The Family Friend

The Family Friend

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Meet Geremia de' Geremei, aka Geremia Heart-of-Gold (Giacomo Rizzo): a septuagenarian tailor with a cynical aphorism (gleaned from Reader's Digest) for every occasion, a headache-prone hypochondriac, an ugly grotesque, a malodorous miser, an appetitive chocoholic, a lecherous pervert, friendless despite a long association with his cowboy business partner Gino (Fabrizio Bentivoglio), and embroiled in a relationship with his bed-ridden mother (Clara Bindi) and his long-absent father that could only be described as Oedipal. And, thanks to a side-line as a ruthless loan shark, Geremia is a very wealthy man indeed - even if he lives with his mother in abject squalor.

In short, Geremia is a monster, or as another of his business associates puts it, "too human" - a hideous figure whose material obsessions place him somewhere between Shakespeare's Shylock and the treasure-hording ogres found in fairytales. Certainly he is the last person you would expect to fall truly, madly, deeply in love with a beautiful young princess like Rosalba (Laura Chiatti), the client's daughter recently crowned Miss Agro Pontino - but one should, as Geremia himself says, "never confuse the improbable with the impossible".

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Paolo Sorrentino's The Family Friend is, like his previous The Consequences Of Love (2004), a portrait of an aging, lonely man unstitched by the unexpected arrival of romance - and, also like The Consequences of Love, it is in in visual terms one of the most exciting films to have emerged from Europe in the last decade.

Sorrentino is often accused of being all style and no substance, but on the contrary his films are carefully built around the contrast between surface appearances and hidden depths. His fluid, perfectly framed images may suggest the glossily aestheticised sheen of a world that excludes all emotional turmoil or thematic resonance; but at the same time his jarringly elliptical narratives, his defiant resistance to generic fixity, and his disorientingly eclectic use of music on the soundtrack, all serve to unwrap the cool packaging, in a film where nothing and no one is quite what they first seem to be.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how the complex of concerns treated by The Family Friend - love and loss, family and money, hope and despair, youth and old age, beauty and ugliness, humanity and bestiality - could be any more substantial. And while the film may be easy on the eye, it will have your brain struggling to keep up with its many convoluted surprises and challenging twists.

Whether it is a slice of grounded realism or a flight of fancy, whether it is comedy, mystery, romance or thriller, from its opening shot of a nun buried up to her neck on sand, to its final note of bittersweet inconclusiveness, The Family Friend is never less than arresting in its manipulation of mood and expectation - and its many strands of absurd hyperreality are all sewn together by Giacomo Rizzo's spectacularly unflattering performance as one of cinema's most improbable, if not quite impossible, heroes.

Essential viewing for the mean-spirited and the broken-hearted.

Reviewed on: 13 Mar 2007
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A world of a miserable old man is turned up side down by the arrival of romance.
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The Consequences Of Love