Dressing for The Dinner

Ivano de Matteo on justice, ethics and adapting Herman Koch.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Dinner (I Nostri Ragazzi) director Ivano de Matteo
The Dinner (I Nostri Ragazzi) director Ivano de Matteo Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Ivano de Matteo philosophised with me, first at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and then at the Barbetta Open Roads: New Italian Cinema lunch, about justice, ethics, adapting Herman Koch's novel with screenwriting partner Valentina Ferlan, and how a switch in lighting can make a subliminal difference.

Massimo Lauri (Alessandro Gassman):"I wanted to create an aseptic, cold environment."
Massimo Lauri (Alessandro Gassman):"I wanted to create an aseptic, cold environment."

I threw Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, a scene from Paolo Virzi's Human Capital (Il Capitale Umano) with Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and the texture of nightmares into the family circle of his film The Dinner (I Nostri Ragazzi).

Alessandro Gassman, Luigi Lo Cascio, Barbora Bobulova, Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Rosabell Laurenti Sellers, and Jacopo Olmi Antinori form a formidable ensemble where each part can shatter the whole.

A man (Adamo Dionisi) completely looses his calm and starts screaming at the driver (Antonio Grosso) in the car next to him for speaking on his cell phone and cutting him off. The rage cannot be stopped by his son Stefano, played by the director's real-life son, Lupo de Matteo, who begs him to end the road rage.

Violence is not necessarily a generational thing in The Dinner. The driver on his cell phone turns out to be a policeman who has a gun he uses when the outraged father gets out of his car and threatens him, swinging a piece of metal. The aggressive man is shot dead, his son severely injured.

Paolo Lauri (Luigi Lo Cascio): "Audiences start rooting for one character and then that slowly changes…"
Paolo Lauri (Luigi Lo Cascio): "Audiences start rooting for one character and then that slowly changes…"

Then gears quickly switch and we get to know the family of the pediatrician, Paolo Lauri (Luigi Lo Cascio), who treats the traumatised, now mute Stefano, and that of his lawyer brother, Massimo Lauri (Alessandro Gassman), who, by chance, is defending the policeman. The brothers and their wives, Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), the doctor's wife, who is an art historian, and Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), the widowed lawyer's second wife, who recently had a baby girl, meet every week at a fancy restaurant, more out of habit and obligation than because they enjoy each other's company.

Paolo and Clara have a 16-year-old son, Michele (Jacopo Olmi Antinori), and Massimo, a daughter of the same age from his first marriage. Benni, short for Benedetta, (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) likes to hang out with her cousin, maybe because he so clearly admires her. They like to watch a violent web series together, where people beat each other up.

The parents, seemingly oblivious to this pastime, are confronted with their own moral core, once a video is broadcast on a television crime investigation program, that shows two shadowy figures beating and kicking a homeless woman into a fatal coma on the dark streets of Rome. Could the two attackers be Michele and Benni? But the teenagers seem so undisturbed, more interested in their cell phones than anything else, as usual.

Benni (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) Michele (Jacopo Olmi Antinori): "Actually, body language is something that I focus on a great deal with my actors."
Benni (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) Michele (Jacopo Olmi Antinori): "Actually, body language is something that I focus on a great deal with my actors."

Ivano de Matteo knows how to begin and how to end his movie with a bang. Both happen in traffic and the scenes get to you in very visceral ways.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Right from the start, your movie puts the audience on high alert.

Ivano de Matteo: It's a film about uncertain certainties. Audiences start rooting for one character and then that slowly changes and they support another character.

AKT: The characters who remain most how we see them at the beginning, are the children.

IdM: Exactly. I kept the kids [Michele and Benni] cold, glacial, because I wasn't interested in why they committed that crime, because they weren't interested in that.

AKT: Which is the most chilling. The way the device they hold is more important than the person they put in a coma.

IdM: Yes, I used the word icy. For me they become integrated in their electronic machinery.

Sofia (Barbora Bobulova): "I changed the light. It's subliminal."
Sofia (Barbora Bobulova): "I changed the light. It's subliminal."

AKT: You made some changes from the novel by Herman Koch. You changed the gender.

IdM: Yes, in the book they were two boys. By having one of them be a girl, the movie becomes stronger. Seeing a girl commit such a crime. And it does happen. And I was interested in the relationship she had with her father.

