Sydney Dispatch 2: Quiet Chaos

By robbiefreeling | REVERSEBLOG: the reverse shot blog June 9, 2008 at 6:19AM

Sydney Dispatch 2: Quiet Chaos
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Sydney Film Festival — Day 2

Quiet Chaos, Antonello Grimaldi’s sweet and muted competition entry about a mourning father and daughter, presents the perfect tonic to the blowsy, unimaginative tripe proffered by Mike Leigh on opening night. With poise and restraint, Grimaldi demonstrates the meaning of humane cinema, discreetly observing Pietro (Nanni Moretti) a middle-aged television executive who returns from an act of beachfront heroism to find his wife sprawled across the lawns of his vacation villa, dead of an apparent fall. There is no grand catharsis to be had, as a wordless credit sequence elides most of the funeral details; rather a quietly, beautifully observed working through of sorrow—the numbness that comes in tragedy’s wake and the inexorable, if painful process of returning to some semblance of animation. But Grimaldi shows us something not quite like sorrow. Wanting tears or destructive tendencies, Pietro’s daughter copes unnaturally well with her mother’s passing, betraying a calm that the father finds unsettling, especially so when he comes to the jarring realization that the daughter’s lack of outward sentiment mirrors his own. (For his part, Pietro staves off feeling by tallying lists in his head: for example, the airlines he’s flown during his life, or the past houses he’s lived in.)

Pietro’s playful promise to wait outside his daughter’s school becomes a pact dutifully adhered to, as he begins to loiter all day, every day, in the park opposite. Social anchors like work and friends recede in importance like so much ambient noise, but rather than stray into maudlin gather-ye-roses territory Quiet Chaos, sculpted by Grimaldi’s sensitive direction, slips into beguiling, ingenuous play. Pietro conducts business from his car (highlighted by a delightfully imperious cameo from Roman Polanski), but has no truck with the fraught politics of his workplace. He whiles away the hours in a local café, makes eyes with the lithe blonde who walks her dog in the park, makes games with the autistic boy who also makes a daily stroll with his carer, and generally re-connects with his sense of self. As a premise, Quiet Chaos sounds awful and saccharine; but in practice it ascends to something almost sublime.

Moretti’s hangdog charisma provides much of the film’s buoyancy, his innate mesmerizing quality waging constant war with Pietro’s beleaguered emotional state. There’s a chasm between the outer and the inner, and so Moretti’s performance is more profoundly credible as a picture of grief because of the constant tussle between the two. Pietro is clearly far from perfect, tiptoeing around the edge of several transgressions—reading his wife’s e-mails, bedding his sister in law (and former paramour)—but he always steps away. Through Moretti the father is profoundly moral, breathing grief rather than putting it up for theatrical display; and the actor’s performance is bolstered by Alessandro Pesci, whose photography sets a bar against histrionics. Under Pesci’s circumspect eye, minute gestures, like Pietro’s hand drifting towards his daughter’s—and fluttering anxiously away again, as he recalls that she’s embarrassed by such affection—come close to transcendence.

Quiet Chaos is doggedly un-cynical and wears its emotions on its sleeve, which I suppose puts it in the same stratum as Happy-Go-Lucky. But by being guarded and pensive where Mike Leigh is neither, Grimaldi’s film is a modest marvel. —JAMES CRAWFORD