Gianni Zanasi’s latest, which closed the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, stars the ubiquitous Alba Rohrwacher (‘Happy as Lazzaro’) as a land surveyor who believes the Virgin Mary speaks to her.
The Virgin Mary appears to a harried land surveyor in contemporary rural Italy in Lucia’s Grace (Troppa Grazia), a film that’s been very kindly described as a comedy, though that would mean there would be intentional laughs in this laughable pileup of barely sketched-out ideas, illogical behavior and characters that make little to no sense. How this was selected for the closing-night slot of the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight is anyone’s guess, though through some kind of inexplicable miracle — is there any other kind? — it attracted the considerable acting gifts of Alba Rohrwacher (also in the Cannes competition title Happy as Lazzaro) and won the European Cinemas label. These strokes of good fortune should help score the latest work from director Gianni Zanasi (Ciao Stefano) a few minor laps around ye olde art houses before finding its way to the countless unsuspecting button-clickers who will encounter it on SVOD after their favorite series has run out of episodes.
Life is not easy for Lucia (Rohrwacher) and Arturo (Elio Germano). In an early scene, they want to keep fighting about his infidelity — or hers. But given that their teenage daughter, Rosa (Carlotta Natoli), is supposedly sleeping, they need to keep their voices down. The row finally ends with Arturo leaving the modest family home, apparently for good. Just like in just about every other film Rohrwacher has starred in, the blond and porcelain-skinned actress plays a woman for whom life seems too much to take at once, as if she were too fragile for the rough world she finds herself in. Her Lucia is overworked, worries too much and, as a land surveyor, is involved in business practices that aren’t exactly kosher and require her to always be creative and quick on her feet for what finally amounts to a handful of change.
Zanasi, who wrote the screenplay with no less than three other writers, introduces all these elements in a chaotic early stretch during which you can’t help but wonder whether its messiness is supposed to mirror Lucia’s life or whether it is just undisciplined storytelling. About 20 minutes into this muddle, Lucia first sees a “homeless refugee” (Israeli actress Hadas Yaron). What’s odd is that the woman, with her head covered and a warm, old winter jacket over vaguely Middle Eastern clothes, isn’t visible to Lucia’s colleague. It’s confirmed that she’s an apparition when she at long last introduces herself with the words “You know who I am, I am the Mother of God.” (God, why don’t more comedies feature this hilarious line?)
The Virgin Mary, or “La Madonna” in Italian, also has a request: She demands that a church be built where she first appeared to Lucia. When the land surveyor doesn’t seem to follow up on this order, the Virgin Mary — who now pops up everywhere, from random dirt roads to the family kitchen — repeats her request. This leads to Lucia’s confession that she won’t construct a church and the holy woman’s laconic riposte: “So far they’ve always done it when I asked.” This supposedly funny comeback is not only lame but also cheap, as it makes it clear to the audience that the movie doesn’t take its central mystery seriously; apparently it’s fair game to use the Mother of God as a vessel for underwritten jokes.
At that moment, any chance the film might have had of finding a fascinating middle ground between lighter concerns and a (melo)drama about faith goes right out the window. Lucia’s Grace thus finds itself in a strange identity crisis: The jokes don’t land, and there’s also no drama because there’s no real conflict between a homeless person who says she’s the Virgin Mary and a working-class woman who is not a believer. More than anything, Zanasi seems to treat Mary as a historical figure — rather than a saint — who just happens to give form to a voice inside Lucia’s head. Oddly enough, though, there’s never a convincing sense that she’s an extension or projection of the protagonist’s psyche.
A large chunk of the film’s excessive running time — 110 minutes in total, though sometimes they feel more like 666 — is taken up by a confusingly spun subplot involving the planned construction of a building called the Wave. Project manager Paolo (Giuseppe Batiston) needs to have a land surveyor sign off on some maps for things to proceed and asks Lucia, knowing she needs the work. Lucia realizes the maps aren’t accurately drawn but she also knows Paolo wants her to sign them regardless, which leads to a perfunctory scene acknowledging corruption as a part of the fabric of everyday life in Italy. That’s crucial information for anyone who hasn’t read a newspaper since Andreotti first entered politics, but it’s not very clear how this relates to either Lucia’s personal moral compass and values or those of her immaculate new friend. (Would the Virgin prefer slave labor for her church, like in the olden days, or the systemic corruption of the 21st century in which no one is overtly exploited, at least not physically?)
Why the Wave project would benefit from inaccurate drawings is never explained; nor are the risks of pretending everything is fine. This makes a scene in which things do go wrong feel completely disconnected from the already not very grounded narrative. The bad CGI doesn’t help. The minor damage doesn’t even happen at the proposed construction site, but somewhere else entirely, and it’s tied to the Virgin Mary character and her story with only the loosest of threads.
Indeed, in the pic’s last act, random events seem to occur almost in parallel. Besides the unexpected disaster that really isn’t one, there’s also an enigmatic subplot about the love/hate relationship Rosa has with a handsome but odious teenager from her fencing club, which leads to shenanigans in a dark forest, though what this has to do with the rest of the story is unclear. There’s also a wanton act of vandalism from two minor characters that makes even less sense. The strangeness of the episode is augmented by the fact that the perpetrators meet for the very first time just minutes before deciding it would be a good idea to break a whole bunch of laws for no discernible gain. Where is the Virgin Mary when you need her to talk some sense into someone?
Because of the strength of her presence and her full dedication to each role, Rohrwacher has never been bad onscreen, and indeed is completely watchable here — even if at times it feels like she recited the lines and the filmmakers created the rest of this slipshod story around her later. Cinematographer Vladan Radovic bathes everything in a somewhat sickly, honey-colored glow, while the work of composer Niccolo Contessa sounds like Muzak for a wannabe fine-dining establishment. The latter’s jazzy inclinations are probably a nod to yet another largely unexplored story involving Lucia’s father, a famous trumpet player who’s now retired and whose sole function in the plot seems to be his possession of 60,000-plus followers on Facebook. If La Madonna started a page, she could probably get more.
Production companies: Pupkin Production, Rai Cinema
Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Elio Germano, Hadas Yaron, Giuseppe Batiston, Carlotta Natoli, Thomas Trabacchi
Director: Gianni Zanasi
Screenwriters: Gianni Zanasi, Giacomo Ciarrapico, Federica Pontremoli, Michele Pellegrini
Producers: Beppe Caschetto, Rita Rognoni
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Massimiliano Sturiale
Costume designer: Olivia Bellini
Editors: Rita Rognoni, Gianni Zanasi
Music: Niccolo Contessa
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight — Closing Film)
Sales: The Match Factory