The return of 60's-style Italian genre comedy?

Perfect Strangers
Directed by Paolo Genovese
Written by Paolo Genovese, Filippo Bologna, Paolo Costella, Paola Mammini and Rolando Ravello
Rated M, 96 minutes
3.5 stars

Don’t try this at home. Perfetti Sconosciuti, to give it back the original title, caused a degree of soul-searching on release last year in Italy, and no wonder. It’s about seven friends who come together for a regular dinner: one challenges the others to a truth game in which they must share whatever communications come through on their phones during the evening. Apparently, some Italians were shocked at the level of lies and deception. Lucky there’s none of that here.

‘We don’t have any secrets’, says Eva (Kasia Smutniak), whose idea it is. She and her husband Rocco (Marco Giallini), a plastic surgeon, are the hosts. Their apartment is huge, with a big balcony from which to watch the eclipse that gives the party a little lunacy. Eva is a psychologist with a diabolical streak – no-one sensible would suggest such a game.

The rest are not as rich. Cosimo (Edoardo Leo) drives a taxi and dreams of get-rich-quick schemes. His new wife, Bianca (Alba Rohrwacher), a vet, adores him and sees no blemishes. They have gathered to meet the new girlfriend of the bumbling bachelor Peppe (Giuseppe Battiston), who arrives without the girl. A fever, he explains, but we can see he’s lying.

That leaves one seat free at the big square table on which they eat a series of fabulous dishes (if nothing else, the movie will make you hungry). This is where the director Paolo Genovese puts his camera, as a way of including us in the action. That’s a smart response to the film’s biggest challenge – how to make a one-set, dialogue-driven script cinematic, rather than just a filmed play. He doesn’t quite succeed but it doesn’t matter.

Audiences won’t worry much about it being static if they are laughing at good dialogue and seeing the characters squirm. The gorgeous Carlotta (Anna Foglietta) is a secret drunk who takes her panties off before she arrives – suggesting she’s having an affair with someone at the table. Her husband Lele (Valerio Mastandrea) asks Peppe to swap phones – so that when his mistress sends an indecent photo of herself, as she does at 10pm every night, Peppe can pretend she’s his new girlfriend.

It would be easy to do this script badly – a mechanical wheeling out of one embarrassing moment after another. Come to think of it, that’s what Genovese does; and yet he works hard on the characterisations. Cosimo may be a stereotypical Italian man – a combination of serial seducer, braggart and mama’s boy – but Rocco the surgeon is wise and witty, an honourable man. There is a duality at work in the characters. They may be vulnerable, imperfect people, but they are trying. None of them is mean.

The Italian critics applauded Genovese for attempting to revive one of the most important local genres – the so-called Commedia all’Italiana, or ‘Comedy Italian style’, that ran from the late 1950’s until the early 1980s. That’s brave but risky; times have moved on.

Genovese shows his hand, very deliberately. The film that started the movement in 1958 was Mario Monicelli’s I Soliti Ignoti (known as Big Deal on Madonna Street in English), the story of a gang of petty thieves who botch an attempt to steal a pawnbroker’s safe. The two lead characters in that film were called Cosimo and Peppe.

The Commedia all’Italiana films were more satirical and cynical than the heart-on-the-sleeve neo-realist films that made Italian cinema famous just after the war. Neo-realism was largely for export. They were art films, rejecting Fascism and wringing their hands with the tragedy of modern life. Italian audiences always preferred domestic comedies, where the humour was tougher. The Commedia films took a harder line about post-war Italy’s failure to deliver the goods.

In a quiet way, Perfect Strangers does that too. It certainly attacks the way mobile phones have taken over our lives, but the malaise here is not technical. Among these seven friends, secrets are the only constant. Genovese says he took the premise from a line by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the Colombian novelist, that we all have three lives – one public, one private, one secret. It might have been nastier in the hands of a less experienced director but Genovese handles it with delicacy. They might all be liars, but who’s going to throw the first stone?