Review: ‘A Haunting in Venice,’ starring Kenneth Branagh, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Tina Fey, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly and Michelle Yeoh

September 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Tina Fey, Michelle Yeoh and Kenneth Branagh in “A Haunting in Venice” (Photo by Rob Youngson/20th Century Studios)

“A Haunting in Venice”

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Some language in Italian and Latin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1947, in Venice, Italy, the horror film “A Haunting in Venice” (based on Agatha Christie’s novel “Hallowe’en Party”) features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Famous and super-intelligent Belgian detective Hercule Poirot comes out of retirement to solve the murder of someone who died a gruesome death during a Halloween party séance. 

Culture Audience: “A Haunting in Venice” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Agatha Christie novels, the movie’s headliners, and competently told murder mysteries with supernatural elements.

Rowan Robinson and Kelly Reilly in in “A Haunting in Venice” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“A Haunting in Venice” is another efficient but not exceptional offering in director/star Kenneth Branagh’s star-studded series of murder mystery films based on Agatha Christie novels. This horror movie delivers enough intrigue to outweigh some motonony. The other Branagh-directed movies adapted from Christie novels were dramas with no supernatural elements to the stories. “A Haunting in Venice” is a ghost story that makes famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh) question his belief that ghosts don’t exist.

As the third film in a series of Hercule Poirot movies directed by Branagh, “A Haunting in Venice” is the one that is literally the darkest, not just in terms of the cinematography but also in its emotional tone. The previous two Branagh-directed Hercule Poirot movies—2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express” and 2022’s “Death on the Nile”—contrasted their glamorous locations with the ugly realities of murder among rich and beautiful people. In “A Haunting in Venice,” Detective Poirot and his group of potential suspects not only have to deal with the murder investigation but also the possibility that a ghost might be in their midst, in a gloomy palazzo that has lost a lot of its former attractiveness.

Michael Green adapted the screenplay for “A Haunting in Venice” from Christie’s 1969 novel “Hallowe’en Party.” The movie (which takes place in 1947 and was filmed on location in Venice, Italy) has some touches of comedic riffs between a few of the characters. But for the most part, it’s a pure horror story, with multiple scenes of possible spirits possessing and terrifying living human beings. The ever-logical and fact-finding Hercule remains deeply skeptical about the existence of ghosts, until he starts to wonder if he might be wrong.

In the beginning of “Haunting in Venice,” Hercule is enjoying his retirement asa resident of Venice, a city surrounded by water and where boats, not trains or buses, are the main form of group transportation. Hercule meets up with his sarcastic American friend Ariadne Oliver (played by Tina Fey), an author of mystery novels whose career has been fading because of her most recent books have flopped. It’s established early on that Ariadne is desperate for a comeback, even though she doesn’t really want to admit it to everyone.

The friendship between Ariadne and Hercule goes back to the 1930s. And it hasn’t been an entirely smooth relationship. Ariadne became a popular author because she based her main detective character on Hercule, without asking his permission. It’s caused some tension between Ariadne and Hercule.

Ariadne has a plan to make a comeback by writing a book with a new angle: Ariadne wants the main plot of her next book to be based on a real-life person who can leave Hercule confounded during a murder investigation. She has already decided that the person who can outwit Hercule is someone who has been making a living as a renowned psychic: Joyce Reynolds (played by Michelle Yeoh), who claims to have the ability to speak to the spirits of dead people.

Ariadne tells Hercule about a lavish nighttime Halloween party that retired British opera singer Rowena Drake (played by Kelly Reilly) is hosting for local orphaned children at Rowena’s palazzo, which used to be an orphanage where children were mistreated. The palazzo isn’t entirely run-down, but it’s not exactly in the best of shape. In fact, it has a reputation for possibly being haunted by children who died at this location.

Ariadne has been invited to this party and wants to bring Hercule as her guest. Ariadne is up front with Hercule in saying that she’s not going to the party because of the orphans. Ariadne wants to go to the party because Rowena will be having a séance where single mother Rowena hopes to contact the spirit of her young adult daughter Alicia Drake (played by Rowan Robinson, shown in flashbacks), who died one year ago, after falling from a balcony at the palazzo. The fall is widely believed to have been a suicide, since Alicia had been depressed and dealing with other mental health issues after a breakup from her fiancé.

Joyce has been hired to be the psychic who will lead the séance. Ariadne wants to use what happens at the séance as the basis for Ariadne’s next book. Hercule doesn’t believe in the afterlife. He thinks it’s utter nonsense to believe that ghosts exist. Ariadne is very superstitious and thinks ghosts can exist. Part of Ariadne’s agenda is to get Hercule to change his mind.

Needless to say, someone ends up being murdered at the party, and Hercule ends his retirement to investigate the murder. The death happens when this murder victim is thrown from a stairwell onto a statue that impales the person. As shown in the trailer for “A Haunting in Venice,” Hercule almost gets murdered himself, when someone tries to drown him by forcing his head underwater in a bucket meant for bobbing for apples. And viewers will not be surprised if more than one person ends up dead by the end of “A Haunting in Venice.”

Some viewers might ask themselves while watching the movie: “What kind of person throws a séance during a party for children?” It’s explained that Rowena has been distraught with grief, ever since the death of her only child, Alicia. Rowena’s relationship with Alicia is described as more like sisters rather than mother/daughter. She was also very protective of Alicia.

The children are in another part of the palazzo during the séance, but things start to get dangerous when a huge chandelier falls down in the middle of a room where some of the children are. Luckily, no one is hurt. The party for the orphans essentially ends, but the séance continues, with one child in attendance who is not an orphan: Leopold Ferrier (played by Jude Hill) is the precocious 10-year-old son of widower Dr. Leslie Ferrier (played by Jamie Dornan), who is the Drake family’s personal physician. (Dornan and Hill also played a father and a son in director Branagh’s autobiographical Oscar-winning 2021 film “Belfast.”)

Dr. Ferrier is also a World War II veteran who has post-traumatic stress disorder, which has damaged his career and negatively affected his relationship with his son. Leopold and his father are both British. Multiple times in the movie, it’s mentioned that Dr. Ferrier was very fond of Alicia. The implication is that he was in love with her, but he did not cross the line and kept a professional relationship that a doctor has to have with a patient.

Leopold is the only child who is allowed to be at the séance. Why? The movie shows that Leopold’s father has been so wrapped up in his own problems, Leopold often doesn’t have much adult supervision. Leopold is not afraid to tell adults how he thinks he knows more than they do. At one point he says to psychic Louisa: “I talk to ghosts all the time. They say you’re fake.” In other words, Ariadne isn’t the only one in this group with a sassy attitude.

Louisa is also a diva, but she’s much more of a control freak than Ariadne. It should come as no surprise that she clashes with Hercule, who thinks people who make money as psychics are really con artists. However, Louisa (who used to be a war nurse) and Hercule have something in common: They both experienced trauma by witnessing the horrors of war during World War I. Flashback scenes in “Death on the Nile” showed glimpses into Hercule’s war experiences.

It wouldn’t be a movie based on a Christie novel without several murder suspects. After the first murder happens, Hercule orders everyone to stay in the mansion until he solves the murder mystery. One of the people confined to the house is Olga Seminoff (played by Camille Cottin), the Drake family’s devoted housekeeper. Olga is a very religious widow who used to be a nun, but she left her nun life behind when she fell in love with her future husband. Olga, who often speaks in Latin, is very open about her feelings that the séance is religiously wrong, because it’s meant to conjure up the spirit of a dead person.

Other suspects include Joyce’s two assistants: Nicholas Holland (played by Ali Khan) and his sister Desdemona Holland (played by Emma Laird), who are two orphaned young adults from Eastern Europe. Nicholas and Desdemona don’t say a lot and often seem to fade into the background, but their personal history is eventually revealed. Hercule already thinks that Louisa is a fraud as a clairvoyant, so he suspects that Nicholas and Desdemona are at least guilty of being Louisa’s accomplices in a con game.

A surprise and unwelcome guest at this séance is Alicia’s former fiancé Maxime Gerard (played by Kyle Allen), a cocky American chef from New York City. Even before Alicia’s death, Rowena intensely disliked Maxime, because she felt that Maxime was a gold digger who was after the Drake family fortune. Rowena blames Maxime for breaking Alicia’s heart and indirectly causing Alicia’s death. Maxime, who claims his love for Alicia was real, announces during this gathering that he’s going to be rich because he’s got his own restaurant in New York City.

No one is immune to being a suspect, not even Vitale Portfoglio (played by Richard Scamarcio), a retired policeman who is now Hercule’s bodyguard. A police officer who becomes part of the investigation is Vincenzo Di Stefano (played by Fernando Piloni), who was also on the scene after Alicia died. Hercule becomes convinced that Alicia’s death is somehow related to the murder that happened during this party.

“A Haunting in Venice” has lot of the traditional “jump scares” found in movies where a séance takes place in a mansion with a reputation for being haunted. What’s more interesting is to see the psychological effect that these “ghost sightings” have on Hercule, who is the biggest ghost skeptic in the group. He starts to wonder if he’s hallucinating, which shakes his confidence about his mental capacity to logically solve the crimes that have occurred during this gathering.

