Loss is inevitable. But how we battle through the trials of grief varies widely from person to person. Some are able to maintain the habits and routines of life, while others are sidelined under the weight of the given tragedy. But what happens when a man dies days before Easter Sunday and his mother is not yet ready to let go?
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This is the burdensome premise upon which “The Wait” is set. Juliette Binoche plays Anna, a French woman who spends her days at a vast, empty estate in Sicily, which she only shares with the groundskeeper Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli). When we meet Anna, she is collapsing under the weight of a death. As to who has died, “The Wait” is hesitant to say, going so far as to misdirect the audience. What is important is that Anna is nearly paralyzed with grief. She lays awake in bed, she doesn’t eat and hardly moves.
Then comes Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the reticent girlfriend of Anna’s son Giuseppe who has flown in from France for a visit. Yet Giuseppe is mysteriously absent, and Jeanne leaves numerous voicemails on his phone begging him to return, as well as apologizing for her transgressions the previous summer. But to make matters worse and for unexplained reasons, Anna has Giuseppe’s phone and listens in on each message the increasingly desperate Jeanne leaves.
If you have deduced from this scenario that Giuseppe is dead, that is exactly what “The Wait” intends. And in many ways, it is the first failing of the film: too much weight is predicated upon the mystery of his fate. For her part, Anna is quick to dismiss a wake that occurs at her house and to excuse her own uneven emotions, telling Jeanne that her brother has died and that Giuseppe will return before the upcoming Easter weekend. Jeanne is quick to let her worries be assuaged and is perfectly pleased with the explanation, if a little unhappy about spending time alone with her boyfriend’s strange and emotional mother.
In the meantime, Anna is quick to keep Jeanne isolated and insists there is nothing to see in town and offers instead to show her around the countryside. But it isn’t long before Anna begins recognizing pieces of herself in Jeanne, and the two begin bonding. Credit is due to de Laâge, Binoche and director Piero Messina (an AD on “The Great Beauty”), who each manage to delicately walk the tightrope of tension between the secrets clearly looming and the budding relationship between these two women. The acting in this two-hander is solid all around, and Binoche and de Laâge do wonders with abounding silences, exchanging entire conversations in uneasy glances.
But where “The Wait” really excels is in the cinematography. Francesco Di Giacomo takes full advantage of the Sicilian landscape, but does even more with the thick, heavy darknesses that settles over the house and the characters throughout, mining the contrasts of grief: seemingly relentless despair and sudden moments of relief. On the other hand, the film’s score is relegated to overly obvious emotional cues. A pair of songs awkwardly prop up a set of disparate scenes, and the climactic moment is problematically accompanied by a composition that unnecessarily telegraphs the intended importance of the sequence.
“The Wait” luxuriates in ambiguity, even as it devolves into a melodrama. But instead of speaking through silence, silence in the film seems only to insist that it is saying something. Too many eggs are placed in the metaphoric basket of Easter Sunday and the mourning mother, and not enough emphasis is placed on building character or establishing relationships.
What “The Wait” really needs is more: more story, more character, and more reason to grieve with these women. Because what these women have to grieve is worthy of time and attention, yet these qualities are frustratingly absent from this film. [C]