Quiet Chaos (Caos calmo)

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Courtesy photo
Antonello Grimaldi/Italy-United Kingdom 2008

I did a lot of grieving during this year’s Berlinale; or rather, I watched a lot of people, doing a lot of it. Grieving that is. Grief is the main theme of: Fernando Eimbcke’s Alfred Bauer award-winning – Lake Tahoe; the homespun German drama by acclaimed director Doris Dörrie, Cherryblossoms; and Italian Antonello Grimaldi’s first full-length feature in six years, Quiet Chaos (Caos Calmo). Although treated distinctly by the three different artists, the impact of the death of a loved one on those left behind, is the preoccupation of each.

Grimaldi’s deceptively quiet work, to steal the adjective from its title, Quiet Chaos, was adapted for screen largely by its principal actor Nanni Moretti from contemporary author Sandro Veronesi’s internationally bestselling novel of the same title.

With an explicit echo to actor-director Moretti’s Palme d’or winning discourse on the pain of losing a son, The Son’s Room (2001), Quiet Chaos begins with an accident at sea. Forty-something Pietro Paladini (Moretti), a top media executive, is nonchalantly playing tennis on the beach with his younger brother Carlo (Alessandro Gassman), when they are alerted to two women drowning. Unlike the females’ actual partners, the brothers unhesitatingly dive into the dangerous waters to save both women. Having accomplished these heroic feats, the day’s dramas are unfortunately far from over. On arriving back at the family holiday home, greater chaos awaits Pietro: The emergency services are blocking his driveway and his wife lies dead in the garden, where she fell from a sudden attack of illness.

In its first ten minutes, Quiet Chaos establishes, with a nice mix of tension and ease, its seemingly simple pretext: What does a husband do when his wife and mother of his 10-year-old daughter Claudia (Blu Di Martino), dies suddenly? How should he react? Does he react “normally” or as one might anticipate, given the circumstances? It is, in fact, in response to these questions, that Grimaldi’s film reveals itself to be less straightforward and more complex than immediately obvious. Firstly, the viewer should ponder why the narrative begins with the salvation of two drowning women, shortly to be followed by the sudden loss of a third woman’s life? It is highly unlikely, but not impossible, that on the same day, an ordinary man like Pietro could save a woman, similar in age to his own wife, and return home to find that same wife dead? It is certainly very unfortunate, but would also seem to be a reflection of sorts on both the unexpectedness and fragility of life – an early illusion to the chaos of the title. Moreover, the visceral and highly physical sequence in which Pietro saves the semi-naked, drowning woman’s life cleverly prefigures another physical act between a man and a woman. Later in the film, he actually meets and spends an erotic night of passion with this woman, played by Isabella Ferrari, to whom he is strangely linked. (Anecdotally, this rather explicit sex scene has appalled the Vatican who issued calls for the film to be banned in Italy).

So how does Pietro react, contrary to expectation, to the death of a mysterious wife who never again appears in the film – not even in flashback? The film throws out a number of unanswered questions regarding Pietro’s wife: Was she having an affair, and were they ever really in love? The widower is never seen to break down in hysterical tears, nor does he hit the bottle, the predictable fate of most mourning characters on celluloid. Instead, Pietro conveys his grief by a suggestion of numbness – a numbness which is more physically expressed than voiced – through his absence and isolation from the rest of the world, with the exception of his beloved daughter; via a look of vacancy about his intelligent eyes; the loss of his bearings. The act that grounds him, and serves to rebuild his bearings, is Pietro’s spontaneous decision to take his daughter to school by car everyday and then to wait in the square outside her school until she finishes class to accompany her home. To begin with, it seems as if Pietro is sleepwalking and is out of his depth in the role of surrogate mother alongside all the other mothers; yet, little by little, Pietro befriends many of the individuals who frequent the park and the neighborhood: a beautiful dogwalker; a café-owner whom he chastises for being insecure about his broccoli cooking (only in an Italian film), a boy with Down’s syndrome, etc. Rather amusingly, Pietro even proceeds to conduct his high-powered business meetings to discuss multi-million Euro takeovers and mergers on a bench in the suburban park and his collaborators come to him! On this level, the film can be seen as a gentle critique of corporate life and big business – a nice touch – but on a more serious note, talk of business seems meaningless to Pietro compared to his loss and new responsibility to his daughter.

Although some might say Quiet Chaos is an insignificant, small scale film, I would like to disagree. Of the many films I saw at this year’s impoverished Berlinale, it is one of the few whose ideas and images have stayed with me. Moreover, the exchanges between the ubertalented Moretti, as the attractive but worn down middle-aged Pietro and Gassmann as his gorgeous, more frivolous younger brother Carlo, soar from flippant to deeply touching in the most plausible manner. When Carlo persuades Pietro to smoke some opium with him late one night and asks him, “Is it kicking in? Is it kicking in yet?” He is not just asking about the drug. He too is searching for signs of Pietro’s grief.

Quiet Chaos features an impeccable cast of some of Italy’s and France’™s, finest modern actors : Valeria Golino (in the role of Pietro’s wholly overwrought sister-in-law), Charles Berling, Hippolyte Girardot and Denis Podalydès. Roman Polanski also has a smile-raising cameo role as the big boss, the CEO of Pietro’s media company. He too arrives via limousine to the park outside the school in an attempt to woo Pietro back to business.

On paper, the concept that following the first 10 minutes, Quiet Chaos takes place largely outside a school where a grieving husband waits all day for his only child to complete her lessons, may seem both unexciting and far-fetched. It is tribute to Grimaldi’s subtle direction, an emotive pop score, amusing script and flawless acting that Quiet Chaos pulls off an original and complex study of the unpredictability of human reaction.

© 2008 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

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