Branagh has a comfortable handle on this beloved and quirky detective character, so watching “A Haunting in Venice” is interesting to see this new side to Hercule. Yeoh has a very commanding and impressive presence as Joyce, who thinks she’s the best psychic in the world. Reilly’s performance as the emotionally fragile Rowena remains compelling throughout the film.

Fey puts her comedic talent to good use in her performance as Ariadne, who isn’t as sour and annoying as this author character could have been, because of the way that Fey delivers the lines. Hill is a scene stealer as Leopold, while Allen’s depiction of Maxime and Dornan’s portrayal of Leslie show different versions of emotionally wounded men. The rest of the characters in the movie are fairly two-dimensional and don’t have much depth.

The cinematography of “A Haunting in Venice” (which takes place mostly at night) is bathed in a lot dark gold and brown for interior scenes and dark blue for the nighttime exterior scenes. Because most of the movie takes place inside a house, viewers won’t get to see much of Venice’s outdoor beauty, but when it’s shown, it looks gorgeous. The production design is top-notch. Branagh’s overall direction is quite stylish but occasionally stodgy.

As for the mystery itself, there comes a point in the movie where it might be easy for some viewers to figure out who’s guilty of the crimes. People who know enough about murder mystery stories know that the best ones have surprising elements, even when there are clues that point to the guilty party. Whether or not viewers solve the mystery before the movie ends, “A Haunting in Venice” remains an entertaining journey along the way and should satisfy people who are fans of Christie’s classic novels.

20th Century Studios will release “A Haunting in Venice” in U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023.

Review: ‘The Equalizer 3,’ starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning and David Denman

August 29, 2023

by Carla Hay

Denzel Washington in “The Equalizer 3” (Photo by Stefano Montesi/Columbia Pictures)

“The Equalizer 3”

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities in Italy, the action film “The Equalizer” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Vigilante crusader Robert McCall does battle against Mafia gangsters in Italy, as he crosses paths with a U.S. DIA (Defense Intelligence Agency) official, who is on the trail of drug-smuggling terrorists.

Culture Audience: “The Equalizer 3” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Denzel Washington and “The Equalizer” movie franchise, but “The Equalizer 3” is blandly predictable and doesn’t offer anything innovative to the franchise.

Giorgio Antonini and Andrea Scarduzio in “The Equalizer 3” (Photo by Stefano Montesi/Columbia Pictures)

Even with the acting talent of star Denzel Washington, “The Equalizer 3” is a soulless, formulaic and often idiotic action flick about the protagonist fighting Mafia gangsters in Italy. It’s easily the worst movie of this franchise. New characters are introduced but are barely developed. The movie’s “plot reveal” is not surprising at all.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua and written by Richard Wenk, “The Equalizer 3” is the follow-up to 2014’s “The Equalizer” and 2018’s “The Equalizer 2,” which were also directed by Fuqua and written by Wenk. All of these movies are inspired by “The Equalizer” TV series, which starred Edward Woodward and was on the air from 1985 to 1989. The lazy screenplay of “The Equalizer 3” is the weakest link in the movie.

“The Equalizer 3” is the type of mindless story that’s in a low-quality action flick, but “The Equalizer” has the high budget of a major studio movie. In other words, “The Equalizer 3” looks slick, and it has the star appeal of Washington, but it’s ultimately a very hollow movie with a basic plot that’s been seen and done many times before in other action movies where the “hero” fights gangsters. Just because “The Equalizer 3” changed the story’s location to Italy (the first two “Equalizer” movies took place in Boston) doesn’t mean that “The Equalizer” has anything new and interesting to say.

The opening scene of “The Equalizer” takes place in Sicily, Italy, and shows a crime lord named Lorenzo Vitale (played by Bruno Bilotta) driving himself and his unnamed grandson (played by Adriano Sabrie) in a Land Rover to a house in a fairly secluded area. While his grandson (who’s about 11 or 12 years old) waits in the car, Lorenzo is greeted by an armed security guard, who shows Lorenzo the massacre that took place inside the house. The bloodied bodies of about eight or nine men are shown in various places throughout the house.

In one of the house’s rooms, the man who caused this massacre is being held at gunpoint by two thugs. This vigilante is a loner named Robert McCall (played by Washington), a former U.S. Marine and a former U.S. Defense Intelligency Agency (DIA) official, who is based in Boston and currently makes a living in working-class jobs. (Robert worked at a hardware store in “The Equalizer” and as a Lyft driver in “The Equalizer 2.”) Robert’s skills as a former government assassin come in handy when he goes on his vigilante missions.

What is Robert doing in Italy? And what does he have against Lorenzo? Robert snarls to Lorenzo: “You took something that didn’t belong to you. I’m here to take it back.” Through some highly implausible fight tactics, Robert then proceeds to kill everyone in the house. Most of the murder scenes in “The Equalizer 3” are very graphic and seem to revel in the violence. For example, when Robert murders everyone in the house, he shoots a man through the eye so that the bullets can shoot another man.

Robert thinks he can make an easy getaway, but he doesn’t know until it’s too late that Lorenzo’s grandson is outside. Lorenzo’s grandson has a shotgun that he uses to shoot Robert, who fires his gun in the air. This gunfire scares the boy, who runs away. Robert soon finds out he’s been shot in the back. Robert is able to get in his car before he starts to lose consciousness.

Robert is found unconscious in his car and rescued by a local man, who brings Robert to a doctor named Enzo Arisio (played by Remo Girone), who performs surgery on Robert in Enzo’s home. Why didn’t Enzo take Robert to a doctor or contact police? Enzo lives in an area that is ruled by the Mafia, so he knows that when a stranger with a gunshot wound is in the area, there’s a good chance it has something to do with the Mafia.

Enzo asks Robert what his name is, and Robert says his name is Roberto. Enzo then asks Robert if he is a good man or a bad man. Robert says that he doesn’t know. Enzo doesn’t ask any more questions and decides to let Robert stay in Enzo’s house while Robert recovers from his injuries and surgery. Enzo tells Robert that Robert is lucky that he was shot with a .22 caliber bullet instead of a more high-impact bullet.

After the fight/killing scene in the beginning of “The Equalizer 3,” not much happens in the movie for the next 20 minutes. Robert is seen walking around with a cane, as he gets to know Enzo and some of the other local people. Eventually, Robert no longer has to use a cane. For someone who was shot in his back, Robert makes a remarkably quick recovery. The movie doesn’t bother to show Robert go through any realistic physical therapy.

Robert becomes friendly with a generous and amiable restaurateur named Angelo (played by Daniele Perrone), whose employees include a cook in his late teens or early 20s named Khalid (played by Zakaria Hamz) and a server in her 30s named Aminah (played by Gaia Scodellaro), who shows a semi-romantic interest in bachelor Robert. Aminah literally doesn’t do much in this movie but smile a lot, work in the restaurant, and show Robert some of her favorite food places in the area. Aminah’s presence in the movie has no effect on the overall plot.

There aren’t many female characters with speaking roles in “The Equalizer 3.” The female characters who speak are only in this movie to react to whatever the men do. There are many superficial male characters in “The Equalizer 3,” but at least they are given more to do and have more action-oriented roles. The women in “The Equalizer 3” who have the most dialogue in the movie all look like overly polished and attractive actresses instead of looking more realistic for their roles.

Angelo owes money to local gangsters who are led by the ruthless Vincent Quaranta (played by Andrea Scarduzio), a not-very-interesting stereotype of a Mafia leader. Vincent has his equally sadistic younger brother Marco Quaranta (played by Andrea Dodero) do a lot of the dirty work for the gang. All the gangsters except Vincent and Marco are generic with forgettable dialogue. There’s also a Mafia cartel called the Camorra crime family that figures into the plot.

During his stay in Italy, Robert makes a phone call to DIA official Emma Collins (played by Dakota Fanning) at her headquarters in the United States. Emma is later revealed to have a connection to people whom Robert knew in his past. (This connection is fairly easy to predict.)

Robert passes along an “anonymous” tip to Emma about drug smuggling of synthetic amphetamines in Italy. Emma is immediately able to trace the call and find out who made the call. And it isn’t long before Emma arrives in Italy and makes contact with Robert. Emma’s supervisor Frank Conroy (played by David Denman) occasionally shows up to give orders.

“The Equalizer” takes place in various locations in Italy, including Sicily, Rome and Naples. There’s some moronic mush in the plot about the connection between the drug smuggling and terrorism. But that potentially intriguing story is just a backdrop to the movie’s ultra-violent but ultimately quite tedious scenes involving fighting, torturing and killing. No one is expecting “The Equalizer 3” to be award-worthy, but this shallow movie really insults the intelligence of viewers on the most basic levels, with its dull ripoff ideas, far-fetched scenarios and stupid dialogue.

A local police marshal named Gio Bonucci (played by Eugenio Mastrandrea), his wife Chiara Bonucci (played by Sonia Ben Ammar) and their daughter Gabriella “Gabby” Bonucci (played by Dea Lanzaro) are among the targets for the gangster violence. The local police, led by Police Chief Barella (played by Adolfo Margiotta), might or might not be trustworthy, depending on their level of ethics or corruption. All of these supporting characters are either very underdeveloped or are cartoonish caricatures.

