Rape Fantasy: Sergio Castellitto’s “Don’t Move”
by Kristi Mitsuda with responses from Saul Austerlitz and Michael Koresky
[indieWIRE’s weekly reviews are written by critics from Reverse Shot.]
When a movie’s opening frames are shot straight-down from some heavenly perspective, rain falling onto huddled humans beneath umbrellas below, as in dependable Italian actor Sergio Castellitto‘s “Don’t Move” (based on a novel by Catellitto’s wife, Margaret Mazzantini, and scripted by both), you know forthcoming events will unspool with a sense of sorrowful lamentation. This is borne out immediately when the elegant tranquility of that on-high view cuts away to a close-up of a bloodied girl (Elena Perino) being gurneyed hurriedly along the stark corridors of a hospital, and we learn she is the daughter of resident surgeon Timoteo (Castellitto). As he grapples with his only child’s pending mortality, he is quickly deluged with memories of a long-ago crisis with which he has yet to come to terms.
His recollection of midlife malaise entails the usual iconic suspects denoting bourgeois disenchantment: an immaculately-kept modern home, a cold, beautiful wife named Elsa (Claudia Gerini), dressed-up dinner parties, and the mask of impenetrable despondency that is Castellitto’s lovely, worn visage. We then meet Italia (Penélope Cruz), the salt-of-the-earth woman who will reawaken Timoteo to life’s pleasures (invariably leading to tragedy, inevitably forcing him to come of age), when his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere but close enough to her house that she offers to let him use the phone. Without much prelude or fanfare, he rapes her. This sadistic streak, illustrated in a few isolated incidents, appears to be the only way he knows to break out of his humdrum daily existence. It’s hinted at during a family dinner when he beckons his in-laws’ tiny dog towards him, brutally kicks it, then raises his eyes to meet the shocked stares of the group with the smirk of a precocious child. But the film chooses not to delve too deeply into this significant character trait, stranding it almost as soon as it’s allowed out of the closet. And such dark tendencies can’t be reabsorbed into the overall schema of bloated sentimentality that characterizes the forthcoming elegy.
Most disconcerting about the rape is how undisturbingly it’s presented. The matter-of-fact way Italia accepts the transgression and tacitly resigns herself to Timoteo’s frequent return visitations, is certainly indicative of a damaging history. While the material seeks to address the act on an individual human level rather than as a sensationalized “issue” (in the same vein as “The Woodsman,” which sympathizes with the pedophile while not condoning his actions), “Don’t Move” shrugs it off so quickly it plays as an inflammatory gimmick meant to juice up the “meet-cute” and lend a falsely provocative veneer to otherwise rote material. ” The title itself a directive associated with the crime. But if it is the intention to stage a grand romance from as contentious a starting point as rape, one should offer a more sustained exploration than that. Unlike “Irreversible,” a far superior film, the reverberations of rape resounding and informing the very structure of its excruciating unfolding, “Don’t Move” dismisses any lingering implications, nothing of even a subterranean questioning to be felt once Italia crosses the line, which isn’t delineated with any depth, from acquiescence to love. There’s something dangerously Harlequin-romance about this refusal to engage in a more complex playing field, the project’s skipping over the brutish behavior of the protagonist, in effect, excusing his actions; it leads, after all, to the absolving power of love.
And though the high-concept nature of transformative performances, like Cruz’s in this movie (she’s already won the Donatello, Italy’s Oscar equivalent), are often inordinately fussed over, their capacity to humanize even the most untouchable of stars gives credence where none other might exist. In this role, she is allowed to be a living, breathing creature, one who perspires and has oily skin and greasy hair — a functioning body rather than an objectified one — which affords the character a textured quality astonishing in contrast to the usual perfect, shiny, plasticization of the female form. The “uglification” of Cruz’s unassailable beauty here consists simply of a gap-tooth and the misfortune of belonging to the Eighties moment (does this mean that the decade’s irredeemable style was international in scope?). With badly dyed hair, blazing blue eyeshadow, and unplucked, bushy brows, not to mention a mob-wife fashion sense, she’s situated in a specific era (marked by cheesy, often recognizable pop songs), rather than imbued with the timelessness of typical idealizations. The most explicit debunking occurs when Timoteo conducts an examination after discovering she’s pregnant. As the camera focuses on Cruz’s torso, he listens to her heartbeat; studies her open mouth, the harsh light emphasizing the blemishes dotting the skin along her jawline as she says, “aaah”; checks her ears, the fine hairs standing on end, in extreme close-up; rests his hand finally on her womanly belly. The shots in this sequence linger in appreciation not often attributed such physical imperfections, contributing to a fascinating visual deconstruction of a star, one of the film’s few grace notes.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot and maintains the blog artflickchick.com. She is currently searching for a day job where she can put her cinemaniacal tendencies to good use.]
