Film Review: L'Attesa (The Wait)

A grave Juliette Binoche stuns in this listlessly written but lushly told film as a grieving, conflicted mother hiding a deep secret from her son’s girlfriend.
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Piero Messina’s L’Attesa (The Wait) starts in a darkness that might be a dream and never quite recovers, or wants to. An extravagantly downbeat film loosely adapted from a Pirandello play, it opens on a funeral and glooms along from there, hung with all the trappings of echt-Sicilian Catholicism. No information is proffered about the deceased, as though that were a detail not quite worth mentioning; the ceremony is all. Bits and flickers of the larger story are teased out, but that is just about all. This is a film that earns its title.

Holding the center of Messina’s dark oil painting of a story is Juliette Binoche, deftly submarined as Anna, the mother in mourning, with a grief-etched countenance as striking as worn granite. Unable to come to grips with her loss, she waits in a grand, remote Sicilian estate where the mirrors are covered in black shrouds and appears uninhabited even by the people who live there. Anna’s dark watch is interrupted by the arrival of Jeanne (Lou de Laâge), the pert French girlfriend of her son Giuseppe, whom she has never met. Invited by Giuseppe to spend the days before Easter at his house, Jeanne shows up in the funeral’s aftermath to find that he’s not there to greet her. Anna is welcoming but formal, distant and evasive. 

As the days go on, a curious alchemy takes over the film. The longer that Giuseppe’s absence stretches out, the closer that Anna and Jeanne become. Without a son to dote on, Anna begins to take an interest in this quiet girl, who is growing more agitated that Giuseppe is playing some kind of game with her. Anna moves from covertly spying on this brightly dressed and rosy-cheeked intruder in her inky house of mourning to not-so-covertly mothering her, albeit in the stiff manner of a parent too long out of practice. She seems frozen by her inability to comprehend Giuseppe’s absence. Lingering in his messy, teenager-y bedroom, she inhales it all almost as though she wanted to inhale every atom of air that his body might have left behind.

Jeanne is frozen as well, unsure why Giuseppe won’t return her messages, but also clearly enjoying the stiff blooming of a friendship with his mother. Her stasis is somewhat more difficult to comprehend. This becomes more acute with the estate handyman Pietro (Giorgio Colangeli) continually casting meaningful glances at Anna and making it clear that some very serious thing needs to be explained to Jeanne. It doesn’t take long for Jeanne to gain access to most of the same information that the audience has. Since Jeanne is presented as generally bright, it becomes more of a struggle to believe her inability to discern Anna’s stubbornly held but glaringly obvious secret.

As might be guessed by this point, Messina isn’t overly concerned about getting his film from point A to B in the most efficient manner, or much of any manner at all. He worked as assistant director on Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and one doesn’t have to strain too hard to discern that film’s penchant for sumptuously arranged tableau here. Messina steers well clear of Sorrentino’s circus-like extravagance, at least until the gorgeously theatrical Easter festival that closes the film with haunting candle-lit processions and swelling music. But his skeletal screenplay doesn’t give the performers enough fuel to power themselves before that point. The result is a film that relies too much on (admittedly spectacular) performances, atmosphere, and a grand spiritual finale to pull everything into some loose shape. L’Attesa makes its audience wait but without enough of a reason for them to want to.

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