Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Review: "La Doppia Ora (The Double Hour)"

Used in the right (or wrong) places, a twist can make or break a film. Those sudden shocks, those revelations that transform our perspective of what previously occurred, can take a brilliant film to new heights, temporarily elevate an adequate one, or wreck whatever goodwill was built up prior. Keeping twists a secret is also key. Ads for Neil Jordan's The Crying Game literally advised people, "Don't Let Anyone Tell You the Twist." It's all of this that makes the key twist in Giuseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour so fascinating, and so difficult, to discuss.

Originally released in 2009 in its homeland of Italy, Capotondi's debut received acclaim and scooped up awards for Best Italian Film, and Lead Actor/Actress at the 09 Venice Film Festival. Upon finally landing in the US, it's easy to see what most of the fuss was about. After an abrupt opening in which hotel cleaning woman Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) receives a nasty jolt at work, we're thrown into a speed dating set up. There, the shy Sonia meets the introverted ex-cop Guido (Vincere's Filippo Timi). The two strike up a brief relationship, before chaos and tragedy strike.

Unfortunately, to go into greater detail would spoil the fun of Capotondi's sly little thriller. 'Sly,' to some, that is. If there's one twist worth talking about (without revealing), it's the big one, and it happens smack dab in the middle of the film's 1 hr. 45 min. run time. Why? Because it's so thoroughly disruptive and game-changing, that once the initial shock wears off, it will either keep you further hooked through the film's conclusion, or leave you shaking your head in disappointment. The film's main strength, and therefore its main failing, is how severely the twist is likely to divide viewers. Consider me a member of the twist fan club. While my initial reaction was a mix of shock and "uh oh, did the movie just fly off of the rails?" I've come to appreciate the risk Capotondi took by taking such a big leap. How the twist alters the previous hour or so is significant enough to make detractors see it as an invalidation. I see it as a risk that pays off, in that it brings to life the subtle oddities of the first hour's cinematic construction. The script's level of subtle and overt detailing is impressive. It gives us glimpses, and never defaults to pieces of exposition in anything bigger than bite-size form.

As for other twists, I can't say as much, good or bad. Its elegant construction and careful dispensation of information and twists are reminiscent of Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (2006/08). The film's first half hour almost convinced me that Capotondi was ripping off of Canet's work. And, like Tell No One, I suspect that not all of Capotondi's twists and turns completely hold up to scrutiny. Both are films that, especially in Capotondi's case, succeed because of their directors' abilities to fully immerse the audience and allow them to suspend their senses of disbelief. And whatever its twists may be, the script does deserve credit for balance of character and thrills, and Capotondi, in turn, deserves credit for bringing this facet to life so effectively. The intrigue and tension comes entirely from revelations relayed via dialogue, not from car chases, shoot outs, or hidden bombs. The closest thing the film has to a typical thriller scenario is actually the least engaging part of the story. Capotondi's film is able to transform into a very different sort of film at the halfway point, with surprisingly satisfying results despite an ending that hits too soon.

Lending the film an extra air of believability are the two leads. Now, despite the acclaim, I'm not quite sold on Rappoport and Timi's work here as award worthy. That said, they're certainly intriguing and well-played, Rappoport especially. But this is a film where characters come second to plot construction. The leads emote with conviction and restraint, but as written Sonia and Guido aren't quite as deep as Capotondi and the writers would like us to believe. Some have labeled the film as a film about loss and redemption disguised as a thriller; I'm tempted to say it's the reverse. Its lack of more traditional thrills, not to mention the back story that unfolds throughout, suggests a slightly lightweight drama about loss and redemption that gains its heft by adding a heavy dose of twisty narrative structure.

In the end, none of this is entirely a bad thing. Like Joe Wright's Hanna, or the aforementioned Tell No One, the eventual victory of style (and story) over substance actually works in the film's favor. It doesn't mean that there aren't flaws, and it doesn't mean that the film shouldn't have aspired higher. What it means is that style (namely some brief-but-killer first person and rack focus work) over substance doesn't have to be a bad thing. Sure, The Double Hour could have been a full-fledged meditation on coping with the past and present, but that would have robbed it of its ability to truly thrill, despite richer characterization and stronger performances. By melding the two, and leaning in favor of mystery/thriller elements, The Double Hour is able to posses an elegantly quiet and somber air, all while trapping viewers who succumb to its wiles in a dizzying story. In embracing the elements of both sides at this particular balance, Capotondi's debut entertains without feeling ludicrous or silly (as opposed to, say, Fast Five), even if parts of it may very well be those things deep down.

Grade: B/B+

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