“The Equalizer 3” is the type of idiotic movie where the villain in charge could easily kill the “hero” in the middle of a violent fight scene, but instead the villain just glares and makes threats with a weapon in his hand. There are some overly choreographed fight scenes that might impress some viewers, but it all just looks so phony. Washington’s charisma is mostly muted in “The Equalizer 3,” which makes Robert into nothing more than the type of two-dimensional character that might be in a video game. “The Equalizer 3” has some lovely aerial shots of Italy’s landscape, but the ugly truth is that “The Equalizer” is too much of a disappointing slog of missed opportunities to be a genuinely unique and exciting action film.

Columbia Pictures will release “The Equalizer 3” in U.S. cinemas on September 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Dead Girls Dancing,’ starring Luna Jordan, Noemi Liv Nicolaisen, Katharina Stark and Sara Giannelli

June 17, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left: Luna Jordan, Noemi Liv Nicolaisen and Katharina Stark in “Dead Girls Dancing” (Photo courtesy of Kalekone Films)

“Dead Girls Dancing”

Directed by Anna Roller

German and Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2021, in Germany and in Italy, the dramatic film “Dead Girls Dancing” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Three German female friends, who are all recent graduates of high school, go on a road trip to Italy, where they meet a rebellious teenager, and get up to some mischief with her. 

Culture Audience: “Dead Girls Dancing” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in female-oriented coming-of-age stories that explore teenage rebellion and sexuality.

“Dead Girls Dancing” is an uneven but well-acted drama about teenagers on a road trip that’s more than what it first appears to be. It’s also a journey of a closeted queer teenager who’s taking tentative steps out of the closet and yearning to connect with someone with whom she can be her true self. The movie has a meandering quality that sometimes drags down the pace. However, the deeper meaning behind the story becomes very apparent in the last 20 minutes of film, where there’s an emotional powerful moment that’s at the heart of the story. “Dead Girls Dancing” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Festival in New York City.

Written and directed by Anna Roller, “Dead Girls Dancing” takes place in 2021. The movie’s opening scene shows a montage of German high school students taking their class pictures for their last year in high school. (The cities where this movie takes place are never mentioned.)

Most of the teens smile or make goofy faces for the camera, except for 18-year-old Ira Noe (played by Luna Jordan), who stares solemnly at the camera while her photo is being taken. Ira, who is a quiet introvert, has an air of sadness about her. As time goes on, observant viewers will notice that Ira’s tendency to be withdrawn probably has a lot to do with her being a closeted queer woman.

Ira isn’t a compete loner. Her two best friends are also in the same graduating class. Ka (played by Noemi Liv Nicolaisen) is a talkative and extroverted blonde who is the most rebellious of the trio. Malin (played by Katharina Stark) is fun-loving and is more attuned to what Ira might be feeling emotionally. After they graduate from high school, the three teenage pals decide to take a road trip through Italy, using a car owned by Malin’s father.

“Dead Girls Dancing” is mainly about this road trip and how it changes the lives of Ira, Ka, Malin and another teenager close to their age whom they meet in Italy. After a long day of driving, the trio stops at a hostel (the closest lodging for miles) to get a room. But to their disappointment, there are no rooms available at the hostel.

Outside the building, there’s a teenage woman who has her own room. Ira, Ka and Malin all need to use a restroom, so Ira approaches this stranger to explain the situation and to ask her the unusual request for all three of them to use her hostel restroom. The stranger introduces herself as Zoe (played by Sara Giannelli) and agrees to this request in a friendly manner. Zoe says she is an orphan who has been on her own “for a while.”

After Zoe invites Ira, Ka and Malin into her room, they all form an instant rapport. Ira’s attraction to Zoe indicates that she hopes that Zoe could become more than a friend, but Ira is too shy to make the first move. The four teens get caught smoking marijuana in the room by the hostel manager. Before they can be thrown out, Zoe impulsively decides to take off (without paying her hostel bill) with her three new acquaintances and join them on the road trip.

But a major problem occurs when the car breaks down in a remote area. The insurance company for the car says that the company won’t be able to send mechanic help in the area for the next 48 hours. In the meantime, Ira, Ka, Malin and Zoe walk to the nearest village, which is completely deserted because it has been evacuated due to impending wildfires. The rest of “Dead Girls Dancing” shows what happens when these four teens are left to their own devices in this temporarily abandoned village.

Not surprisingly, something else goes very wrong besides a car malfunctioning. Unfortunately, the middle section of the movie gets repetitive with scenes of the four teens goofing off and partying in the deserted village, including getting drunk in an abandoned church. But these party scenes also show the undercurrent of attraction that Ira has for Zoe, who senses Ira’s attraction and flirts with her.

“Dead Girls Dancing” doesn’t really get interesting until something else goes wrong on the trip. It’s the catalyst for all of the teens, especially Ira, to have a reckoning with who they are and what type of moral character they have. The potential relationship between Ira and Zoe is also affected.

Jordan’s nuanced performance as a sexually repressed queer woman succeeds in filmmaker Roller’s intention for it to be the standout performance of “Dead Girls Dancing,” which has effective cinematography from Felix Pflieger. There’s a scene showing Ira going through a quiet devastation that is the defining moment of the movie. Viewers who have the patience to watch a somewhat disjointed and rambling film will find these authentically portrayed scenes as a worthwhile reason to watch “Dead Girls Dancing.”

Review: ‘The Pope’s Exorcist,’ starring Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto, Alex Essoe and Franco Nero

April 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Daniel Zovatto and Russell Crowe in “The Pope’s Exorcist” (Photo by Jonathan Hession/Screen Gems)

“The Pope’s Exorcist”

Directed by Julius Avery

Some language in Italian, Spanish and Latin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1987, in Italy and in Spain, the horror film “The Pope’s Exorcist” (based on a real person) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Catholic priest Gabriele Amorth defies a cardinal’s orders not to perform exorcisms, and the priest is sent by the Pope to do an exorcism on a boy at an abbey in Spain that has a connection to the priest’s past. 

Culture Audience: “The Pope’s Exorcist” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Russell Crowe and exorcism horror movies, but the movie’s frequently ludicrous plot and oddly placed comedy make it a substandard horror flick.

Pictured clockwise, from upper left: Peter DeSouza-Feighoney, Russell Crowe, Daniel Zovatto and Alex Essoe in “The Pope’s Exorcist” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

In “The Pope’s Exorcist,” Russell Crowe hams it up as an Italian priest who performs exorcisms. But the jokes aren’t funny enough to make “The Pope’s Exorcist” a comedy, and the exorcisms aren’t scary enough to make it an effective horror movie. It’s just a loud and incoherent mess. The demon-fighting, alcohol-guzzling priest portrayed by Crowe comes across more like a drunk who’s a failed stand-up comedian than a formidable clergy person who is skilled at exorcism.

Directed by Julius Avery, “The Pope’s Exorcist” clearly wanted to make the movie’s title chararacter someone who isn’t a typical exorcist. But all the mediocre and often-cheesy jokes in the film just undermine the scenes that are supposed to be deadly serious. It’s a movie that tries to be amusing and terrifying and ultimately fails at being either or both. Michael Petroni and Evan Spiliotopoulos wrote the disjointed screenplay for “The Pope’s Exorcist.” The screenplay is based on 1990’s “An Exorcist Tells His Story” and 1992’s “An Exorcist: More Stories,” two of the memoirs of real-life controversial Catholic priest Gabriel Amorthe, who was the official exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, from 1986 to 2016. Amorthe died in 2016, at the age of 91.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” opens with a scene taking place in June 1987, when Father Gabriele Amorth (played by Crowe) visits a family at a farmhouse in Tropea, Italy, in order to perform an exorcism. (“The Pope’s Exorcist” was actually filmed in Ireland.) Father Amorth is accompanied by an assistant named Father Gianni (played by Alessandro Gruttadauria), who mostly just stands by while Father Amorth does the talking and exorcism rituals. The family has a son in his late teens named Enzo (played by River Hawkins), whom they think is possessed by the devil.

When Father Amorth and Father Gianni arrive at the farmhouse, Father Amorth saunters in and takes his time before he gets around to attending to the hissing and convulsing Enzo, who’s in a nearby bedroom. Father Amorth barely says anything to terrified parents Carlos (played by Jordi Collet) and Adella (played by Carrie Munro), who don’t say much to him either. Instead, Father Amorth zeroes in on the couple’s unnamed daughter (played by Laila Barwick), who’s about 7 or 8 years old.

Father Amorth asks the girl if she knows any prayers. She says she knows the Lord’s Prayer. Father Amorth tells her that she needs to keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer during the exorcism. The first thing that might go through some viewers’ minds is, “Why would a priest require a child this young to be involved in something this disturbing and possibly dangerous?” Most parents also wouldn’t want to put their child through the trauma of watching an exorcism.

But “The Pope’s Exorcist” wouldn’t exist if people acted realisitically in the movie. Even in the movie’s context of religious faith being more important than facts, too many people do things that look mindless and illogical. At any rate, the exorcism of Enzo looks like an unintentional parody of exorcisms, with the usual snarls and body contortions that are always seen in these types of movies. The expected “demon voice” is heard also coming from the possessed teen.

