Padenostro (2021)

A Worthwhile, Semi-Autobiographical Exploration of Father-Son Relationships

“Who are you son to?”

That’s the question at the heart of director Claudio Noce’s semi-autobiographical Padrenostro. It’s an exploration of a father-son relationship, filtered through a coming of age story, with hints of thriller, mystery, family drama, and an analysis of personal history. It’s a question asked directly and indirectly to kids, but more importantly it’s one a son asks himself after his world becomes disoriented following a traumatic incident.

We’re in the world of Valerio (Mattia Garaci) in 1970s Rome. He’s a lonely boy with an active imagination. The centre of Valerio’s world is his father Alfonso (Pierfrancesco Favino), a presence even when absent. The boy’s paternal idolisation is shown by who his focus is the first time he picks up a camera. But one morning his innocence and certainty about his father is shattered by the bullets that rip through the street and into his father.

Valerio’s world is changed after he locks eyes with a shooter dying in the street, and we search for explanations with him. What happened to his father? Where is he? How is he? Who is he really? His mother Barbara (Barbara Ronchi) fights to keep the truth from him, to keep him safe and innocent in the apartment that looks down on the city, or in the school run by the church. But in those places he has flashbacks to the shooting, or is harassed by kids who challenge the nuns’ notions of his dad as a hero.

Then he meets teenage, Dickensian-esque street urchin Christian (Francesco Gheghi). While Alfonso is away he offers a pseudo father figure, a new source of knowledge, and an opportunity to escape the stress, the silence, and the pervasive threat of more violence around his family. When they move south to Calabria for safety, Christian somehow appears at the family home and becomes an important source of both tension and connection in the relationship between Valerio and Alfonso.

The direction of Noce and photography of Michele D’Attanasio highlights the dual narrative perspectives of the film: from top-down, bird’s eye views, to an almost first-person perspective that centres the experience of Valerio in the moment. The former is like an omnipotent overseer (reflective of the heavenly connotations of the titular ‘Our Father’) or a puppeteer pulling the strings of the story. Repeated motifs and shots express Noce trying  to piece together and sort through the mosaic of his history from real and imagined memories. His understanding of the present with his feelings from the past.

The latter view has us follow Valerio in his ignorance and search for knowledge. In the first half of the film the shallow depth of field used suggests his narrow world view, until it’s challenged – cinematically and mentally – by the appearance of Christian and the change of scene to the south. Along with the production and sound design (the meticulously styled apartment, the sun-blistered Calabrian countryside, the cicadas calling to summer), the drifting, child-height camera movement, the close-up shots of hands and piercing eyes (very reminiscent of Malick, a model of some of cinema’s most tactile cinematography) effectively sucks you into Valerio’s world.

The film is anchored and elevated by the performance of Garaci, who effectively captures the journey of Valerio as both a child and a son. It’s an impressive feat by a young actor in only his second feature, and one in which he appears in almost every scene. He’s ably supported by Favino, a performance of minimalism and control.

As is understandable in such a personal film (it’s based on his own father’s attempted assassination during Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’), Noce is indulgent in his pacingThis works for much of the film, but it could easily stand to lose close to twenty or thirty minutes, as the second half has a feeling of drag. This time could be found in removing some elements that distract from the film’s heart, or are just superfluous – from questions about Christian’s materiality to some unnecessary bookending.

[This post first appeared on The Curb]

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