Anyone who has ever seen even a mildly scary movie knows that, when the choice is presented, you should never go down to the basement. That is probably doubly true for a basement built on a reclaimed marsh. Massimo, the debonair dentist whose increasingly tormented face is in almost every frame of buzzy Venice Film Festival competition entry, America Latina, is in bed with his wife when the bulb in their reading light goes. There are probably new bulbs in the basement, he says. Next morning, he finds time between fillings and bridge work to go down there.
The sight that meets his eyes is so shocking that it is possible — albeit frustrating — to believe that he is incapable of responding in the way any of us imagines we would, that he might even go back upstairs, lock the door and mumble something to his strikingly young wife and teenage daughters about a burst pipe. That there might be a space of traumatized time — a few minutes, say — when he would do nothing.
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Massimo, however, just goes on doing nothing while developing a perpetual, terrified shake and raiding his office for swigs of morphine. His family ask no questions; all three of his household angels are curiously passive, drifting about in floating muslin dresses like so many Victorian ghosts. Meanwhile, we are wondering whether there is really anything down there at all. Maybe his family is also imaginary. Is it possible that he is not even a dentist?
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Twin brothers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo said in an interview with Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that they had made a film “about the crisis of today’s male,” couched as a psychological thriller. Today’s male is constantly falling short of expectations to succeed professionally, domestically and personally, they say. Massimo ostensibly enjoys every trapping of success, but appearances can be deceiving; Elio Germano certainly gives a cracking performance as a man under unbearable pressure, his jaw gradually setting into a rictus of anxiety.
When Massimo visits his father, there is also a broad hint that madness might have been a familial way of life. His wife doesn’t want him to go. “You’re not well when you’re with him,” she murmurs, milky-mild as always. Meanwhile, the directors soup up the atmosphere with stylishly jittery camerawork and lighting that seems to have a life of its own, switching on a sixpence from day to night or suddenly turning an entire scene red.
But so many ambiguities, so much style put to work for such thin content and — avoiding spoilers — the sheer nastiness of what awaits Massimo below stairs, whether in his extraordinary modernist villa or the bottom story of his mind, prove increasingly frustrating. The D’Innocenzo brothers made many more salient points about masculinity in their burlesque about suburban competition, last year’s Bad Tales, in which the male characters were brutish and overbearing.
This is their shot at portraying the kind of man who has never quite hit the macho mark. Sadly, for all their brilliance at building their own off-kilter world, they miss their own target. When it is all over, you stumble out into the light wondering why the burst pipes didn’t affect the household water pressure, whether they really had any spare lightbulbs and what, indeed, it was all about. And why is it called America Latina? Goodness only knows.
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