'These Days' ('Questi giorni'): Film Review | Venice 2016

Questi giorni -Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Makes you long for the clear-eyed introspection of the Nico song.

Margherita Buy, the frequent muse of director Giuseppe Piccioni's early films, appears this time as the mother of one of four young women contemplating adulthood.

"During these days nothing happened but everything changed." So says a core character — in voiceover, naturally — at the conclusion of Giuseppe Piccioni's wishy-washy portrait of four female college friends stumbling toward maturity. However, only the first half of her statement seems accurate in These Days, which is handsomely shot and capably acted but so lacking in distinctive characters, compelling conflicts or perceptive emotional exploration that it adds up to two hours plus of utter inconsequentiality. It caps off a weak year for Italian entries in the Venice Film Festival’s main competition.

Italy's rich cinema history has ranged, at its best, from penetrating realism to wildly imaginative fantasy; from wrenching depictions of hardscrabble lives to sharp-toothed social comedy and unflinching accounts of institutional corruption; from jaded views of ivory-tower privilege to passionate political engagement that frequently devolved into bitter disenchantment. It's sad to observe that, with the national film industry in a floundering state, so many interchangeable movies are made built around the eternal fixation with cusp-of-adulthood uneasiness. It's as if half the country's directors are so lacking in life experience that they're stuck in navel-gazing arrested adolescence.

A technically accomplished director of sensitive adult melodrama who has carved out a respectable second-tier career in the past 30 years, Piccioni is certainly no hack. And These Days is far more nuanced and intelligent than Giuseppe Muccino's Summertime, another Venice premiere that travels similar thematic terrain — also via a trip away from the cushioning complacency of home and family — albeit in a much lighter vein. But Piccioni's film, written with Pierpaolo Pirone and Chiara Ridolfi and inspired by an unpublished novel, nonetheless is inescapably trite.

The nominal center of the quartet is Liliana (Maria Roveran), whose hairdresser mother Adria (frequent Piccioni collaborator Margherita Buy, excellent) is too flaky and distracted to have much influence over her daughter's choices or access to her worries. A smart student preparing her thesis, Liliana dances nervously around a mutual attraction to her attentive literature professor Mariani (Filippo Timi), the creepiness of that rapport seemingly lost on the filmmakers. Prof. Mariani helpfully telegraphs the Big Theme in an opening lesson on Dante's Paradiso, getting wistful in class about the loss of youth's precious gifts: joy and immortality. Those gifts are especially at risk in Liliana's case when she's diagnosed with cancer but tells nobody.

The road ahead also looks foggy for Liliana's friends. Angela (Laura Adriani) claims to be able to read the future in votive candles, which perhaps is why she seems unconvinced of the commitment of her slick older boyfriend, Valerio (Giulio Corso). Anna (Caterina Le Caselle) is a violinist completing her music conservatory studies during the first months of pregnancy; the baby's father is an unprepossessing fellow musician held in only marginally higher esteem by Anna than by her dismissive girlfriends.

Finally, there's Caterina (Marta Gastini), whose edgy asymmetrical haircut, pseudo biker fashion and aversion to smiling mark her as a sullen lesbian, just as her territorial eyeballing of Liliana signals her not-exactly-secret crush.

In prosaic voiceover reflections, Caterina reveals she'd like to go far away and erase every trace of her past, so she takes concrete steps in that direction by taking off for Belgrade, where a friend who may or may not be a former flame, Mina (Mina Djukic), has set her up with a restaurant job. It's typical of the film's unsubtle grasp of metaphor that a city literally rebuilding its identity while making sense of its past would be Caterina's destination. At a cultural event organized by Mina and her friends, clips from the work of Dusan Makavejev and other exponents of the Yugoslav Black Wave of moral, social and political satire of the 1960s and early 1970s are splashed on a screen, possibly suggesting similar ambitions for These Days that remain unfulfilled.

Piccioni doesn't draw the bonds uniting the quartet with much depth, but Caterina invites Liliana, Angela and Anna to come with her for a few days, and they tag along despite none of them showing all that much enthusiasm. After taking the ferry from Bari to Montenegro, they meet three young Serbian guys whose summer vacation follows the exact reverse trajectory. The two groups' flirty single night together at a camping ground prompts one sweet-natured guy to make an impulsive declaration of love for Liliana, abandoning his plans with his friends in order to accompany the girls and show them Belgrade.

Resentful of the intrusion, the pitiless Caterina offloads him soon after. A strong subsequent scene in which the spurned Serb brushes off Liliana's attempt at an apology, indicating that he mistook her for someone worth caring about, is the kind of barbed confrontation of which the movie needs more. While unplanned pregnancy, life-threatening illness, unrequited love and maybe even boyfriend insecurity justify some selfish wallowing, the script rarely cuts deep enough to force these characters outside their respective bubbles of self-absorption.

There are some poignant moments late in the film, notably when Adria — in many ways, still an immature overgrown girl herself — discovers her daughter's cancer diagnosis and becomes suddenly demonstrative and supportive, albeit maintaining her believably rough edges as a parent. But the journey of the four main characters is too thin on meaningful discoveries, either individually or as a group, to have much emotional impact.

That seems no fault of the actors, all of whom show appealing screen presence in fairly one-dimensional roles; their moments of depth are confined largely to still shots in which they gaze into the camera in artfully arranged groupings. These Days does look quite pretty, with its soft, glossy tones and warm summer light. But I could have taken a lot less of composer Valerio C. Faggiani's hum-along vocal soundscapes and a lot more scratching beneath the surfaces of these four young women as they figure out what comes next.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: 11 Marzo Film, Publispei, Rai Cinema
Cast: Maria Roveran, Marta Gastini, Laura Adriani, Caterina Le Caselle, Filippo Timi, Alessandro Averone, Mina Djukic, Sergio Rubini, Margherita Buy, Giulio Corso
Director: Giuseppe Piccioni
Screenwriters: Giuseppe Piccioni, Pierpaolo Pirone, Chiara Ridolfi, adapted from the unpublished novel
Colore betulla giovane by Marta Bertini
Producers: Matteo Levi, Verdiana Bixio
Director of photography: Claudio Cofrancesco
Production designer: Giada Calabria
Costume designer: Emanuela Naccarati
Music: Valerio C. Faggioni
Editor: Alice Roffinengo
Casting: Massimo Appolloni
Sales: Rai Com

Not rated, 124 minutes