Film Review: Misunderstood

In a semi-autobiographical mood, Asia Argento crafts a vivid, charismatic portrait of one big mess of a family.
Specialty Releases

In her semi-autobiographical film set in 1984 Rome, actress/director Asia Argento casts Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gabriel Garko as a dysfunctional married couple, a pianist and abusive actor, respectively, with three young daughters: nine-year-old Aria (Giulia Salerno), through whose eyes the tale basically unfolds; snotty teen Lucrezia (Carolina Poccioni), and Donatina (Anna Lou Castoldi). The couple split up during an acrimonious family dinner, with Aria eventually shunted between their separate homes, basically unwanted in neither.

With Misunderstood, Argento shows an undoubtedly hard-won gift for capturing the messy emotions in a very imperfect family, as well as the ways children survive. For Aria, it’s total bonding with her friend Angelica, with whom she runs about the Eternal City, befriending all manner of weird people and animals. One can hardly blame the poor kid for seeking outside affection, with a mother who, a victim of spousal beatings, is not above whacking her daughter one moment and then tenderly caring for the wound she’s inflicted. The director is canny with the shifting power plays and sudden volatility which can erupt between those sharing the same blood, and her film has at times the density of a novel, with nary a false note in it.

Argento is also gifted visually, for her film is a psychedelic whirligig to behold, bathed in the hot pinks and other lurid shades of what here could best be described as the “Madonna Era.” Floridly accurate editing lends the film a constant frisson, catching life on the cuff, and an eclectic, quite terrific music score matches up moments quite nicely.

The performances are all sure and bursting with the expecting Italianate passion. Gainsbourg shows a vivid, fascinatingly dissolute and wild side as a decidedly less than ideal, flagrantly adulterous and self-centered mama. Garko is her decorative match physically, and embodies the kind of attractive jerk any misguided daughter would take for a beau ideal, and then spend the rest of her life trying to overcome. Salerno is, in a word, terrific, one of those rare, supernally natural and bright kid actors incapable of a false move or moment.

Click here for cast and crew information.