The Wait stars Juliette Binoche but lacks in passion

Directed by Piero Messina

Written by Giacomo Bendotti, Ilaria Macchia, Andrea Paolo Massara and Piero Messina, based on a play by Pirandello

Rated M, 99 minutes

We are in Sicily, the most potent place in Italian cinema, and madness and death are never far away. Juliette Binoche is at a funeral; she pees herself while performing the duties of a grieving relative.  Why she does this, we must guess. It’s that kind of movie. 

Piero Messina was assistant director to Paolo Sorrentino on The Great Beauty, and it shows. The Wait is the kind of art movie that Italy once made lots of – in the days when Antonioni and Pasolini were kings – and which Sorrentino, as the new prince, is trying to revive. Art for art’s sake, metaphor, mood, symbolism and above all, visual grandeur. Sorrentino makes that mixture work with his gift for story-telling, but Messina does not yet embrace that need.

So The Wait is a wait, largely for anything to happen, or to clarify or resolve. In the meantime, Messina, himself Sicilian, offers us various forms of beauty and a touch of madness, set in a large, dark, empty Sicilian villa.  The windows are shuttered, the mirrors covered with cloth. The camera prowls the halls, as we piece together clues. Anna (Binoche) has lost someone – perhaps her son, Giovanni. A young French woman calls: her boyfriend invited her to spend Easter with his family. Anna tells her to come, saying nothing about her loss. The old family retainer Pietro (Giorgio Colangelli) drives Jeanne (Lou de Laage) from the airport through a ghostly landscape, a road cutting through old lava flows. A volcano rears up in the background, suggesting Ingrid Bergman in Stromboli (1950), one reference among many.

At the villa, Jeanne wonders when she’ll see Giovanni.  Anna watches her secretly; Pietro glowers disapprovingly. When are you going to tell her, he asks his mistress. When the time is right, she says. Jeanne and Anna start to bond, and that time never seems to come.

The film is a loose reworking of a play by Luigi Pirandello, the Sicilian playwright  and Nobel laureate (and at one time, an enthusiastic Fascist). In The Life I Gave You (1924), a woman called Anna grieves for her lost son, to the point of madness. This was a topic on which Pirandello had personal experience, since he had committed his own wife to an asylum.

In Messina’s retelling, Giovanni is really just a memory shared by two women. One of them cannot bear the thought that she will never see him again, the other does not know she that she won’t. In the younger woman’s case, there is also some ambiguity: something happened between them in the previous summer. Jeanne does not know if Giovanni forgives her. She keeps leaving plaintive messages on his phone, not knowing that Anna has his phone, and listens to her messages in secret.

The mysterious bond between the two women might have been enough to sustain the movie if the director had not confused subtlety with clarity. Obscurity and control of revelation are part of a story-teller’s arsenal, not an end in themselves. Nobody minds working it out if the information is there, to be sifted and weighted, but The Wait breaks that trust. Messina doesn’t tell us what is going on, nor provide enough to make a reasonable stab at what might be going on. It’s as if he thinks it is enough to know we can’t know what goes on in the heart of a woman, especially one who is grieving.

That explains the casting of Binoche, who grieves better than most on screen, but even she looks a little confused. All that we’re left with then is the film’s formal qualities of beauty and languorous pace, and the considerable youth and loveliness of the French actress de Laage, on which Binoche’s character seems to want to feed. It’s a little unseemly and mean.

There is a lot of religious symbolism, including an impressive Easter parade, but that’s no more than skin deep. Indeed that is the movie’s biggest problem: none of it feels remotely impassioned or personal. There is no sting of pain, except what Messina lets himself imagine.  Grief is like the Himalayas, in terms of human emotions. You can’t just walk it through.