Is what you see actually what you get? A good question when it comes to Italian director Saverio Costanzo's mysterious, oblique cinema, full of intriguing twists and turns that build up to a world, a mood, rather to a neatly tied story. Hungry Hearts starts off with a one-take tour de force that forces Adam Driver and Alba Rohrwacher to share a bathroom in a Chinese restaurant where they find themselves stuck as he's coming out and she's coming in; it's a meet cute straight out of a romantic comedy, but one that is subverted by the unpleasant nature of the event.
And even if it signposts that Jude (Mr. Driver) and Mina (Ms. Rohrwacher) are about to become a couple, what follows, adapted by Mr. Costanzo from a novel by Marco Franzoso, is as far away from a romantic comedy as possible. Pregnancy changes Mina, who becomes unhealthily obsessed with the baby's health, as if she wants to protect the yet unborn child from the New York City surrounding them; "depression is a flaw of chemistry", can be read on a sign painted on the side of one of the buildings Mina can see from their own place's roof, in a shot that is somewhat reminding of the rooftop suicide in Abel Ferrara's 4:44 Last Day on Earth.
While we're on the subject of references, many have pointed out how much Hungry Hearts evokes Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby; I'd extend that Polanski reference to the Polish director's claustrophobic huis-clos works (Repulsion, The Tenant, Death and the Maiden, even Venus in Fur) but also invoke Todd Haynes' Safe and the "urban allergies" developed by Julianne Moore. Because Ms. Rohrwacher is effectively channeling something of Mia Farrow's uneasiness, playing a woman whose behaviour seems at some point to cross over into the seriously strange and unexplainable, while defending against all evidence that "mother knows best".
What if she doesn't? That's the question Mr. Costanzo dangles throughout Hungry Hearts, as the film swings between the stubbornness of Mina and that of Jude's overbearing mother Anne (Roberta Maxwell) - both letting the primal "mother knows best" attitudes kick in when it comes to defending the health of the newborn baby. Ultimately, the film becomes a struggle for the soul of the couple, as embodied in the young baby that is supposedly the consummation of their love; will he take after the mother or the father? Hungry Hearts revels in the claustrophobic cocoon it envelops itself in (hence the Polanski reference), DP Fabio Cianchetti's camera unafraid of becoming intrusive and obtrusive to best capture the unspoken aggression and questioning that starts to undermine the couple's relationship.
Less distant and more relatable than the previous In Memory of Me and The Solitude of Prime Numbers, Mr. Costanzo's fourth feature still doesn't reveal its secrets easily, but its disquieting exercise in tunnel-vision, in making things seem different than they are, confirms the director's skill at adapting his style and form to the film he wants to make. Whether it's the film we want to see is something else entirely.
Italy, USA, 2014
Cast Adam Driver, Alba Rohrwacher, Roberta Maxwell
Director and screenwriter Saverio Costanzo; based on the novel Il Bambino indaco by Marco Franzoso; cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti (colour); composer Nicola Piovani; designer Amy Williams; costumes Antonella Cannarozzi; editor Francesca Calvelli; producers Mario Gianani and Lorenzo Mieli; production companies Wildside and Rai Cinema in association with Atlantic Pictures
Screened March 30th 2015, Medeia Monumental 4, Lisbon (distributor press screening)