Venice (In Competition) – The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a story of boy meets girl. Boy then rejects girl. Boy and girl become friends. Boy and girl drift apart. Boy and girl become friends again. Emma Rowley wonders what was lost in the translation from best-selling novel to disappointing film.
The film is adapted by Paolo Giordano from his own 2008 Italian novel. Its title refers to an analogy Mattia uses to explain the way he perceives himself and his best friend Alice. Prime numbers are only divisible by themselves and one and thus lack that relationship with other numbers. And while primes are often close together, especially twin primes, they are always separated.
Mattia and Alice are the film's protagonists. He is a mathematical prodigy, she a photographer manqué with a limp. Both have been traumatised by childhood incidents that have scarred them both mentally and physically. Though these traumas effectively shape them as people, and allow them a unique understanding of one another, they also prevent them from forming a real relationship.
The first half of the two-hour film cuts between events in three separate years, 1984 (when Mattia and Alice are eight), 1991 and 2001, that explain how their relationship developed and finally, what happened to them as children.
The problem with this approach is that there is no 'now' for these characters. They are not introduced as adults, with their pasts filled in in flashback form. Instead, the action is always shifting backwards and forwards; and since three actors (child, teen and adult) play each of the two key characters, it never feels as though we get to grips with them.
Not content with this structural tangle, at the end of the first hour, the timeline leaps forward seven years to 2008. In the interim period, Alice has married, separated and has fallen into an emotional crisis that does not seem warranted by a childhood accident that occurred when she was eight. But perhaps a later event triggered her return to anorexia. Oh, didn't I mention she was anorexic? Well, since the filmmakers didn't bother sharing that piece of information until the second hour of the film, perhaps it doesn't matter.
Either way, she and Mattia love one another without being able to act on their feelings. Unless, that is, Alice is a teenager in love with Viola, the girl at school who cruelly bullies her. Or a twenty-something in love with her husband Fabio, a doctor. Perhaps she only turns to Mattia when another relationship falls apart. I might as well speculate as the film does little to convey the truth of her feelings – unlike its source, Giordano's novel.
Instead, the film is weighed down with horror-movie flourishes which are found in the styling of the film's opening scene, set during a school play; at a subsequent children's party where the entertainer momentarily transforms into a nightmarish figure; and later on, in an extended hallucinatory sequence when Alice is starving herself with anorexia. While these are some of the most visually interesting sequences in the film, they detract from its central love story.
Problematically, it also means that supporting figures, like Alice and Mattia's parents (including Isabella Rossellini in a largely thankless role), and Viola the teenage bully, are characterised as one-dimensional ogres – horror film antagonists who lead their protagonists over a precipice (in one case, pretty literally) – and far too much time is spent on them with this being the case.
Genre overtones are also discernible in the doomy soundtrack which features portentous synth music of the kind Argento might use to great effect in slasher scenes but which is a rather over-the-top as backing to a children's play, even one as weirdly staged as the film's opener. The rest of the soundtrack seems to have been put together after a rummage through the bargain bin of music history, so that would-be poignant scenes scenes are backed by intrusive pop tracks ('Yes Sir, I Can Boogie'; 'Bette Davis' Eyes'). You might as well be trying to follow this tale of two fragile souls in the middle of a Force 10 gale.
When, at the end of the first hour, we finally discover what it was that scarred these children (both emotionally and physically), only Mattia's trauma is fully compehensible. Burdened with enormous guilt over an act he can never forgive himself for, it is no surprise that he becomes the hollow-eyed loner who can only find solace in the certainties of mathematics. While Alice's physical scarring is explained, the incident that haunts her does not come with the same emotional baggage and the long build-up falls rather flat.
In the end, the love story stalls, the structure is baffling and the film's individual elements crowd one another out and overshadow some very good performances.
Rating on a scale of 5 sinister children's party clowns: 2
Release date: Italy: 10 September; UK & USA: TBC
Directed by: Saverio Costanzo
Screenplay by: Paolo Giordano & Saverio Costanzo
Cast: Alba Rohrwacher, Luca Marinelli, Arianna Nastro, Vittorio Lomartire, Isabella Rossellini, Aurora Ruffino, Filippo Timi
Running time: 118 minutes