This year’s Venice Film Festival is a less starry affair than usual, for obvious reasons, with few of the Oscar contenders that have become its trademark in the last decade. Witness its opening film, Daniele Luchetti’s “Lacci” or “The Ties,” an intimate Italian domestic drama that’s smaller in scale and in international appeal than some recent openers (such as “First Man” and “Birdman”) — and smaller in its emotional scale, too. A year on from the premiere of “Marriage Story” at Venice, here is another marriage story, but instead of surveying the destructive fury of a divorce, “Lacci” sees what happens when a wife and an unfaithful husband stay together. It’s just as sad, but not as engrossing.
The unhappy couple comprises Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher), who live in a cluttered Naples apartment with their son and daughter. In the opening scenes, set in a stylized early-1980s, Aldo is shown to be an attentive dad who chats to the children as they share a bath, and then makes sandwiches for them to eat in front of the television (the program is, in a timely flourish, about how families of lions bond). But the tetchy Vanda can tell something is wrong, and Aldo doesn’t need much prompting to reveal what it is: he has been cheating on her with a gorgeous younger colleague, Lidia (Linda Caridi). Vanda kicks him out that same night, which suits him fine. Aldo is a minor celebrity who pontificates about novels on his own radio program in Rome, and he would rather be there in the metropolis with the adoring Lidia and his supportive friends than stuck at home with his family. How come, then, that when the film abruptly jumps forward 30 years, and Aldo and Vanda are now played by Silvio Orlando and Laura Morante, they are still together and Lidia is nowhere to be seen?
The rest of “Lacci” teases us by suggesting that question has a shocking answer – a dark secret that binds husband and wife together. Perhaps it has something to do with the burglary that leaves their possessions scattered all over their apartment floor. Or it has something to do with the nude Polaroids of Lidia that Aldo has kept hidden in a locked puzzle box on the coffee table.
Adapted from a novel by Domenico Starnone, “Lacci” drifts back and forth in time, revisiting the temporary break-up so we see it from Aldo’s perspective, and emphasizing just how unstable Vanda was at the time: her frizz of unkempt blonde hair is contrasted with Lidia’s sleek black mane when the two women find themselves on the radio station’s staircase. But there are so few revelations in these flashbacks that their main effect is to sap the present-day events of their momentum.
In particular, “Lacci” keeps circling back to one seemingly life-changing day: Aldo is living in Rome, having been estranged from his family for months, when Vanda drops off the children for a visit, and then skips off by herself down the street. Where is she heading? We have already been shown her earlier suicide attempt, so what might she do when she is desperate to save her marriage?
Spoiler alert: The scene simply isn’t as significant as the multiple flashbacks lead us to believe. There is no big reveal, or even a small one. What we are seeing, at bottom, are long, talky, but not especially dramatic scenes from a marriage sustained by inertia and resentment. And while Luchetti’s depiction of this unsatisfactory arrangement is honest and observant, with well-judged, understated performances throughout, it’s hard to say why its two passive-aggressive participants merit such scrutiny. The fact that the English title, “The Ties,” relates in part to shoelace-tying demonstrates how low-stakes the action really is.
If anything, “Lacci” works as a study of male complacency, a portrait of a weak man who imagines himself to be an honorable intellectual, but who chooses the lazy and cowardly option every time, and isn’t able to articulate why. Aldo is “ordinary-clever,” to use his grown-up daughter’s phrase, in that he can sound cogent when analyzing books on the radio, but can’t apply that fluency to himself. Fair enough; it’s intriguing to see a middlebrow, middle-class media type portrayed in such perceptive terms. But the point is that Aldo is not as remarkable as he thinks he is, whereas a remarkable protagonist might have been given the film more purpose.
Maybe, in adapting the novel, Luchetti should have paid more attention to the damaged offspring who can actually express their feelings. Sadly, they’ve underutilized both as hopeful children and as cynical adults (Giovanna Mezzogiorno, Adriano Giannini). As it is, this marriage story has a marriage — but not much of a story.
“Lacci” premiered as the opening night selection at the 2020 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.