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"My last thought will be for you."
A UK region 2 DVD review of THE FAMILY FRIEND / L'AMICO DI FAMIGLIA by Slarek
 
"Never confuse the improbable with the impossible."
Geremia De Geremei

 

One of the unexpected high points of my 2005 cinema-going was Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love [Le Conseguenze dell'amore]. It's not that I wasn't expecting it to be good – we'd booked the 35mm print for a cinema screening on the basis of the reviews alone, despite the DVD already being available – it's just that I wasn't expecting it to be THAT good. The story revolved around a middle-aged Italian named Titta Di Girolamo, who had spent ten years in the same Swiss hotel occupying the same seat for his meals and waiting for who knows what – it may sound the stuff of minimalist drama, but Sorrentino's handling was instantly beguiling and the friendship that developed between Titta and a young, attractive hotel barmaid changed everything for the character and the film itself. If you haven't seen it then it comes heartily recommended – it's available on UK DVD courtesy of Artificial Eye, and it's they who have also brought to DVD Sorrentino's latest and equally captivating work, The Family Friend [L'Amico di famiglia].

While Titta Di Girolamo was emotionally cold but quietly intriguing, the character at the centre of The Family Friend is defined largely by his sleazy self-interest – on my regularly updated list of characters who don't have to be likeable to be interesting, Geremia De Geremei must sit somewhere near the top. A diminutive weasel of a man, Geremia is a money lender who likes to believe that he is good-hearted – he appears fond of the doubtless self-created nickname, Geremia Heart-of-Gold – but if you're struggling with your loan payments then this modern-day Shylock will have his pound of flesh, possibly in sexual favours from your wife or daughter. He spends precious little of the money he makes on himself, sharing his dark, threadbare and leaky abode with his ailing and housebound mother, while his miserly greed is such that in spite of his income he will happily steal goods from a supermarket and then take a single sweet to the checkout and demand a discount on his loyalty card. His more unsavoury attributes are summed up about a third of the way in when he is described to a prospective customer as "short-tempered, stingy, fake, vengeful, talkative. And extremely hideous. He smells foul, he sweats profusely."

But to reiterate the point above, Geremia may not be likeable, but he most definitely IS interesting. As played by Giacomo Rizzo, whom director Sorrentino uncharitably (and perhaps jokingly) describes in the accompanying interview as "the ugliest actor in Italy, or one of the ugliest," he has all the charm of a lizard that keeps trying to crawl up your trouser leg, but as a screen character is perversely compelling. This really is a case of the actor finding the inner humanity of a man who on the surface appears to have none, and his moments of realisation and sadness for his own life register beyond the obvious pleasure of a seeing a harsh lesson learned by the deserving.

The pursuit of money is not just Geremia's obsession, it is his only doorway to human contact outside of his home. The nearest he has to a friend – the easy-going, cowboy-dressing, Country and Western obsessed Gino – is actually his assistant, a man whose task it is to investigate potential borrowers and gently lean on them if they misplace Geremia's trust or fail to make payments. Geremia likes to get personally involved with his clients, to become the 'family friend' of the title. He is, the character who provided that unflattering description above informs us, "there when you need him, but also when you don't." But his interest in the preparations for the wedding of beautiful young Rosalba, funded by a loan her proud father can ill afford, are more personal. Bewitched by Rosalba's beauty, Geremia uses a chance event on the wedding day to take advantage of her, and a deal is struck to reduce her father's loan repayments at considerable cost to her dignity. But Geremia is not the only one captivated by Rosalba, and could it be that she actually has genuine feelings for this unpleasant lecher?

There's an obvious whiff of Beauty and the Beast to the central narrative, but the texturing, sub-stories and character detail ensure that this is just one ingredient in a deliciously rich brew. Other figures that enter the story may or may not have a bearing on the turns Geremia's life and work could take, from the man hoping to buy a title to secure a deal with the Vatican ("I don't trust the Vatican," Geremia tells him, "or God") to the business consortium looking for a million Euro loan to upgrade their hotel chain ahead of their competitors, a deal that seems designed to engineer Geremia's downfall.

The pace is upped from The Consequences of Love, with Luca Bigazzi's energetic and smoothly mobile camera and consistently gorgeous use of light and the scope frame making the most of some arresting minimalist architecture (one of the few good things to come out of fascism, the director informs us), which is joined at the hip to a seductively and sometimes hauntingly employed source music soundtrack. Sorrentino's love of Fellini films is evident in the sometimes surrealistic comedy and effortlessly dream-like asides, although two of the most memorable – a small army of citizens carrying chairs down a main road and the three centurions walking the night streets of Rome – turn out to have logical explanations, something I cannot provide for the extraordinary opening shot involving a nun buried up to her neck in sand.