When Father Amorth asks the demon what its name is, demon replies: “I am Legion. I am Satan.” (The acting in this scene is horrendous.) Father Amorth than taunts the demon by saying if the demon is so powerful, the demon should be able to possess anyone in the room.

And what does the demon choose to do? The demon takes possession of an unlucky wild boar that’s in the room. Carlos quickly shoots the boar. The demon miraculously goes away. Enzo is no longer possessed. And that’s the end of that exorcism. Father Amorth is satisfied that he has completed another successful exorcism.

But not so fast. Father Amorth is later seen going to a stern meeting before a panel of five Catholic clergymen in July 1987. It’s a formal hearing in Rome, where Father Amorth is being reprimanded for performing that exorcism of Enzo in Tropea, because the exorcism was not officially authorized by the Vatican. Father Amorth also has to answer for other unauthorized exorcisms that he performed.

Father Amorth is a wisecracking “rebel” who tries to use prickly jokes and sarcasm to get himself out of contentious situations. He explains to the panel that 98% of the exorcisms he’s called to do aren’t real exorcisms. “They just need a little conversation … and a little theater.” Father Amorth says that 98% of the people he is told are possessed by the devil are people he refers to psychiatrists.

And what about the remaining 2% of those people? Father Amorth dodges answering that question. Most of the panel doesn’t say anything while Father Amorth defends himself. The person who does the most talking on the panel is Cardinal Sullivan (played by Ryan O’Grady), who is in his late 20s and is openly hostile to Father Amorth.

Father Amorth’s only real ally on the panel is Bishop Lumumba (played by Cornell John), who defends Father Amorth. Days before this meeting, Bishop Lumumba told Father Amorth in a private conversation: “Don’t worry, I will defend your faith.” Father Amorth replied, “My faith does not need defending.”

Cardinal Sullivan announces with a smirk that the Catholic Church will formally vacate the position of exorcist. In other words, Cardinal Sullivan is telling Father Amorth that he’s being fired as the Catholic Church’s chief exorcist for Rome. Father Amorth doesn’t accept that decision. Before the meeting is over, Father Amorth gets up and defiantly tells the panel, “If you have a problem with me, you talk to my boss.” Father Amorth then storms out of the room in a huff.

Meanwhile, an American family of three are driving to a dilapidated abbey in Castilleja, Spain. Julia Vasquez (played Alex Essoe) is a widow who inherited the abbey from her late husband Roberto Vasquez IV (played by Santi Bayón, briefly seen in a flashback), who died in a car accident a year ago. The abbey had been in Roberto’s family for years. In the car with Julia are her two children: rebellious daughter Amy Vasquez (played by Laurel Marsden) is about 15 or 16 years old, while obedient son Henry Vasquez (played by Peter DeSouza-Feighoney) is about 11 or 12 years old.

Conversations in the movie reveal that Julia is financially broke and has no income. The only thing that Roberto left for her in his will was the abbey. Julia has decided to relocate herself and the kids to Spain to refurbish the abbey and sell it, hopefully at a profit. It’s a move that Amy sulks and complains about in the movie, as Amy does things to annoy her mother, such as smoke a cigarette inside the church, flirt with the construction workers, and climb up on unsafe places in the abbey.

Julia is apparently so broke, she can’t afford to stay at a hotel, so she is staying with the kids in the priests’ living quarters at the abbey. It doesn’t take long for spooky things to start happening in the abbey, especially at night. A construction worker is severely burned by lighting a flare near a gas valve. (That’s not supernatural. That’s just stupidity.) This injury is enough for the foreman to have his construction crew quit working on the abbey.

And then the inevitable happens: One of the kids gets possessed by a demon. The unfortunate victim is mild-mannered Henry, who has been mute, ever since his father Roberto died. Henry was in the car during this fatal accident, and he witnessed his father get impaled.

But as soon as the demon possesses Henry, the boy begins to talk. And after being silent for a year, the first words out of Henry’s mouth are: “You’re all going to die.” And then he drags his fingernails hard on his face, leaving deep and bloody scratch marks.

Henry is possessed by a foul-mouthed and lecherous demon. While Henry is possessed, not only are his rants filled with curse words and threats, but he also sexually attacks his mother Julia, by grabbing and fondling her breasts without her consent. The demon yells through Henry: “This baby is hungry, you fat cow! You never breastfed me!”

The demon also demands, “Bring me the priest!” When a priest is brought to the possessed Henry, the priest is thrown across the room, as possessed Henry snarls: “Wrong fucking priest!” We all know which priest this demon wants for a showdown.

Somehow, the Pope (played by Franco Nero) finds out about this demon possession. And before you can say, “silly exorcism movie,” Father Amorth is seen having a one-on-one meeting at the Vatican with the Pope. (In 1987, Pope John Paul II was the leader of the Catholic Church. The Pope in “The Pope’s Exorcist” doesn’t act or sound like Pope John Paul II and has only a slight physical resemblance.)

In this private meeting, the Pope sends Father Amorth to the abbey in Spain to investigate this report of a boy being possessed. The Pope warns Father Amorth that this particular abbey has been problematic in the past for the Catholic Church. “Be careful,” the Pope tells Father Amorth. “This demon sounds dangerous.”

In Spain, Father Amorth meets the family and the young local priest who has been asked to help: Father Esquibel (played by Daniel Zovatto), who appears to be very pious and well-respected. Father Amorth sees for himself that Henry is indeed possessed. When Father Amorth asks the demon what its name is, the demon snarls, “My name is Blasphemy. My name is Nightmare.” Father Amorth quips, “My nightmare is France winning the World Cup.”

Father Amorth does a lot of zipping around on motor scooters, as if he’s some kind “on the go” exorcism delivery boy. Father Amorth is seen driving his Lambretto scooter for the trip from Italy to Spain. Apparently, the Catholic Church apparently doesn’t want to spend money on planes and trains for Father Amorth’s exorcism business trips. And when he’s not on his motor scooter, Father Amorth is gulping down drinks from his ever-present flask of alcohol.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” attempts to give the story some depth by showing that Father Amorth has a dark past that includes the death of a young woman named Rosaria (played by Bianca Bardoe), who is a sore subject for Father Amorth. The Rosaria character is in the movie, just to show another “supernatural force” on the attack against Father Amorth. As shown in flashbacks, there are other things that haunt this unconventional priest, including his experiences when he was in military combat as a young soldier in World War II.

Most of the action scenes in “The Pope’s Exorcist” are poorly staged and sloppily edited. Priests get thrown around and fall from tall heights in satanic brawls, but these priests emerge with no fractures or broken bones, which would surely happen in fights that are this violent. “The Pope’s Exorcist” is overly enamored with its adequate visual effects as being enough to make this movie terrifying. But it’s difficult to feel any terror when the exorcist is walking around cracking jokes.

“The Pope’s Exorcist” also seems to be making up exorcism rules as it goes along. Father Amorth says that he tells jokes because “The devil doesn’t like jokes.” In another part of the movie, he says the only way to get rid of a demon is to find out its real name. But that contradicts the earlier exorcism scene of Enzo being “cured” of demon possession because the demon possessed a boar that was quickly shot to death. And that exorcism doesn’t make sense either, because the demon spirit could still escape from a dead body and possess something or someone else nearby.

As the sardonic Father Amorth, Crowe seems fully game to lean into the wisecracking tone of “The Pope’s Exorcist.” The problem is that the rest of the cast members act like they’re in a life-or-death, grim horror film. Some of the supporting actors over-act and are just not believable in many of their scenes. “The Pope’s Exorcist” might give audiences some chuckles, but it’s the type of absurd horror movie that’s so bad, viewers are more likely to be laughing at it than laughing with it.

Screen Gems will release “The Pope’s Exorcist” in U.S. cinemas on April 14, 2023.

Review: ‘The Devil Conspiracy,’ starring Alice Orr-Ewing, Joe Doyle, Eveline Hall, Peter Mensah, Joe Anderson, Brian Caspe and James Faulkner

March 26, 2023

by Carla Hay

Alice Orr-Ewing in “The Devil Conspiracy” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“The Devil Conspiracy”

Directed by Nathan Frankowski

Some language in Italian with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy, the horror film “The Devil Conspiracy” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An art historian uncovers a sinister biogenetics plot conjured up by Satanists, while the evil angel Lucifer plots his revenge on good archangel Michael.

Culture Audience: “The Devil Conspiracy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching idiotic horror movies that are a mishmash of other movies’ concepts that use characters from Christian teachings.

Joe Anderson (below) and Peter Mensah in “The Devil Conspiracy” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“The Devil Conspiracy” is a bombastic train wreck of a horror movie with an onslaught of bad acting and stupid scenarios. It’s a weak ripoff of ideas from Rosemary’s Baby and Legion, but with the setting in Italy, instead of New York City or Los Angeles. The movie tries to juggle two different stories that are supposed to be connected. The ends result is that “The Devil Conspiracy” doesn’t succeed at telling either story and is just a jumbled mess.

