Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Michele Civetta's début has all the elements of the Gothic in their proper places, with a hint of giallo, but there is simply no narrative glue to hold them together."

New directors often start out with a surfeit of visual ideas, especially if they have chosen to immerse themselves in a specific cinematic tradition, but getting that first feature made often means writing it oneself, and that requires a very different skillset. Michele Civetta's début has all the elements of the Gothic in their proper places, with a hint of giallo, but there is simply no narrative glue to hold them together. A generous critic might attribute the story's lack to cohesion to the gradual disintegration of its heroine's mental state, but the fact is that the problem is there from the start.

That heroine is Isidora (Asia Argento, looking considerably more drawn these days). She's a New Yorker whose life is turned upside down when she learns that her mother, whom she thought had died when she was a child, was in fact alive until very recently, living in a large Italian country house which she now stands to inherit. With husband and daughter in tow, she uproots her busy life and travels there to get to know the place, less interested in the money than in unravelling the secrets of her past. Throughout her life she has been plagued by nightmares. Might she now find the key to understanding and ending them?

The house is magnificent, almost a castle, with a mysterious ruin at the edge of its grounds and, it soon emerges, a dark history. Remarks by the servants and things she sees - including things that might not actually be real - prompt Isidora to recover flashes of memory from her childhood. Has she misunderstood the situation a second time? Did her mother in fact send her away for her own protection? "You're the Marchesa now," says the housekeeper, thrusting a ring onto her finger.

Civetta knows the rules of the genre. He gives us long shadows, peeling paint, a blend of elegance and decay. Argento struts around in a variety of elegant outfits, intermittently clutching her head and expressing the titular agony. When Isidora is plagued by visions, stark colour filters make sure we get the point. Though it may be a bit much for non-Italian audiences, all this works well enough, but what plot there is is far too slender and Civetta doesn't know how to unravel it, relying on long stretches of exposition and demanding from his star a performance which most actors would struggle with and which she is simply not capable of delivering. With nobody else getting very much screen time, the enterprise falls flat just at the point when all that big emotion ought to deliver something.

A dramatic score which enhances the splendour of the setting will thrill those fans of the Gothic who cling most dearly to its maxim of style over substance, but if it's substance that you're looking for, you'll need to find another castle.

Reviewed on: 10 Jun 2021
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A discontented New York family woman called unexpectedly to Tuscany to execute her estranged mother's will. There, she deciphers visions of her forgotten childhood and confronts a terrifying spectre.
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Director: Michele Civetta

Writer: Michele Civetta, Joseph Schuman

Starring: Asia Argento, Jonathan Caouette, Salerno Claudia, Franco Nero

Year: 2020

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: US


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