‘America Latina’ Review: Italy’s D’Innocenzo Brothers Are Guilty of Empty Posturing in This Pretty, Muddled Puzzle

It’s been a while since Italian cinema has raised a major enfant terrible, but the country’s film industry firmly believes it has a pair in twin brothers Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo. Hot off a co-writing credit on Matteo Garrone’s “Dogman,” the duo (billed onscreen as The D’Innocenzo Brothers) made a splash and won a prize at last year’s Berlinale with their sophomore feature, the sleek, bleak, nihilistic suburban nightmare “Bad Tales.” Its themes were pretty well-worn, but its darkly chic styling was arresting enough to ensure plenty of chatter trailing their swiftly delivered third film “America Latina.”

Sadly, the hype is unfulfilled by this minor, tricked-out study of extreme midlife crisis, which shows little advancement in the brothers’ storytelling instincts, while underlining their knack for surly mood-building and elegantly sinister imagery. If anything, its thin, oblique blend of arch character study, dreamlike psychodrama and spindly mystery is less cohesive than “Bad Tales.” “America Latina” may frequently look and sound terrific, but a Ferrari spinning its wheels is spinning its wheels just the same: It’s hard to see much of a hook here for international distributors once the glow of the film’s Venice competition premiere wears off, but the sense that the twins could yet wow us remains.

Lest the film’s perplexing title have you thinking these eminently Italian directors have hopped across the Atlantic, “America Latina” finds the D’Innocenzos returning to “Bad Tales” terrain: the swampy, featureless suburban outskirts of Rome, their home city. Latina, it turns out, is an undistinguished satellite town 40 miles from the capital, and it’s where wealthy dentist Massimo (Elio Germano, returning after “Bad Tales”) has built a life of luxury perched above squalor. Where the “America” comes in is less obvious. Perhaps it refers to the capitalist ideal — the American dream, exported — that Massimo and his beautiful nuclear family appear to embody with a pronounced Italian accent. Perhaps it’s an allusion to the manifold American influences, from pulp noir to David Lynch, on the brothers’ latest. There’s an awful lot of “perhaps” in “America Latina.”

If Latina seems an uninviting setting, a series of gliding car-view shots over the opening credits eventually prove the worth of Massimo’s decision to settle there. A pretzel of scabby highways and exits finally curves into the long driveway of his rather magnificent house: an angular modernist beauty, all floating curves and sun-bleached terrazzo, that nonetheless has a telling air of decay to it. The external walls are cracked and weather-marked; the small, fin-shaped swimming pool has turned a citrusy green. Nevertheless, Massimo appears to live a comfortable life there with his servile wife Alessandra (Astrid Casali) and their two daughters (Carlotta Gamba and Federica Pala), both mini-mes of their mother, clad like her in identical pale, fluttery dresses.

If “The Shining” comes fleetingly to mind, that’s probably no accident. For Massimo’s serenely bourgeois, if somewhat creepy, domestic idyll is soon shattered by an unwelcome discovery in the cellar — a young, unidentified girl (Sara Ciocca), gagged, beaten and bound to a pillar, who issues a feral, ceaseless scream when he undoes her gag. Massimo neither frees her nor notifies anyone — even his family — of her presence as he attempts to figure out how she got there. His genial relationship with local drinking buddy Simone (Maurizio Lastrico) takes a sour, wary turn, though his suspicions should probably turn inward, as “America Latina” drifts into vague reality-versus-delusion limbo: This is the kind of film where the protagonist does a Google search for “hallucinations,” just in case we weren’t sure.

The more blurry ambiguity the film builds around questions of what happened to who, why and when, the less interested we become in specific answers, since they all plainly fall under the broader thematic pull of Massimo’s midlife ennui. Despite Germano’s clenched, committed performance, Massimo never emerges as a particularly compelling character. Rather, he’s a handsomely sculpted symbol of all the social ills that “America Latina” only glancingly addresses in the first place.

There’s little about the film that isn’t handsomely sculpted, as it happens, from the splintery editing to the needling score by Italian rock band Verdena, with its occasional swarms of bristling static. Photographers before they were filmmakers, the D’Innocenzos and cinematographer Paolo Carnera know their way around making an image that stops you in your tracks, even if it stops the film in its tracks too: One lovingly extended shot of Massimo in the shower at night, water somehow whooshing sideways and turning near-fluorescent, makes you pause first over its beauty, and then over what it might remotely be suggesting — beyond, well, that very beauty again.

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