re subjected to is inhuman.

Matteo Cocco’s (Pericle) cinematography, clean and limited in its palette, manages to be striking without ever calling attention to itself. Not so the use of Mokadelic’s music, which subscribes to the common modern vice of raising the volume in a misguided attempt to dominate the mood and ends up sounding menacing but maudlin.

Production companies: Lucky Red, Cinemaundici
Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Alessandro Borghi, Jasmine Trinca, Max Tortora, Milvia Marigliano

Director: Alessio Cremonini
Screenwriters: Alessio Cremonini, Lisa Nur Sultan
Producers: Luigi Musini, Olivia Musini, Andrea Occhipinti
Director of photography: Matteo Cocco
Production designer: Roberto De Angelis
Costume designer: Stefano Giovani
Editor: Chiara Vullo
Music: Mokadelic
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

World sales: True Colours

100 minutes