When Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger peeks into his neighbors' windows, he gets a visit from grim men with badges and nightsticks. Further proof that art does not imitate life.
"Don't be content to merely survive."
La Finestra di fronte (or Facing Windows) has all of the elements of a stirring, emotionally involving foreign film. Warm cinematography highlights beautiful, yet real, people. These people portray three-dimensional characters who do foreign film sorts of things, like baking luscious cakes to the strains of uplifting classical music, or smoking cigarettes in a darkened kitchen while staring wistfully out the rain-streaked window. Facing Windows has desire, boredom, war, violence, love, and sympathy. The mere existence of these elements will be enough to endear this film to many viewers, particularly viewers who are rightfully burned out on the convenience and cliché that fuel much of American cinema.
Though I don't begrudge such viewers their enjoyment of Facing Windows, I don't share it. What some will call languorous and unhurried, I call unnecessarily drawn out and padded. What some would label romance, I label unfocused, vague yearnings (uninspired ones at that). What some will find quiet, refined performances, I find artificially stilted. By the end of the film, I found Facing Windows as guilty of cliché and misplaced focus as the Hollywood potboiler mentality it would claim to escape.
Facts of the Case
The central figure in Facing Windows is Giovanna, played by the captivating Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Love Returns). Giovanna is a twenty-something headed for Shrewsville. Sick of her job as an accountant at a chicken plant, sick of her three children, but most of all sick of her unambitious (but handsome and decent) husband Filippo (Filippo Nigro, The Ignorant Fairies), Giovanna chain smokes and carps at everyone around her.
Aside from the hapless Filippo, two other men revolve around the sun we call Giovanna. The first is Lorenzo (Raoul Bova, Alien vs. Predator), a banker who lives across the street. Through their facing windows, Giovanna observes his unburdened life of luxury. Oh, to be a resident of that apartment instead of this one! To sit on the plush leather couch, free from whining children and unambitious husbands! The third man in her orbit is Simone. Simone is an enigma, a handsomely attired, befuddled old man who Filippo kindly takes into their home. Simone's memory is failing; he doesn't know who he is or where he lives. Filippo invitation to stay, while kind, is an imposition on the family and it rankles Giovanna even further.
By the time the curtains close on Facing Windows, Giovanna will come to understand these three men in different lights. As she learns about Filippo, Lorenzo, and Simone, Giovanna discovers the truth about herself and her life, and decides to change everything.
Facing Windows is not a bad film, it is simply one we've seen elsewhere and better. The lack of distinct elements makes it a hard film to recommend when so many films are richer.
Facing Windows begins with a tense, violent confrontation that tells us "you're about to see a deadly serious film." The trouble is, the opening suggests a complex mystery that isn't much of a mystery at all. We know, or at least deeply suspect, that there is a noble cause behind the confrontation. This anti-suspense takes away much of the tension. The subsequent plot does very little to capitalize on the brutal opening, which leads Facing Windows to send mixed signals.
The main plot gives us an enigmatic old man who seems innocuous, but his quiet perception paves the way for an epiphany for a jaded younger character. That describes Lamerica to a T. Perhaps this is a stereotype in Italian cinema, this old man who shows the way. Nonetheless, in Lamerica the ruse seemed integrated, while in Facing Windows it seemed tacked on.
Giovanna's salvation comes from an extended baking session, during which she crafts an array of delicate and decadent pastries. The spread is rendered in loving detail like a condensed vignette of Chocolat, or Mostly Martha, or any of a host of foreign films where gourmet cooking equals mystical healing and empowerment.
The mixed signals initiated in the opening scene never really subside. Waves of indecision trickle through the film, confusing the audience. Are we focusing on a mystery, a slice-of-life, a torrid romance, or a coming-of-age? Is Facing Windows a social commentary, a romance, or a "message" film? Are we rooting for or against Giovanna? The clues never coalesce. This is good in some circumstances, because the filmmaker does not think for us. But some cohesiveness is desirable to prevent confusion of message.
This confusion grows with the unfortunate decision to have Facing Windows drift in and out of the past, in and out of reality and memory. When done properly, such effects dramatically reinforce the ties between modern-day and past events. When forced, they confuse and irritate us.
Many will praise the acting in Facing Windows, hail Massimo Girotti's nuanced portrayal and Giovanna Mezzogiorno's spirited desperation. Facing Windows was Massimo Girotti's final film, and he went out on a strong note that did justice to a long, impressive career. That said, Simone was never a particularly well-developed character, and Girotti didn't have to do much aside from keep quiet to sell the part. He had a couple of moments of clarity and/or panic that revealed his acting skill, but the role wasn't demanding. For her part, Giovanna Mezzogiorno holds the film together even in scenes that deserved to fall apart. Nonetheless, she gets through on raw charisma and appeal in scenes where her acting is not shaded enough to tell us where her character is going. I greatly enjoyed watching her, and I think she has talent, but Facing Windows wasn't a great vehicle to display it.
I would readily praise Mezzogiorno's skills as an actress had she connected with any of the three men in the story. This, above anything else, stalls Facing Windows. Filippo and Giovanna go on dates (or at least walks) together. They have beautiful children. Filippo is considerate, helps with chores, and is actively involved with the children. He overcomes her rebukes to talk her into sex. He has a great body and a roguish face. In short, there isn't much wrong with him aside from complacency. But somehow, he is all wrong for her.
Enter Lorenzo. Lorenzo is a bookishly handsome, well-dressed professional with style, grace, and sex appeal. He is the unattainable fruit that dangles just out of Giovanna's reach. He breaks into her circle but dances just at the edge of intimacy. Couldn't this situation have produced some heat? Instead, each interaction between Giovanna and Lorenzo feels like indifferent step-siblings who bond to spite their parents by watching Cinemax when they were supposed to be in bed. And forgive me, but Lorenzo turns out to be a pretty pathetic character.
Perhaps it is because of the original mystery, or because the relationship involves the most growth, but the Giovanna-Simone dynamic contains more heat than any of the other relationships in the film. Facing Windows spends a lot of time playing up the erotic subtext of Giovanna's voyeurism, so when a decrepit old man with amnesia generates the most spark, you begin to see the problem.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Facing Windows is not all blandness and indecision. There are a few snatches of dialogue that attain true depth and poetry. Certain scenes evoke wisps of emotion that evaporate in your mind when you try to categorize them. There is a measure of artistry in the film.
Much of that artistry can be traced to two sources. One is the vivid look of the film, with its deep, rich colors and generous shadow detail. The shadow detail actually taxed my setup, which is a three-year-old LCD projector; the frequent dark scenes had me straining to catch details. Gianfilippo Corticelli displays occasional elegance with the camera, although a few shots are staidly composed. The transfer is clear, but there were frequent moiré effects and twitter during horizontal pans, which grew distracting. That aside, the transfer is engrossing.
The other source is the soundtrack, with original music by Andrea Guerra and a handful of other songs. I'm not familiar with any of the composers, but I am happy to report that the songs are well chosen to complement, even highlight, certain scenes. The 5.1 track doesn't get much use out of the surrounds, but when it does the effects are subtle and pleasing.
In the end, I simply couldn't pull for any of the characters, nor see where Facing Windows really wanted to take us. It has the right trimmings, but no meat lies beneath.
The court orders that the blinds be drawn on Facing Windows.
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