To call The Family Friend a quirky delight does it a disservice, because it's a richer, more finely tuned and more complex work than that accurate but simplistic summing-up suggests. There's enough to delight cineastes in the handling alone, with almost every shot having is own compositional beauty, while the consistently effective union of film and music is an object lesson in how to use source tracks without turning your film into an extended music video. But so much comes down to the central character and Giacomo Rizzo's compelling performance, from his confidence of his own world view to his comically hurried shuffle and the swing of his ever-present plastic carrier bag. Rizzo inhabits the character and makes him real, a core of truth within the stylisation – he may not be easily likeable, but you do, in spite of everything, feel for his fate.

sound and vision

When Artificial Eye get it right they can really get it right, and The Family Friend is one such disc in every respect. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer here strikes a fine balance between the bright greys and whites of the architectural exteriors and the red tinted gloom of the interior or Geremia's house at night. The detail is well captured here – just compare the main feature with the seriously inferior extracts included with the interview in the extra features – but is still best viewed in a darkened room. Colours are rich without over-saturation, and sharpness and contrast are both very good. There is some minor artefacting on on some areas of single colour, but it's visibility really does depend on your player and monitor.

Dolby 2.0 stereo and Dolby surround 5.1 soundtracks are included but there really is no contest here, the perfectly serviceable stereo losing out to the handsomely recorded and mixed 5.1 track. Separation is precise and the surrounds are used to engagingly inclusive effect. Particularly impressive is the track's crystal clarity and dynamic range, something it achieves without over-cranking the LFE bass.

extra features

Interview with Paolo Sorrentino (30:53)
A not completely relaxed Sorrentino discusses a number of aspects of the production, including how it came about, working with lead actor Giacomo Rizzo and cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, planning the shots and the music, the selection of locations and architecture, and his love of subcultures. It's all interesting stuff and has its memorable moments, including the above-mentioned evaluation of Rizzo's looks.

Behind the Scenes Documentary (16:37)
A loosely structured collection of behind-the-scenes footage covering a wide variety of scenes, but no interviews.

Behind the Scenes Featurette 1 (3:14)
More of above, but with a brief interview with Rizzo about the scene being filmed.

Behind the Scenes Featurette 2 (1:50)
Filming the C&W club scene, a brief and largely insubstantial addition to the above.

Behind the Scenes Featurette 3 (4:49)
An EPK, which includes some crossover with behind-the-scenes Documentary above and some brief interview material.

Deleted/Alternate Scenes (15:53)
A commentary-free collection of cut scenes and alternative edits of existing scenes that's definitely worth catching, not least for the extra character information provided, including just how Geremia got that broken arm everyone keeps asking about.

Alternate Love Scene (5:09)
A slightly more explicit cut of a key scene.

Alternate Ending (6:45)
A very different ending to the one used in the film, and a substantial sequence in its own right, this is a fascinating inclusion that cannot be discussed in any detail without a big spoiler alert.

Italian Trailer (1:42)
A brisk and effective sell that includes footage cut from the release version.

UK Trailer (2:06)
A really well edited trailer that would certainly have hooked me in were I not already sold.

Stills Gallery
12 stills from the film, nothing revelatory.

Filmographies
Full filmographies for Paolo Sorrentino and Laura Chiatti, but only a selected one for Giacomo Rizzo.

summary

I'll admit to coming to The Family Friend with high hopes after The Consequences of Love, and I wasn't disappointed. If anything, the new film surpasses the standard set by the earlier one, blending drama, pathos, comedy, social commentary and gentle surrealism into a captivating character study whose message for a society seemingly obsessed with the acquisition of wealth is one worth spreading. Artificial Eye have done the film proud here, with a fine anamorphic transfer, an excellent soundtrack and a seriously impressive set of extra features. Highly recommended.

The Family Friend
L'Amico di famiglia

Italy / France 2006
99 mins
director
Paolo Sorrentino
starring
Giacomo Rizzo
Fabrizio Bentivoglio
Laura Chiatti
Gigi Angelillo,
Clara Bindi
Barbara Valmorin

DVD details
region 2
video
2.35:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
Italian
subtitles
English
extras
Interview with director
Behind the scenes documentary
Behind the scenes featurettes
Deleted/alternate scenes
Alternate love scene
Alternate ending
Trailers
Stills gallery
Filmographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
24 July 2007
review posted
2 August 2007

Related review
This Must Be the Place [DVD review]

See all of Slarek's reviews