Hungry Hearts is a film that is rather unique in its narrative, being a look at a seemingly unintentionally abusive mother and the increasingly dire consequences of her actions. Some might know director Saverio Costanzo for his TV adaptation of My Brilliant Friend, which is affectingly charming, real, and sensitive. The approach the film takes is quite different to modern cinema in style, almost immediately recalling the early work of Lars von Trier and Harmony Korine. These elements sound like solid foundations for an intriguing drama, but it often feels like the drama itself is an afterthought.
The story is certainly original and sounds extraordinarily compelling on paper. We begin with an interesting meet-cute between Jude (Adam Driver) and Mia (Alba Rohrwacher), resulting in a relationship that evolves in sweet and tender ways. However, things change after their marriage with the birth of their son, and all their lives are tested as Mia stops feeding the child. What initially appears to be a romantic drama becomes something between horror and psychological thriller. Such a shift between genres can work brilliantly, but here it feels odd due to an awkward, imprecise style.
Clearly the film is trying to do something special by using a variation on the approach to cinema once employed frequently by Lars von Trier — the ascetic manifesto of Dogme 95. The idea behind this manifesto is to strip a film to its bare bones, with key goals involving making filming handheld, avoiding a score, and shooting on location. Hungry Hearts is not perfectly constrained, and most films guided by that ruleset do use it loosely. What it does have, however, is the bleak, artificial quality that this attempt at paring back convention brings. Everything feels ominously quiet and claustrophobic, meaning that the film always feels biased towards a negative outlook on life.
Hungry Hearts is so focused on crafting realism that its seriousness often leans into ridiculousness. The script is partly at fault, its attempts at naturalistic conversation and behaviour never quite sitting right. In combination with the stark atmosphere, there’s often an uncomfortable sense of watching a filmed rehearsal. This odd mixture also holds back the performances, meaning that most of the actors deliver their lines with distracting false notes. Adam Driver provides the only grounding for the tale, with a quiet devastation and desperation that is affecting to witness. His performance is evidence that if emotional truth was put at the centre of this story, it could be a work of brilliance.
The film’s flashes of brilliance don’t come from a strong story, as its approach puts ambiguity and intensity above any stirring, specific message. For anyone engaged enough, the film is a Rorschach test — the audience’s point of view determining whether it’s a tragic look at the perils of our need to nurture, a story about society’s lack of empathy, or of the invasive nature of mental illness. This provides some food for thought in retrospect, but the indecision around the film’s themes makes it feel exploitative. It’s a dissatisfying, discomfiting experience seeing everything play out, rather than feeling like a work attempting to shed light on real issues.
There are many signs that the film could be much more engaging than it is. How many films are interested in the multifaceted impacts of being a parent? Rather than feeling a connection with the questions raised though, many people will find it an alienating watch. Its attempts to mimic the Dogme style overwhelm the film so that its truths become buried, and ironically, the possibility of reaching the heights of great works in the movement becomes impossible. Some people might be able to recognise rich ideas and depth beyond the awkward surface, and might even find the odd atmosphere and lack of dogmatism to be appealing. Any viewer should still temper their expectations for potential confusion and disappointment, but the unique and important subject matter makes the risk worthwhile.
Header Image Courtesy of Wildside / RAI Cinema
Dir: Saverio Costanzo
Prod: Mario Gianani, Lorentz Mieli
Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Adam Driver, Roberta Maxwell
Release Date: 31 August 2014 (Italy)
Available on: Amazon