Directed by Nathan Frankowski and written by Ed Alan, “The Devil Conspiracy” shows the first story, which is a battle between the evil angel Lucifer (played by Joe Anderson) and the good archangel Michael (played by Peter Mensah), with Lucifer losing the battle. Lucifer falls from the sky. Michael then puts Lucifer in chains and says that Lucifer will be set free if Lucifer joins Michael as an ally. Lucifer refuses and says he will return as Michael’s master. legions of demons join Lucifer in hell as Lucifer plots his revenge.

“The Devil Conspiracy” then ignores this Lucifer/Michael feud for most of the movie until the last third of the film. The second story is about an art historian named Laura Milton (played by Alice Orr-Ewing), an American. She is spending a lot of time at a museum that has a very special exhibition: the shroud of Jesus Christ, also known as the Shroud of Turin. This shroud has a major role in a poorly conceived biogenetics plot development that is revealed later in the movie.

Before she goes to the museum to see this shroud, Laura meets Dr. Andre Russo (played by Andrea Scarduzio) from Turin University, and she has an awkward conversation with him. Laura pleads with Dr. Russo to reconsider her thesis. He replies, “The last thing Turin University wants to hear is a young American lecturing us on what our great Italian artists believed or didn’t believe.”

Laura then says she doesn’t believe in angels or a dark side of the afterlife. Dr. Russo says they can continue this discussion at his apartment. Laura knows exactly what he means by this invitation. And she wisely declines. It’s probably one of the few smart decisions that Laura makes, because this character is the unflattering stereotype of a horror heroine who makes some very bad decisions.

At the museum, which is crowded with people eager to see the Shroud of Turin, Laura doesn’t have a ticket, but she gets a laminated pass from a priest she knows as a professional acquaintance: Father Marconi (played by Joe Doyle), who won’t be himself for much longer. Through a series of circumstances, something happens that is already revealed in “The Devil Conspiracy” trailer: Father Marconi is murdered in the museum. Archangel Michael then immediately comes down to Earth and inhabits Father Marconi’s body, which is brought back to life with the spirit of Michael inside.

“The Devil Conspiracy” then wastes a lot of time with repetitive scenes of Laura lurking around the museum after it’s closed and seeing strange things that might look scary to her, but actually look like cheap-looking horror movie tactics. A witchy-looking woman named Liz (played by Eveline Hall) shows up occasionally, with and without some cronies, to cause some murders and other mayhem. Laura is then kidnapped and put in a glass cage in a room with three other young women who are also in glass cages: hysterical Sophia (played by Wendy Rosas), tough-looking Alina (played by Natalia Germani) and sensible Brenda (played by Victoria Chilap).

The rest of “The Devil Conspiracy” then becomes a tangled mishmash of science fiction and demonic possession that is so ridiculous and poorly explained, even the characters in the movie who are supposed to believe in what’s happening never look convinced. These characters include Dr. Laurent (played by Brian Caspe) and Cardinal Vincinia (played by James Faulkner), representing the inept way that “The Devil Conspiracy” tries to present conflicts between science and religion. The movie is also plagued with tacky-looking visual effects that are more laughable than terrifying. The film editing is atrocious and just makes the entire movie look even more scatterbrained than it already is.

And some of the soundtrack music is enough to make a viewer’s eyes roll with the corniness of it all. For example, there’s a scene where archangel Michael, while inhabiting the body of the dead Father Marconi, is listening to some songs while driving a car. The songs are INXS’s 1987 classic “Devil Inside” and Real Life’s 1983’s hit “Send Me an Angel.” Yes, really.

One of the worst things about “The Devil Conspiracy” is the very incoherent showdown scene that’s supposed to be the big climax to the movie. Apparently, “The Devil Conspiracy” filmmakers haven’t learned that throwing a bunch of low-quality visual effects into darkly lit scenes does not automatically make a movie thrilling to watch. By the end of “The Devil Conspiracy,” viewers will feel that the only convincing hell that this movie was able to conjure up was the hell of having wasted time watching this junk.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “The Devil Conspiracy” in U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on March 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Sound of Silence’ (2023), starring Penelope Sangiorgi, Rocco Marazzita, Lucia Caporaso, Daniele De Martino, Chiara Casolari, Peter Stephen Wolmarans and Alessandra Pizzullo

March 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Penelope Sangiorgi in “Sound of Silence” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

“Sound of Silence” (2023)

Directed by Alessandro Antonaci, Daniel Lascar and Stefano Mandalà

Some language in Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and briefly in New York City, the supernatural horror film “Sound of Silence” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A New York City-based aspiring singer travels to her Italy with her boyfriend after her parents are injured in a mysterious incident, and she finds out that her parents’ home in Italy is haunted by a vengeful spirit. 

Culture Audience: “Sound of Silence” will appeal primarily to people who want to experience some ghost images and loud noises in a monotonous and predictable horror movie.

Peter Stephen Wolmarans in “Sound of Silence” (Photo courtesy of XYZ Films)

The horror movie “Sound of Silence” over-relies on annoying sound effects as a distraction from the very limp and predictable story. Note to filmmakers: Repeating loud noises doesn’t automatically make a horror movie scary. Unfortunately, “Sound of Silence” is also hindered by substandard acting for underdeveloped characters that are just hollow vessels in a cliché-ridden and vapid story with an idiotic ending.

It’s usually not a good sign when a non-anthology film is written and directed by three or more people, because it usually results in the film having “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome. “Sound of Silence” was written and directed by Alessandro Antonaci, Daniel Lascar, Stefano Mandalà (collectively known as T3), which means it took three people to write and direct a lousy flim with a flimsy plot. It’s yet another “haunted house” film where a vengeful spirit is inflicting terror on people in the house. It’s okay to have this over-used concept in a horror movie if the movie has a great story with credible acting. It’s not okay if the movie is just a waste of time with bad acting and tedious storytelling that is more irritating than scary.

“Sound of Silence” (which is a very darkly lit film) begins in an unnamed city in Italy, where middle-aged Peter Wilson (played by Peter Stephen Wolmarans) is fiddling with an old radio in his attic. The radio is shaped like the upper half of an oval. Peter’s wife Margherita Wilson (played by Alessandra Pizzullo) briefly appears in the room to tell Peter to come downstairs in about 15 minutes for dinner. After she leaves, Peter notices that every time he turns on the radio, a ghostly figure of a woman appears and gets closer to him every time. After Peter turns the radio on and off several times, the next time he turns on the radio, the woman suddenly goes up to him and strangles him.

Meanwhile, Peter’s daughter Emma Wilson (played by Penelope Sangiorgi) is a New York City-based aspiriing singer whose career has been stalling because she has panic attacks every time she goes to an audition, often in front of the same judges. The movie shows one such audition, where Emma shows up but then doesn’t say a word when she gets in the audition room and then quickly leaves. Emma has a supportive live-in boyfriend named Seba (played by Rocco Marazzita), who encourages Emma to not give up on her dreams.

One day, Emma gets a call from Italy telling her that her father Peter is in a hospital because he has broken ribs and a concussion. Emma and Seba go to Italy, where the hospital doctor (played by Alessandro Marmorini) tells Emma that Margherita has defensive bruises on her face and arms. The doctor tactfully suggests to Emma that Margherita might be the victim of domestic abuse and is lying about it to protect Peter. Meanwhile, Margherita makes this comment to Emma about Peter: “He tried to kill me, but he wasn’t your father.” It’s at this point you know there is also going to be a ghostly possession angle to this movie.

The rest of “Sound of Silence” is a repetitive slog of Emma revisiting the attic and a home recording studio that her parents built for her when she lived in the house. Emma discovers the radio in the attic, as well as the radio’s connection to the ghost lurking around this dark and dreary house. Then there’s some nonsense about the people in the house being paranoid about the ghosts hearing their conversations. And so, the people in the house have to communicate in silence—or if they talk out loud, Emma wants to something in the room at a noisy volume to drown out the conversation.

Expect to hear the blaring sounds of radio/TV static and screaming turned up to obnoxious levels throughout “Sound of Silence.” Other characters in this muddled movie include a woman named Angelica (played by Lucia Caporaso), a girl named Alice (played by Chiara Casolari) and a man named Claudio (played by Claudio Dughera). It all just leads to a very underwhelming revelation and a very silly last scene hinting at a “Sound of Silence” sequel that probably will never get made.

XYZ Films released “Sound of Silence” on March 9, 2023.

Review: ‘Whisper of the Heart’ (2022), starring Nana Seino, Tôri Matsuzaka, Runa Yasuhara and Tsubasa Nakagawa

February 8, 2023

Nana Seino and Tôri Matsuzaka in “Whisper of the Heart” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“Whisper of the Heart” (2022)

Directed by Yūichirō Hirakawa

Japanese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and in Italy, the dramatic film “Whisper of the Heart” features a predominantly Japanese cast of characters (with some white people and a few black people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: When they are 14 years old, Japanese students Shizuku Tsukishima (who dreams of becoming a writer) and Seiji Amasawa (who dreams of becoming a professional cellist) meet and fall in love, but their romance is tested over a 10-year period, during which he moves to Italy and starts a new life as a successful cellist in a neo-classical musical group.

Culture Audience: “Whisper of the Heart” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the manga series and the 1995 animated movie and on which is movie remake is based, will appeal to viewers who don’t mind watching romantic dramas that sometimes get sappy about long-distance love affairs.