By Saul Austerlitz
We’ve seen it countless times before. A star performer, known for knockout good looks, decides that the only way he or she can be taken seriously is not to provide quality performances in worthwhile films but to appear onscreen disheveled or disfigured. Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise have both practically made careers out of it, and now Penélope Cruz, searching for the breakout role that will provide her with the serious actor’s cred she so clearly hungers for, appears in the new Italian film “Don’t Move” dressed and coiffed as if she were the senior member of Blackwell’s Worst Dressed list. To top it off, makeup magic has given Cruz a bulbous nose, thin, misshapen lips, and a face that would drive babies to tears. All this for her role as a lonely, poor woman from the wrong side of the tracks who doesn’t hold it against a wealthy surgeon (played by director Sergio Castellitto) when he practically rapes her, instead falling madly in love with him.
Cruz struggles gamely with this ridiculous melodramatic material, and with her bizarre getup, but “Don’t Move” ultimately collapses under the weight of its own preposterousness. Considering Castellitto’s recent work with directors Jacques Rivette and Marco Bellocchio, it is surprising that his own directorial effort would be such a disappointment. As for Cruz, bad luck seems to plague her career; for the past few years, she has acted in one prestige production after another, only to have each of them fall short of expectations. She remains a winning performer though, even with a face full of ugly. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, tomorrow Cruz will be beautiful again, but “Don’t Move” will stay hideous for good.’
[Saul Austerlitz is a weekly film critic for the New York Press and a frequent contributor to Reverse Shot. His writing has also appeared in MovieMaker and Cineaste.]
By Michael Koresky
For all of its gaudy, shoddy melodramatic flourishes — emotive Europop at full blast, pouring rainstorms, windswept beaches — Sergio Castellitto’s “Don’t Move” arrives at a rather intriguing impasse. Histrionic study of rancid misogyny or sentimental, earthy bodice-ripper, Catellitto’s hormonally enhanced Donatello-awarded tragic romance manages to demonstrate a sure hand when it comes to detailing the savage evil that men do so casually, while leaving its main star attraction, a plentifully haggard Penélope Cruz, high and dry. Thus, rather than endearing us to its wronged woman’s plight, we are further alienated to her exotic charms, the point of view of the film becoming almost inadvertently savage.
Though the actress’s homely transformation (detailed more painstakingly above) surely takes center stage as both a surefire publicity tool and a narrative crutch, I found Cruz’s performance to be wholly believable, a genuine guttural moan from behind the layers and years of pretty-girl mannerisms and poses, unlike Charlize Theron’s grotesque, Oscar-winning carny act. Walking with an odd limp, hobbled by legs spread apart with downtrodden self-abnegation, Cruz perfectly embodies the sadly convenient repository for Timoteo’s frightening streak of misogyny. If the script weren’t hampered by Margaret Mazzantini’s need for spiritual tidiness and feeble martyrdom, then Cruz’s Italia may have become a truly convincing figure, a Giulieta Masina with fangs. Yet as defiantly redemptive as Mazzantini and Castellitto want their female protagonist to be, her inner life is never allowed the psychological complexity afforded to Timoteo’s raging bourgeois “everyman.” She remains an abstraction, the whore and the saint. As always, with dime-store tales of biblical import, there’s not much in between.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well as the assistant editor and frequent contributor of Film Comment.]