Italy’s period of combatting terrorism from the late 1960s to the late ’80s, known as the “Years of Lead,” remains a richly-mined topic in cinema, more successfully processed on screen than through any of the official bodies charged with accountability. Digging into his personal trauma from that era, director Claudio Noce (“The Ice Forest”) takes some of the basic facts from the attempted assassination in 1976 of his father, a deputy police chief, and aims to process how that affected him and his family. “Padrenostro,” or “Our Father,” is a handsomely made “inspired by” drama with a few powerful sequences studded within a less satisfactory screenplay, at its best when it sticks to the tense rapport within a family terrified they’ll be targeted again. The subject together with the fine ensemble cast will likely see strong interest at home, but any kind of significant travel is unlikely apart from Italian showcases.
Noce was two years old when the attack occurred, old enough for him to feel the weight of the event and its ramifications within the family but too young to have distinct memories of that moment. To make the story more vivid and dynamic, he’s created a 10-year-old avatar, Valerio (Mattia Garaci), whose active imagination provides him with an outlet for the trauma he’s experiencing. The script, deliberately steering clear of politics, then blurs the line between reality and fantasy to the point where audiences second-guess what’s true; the resulting twists make little sense and banalize Valerio’s inner life.
The first image of Valerio’s mom Gina (Barbara Ronchi) bathes her in a diffused golden light, the very essence of the classic Italian mother, more a celestial Virgin than someone of this earth. Home life is one of middle-class privilege, cozily ensconced in the patterned wallpaper rooms of their apartment with views of St. Peter’s Basilica. His father Alfonso (Pierfrancesco Favino) is a more remote figure frequently absent from home, the kind of paterfamilias who calls his son “little man” and contains any emotional displays behind metaphorical walls constructed of gravitas and machismo. In consequence, Valerio worships him.
Then one morning he’s woken by the sound of gunfire. Rushing to the balcony, he observes the end of the attack on the street, during which his father is wounded and one of the terrorists is killed. Noce shoots the scene in a rushed blur, much as a child would experience it when they’re not quite sure how to process what they’ve seen. Gina rushes out in a panic ahead of Valerio, unaware that her son has witnessed the carnage. The ensuing days are telescoped: Valerio and his younger sister Alice (Lea Favino) are cared for by their au pair Ketty (Eleonora De Luca) while Gina is preoccupied with her wounded husband. The adults believe they can keep the kids in the dark, forbidding them from entering the TV room or seeing a newspaper, but of course Valerio grasps part of the truth and in consequence, without anyone telling him what’s going on, he’s terrified of everything. Even when Alfonso comes home, his bandages hidden beneath his clothes, his parents act hard to pretend everything is normal, but the tension is unbearable.
Then one day after being picked on in class (the scene makes little sense), Valerio sees an older boy outside school who beckons him to join for a few kicks of a soccer ball. With an Artful Dodger swagger, dirty jeans and an old T-shirt, Christian (Francesco Gheghi) feels like a figment of the younger boy’s imagination, which isn’t surprising given that we’ve already seen Valerio interacting with an invisible friend in the attic. The two wander the city and then Valerio brings Christian to his apartment building, where with some pieces of chalk he sketches out on the street the attack as he witnessed it. This is the film’s strongest sequence, filmed and edited with a crescendo of energy that drives home the boy’s disturbed state of mind. Just then Gina and Alfonso drive up, shocked to realize their son saw far more than they could have imagined.
With summer approaching and the need to find a place that feels safer than Rome, the family decamps to Alfonso’s ancestral home in Calabria, where his relatives try to provide the emotional support and warmth they all need. Valerio’s solitude is broken when Christian turns up, dressed in the same clothes as before, and becomes an increasingly forceful presence in the younger boy’s life. The surprise becomes even greater for the audience when Valerio’s parents begin to interact with Christian, making the viewer question whether he’s real or still a figment of the imagination.
The conceit has promise, but the script doesn’t feel properly thought out, and the way it finally handles Christian’s identity is simply wrong-footed on multiple levels. Far better is the way it shows how the shooting frays the family dynamics, with fear of a second attempt forming an ever-present element of day-to-day life. Both Valerio and Christian are intriguing characters, the former’s vulnerability well-matched to the latter’s compelling mysteriousness, and Gina’s transformation from heavenly mother to nervous wreck is well-handled, but Alfonso’s man-of-stone aura needs a few chinks to make him anything but an unknowable presence. Bookending the film with scenes in the present couldn’t have looked good even on paper.
Fortunately, Michele D’Attanasio’s fluid camerawork, reflecting a mid-1970s palette, maintains an observational energy that, together with Giogiò Franchini’s excellent editing, furthers our identification with Valerio. The production design is also spot on without fetishizing the period. Several insistent repetitions of Vivaldi’s overly familiar “Four Seasons” serves little purpose.