The Consequences of Love (15)

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The Independent Culture

Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love is what you might call a precisely calibrated film. It's as finely tuned as clockwork from Switzerland, where the film is set, or as the barely perceptible flex of its bored anti-hero's eyebrow.

Paolo Sorrentino's The Consequences of Love is what you might call a precisely calibrated film. It's as finely tuned as clockwork from Switzerland, where the film is set, or as the barely perceptible flex of its bored anti-hero's eyebrow. Lead actor Toni Servillo has created a strange sympathetic monster, all the more mesmerising because for much of the time he seems to do virtually nothing, as suavely impassive as a three-toed sloth. Bald, bespectacled and languid, Servillo's character is a 50-year-old man living in a Swiss hotel; he describes himself as having a total lack of imagination, and claims that there's nothing frivolous about him except for his name, Titta di Girolamo.

We first see Di Girolamo sitting in the bar of the hotel where, for mysterious reasons, he has been living for eight years; cigarette cradled with immaculate grace, he gazes round with a blankness that would be Buddha-like, if not for the undertone of acidic disdain. The wonder of Servillo's performance is that he only diverges from this mood once or twice in the film, and then barely so: yet the inscrutability of his performance makes it all the more tantalising. Servillo's patrician living ghost is one of the most magnetically strange creations of recent cinema - lizard-like and piss-elegant, like John Malkovich with hints of Peter Sellers' vacant gardener in Being There.

Servillo sets the glacial tone of the film, but like Di Girolamo, The Consequences of Love is not what it appears to be. The film begins as a study of unknowable people captured behind glass surfaces - Di Girolamo himself, an elderly aristocratic couple down on their luck, a sinister bow-tied dandy, and above all, the heart-stoppingly beautiful barmaid Sofia (Olivia Magnani, granddaughter of the great Italian star Anna Magnani).

At first, so little happens that we could be watching scenes of the afterlife: a porter glides with fantasmal slowness up a moving walkway; everyone freezes as a funeral passes outside the window; Di Girolamo stares unimpressed from above as a man walks into a lamppost with a satisfyingly comic clunk. We seem to be watching a kind of hyper-glossy music-video parody of Antonioni, set to subliminally throbbing electronica. Then, blam, the unexpected happens: a suitcase appears in Di Girolamo's room and the film explodes into a hyped-up montage of fast cars, underground car parks and screeching guitars, as if we'd suddenly switched channels to a BMW ad directed by Michael Mann.

At this point, The Consequences of Love reveals its true colours as a Mafia thriller, albeit of an unprecedented existential strain. Sorrentino gives us all the traditional impedimenta of that genre - guns, plug-ugly heavies, a femme fatale or two - but all are given strange distancing twists. When Di Girolamo is summoned down south to meet the capo di tutti capi, he finds him holding court in an impersonal conference centre that has apparently just been vacated by a seminar on problems of the prostate gland.

Sorrentino's central philosophical question is of identity: what happens when a person is yanked forcibly out of his own life and made to subsist on the bare minimum of self? Di Girolamo, we learn, has been exiled in perpetuity as the result of a financial faux pas, and made to abandon everything he once knew. He occasionally has terse, loveless phone calls with the family he has lost, drifts like a shade around the local shopping mall, and punctiliously, every Wednesday morning, shoots heroin. The drug scenes are spare and unsettling: in one extraordinary shot, the camera cranes at close quarters over Di Girolamo's head, as space, in a dazzling but simple optical illusion, turns inside out as the dope throws him into astronaut-like free fall.

The film is marvellously elegant, coolly undemonstrative. Supposedly, the arbiter of cool in crime cinema is the American director who rhymes with Sorrentino; but it's the Neapolitan who truly has cool down to an arctic fine art, operating with a conjurer's subtlety: in one shot, as peril looms, a coat slides out of sight over a bathroom door with a surreptitiousness that leaves you unsure whether you've really seen it or not. And once the narrative kicks in, Sorrentino shows a devious hand as he develops a double-bluff story with a faint but distinct streak of David Mamet's House of Games.

The Consequences of Love is certainly one of the cleverest and most stylish films this year, but it has real philosophical depth too, all the more arresting because the film could so easily be mistaken for a sleek, superficial construction. Sorrentino is without doubt a major discovery, and this, his second feature, is quite something - a dazzling, alluring one-off that's like no Mafia story you've seen. Not so much an offer you can't refuse, as a proposition you can't refute.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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