The Family Friend
The Neapolitan writer-director Paolo Sorrentino follows up his sleek Mafia thriller The Consequences of Love with the wonderfully eccentric and unpredictable The Family Friend, which he has described as ‘a dive into humanity and its degeneracy’. Burrowing into the psyche of an elderly, lecherous loan shark Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo), who scuttles around a town built by Mussolini’s fascists in the Agro Pontino region of Italy, the film defies straightforward categorisation - it’s simultaneously a beauty and the beast-style fairytale, a baroque homage to Fellini’s provincial tragi-comedies, and a bizarre con artist drama.
Sorrentino takes a real gamble in The Family Friend by presenting us with such a dislikeable protagonist. Living alone with his invalid mother (Clara Bindi) in a leaking apartment, the physically unattractive Geremia is, in his own words, ‘a pathetic and disgusting person.’ He presents himself to his clients as a generous benefactor, boasting that ‘My last thought will be of you!’ And he relies on his mysterious assistant, the cowboy-hatted Gino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), to ensure that the customers don’t default on their payments. Falling for the stunning young bride-to-be Rosalba (Laura Chiatti), Geremia discovers that those he once trusted are more than capable of betrayal.
Drawing on an eclectic soundtrack, which ranges from Antony and the Johnsons’ superb I Am a Bird Now to Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and Teho Teardo’s discordant cello score, The Family Friend sees Sorrentino and his cinematographer Luca Bigazzi effortlessly blur the boundaries between dreams and ‘reality’, in fact Sorrentino has said that quite often when he was shooting The Family Friend, the actors would ask him, ‘Is this sequence a dream or reality?’ and he didn’t feel the need to clarify the situation. Partly because he didn’t know the answer himself.
‘I have an excessive desire to stylise everything - I want to get closer to painting than to the chaos of reality’, admits Sorrentino, and, true to his word, he arranges his characters in tableaux, in which they are dwarfed by the fascist-era architecture of their surroundings. Boldly enigmatic images predominate throughout The Family Friend - a nun appears buried up to her neck in sand; there’s a shot of an ecstatic-looking female volleyball player lying on a brick-red outdoor court, while the townsfolk carry their own chairs in a nocturnal procession to watch the local beauty contest. A single viewing doesn’t do justice to this film’s strange riches.