Fasten your mask straps, it’s the Venice film festival, a socially distanced extravaganza for the year of Covid, where tubs of hand-sanitiser stand in for Hollywood stars and the starting pistol is played by a thermometer gun to the head. Tradition dictates that the winner of the Golden Lion award is announced live on stage, a week on Sunday. But the real verdict could be delivered rather sooner than that.
With the big American titles largely absent, the organisers have found a solution of sorts in Lacci, the first Italian film to open the festival in more than a decade. Daniele Luchetti’s handsome divorce drama stands as a European cousin to Marriage Story in its focus on the grisly meltdown of a middle-class couple and the emotional baggage that they then bequeath to their children. Philip Larkin would have approved of Lacci’s line of attack. Here is a film in which misery breeds misery until its legacy deepens like a coastal shelf.
Luigi Lo Cascio plays hangdog Aldo, a public intellectual who hosts a book show on the radio and a domestic disaster in the living room. “There’s no love without the possibility of betrayal,” he pontificates on air, while an affair with a co-worker puts his marriage in flames and his agonised wife, Vanda (superbly played by Alba Rohrwacher), attempts to throw herself out the window. But even in the depths of despair these two souls in torment can’t quite make the break. Having established that Aldo strayed because he was weak, passive and cowardly, Lacci (which translates as The Ties) goes on to suggest that these may be the very same qualities that work like glue on a marriage.
Adapting the novel by Domenico Starnone, Luchetti navigates a time-slipping structure with aplomb, gliding back and forth between Naples and Rome, and from the early 1980s to the present day. Here’s Aldo, sitting in a cafe during a ghastly weekend visit with his children, boasting about how newspaper reporters call to ask his thoughts on the world and loftily inviting his kids to ask questions, too. Now here he is again as a deflated old man (played by Silvio Orlando), returning home to find that his plush apartment has been burgled. Amid all the clutter and commotion it takes a moment to tease out his current situation. Did he wind up staying with Lidia (Linda Caridi), his co-worker? Or did he beat a retreat back to Vanda?
The opening day of Venice typically plays out as a jubilant free-for-all, with the guests packed cheek-by-jowl outside the morning screenings. This year an advanced booking system has been introduced, and social-distancing measures have resulted in rows of empty seats. Inside the cinema, a handful of masked, anxious spectators are subjected to a film of flayed nerves and furious rows; a opera of domestic discord that only overheats at the end, as Luchetti gropes for a climax and closure. Paradoxically, the picture itself is an oddly soothing experience. The very fact it is going ahead sends a message that it’s business as usual.
On screen, Aldo tells his children that if they ever want to hear his voice, they can always tune in to his radio show, and he has devised a secret code: if he coughs live on air, that’s him saying he loves them. The next morning they listen, but they don’t hear the code. “He didn’t cough!” pint-sized Sandro complains to his mother. “That means that he’s fine,” Vanda shoots back. Nobody coughed inside the Lacci morning screening. Fingers crossed this means the rest of us are fine, too.