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Perfetti sconosciuti

Original title: Perfetti sconosciuti

D: Paolo Genovese / 96m

Cast: Giuseppe Battiston, Anna Foglietta, Marco Giallini, Edoardo Leo, Valerio Mastandrea, Alba Rohrwacher, Kasia Smutniak, Benedetta Porcaroli

Seven friends gather together for a dinner party, held at the home of cosmetic surgeon Rocco (Giallini) and his wife, therapist Eva (Smutniak). Joining them are newlyweds Cosimo (Leo) and Bianca (Rohrwacher), who have decided to try for a baby; distant married couple Lele (Mastandrea) and Carlotta (Foglietta); and single friend Peppe (Battiston), who should be bringing his new girlfriend for everyone to meet, but who turns up alone as she’s fallen ill. Before the dinner party gets under way, we’re treated to telling glimpses of the three couples’ relationships, and in particular, the fractious way in which Rocco and Eva deal with their daughter, Sofia (Porcaroli).

With an eclipse of the sun due to occur that evening, the friends muse on that and various other topics before a phone call to one of them raises the question of whether or not any of them know each other as well as they think. With the call used as an instigator, Eva suggests they all play a game: each has to place their mobile phone on the table and if they receive a phone call during the evening they have to let everyone else hear what the caller is saying, or if they receive a text or e-mail they have to read it out and show someone else to prove what they’re saying is correct. Rocco isn’t too keen to play the game but he’s in the minority, and so he goes along with it. Eva is keen to see if anyone has any secrets they want to hide, but everyone denies the likelihood that she’ll be proven right.

As the evening progresses, certain calls and texts lead to certain revelations: that at least three of the friends are having affairs, one is on the verge of doing so, two are living a lie, and one has been betrayed from the very beginning of their relationship with their partner. Emotions run high, accusations are made, confrontations are endured, and relationships are smashed apart with only the barest possibility of reconciliations occurring in the future. And still more secrets go unrevealed…

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Before the invention of the telephone, the letter was the pre-eminent way for lovers, especially those conducting their affairs under cover of secrecy, to communicate their feelings for each other (when they weren’t able to snatch some time together). The telephone made communication easier and more immediate – no more waiting for a letter that might be intercepted or not even arrive – but with the explosion in telecommunications over the last twenty years it’s become easier to conduct our secret affairs in private, and to keep our unwitting partners in the dark, our misdeeds hidden behind a barrage of passcodes and biometric security.

Against this, it’s hard to imagine anyone agreeing to reveal the nature of the calls and messages they receive on their mobile phones, especially if their partners are there with them at the time, so Rocco’s objection seems correct. Like everyone else he has a secret, but in relation to subsequent revelations it’s on the trivial side (though it does speak volumes for the state of his relationship with Eva). But because everyone else, despite some minor objections, agrees to go along with Eva’s “game”, Perfect Strangers avoids discussing either our over-reliance on modern technology, or the ways in which it can allow us to lead hidden, secretive lives. Instead, and after a suitably languorous period where suspicions go unraised and calls/texts are easily explained away, the movie starts to unravel the lives of its characters and the façades they adopt in everyday life. As the poster puts it, each of us has three lives: a public one, a private one, and a secret one.

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Once these façades are exposed for what they are – the masks we wear to prove that our deceit is necessary and/or acceptable, at least to ourselves – the script by director Genovese, Filippo Bologna, Paolo Costella, Paola Mammini and Rolando Ravello piles on the anguish and the shame and does its best to up the ante with each new secret that’s revealed. With some of the secrets proving inter-connected, and in ways that stretch the narrative’s carefully established plausibility – these are friends you can believe have known each other for years, and are comfortable with each other – the movie becomes overheated, its characters behaving as if the betrayals they’ve discovered are worse than any betrayal they’ve committed themselves. There’s a stark, angry moment when the provenance of a pair of earrings reveals an unexpected connection between two of the characters; it’s a brief scene that arrives out of the blue and is all the better for it. Otherwise, the script opts for extended, unlikely conversations that feel too articulate for the emotions everyone’s supposed to be feeling.

That said, this is the type of movie that feels as if it could have been adapted from a stage play (or could be adapted into one). Rocco and Eva’s apartment, an assortment of rooms dominated not by the dining room (which always feels cramped, adding to the notion of a pressure cooker environment) but by their vast kitchen, is the kind of set where a camera can prowl around characters with impunity and a keen eye for deceitful behaviour or motivations. Genovese frames his characters carefully, always showing the emotional distance between them (as well as the physical distance) while they’re at the dinner table, and the further distance they put between themselves when they’re away from it. As the movie progresses, and small rifts of insecurity become gaping chasms of duplicity, it reinforces the idea that we never really know anyone, even someone we live with or have known for a long time.

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At the movie’s end, and with the guests departing in various degrees of haste, Genovese and his co-screenwriters throw audiences a curveball that allows for a different, perhaps more mournful ending than expected. It’s awkwardly done, and as curveballs go, isn’t signposted too well; some audiences may be confused by what they’re seeing, but in relation to what’s happened throughout the evening it does allow the individual viewer to make their own mind up as to whether or not “honesty is the best policy”.

The cast all get their moments to shine, with Battiston delivering Peppe’s verdict on his friends’ behaviour with a sad resignation that’s entirely appropriate. Foglietta is on fine form as the wife who yearns for something more from her marriage but can’t find the wherewithal to find it and keep it, and Rohrwacher gives a touching performance as Bianca, the naïve young newcomer to the group whose aspirations as a wife and willing friend are cruelly dashed. Mastandrea has the most difficult role, but thanks to some poorly crafted dialogue, isn’t allowed to make Lele’s secret as affecting or believable as it needs to be. Genovese directs them all with aplomb, allowing each character to grow and develop, but again there are too many moments where, in the wake of a revelation, the movie struggles to maintain momentum thanks to the recurring decision to have a character express their feelings at length, and with too much hesitation.

Rating: 7/10 – a fascinating, though contrived drama, Perfect Strangers takes a dinner party game and uses it as a way of exposing the deceptions and dishonesty that can lie at the heart of modern relationships; too astute for its own good at times, the movie is occasionally uncomfortable to watch, but it features a wealth of good performances, some effective and unexpectedly poignant moments, and doesn’t – not once – allow the audience to feel superior to any of its characters.