'Sole': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Pregnant with potential.

A troubled young man forms a shaky romantic bond with an expectant surrogate mother in debutant director Carlo Sironi's Venice world premiere.

A sympathetic depiction of stunted lives and repressed desires, Sole is the semiautobiographical debut feature of writer-director Carlo Sironi. The plot centers on a feckless young man who becomes involved in a baby trafficking scheme in contemporary Italy, where surrogacy is illegal, hence the need for subterfuge.

World premiering in Venice today before taking its North American bow in Toronto on Sept. 9, Sole is an Italy-Poland co-production shot in the 1:1.33 Academy screen aspect ratio, which lends it a televisual look at times. Elevated by two fine lead performances, this solid festival contender earmarks Sironi as a rising talent to watch. But as a low-voltage social-realist love story, it lacks the stylistic swagger or narrative originality to guarantee wider theatrical breakout. Commercial prospects will be modest.

Sironi locates his narrative viewpoint firmly with Ermanno (Claudio Segaluscio), a sullen 20-ish anti-hero living an aimless life of petty crime and low-level gambling addiction in a nondescript Italian coastal town. Almost catatonic in his minimalist lack of expression, Ermanno is carrying the internal scars of family tragedy and poor education.

Recruited by his domineering uncle Fabio (Bruno Buzzi), Ermanno agrees to pose as the baby father to a heavily pregnant 22-year-old Polish immigrant, Lena (Sandra Drzymalska). Once her daughter is born, the plan is that Lena will leave Italy with a handsome payoff. Ermanno will then inform the authorities that he cannot cope as a single father, clearing a pathway for Fabio and his wife to legally adopt the child as their own.

Inevitably, Fabio's hard-headed business deal does not go as smoothly as planned. Ermanno initially acts as Lena's dispassionate bodyguard, keeping her safely locked away in a spartan rented apartment. But his protective duties soon begin to stir deeper emotions that he barely even understands. As a tentative romantic chemistry develops with Lena, Ermanno dares to imagine a different future, trading fake fatherhood for the real thing. When the baby is born prematurely, and christened Sole by Lena, the couple must weigh up a stark choice between certain money and uncertain love, with a potentially steep price tag for the wrong decision.

Essentially a two-hander, Sole feels skimpy and underpowered at first, but it blossoms into a moving, quietly absorbing character study. Heavily reliant on the screen presence of his two young leads to keep viewers engaged, Sironi took a risk by casting the nonprofessional Segaluscio as his main protagonist, but his gamble largely pays off. With his sulky, skinny, barely postadolescent beauty, this raw first-timer brings an agreeably undiluted neorealist edge to the emotionally numb, spiritually impoverished Ermanno. It barely looks like an acting performance at all.

The more experienced Polish actress Drzymalska learned shaky Italian to play Lena, adding authenticity to her role as a self-possessed outsider whose flinty surface confidence masks brittle unease. Her swollen belly during the pregnancy scenes is also highly convincing, either the real thing or a small triumph of visual effects.

Aesthetically, Sironi's hybrid production feels more Polish than Italian, with its coolly reserved characters framed within composed, confined, symmetrical shots. The boxy screen ratio adds to the narrative subtext of narrow horizons and limited options. Teoniki Rozynek's spare electronic score, all abstract drones and undulating swells, certainly sounds more classically Eastern European than Mediterranean. A nightclub scene in which Lena dances to bittersweet Europop offers a rare burst of joyous abandon in an otherwise minor-key debut that mostly depends on chilly, understated poetry.

Production companies: Kino Produzioni, Rai Cinema, Lava Films
Cast: Sandra Drzymalska, Claudio Segaluscio, Barbara Ronchi, Bruno Buzzi, Marco Felli, Vitaliano Trevisan, Orietta Notari
Director: Carlo Sironi
Screenwriters: Giulia Moriggi, Carlo Sironi, Antonio Manca
Producer: Giovanni Pompili
Co-producer: Agnieszka Wasiak
Cinematographer: Gergely Poharnok
Editor: Andrea Maguolo
Music: Teoniki Rozynek
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Sales company: Luxbox
102 minutes