Saturday, June 03, 2017

Open Roads ’17: The Children of the Night

This isolated boarding school follows in the tradition of Lindsay Anderson’s if…, but it also has Eastern European prostitutes and maybe ghosts. You are certain to find hierarchy and abusive behavior there. That is the whole point. How else will these privileged young masters of the universe get sufficiently ruthless to protect their families’ positions in society? Two recent transfers will rebel against the process in Andrea De Sica’s The Children of the Night (trailer here), which screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2017.

Giulio is the sensitive one, whose globetrotting business-leader mother has never fully allowed him to mourn the accidental death of his father. Edoardo is the black-sheep son of a South American oligarch, who never backs down. He has been through the hazing before, so he just shrugs off repeated blows to his solar plexus. Recognizing non-conformist inclinations in each other, the two new students become fast friends.

Now they just need an outlet for their rebelliousness. Initially, it seems they have found one when they start visiting a nearby brothel worthy of Eyes Wide Shut. Eventually, Edoardo suspects the swanky yet strangely hospitable club is part of the school’s campaign of behavioral control. By this time, Giulio is completely caught up in his professional/romantic relationship with the pretty young prostitute Elena, which leads to friction between the friends. Then Edoardo maybe sees ghosts—and finds the experience troubling.

Children starts off brimming with promise. Both the prep school’s hallowed halls and the lush hedonistic club are evocative settings. Boarding school power games are not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but they are well executed here. The secret surveillance also gives the film a thin veneer of topicality. Unfortunately, De Sica clearly had no idea how to end his narrative, because the third act constantly lurches from one dubious crisis-plot point to another.

It is too bad, because Ludovico Succio is impressively twitchy and intense as Edoardo. He is not just another prep school bad boy. He is a hurricane of existential angst. Vincenzo Crea’s Giulio is a somewhat unformed skull full of mush, but that is rather the point. It is also interesting to see regular Dardenne Brothers and Eugène Green repertory player Fabrizio Rongione in such a different context. Here he portrays Mathias, a school alumnus now employed as a tutor and house-master, whose moral and ethical complicity is open to debate. As one might expect, Rongione’s performance is cool and cerebral.

Frankly, Children might have worked better as a television series than as a theatrical feature. That would have allowed De Sica more time to tease out the school’s secrets before forcing the issue. Still, he conveys a strong sense of place and an uncomfortably intimate familiarity with the school’s rats-in-a-box social dynamics. Sort of recommended for a while, Children of the Night screens tomorrow (6/4) and Wednesday (6/7) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Open Roads.