“You have a really shitty job,” a woman tells Irene (Jasmine Trinca) as she sees her out of her apartment. Irene, who works under the alias “Honey” to try and sweeten the reality, at least on the surface, can’t say much in response because she knows it’s true. However you personally dice the sensitive issue of euthanasia, you can’t deny that assisting someone who has given up on life is a shitty job. Terminal illness is one of the scariest things in this world, and people like Irene understand that more than anyone because they have the kind of courage needed to actually do something about it. Whether she’s a heathen or a healer, director Valeria Golino smartly avoids the precarious question altogether. Instead she creates a subdued character study of a young woman’s awakening to the brighter side of life.
In order to get away with her illegal job, Irene has to go through a lot of hoops. Obtaining information about the terminally ill patient (or “rabbit” as she calls them) from her friend and ex-boyfriend Rocco (Libero De Rienzo), Irene travels from Italy to Mexico via the United States to buy veterinary barbiturates used to put down dogs. In order to do this on a weekly basis, she lies to her father and her current lover Stefano (Vinicio Marchioni) by telling them that she goes to Padua to meet with a University professor who is helping her with “research.” She goes as far as to take pictures with random strangers while she’s away so that she can have roommate stories to tell when she gets back. After getting the drug Lamputal, she has a strict routine for her rabbits; clear instructions that they must follow to a tee, a second person assisting (if there are no relatives available, Irene always offers herself), a chance to back out until the last second and a song of their choice. Music, in all its various incantations, is almost a supporting character in “Honey.”
Then, one day, a Professor Grimaldi (Carlo Cecchi) seeks the help of Rocco and Irene, but under one condition: that he has no assistance from anyone while he does it. Irene immediately suspects something is off, but since Grimaldi is an old acquaintance of Rocco’s, she is persuaded to go through with it. Grimaldi, stone-faced and annoyed with everything, greets Irene and questions her about the process. After hearing about how she selects music for her rabbits, he plays her some opera and they have the first of their many powerful silent moments together. Though reluctant at first and insisting on helping Grimaldi end it, Irene finally backs off and shakes it off during her daily cleansing ritual of swimming in the ocean. But when Grimaldi gives her a call to confirm that no autopsy will be able to trace the substance, Irene finds out that the old man is brimming with health (his words) and her conscience starts to eat away at her. Angry at Rocco for not telling her and at Grimaldi for giving up on life, she decides to confront the old man because his nonchalant attitude towards life is a direct infringement on her reasoning behind the kind of help she offers.
Leaving Cannes last year with a special mention from the Ecumenical Jury, there is much to admire in Valeria Golino’s first feature film. But that’s probably because she’s no rookie. You may not know her by name but do a quick search and you’ll know you’ve seen her somewhere before. Golino is one of the most popular actresses in her home of Italy but she’s crossed the pond on a number of occasions, most famously for “Rain Man” and “Hot Shots!” With “Honey,” she steps into the director’s chair for the first time and creates a touching film about what it’s like to hold someone’s hand on the precipice of death, while ignoring the internal conflict brewing inside you. For the role of Irene, she found the young talent Jasmine Trinca who has a commanding cinematic presence; her tomboyish exterior roughness coincide with her natural good looks to add layers to a character without need for words. Absorbing from the instant you see her, Irene is in almost every frame of the film and perhaps it’s her impossibly Italian charm but she’s got this captivating way about her that makes you understand why all of the people she helps feel comfort in her presence. Once the inconceivable friendship between Irene and Grimaldi starts, the cantankerous presence of Cecchi is felt and perfectly foiled against Irene’s hidden softness. The way he smokes his cigarettes like he’s about to swallow them whole, his feigned excitement over watching terrible reality TV shows and his effortless way of changing topics from losing parents to piercing tongues; Cecchi breathes just enough life into Grimaldi while still making him into a man who is completely sick of it.
While the two principal actors do a solid job with their characters, the most impressive of all things in “Honey” is Gergely Pohárnok’s cinematography. From the first shot of faces behind a golden glass door, to the lights of an airplane in the background dominating a shot of interior darkness, the lighting in this movie is exceptional. Golden hues are used whenever possible to accentuate the beauty of life’s details, and even scenes that disrupt the rhythm of the film, like one which sees Irene bathing in sunlight in an open field, can be given a pass because of how gorgeous they look. For all its minor faults of under-developed characters and disjointed scenes, “Honey” is worth seeing not only for the compelling performances from the two leads but for the incredibly effective use of light, reminding us just how much other films take it for granted.
Music is another thing which needs to be mentioned as a stand out. Whether it’s the modern sounds of Caribou, Thom Yorke from Irene’s personal playlist or the bittersweet moments of classic music that her clients choose, music is a persuasive motif that Golino uses to comment about the power of creativity. It’s still the silent moments where “Honey” shines the most; a club scene that sees Irene separated by invisible glass from a doting admirer or when we first see her prepare the dosage in a prolonged and intimate shot. Golino might not have the greatest screenplay on her hands, but there’s more than enough to admire in a director who focuses on telling her first cinematic story through visuals and subtle performances. By avoiding the prickly questions of euthanasia, she infuses her film with a sense of artistic freedom, focusing on cinematic language rather than messages. [B+]