Perfect Strangers

PERFETTI SCONOSCIUTI (PERFECT STRANGERS).       Giuseppe Battiston, Anna Foglietta, Marco Giallini, Edoardo Leo, Valerio Mastandrea, Alba Rohrwacher, Kasia Smutniak. Directed by Paolo Genovese. 96 minutes. Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references).

‘Perfetti Sconosciuti’ is a successful 2016 Italian film that is just now receiving a limited release in Australia, although it played to regular crowds during Sydney’s Italian Film Festival late last year. Its premise is simple: four couples, of which the men are childhood pals, meet for a dinner party, where they partake in an experimental parlour game. Each person places their mobile phone on the dinner table, and any incoming notifications are openly shared – texts, calls, WhatsApp messages, Facebook updates. As the evening progresses, a few misinterpretations and unhappy coincidences dissolve their comfortable worlds and the partygoers are revealed to one another as the perfect strangers of the title.

The small group is well cast. The hosts, surgeon Rocco (Marco Giallini) and therapist Eva (Kasia Smutniak), are having troubles with their 17-year-old daughter, who is at that age where she is arch nemeses with her mother, although their more worrying fractures are buried deeper. Newly married taxi driver Cosimo (Edoardo Leo) and Bianca (Alba Rohrwacher) have a loving relationship (why are the newlyweds in films always the happy couple?), but with Bianca’s ex-boyfriend and Cosimo’s flirty colleague in the picture, their happiness is on thin ice. Lawyers Lele (Valerio Mastandrea) and Carlotta (Anna Foglietta) have been married for longer, but their grievances are a little more public – his widowed mother lives with their family, which may be contributing to Carlotta’s drinking problem. Finally, Peppe (Giuseppe Battiston), whose new girlfriend chooses to stay home with a fever, has been fired from his job as a teacher, though is still prickly about the subject.

There is a very natural rapport between the seven actors, helped along by the naturally-worded screenplay from Paolo Genovese, Filippo Bologna, Paolo Costella, Paola Mammini and Rolando Ravello. The conversation flows at a very natural pace, and though a few characters make unwise decisions that conveniently propel the drama forwards (for starters, why would some of them even agree to the game given the skeletons in their own closets?), the ramifications of their choices are taken to natural conclusions. The dynamic between old friends and new partners is established equally well, as their banter and jokes are underscored by subtle games of one-upmanship and knowledge of each other’s lives that can only come from decades of friendship. Their quiet, relaxed performances come to a head as their lies begin to unravel and each responds in their own manner, from Cosimo’s loud wrath to Rocco’s more reserved decency.

The real drama kicks off when Lele asks Peppe to discretely switch their matching iPhones, as Lele is expecting an incriminating text message from his mistress. As both men receive and share messages with the group as if they were their own but were intended for the other, their decision will have wide-reaching ramifications for all of them, as the fragility of their relationships with their partners and each other is made terrifyingly clear.

It’s a thoughtful and contained film (no doubt moves to mount it as a play have already been put into motion), but its message is one that will stay with audiences. Do we every truly know our friends or our partners or even ourselves? What do we have on our own mobiles that could reveal our own secrets if they were made public? These tiny devices control and contain so much of our lives now that to allow access to them would represent an enormous leap of faith and trust. It’s something worth thinking about, and couples who attend the film together will certainly have food for thought at their next dinner party.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out January 26.

Palace Films.

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