The Family Friend Review
While his previous film The Consequences Of Love was almost universally acclaimed, I have to admit to being completely immune to the charms that other viewers found in the Paolo Sorrentino’s stylish Italian thriller. Certainly beautifully filmed, meticulously paced, drenched in mood and tension, the rather banal story of a banker on the run from the mafia who falls fatally for the charms of a younger woman was at heart much too vacuous and superficial for all the overwrought stylisations, ultimately coming across as very silly indeed to my eyes. With a similar story of a rather odd aging man with certain unusual personal habits overreaching his limitations both in the area of his small-time criminal activities and in the area of love for a younger woman, all dressed up in a great deal of stylish cinematography and lighting, it would seem like very little has changed with The Family Friend.
In fact the film appears to start almost exactly where The Consequences Of Love left off, with the striking image of a nun buried up to her neck on a beach, being menaced by two thugs. The thugs it transpires are the Contessa Brothers, the strong arm of a small-time loanshark Geremia de Geremei – a tailor in the town of Agro Pontino. Geremia (Giacomo Rizzo) isn’t a particularly nice person, he’s none too pretty and none too bright (getting most of his learning and philosophy from the Reader’s Digest), but he commands a position of authority in the town since many turn to him for loans. It’s strictly small-scale – dispensing loans of a few thousand Euros to families, couples, old ladies (and apparently even nuns) to pay for weddings, operations and those little emergencies that crop up now and again – but it’s enough to gain the strange little man a certain measure of respect, as well as the title of The Family Friend.
Geremia enjoys the small amount of power the moneylending business confers upon him, but it doesn’t impress Rosalba (Laura Chiatti), the town’s beauty queen. Even though she has no option but to submit to his sleazy advances, on account of his loan paying for her wedding, what Geremia really wants is for the beautiful young girl to love him, but he knows such a thing is not possible. When he is approached however by some businessmen with a proposition that is normally way out of his league he is initially wary, but in love with Rosalba and believing in the power of money, he believes it might bring him the one thing he wants. Like the banker in The Consequences Of Love, idealistic love and the ambition for power and money are again conflated and in the end there is a high price that must be paid.
Despite the rather repugnant and slavering elements of the storyline, Sorrentino manages to keep the film thematically and stylistically coherent - at least within its own little world. The relationship between Geremia and his clients, particularly the women, is one of illusions. In reality the borrowing of money from the horrible little man is humiliating for the families involved, but they allow themselves to see it as an act of charity, even referring to the loanshark as Geremia Heart-of-Gold. Or at least that is what Geremia claims they call him, but the person who is most filled with illusions is the little man himself, particularly in regard to his relationship with Rosalba.
Sorrentino’s elaborate stylisations and superb use of the music score, while they can certainly be occasionally annoying, do at least allow for those illusions to be maintained, though one often thinks that it may be more for the benefit of leading the film audience to believe that there is more to the film than there really is. In the real-world however this is very thin, unconvincing material indeed and somewhat overdressed. The choice of filming locations is quite telling in this respect, using Lazio locations of new towns built on swamps by Mussolini’s government - all elaborate fascist neo-classical architecture that looks beautiful, but in reality is utterly artificial and soulless.
The Family Friend is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format.
Very much a film that relies heavily on its look and feel as well as its soundtrack, it’s disappointing then that the UK release of The Family Friend doesn’t really measure up. It will certainly be more than adequate for most displays, showing a colourful image with few, if any, noticeable marks or dustspots on the print, but progressive or LCD displays will almost certainly reveal its limitations. There is quite a bit of macroblocking evident, particularly in flickering, pulsating backgrounds which can often be distracting, getting quite blocky and resulting in areas of pixilation at times. Cross-colouration, dot-crawl and edge-enhancement may be evident, as well as horizontal analogue-tape tracking lines. Colours are generally fine, but appear to lack full detail and saturation, blacks in particular looking very flat and without depth and skin tones don’t look quite naturalistic. On a CRT display however there is little to find serious fault with - the overall impression of the image that it is only slightly soft.
The DVD has the option of Dolby Digital 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix, but there’s only one choice really, the surround mix being by far the superior option. The stereo mix is certainly adequate, but lacks definition on the high-end, with voices in particular being rather booming. The 5.1 mix certainly has a fuller sound and is better mixed to achieve the full impact of the important sound design. Again though it is not quite perfect, lacking high-end tones.
English subtitles are optional, in a white font.
There are a good and full selection of extra features on the disc. Exclusive to Artificial Eye and perhaps the most interesting feature is the Interview with Paolo Sorrentino (30:53). The director talks about the initial idea, developing the story from the characters themselves, and his method for putting this on the screen, including his collaboration with the director of photography. Rather more problematic was working with the lead actor Giacomo Rizzo who he describes as “the ugliest actor in Italy” and who had great difficulty in understanding his character.
There are several features focussing on the making of the film itself. A Behind The Scenes Documentary (16:37) shows a number of key scenes being shot, more or less in sequence. It makes a lot of use of the soundtrack music, so is quite watchable. Some further scenes are shown in the three Behind the Scenes featurettes, the third of which is more or less an EPK summary of the main documentary.
No less than nine Deleted/Alternative Scenes (15:53) are included, few of which add anything and seem to have been excised just to trim the film down, although there is a little bit more background given on Geremia’s friend Gino and there is a post-credits explanation for Geremia’s broken arm, which is not revealed in the film itself. Each of the scenes is shown in context of where they would appear in the final film. They are non-anamorphic, but the quality is fair. An Alternate Love Scene (5:09) is longer and has some more nudity. The Alternate Ending (6:46) is somewhat darker, but is rather strange and seems to make no sense at all.
The remainder of the extras consist of an anamorphic Italian Trailer (1:43), which is snappy and sexy, a letterboxed UK Trailer (2:07) which makes the film look very much like The Consequences Of Love, a Stills Gallery of 12 promo shots and Filmographies for Paolo Sorrentino, Giacomo Rizzo and Laura Chiatti.
As with his previous film The Consequences Of Love, Paolo Sorrentino can certainly make a film look and sound fabulous, drawing the viewer into a bizarre little world. Thematically strong with a particular misanthropic outlook on human nature, there is certainly more to The Family Friend than mere stylisation, but the psychological underpinning of those themes is ultimately rather weak and unconvincing. Artificial Eye’s DVD release looks fine and is very well supported with extra features, but the transfer may be problematic for display devices sensitive to macroblocking artefacts.