Sunday, May 27, 2018

Open Roads ’18: The Place

It is sort of like an Italian Cheers, but nobody knows the name of the quiet, Mephistophelean man who always sits in the corner table. If you are there to see him, you must be desperate, but the deals he offers never bring peace of mind. If this sounds familiar, then perhaps you remember
Christopher Kubasik’s two-season FX television show, The Booth at the End, which Paolo Genovese been remade as an Italian one-shot feature. Fans of the source show will find it translated surprisingly smoothly when Genovese’s The Place (trailer here) screens during Open Roads: New Italian Cinema 2018.

He sits in “The Place” (this time around, it really is more of a café than a diner), where he drinks a lot of coffee, a little bit of whiskey, and lets the despairing sign away their souls. All day long, people ask for miracles, but he gives them Faustian bargains. One old woman wants to cure her husband’s Alzheimer’s. To do that, she must place a bomb somewhere where it is sure to kill a certain number of people. Hers is probably the most extreme case, but not by much. To save his son, one man must kill another innocent child. Rather nefariously, “The Man” sends another favor-seeker on a mission to protect the girl he is stalking.

The thing of it is, The Man at the corner table is by far the most interesting character in the film (and several others are quite compelling). We never get any of his backstory or any real explanation, but we quickly get the impression he takes no pleasure from any of this mayhem. He is a cosmic middle man—perhaps even a reluctant one, whose hands are tied by the mysterious notebook he frequently consults. Angela, who works the swing and graveyard shifts can’t figure him out, but he rather uncharacteristically seems to enjoy her efforts to crack his code.

Frankly, it is pretty darned impressive how successfully Genovese boils down the first season of Booth into a tight, taut feature. It will hold viewers rapt by its spell for one hour and forty-five minutes, yet you will probably have no desire to go catch-up with the two seasons of Booth (even though it stars the ever reliable Xander Berkeley), because you will feel like you have seen it in its essence.

Genovese puts a lot on the cast’s shoulders, because he retains the original show’s minimalist technique of unfolding all of the narrative developments in conversations with the Man, but they bear it smashingly, particularly Valerio Mastandrea, who is wonderfully subtle as the Man himself. Throughout the entire film, he has the audience guessing whether he is the monster many favor-seekers think him to be, or the lonely, world-weary man Angela assumes he is. He is also perfectly counter-balanced by Sabrina Ferilli as the warm and down-to-earth Angela. You can see why anyone would guzzle java at her late-night café. The Place is also frequented by at least half a dozen other top Italian thesps, such as Alba Rohwacher (I Am Love, Hungry Hearts) and Marco Giallini, who are all working at the top of their respective games.

The Place is not exactly a thriller per se, but it turns a couple of twists that are real game-changers. As a remake of a somewhat known American property, The Place will probably be a tough sell for theatrical distribution, which is a shame, because it is a prime example of super-slick, ultra-grabby filmmaking. Very highly recommended, The Place screens twice this Thursday (5/31) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Open Roads.