'The Obscene Life' ('La Vita Oscena'): Venice Review

La Vita Oscena Venice Still - H 2014
La Biennale

La Vita Oscena Venice Still - H 2014

Not obscene so much as obscenely pretentious

French actor Clement Metayer stands in for Italian writer Aldo Nove in this screen treatment of a teen poet's out-of-control journey of grief

Is there a more tedious figure in contemporary Euro ersatz art cinema than the nihilistic skateboarder poet? At the very least, The Obscene Life makes a persuasive case to rank that personage in the top 10. Fashioned by director Renato De Maria and author Aldo Nove from the latter's fictionalized memoir maudit, this monotonous odyssey of sex, drugs and self-destruction sparked by the pain of being orphaned is more a reading than an adaptation; roughly 90 percent of its dialogue is delivered in purple-prosey voiceover. Visually punchy but otherwise uninvolving, it could be described, borrowing the protagonist's words, as an "empty whirl of emotions," all of them fraudulent.

De Maria enlists cinematographer and sometime director Daniele Cipri (known for his idiosyncratic collaborations with Franco Maresco) to shoot the story in hyper-restless, color-popping visceral style, and production designer Alessandra Mura to trick out the visuals with sets and locations that suggest a wannabe Pedro Almodovar movie. He also slathers music — mostly busy electronica with the occasional acoustic breather — over just about every scene. But the director used a comparable mix of raw and cartoon elements to better effect in his 2002 comic-strip adaptation, Paz!

That film only half-worked; this one not at all. It opens with grainy memory footage of adolescent poet Andrea (Clement Metayer) and his adored mother (Isabella Ferrari) in their rustic family villa. He calls her a flower child, making him a flower grandchild. Her clinical depression is followed by a cancer diagnosis, chemotherapy and her eventual death, preceded unexpectedly by that of Andrea's father (Roberto De Francesco) after a sudden stroke.

That cataclysmic destruction of the sacred mother-son bond unleashes the aforementioned whirl of emotions. But these feel less like any honest depiction of devastating loss than opportunities for angst-flavored attitudinizing. "I was a wounded bird, a hunted animal," muses Andrea in the saturation voiceover narration by Fausto Paravidino. There's no real opportunity to create a character in this overworked mess, though Metayer at least strikes some nice petulant poses wearing cool T-shirts. And he surfs the pavement with flair.

Andrea flies around town on his skateboard, skipping school, inviting oblivion with hash, alcohol and psychotropics, numbing his pain in discos, and venting his despair in poetry class. His mourning becomes a blur of reality and fantasy, notably when he blows up the house and lands in the hospital as a kind of mummified superhero in the burns ward. He's attended by a sexy nurse right out of a Kylie Minogue video, one of many sirens who inhabit his pornographic imagination.

Deciding to emulate his idol, the Austrian Expressionist poet Georg Trakl, Andrea plans to commit suicide by snorting 17 grams of cocaine. But like everything else in this unrelentingly self-conscious movie, that death wish is more of a visual statement than a genuine emotional plunge — Andrea positions himself in a crime-scene corpse outline made of blow. Observed by the specter of his mother from building facades and billboards, he spirals ever downward, hitting bottom during a punishing session with a dominatrix hooker before landing in the emergency room.

"No memory, only present, no future," says Andrea in one of many moments when the film careens into tiresome borderline self-parody. Rather than exploring the shattered world of a teenager whose beloved parent is torn from him, and the flailing struggle to find a way to go on, The Obscene Life plays like a strenuous workout of the banal Italian mamma's boy syndrome. "Jesus, stop my suffering," intones the narrator's voice. Indeed.

Production companies: FilmVision in association with Lebowski, Monochrome
Cast: Clement Metayer, Isabella Ferrari, Roberto De Francesco, Andrea Renzi, Iaia Forte, Anita Kravos, Eva Riccobono, Vittoria Schisano, Valentina Belle, Duccio Camerini, Fausto Paravidino
Director: Renato De Maria
Screenwriters: Renato De Maria, Aldo Nove, based on Nove’s novel
Producers: Gianluca De Marchi, Fabio Mazzoni
Executive producers: Marco Simon Puccioni, Giampietro Preziosa, Francesca Bonaccorsi, Mario Mazzarotto, Claudio Vecchio, Giorgio Magliulo, Alessandra Acciai
Director of photography: Daniele Cipri
Production designer: Alessandra Mura
Costume designer: Jessica Zambelli
Music: Riccardo Sinigallia, Vittorio Cosma, Gianni Maroccolo, Max Casacci
Editors: Letizia Caudullo, Jacopo Quadri

No rating, 85 minutes