By Matt Connolly
Dir. Antonello Grimaldi, Italy, IFC Films
The trouble with Quiet Chaos is that there’s too much quiet and not enough chaos. The emotional turmoil spoken about by the film’s characters rarely punctures its tranquil, sleepy surface. Floating along with middle-aged businessman and recent widower Pietro (Nanni Moretti, who also co-adapted the screenplay from Sandro Veronesi’s novel) on his shambling journey of self-discovery and personal reconfiguration, we enjoy his company but rarely feel or understand his pain, leaving this slight, sentimental movie to coast on innocuous charm and little more.
Having saved two drowning women with brother Carlo (Alessandro Gassman) while at the ocean, Pietro returns to his beach house to find his wife lifeless on the grass. Riddled with regrets over how his career at an unnamed media corporation has distanced him from his family, he becomes the sole caregiver for their precocious ten-year-old daughter, Claudia (Blu Yoshimi). As stressful talks of a large merger heat up at the office, Pietro makes an impromptu promise to Claudia to wait for her in the leafy square outside her school until she returns from classes. He does so, and soon finds himself returning there day after day, striking up new acquaintances and counseling his business associates and pregnant sister-in-law, Marta (Valeria Golino), as they come to visit him. All the while, he wrestles with his own conflicted thoughts on his role as a husband and now-single father.
Director Antonello Grimaldi clearly respects the quotidian pleasures of an observational existence, and he captures Pietro’s burgeoning daily routine—dining at the local café, chatting with fellow parents—with a calm and generous air. A particularly lovely series of shots observe Pietro’s gradual realization that other parents have begun to gather around the school to pick up their children. Grimaldi’s camera finds the simultaneous regimentation and spontaneity of such daily congregations. Yet there’s a fine line between charting the scattershot trajectory of unplanned time and creating narrative aimlessness, and Quiet Chaos dilutes its stronger moments by incorporating an ever-wider and often bland array of subplots.
Besides the aforementioned merger talks and Marta’s pregnancy via her married lover, the film throws in Pietro’s unexpected reunion with Eleonora (Isabella Ferrari), the woman he saved from drowning; the inexplicable and crude public outbursts of the wife of Pietro’s business associate, Jean Claude (Hippolyte Girardot); and Pietro’s gradually developed acquaintance with a young woman who walks her dog in the square. (And I haven’t even mentioned Pietro’s brief foray into an old widower’s apartment for an impromptu pasta lunch or his late wife’s mysterious correspondences with a famed children’s author.) All of these narrative strands have their fleeting charms, but their largely undifferentiated tone and often incidental relation to the film’s purported central concern—Pietro’s emotional healing—gives them all a minor and inconsequential feel. Grimaldi’s frequent use of music-enhanced montage only underlines the sensation of skimming several narrative pools without diving into any of them.
This proves doubly frustrating as this multitude of plot detours distracts from further exploring the sublimated depths of Pietro’s grief and its connection to his earlier shortcomings as a husband that both Pietro and others constantly refer to. In voiceover, Pietro ticks off the number of addresses he’s had and airlines he’s utilized to convey a sense of rootless disconnection from those closest to him. Marta, too, berates him for ultimately not loving her sister as he should have. Yet Quiet Chaos, with Grimaldi’s even-keel tone and sympathetic but largely objective camera, rarely shows what it tells: insisting upon Pietro’s tumultuous emotional state and various flaws while largely portraying a decent and kind man with a loving relationship with his daughter and an almost serene detachment from the business obligations that purportedly once ruled his life. The film’s most charming scenes often revolve around Pietro’s gentle domestic routines with Claudia, with the supposed emotional distance that Pietro feels between them practically never legible amidst the actors’ charming patter. With its almost perverse lack of narrative tension, this may be among the most genial portrayals of familial grief in recent years: not an insult, but hardly a compliment for a film that assumes viewer interest will derive via Pietro’s alleged personal growth from tragedy.
Moretti proves a lovely guide through this mid-afternoon stroll of a film. With his dark, troubled eyes and quiet mischievousness, his Pietro is a man at once serenely comfortable with and skeptical of his unconventional grieving process. This intriguing dissonance hints at the layers of jostled emotional sediment still falling into place within Pietro, and Moretti finds intriguing moments of simultaneous affection and discontent in his scenes with Gassman. A moment in which both brothers share fragments of rambling conversation while splitting an opium pipe gestures toward a complicated sibling relationship that could have used more excavating by screenwriters Moretti, Laura Paolucci, and Francesco Piccolo. Yet if Moretti’s unassuming performance adds appealing ripples to Quiet Chaos’ placid surface, the inherent decency and warmth he brings to the role undercuts Pietro’s growth. There’s little sense of fatherly development when the aforementioned scenes between he and Yoshimi feel candid and tender from the get-go. And even Moretti cannot sell the film’s foray into “rougher” psychological territory: a silent and aggressive sex scene between Pietro and another character whose seeming desire to unearth Pietro’s darker side feels discordant and clumsy in its clinical detail (nipple licking and hair pulling abound).
Like its central protagonist, Quiet Chaos is difficult to hate and equally difficult to fathom. One can appreciate the generous sprinkling of small nuances scattered throughout (a pair of slow tracking shots connecting father and daughter through an open classroom window; Rufus Wainwright’s wry “Cigarettes and Chocolate” accompanying a montage of Pietro’s daily schedule in the square) and still leave the theater largely unmoved. The point may be clear—life is short; take time to appreciate your family and friends; stop and smell the roses—but Quiet Chaos would have done well to remember that roses contain a good many thorns, and that sometimes one has to risk being pricked by a few in order to truly savor them.