Thursday, June 11, 2015

Review: "Hungry Hearts"

Director: Saverio Costanzo
Runtime: 113 minutes

Parenthood can be a scary thing, but hopefully not as scary as the woes that befall the central young couple in Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts. It also likely won't descend to such stupid depths. Substitute the supernatural elements of Rosemary's Baby for paranoid veganism, and you get the drama at the center of Costanzo's latest film. It's certainly not a bad set up, and the Italian director (adapting Marco Franzoso's novel) gets some solid mileage purely based on the atmosphere. But after a compelling first half, Hungry Hearts degenerates into a series of increasingly idiotic actions and reactions by characters who barely have a single note to play over and over for two hours.

Young couple Jude and Mina (Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher) first meet after getting locked together in a foul-smelling bathroom in Chinatown. They struggle, in vain, to call for help, amused and disgusted by the absurdity of their predicament. Jump forward to the next scene, and they're living together. And then another scene comes by and they're married. And then Mina's pregnant. Costanzo keeps the pace going nicely as he covers these relationship milestones, using them as building blocks before the heft of the narrative arrives. 

Where things change is after Mina gives birth, and insists on keeping the new (and never named) baby boy "pure." That means not going outside, or eating processed foods, or anything derived from animals. While Jude is a vegetarian, Mina is a hardcore vegan, and her intense devotion to her son's diet starts having adverse effects. 

Unfortunately, from this point on, Costanzo's camera work evolves far more than his characters. Jude and Mina's anti-meet-cute unfolds over a single cramped shot. Other early scenes involve long, eye-level close ups. Most of these are reserved for Mina/Rohrwacher, whose face has a constant look of deeply-buried fear. And then, when things really start going down hill, the shots become wider, and Costanzo and cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti break out the fish-eye lens. Some of the later shots feel like rejected material from a David Lynch movie, and not necessarily in a good way.  

Where Hungry Hearts really goes awry is in the behavior of its characters as Mina's paranoia increases. Jude is happy to standby and trust his wife, but even when he starts undermining her orders, he remains a weak-willed pushover. This isn't automatically a bad thing from a writing angle, but given that Jude has absolutely no other characteristics, it leaves his actions looking like those of an idiot. Though he eventually does take some sensible actions, he gives Mina far too many breaks regarding her behavior. Eventually, he sneaks the child out of the house in order to feed him meat, rather than put his foot down and insist to Mina that her parenting method is stunting their son's growth. When Jude's mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) confronts her son during one of these feeding trips, she practically speaks for the audience, asking what the hell Jude is doing.

While Jude is nothing but a concerned pushover, Mina is only allowed to be unhinged and resolute in her paranoia. She insists that she knows what's best, even when her husband gives her evidence to the contrary. Yet even a pushover like Jude shouldn't have trouble standing up to the waif-like Mina. Her determination is disturbing, but not exactly intimidating. If she ever tried to do anything truly crazy, all Jude would have to do is cough on her and she'd probably be knocked off of her feet. Rohrwacher, for what it's worth, does what she can with the more expressive of the lead roles, but she fares better when she only has to act with her face, and not Costanzo's dialogue. I mean this as no slight against the actors themselves, but how Driver and Rohrwacher won the acting prizes at the 2014 Venice FIlm Festival is baffling. 

To his credit, Costanzo manages to sustain the atmosphere from the first half all the way through to the end, but there simply isn't enough beyond that to make Hungry Hearts work. Jude's one dimensional personality only becomes a bigger problem when he tries to separate Mina and the baby, yet still gives her an unreasonable amount of access to visit the child. And Mina's freakish determination to keep her son pure is so clearly nuts in ambition that there's never room to question who's right and who's wrong. Jude and Anne are right, and Mina clearly just needs help. Lots of it. There's no room for nuance or doubt to lend this tale of marital strife a sense of balance or mystery. It's a one note enterprise under the impression that if it keeps playing louder and louder, it'll eventually turn into a melody. 

Grade: C

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