Monday, March 03, 2014

Golino’s Honey

She is a one-person drug mule and agent of death. Not surprisingly, she is very much inclined to keep people at arm’s length. Personal connections do indeed lead to complications for the clandestine euthanasia activist in international movie-star Valeria Golino’s assured feature directorial debut, Honey (“Euro” trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Clearly, the euthanasia debate has captured the Italian zeitgeist, considering Honey follows Marco Bellocchio’s Dormant Beauty with an even more ambiguous take on the prohibited practice. Irene (a.k.a. Honey) is an ardent believer in the right to die and the duty to assist. Regularly, she travels to southern California, where she nips across the border for veterinarian-grade doggie downers that evidently have the advantage of being hard to detect in the human body. She also administers the drugs, or at least facilitates their use, with clients referred by her former lover, a doctor who shares her convictions.

Irene’s house-calls follow a set pattern, involving soothing music, clear consent, and multiple opportunities to opt out. The latter rarely happens. However, her ethical compass starts to reel after making a delivery to retired architect Carlo Grimaldi. In a follow-up conversation, he admits he is not terminally ill, but simply tired of this mortal coil. Feeling alarmed and slightly betrayed, Irene rushes to “save” Grimaldi, which he does not take kindly to, at least not initially. Yet, as she persists in a calmer manner, something begins to develop between the two—not exactly friendship or a surrogate father-daughter relationship, but maybe a little of both.

It is strange to think such a mature, ethically thorny drama was directed by the co-star of Hot Shots! Part Deux and Big Top Pee-Wee, but here it is—and it really is quite a fine work. Golino is clearly an actors’ director, but she crafts some visually stylish sequences that still never break the film’s intensely personal and private vibe. Irene is a profoundly reserved character, whose guarded nature is a deliberate defense strategy. Yet, thanks to Jasmine Trinca’s exquisitely subtle performance and Golino’s evocative framing, viewers always have a sense of where her head is at, each and every moment. She is a powerful screen presence, conveying earthy sexuality, despite her androgynous look.

Trinca also develops some remarkably rich and unclassifiable chemistry with veteran Italian stage thesp Carlo Cecchi as the inconvenient Grimaldi.  Together, they make it impossible to boil their connection down to an easy cliché. In fact, the entire film defies reductive labeling, supplying elements during each “mercy” mission that either side of the euthanasia debate might interpret to their own ends.

Given its slow and somewhat repetitive start, Honey is a film viewers need to “stick with,” but it is worth the early investment. It is a work of unusual emotional intelligence that resists the siren temptation to play favorites on such a divisive issue. Recommended for those who appreciate intimate character studies, Honey opens this Friday (3/7) in New York at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.