In December, I attended an Italian film festival featuring some interesting movies, documentaries and shorts from the last couple of years.
The main attraction on the first of the three-day festival was Perfect Strangers (Perfetti sconosciuti), an award-winning comedy-drama written and directed by Paolo Genovese and released in February 2016. Genovese is a commercially successful, pluri-nominated director and scriptwriter, known for The Immature (Immaturi, 2010) and Tutta colpa di Freud (translates to “All Freud’s fault”, 2014).
Although Italian comedies are often considered clichéd and banal (like Hollywood comedies and many others which exist in every country), Perfect Strangers stands out because its humour derives from a thought-provoking issue which can alter the way we understand social life.
The premise of the film is extremely simple: a group of friends, three married couples and another friend, reunite for dinner at one of the couples’ apartment. In fact, most of the movie is set in the same apartment, mainly in the dining room. This setting gives the viewers a claustrophobic feeling of presentiment, even though the atmosphere between the friends is positive and vivacious since they cannot foresee the events that will unfold during the evening.
The hosts are Rocco and Eva, long-time married and parents to a teenage daughter. The other couples are Lele and Carlotta, parents to two young kids, and the newly-married Cosimo and Bianca. The viewers ‘visit’ each of their homes before they’re all reunited at Rocco and Eva’s, thus we get a taste of their private marital life and the underlying issues. The last guest, the unemployed divorcee Peppe, arrives last and without his new girlfriend Lucilla, to the disappointment of his gossiping friends.
Naturally, the dinner table is the playing field, where one is expected to converse while enjoying the meal. The main topic, introduced right during the first course, is about the importance of smartphones in our daily lives and our dependence on them. As one character says, the smartphone has become the black box of our lives, concealing secrets which can compromise our relationships (hence the movie’s tagline: “Each one of us has three lives: public, private and secret”). This discussion gives birth to a game in which all of them have to keep their phone on the table and every message or call received during the dinner has to be made public. After initial doubts, everyone accepts to play. It starts out in a hilarious manner, a sign of how all the characters treat it as an innocuous game, but how harmless is it? The cracks between the married couples might show up, the secrets between friends might be exposed. Cosimo’s ringtone, Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, is symbolic – who will survive the game?
Concurrent to the dinner is the lunar eclipse, which leads the friends to the balcony between meal courses. It’s another significant symbol in the film, the representation of the human being’s duality and the obscure side which is kept hidden from others. The completion of the eclipse also signals a shift in the course of the game because from then on, things become more serious and less funny. Everyone’s secrets are exposed in front of all the group, provoking a chain reaction with devastating consequences.
What makes the film stand out from others of the genre is the twist right after the climax. It unsettles the viewers and forces them to rethink their understanding of the whole plot. The ending, which seems like the typical happy ending, conceals a worrying truth which makes the viewers reconsider the laughs they had and think of life and the masks that each of us wears on a daily basis. No matter what, we’re still “perfect strangers” to each other. Anyone who’s familiar with older Italian movies will note a similarity with the commedia all’italiana, a cinematic movement from the 1960-70s characterised by satire and grotesque humour derived from serious issues as a means of social criticism.
Apart from the genius of the screenplay, the direction is also interesting. As Genovese himself said after the screening at the film festival (he was a guest along with Marco Giallini, who interpreted Rocco), he purposely filmed many scenes from the point of view of the vacant seat next to Peppe (as seen from the cover photo above). This invites the viewer to take the seat and witness the events from up close. Besides that, I personally appreciated the type of shots that focus on the speaking character while also showing other characters in the background or adjacently, allowing for a close inspection of their reactions. It is a well-made movie with a good story and great actors, so it’s no wonder that it won two David di Donatello (the Italian Oscars) for Best Movie and Best Screenplay as well as Best Screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival.
I heartily recommend Perfect Strangers, both to movie buffs and to those who are curious about European films. It’s entertaining from start to end, with good-natured laughs and thought-provoking insights that should satisfy both the comedy and the drama needs of every film viewer.