Bad Tales


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Bad Tales
"The D'Innocenzos let the mood do the heavy lifting, stewing us along with the families." | Photo: Courtesy of Berlinale

The second feature from Italian writing/directing brothers Damiano and Fabio D'Innocenzo takes us to ticking trouble in the rotting heart of Rome's suburbs, where the toxic frustrations of fatherhood are raining down on their youngsters, basting them like turkeys for Christmas. Nothing is straightforward in this narrative as a voice-over (Massimiliano Tortora), accompanied by a series of almost still-life moments, including the whispery twitch of a net curtain, explains how he came to be in possession of a young girl's diary that suddenly stops. "Did she find a better diary or a better life?" he wonders before we're told this is a true story, inspired by a lie.

The scene is set, then, for this playful, if extremely dark, tale - that recalls the tone of US suburbia studies like The Virgin Suicides - and that sees the story flit in episodic fashion between a group of youngsters of a long, hot summer, the narratorial perspective shifting uneasily as we go.

Bruno (Elio Germano) is the sort of thrusting type, who gets his kids to read out their A grades over dinner to impress visitors, while espousing the virtues of shampoo, but who would rather berate his son Dennis (Tommaso di Cola) for choking than help him to stop. Equally appalling in his parenting style to daughter Viola (Guilia Melillo) is Pietro (Max Malatesta), who is little more than untapped rage and sexual frustration in a skin suit. Single dad and wannabe ladies' man Amelio (Gabriel Montesi) seems like a dream in comparison, even if he is more interested in treating his shy son Geremia (Justin Korovkin) more like a party bro than anything else.

Interactions, such as young, heavily pregnant canteen worker Vilma's (Ileana D'Ambra) risque chats with young Dennis or Viola and Geremia's hesitant interactions after her mother brings her out to his place to catch the measles carry both no and much significance depending on your perspective. There is innocence here - one girl's attempt to lose her virginity with Dennis ends in reassuringly naive fashion, for example - but there's also plenty of trouble simmering, if only the parents bothered to look. Although the fragmented nature of the screenplay occasionally feels too sketchy for its own good - particularly in the vague way that the families interlink - the D'Innocenzos let the mood do the heavy lifting, stewing us along with the families, magnifying the more animalistic traits of humanity through sound design that emphasises noises like eating, until the children's stories suddenly emerge as far more connected and troubling than might have first appeared.

The child actors all put in impressive work, bringing nuance to the emotions they're called to express and the directors' refusal to give the older generation any redeeming features even in the face of extreme events feels bracingly true to their characters' failings even if they may also prove a challenge for the viewer.

Reviewed on: 27 Feb 2020
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Trouble brews over a long hot summer on the outskirts of Rome.

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