Review: ‘Bad Tales’ is a sour take on dysfunctional families in a Roman suburb
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If all roads lead to Rome, one might conclude after watching the corrosive Italian family psychodrama “Bad Tales” that to take that proverb literally, bypassing the Eternal City’s outlying residential neighborhoods on the way in would probably be a good idea.
Treating the banality of the suburbs as contemptibly as “Gomorrah” director Matteo Garrone does the corrupting pall of mob-infested Naples, writing/directing siblings the D’Innocenzo Brothers — who have collaborated with Garrone (co-writing “Dogman”) — have certainly carved out their own darkly stylish slice of unhappy-family noir. The question is whether their painstaking depiction of anxiety-ridden children and seething parents is a substantive one — the bitter aftertaste making for one kind of declarative answer.
The title sounds as if we’re in for a spell of warped fables. The movie even starts through a literary portal of sorts, as an unnamed male narrator tells of finding a girl’s green-inked diary and, entranced by its innocence, decides to continue the story after it abruptly ends, presumably to fill in what the narrator senses is unspoken. There’s even a “Blue Velvet”-like parade of suburban images accompanying, from the placid (a pool, a smiling girl) to the ominous (grey clouds, ants), and as we segue into the characters’ lives, we hear a newscaster report a tragedy regarding a young family.
The movie’s own constellation of simmering, unsteady beings is a handful of barely functioning households with anxiety-ridden kids attending the same school. Edgy, out of work Bruno (Elio Germano) is the kind of dad who makes his academically gifted kids Dennis (Tommaso di Cola) and Alessia (Giulietta Rebeggiani) read their report cards out loud to dinner guests but also purposefully sabotages their popular inflatable pool in the dead of night, only to blame it on gypsies the next morning. He shares a noxious masculinity with fellow dad Pietro (Max Malatesta), another ball of rage who privately despises Bruno and seems to barely tolerate his own daughter, quiet, brooding Viola (Giulia Melillo).
Dennis, meanwhile, finds himself curious about pregnant, openly sexual (and epically snarling) older teenager Vilma (Ileana D’Ambra), while also navigating a cheery classmate’s insistence they hook up. On the fringe of this world is bully-targeted working-class kid Geremia (Justin Korovkin), who lives by the woods with his loving but immature single dad Amelio (Gabriel Montesi), a trattoria worker.
As a curdled storybook, “Bad Tales” is highly watchable. The problem is that the brothers aren’t telling stories fueled by powerful characters; they’re staging awkward cruelties as if for a gallery show. But even accepting its poetically presentational nature, it’s a mood piece without a genuineness of intention, middle-class claustrophobia and resentments turned into coolly derisive design elements rather than arranged for deeper examination. The choppy narrative is intentionally enigmatic, as if to keep the focus on the stylish framing and visual textures in Paolo Cernera’s cinematography, which does effectively capture the stifling intensity of a summer that feels ready to boil over.
The D’Innocenzos, Fabio and Damiano, have one smart motif going for them — childhood as a state of grim watchfulness, with the morally lost adults in their midst oblivious to their roles as examples of what the future holds. But that theme gets lost in the arch malignancy of it all and the abiding scorn the directors have for their doomed figures. (The wives in this scenario are barely visible either; maybe that’s a sociological point about these types of families, but then again, maybe spotlighting toxic dads was more exciting for the filmmakers.)
A few scenes here and there give some of the actors a passing shot at dimensionality — mostly belonging to D’Ambra’s concentratedly acrid sexuality, Germano’s tautly angry Bruno, and a moment of tenderness between lonely Geremia and Viola when forced together in an unusual parent-engineered visit. But as a snapshot of a summer of discontent — critical and clinical — “Bad Tales” is a disappointingly sour display indeed.
In Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Starts June 4, Laemmle Monica Film Center; also at Laemmle Virtual Cinema
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