AKT: The actors you cast to play the children are very good. It's interesting that you chose a guy who has some trouble with his skin and a girl who is perfectly conventionally pretty.

IdM: I chose an actor [Jacopo Olmi Antinori] whom I knew and who was very good. There is some sort of alchemy in cinema - the skin was important for me. And it was important that the girl [Rosabell Laurenti Sellers] be beautiful because it also created the relationship between them. Because of the skin condition he portrays a character who was more closed off, who would look up to his cousin.

AKT: Their respective fathers, the two brothers, are a lawyer and a doctor. Are you also making a statement about these professions?

Massimo Lauri: "Once expectations are disappointed, there is a void that is created…"
Massimo Lauri: "Once expectations are disappointed, there is a void that is created…"

IdM: I also changed the two professions from the novel. I changed that because it is impossible to talk about a politician in Italy. So I picked a lawyer, because he is someone who knows that environment.

AKT: There is the question of justice.

IdM: Ethics and justice. So you have that in the two professions.

AKT: Watching Paolo, the doctor, I couldn't at first think of where I had seen the actor [Luigi Lo Cascio] last. Then it dawned on me. He played the sleazy professor in Paolo Virzi's Human Capital. The transformation was so thorough, that I couldn't put the two together.

IdM: He is a great actor.

AKT: The moral questions you ask in your film reminded me of Rope by Hitchcock. It's the question that one of the characters in The Dinner asks - "How can you live knowing this?"

IdM: I don't really remember seeing Rope. But it's a question I also ask myself. That's why I made this movie. What would I do?

A friendly smile and a Barbour jacket, that alone doesn't make one morally right - Paolo Lauri
A friendly smile and a Barbour jacket, that alone doesn't make one morally right - Paolo Lauri

AKT: The question is asked on two levels. What would I do if my child killed someone? What if I killed someone?

IdM: Maybe it is more difficult to answer the question when it is about the child. I hope I'll never be in that position.

AKT: It's the texture of nightmares. Tell me about the lawyer's apartment. It is a huge white museum, a tomb.

IdM: Yes. I wanted to create an aseptic, cold environment. The brother's home is completely different, much warmer. And then the apartments switch as well. I changed the light. It's subliminal.

AKT: I loved how you show the use of technology by the young people. When we see them with their phones, their expression is dead, glacial, cold. Can you talk a little about your feelings towards technology?

IdM: One of my biggest concerns is the way the new technologies and the internet in particular can certainly be used towards good but they can also be extremely damaging. They can even be devastating to the same extent that drugs were devastating in the 1970s. I think there's a strong analogy between the use and abuse of technology today and the use and abuse of drugs then.

Barbetta garden with the Italian filmmakers
Barbetta garden with the Italian filmmakers Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The body language with technology, the way the bodies are sealed off when they are on their phones, is very pronounced.

IdM: Actually, body language is something that I focus on a great deal with my actors.

AKT: In your film, you clearly play with predictability. Just because someone has a friendly smile and wears a Barbour jacket, that alone doesn't make one morally right. Were you intending to mirror real life or was it heightened, or maybe both? The result to me felt very real.

IdM: I can give you a sort of second rate philosophy. We are talking about a void that is created. Once expectations are disappointed, there is a void that is created as opposed to a certain type of knowledge.

AKT: This is Nabokov with Lolita.

The Dinner: "It's a film about uncertain certainties."
The Dinner: "It's a film about uncertain certainties."

IdM: Good. I am deliberately manipulating the minds of the audience. Yes. And it's fun. I want to make you think this is a good guy and you find out it's a bad guy. Or you think he is a bad guy and you find out he is a good guy. I want to instill doubt. I don't want you to feel so convinced and so secure in your sense that you, the audience member watching this, are a good person. I want to shake you up and tear your mask off.

The last Open Roads screening of The Dinner (I Nostri Ragazzi) is on Tuesday, June 9, 2:00pm.

Open Roads: New Italian Cinema was programmed by Isa Cucinotta and Dennis Lim, Film Society of Lincoln Center, with Istituto Luce Cinecittà in collaboration with the Italian Cultural Institute of New York and support from Antonio Monda; Kim R. Brizzolara; The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation; Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò and the Italian Trade Commission.

The festival runs through June 11 at the Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center.

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