This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Seeing a young mother walking on the street holding her baby tends to warm the heart. Ordinary perspective suggests that said mother is doing so lovingly, because an alternative is too tough to swallow. The distortion of this perspective in Saverio Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts” makes the very same image writhe with anxiety, and is one of many reasons that make this tale of paranoid parenting disturbingly memorable. With a unique blend of style and content, an escalating discomfort in atmosphere, a score that sounds like it was spawned from the nether regions of hell, and three ferocious performances, “Hungry Hearts” is this year’s most unique horror film.
The film begins with the smell of shit in a bathroom. Mina (Alba Rohrwacher) accidentally walks into a men’s restroom, and the door is stuck before she realizes her mistake. The stall opens, and out walks Jude (Adam Driver), who answered the call of nature to violently odorous results. They are unable to get out until someone kicks in the door from the outside, but this fateful encounter proves long enough for the two to make a connection, and it’s not long until they’ve consummated their romance and tied the knot. While out on the town celebrating their marriage, Jude sings Italian to his bride in a scene saturated with the energy of true love. Jude’s mother (Roberta Maxwell) tells Mina how happy she is for both of them, and tells her that she must visit even if Jude doesn’t care to.
Mina’s unexpected pregnancy starts to take a toll on her body, and when they go get a ultrasound, the doctor warns them that the baby isn’t growing quickly enough. He says it could have something to do with Mina’s vegetarian diet and warns them that the baby needs a sufficient dose of protein in order to develop at a regular rate. The concern on Jude’s face is equal to the frustration Mina feels towards the doctor. One day, Mina recounts a visit with a fortune-teller who told her that she is carrying an indigo baby inside her. Jude laughs this off, and agrees to start seeing herbalists and naturopaths if she promises to stop listening to fortune-tellers. Time passes and nears the contraction stages, where Mina is adamant about not having a C-section. But after she collapses one day, there is no choice, and their son is born.
From this foundation of young, serendipitous love, “Hungry Hearts” begins to accumulate suspense and builds an atmosphere of anxious parenthood. Mina starts to become more and more obsessively compulsive regarding her son’s feeding and care, while Jude increasingly begins to feel like their child’s health is in serious danger, finding it hard to contain his frustration. Costanzo uses maternal instinct as a gateway to explore the paranoid nature of a dangerously confused parent, fanatically concerned with an organic lifestyle. In this way, the film plays out like an anti-hipster parenting propaganda reel at times, and as tension mounts towards the climax, and thus gets to be a bit much. Apart from this, ‘Hearts’ is a terrific example of how to use distinctive directorial style for storytelling purposes and is a showcase for two outstanding performances.
Rohrwacher and Driver walked away with dual acting awards from the Venice Film Festival due to their performances here, and it doesn’t take an acting coach to see why. With the camera unafraid to come fretfully up close, the two actors often end up swallowing the screen, almost putting their performances under a microscope. If we had to pick a standout between the two, it would have to be Driver, whose anger and frustration erupts in a controlled, fantastically assured, and emotive manner. The promise he has shown over the last year culminates in a bravura performance. But Rohrwacher too is a perfect casting choice for Mina, alternating between effortlessly sweet and frighteningly bitter modes. When Mina wakes up Jude and says, “My son threw up meat. What do you have to say about this?” chills claw up and down our spine. Then there’s Maxwell, whose brief screen time brings out uncanny and eerie sensibilities. These three perfectly cast performers are supported, and undoubtedly inspired, by Costanzo’s choice of camera angles and Nicola Piovani’s phantom-esque composition.
The birds-eye-view wide shots of a ghostly New York City and fly-on-the-wall perspectives of the interior commotions in Mina and Jude’s claustrophobic apartment imbue the screen with trepidation. At times, the angles get a little too drunk on their own effect, but for the most part, Costanzo’s choices are what makes this film a unique experience. Like getting a knock on your door in the middle of the night and looking through the peephole to see a stranger who wants to enter your home, “Hungry Hearts” instills a panic through its surreal angles that had us digging our nails into the seat. Piovani’s score cryptically enhances this ambiance.
One can get wrapped up in all the dismay and forget how the origins of Mina and Jude’s story began with a hilarious encounter in a restaurant restroom and bloomed into love before it started to wilt away. Everything that happens in “Hungry Hearts” makes the opening sequence an outstanding display of thematic foreshadowing and determined technique. Certainly not for casual viewing, Costanzo’s “Hungry Hearts” cloaks conventional narrative structure with a suspense more in line with Roman Polanski than Alfred Hitchcock, and should leave fans of tense cinema well nourished. [B+]