Tsubasa Nakagawa and Runa Yasuhara in “Whisper of the Heart” (Photo courtesy of Capelight Pictures)

“Whisper of the Heart” is a sometimes whimsical, sometimes sentimental drama about the longtime, bittersweet romance between the two main characters. The movie sometimes gets repetitive and tedious, but the overall story is told in an appealing way. “Whisper of the Heart” explores some aspects of the story’s long-distance romance with great emotional tenderness, while other aspects seem very rushed or vague in the movie.

Written and directed by Yūichirō Hirakawa, “Whisper of the Heart” is both a remake and a sequel for the 1995 animated film of the same name. Both movies are based on the 1989 manga series “Whisper of the Heart.” It’s not necessary to read the manga or see the 1995 animated film before seeing the live-action film, but it helps to have this background information if viewers want a point of comparison to see how all three formats tell the story of the main characters.

The animated film “Whisper of the Heart” focuses on the two main characters when they were 14 years old. In the live-action “Whisper of the Heart,” the story goes back and forth between showing the Japanese main characters when they were 14 and when they are 24. The adult version of these characters have the storyline that is much more dramatic but also more frustrating because there was potential for the story to be better developed.

The couple at the center of the story are Shizuku Tsukishima and Seiji Amasawa, who are both artistic in different ways. Shizuku (who is quiet and bashful) wants to be a novelist. Seiji (who is outspoken and confident) wants to be a cellist. (In the animated film, wants to be a violin maker.) In the live-action “Whisper of the Heart,” Nana Seino has the role of 24-year-old Shizuku, and Runa Yasuhara has the role of 14-year-old Shizuku. Tôri Matsuzaka has the role of 24-year-old Seiji, and Tsubasa Nakagawa has the role of 14-year-old Seiji.

At 14 years old, Shizuku and Seiji, who attend the same school in Tokyo, met by chance because she found out that he checked out the same books at a local library. At first, Shizuku had a bad impression of Seiji because he would tease her at school over petty things. Shizuku is a shy student who loves books, and she’s hurt by this type of negative attention by Seiji.

One day, Shizuku sees an orange and white cat on the street and follows it into a trinket shop called Earth Store. Inside the shop, Shizuku is immediately drawn to a cat figurine doll that shows the cat standing up like a human and dressed in a tuxedo. The figure is about 10 to 12 inches tall. The shop owner is a friendly elderly man named Shirō Nishi (played by Masaomi Kondô) introduces himself to Shizuku and tells her that the cat’s name is Baron.

Later (this is not spoiler information), Shizuku finds out that Shirō is Seiji’s grandfather. By chance, Shizuku and Seiji happen to be in the shop on the same day. They start talking and eventually come to like each other when they find out that they have a lot of the same interests. Their friendship gradually turns into love, and they promise to be loyal to each other.

Shirō eventually tells Shizuku the story of Baron and how this cat figurine is a symbol of love that Shirō found and lost during World War II. The orange and white cat that lives in the shop is named Moon. These two cats inspire Shizuku to write her first story, with encouragement from Seiji, who wants to be the first person to read the story, which is called “Baron’s Tale.” Likewise, Seiji has written a song called “Wings to Fly” that he eventually shares with Shizuku.

What the live-action “Whisper of the Heart” movie shows in the adult lives of Shizuku and Seiji is how they are dealing with a long-distance romance. There is a 10-year leap between the connected storylines with hardly any information on what happened in between those 10 years. All viewers know is that at 24 years old, Shizuku still lives in Tokyo, while Seiji is now a working as a professional cellist who has moved to Italy, where he has been living in Rome for at least three years. Seiji is the leader of a neo-classical music group.

Shizuku’s career plans aren’t going as smoothly. She has given up on being a novelist and has become a book editor. A conversation shown early in the movie reveals that Shizuku left a large publishing company (where her former boss wants to hire her back) and is now working at a small publishing company whose specialty is children’s books. And the job is mostly miserable for Shizuku.

For starters, she has a demanding boss (played by Takuma Otoo), who doesn’t hesitate to yell at Shizuku and belittle her, often in front of her co-workers. His biggest gripe is that Shizuku hands in manuscripts that he thinks are lackluster, but Shizuku can never seem to do anything that will please him. Meanwhile, Shizuku is also dealing with a difficult author named Mr. Sonomuro (played by Kei Tanaka), who is one of the company’s most famous writers. Mr. Sonomuro’s complaint about Shizuku is she’s not authentic enough when communicating with him and making editing suggestions.

These criticisms might be valid, but Shizuku’s boss in particular seems to take pleasure n humiliating her. Shizuku is constantly in fear that she is about to be fired, so she is nervous and on edge when she’s at her job. And this insecurity makes her even more likely to mess up and get shouted at by her boss all over again.

Shizuku’s only emotional comforts in life come from her romance with Sheiji, as well as her close friendship with her two housemates: Yūko Harada (played by Rio Uchida) and Tatsuya Sugimura (played by Yuki Yamada), who are a couple. Shizuku, Yūko and Tatsuya have known each other since they all went to the same school together as teenagers. Back then (as shown in flashbacks), there was a love triangle going on that threatened to ruin the friendship between Shizuku and Yūko, but it all got sorted out, as Shizuku and Yūko ended up with the guys they wanted. Sara Sumitomo has the role of teenage Yūko, and Towa Araki has the role of teenage Tatsuya.

But lately, Shizuku’s relationship with Seiji isn’t making her as happy as it used to make her. She wonders if this relationship will last if it keeps going the way it’s been going, which is that the relationship hasn’t progressed to a commitment, such as a co-habitation, an engagement and/or marriage. Yūko and Tatsuya listen to Shizuku lament that she’s been in the relationship with Seiji for 10 years, “and I’ve got nothing to show for it.”

Seiji seems happy in Italy, and he has told Shizuku that he doesn’t want to move back to Japan because his career (which requires a lot of traveling) is going well. Meanwhile, Shizuku wants to stay in Japan. Will this couple take things to the next level, will they continue the way they that’ve been going, or will they break up? “Whisper of the Heart” shows this dilemma in a sort of wandering way, interrupted by more flashbacks.

The cast members’ performances in the movie are good, but not spectacular. The least interesting parts of the movie have to do with Shizuku at her job. In this job setting, viewers will soon grow tired of seeing repeats of similar scenarios, where Shizuku feels underappreciated and misunderstood. She has a sympathetic male co-worker (played by Keisuke Nakata), but Shizuku looks muted and emotionally disconnected in most of these workplace scenes. And it becomes boring to watch.

The flashbacks to the teenage Shizuku and teenage Seiji are cute but just give background information and offer a frame of reference when certain locations are revisited years later. The real heart of the story has to do with the adult Shizuku and the adult Seiji. Some of it is treated like a soap opera, but the movie is also has great messages about being true to oneself and not letting self-doubt get in the way of pursuing dreams.

“Whisper of the Heart” also realistically shows how true love and trust can exist in a relationship, but the timing of the relationship and what each person wants out of the relationship have to be compatible if the relationship is going to last. It’s a hard lesson to learn for the couple at the center of “Whisper of the Heart.” Each person in the relationship has to decide individual priorities and whether or not those priorities are a good match for the desired partner.

The couple in this version of the story has the benefit of more maturity than they would have had if the story remained in the couple’s teenage years. This maturity ultimately give viewers a better idea of what will happen to Shizuku and Seiji, since they are making decisions as adults, not as teenagers who are still living with their parents. However, “Whisper of the Heart” also shows in no uncertain terms that growing up doesn’t mean growing out of the need to be loved.

Capelight Pictures released “Whisper of the Heart” in select U.S. cinemas on February 3, 2023. The movie was released in Japan on October 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,’ starring the voices of Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Tilda Swinton, Finn Wolfhard and Cate Blanchett

December 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Culture Representation: Taking place in World War II-era Italy in the 1940s (and briefly in 1916), the animated film “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” features cast of human characters (all white Italians) and magical creatures representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly wood carver/carpenter makes a puppet boy that comes alive and then goes on a quest to become a human being. 

Culture Audience: “Pinocchio” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the original 1940 “Pinocchio” movie and are interested in seeing a unique retelling of this classic story.

Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a stellar example of how to do a highly creative movie remake that maintains the spirit of the original while making imaginative revisions. It’s destined to be a classic in stop-motion animation. The movie takes a while to get to the action-adventure part of the story, so be prepared for a lot of very talkative scenes in the first half of the film. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is such a visual treat that lets viewers get to know the characters in a meaningful way, the leisurely pace in the movie’s first half is not too much of a detriment to the film overall.

Oscar-winning filmmaker del Toro had been trying to make a stop-motion animation version of “Pinocchio” since 2002, when the Jim Henson Company acquired the rights to make Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s fairy tale “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (whose animation is inspired by illustrator Gris Grimly’s interpretation of Pinocchio) is directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson, with the movie’s adapted screenplay written by del Toro and Patrick McHale. The book was famously made into Disney’s 1940 musical animated film “Pinocchio.” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” keeps the gist of the story (an Italian wooden puppet named Pinocchio that wants to become a human boy) and brings it into the 20th century.

