a stylish film, but a contrived one that wears on its cast like a straitjacket

James Plath's picture

Adultery gets the "Rear Window" treatment in Ferzan Ozpetek's "Facing Windows" (2003), which won a David Di Donatello Award for best Italian film. But it's no Hitchcock-style nail-biter. Instead of James Stewart's wheelchair-bound convalescent, peering, with his leg-cast propped up, at neighbors through binoculars out of boredom, there's an Italian housewife who's sick and tired of her job at a chicken factory and just as tired of her husband and their apartment, which feels increasingly like a prison. And instead of witnessing what appears to be a murder in an apartment across the street, Giovanna (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) wistfully watches a handsome stranger. In perhaps the most interesting variation on that voyeuristic Hitchcock classic, Ozpetek and co-writer Gianni Romoli toss another element into the mix, so that the "mystery" isn't across the street—it's right inside the main character's apartment. And more than one person's doing the watching.

Like "The Statement," Ozpetek's film begins with a World War II flashback. The scene is a bakery in Rome, 1943, where a baker's apprentice suddenly gets into a vicious fight his the boss, killing him. Why? we don't know. But when a young married couple out for a walk in that same neighborhood 60 years later happens upon a dazed old man who appears to have amnesia, we assume it's the survivor of that opening struggle. Over his wife's protest's, Filippo (Filippo Nigro) insists on bringing the man home. Giovanna doesn't want a stranger in her house, and doesn't trust the dazed old man—played by venerable Italian actor Massimo Girotti, in what turned out to be his last performance. Girotti died at the age of 85 shortly before the film was released.

But the old man turns out to have been a survivor in more than one way. As Giovanna attends to him she notices the telltale number tattooed on the inside of his forearm that marks him as a concentration camp survivor. Gradually, Giovanna and Filippo come to learn more about the stranger, though he becomes a wedge that ironically drives the couple further apart. Filippo insists on bringing him back to the house over Giovanna's objections, even taking him to police. Yet, it's Giovanna who draws closer to the old man.

The performances are dead-on, and the atmosphere saturated with a strange warmth, given the tense situations—partly because the characters are all so likable, even minor characters and the potential lover, Lorenzo (Raoul Bova, whom audiences will recognize from "Under a Tuscan Sun"). But a warmth is also created because the cameras frequently move in for tight (but not too tight) close-ups to reinforce an intimacy among characters—especially the developing relationship between Giovanna and the man whom the children say is named Simone. As Simone watches her bake goods to sell at a friend's bar in order to make extra money, he comments on her techniques and her obvious passion for baking, and you can see the old man come out of his forgetful world. Girotti turns in a brilliant performance as the old man, revealing more character exactly when the script calls for it and playing well off of Mezzogiorno's helpless-but-flirtatious girl next door. Though she lusts after the handsome stranger across from her and reluctantly satisfies her husband, the real relationship in the film is between this woman and the stranger that has occupied her life and encouraged her to turn her baking hobby into a career.

Ozpetek does some interesting things, as when we see what Giovanna sees as she watches her neighbor in his window, and then, as she turns to face her husband in the apartment, we see a reflection of the neighbor alongside her as he continues to undress. When Giovanna's mind is overtaken by the complexity her life has suddenly taken on, the camera reinforces her loss of control with a slowly rotating 360-degree shot to show her perspective. Much of the film is shot in shadowy exteriors and interiors, which casts a thin noir blanket over them all, and it's style, as well as the performances, that save this film. But there's not much substance in the way of plot.

Despite strong performances and camera work, "La Finestra di fronte," as it's titled in Italian, is burdened by a script that asks audiences to suspend too much logic and believe in coincidences and easy fixes. One minute Giovanna is saying she doesn't trust the old man around the couple's two children, and the next minute she's helping him undress to bathe. One minute she's being encouraged by her neighbor to go for the tryst, and the next minute (don't blink) she's in the apartment. And please, yet another deus ex machina that involves healing through cooking? This side plot, with the old man intently watching Giovanna, is intended to complement and parallel her own voyeurism, while also serving as the mechanism to awaken the baker's memory, is way too contrived. As in melodrama, plot forces character change, when in drama it's the other way around. Give these characters a less artificial situation and it would make for an infinitely more interesting film. That's no more evident than when a sideplot involving the couple's neighbors adds more interest than the situation between Giovanna and the object of her long-distance affections.

"Facing Windows" is presented in color, anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and mastered in High Definition. Ozpetek apparently used high-quality film, because the clarity in shadows (which occupies much of the film) is superb, and the colors rich and warm, despite the low lighting.

The film has a Dolby Digital 5.1 Italian soundtrack with English and French subtitles.

There are no extras, which is a shame, actually, since it's Girotti's last film, and his performance is as strong as an athlete's who goes out on top.

Bottom Line:
"Facing Windows" is a stylish film, but a contrived one that wears on its cast like a straitjacket. Watching the actors create warm and believable characters, you can't help but cheer for them. And one of the things you end up wishing for is a script that would allow them to develop more. They deserve better.


Film Value