At the 11th Cathay Pacific Italian Film Festival, Gianni Amelio’s Keys to the House launched the 2006 programme in style. MELODY NIXON got first glimpse.

A SLOW-MOVING yet poignant realist drama, Keys to the House honours the connection of family bonds in a quietly compelling way, tracing the relationship between father Gianni and physically and mentally impaired son, Paolo. Simple, direct shots of hospital corridors and peeing in train toilets show the vulnerability, strife and shame of such impairments. Brooding close-ups of Gianni show the torture, embarrassment and self-disgust family members of the impaired may endure.

Choosing such an unfashionable topic and portraying it in an unglamorous way is a bold move by director Gianni Amelio. Once beautifully taken to realism, Italian cinema now tends much more towards romance-and-glitz based escapism. Recent popular releases Manual of Love and After Midnight, for instance, show that a cinematic step into ugly sobriety is a step away from the norm. While hard-biting films have been made – I’m Not Scared and Once You are Born You Can No Longer Hide come to mind – these deal with topical, near trendy issues at the forefront of public consciousness. Disability on the other hand, mental impairment? Not sexy.

That said, perhaps Amelio needs a little longer to re-engage with his country’s realist genes. Not quite art-house enough to rival Bertolucci, this film is stranded somewhere in a netherland between bleakness and pseudo grandeur. Its message is confused by its juxtaposition of forlorn with beautiful. For example, unhappy shots of Paolo’s screwed-up face strangely interchange with breath-taking, majestic views of mountains and sea. And at times narrative substance is compromised for these sweeping, awkward shots.

Though certainly not done any favours in translation, the script lacks inspiration. Vast tracks of speech come across as hollow and clichéd. “Once Paulo has gone into his dark place, you can only wait for him to return”, anyone? Such lines should have long ago been banished to Italian cultural history, along with snow fox fur coats and the singer Lucio Battisti.

Nonetheless there are some beautiful performances from the wide-ranging cast. Andrea Rossi as Paolo is spectacularly genuine and moving. He both captivates and infuriates as a young boy trapped and bound by his body and his past. Charlotte Rampling, though faced with the challenge of lousy script, gives a consistently sturdy performance.

While Kim Rossi Stuart has certainly perfected his forlorn, ‘no-one told me life was going to be this hard’ expression, he seldom strays from it, preferring instead to wallow in its melancholy. Sympathy for him in this one dimensional state is not easily forthcoming, though his character Gianni eventually proves himself a good guy.

Rossi Stuart does manage to engage himself in the most touching scenes of the film however – those between Gianni and Paolo. With an intimacy only a man of the Mediterranean could muster, Gianni strokes, caresses and kisses his son with moving openness. No awkward social conditioning or exaggerated fears of incest here. The beauty of the bond between these two carries the whole film and leaves one with a lasting feeling of gentleness.

The bland script and initially flimsy plot of The Keys to the House greatly slow this film down, and one is never quite sure what kind of strange mix of epic and realism it is attempting. However it has moments of honesty and integrity that will resonate deeply in those who empathise with themes of suffering. Its exploration of impairment and prejudice is commendable, and overall it conveys a sense of intimacy and dedication that is genuinely and engrossingly moving.

See also:
» Cathay Pacific Italian Film Festival 2006: Preview