It’s not a political movie or a preachy film, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is primarily set during World War II, when Italy was under the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini. A such, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has themes about the horrors of war and how people can become puppets under an oppressive government. The movie keeps the original story’s meaningful messages about family love, coping with death and self-acceptance. There are touches of comedy in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but people should not expect a perky musical. The movie’s overall tone is dramatic.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” begins with a flashback to 1916, in an unnamed part of Italy, where a kind and amiable wood carver/carpenter named Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) lives happily with his son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann), who’s 10 years old. Geppetto is a single parent. Carlo’s mother is not seen or mentioned in the movie. The movie’s intermittent narrator is a nomadic cricket named Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who has settled in Geppetto’s home workshop to write a memoir about his extensive travels.

One day, Carlo finds a pine cone and gives it to Geppetto so that Geppetto can plant the pine cone, with the expectation that it will grow into a tree. Carlo gives this gift to Geppetto on the day that he accompanies Geppetto to a carpenter job at the local church, where Geppetto is restoring a giant statue of Jesus Christ on a crucifix. Suddenly, military airplanes appear in the sky, and a bomb is dropped on the church. Geppetto escapes, but Carlo is killed instantly.

About 25 years later, Geppetto is a very lonely elderly man, who is still grieving heavily over the death of Carlo. He sometimes gets drunk to try to cope with his emotional pain. The pine cone that Carlo gave to him all those years ago has now grown into a pine tree. In a drunken rage, Carlo cuts down the tree and makes a wooden boy puppet out of the tree, as a tribute to Carlo. Sebastian observes it all.

One night, the benevolent Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) visits the workshop, and finds out from Sebastian that the puppet was made so that Geppetto wouldn’t be lonely and to remind Gepetto of his son Carlo. (The Wood Sprite is called the Blue Fairy in other versions of “Pinocchio.”) The Wood Sprite brings the boy puppet to life, and names the puppet Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann), while Sebastian witnesses this magical spell. The Wood Sprite calls herself a “guardian” on Earth. She tells Sebastian: “I care for little things, the forgotten things, the lost ones.” And she asks Sebastian to help her look after Pinocchio.

At first, Geppetto is frightened by the sight of Pinocchio being alive, but he eventually loves Pinocchio like a son. One day, Pinocchio follows Geppetto to church, where the parishioners treat Pinocchio with fear and suspicion. The churchgoers think that this talking puppet is demonic, but Geppetto assures them that Pinocchio is just a puppet. Still, Pinocchio is treated like an outcast in the village from then onwards.

The church’s priest (voiced by Burn Gorman) and the village’s podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman), who represent the village’s top authority figures, order Geppetto to send Pinocchio to school, so that Pinocchio can learn the rules and laws of this Italian society. Viewers will have to overlook that most of the main characters have British accents in the English-language version of this movie. Because most of movie’s voice actors do not have Italian accents, it’s one of the few details that “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” gets wrong, but most viewers won’t notice or care.

The very stern podesta has a son named Candlewick (voiced by Finn Wolfhard), who often lives in fear of his domineering father and tries hard to please his father. The podesta is quick to judge others harshly and is eager to dole out punishment to anyone he thinks doesn’t follow his orders. Candlewick and Pinocchio are around the same age, in terms of emotional maturity level, and their relationship at first consists of Candlewick being a bully to naïve Pinocchio.

For example, Candlewick plays a mean-spirited prank on Pinocchio by suggesting that Pinocchio move closer to a fire to get warmer. As a result, Pinocchio’s legs get partially burned off, but Geppetto compassionately makes new and improved legs for Pinocchio. Candlewick and Pinocchio eventually become friends in a poignant storyline where they find out they have more in common than Candlewick thought. Pinocchio also wants to please Geppetto like a dutiful son. These father-son issues are recurring themes in the movie’s story.

Pinocchio doesn’t go to school as planned, and he ends up being lured into working at a carnival as the star act. The carnival is led by greedy and unscrupulous Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), who is cruel and abusive to his loyal and sweet-natured monkey Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett). The rest of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has faithful renditions of the original story while adding very different new plotlines to the movie.

Sebastian the cricket (who is a purple instead of the traditional green) is not an ever-present sidekick with Pinocchio. In this movie, Pinocchio actually spends more time with Candlewick. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” also has a character called Death (also voiced by Swinton), who is the sister of the Wood Sprite. Both sisters are blue magical creatures that talk without moving their mouths. The character of Death has a lot to do with some of the main changes to the story.

There are some pleasant original songs performed in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” but none that will become iconic such as “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Disney’s 1940 version of “Pinocchio.” Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the terrific musical score for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” collaborated with Roeban Katz on the movie’s original songs “My Son” (performed by Bradley) and the Mann-performed “Fatherland March,” “Big Baby Il Duce March” and “Ciao Papa.” It certainly would have been easier (and lazier) to try to replicate the Disney songs from 1940’s “Pinocchio,” so the filmmakers of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” deserve some credit for not relying on the same old type of tunes.

The voice cast in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is top-notch and delivers the expected emotions on a very entertaining level. John Turturro has a supporting role as a doctor, while Tim Blake Nelson voices the four Black Rabbits that encounter Pinocchio. Mann’s high-pitched British voice is perfectly fine, but might be a little bit of a distraction for people who think Pinocchio should’ve sounded more Italian or southern European in this movie.

Waltz has played many villainous characters, so his interpretation of Count Volpe has the expected amount of sleaze and smarminess. Blanchett’s voice work is the biggest surprise because many people would never guess she’s the wordless voice of a monkey in this movie. McGregor’s distinctive voice seems underused, since the cricket character isn’t as prominently featured in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” compared to other “Pinocchio” movies. However, Sebastian gets a big scene in “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” where his strong-willed and opinionated personality is expressed in full force when scolding Geppetto for not appreciating Pinocchio.

As for the movie’s visuals, the animation is striking, gorgeous and often emotionally rousing. It is stop-motion animation that represents the best of what could be done creatively and technically when this movie was made. The ending of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a major departure from the original book and 1940’s “Pinocchio,” but the conclusion is handled in a way that’s of a much higher quality than Disney’s inferior 2022 remake of “Pinocchio.”

Fantasy films of del Toro often walk the line between whimsy and melancholy in telling stories of life and death. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is no different and is, without question, one of del Toro’s most impressive movies. Some people looking for more action sequences in this movie might be disappointed, but “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” has much more to offer than being a superficial joy ride.

Netflix released “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” in select U.S. cinemas on November 9, 2022. The movie will premiere on Netflix on December 9, 2022.

Review: ‘EO,’ starring Sandra Drzymalska, Lorenzo Zurzolo, Mateusz Kosciukiewicz and Isabelle Huppert

November 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

EO (played by Tako) in “EO” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films and Sideshow)


Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

Polish, Italian and French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Poland and Italy, the dramatic film “EO” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A former circus donkey named EO experiences highs and lows and different levels of freedom and captivity during his travels. 

Culture Audience: “EO” will appeal primarily to people interested in an emotionally moving film that follows the life of a specific animal for a certain period of time.

Lorenzo Zurzolo and EO (played by Tako) in “EO” (Photo courtesy of Janus Films and Sideshow)

“EO,” a dramatic film made to look like a documentary, tells the fascinating and sometimes-harrowing story of a lovable donkey named EO, whose life becomes uncertain after losing his circus home. The “EO” film is so impressive with its realism, some viewers might think that it’s a non-fiction movie. Of course, one of the biggest indications that “EO” is a fictional film is that Oscar-nominated French actress Isabelle Huppert has a role as a fictional character in the movie. Her screen time in “EO” is less than 15 minutes, but she makes her screen time very memorable, as she almost always does in her on-screen roles.

Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski (who co-wrote the “EO” screenplay with Ewa Piaskowska), “EO” is filmed cinéma vérité-style, shown entirely from EO’s perspective. “EO” had its world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won the Jury Prize and Cannes Soundtrack Award for Best Composer. “EO” composer Pawel Mykietyn’s score is certainly the musical soul of the film, because there are some sections of the movie with no human dialogue. “EO”—which also screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2022 New York Film Festival—is Poland’s official entry for Best International Feature Film consideration for the 2023 Academy Awards.

“EO” begins in Poland, where is EO performing in a circus tent with his handler, an actress named Kasandara (played by Sandra Drzymalska), who treats EO with kindness and respect. Kasandra’s boyfriend is a circus co-worker named Wasyl (played by Maciej Stepniak), who is controlling and mean-spirited. An early scene in the movie shows Wasyl hitting EO because he doesn’t think EO is moving fast enough. Sensitive viewers be warned: There’s even worse animal cruelty later on in the movie.

The circus is under pressure because animal-rights activists are protesting outside while the circus operates. The activists want the circus to be shut down because they think that circuses and carnivals have rampant animal torture and other animal abuse. Early on in the movie, the circus goes bankrupt, so all the circus’ animals are repossessed. Kasandra is devastated.

The rest of “EO” shows what happens in EO’s life as he goes from place to place. His journey takes him from Poland to Italy. And his travels include living on a farm; being a stray animal; encountering a truck driver named Mateo (played by Mateusz Kościukiewicz); and befriending a young nomad named Vito (played by Lorenzo Zurzolo), who is training to be a priest and has a history of being the lover of an unnamed wealthy countess, played by Huppert.

