"La ragazza del lago" ("The Girl by the Lake," 2007) dominated the David di Donatello Awards with 15 nominations, winning Best Film, Best New Director, Best Director, Best Producer, Best Actor, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Visual Effects. The film also won Best First Feature and Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes, Italy, and was awarded two prizes at the Venice Film Festival. But outside of Italy? It's not well known.
That may change with the July 13 DVD release by IFC Films. The cover is intriguing enough to make people reach for it, the blurb from The Guardian (U.K.) dubs it one of the top ten films of the year, and the teaser also does its job: "Everyone knew the victim. But nobody is saying a word."
That tagline works another way, because "The Girl by the Lake" is a quiet murder mystery, taking its cue from the low-key Inspector Giovanni Sanzio (Toni Servillo). There's nothing flashy about the detective and nothing menacing, as his efforts to solve the case of a nude female body found near a small town in Northern Italy are both patient and reasoned. This soft-spoken fellow could pass for someone's grandfather visiting from out of town. My wife usually hates murder mysteries because of the violence, but she could have watched this one. The only violence is the off-camera murder of a girl found by a nearby lake. Even her nude body is artfully laid out--nothing exploitive or gruesome. "Whoever put her in that position was fond of her, " Sanzio concludes. It's a Mayberry sort of film if ever there was one in this genre, because there are no guns, knives, threats, explosions, or even rants--just an investigation that proceeds with the same tenor as a visit to the neighbors. And that's actually refreshing.
Based on the Inspector Sejer novel Don't Look Back, by Norwegian author Karin Fossum, "The Girl by the Lake" is a solid murder mystery. But the film version from award-winning screenwriter Sandro Petraglia and first-time feature director Andrea Molaioli begins more intriguingly than it ends. The town may be full of secrets, but it feels as if there are a few secrets too many--especially since most of them function as red herrings. Some of them in the third act can start to feel contrived. And given how surprising and memorable the opening sequence is, in which a young girl goes off with an odd man we suspect is a pedophile, the ending kind of fizzles by comparison.
That's the first thing that stands out about this film: the opening sequence, in which a young girl goes off with an odd man whom we suspect is a pedophile, is full of tension and leads us to all sorts of possible conclusions before the body even turns up. For at least the first half of the movie we think we see where the investigation is headed, only to be surprised by the turns that take us elsewhere. It's a beautifully orchestrated whodunit in the early going.
The second thing that stands out is the lake scene in which the inspector and his assistant (Fausto Maria Sciarappa) first see the body. It's appropriately framed so that the men are off-center, as everything connected with this case starts to feel. But then, using time-lapse overlays, cinematographer Ramiro Civita creates ghost-like images of half-realized figures of other police coming to the crime scene and doing their part. It's the most deliberately stylish moment in the film, and because it works so well it invites us to consider the cinematography elsewhere. In every scene, Civita manages to reinforce the mood of the film while also underscoring how surprising it was in this idyllic mountain community for a crime such as this to even occur.
So why did the girl by the lake leave the hockey team she loved? And did the boyfriend who said he had sex with her love her too much or not enough? Is the "special" man as harmless as everyone attests, or could he have been capable of murder? And the half-sister? "If everyone hated loafers, we'd have half the world to hate," she tells the inspector. There are plenty of loafers and slight disappointments in this town, and most of them have secrets they'd rather not divulge. What's interesting is that as Inspector Sanzio tries to find out what happened to one of them, he comes to understand all of them just a little more than it makes him feel comfortable--especially when he has family problems of his own.
"The Girl by the Lake" is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, transferred to disc in anamorphic widescreen. Colors are wonderfully saturated, and while the level of detail is average to slightly above average for a DVD, the scenery can be a pretty strong selling point. Most of this film is shot in available light exteriors or on a soundstage, and so there are really no shadowy or dark scenes to test the level of detail. There's a slight layer of film grain present, but nothing intrusive.
The audio is an Italian Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English, English SDH, and Spanish. Like the video presentation it's average to slightly above average for a DVD. "The Girl by the Lake" is dialogue-driven, and the 5.1 delivers clear and nicely prioritized human voices while also channeling ambient sound to the rear effects speakers.
The only bonus feature is the trailer.
Servillo carries the film with his capable performance, and the cinematography and scenery are visually interesting. If only the ending packed a little more punch. Even so, "The Girl by the Lake" is still a good film. It falls between a 6 and a 7 on the DVD Town scale, but the positives are enough for me to give it the benefit of the doubt.