Adapted from the novel by Paolo Giordino, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is the third feature film from the Italian director Saverio Costanzo (Private, In Memory Of Me) and is, to my eyes anyway, a really bold and engaging work that demands conversation and a wider audience. I heard almost nothing about this film from my colleagues here in Toronto, only mild jeers from a few people and one vocal supporter who shared my enthusiasm after the mostly empty Press and Industry screening. Given that I can only cover so many films as a programmer and a blogger, I have been waiting until the end of the festival to decide which movie would need my support the most (as if it meant anything, but still…) and for me, The Solitude of Prime Numbers has been the movie that has stayed with me, the silence surrounding it a baffling consequence of unfortunate inattention.
Costanzo has made what is essentially a horror story about personal isolation between two young people; Alice (Alba Rohrwacher, as brilliant here as she was in I Am Love) and Mattia (Luca Marinelli) are attracted to one another, orbiting the periphery of one another’s lives as they each battle their own suffering. Alice’s suffering is physical, having injured her leg and hip in a skiiing accident as a young child, she walks with a severe limp and endures physical pain as a constant in her life. Mattia carries a dark secret from his childhood that has left him a devastated, guilt riddled soul; he turns away from his emotions and into himself, using his own body as a canvas for dealing with his almost unconscious need to rid himself of his torment. Costanzo builds the film around these two characters and three specific phases of their lives; their childhood, when tragedy befalls each of them, their adolescence, when they meet and begin an unlikely courtship, and their adult lives, which focuses on their struggle to connect with one another. Throughout the film, Costanzo uses references to other films (for example, the music of György Ligeti used by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining shows up once again, Lynchian dream logic is utilized sparingly, etc.) to evoke a sense of dread, an almost relentless feeling of isolation and sadness that is betrayed by the beautiful 35mm CinemaScope images and dreamscapes that Costanzo creates to visualize his characters’ desires.
The Solitude Of Prime Numbers
At the heart of the film are two sequences which are among the most thrilling things I’ve seen at the movies this year. First, right in the middle of the film, Costanzo presents a teenage house party (I have a thing for them, I guess) set to techno music where Alice declares her feelings for Mattia and suffers rejection and humiliation. The scene features disorienting strobe and laser lights and thumping bass, sending the film (and the onscreen party) into a state of ecstasy that seems to come from nowhere and only deepens our feelings for Alice and Mattia; they are unable to share the moment with their peers and unable to connect with one another. While the collective energy of pure youthful enthusiasm swirls around them, dizzy and drunk on possibility, you just know that these two people, even so young, will never be a part of this community of happy oblivion. The scene, which lasts maybe 15 minutes, really pulled me in with the authenticity of teenage isolation and a very familiar feeling of being an outsider and wishing it weren’t so.
The second sequence is the film’s coda, where the adult Alice (now skin and bones, with Alba Rohrwacher pulling a Machinist and losing what seems to be a dangerous amount of weight) and Mattia (now corpulent, with Luca Marinelli carrying off his own Raging Bull weight gain routine) finally meet as adults and seek reconciliation. There is a really great moment when Alice, clearly dreaming, walks through a tropical forest and into Mattia’s childhood apartment; she is carrying his secret, thinking of him, trying to find a way to connect again. I have not seen such a lovely visual representation of the quest to discover another person’s soul and there is something very special about Alba Rohrwacher that draws an immediate connection out of me; she is as convincing an actress as any I’ve seen, a truly gifted performer who makes you believe in the absolute reality of her feelings. Costanzo for his part keeps things moving by cutting back and forth through time, and while Mattia’s secret is revealed a little late in the game (and a little slowly, anyone with a brain knows where this is going from the moment he makes a fatal mistake), it is by keeping us close to Alice that it becomes tolerable, even interesting; she is learning about the man who could never connect with her and even though we have a good idea of the information, it is compelling cinema to watch the two actors reveal their suffering at last and, finally, offer real consolation.
Much will be made of the film’s narrative strategy, but that is easily forgiven; all this mathematical mumbo jumbo about “prime numbers” equating to personal isolation is irrelevant to the movie, in my opinion (it is not even deployed symbolically!), as is the idea that it is a horror film– sure, the director may say so, but don’t let the press conference distract you from the work itself, folks. Have we learned nothing from Casey Affleck? (*ha*) But honestly, watching the actors work and thrilling to the ambitious cinematography (this is a movie for a big, big screen) and sound design, I found all of the pretense to fall away and the experience of the characters to bring me my own comforts. While the movie is by no means perfect, I really don’t want to live in world where it has to be for it to be of value; there is plenty to love about The Solitude of Prime Numbers, plenty to discuss and admire, and it is heartening to see a filmmaker in his early 30’s taking on big ideas with delicious visual bravura that still makes way for powerful performances. Costanzo’s film strikes a balance between ideas and feelings that echoes my own inner conflicts, so maybe it struck a chord in me, but I hope that eventually, the world will catch up with The Solitude of Prime Numbers and give this flawed, exciting movie the chance it deserves with American audiences.