There’s a lot more that happens in the movie, but it’s best if people know as little as possible about “EO” except the basic concept of the film and why EO ended up as a donkey without a permanent home. Viewers will be swept up in the suspense over what will happen to EO. And although it’s not really accurate to say that the movie’s donkey (whose real name is Tako) is acting, he certainly shows enough personality for viewers to feel empathy for him.

One of the standout characteristics of “EO” is the stunning cinematography by Michal Dymek. Many of the scenes are drenched in rich hues, such as red and blue, making the movie sometimes look like a very artsy nature documentary. And because the camera angles are often from the donkey’s perspective, viewers will get EO’s outlook on the contrasting beauty and horror at that exists this world for animals that are treated like property instead of like a member of Earth’s ecosystem family.

“EO” isn’t a completely perfect film, because the movie is occasionally slow-paced and has scenes that seem to drag on a little longer than necessary. However, the point of “EO” is that life for animals (especially when living in harsh conditions) can often be depressing and dull by human standards, even if the animals are surrounded by a gorgeous landscape. This isn’t the type of fantasy movie where a stray animal has to find a home and almost every scene is an adventure scene. “EO” is a striking and effective reminder that how we treat animals represents the best and worst of humanity.

Janus Films and Sideshow will release “EO” in select U.S. cinemas on November 18, 2022.

Review: ‘A Chiara,’ starring Swamy Rotolo

June 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Swamy Rotolo in “A Chiara” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“A Chiara”

Directed by Jonas Carpignano

Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Italian region of Calabria, the dramatic film “A Chiara” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: After her father disappears, a 15-year-old girl finds out that her tight-knit and loving family has dark secrets. 

Culture Audience: “A Chiara” will appeal primarily to people interested in a well-acted coming-of-age stories about people born into families leading double lives.

Claudio Rotolo, Giorgia Rotolo, Grecia Roloto, Swamy Rotolo and Carmela Fumo in “A Chiara” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“A Chiara” presents in stark and haunting ways how a family can be destroyed by secrets and lies, and how a child caught in the crossfire can try to heal from the trauma. This two-hour drama needed better film editing, but the performances are compelling. Viewers need patience to get through some of the repetitive aspects of “A Chiara,” but the best sections of the movie outweigh the weaker sections. “A Chiara” had its world premiere at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Directors’ Fortnight Award.

Written and directed by Jonas Carpignano, “A Chiara” (which means “To Chiara” in Italian) takes place in Italy’s Calabria region and mostly in the city of Gioia Tauro. The Guerrasio family lives in Gioia Tauro, in what seems to be a tranquil, middle-class existence. This tight-knit and loving clan includes Claudio Guerrasio (played by Claudio Rotolo), his wife Carmela Guerrasio (played by Carmela Fumo) and their three daughters: Giulia Guerrasio (played by Grecia Rotolo), who turns 18 years old in the story; Chiara Guerrasio (played by Swamy Rotolo), who is 15 years old; and Giorgia Guerrasio (played by Giorgia Rotolo), who’s about 5 or 6 years old.

Chiara is an energetic, curious and athletic child. She’s first seen doing rigorous exercises in a school gym. And later, it’s shown that she’s on the school’s track team. Chiara has a small group of friends at school. Chiara’s closest pal is a girl about her age named Giusi (played by Giuseppina Rotolo), who frequently joins Chiara in their semi-secretive habit of vaping.

At home, all seems to be going well. Chiara, Giulia and Giorgia like to horse around in a playful manner. But amid all this family fun, there are ominous signs that Chiara senses that something is wrong. While she’s alone in the living room one evening, Chiara sees her father outside the house, and he’s talking to another man in a very intense conversation. They are too far away for Chiara to hear what they’re saying, but she senses that they want to keep the conversation private. She says nothing and goes back into another room.

In other parts of the movie, when Chiara sees things that she knows she’s not supposed to see, the movie’s sound becomes muffled, as if she’s trying to block out what she’s witnessing. “A Chiara” uses hand-held cameras (with cinematography by Tim Curtin), to give the film more of a “home movie,” intimate feel. Some viewers might not like all the shaky cam footage in “A Chiara,” but the filmmakers seem to be going for a vibe where a viewer gets to tag along like a documentarian, rather than “A Chiara” looking like a slick and overly polished drama.

Life seems to be blissful for the Guerrasio family during Giulia’s 18th birthday party, which is being held at a restaurant, with about 30 guests at the party. The movie has a segment of about 15 or 16 minutes (a little too long and needed tighter editing) showing this party, where it doesn’t show much except people talking, eating and dancing. Everyone is in good spirits, and things go very smoothly during this celebration.

At the party, there’s a dance contest where Claudio, who is among the four “judges,” casts the deciding vote between final contestants Giulia and Chiara. He votes for Giulia, who is declared the winner. Later, Claudio dances with Chiara and tells her that he had to vote for Giulia because it’s her birthday. A smiling Chiara says that she understands.

Despite the party being a joyful celebration, there are some more subtle clues that Claudio is troubled. During the group dinner, Claudio is asked to make a birthday toast to Giulia, but he refuses. Instead, he insists that his brother Pasquale (played by Pasquale Alampi) say the toast. At the table, Claudio tells Giulia that he’s proud of her. “You are my life.” They both get emotional and start crying.

About three or four rough-looking men, who are not family members or friends, also show up at the party. Later, when Chiara and Giusi go outside to smoke, four other men approach them on the street and start scolding the teens for smoking. Chiara defiantly tells them to mind their own business, and things start to get tense. But then, the group of men see another group of four men, and their attention turns to these other men for a possible confrontation.

Chiara and Giusi are relieved that this encounter with these men didn’t escalate into something dangerous. As Giusi and Chiara walk back toward the restaurant, they both see Chiara’s father Claudio on the street in a heated conversation with the rough-looking men who were at the party. The men seem to be following Claudio, who sees Chiara and makes a hand gesture, as if to tell her to go away. Claudio then quickly gets in his car alone and leaves.

At home later that night, Chiara hears her parents having a panicked discussion. Chiara spies on them, but the viewers can’t hear what’s being said, because the movie’s sound is muffled. Chiara follows her parents outside without them seeing her. Chiara sees her father jump over a wall and leave.

When Chiara goes out on the street a short while later to look for her father, she sees a man on a motorbike pass by her father’s car and throw something at it. The car almost instantly blows up in flames. Luckily, no one was in or near the car. However, Chiara’s mother runs outside and frantically takes Chiara in the house with her.

When the police arrive to investigate, Chiara overhears her mother tell the cops that she didn’t see anything and that the family did not receive any threats. And where is Claudio? Carmela tells Giulia, Chiara and Giorgia (who are all huddled in fear in the same bed): “Everything is under control. Don’t worry. I just spoke to the police.”

When Giulia asks about the sisters’ father, Carmela replies, “Your father is out there, taking care of everything. You know your dad.” But do they really know their dad? Claudio doesn’t come home.

And when Chiara goes to school the next day, she notices that some of the students are avoiding her or talking about her behind her back. It isn’t long before Chiara finds out her father’s big secret and why he disappeared. Chiara goes home and angrily confronts her mother, who essentially admits that it’s true. Claudio’s secret isn’t too surprising to viewers who see all the clues for what they are, but the secret is shocking to Chiara.

Much of the movie chronicles Chiara’s efforts to find her father. She skips a lot of her school classes to play “detective,” and this truancy has consequences that are shown later in the movie. The mystery-solving part of “A Chiara” is a little duller than it should have been. That’s because Chiara repeatedly goes back and talks to a shop owner named Antonio (played by Antonio Rotolo), once Chiara quickly figures out that Antonio knows a lot of her father’s secrets.

“A Chiara” is told from Chiara’s perspective and her determination to find out the whole truth, even if it hurts. Therefore, not much insight is given to how other members of the family are dealing with Claudio’s disappearance. There’s a powerfully acted scene where Chiara confronts Giulia about how much Giulia might have known, but that’s the limited extent that Chiara is shown having an emotional conversation with either of her sisters about their father’s disappearance.

What’s a little odd about the story is that Carmela seems surprised by how Chiara found out about Claudio’s secret, when it’s the most obvious way that anyone with access to a TV or the Internet could get this information. The only conclusion that viewers can reach is that Carmela is the type of person who likes to be deep in denial about things. It’s open to interpretation if this denial is to unselfishly protect her children or to selfishly cover up some complicit misdeeds.

“A Chiara” is a story inspired by real-life family members, who act as various versions of themselves in the movie. And that’s why the chemistry between these cast members looks so authentic. The movie is about a teenager who has to grow up very fast, but “A Chiara” at times lumbers along in how it tells this story, with the last 10 minutes of the movie looking quickly crammed in to have a rushed ending. This uneven pacing doesn’t detract from Swamy Rotolo’s memorable performance, which will keep viewers interested in finding out what happens to this teenager whose life and family are forever altered by her father’s bad choices.

Neon released “A Chiara” in select U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022. The movie was released in Italy in 2021.

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