In the age of domestic wiretapping and the Patriot Act, it's no wonder filmmakers are once again tackling surveillance and military-industrial conspiracy with the paranoid relish of '70s thrillers such as "The Conversation" and "The Parallax View." What is surprising is that these stories are not coming from America but first Germany ("The Lives of Others") and now Italy (the independent, English-language "The Listening").
Set in 1999, "The Listening" concerns the introduction of technology that turns any phone into a live transmitter, enabling intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on anyone nearby, whether the device is in use or not. An Italian woman (Maya Sansa, "The Best of Youth") is unwittingly caught up in a situation that could compromise the system's marketing, and its vendor appropriates the resources of its would-be client, the National Security Agency, to destroy her. Her only hope is a mild-mannered, grandfatherly NSA official (Michael Parks of the "Kill Bill" movies), who jettisons his career to try to save her.
The filmmakers claim the spying tools depicted actually exist -- writer-director Giacomo Martelli reportedly worked closely with a leading expert on the NSA's global interception network. But as unsettling as the technologies' implications are, the film's greater concern is the struggle between state and corporate interests. When the executive invokes America's safety as justification for his actions, the agent responds, "We're national security; you're a company."
This focus, while interesting, builds an intrinsic flaw into the plot: It assumes that revealing the existence of the technology would sour governments on acquiring it rather than start a bidding war. The jargon-riddled dialogue and mechanics of technical warfare form a miasma that can be difficult for the uninitiated to navigate. The film wears its politics on its sleeve, which engenders some deck-stacking. The bad guys' hats are so pitch-black that the aforementioned executive actually slaps around a noble NSA supervisor, whose response is to look sad.
The movie is handsomely shot, with locations including Europe's highest glacier. Martelli gets effective performances from the bookish Parks, an unlikely lead for an espionage thriller, and Sansa, whose Francesca is a living, breathing person who's in way over her head. But mostly, it's a film of ideas, so at times the human drama moves backward in the mix, and audience interest in "The Listening" will likely correspond inversely to one's trust in the government.
MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd. (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino (818) 981-9811.