Much as it may seem strange to us in America, where media representations of the mafia both domestic and foreign are such a major part of our culture, the recent upswing in major Italian film productions dealing with organized crime is kind of a big deal. “Gomorra,” for example, was based on a novel that forced its author into protective custody. No one even published a book that dealt with the issue until “The Day of the Owl” in 1961, and it’s been a tricky issue ever since. Yet now, despite Berlusconi and political influence over the media, we’ve had a series of fantastic films dealing with government corruption and extensive criminal activity, such as “Gomorra,” “Il Divo,” and now “A Quiet Life.” And they all star the incomparable Toni Servillo.
Really, it shouldn’t be particularly surprising. The actor is a perfect casting choice for any gritty masculine role, and here he brings the same dark nuance he used in portraying Giulio Andreotti. It’s the story of Rosario (Servillo), an ex-gangster with a new domestic life in rural Germany, who managed to get out of Napoli after faking his own death. Now he owns his own hotel and restaurant and has a new wife (Juliane Köhler, of “Downfall”) and young child. But after 15 years of tranquility, a son from his first marriage shows up. He’s now a hired gun himself and is in town on a politically sensitive assignment. Things go awry, as they always do, threatening to bring Rosario’s world crashing down around him once again.
Servillo’s performance is an artfully dynamic one, beginning with restraint and only a hint of vestigial coarseness and then painfully peeling back his rough edges, layer by layer. The tone of the film is both strikingly blunt and darkly morose, with an aesthetic reminiscent of 2009’s Austrian Oscar nominee “Revanche.” It opens with a solemnly picturesque sequence of Rosario hunting a boar to serve at a banquet, a poetic opening to a film that will bring this sort of brutality back into the life of its unsuspecting protagonist. Violence itself is constantly hovering just off screen as an inevitable dramatic clash the arrival of which we can feel from the early moments. Yet when it finally arrives, the terrible banality of aggression takes “A Quiet Life” to an even greater level of inexorable gloom. Can a gangster ever truly escape his past? It’s a question we’ve seen answered before, but never quite like this.