Italy (2020) Dir. Giuseppe Bonito

Having children is a primary reason people get married. The idea of creating a human life and nurturing is journey in the world is something that brings couples together and strengthens their marriage. Some couples go a bit mad and have loads of kids, but this doesn’t suit everyone.

Nicola (Valerio Mastandrea) and Sara (Paola Cortellesi) are a happily married couple in their early 40’s with a young daughter Anna (Matilde Zanchini Di Castiglionchio), living a modest but comfortable life. One night after attending a party with friends, the couple get amorous and shortly after Sara learns she is pregnant. Whilst Nicola thinks this is great new, Sara is concerned they are too old and settled for a second child.

Once baby son Pietro (Edoardo and Leonardo D’Agostino) arrives, Sara is proved right as neither her or Nicola can handle the sleepless nights again, Anna is affected by jealousy, and their finances take a hit when Sara is advised to give up work to bond with Pietro, relying on Nicola’s salary to live on, but she tires quickly and dumps their son on Nicola. Welcome to parenting in the 21st century Italy.

Billed as a sharp satire of life in modern day Italy, Figli (trans. “Sons” or “Children”) is based on a stage monologue The Children Age by Mattia Torre, which he adapted for this film’s screenplay. Unfortunately, he died before filming began but was able to entrust the project to his former assistant director Giuseppe Bonito prior to his passing. It is possible Torre’s untimely passing engendered a sentimental reaction among Italian film fans as much as the social milieu represented is more recognisable to them.  

To that end, this isn’t an easy film to recommend despite discussing a universal theme, its global cachet somewhat limited by the esoteric approach to the narrative, promising biting humour but instead delivers something else for the uninitiated. There are points where its stage origins are revealed through Nicola’s voice over narration and the surreal interludes set in a white space of comic examples of the struggles of rearing children.

Even running 98-minutes, this feels like an idea that has been stretched out beyond its usefulness, at least in how it tells its story, although this isn’t much of a plot driven film, more a series of thematically linked vignettes. Or some odd reason, it opens with the couple arguing, baby Pietro having already been born, before jumping back to his birth then jumping back again to before his conception.

From here on, the narrative is linear, with Sara worried about whether they can handle a second baby and Nicola assuring her they can. His journalist best friend (Stefano Fresi) on the other hand berates Nicola for making the mistake for not sticking with one child, providing living proof with his two young sons constantly hitting him with plastic swords during their conversations – as if having just one child doing this is better?

Arguments ensue once Pietro is born and the relationship becomes fraught, both looking for escape from this new responsibility and each other. A paediatrician (Daria Deflorian) tells Sara to give up her job, get an income from somewhere else (er, how exactly?) and spend more time with Pietro. The paediatrician is taken aback by how the couple don’t have savings or a house in the mountains to retreat to. This is the earliest sighting of the infrequent deadpan satire that we foreigners can understand.

Whilst mum and dad bicker over the slightest thing, suffering the most is Anna. Having had her parents to herself for so long, she fears she will be usurped by her baby brother, but is assured this is not the case. An interesting side effect comes from this – Sara’s solution for when Anna gets upset watching Titanic is to draw the ship and date it the next day so it is still intact as if it never sank.

Unfortunately, Anna takes this therapeutic process a little too literally and draws a family picture without Pietro. From this I wonder why they didn’t feature Anna’s issues more. Sure, it might have been a cliché with other films using this as their main plot, but the psychological twist of Anna wondering if she has influenced the development through her drawings seems too good to pass up in creating sympathy for her callow misreading of the domestic malaise she lives in.

I must confess it was my own stubbornness that kept me watching right to the end as I felt myself unable to engage with this film quite early on. Not that it is a bad film, a lot of the ideas and points raised – such as challenging the assumed roles of the stay-at-home parent, having a second child late in a marriage, etc. – are worthy of discussion, and when they are on message validate themselves.  

Discerning the power and effectiveness of the satire is harder without understanding the full context of what is being scrutinised. With the main subject not exclusive to Italy there seems little reason not to be able to identify what Torre was saying, yet it is hard to shake the feeling like I was missing something. Even when some of the gags worked, like Sara diving out of the window to avoid an issue, they are overused, becoming less funny each time.

Performances are solid enough, the leads Valerio Mastandrea and Paola Cortellesi are personable enough and work well together, and young Matilde Zanchini Di Castiglionchio making a terrific impression with her unaffected essaying of Anna. I just found it hard to warm to Sara and Nicola, and get past the erratic tone, never knowing what to laugh at when something serious would undermine a joke scene.

Chances are others will be able to connect with Figli more than I did and get something from it, whether it is that you can have a second child or don’t exclude your first if you do.

Currently available on Amazon Prime