Damiano and Fabio d’Innocenzo, “Bad Tales / Favolacce” (2020)
A survey of three families living in a dull suburban estate on the outskirts of Rome, “Bad Tales” could have been a critical indictment of the lure of the Italian version of the middle-class American Dream and the consequences people and families suffer when their efforts to achieve that dream fall far short of their ambitions and aspirations. Busting your guts out and endangering your health to earn the money to afford the material goods and the lifestyle you believe you and your family deserve, neglecting your loved ones, your family bonds under strain, your children suffering from alienation or bullying and turning to drugs, gangs or other dangerous forms of solace … all these scenarios could form a universal if tragic narrative that exposes the reality of the capitalist scam that far too many generations of families have fallen victim to, with casualties in the form of domestic violence, addictions and suicides. Instead “Bad Tales” turns out to be a voyeuristic peek at three families that are either dysfunctional or broken in their own way, with an underlying suggestion that the parents alone are largely responsible for the ruin they bring to their domestic environments. The children don’t get off very lightly either: on the verge of adolescence, alienated and emotionally repressed, the kids are presented as both knowing and naive, and ultimately out of their depth or helpless in situations where they most need a steady anchor and support.
The Gothic tale with its black humour unfolds in three sub-plots, the main one of which revolves around the Placido family. Bruno (Elio Germano) has recently become unemployed and his frustration and resentment at having to be a house husband while his wife Dalila (Barbara Chichiarelli) must be the breadwinner drive the conflict among him, Dalila and their two children Dennis and Alessia. Both parents are astonishingly cruel, lax and inconsistent in their treatment of the children. Bruno in particular behaves in a passive-aggressive way guaranteed to confuse the hell out of his kids and keep them, especially Alessia, highly anxious: he forces both of them to recite their grades to dinner guests; he bursts an inflated swimming pool in the middle of the night (because he is fed up with neighbours’ kids inviting themselves over and using the pool) and blames his action on gypsies; and he bullies his son openly in front of the sensitive Alessia. The children have a cousin, Viola, who is treated just as sadistically by her parents; they discover she has head lice after using the Placidos’ pool so they shave off all her hair and she is forced to wear a wig to school. Viola is interested in a boy, Geremia, at school: the boy appears shy and socially inept, and lives with his father Emilio Guerrini (Gabriel Montesi) in rather impoverished conditions, with no other relatives. Also living on the estate is a much older teenage girl Vilma (Ileana d’Ambra) who has a child out of wedlock but some time during the course of the film moves out of home to live with the baby’s father. The couple decide to leave the estate with their baby and head for the city but parenting and looking for work prove exhausting and the young family falls into despair.
Much of the film is taken up with character exposition and the dynamics of the individual families, and the plot only really starts moving once the four children, having to bear the brunt of their parents’ repressed anger and disappointment, and being surrounded by adults obsessed with their own self-importance, rebel. The rebellion is sparked by a school-teacher who clearly seems unable to comprehend the effect of his teaching on his impressionable students. The homemade bomb plot is thwarted by a visiting relative of Geremia’s and the police. Dennis and Alessia resort to even more desperate measures, again aided by the school-teacher. The tragedy that befalls the apparently perfect nuclear family of the Placidos is contrasted by Geremia and Emilio: the two may be an unconventional family, and Emilio acts more like an older pal rather than as a stereotypically patriarchal figure, but there is warmth in the relationship. For all the rather morally dubious decisions Emilio makes – he encourages Geremia to transmit measles to Viola by giving the boy condoms! – he quickly realises that a toxic atmosphere surrounds Geremia at school and among his class-mates, and the two bunk off from the estate to doss down with a cousin in his Rome apartment.
Apart from Bruno and Emilio, both played well by Germano and Montesi respectively, most characters are sketchily developed and the children’s characters in particular seem rather flat and one-dimensional. Bruno remains a coward at heart while Emilio tries his best in his own limited way to be both Mum and Dad to a son who needs more help in his social and intellectual development than the father can provide. Very few characters evoke much sympathy from the audience, with the result that people will not care when tragedy strikes the Placidos.
With such material as families in crisis and on their own in dealing with frustration, conflict and social alienation, the d’Innocenzo brothers end up floundering with “Bad Tales”. The film has no clear plot until more than halfway through its length and audiences will not warm to the adult and child characters. It really needs a better background context that throws more focus on the school-teacher and his malign influence on Dennis and Geremia: why does the school-teacher encourage the children to do what they do, what is his motivation, and does he share in the frustrations and failed dreams and hopes of the children’s parents? And for that matter, where is the government and those institutions that should be helping the families and showing them how to resolve their conflicts and issues, and how to deal with disappointments and failures in their lives?