Before seeing Ivano De Matteo’s I nostri ragazzi I’d read that it was based on the best-selling novel Het diner by Herman Koch (2009), which was inspired by actual events which had occurred in Barcelona in 2005 and had already been turned into a film by Menno Meyjes in 2013. I’d forgotten all about that, however, and as I watched I kept being reminded of Michael Haneke’s film Benny’s Video (1992). There was the obvious thematic similarity, for a start. Well-off kids from ‘good’ homes who have everything going for them but commit a horrible crime, and parents who find themselves confronted with a difficult decision: arrange a cover-up and partake of the crime themselves, or risk seeing their children’s lives ruined by one mistake. And it surely can’t be a coincidence that one of the children, Benedetta, was known mostly by her nickname Benny. Well, maybe it was Benni or Bennie, but they all sound the same.
There are still big differences between the two films though, and this one concentrates less on the crime itself than on the changing relationships within and between the families of the two children, and especially between the two brothers who are their fathers.
— SPOILER WARNING !!! —
Important plot details might be revealed beyond this point…
There we see a strange reversal of positions, as Massimo, the ‘unscrupulous’ bourgeois lawyer, finally develops a highly principled attitude to the case of his daughter, while the overworked paediatric surgeon Paolo, who is morally scrupulous, socially engaged and slightly more down to earth and working-class (or at least more informal – he doesn’t like wearing a tie), ends up willing to do whatever is necessary to protect his son from the possibility of prison. I found the transformation of Massimo quite believable, especially following the powerful scene in which he overhears the children talking about what they’ve done, laughing at it and fantasising that they could have gone further. He’s obviously shocked at the discovery of what his daughter’s really like and what sort of monster he’s released into the world, and becomes determined to redeem himself by ‘doing the right thing’. I found the change in Paolo much less convincing, however. Unlike his wife, he’s not willing to simply believe his son’s story but literally forces him to tell the truth, but by the end of the film he’s forgotten all about principles and honesty, and is willing to do anything whatsoever to prevent his son falling into the hands of the law. His exhaustion and irritability seem to play a role, as does the generally strained relationship with his brother, but I didn’t find any of this quite enough to explain his dramatic change of personality. I think the message we’re supposed to get is that none of us know what’s hiding inside us, or how we’ll react in an extreme situation until we’re actually confronted with it, but for me it just didn’t seem realistic.
One interesting point in this film is the way in which Massimo is portrayed as ‘unscrupulous’ because he defends criminals and sometimes succeeds in getting them acquitted. I mean, isn’t that what lawyers are supposed to do? Specifically, in the case which runs in the background of the main story, about the trigger-happy off-duty policeman who kills a guy more or less in self defence and accidentally ends up seriously injuring his young son, Massimo is presented as being immoral and willing to do anything for money. In fact we’re even given the impression that this is how he sees things himself, when the wife and mother of the victims verbally attacks him on the street. Rather than calmly explaining to her that everyone has a right to legal representation and that he’s only doing his job, he retreats into guilty silence and rides off on his scooter. I’d be interested to know how the average Italian sees these things: does a lawyer have to be immoral himself to defend an immoral person?
There are one or two moments in this film where picture and sound are used in interesting ways to express what is happening in the heads of the characters (for instance the scene where the despairing Paolo starts out of focus, and the camera gradually brings him into the picture), but these are few and far between. For the rest this is just another fairly straightforward piece of storytelling: quite well made and quite well acted, but nothing spectacular. There are certainly some powerful moments, but also quite a few weak ones, and what I found weakest of all was the ending. My first impression was that it was dramatic, unexpected and original, but only a few seconds later, when the credits rolled and the lights came on, I was left almost wondering whether the filmmakers had just suddenly run out of money and/or ideas. If we assume that Paolo kills Massimo – which, for me at least, is very strongly implied – then this can only be explained by some sort of temporary insanity, inspired by rage against his brother and a desire to protect his son, which is totally out of character with the person we’ve got to know throughout most of the film. We’ve already seen him change in a way which I, personally, didn’t find totally convincing, and now this change is taken to a further extreme. In other words more than a little o.t.t., and a slightly too quick and easy conclusion to the film.
And to finish by returning to the comparison with Benny’s Video… That film managed, by its absolute everyday normality, to be gruesomely realistic, realistically gruesome, very powerful and a small masterpiece, whereas with this one I could never quite forget that I was sitting in a theatre being told a story. To a great extent it was a very well-told story, but it never really got above that level, which is why, for me, this was a good film but not a masterpiece – not even a small one. But there again, maybe I’m being slightly unfair. Perhaps the main thing Benny’s Video had going for it was the fact that it was made in 1992, when the theme handled in both films was original and the idea that well-brought-up kids could commit horrible acts of violence just for the fun of it was still shocking. I’ll have to watch it again one of these days to find out…
|title||I nostri ragazzi (The Dinner)|
|director||Ivano De Matteo|
|seen||06/02/2015, at the cinema|