Italy (2017) Dir. Giuseppe Valentino

What price freedom? Attributed to Irish orator John Philpot Curran from a 1790 speech, there is a lot to be explored in this particular axiom, something first time Italian writer-director Giuseppe Valentino has chosen as a theme for this swift but tidy indie debut.

In the South of Italy, Rosa (Angela Neiman) works at a small petrol station and bar run by her dangerous lover Gino (Raimondo Brandi), a ruthless landowner with a sideline in dog fighting. The relationship is not as romantic as it sounds, with Rosa hiding a dark past Gino is helping her escape from, though she is now trapped under his controlling ways.

One day, Nathaniel (Baptiste Elicagaray), a French traveller working for Gino pulls up at the petrol station and catches Rosa’s eye. They begin an affair and decide to run away, taking with them a pitbull named Xolo Gino recently picked up for fighting, unaware that Xolo has a history as a dangerous dog despite being playful around them. Angry at this betrayal, Gino sends out a bounty hunter (Marco Tizianel) to track the runaways down.

Purportedly based on a true story, the real theme behind this brisk 78-minute outing is more accurately summed up as “nothing is at it seems”. From the onset, we never know what to expect from Xolo and the above plot summary possibly sounds more exciting than it actually is, but to find out you’d have to see the film for yourself.  

Slowly but surely, the layers are peeled away and the people we are following becoming more a mystery the more we know about them, and like every writer worth their salt, Valentino doesn’t give it all away in one go. By keeping the teasing up and the info dumps minimal, Valentino ensures we stay the distance to get answers to questions we didn’t original think we’d be asking.

Opening with a montage of the film’s remote desert location, a voice over courtesy of the bounty hunter proffers a philosophical view on how people handle loss of control over things and people they believe belong to them. Then a dog breaks free from a chain and goes on the run until Gino picks it up, which of course is the eponymous Xolo, only to be chained up again but in a different home.

Rosa then appears, a sullen young woman resigned to her duties at the petrol station, even more resigned to her meagre existence in her tiny caravan, and the gruff demands of Gino, a married man who likes to have his cake and eat it, Rosa being his appointed plaything. She may be externally indifferent to this but internally it is clearly a different story yet whatever hold Gino has on Rosa, it is enough to keep her there.

Enter Nathaniel with his warm smile, Gallic charm and chiselled good looks, who, just by talking to Rosa as a person, is an immediate improvement on Gino though the inevitable romance isn’t even hinted at. This makes their sudden leap into bed a few days later seem rather hasty even for short film like this, with no build up, unless where are to believe the animal magnetism both possess is that much of a potent aphrodisiac.

The idea of the pair running away together is also summarily executed and in a rather clumsy move, actually occurs at Gino’s expense, Nathaniel robbing him of his money and tying him up and Rosa having the last laugh literally in his face. But if Gino is so dangerous that Rosa is petrified enough to remain servile to him, this isn’t the smartest move regardless of how much of better prospect life with Nathaniel might be.

Unfortunately, because the film is so short and the story blitzes along so briskly, we are not afforded any background on the principals of this risky love triangle, so we can only take their characters at face value. Enough is delineated that Gino’s role as the shady, controlling antagonist is hardly ambiguous, right down to the snazzy clothes and slicked back hair.

Rosa is more of an enigma, hiding something but what that is exactly isn’t disclosed, leaving us to assume through her mood swings and reticence in opening up to Nathaniel that it is not only psychological but also emotional. The passion and lust is there but once problems arise, like the car breaking down and people refusing to buy Xolo because of his reputation, her newfound radiance dissipates quickly.

Nathaniel completes this triumvirate of mystery, revealing only that he wants money to live a comfortable life on his own terms, but his itinerant lifestyle is clearly the result of something far more drastic. The perma-grinning bounty hunter is a curiosity through his toothy rictus smile open to interpretation – is he a genuinely happy soul or a sign of his gleeful sadistic side?  

Valentino keeps the ambiguity up to the very end with a shocking climax left wide open to any number of theories. My own reading is that the freedom sought by Rosa is not necessarily right for her, and because of the past she is hiding from, it won’t be for anyone involved with her either. The “freedom” she has now is at least means no more guilt even if it means no real future.

With the majority of people involved in this film first timers, this is a solid effort that works because of it minimalist approach, its grandeur coming from the ambition rather than overreaching on the presentation side. The cinematography is faultless, evoking the sweaty atmosphere of the spaghetti western through the use of a blurred lens, framing the cast just right that their personalities seep from their bodies.

Xolo is a humble film that overachieves in spite of its budgetary limitations, though the intriguing nature of the characters requires more depth than they are afforded. But for a debut work, it’s a promising foundation for Valentino to build upon.